Thursday, November 19, 2009

Catch-Up Capsules

As we prepare to enter the full swing of the vaunted Holiday Movie Season, wherein we will be bamboozled with every last major Oscar contender in an overwhelming cascade that won't let up for months, I thought it would be a good time to quickly re-cap some of the films we missed from earlier this fall. Here are some of the most notable ones, in short form...

District 9 is not the world-changing film many built it up to be. It is an interesting idea that was probably amazing in its original short form. Extended to feature length, some of it works and some of it just doesn't. There is a disconnect between the film's true nature and what it becomes...funny thing is, my biggest problem is with its true nature. The faux documentary format can be fun, but truthfully, District 9 is at its best when it abandons it and becomes a blow-out action picture. Nonetheless, the blending of the two styles is uneven and unnecessary, and keeps the film from reaching the greatness it aspires to. But one thing is clear: Neill Blomkamp is ambitious and talented, and what he has accomplished with this film, all flaws aside, is that wonderful feeling of discovery, the opening up of new territory that should get even better in the future.

Another film with "9" in the title that was originally made as a short...and even though the first one was slightly disappointing, it possesses more ingenuity and intrigue in its pinky finger than this one does in its entire screenplay. Director Shane Acker won the Oscar for animated short a few years back, but at feature-length, this story of ugly rag-dolls run amok is a convoluted mess. It is too dark and violent for young kids, too simple and soft for grown-ups, and too mindless and confusing for anyone, young or old, to engage with. It seems like the film exists for no other reason than to be an exercise in gothic animation...which is not interesting, not exciting, and not a worthwhile experience.

I will fight for this one any day of the week. It was very easy for everyone to join the backlash against Diablo Cody, even though she essentially defined a new style of dialogue (and won a well-deserved Oscar for her work), as well as the ongoing backlash against Megan Fox, even though most people can't take their eyes off of her. The haters succeeded in destroying Jennifer's Body's box office haul, but the film is way better than most would have you believe. Fox is actually a very talented actress, and she's great here, playing against Amanda Seyfried (who is always great) as BFFs torn asunder because one of them is, well, a bloodsucker. What rarely gets discussed is just how firmly Cody keeps her fingers on the pulse of young girl culture. Sure, the dialogue ultra-hip, but the insights into what makes teen girls act and talk the way they do is striking in its authenticity and heartbreaking in its commentary. Much more interesting than anyone would give it credit for...and awesome genre fun to boot.

The disparity between how excited I was for this movie and how deflated I was coming out of the screening is about 10 miles wide. For a film so colorful, with such an inspired concept and such talented voice actors, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is stunningly ultimate bore. Every time my eyelids felt heavy, I fought with all my might, for I wanted this to be the next great family film of 2009. But after more than five instances of the sleepy head-bob, it becomes undeniable that something's not right with the pictures flickering on the screen. For my kids, I'll probably try it again on video...but that comfy couch will make it that much easier to snuggle in for a nap.

Capitalism: A Love Story obviously has noble intentions, but no good intentions can disguise the fact that this is Michael Moore's weakest film ever. It is not, strictly speaking, a "bad" film by any stretch, just an unfocused one that feels slapped together without Moore's usual exacting gaze. To be fair, the subject is broad -- too broad, honestly, to be encapsulated by a single two-hour movie in which the filmmaker wants to also share personal stories that don't resonate and integrate his usual biting humor, which doesn't sting like it used to. Moore is a polarizing figure for a reason: like him or hate him, he is one of our country's foremost social critics. But this is the first time his commentary doesn't add anything to the conversation, the first instance where it seems he's following the trend of the times instead of defining it.

Oscar talk died down on The Informant! after the film failed to make a significant box office dent. But Steven Soderbergh's crafty comedy is one movie I'd love to see remembered during Awards Season. It is a small and sly movie, one that doesn't call attention to its intelligence, which is a welcome change of pace coming from Soderbergh, who is almost always a brilliant dramatist, but whose comedies often skew smug (i.e., this year's The Girlfriend Experience). The Informant!, though, strikes the perfect balance between winking humor and straight-faced intrigue. Matt Damon is brilliant as a milquetoasty chubkins who cons an entire industry by simply being himself, an identity which becomes delightfully more confounding as the film wears on. The story works the same way; like all of Soderbergh's best work, it will only get better with each subsequent  viewing. 

The only film this year for which the word "ick" is review enough, Astro Boy is unseemly, uncomfortable, and damn near unwatchable. The source material is intriguing; Astro Boy is a famous figure in the annals of anime history, and this story -- in which a the wunderkind son of a kooky scientist is killed and then remade as a robot by his grieving father -- would work better as anime, an artform that skews darker and is free to explore uncomfortable implications. But this American version seems to ignore the fact that building a robot to take the place of your son is psychotic! Instead, the film treats the plot as warm and fuzzy, which makes the proceedings all the more nauseating. The supporting characters are grotesque to the point of cringing distraction, and the animation is eye assault of the ugliest order. Astro Boy is yet another animated film I wanted to love, but I didn't fall asleep this time...I wish I could've.

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