After four and a half years and nearly 500 movie commentaries, this mollusk is tired. What started out as a fun hobby has turned into a nearly full-time job, with great benefits (free movies and popcorn!), but popcorn doesn’t pay the mortgage and I’m just not well enough these days to continue to make the trip to my favorite theaters, the Essex Cinemas and Cumberland 12, to check out the latest releases in the timely way I used to. So this will be my final Adventure in the Dark, at least of the cinematic variety. It’s been fun. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see you at the movies once in a while.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Once again a movie that should never have been made has escaped the studio vault to assault our senses with its ludicrous silliness. I’m talking about Legion, of course. Actually, if you’ve seen The Prophecy, Prophecy II, Prophecy III, or The Prophecy: Uprising (aka Prophecy IV), you’ve already seen Legion, just with a different cast.
Just as in The Prophecy series, the Arch-angel Gabriel (Kevin Durand; X-Men Origins: Wolverine) has his celestial panties in a knot, and he wants to destroy humankind. This is because God Himself has become disenchanted with mankind and has ordered a hit on all of us. Apparently in the realm of the Almighty, He has some form of ADHD and has grown tired of human beings, so His natural inclination is to wipe out everything on the planet. This time though, instead of a flood, He wants to mix things up, so He decides to slaughter us all by sending down a flock of cranky angels to do the deed. And I’ve always thought angels were supposed to be sweet, chubby cherubs; these bastards are more like Gary Coleman on crack after he’s just been called “Webster” for the eighteenth time in one day.
Fortunately for us, that other pin-up Arch-Angel, Michael (Paul Bettany; Inkheart), has a soft spot for the human race, so he shows up in the middle of the vast New Mexico desert at a decrepit diner/gas station called “Paradise Falls” (Get it? Get it? Hey, this is as witty as it gets in Legion) to defend the world against the oncoming horde of winged warriors. As always happens in movies of this ilk, the diner may be two hundred miles from anything except tumbleweeds in all directions, but it’s a cinch the place is going to be packed with an assortment of colorful characters. Paradise Falls is no exception. The place is run by Bob Hansen (Dennis Quaid; Pandorum), grumpy as hell because he is looking more like Randy Quaid every year. His adult son, named Jeep (Lucas Black; Jarhead), is still hanging around the single-wide in the back, along with a pregnant waitress called Charlie (Adrianne Palicki; tv’s “Friday Night Lights”), whose greatest aspiration appears to be squeezing out an urchin in the squalor they call the “Ladies” room in this dustbowl. There’s also the stereotypical bickering married couple, Howard (Jon Tenney; tv’s “The Closer”) and Sandra Anderson (Kate Walsh of tv’s “Private Practice” under several pounds of whorish make-up), stranded when their Beamer breaks down; the source of their discord is their slutty-looking teenage daughter Audrey (Willa Holland; “The O.C.”), who has as cheery an attitude as Lindsey Lohan when she realized she left her stash of cocaine in the pocket of her jeans after they’ve gone through the wash. This trio seems more like they are doing a summer stock production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” rather than acting in a horror movie. Apparently this is what “artistes” do during their hiatus from whatever hit television series they are on.
The cast is rounded out with Charles S. Dutton as Percy, hiding out as Paradise Fall’s one-armed cook to avoid the shame he should feel for being a part of that ghastly remake of Fame last fall, and finally there is mystery man Kyle Williams (Tyrese Gibson; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), who is supposed to keep us on edge guessing if he is a good guy or bad since he packs heat and doesn’t answer direct questions. Oh, and there is the fact that he is African American, which plays on the white audience’s inherent fears of black men and satisfies the black audience’s long-held understanding that a brother is only put in these movies to get whacked. Don’t blame me for telling it like it is. That’s the cliché, and it is what it is.
So this potpourri of neurotics spend a couple of hours milling around the diner shooting “zombified” people that are possessed by the spirits of the avenging angels, which makes little sense since angels should (I presume) be able to resist decimation by bullets, but these guys keel over and die along with their host bodies as easily as a Kardashian will spread her legs like butter against a hot knife.
Director and co-writer (along with Peter Schink; Gotham Cafe) Scott Stewart (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) stumbles around the idea that Charlie’s baby is the new Messiah, especially since there is no mention of who the baby’s daddy is or under what circumstances she got knocked-up, but he never really goes all the way in making the New Testament connection. He also never explains why it is that Michael feels compelled to lop off his wings when he first arrives on Earth in order to fit in with the humans around him yet the rest of the army of angels have no problem hiding theirs within the hosts they inhabit. Odd.
