Gigantic


Gigantic

Paul Dano is all wrapped up in Zooey Deschanel.

(First Independent) Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, John Goodman, Jane Alexander, Zach Galifianakis, Ian Roberts, Brian Avers, Robert Stanton. Directed by Matt Aselton

We all have our own set of aspirations. Some of them border on obsessions, which is fine. Some of them are a bit out there, which is also fine. Some of us give up on them, which is not so fine. And still others do not deviate from their plan on achieving those goals.

Brian Weathersby (Dano) is a mattress salesman in New York with seemingly low career goals, but that’s only on the surface. What’s really on his mind is the adoption of a Chinese baby, which he has wanted to do all his life and which he is now so close to he can just about taste it.

While his personality is rather bland, his life is somewhat complicated. He is repeatedly and without explanation attacked by a homeless man (Galifianakis) who might well be a figure of his imagination other than the facial wounds he leaves. He, his brothers and his father (Asner) bond over hallucinogenic mushrooms. Indeed, a Norman Rockwell family at its finest. Remember his famous Saturday Evening Post painting “Daddy gets high on mescaline”?

Brian sells a high-end mattress to Al Lolly (Goodman), an oversized man with severe back troubles. The mattress costs north of $14K so it’s not a slam dunk procedure. Al decides to send his daughter Harriet (Deschanel) over to test it out for herself before arranging the payment.

Harriet turns out to be one of those New York waifs with an independent spirit and who acts as if every moment needs to register on the quirk-meter in order to be meaningful. She falls asleep on the mattress, well past closing time. Brian somewhat sweetly places a blanket over her, more to make sure nobody looks up her skirt while she’s asleep.

They converse in murmurs. She asks if he is interested in having sex with her, and he confides that he might be. He tells a friend he’s not sure if he likes her. Brian’s whole life is about getting that baby; the presence of Harriet might jeopardize that in some odd way.

There’s no denying he feels something for her though. He brings her to meet his family which is a bit risky; only his mother (Alexander) is even halfway sane. Still, he’s not sure he can bring himself to love her when loving her might mean that he has to change the plans he has for his life.

This is the kind of movie that a lot of folks characterize as “fiercely indie” and that’s not in a good way. Not long ago these types of movies were all the rage at Sundance and Toronto, but these days more traditional storytelling seems to be more in vogue. That’s not to say that Gigantic is without merit. It’s perfectly cast and that cast is impressive, with all of them delivering solid performances at the very least.

Deschanel is one of those actresses who can make even an uninteresting role interesting and a too-quirky role seem more down-to-earth. She makes Harriet real and believable; in lesser hands the character would have been so annoying that Ellen DeGeneres might have been moved to punch her in the face. Dano has made a niche for himself as a somewhat deadpan character who displays little in the way of emotion except for occasional tiny cracks. It served him well in Little Miss Sunshine and it serves him well here. The romance between the two becomes believable.

This movie might have well made higher marks with me had they not tried so hard to be funny and quirky. Scenes like the one in the massage parlor are unnecessary and serve to jar you out of the overall mood of the movie; it’s like driving a car whose transmission is on its last legs. If they had just tried to tell the story of Brian and Harriet straight it might have worked out better.

Still in all, this is a solid film with several moments that are worth cherishing. It may not be the kind of indie film that breaks the mold but at least it gets points for doing what it does do very well.

WHY RENT THIS: Any movie with Zooey Deschanel is worth seeing. Great cast who all have their moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film loses steam in the last half. At times it feels like they’re trying too hard to be funny.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, a whole lot of foul language and some scenes of sudden violence make this a bit rough for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Galifianakis’ role although listed as “Homeless Man” on IMDB, does not in fact appear on the film’s credits.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Easy Virtue

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Elf


Elf

Buddy and Santa must work together to save Christmas in Central Park.

(New Line) Will Ferrell, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Tay, Faizon Love, Peter Dinklage, Amy Sedaris, Michael Lerner, Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, Artie Lang. Directed by Jon Favreau

Not everyone can be an elf. These small creatures are industrious, cheerful and limber, making them the perfect workforce for Santa. Nearly all of them, anyway.

Buddy (Ferrell) is an elf who isn’t an elf. He’s a human, an orphaned baby who crawled into Santa’s sack one Christmas and hitched a ride all the way to the North Pole. Santa (Asner), unwilling to send him back to the orphanage, leaves him in the charge of Papa Elf (Newhart) who wanted a family of his own but never had the time to go get one.

As time goes by, it becomes very apparent that Ferrell doesn’t fit into the elfin world – literally. He’s big and clumsy compared to the other elves and while his heart is in the right place, he just doesn’t have the skills. Finally, Santa takes pity on him and tells him where he can find his birth father – in New York City. Unfortunately, Buddy’s birth mother had passed away some time before.

Said birth father, Walter (Caan) is a hard man, a publisher of children’s books who doesn’t have any child in him, unless he happened to eat one at lunch. He greets the possibility of an out-of-wedlock son in a green tunic and yellow tights with all the enthusiasm of an agoraphobic forced to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

Once Buddy name-drops his birth mother’s name, Walter realizes that there might be something to the whacko’s story and hustles him down to the family doctor for the world’s fastest genetic test and in no-time, is welcomed to the family by Walter’s saint of a wife Emily (Steenburgen) and plucky son Michael (Tay).

