Joe's Movie Reviews

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


A father and son deal with their strained relationship, while father also contends with his wife abandoning him and son deals with his long-term unemployment. A homeless man kills himself and is immediately sent back to be the guardian angel of a lonely widower. A repo man begins an extremely unlikely romance with a supermodel. And much more. And all of this in claymation. Yes, it's another one of those Altmanesque claymation extravaganzas. Can't they ever think of anything original?

This Australian effort is one of the most dazzling, amazing films of the year... the year technically being 2008, since it received a token screening late in the year at a couple of theatres to qualify for the animation Oscars, but not only didn't get nominated, but wasn't even able to receive distribution until now. There are those who contend that the more original a film is, the more difficult it is to get large numbers of people interested in it. "$9.99" would seem to go a long way towards proving their case.

The title refers to the price of a series of self-help book published by an Australian publishing company, books which the previously referenced son continues to pour over in search for the secret of life, happiness, and a real relationship with his dad, who seems perpetually disappointed that he didn't turn out to be the manly take-charge hardcase that he (dad) tried to teach him to be. But the son isn't by any means the only character in the film who has trouble finding security and happiness. The repo man, the supermodel (yes, this movie performs the seemingly impossible feat of giving us a supermodel who is intelligent, sympathetic and caring), the widower... each of them has seemingly all they could want, except a happy and fulfilled life. Even the angel is bitter and resentful at never having even gotten into heaven before being sent back to Earth.

But unless you get the wrong impression and imagine that this is nothing but a depressing story of lost hopes and dreams, I should point out that it also contains bigger laughs that just about any comedy of the past several years. In particular, Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush as the angel is nothing short of hysterical, a snarky, sarcastic angel who's light-years away from the gentle, reflective angels of "Wings Of Desire" (when the widower gazes at his wings and exclaims in amazement "Are you an angel?", Rush snaps back "No, I'm a giant, talking pigeon!"). The fact is,
"$9.99" is filled with hilarious comedy, serious and even tragic drama, uplifting moments showing the connection and happiness that IS possible even when everything seems lost... in short, pretty close to everything that you run into in life. The film is, in fact, much more like real life than most live action movies. And when you consider that the entire cast is made of clay, and features a number of supernatural creatures (not just the angel) that's an especially remarkable achievement.

The film is based on a series of short stories by an Australian writer named Etgar Keret (which I have not read but am certainly going to look for now), and adapted by Keret and director Tatia Rosenthal. I'm guessing most audience members wouldn't have guessed that the pieces were all conceived separately, given how smoothly and seamlessly Keret and Rosenthal have woven them all together. Each individual element of the tapestry has considerable strength on their own, but the film becomes more than the sum of its parts when they're all added together.

For a brief while at the very beginning, I did have to wonder a question put in a thread on the IMDB message board for this film: "Why did it have to be made in claymation?" Certainly, the story COULD have been told in live action, or even in the more standard forms of animation. But there's something about claymation... the most obviously not immediately life-like form of animated film... that seems especially fitting here. The mystical, supernatural aspects of the story seem very down to earth and logical when you're watching them in a form of storytelling that makes everything seem not exactly of this world as we know it. And the extremely realistic human drama of other sections (particularly the father/son relationship, featuring an outstanding vocal performance by Anthony Lapaglia as the father) are given a certain element of magic that they could never have had if the story had been told any other way. In fact, "magic" is pretty much the word that best describes this movie as a whole. It's a marvelous story of the magic that we can find all around us if we know where to look and how to look in the right way... and the magic that can be found even in some of the most seemingly mundane situations. As such, it's so thoroughly un-Hollywood commercial that it probably won't get very wide distribution and won't last long where it does play. So when it opens soon at the Lagoon Theatre in Minneapolis... and hopefully somewhere near anyone reading this elsewhere... please go to see it. There just isn't enough magic in the movies these days to not support it when it comes around.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

By Request: Angels And Demons

Just a note to begin with: anyone who has read much of this blog in the past (and if you have, my sympathies) knows that I normally only review films I've seen first-run, and I see MOST movies SECOND-run... which is why there aren't more reviews here than there are. I've never really explained my reason for this, and there are actually two. (1) I've always figured that any movie that's been out long enough to get to the second run discount houses is something that a whole lot of people have already seen, and if you've already seen it, why would you want to read a review of it? And, (2) even if you haven't seen it, there've been so many reviews published by that point that the last thing you'd be interested in is another one, from me. However, I actually got a specific request for a review of "Angels & Demons" (which I saw yesterday at the Hopkins Theatre), and I thought I'd specify here that if, for some strange and twisted reason, anyone is interested in seeing a review here of some specific film that's been out for a while, maybe about to or already in second run... just ask and I'll be glad to do it. I take requests is basically what I'm saying. Of course, most art-house and indie films don't get to second run (which is why, sadly, I don't see as many as I'd like) and there are some movies (like, say, "Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past") that I not only haven't see but don't plan to see even at discount prices (and I could have yesterday, as it was also playing at the Hopkins). However, in most cases I should be able to accomodate most requests. And now, onward...
I tend to praise indie and somewhat experimental films on this blog more than the commercial, big-studio Hollywood stuff, but that shouldn't be taken to mean I can't enjoy a well-made commercial blockbuster... it's just that over the years there have gotten to be fewer and fewer of those. But I grew up (Hah! I grew up... that's a good one!) on commercial Hollywood movies, and it's still very satisfying when I'm (on occasion) able to find one as enjoyable as I did in my younger years. I found that to be the case with "The Davinci Code", and it happened again with the follow-up, "Angels And Demons" (if it can truly be called a follow-up, since the book was actually published first, though the movie turns it into a sequel).