The whole of Legion does have its moments of intensity and suspense, but ultimately it is just dumb. The best part of the entire movie is a brief appearance by octogenarian actress Jeanette Miller (Four Christmases) as kick-ass Gladys Foster, a foul-mouthed visitor to the diner who ups the shock factor by uttering the “F word” and the “C word” while still presenting herself as the sweetest grandmother this side of Betty White. Other than that, Legion doesn’t cover any new ground. If it really wanted to amuse us, they would have had God strike us down by killing off the audiences who go see stinky horror movies. In other words, He’d kill us with Legionnaire disease.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
From what I remember I once had some Lovely Bones. That was a few decades ago when I could actually see them under my skin. Then I met my perfect husband, who is also the perfect chef, and despite my protestations that if I ate the way he wanted me to I would end up looking like a refugee from “The Biggest Loser,” I finally cracked and gravy became my new best friend. Until then, I subsisted almost entirely on lettuce leaves and balsamic vinaigrette. I also weighed a good hundred pounds less than I do now. Hence, it was goodbye to The Lovely Bones and hello to the Fashion Bug Plus. I’m very fond of the Fashion Bug, but there are no clothes made for “hefty hideaway” gals that will get someone of my size laid. That’s right. I said it (well, typed it). I may be happily married, but that doesn’t mean I want men other than my husband to ignore me. Hell, I want to be seduced (or at least have someone try) just so I’ll feel better about myself. I want my perfect husband to worry that other men are dragging me behind bushes somewhere to steal a kiss now and again. After all these years I hate to admit it but (and, yes, I know this is so un-PC) I even get a tad jealous of teenage girls like Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan; City of Ember), the main character in the new movie The Lovely Bones.
Okay, so Susie is dead from the very beginning of the movie, but you can’t have everything. At least she had her youth and she was skinny enough to wear low-rider jeans, though The Lovely Bones takes place in 1973, so her clothing choices are kind of tragic, like her life (or at least the end of it). Now I’m not implying that being killed by a pedophile is anything other than heinous, but until then Susie had it made. First off, her Dad looked just like Marky Mark (Mark Walhberg; Max Payne), and he was the type of father that plays catch with his kids and devotes every moment to telling them how much he loves them. He’s kind of like Richard Simmons only in long pants. The unfortunate part is that, like Simmons, he keeps his shirt on all the time and we all know it would nice if he didn’t. After all, he did fill out those Calvin Kleins just fine back in the day.
Susie’s also had a dreamy guy (Reece Ritchie; 10,000 BC) with eyelashes for days and enough moral fiber not to go past first base even though you know he really wanted to. It’s true that Susie’s mom (Rachel Weisz; Definitely, Maybe) seems a lot less engaging from what we see of her, but that’s probably because her entire role in the film is to be traumatized, if not by her daughter’s death then by her own drunky-poo mother, played by Susan Sarandon (Enchanted). Apparently Sarandon was under the impression she was acting in a comedy instead of the grim tragedy that The Lovely Bones is supposed to be as most of her role is spent doing battle with kitchen appliances, smoking like a chimney, and scrounging the cupboards for any alcohol short of gasoline. I guess she is still making those brilliant choices like she did when she agreed to star in Speed Racer. I love Susan Sarandon, but it may be time for an intervention, if you ask me, which you didn’t, but I’m just sayin’.
There is no mystery as to who kills Susie. That’s clear from the beginning. It’s the (obviously) pervy neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci; Julie and Julia). His sketchy wig and ‘70s porn moustache screams out for someone to call Chris Hanson and the crew from “To Catch a Predator.”
It’s already well-known that director Peter Jackson (King Kong) never met a green screen he didn’t like, and it is never more obvious than here. With Susie narrating her tale from “the in-between place” on her way to heaven, Jackson goes overboard concocting a heavenly (and ever-changing) landscape that looks a lot like a Skittles commercial. I kept waiting for rainbows and unicorns to come flying out of Susie’s ass, but those were the only things that didn’t show up. Oh wait; there was a unicorn now that I remember. Hmmm. And a rainbow. I wonder if Jackson had to pay for product infringement.
