I hope that if alien cultures are monitoring our entertainment they take a pass on the film Planet 51. It may reverse the human/alien traditional roles by having the human astronaut be the fish out of water on an alien planet but xenophobia stopped being a funny or useful plot device by the mid-'80s. Any mildly cognizant alien intelligences would take one look at this movie and decide to check back on the human race in another hundred years.
Justin Long plays Lem just another awkward teenager a role Long is too long-in-the-tooth to play in person anymore but shortly he could (and very well may) make a career out of doing it in voice work. Lem wants to be an astronomer and is vying for a job at the local observatory. He wants to score with neighborhood hottie Neera (Jessica Biel) but he can never quite muster up the confidence to make his move. His friends obsessed with comics and science fiction movies of the googly-eyed alien invasion ilk aren’t helping either. The catch is that these are all green-skinned tentacle-haired no-genitaled aliens on a distant planet who without a hint of explanation are living their lives parallel to Earth’s 1950s.
Lem is finally starting to get his game on when his life is turned upside down by the inconvenient entry of Captain Charles “Chuck” Baker (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson). Chuck is a human being and an astronaut who has landed his ship on the titular planet expecting something more barren only to find himself on the run from a culture living in fear of invasion because of a popular series of alien invasion films. His only help to get back to his module and dock with his mother ship in orbit before his countdown runs out (?) is Lem and his group of nerdy friends. Adventure ostensibly ensues and lessons are eventually learned by all: The cowardly Lem learns self-confidence the arrogant Chuck learns humility and we’re all supposed to learn tolerance towards those different from us. Unfortunately the only lesson actually imparted here is to be more careful when choosing an animated sci-fi film on which to spend your money.
While the premise here -- turning a cliché on its head -- shows promise Planet 51 has only switched the players. Every dumb alien joke since E.T. flew in front of the moon (and of course that’s here too) is included in the unimaginative script penned by the presumably sleep-writing Joe Stillman (Shrek Beavis and Butt-Head Do America). There’s not even anything fun and fast-paced here to take advantage of the animated CG format and make up for the crushing boredom. Why even do this sort of thing without an eye-candy chase scene or two?
The cast members as talented as they may be fare no better with the nothing they’re given. Johnson sounds as if he was reading a children’s book out loud to kindergarteners and it’s exhausting listening to him pander. Long is going through the same ol’ motions that have made up the majority of his career thus far and Biel is ridiculously unnecessary since she is given practically nothing to say or do. You’d think appearances by John Cleese as an alien scientist or Gary Oldman as the general leading the search for Chuck would bring some creative juices or some (sadly lacking) clever humor to the affair but they never manage to get past the tedious nature of the material written for them.
If there was ever an animated film that needed a clever punch-up team it’s this one. Planet 51 lacks both style AND substance which is surprising given the wealth of opportunities you’d think would be presented here. Perhaps first-time Spanish director Jorge Blanco and new Madrid-based studio Ilion Animation were overconfident about making a children’s film. All I can think is that they must have assumed this was going straight to DVD anyway and no one would notice. Planet 51 deserves to be packed up in a dusty crate in a corner of the Area 51 warehouse never to be seen again.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
Veteran British actor Maurice (O'Toole) knows that his final curtain call is coming soon. Though he still earns booze and cigarette money playing small parts in TV movies his heyday is far behind him and his chief delight is gossiping and reminiscing about the old days with acting crony Ian (Leslie Phillips). But beneath Maurice's craggy creaky exterior the heart of a young rake still beats. That heart gets plenty of exercise when Ian's grandniece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) appears on the scene. Fascinated by her youth and rawness Maurice takes the girl under his wing--and it's clear even before he dubs her his Venus that his motives aren't exactly grandfatherly. No innocent herself she responds by using her sexuality to manipulate him. As each learns more about the other their complicated relationship twists and turns in ways both predictable and unexpected. Whatever else can be said about Venus it's undeniably an actors' movie--particularly one actor. O'Toole gives one of the best performances of his career in a part that seems tailor-made for the acting legend. Whether he's staring at Jessie with a combination of sympathy and lust abruptly dissolving into tears of regret during a meal with ex-wife Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave) or sitting on his bed quietly and sadly alone O'Toole's Maurice is a fully fleshed-out thoroughly lived-in character. The spark he feels when he meets Jessie is clearly the most exciting thing that's happened to him in a long time and it's impossible not to sympathize with his newfound zest--even while raising an eyebrow at his pursuit. Newcomer Whittaker is also excellent adeptly shifting between Jessie's moments of brazen womanly confidence and naïve little-girl hurt and eagerness. Like its main character Venus isn't an easy movie to categorize. Just when it seems like a quiet dignified drama about one man's attempt to make peace with his own mortality the advent of Jessie turns it into one of filmdom's more unlikely May-December romances. And then there are the movie's comic moments (one of the best is when Maurice takes a pratfall while trying to spy on Jessie when she poses nude for an art class). Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill The Mother) takes all of these conflicting elements and weaves them into a compelling challenging whole. It's hard to say whether he would have succeeded without O'Toole--in another actor's hands Maurice could have been just another dirty old man and some scenes frankly require all of O'Toole's talent to overcome that obstacle. But with this star and this director Venus is artful.
Considered the most popular of Austen’s novels Pride and Prejudice examines the class struggles of England’s 19th century. It revolves around the spirited Bennet family: the headstrong and intelligent Elizabeth (Keira Knightley); her older and more serene sister Jane (Rosamund Pike); their three younger sisters (Jena Malone Talulah Riley Carey Mulligan); their doting father (Donald Sutherland); and their mother (Brenda Blethyn) who’s obsessed with finding the girls suitable husbands. When Lizzie finally meets her match in the aloof Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden) she immediately dismisses him as an arrogant ass. But ever so slowly it dawns on Lizzie she may be entirely wrong about Darcy. Is it too late to tell him? An Austen adaptation naturally lends itself to a gathering of fine British actors (or actors who can pretend to be British). Leading the pack is the very lovely Keira Knightley. A far cry from the shotgun-totin’ bounty hunter in Domino the actress certainly gives her most layered performance as Elizabeth. But she’s once again playing a spirited woman who doesn’t adhere to the rules. Guess nobody’s gonna ever put Keira in a corner. As her Mr. Darcy MacFayden plays one of literature’s more enduring romantic figures with style. He gives Colin Firth--who’s considered one of the better Darcys after playing him in a 1995 TV miniseries--a run for his money. The rest of the stellar cast is just as refreshing as ever including Pike (Doom) as the modest beauty Jane and Sutherland as the elder Bennet who is the reason Elizabeth is as independent as she is. This feature film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is entirely different from the last one--the 1940 glossy production starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Newcomer Joe Wright gives Pride and Prejudice a definitive indie feel by using the camera in very intimate ways as we watch the fun-loving Bennets interact. Of course filming in the flourishing English countryside doesn’t hurt either. Wright delivers amazing displays of breathtaking beauty from Elizabeth standing on a cliff in Brighton to watching Darcy stride across a field at sunrise to claim his love once and for all. Pride and Prejudice does move a little slowly and it isn’t as rich as the 1995 Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility but it’s been awhile since we’ve had Austen done in such a wonderfully romantic way. And who couldn’t use a little 19th-century romance?