The credits for Stoker, the new Chan-Wook Park movie that debuted at Sundance Sunday night, run backwards. Yes, instead of blooming up from the bottom of the screen and traveling up, they pour down from the top in a slow cascade. You'd think this wouldn't make that much of a difference, but it is extremely unsettling, seeing something you're so used to seeing but going in the opposite direction.
Likewise, in this world where spoiling the ending of a movie for someone is tantamount to cutting off one of their digits, I shouldn't be starting a review of a movie with the end, but I think that Stoker deserves it. When Park, who directed the brutal Oldboy, was introducing the movie, he said it is meant to be a dream or a fairy tale, but it is more like a waking nightmare. Everything is slightly off in the movie. Everything is either too large, too small, too modern, too old fashioned, too fast, too slow, too dirty, or too cleanly. It is our world, but tremendously askew, kiltering in one direction and then another, like trying to walk in a straight line after rolling down a hill.
The style only serves the story of India (Mia Wasikowska) who tells us at the beginning of the film that she has super powers: she can see far-away things clearly and hear sounds that no one else can hear. The morose teen gets even sadder when her beloved father dies in an accident and she is left in the care of her cold mother (Nicole Kidman) and her father's brother (Matthew Goode), who appears mysteriously after being absent for decades. The story unspools in unexpected ways as India starts to get interested in boys and discovers her sexuality thanks to the proximity of her handsome uncle. There are also several mysteries to unravel, each one leading to a new one with unexpected, horrible violence leading to even more violence until a shocking conclusion.
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The performances are all stellar with Wasikowska telegraphing ever-shifiting emotion without barely saying a word. Kidman, who speaks much more, is at her finest as a disinterested mother. She shows fear and disdain in the most subtle ways, never overplaying a character that could turn into a campy arch villain with just the tiniest bit of scene-chewing. And Goode is the most menacing of all, the malevolent force that hides behind the facade not only of normalcy but of something attractive that you know is incredibly dangerous.
As for the meaning, I'm not sure what screenwriter Wentworth Miller (yes, the same guy who wore all those tattoos for seasons on Prison Break) is going for. Can this fairy tale teach us anything about humanity or sexuality? The ending leads it in a direction that would take some of the more outrageous elements and turn them into a farce. It also makes the story more central to Wasikowska's character when the thing up until that point had been an exercise in showing us all how messed up our teen years can be.
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But this isn't a farce, it is a fairy tale, complete with a girl in peril who has to fight to save herself. There's running through the woods, magical intervention, and everything we've come to expect for the 13 Snow White movies that came out last year. Still this is like a more chilling version of Beetlejuice, except this gothic fun house has none of the whimsy of Tim Burton. Here every strange perspective is meant to make you uncomfortable. Some of the elements of the story are so outrageous to be unbelievable and many will probably find this film to be groanworthy and insane in a bad way. Still it is unlike anything you've ever seen and will stick in your mind like a spider crawling across your skull. Love it or hate it, you'll be transfixed from beginning to end – when the credits start to roll backwards, making even your final moments with this film particularly off-putting.
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In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
Disney's new movie Mars Needs Moms suffers from a classic mistake: focusing too much on one aspect of a production -- and in this case it's the visuals. The result is an unbalanced mess that looks terrific but doesn't have enough substance to leave the audience with anything more to "ooh" and "ah" at other than all the pretty colors. As we all know from that one really really hot girl/guy in high school who's now overweight and working a dead-end job looks can only go so far.
Adapted from the children's novel by Berkeley Breathed and directed by Simon Wells Mars Needs Moms follows Milo (acted by Seth Green voiced by Seth Robert Dusky) as he chases after his mother who's been stolen by Martians just a few hours after he told her he'd be better off without her. Once he arrives on Mars (by sneaking on the ship) he meets Gribble (Dan Fogler) who informs him of his problem: the Martians are ruled by a ruthless queen-like Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) who's decided that the hatchlings (babies who sprout from the ground like vegetables) must be divided: all males are thrown away into the dump and the females are raised by "nanny-bots" -- robots programmed by the "discipline" energy of good moms like Milo's from Earth. Milo and Gribble buddy-up and with the help of a rebel Martian named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) the three of them venture to save Milo's mom before it's too late.
And venture on they do. Coming from producer Robert Zemeckis and utilizing the same motion-capture technology as The Polar Express A Christmas Carol and Beowulf Mars Needs Moms rushes forward embracing its visually stunning universe without taking a moment to stop and breathe. The characters never have a chance to do anything significant that would make the audience think they're substantial or important -- especially Gribble whom the filmmakers really really want us to care for. On top of that it relies on a plot line that we've all seen before and instead of diving into the parts that made it interesting (like the question of why men were thrown in the garbage and not women) it skims safely along the surface doing its best to avoid anything deeper than basic themes.