Personally, I always thought that “the in-between place” was supposed to be Purgatory, which isn’t exactly Heaven, but it beats the hell out of Hell. I imagine it is a lot like living in a trailer park where everybody has the Comcast™ “triple-play” and you still have NetZero™ dial-up and basic cable. Of course, my favorite “in-between place” has always been Limbo, but thanks to Pope John the XXIII, Limbo got shut down like a way too high-profile crack house and all those un-baptized babies who supposedly got stuck in Limbo because their souls were too dirty to make it through the Pearly Gates were given a last-minute reprieve and were adopted by the saints. Frankly, I think you’d have to be a saint to scoop up a cloud full of dead babies’ souls and make them your own, but I digress.
In the genre of “dead girls speak out” movies, The Lovely Bones isn’t bad, but it’s not exactly uplifting fun either. I suppose if you like watching the parents, siblings and friends of a murdered teenager grieve then you’ll have a great time, but for those of us who have lost someone in their own family The Lovely Bones is an exercise in remembered pain.
Monday, January 11, 2010
Pardon the pun, but Vampires suck. For one thing, there are way too many of them, especially today. We’ve got those folks from “True Blood”, southern hedonists who are struggling to assimilate into the society of the living. Then there is the brood from Twilight. They’ve spent a hundred years in high school and still haven’t figured out how to make it to the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria. Blood-sucking nerds. The BBC has “Being Human”, a series, which sounds like an old joke… “A vampire, a werewolf and a ghost move into an apartment together…” Even over at the CW, they’ve got 20-something angst coming out their fangs with “The Vampire Diaries”, though it is hard to feel sorry for anyone who is undead and still looks as fabulous as the high cheek-boned Ian Somerhalder.
One thing all of these stories have in common is a protagonist who is unhappy being a vampire and who eschews the drinking of human blood, which is a lot like being a Lohan who doesn’t want to soak up spilled booze with the enthusiasm of an alcoholic Spongebob. It defeats the purpose and makes doing a vampire’s job all the more difficult. This is certainly true for Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke; Staten Island), the tortured neck nibbler at the center of the new (well, not really) movie, Daybreakers. The fact that Edward is a hematologist by trade would seem to make human blood readily available to him, a particularly ironic fact considering that in his world of 2019, over 95% of the world’s population is now of the vampiric persuasion, meaning there’s not nearly enough humans still around to be farmed for their fluids.
That’s a problem Charles Bromley (Sam Neil; In Her Skin) wants to exploit for all it’s worth as he maintains the world’s largest “farm” of human “cattle” in existence. His company keeps the humans naked and barely conscious, hanging like slabs of beef in cold storage, where they survive only to have their blood cyclically drained through tubes inserted permanently in their necks.
As for Edward, he is supposedly working on developing a synthetic blood product to placate the masses (and keep Bromley’s stock through the roof); at least that is what he wants his boss to think. In actuality, he is working on a cure for vampirism, which begs the question “Does the majority of the population need to be ‘cured’ when they are the ones determining what is ‘normal’?” Obviously, Bromley doesn’t think so, and that point is drummed in with visual cues reminiscent of the Holocaust photos that showed the frailest of the death camp inmates being marched off to their slaughter. In Bromley’s world, those who can’t keep it together as vampires are dragged out into the sun to fry.
Daybreakers tries hard to imbue its subject matter with relevance and show the corporate bloodsuckers for what they really are ~ corporate bloodsuckers ~ willing to stop at nothing to satisfy their personal greed. People talk about the war in Iraq “spilling blood for oil.” Here, the Bromley folk are spilling blood for… well, more blood, and they are awfully sloppy in the spillage.
Daybreakers is chock-full of bloodshed, so much so that I couldn’t help but wonder if they were a tad more careful with the blood that is splattered everywhere then maybe there wouldn’t be such a drastic shortage.
And speaking of drastic shortages, the movie suffers from its biggest shortages in the quality of the script and the complexity of the characters, not that this is the kind of movie that demands either. Maybe I’m spoiled by “True Blood”, but Daybreakers is fairly anemic when it comes to making connections amongst its characters. Hawke plays Edward like he truly is dead, not exactly the inspired scientist one might expect. If he can manage any human emotions he must have been doing it during breaks in the filming because none of it is on-screen. Meanwhile, the human woman Edward befriends, Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan; Saved), seems just the opposite. She is immediately and passionately willing to trust this stranger who works for her sworn enemy, which makes no sense except as a plot device.