It seems that the Illuminati, an ancient order of radical devotees of science that was persecuted by the early church, has returned for revenge. They've stolen a container of anti-matter, and kidnapped four of the Vatican Cardinals who were about to vote to elect the new Pope, planning to kill one each hour beginning at 8 p.m., then explode the anti-matter at midnight, destroying the Vatican and much of Rome. Symbology Professor Robert Langdon has been called in to decipher the ancient clues that will enable them to stop the plan.

Not exactly Shakespeare, right? Well, no, but so what? The critics I admire the most are people like Roger Ebert who can acknowledge a well-made film whether it's intellectual & artistic, or pure escapism. And Ron Howard is about as as good a director of commercial movies as Hollywood has got these days. He's done a fine job on both of his Dan Brown adaptations giving us fast-paced, well-acted thrillers that also give you a little to think about. That's certainly more than most directors of action movies seem to able to accomplish.

I found "Angels & Demons" to be perhaps just a LITTLE less thrilling than "The Davinci Code", as the passages of dialogue to clue the audience in on ancient texts they couldn't be expected to know about were somewhat more noticeable, and there wasn't really a standout supporting performance like Ian Mckellan's Sir Leigh Teabing in "Davinci", but even so, it's a quite enjoyable movie. It helps the story tremendously to have an actor in the lead who's believable as an action hero who might not be as brawny as most but is certainly brainier... with all due respect to Bruce Willis, it's hard to imagine him being as believable decoding ancient religious symbols as it is to watch Tom Hanks doing the same. And quality actors like Ewan Mcgregor and Armin Mueller-Stahl help to ensure a high level of performance overall. The novel is some 700 pages, but Howard manages to keep a surprising amount of the plot essentials... and even when he has to jettison some, he does so very creatively. For instance, a very prominent sub-plot from the book had to go from the movie for reasons of length, but that subplot featured the main suspect for most of the sinister goings-on. But Howard (and screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman) was able to not only come up with another suspect from among the already existing characters, but also to work him into the plot in a way that makes it seem like this character had ALWAYS been the suspect.

And as far as the issue of the controversies about the film: well, I'll admit that I'm not Catholic (never have been), so maybe I'm not able to see things from the same perspective as that of True Catholic Believers. But it seems to me that this story ultimately has a very positive image of what faith can mean to the world, and of the church that is the public image of that faith. It comes out against unthinking extremism on the part of BOTH the church and the secular forces of science, but says that it's entirely possible for the two to work together towards the same goals as allies, and I don't see anything heretical or evil about that.

At this point, Ron Howard is one of the few Hollywood directors whose work I can reliably look forward to, whether he's doing something more serious like "Frost/Nixon", or more in the blockbuster mode, like his two Dan Brown films (and I could REALLY go on for ages about "Apollo 13"). If some other director winds up doing the film version of Dan Brown's upcoming third Langdon novel, "The Lost Symbol", I'd be a little worried about the result, but if Howard gets the job again (and with Hanks in the lead), I'll be waiting in line enthusiastically.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Study In Contrasts

1. "Public Enemies".

Michael Mann certainly knows modern crime stories. This is, after all, the man who gave us "Miami Vice" (both TV and movie versions), "Manhunter", "Collateral" and many others. So I was definitely intrigued with the notion of his going back to 1933 and telling us the story of John Dillinger, particularly with Johnny Depp in the role. Could it be as potent as his best modern stuff? Well, almost. With one little exception, this is as strong a film as fans could hope for, and that exception isn't enough to ruin things.

There's been some controversy on message boards such as IMDB's about Mann's decision to film the movie on hand-held video equipment and transfer it to film, but without a doubt, the method works. Video gives the story a startling degree of immediacy that period films rarely if ever have... you're not just watching something that happened 75 years ago, you're right there in the middle of the action. Mann's mastery of the world of both criminals and those who pursue them hasn't deserted him, and it all feels about as authentic as you could want it to be. And Mann ties in the contemporary skepticism (to say the least) about both government and bankers quite neatly with the situation during the depression to show us how Dillinger became a kind of hero to a large (if misguided) segment of the public. The film being constantly rushing in frantic motion is probably the best approach to take, too, to a film in which the lead character's life was in a constant whirl. And when things begin to go against him, and former allies no longer want any part of protecting him, the pace of the film appropriately slows and the atmosphere darkens... so to the critics who claim Mann is only making the film so frantic because of modern audiences' short attention spans... HAH!! (You probably have to shout that one to get the full effect.)