But that may be a little too picky. After all the movie is just supposed to be a fun little child's tale right? In that vein it succeeds. We feel like we're on an amusement park ride thanks to Ki's vibrant '60s flower-power paintings and the adventures on the Red Planet's surface. Even the moments that aren't super fast-paced present environments that are beautiful. Plus Fogler's performance as Gribble (as Jack Black-esque as it was) gives us some fun enjoyable moments and one-liners that kids will no doubt love.
Yet at the same time Mars Needs Moms' visuals aren't all glorious. In fact some hurt the plot because frankly the humans aren't animated very well. There's no life in their eyes. Simple movements like walking look awkward and too often characters facial expressions don't match the urgency found in their voices. Instead the animation just turns all the characters into weird cartoony versions of themselves that look so "almost human" they appear fake. And as always it's difficult to care for fake people.
Children will definitely enjoy Mars Needs Moms but from a filmmaking standpoint Wells really missed an opportunity to deliver something other than neat visuals and one-liners.
September 22, 2010 12:10pm EST
On the hit television show The Secret Life of the American Teenager protagonist Amy Juergens has to deal with high school drama boy troubles the needs of her young child and more making her days at Ulysses S. Grant High School far from ideal. In reality the lives of youngsters are even more complicated as all of the above in addition to peer pressure academic competition and the age-old quest to be cool can overwhelm the most focused individual.
Writers-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) both dramatize and make light of the plight of pubescents in their sweet new film It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel which chronicles a lonesome teen’s brief stay at an adult psychiatric ward it is a very funny story but the filmmakers keep it levelheaded with melancholy supporting characters and a message about the affliction of our society’s medicated youth.
Keir Gilchrist (The United States of Tara) plays Craig a chronically depressed Brooklyn teen who checks in for treatment after contemplating suicide. An over-achiever caught up in the rat race that is the American Dream Craig’s pessimism and depression stem from neglectful parents more concerned with him gaining acceptance into an elite school than following his passions. His anxiety is aggravated by the dreadful current events of our time notably the wars and financial meltdown that have crippled the aspirations of much of our country’s youth. Though he is a bit over-dramatic Craig’s ailment does raise notable points about paternal priorities and an entire generation of disheartened dreamers.
But surrounded by the hospital’s eccentric group of patients including Emma Roberts’ damaged love interest Noelle and Zach Galifianakis’ emotionally guarded Bobby Craig makes a psychological breakthrough. Gilchrist is like the love child of Justin Long and Jay Baruchel but isn’t nearly as fun to watch as either of those hot-at-the-moment performers save for one Flight of the Conchords moment in the middle of the movie. It’s not that he’s unconvincing; he’s just dull. Luckily Galifianakis steals the show at every turn giving his first ever three-dimensional performance and earning all the attention he’s been getting lately.
Had its story been laid out ordinarily It’s Kind of a Funny Story wouldn’t have been nearly as affecting as it is. But a series of funky flashbacks quirky cut-scenes and animated sequences make the film’s otherwise predictable narrative abstract original and refreshing.
Based on the award-winning book by Bernhard Schlink The Reader is an extraordinary provocative and controversial story set in post-World War II Germany. It starts when 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) becomes ill with scarlet fever and is helped home by sympathetic woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet). After his recovery he returns to thank her and is drawn into a clandestine affair with this intriguing woman more than twice his age. Their relationship grows stronger especially when he starts reading to her. But then she suddenly disappears leaving a devastated Michael who now must move on with his life. Little does he know that eight years later while he is in law school he would see Hanna again -- as one of the defendants in a court case against Nazi war criminals. Shocked at revelations about her secret past he also discovers something that will change both their lives forever. Granted Kate Winslet is one of the finest young screen actresses but her range in The Reader will astonish you. It’s an extremely tricky part that could easily lose the audience’s sympathy if done incorrectly but Winslet handles it with aplomb. She runs through the whole gamut of emotions -- aging from her 30s to 60s -- all at once sexy mysterious conflicted contrite as well as many other colors. As Michael newcomer Kross is devastatingly good the most impressive acting discovery in a long time. Although he plays 15 he was 17 at the start of filming and production had to shut down until he turned 18 for the graphic sex scenes. As the story flashes forward Ralph Fiennes takes over the role as the older Michael and does so with a touching sincerity. Lena Olin also has a strong cameo as a Holocaust survivor with definite opinions of Hanna. Although this is only acclaimed stage director Stephen Daldry’s third film he once again shows a mastery of the medium far beyond his limited cinematic resume. Like The Hours and his debut film Billy Elliot he has crafted another film to savor. The Reader isn’t necessarily the most comfortable film to watch but Daldry guides the subject matter with a delicate and steady hand giving us a complex and touching love story between the most unlikely couple. It also delves into how one generation of Germans can come to terms with the horrors of another. Daldry’s directorial restraint and power perfectly serves David Hare’s impressive screenplay and delivers a memorable movie-going experience.
Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.