Lionsgate, the studio distributing the film, kept it in the shelf down under, in Australia, where it was shot, for more than two years, not confident enough to give Daybreakers a release date until now. Perhaps because co-directors and writers (and twin brothers) Peter and Michael Spierig (Undead) turn the vampire mythology on its ear, it may explain why the studio didn’t know what to do with the movie. It’s too bad because Daybreakers is a gory bit of fun in spite of its flaws. While it may lack complexity, it does present the vampire story in a new light (albeit it of a non-UV variety) and can be looked at as a biting satire on American consumerism. That alone earns it a rating of AB+.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
The most complicated thing about It’s Complicated has to be in the miracle that it even got made in the first place. Imagine a sex comedy where the three principle parts are all played by people over the age of forty ~ er, okay, fifty and two of those are actually on the other side of sixty. I barely made it into the lobby at the Essex Cinemas before one of the young’uns who works there asked what I was going to see. “It’s Complicated” I replied, only to be met by a scrunched up face and the comment “Oh, the old people’s movie.” Therein lies the dilemma for filmmaker Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give) and the talented team of marketers from Universal Pictures. How do you fill the theater when the target demographic for this gem of a film spends more time focusing on ads for Metamucil in their daily newspaper than they do checking out the movie schedule? The answer to that is obvious: you make a really witty movie that pokes fun at the aging process and the simple fact that no matter what the calendar says the truth remains that we all need a little love and an occasional game of ‘Chutes and Ladders’ now and again, if you get my meaning (and I know that you do).
As for the plot, It’s Complicated isn’t nearly as complicated as you might think, at least if you’ve lived a little. After all, who hasn’t gotten drunk and slept with their ex-husband (or wife as the case may be) in a weak moment? That’s the dilemma Jane (Meryl Streep; Julie and Julia) faces after ending up in the same hotel with her former husband Jake (Alec Baldwin of tv’s “30 Rock”) while both are attending their son’s New York University graduation. So, you may ask, what is the big deal? Maybe it’s because Jake is now married to the near-fetus (Lake Bell; Pride and Glory) he cheated with while still wed to Jane, or the fact that the divorced Adlers’ three adult kids are still carrying tons of emotional baggage that came with their parents’ divorce. Maybe, too, it the fact that Jane has spent these last ten years rebuilding her own independent spirit and self-esteem and can’t quite believe she would so easily succumb ~ especially with a married man. That is a problem, but not nearly as much of one as how to handle this slip just as her relationship with a sensitive architect named Adam (Steve Martin; The Pink Panther 2) is heating up. Toss in a bit of high-powered reefer (yes, reefer!) and you’ve got some pretty hilarious stuff because, after all, nobody expects to see America’s premier actress toking up on-screen and losing her inhibitions altogether.
Baldwin deserves credit for making a fool of himself while abandoning his former leading man status by baring nearly all, thus exposing a middle-age spread most actors would be ashamed to let be seen in public. Instead, Baldwin prances about proudly, like a rooster let into the hen house once he has scored with his former wife. His uncomfortable subservience as the whipped husband to Bell’s Agnes includes some hysterical footage of Jake trying to “do his duty” in a fertility clinic because Agnes demands that they have a child even though Jake is far from convinced that this is a good idea. There’s just something instinctively silly about seeing adult men talking about their sperm. On a more serious note, it is his bonding with Jane after all these years that is, to him, an acknowledgement that he’s finally grown up. Unfortunately, to Jane, her indiscretion appears to be nothing more than a terrible mistake despite Jake’s assumption that it is their first step towards reconciliation. Apparently he has finally come to his senses and realizes that his trophy wife is no Meryl Streep. In doing so, he shows himself to be genuinely remorseful, and his sly charm is endearing, surprisingly so since it was his adultery that destroyed his marriage in the first place.
Streep is also no slouch in pointing out her own flaws. She insists that Jake never see her naked except when she is lying down because “things have shifted” due to gravity, and she reveals her insecurities about not measuring up to his current wife. She frets about her drooping eyelids, the lines around her eyes, and her general appearance, but these self-doubt are balanced by her confidence in her skills in the kitchen where she knows she is a superb chef. It’s her success as the owner of an upscale bakery that creates the reason for her first meeting with Adam, who has been hired to design a new addition for her home so she can have the dream kitchen she has wanted for years. Martin turns in a surprisingly understated performance as the soft-spoken architect whose own divorce has left him emotionally battered and shy. His cautious interest in Jane is perhaps the most subtle part of the film, so much so that you almost wonder if he is the right guy for Jane, whose chemistry with Jake remains explosive.
That is the key piece of It’s Complicated. The actors rise above the simple structure of the script and imbue their characters with many layers. Streep plays Jane with enormous depth while Baldwin excels in showing his vulnerabilities and makes the regret he experiences over his infidelity so palpable that you can’t help but feel sorry for him.