And the acting is as strong as the other elements: Depp gives us a very effective portrait of a man who relished the fame his exploits brought him (and who doesn't hesitate to casually stroll right into the Chicago police headquarters' Dillinger Investigation Unit for the fun of it). Christian Bale is the very embodiment of obsession as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent assigned to bring Dillinger down (his performance, it must be admitted, bears more than a little resemblance to Batman without the costume), and in a small but important role, Billy Crudup helps to make up for the debacle that was "Watchmen" with his snarling, angry portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover. Marion Cotillard as Billy Frechette, Dillinger's girlfriend, does what she can with a somewhat underwritten role, but the part doesn't really give her enough screen time (or enough to do) to really give you an idea of what this Oscar-winner is capable of.

So, what's that one small problem, you might ask? (What do you mean, you don't remember my mentioning one small problem? Maybe those critics were right about modern attention spans!) It's actually more of a moral problem than anything else, which I suppose some would maintain has no place in a movie review. But since I'm not being paid to write this, another HAH! (maybe I should come up with some other word for that) to you... I'll write what I want. It is possible to portray a criminal and a killer in a way that never makes you sympathetic to what he does even as it makes you understand him as a person... just look at "Dead Man Walking", for example. This is not one of those movies: you see Dillinger as a guy whose loyalty to friends and colleagues constantly puts his life in danger when he could just walk away; a person with a real code of honor that his enemies don't have. The fact that he killed people and never lost any sleep over it doesn't seem to matter. It's a little surprising to see this in a Michael Mann movie, as Mann has always seemed to understand that the fascination with the criminal lifestyle doesn't have to mean the same thing as an admiration of it. So "Public Enemies" is still a very well-made, effective film. But a little more of Mann's previous (and, one would hope, future) attitude toward the good AND bad sides of the criminal personality) might have made "Public Enemies" a bit easier film to enjoy.

2. "Away We Go".

In the immortal words of Monty Python, and now for something completely different. I saw this film almost immediately after "Public Enemies", and a bigger contrast would be hard to imagine.

Husband-and-wife writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida don't have children (at least yet), but have discussed issues such as where the best place to raise a child would be, and what approaches to parenting they might take. These discussions resulted in the first screenplay for these experienced novelists. It's interesting to note that neither of them is exactly noted for novels that could be called laugh riots, and obviously Sam Mendes, who has directed some of the most somber popular movies of the past decade (most recently the severely depressing "Revolutionary Road"), is hardly the go-to man for comedy either. So naturally this film is a comedy. And a very good one at that. Go figure.

This is the story of a young couple (played by John Krasinski of "The Office" and Maya Rudolph of "Saturday Night Live") who are expecting their first child in a few months. Krasinski's parents suddenly announce they're moving thousands of miles away just a month before the baby is due, removing the couple's only reason for living where they do, and they decide to take a road trip to visit a group of old friends and relatives (all of them parents) to scout out both potential new family homes and potential approaches to being parents.

Krasinski and Rudolph both take a very low-key, realistic approach to their roles, which makes for the perfect contrast to the supporting cast of wackos they encounter on their journey. In fact, with occasional exceptions, they don't really do or say funny things, they mainly react to the lunacy going on around them (and their reaction is often funny, but they don't originate the comedy). They are, after all, the people the audience is supposed to identify with, and I would hope not too many people would identify with the supporting cast, wonderful as they are. Krasinski and Rudolph make a very nice, likable pair, which is exactly what they should be.

The rest of the cast, though, as I said, are another story. Catherine O'Hara (of virtually all of Chrisopher Guest's films) and Jeff Daniels only have a few scenes at the beginning as Krasinski's parents, but they make them count in a big way.
Allison Janney ("The West Wing") and Maggie Gyllenhaal in particular steal the show every moment they're on screen as, respectively, a near lunatic in Phoenix who is pretty much the last person who should ever be a mother; and a college professor in Madison, Wisconsin with some very extreme new-agey ideas of child rearing. The two of them provide some of the funniest moments in a comedy movie this year.

The movie does ditch much of the humor as it goes on and Krasinski and Rudolph encounter a relative of Krasinski's with a severely troubled marriage who makes them seriously think about what they want their relationship to be, but it's done very carefully so as not to seem suddenly jarring or out of place, and as a result comes across as quite natural.

Ultimately, "Away We Go" is very likable story about a likable couple (and their lunatic friends and family) that anyone who is in their situation might be able to take some ideas and inspiration from. And regardless of whether they can identify with the protagonists' situation, all audiences will get more than a few good solid laughs and actually care about what happens to our "heroes". And in an age of wacky gross-out comedies like "The Hangover", we definitely can't have too many of those.