One character you don’t have to feel sorry for isplayed by hunky John Krasinski (tv’s “The Office”), who steals the spotlight from the veteran actors in every scene he is in. As Harley, fiancé to eldest daughter Lauren (Caitlin Fitzgerald; Taking Woodstock), Krasinski is the “inside” outsider who accidentally stumbles upon the sexy shenanigans of his future in-laws and then bumbles his way through the picture trying not to let on that he knows what Jane and Jake are up to.
While It’s Complicated is a fast-paced, clever comedy rooted in some have painful truths. Adultery is still a tough subject to address and Jane hasn’t quite gotten over the rejection and hurt even after all these years. Jake also has to accept that he is not the center of his family’s universe any longer, and both share the ache of growing older and not fitting the image in their heads of who they are versus the reality of being older than they feel. The movie includes some frank discussions about the motives of the characters and it doesn’t shy away from the sexual needs and loneliness of women over a certain age.
The resolution of the story (which you’ll have to see to find out) is refreshingly more realistic than what one has come to expect in romantic comedies these days. It’s Complicated may seem like an “old people’s movie” to the teenagers enraptured by New Moon and such, but for those seeking a more profound (and funny) experience, It’s Complicated is the simple answer.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Once in a blue moon a film comes along to chase away the Blues with such stunning technological advances that it will change the art of movie-making forever. First came sound with The Jazz Singer, then Technicolor™ with The Wizard of Oz, followed by the wide screen format of Cinemascope™ with The Robe and now the next step in 3D and motion capture photography is here with the opening of Avatar.
Avatar is an extraordinary piece of art with something for all ages, from teens in blue jeans to blue-haired old ladies. It is an action flick, a love story, a social allegory about the treatment of Native Americans, and an elaborate science fiction spectacle all wrapped up in one. The story concerns a mining operation and military intervention by humans on a moon called Pandora located in the proverbial galaxy far, far away. Also sharing the premises of the company compound is scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver; The Tale of Despereaux), who is leading a team dedicated to studying and establishing diplomatic relations with the indigenous people of the moon, a race of ten-foot tall blue-skinned people called the Na’vi. To make this a reality, Dr. Augustine has recruited a small cadre of experts whose job is to have their consciousness transferred into the cloned bodies of the Na’vi, grown within the company’s laboratory. By fate, one of Augustine’s team has been killed before the movie begins, and it is his twin brother, Jake (Sam Worthington; Terminator Salvation), who is brought in as a replacement because of the genetic similarity to his brother, which is necessary for the success of the connection between human mind and Na’vi body.
Jake is a marine that has been rendered a paraplegic during a previous mission, so the idea of regaining the use of his legs through an Avatar, i.e., a representative body that will replace his own while he remains in stasis back at the lab, is an exciting possibility. His lack of training or knowledge of biological sciences is of great concern to Augustine, but after a harrowing introduction to native life, Jake proves a natural in adapting to Na’vi culture. His first contact, with Na’vi beauty Neytiri (Zöe Saldana; Star Trek), turns to love despite the tribe’s well-deserved suspicion of the newcomer.
As you can imagine, the story builds to an inevitable climax that will challenge Jake’s loyalties to his human beginnings when he finds himself questioning the validity of the mining project that will end with the decimation of the Na’vi’s home world. The passive, pastoral lifestyle of the Na’vi, who live in concert with nature and with a belief system that all beings on Pandora are connected as one, is shown through a few pivotal scenes where we glimpse the Na’vi at their most spiritual ~ swaying in syncopated rhythms with one another like the Blue Man Group times a thousand.
The real Blue Meanie of the movie is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang; The Men Who Stare at Goats), a bad-ass, by-the-book marine who looks forward to nothing more than eradicating the Na’vi for the thrill of the fight. He doesn’t care about the blue skies, blue lagoons, or Blue Hawaii (sans Elvis) gorgeousness of the scenery. All he cares about is annihilation. That tends to leave everyone else singing the Blues, Na’vi or not.
The conflict that results makes for striking visuals, shown in Real 3D, but done with subtlety and the restraint necessary to make the battles and the environment feel authentic rather than exaggerated with the usual “gags” jumping off the screen that one associates with tradition 3D from the 1950s and ‘60s. Director James Cameron (Titanic) packs very frame with blue ribbon-caliber effects and details that will guarantee you’ll forget that the world you are watching is all computer generated.
Avatar is an epic adventure that will leave you wondering how its two hours and forty minutes flashed by quickly enough so that you never took a moment to look at your watch. There isn’t a moment that isn’t entertaining, fascinating, and thought-provoking. If you are looking for the movie of 2009, just slip on your blue suede shoes and boogie on down to the Essex Cinemas or Cumberland 12 to check out these Smurfs on steroids. Avatar rocks!
Monday, December 14, 2009
Any human being on this planet in possession of a uterus can attest to the eons-old adage that “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.” What that saying doesn’t tell you is that almost all of those frogs are really only a bunch of horny toads and you’ll be lucky if all you end up with is a bad case of warts once you give ‘em a lit puck. My pucker was blessedly good enough to sift out a true Noble prince on my second time around, but don’t think I didn’t learn the hard way during my first go when I made the mistake of choosing a husband who was worse than a frog or a toad. He was a low-down snake in the grass.
Fortunately, none of this foul reality besieges the fantasy realm of Disney’s latest money-making machine, the lovely-to-look-at The Princess and the Frog. Much will be made (and already has been) concerning the “revolutionary” decision by Disney to add to its bevy of Princesses™ an African American model. Some call it a step forward inclusivity, but anyone who has ever worked for Disney knows it is actually a step forward in marketing. Yes, now every little girl (and middle-aged queen with a Barbie™ collection) can have a “black version” of its Cinderella, Aurora, Belle, Jasmine, and Ariel dolls. Those are the signature Princesses™ that Disney uses to mint a sizeable fortune every year. Incredibly, the company has only now realized that there are Black people in the world outside of those little animatronic folks in “It’s a Small World” and these folk have money Disney hasn’t yet snatched away from them. Apparently Disney doesn’t care so much about Asian or Native American dollars because even though Mulan and Pocahontas were both successful movies long before The Princess and the Frog neither has made the cut as a Princess™, instead taking to the back of the bus to give more room for Ariel’s gigantic scaly-ass fishtail. But I digress.
There’s no need to harbor bad feelings towards The Princess and the Frog’s main maiden, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose; the least well-remembered of the Dreamgirls). Tiana is a hard-working young woman scraping by in 1920s New Orleans as she strives to save enough money to open the restaurant she and her now-deceased father dreamed of opening together during a brief prologue to the actual story. Daddy is voiced by Terrence Howard of Iron Man fame (or infamy considering he has been replaced by Don Cheadle in the upcoming sequel), and I’m actually relieved he doesn’t make it beyond the opening credits because every time I see (or, apparently, hear) him I am reminded of a totally unnecessary interview he gave to Elle magazine in 2007 in which he told reporter Andrew Goldman he could never “be” with a woman who did not sanitize her va-jay-jay with Baby Wipes® first. Talk about giving out “Too Much Information!”
Of course, this being a Disney movie, the beloved (or hygienic) parent always dies in the first reel so the protagonist can grow and learn from the dead one’s example, and Tiana is no different. In the tradition of Bambi or even Nemo, Tiana grows stronger and more determined to make it, though, ironically, since she wants to open a restaurant she may end up serving both Bambi and Nemo as entrees on in given night. In the meantime though, she toils for tips as a “common waitress” (and the words haven’t sounded so demeaning since Joan Collins uttered them back in her “Dynasty” days), and she wishes upon a star for her ship to come in. Voila! ~ that ship does come in, literally, carrying the enchanting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos; Wake) from the fictional country of Maldonia on his first trip to the United States. Naturally, their paths cross and they can’t stand one another ~ a sure sign they were meant to be together forever like all married folks.
In little time, Naveen gets into a whole heap of voo doo poo poo and is turned into the frog of the title by the bewitchingly vile Dr. Facilier (Keith David; All About Steve), sort of a male version of Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. Facilier is working with Naveen’s valet, Lawrence (Peter Bartlett aka Nigel Bartholomew-Smythe of tv’s “One Life to Live”), to get hold of a fortune by duping the fabulously wealthy man-hunter Charlotte (big screen debuting Jennifer Cody) into marrying a faux Naveen, actually a magically transmorphed Lawrence. This is where it falls upon Tiana to do the requisite good deed by kissing the frog and thus returning him to all his royal glory so he can expose the deception. Except… in a twist on tradition, when Tiana puts her lips on his something unexpected happens and the story really takes off.
Like all great Disney animated features it’s the supporting cast of characters who put the taste in this gumbo and I see visions of plush alligators and fireflies exploding out of souvenir booths and gift shops all over Disney resorts around the globe. Yes, it’s the fun-loving reptile (albeit dimmer than Pumbaa on a good day) Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley; Ghost Town) and sentimental beetle Ray (Jim Cummings; Pete on tv’s "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse") that bring on the funk and the funny in this tale as the action shifts from New Orleans to the Louisiana Bayou. It also provides the show-stopping backdrop for a singing voo doo Priestess, Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis; Meet the Browns), to belt out the movie’s biggest and best “choreographed” number “Deep a Little Deeper” featuring The Pinnacle Gospel Choir, just one of sixteen snappy tunes written by Toy Story maestro Randy Newman.
This probably won’t mean beans to the kids in the audience, but for viewers of a certain age (*ahem*), The Princess and the Frog heralds back to an earlier era in Disney animation when films were actually drawn and colored by hand. This is Disney’s first foray back into hand-made features since the studio shuttered its Animation Department (supposedly) for good in 2004. Now, thanks to The Princess and the Frog, the clout of co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, Hercules, and The Little Mermaid among others), and along with the support of Pixar and Disney Creative Chief John Lasseter (also Producer of Bolt), this is the first of several new projects in this medium on the horizon, including a big screen Winnie the Pooh scheduled to bow in 2011. The lushness of the backgrounds, the intricacy of details and shadows and the minutiae within different scenes provide a subtle homage to earlier classic Disney films (Tell me Tiana’s ball gown doesn’t harken back to Cinderella’s), and this tender loving care truly makes The Princess and the Frog the best Disney can offer and yet seemed to have forgotten how to be. Great looking, terrific music, lots of laughs and a touch of genuine sentimentality (yes, even I teared up a bit), this is one to see whether you have kids or not.
Monday, December 07, 2009
When I was growing up my Uncle Cletus had a pet fox he called Charmin (so dubbed because, like the toilet tissue of the same name, he truly was “squeezably soft”). As a thirteen year old I was sent to spend a couple of weeks with Uncle Cletus while my parents went off on a cruise without me, a time that would eventually be known by me as “That Unfortunate Era of Uncondomed Lust” which resulted in my younger sister Clamentine’s joining our family. So while my parents were off playing Chutes & Ladders of a Certain Kind, I was foisted onto a shirt-tail relative of last resort to look after my well-being, or at least make sure I didn’t kill accidentally myself during their absence. I’m pretty sure that was the best they could expect from a man like Cletus anyway. I’d never met him before and wasn’t sure how he gained the title “Uncle” because I was fairly certain he wasn’t my father or mother’s brother, but when you are thirteen that hardly matters if the guy has a spirited red fox living in his house.
Uncle Cletus said that he found Charmin as a pup alone in the woods after his mother had been caught in a trap. Cletus never said that it was his trap, but the fact that he wore a bright orange fur hat with a fox-tail dangling down his back always made him suspect in my book. Maybe he did it to help Charmin feel more at home growing up, but I doubt Cletus had any thought that went that deep. More likely he did it to cover his bald head and give that hairless dome a place to hide under since he had a head with enough bumps and ridges across it to make a Klingon proud. You’d think a guy would feel those things under his hair before he would take a razor to his scalp, but Cletus wasn’t quite that self-observant. After all, he lived in a house where the plumbing was as much a promise that could be broken at a moment’s notice as not, and it practically took a hand-held GPS device to navigate the piles of “collectibles” that clogged the paths between my guest room and the kitchen. Not that I cared. I was too distracted by Uncle Cletus and his love-connection to the little red fur-ball. He treated Charmin more like a favorite son than a pet. Charmin followed Cletus everywhere he went and slept at night curled up on the empty pillow across from my uncle’s head. Like a loyal dog, Charmin would wag his bushy tail whenever Cletus came through the door and he could do any number of tricks, from simply rolling over to doing an impressive back flip on command. He was also great at burrowing into the furniture, leaving stuffing from the couches and chairs strewn all across the living room floor, a tiny inconvenience Uncle Cletus didn’t seem to notice since his idea of tidiness lay somewhere between what you’d expect to find in a Pakistani ghetto or in the camp of
“I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.”
Most of my two weeks with Cletus I felt like all I wanted to do was scream “I might be a celebrity one day. Get Me Out of Here!” not just because of Charmin’s penchant for using the inside of the piano as his personal toilet but mostly because my uncle seemed a bit… off. Well, maybe he was a LOT off. Besides having a fox as a best friend he tended to refer to a stuffed deer’s head over his mantle as “My lovely wife, Martha.” I think it was on my sixth day there that I noticed the head was missing from its spot on the wall and when I asked Cousin Latreen about it he said Cletus and Martha always went out for long walks along the beach at sunset. It was how they kept the romance alive in their relationship. Just about then they returned and for the first time I noticed that the head was sporting both blush and lipstick, which couldn’t have been easy to apply since deer tend not to have lips, at least not Angelina Jolie quality lips. I knew then that it was going to be a very scary eight more days.
Fortunately, nothing remotely as awkward befalls the title character in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is not to say that Mr. Fox doesn’t have problems of his own. This foxy gentleman, voiced by the perpetually suave George Clooney (The Men Who Stare at Goats), wears stylish business suits and ties even if he does forgo shoes, which somehow makes sense if you are a wild animal. That’s another bit of Mr. Fox’s unique charm. He may be a classy “Vulpes vulpes” as he likes to point out, but he is also a wild animal and can channel those beastly traits on a moment’s notice. Let’s just say that dinner time resembles something akin to my dreams of Pizza Night with the San Francisco 49s. It’s every man for himself, and fingers are considered fair game if they get between a player and his pie.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on a short story by Roald Dahl, author of James and the Giant Peach as well as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and a multitude of other well-known children’s books, so you know this sly critter has quite the good pedigree. And he knows it too. Mr. Fox is definitely not lacking in the self-esteem department. He exudes confidence as the best chicken-stealer in the valley until he promises his (then future) wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep; Julie and Julia) to go straight and get a reputable job. Sure enough, Mr. Fox becomes a columnist for the local newspaper, although I used to have a similar job and I’m not sure I’d call that a “reputable” career. It’s like calling a whore a “social marketing technician.” Anyway, Mr. Fox manages to stay on the straight and narrow for a long time, but eventually he and his pal, an opossum named Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky; The Darjeeling Limited) can’t help themselves, and they are once again rustling chickens, alcoholic cider and frozen foods on the down-low from the three meanest human farmers in the area. As you might expect, trouble ensues.
Naturally, Mrs. Fox is oblivious ~ at first ~ to her husband’s misdeeds, and her concerns about his past are simply a matter of keeping him alive to be a good husband and a father to their son Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman; Funny People). Ash could use some of his father’s assurance and a lot of his Dad’s love since he suffers from very low self-worth. He is neither an athlete nor a charmer like his old man, and if things weren’t bad enough, his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) comes for an extended visit, and he is adept at everything from martial arts to Olympic diving. Kris is also the foxy guy all the girls at their school prowl the halls to date, leaving Ash always feeling (and being) second-rate. If I was a psychiatrist I might want to ponder the fact that director Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) hired his own brother to voice this role. I’m sure I could keep the Andersons on the couch for years sorting all this out, but that’s a whole other column.
The star-packed cast, including Bill Murray (Zombieland) as a badgering badger named Badger, Willem Dafoe (Daybreakers) as a dirty rat also called Rat, and a ferret dubbed Skip, the boys’ Wakbat coach (Owen Wilson; Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian), help make the film a virtual “Guess Who?” for fans trying to figure out the celeb’s identity by voice alone. For those not so interested in that aspect of the movie, The Fantastic Mr. Fox presents a colorful and exciting enough tale about family, honesty, loyalty, larceny and redemption to keep most anyone entertained throughout its 87 minutes. While the lessons in the film may be a tad obscure (Is it still okay to steal as long as it is from ugly or mean people?), kids are less inclined to dig that deep and leave the philosophizing to the adults, who will be more likely enjoying the retro look of the movie, done entirely with stop-action photography in the style of Art Clokey’s 1950’s tv series “Gumby” or Will Vinton’s claymation features such as 1986’s The Adventures of Mark Twain.
I’m sure my Uncle Cletus would have loved The Fantastic Mr. Fox if he was still with us today. Unfortunately, he was bit in the throat by a wild animal while he slept one night and bled out by morning. My parents grieved a long time about that because they figured that whatever creature snuck into the house and killed Cletus must have gobbled up poor Charmin at the same time because he has never been seen again. For the next three years Cousin Latreen wore his lucky pork chops around his neck and wandered the woods behind Cletus’ house hoping to coax his “Little Brother” to come home. Apparently it became too much for Latreen because one day he simply walked out of the house and into the woods with a fresh necklace of pork chops around his neck and never was seen again. At least he had something to eat on his trip to who-knows-where. Too bad he forgot the applesauce to go along with the chops... but what can you expect? He’s Cletus’ son.