Of course, Buddy gets into trouble, working in the mail room at Walter’s publishing house and at Gimbel’s, a department store that used to be the chief rival of Macy’s but has been closed for quite awhile, even before this movie was made. There, he meets Jovie (Deschanel), a cute-as-a-button seasonal worker who likes to sing in the shower and might be a match made in Macy’s for the love-struck Buddy – or would have been if it hadn’t been at Gimbel’s.

The movie serves notice that it’s going to be irreverent from the opening, when Elves are shown fleeing an unfortunate fire in the Keebler tree, and it is throughout – Dinklage makes an impressive cameo as the world’s nastiest-tempered children’s book author, whom Walter is courting in a last-ditch effort to save his job at the publishing firm.

Favreau, who would go on to direct Iron Man, has a deft comedic touch and a good understanding of special effects. Many of the effects that have to do with Buddy towering over the elves are done with an old camera trick called forced perspective, where Ferrell stands closer to the camera to appear larger than those in the background.

He has also assembled an impressive cast, led by Ferrell who is at his best here. Ferrell can be an amiable sort when he isn’t dumbing down (as he does in Step-Brothers) and he plays Buddy with a lot of heart and a sweet tooth the size of Mt. Everest. The supporting cast is magnificent as well. Getting to see veterans like Asner, Newhart and Caan together is always a treat, and Steenburgen adds a touch of class.

Deschanel is one of my favorite actresses and she does shine here to a certain extent, although there are times that she is just so darn hip and cool that it overwhelms her cuteness and makes it seem like she’s in another indie film instead of a major studio family event movie. That can be mildly distracting at times, as well as the bashing over our heads of the fish out of water thing with Buddy in New York. I realize he’s supposed to be naïve, but there’s a difference between naïve and outright stupid and it crosses the line of stupid every so often.

Still, these are essentially minor complaints and this is a marvelous Christmas holiday movie. It’s funny enough to rival Saturday Night Live in some places, and charming enough to fill you full of holiday cheer. That’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving, don’t you think?

WHY RENT THIS: A very sweet-natured film. Indie darling Deschanel slums on a major studio release and nearly steals it. Any movie that has Newhart, Asner and Caan in it is worth seeing regardless of the subject. Dinklage’s cameo is hysterical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is dumb in some places. Deschanel is so cool and hip she’s almost in a different movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Definitely a kid favorite.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the names on Santa’s nice list that he shows to Michael are members of the film crew.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD comes in an Infinifilm version, with regular opportunities to stop the movie and watch a feature pertaining to what is onscreen. Da Queen and I love Infinifilm. The Blu-Ray comes with something similar. There are some games and such on the DVD which are oddly missing on the Blu-Ray.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues

Up


Up

All in all, there are worse sights than an eager Wilderness Ranger when you open your front door.

(Disney) Starring the voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo, John Ratzenberger, Bob Peterson, Jerome Ranft, David Kaye, Elie Docter, Jeremy Leary, Mickie McGowan, Danny Mann. Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson.

Some people wait their entire lives for the adventure of a lifetime, only to see it pass us by. The truth is, the only reason not to go out and grab our dreams by the throat is our fear of leaving our familiar existence.

Young Carl Fredricksen (Leary) is a little shy but not about his favorite subject – adventurer Charles Muntz (Plummer). With a dirigible luxuriously outfitted for his family of dogs, Muntz goes to locations all over the globe to find strange and exotic creatures for study, and the newsreels of the time eat it all up. After a trip to South America and a particularly remote location called Paradise Falls – a land lost to time – Muntz returns with a skeleton of a large bird. Experts, however, decry the skeleton as fake. Disgraced and stripped of his membership in professional societies and stung by the assaults on his character, he takes off in his airship for Venezuela, vowing not to return until he has a live specimen to vindicate his name. He is not seen again.

Despite his hero’s fall from grace, Carl is not deterred in his worship. He meets young Ellie (Docter) who shares his obsession. She has even commandeered an abandoned house to serve as her personal airship. As talkative and outgoing as Carl is shy and timid, Ellie and Carl take to each other like cats to milk.

They grow up and marry. Now a man, Carl (Asner) becomes a balloon vendor at a zoological park where Ellie works as a docent. He buys her the old abandoned house where they played as children and work hard to make it their dream home. They go on picnics and watch the clouds drift by, but their dream is the same; one day to build a home on remote Paradise Falls.

They save their pennies for the trip, but life gets in the way. They continually have to borrow from their trip fund for everyday crises; auto repairs, home repairs, medical repairs. They have a good life, but not without its share of heartache. At last, there comes a day when Ellie isn’t able to make the climb up the hill to their favorite picnic spot. Faithful Carl stays with her in the hospital, but she knows where this is leading. She hands Carl her adventure scrapbook, meaning for him to read it. Not long after that, he must face life alone without her.

He opens her scrapbook regularly, but is unable to get past the section that reads “Stuff I’m Going to Do” believing that he failed to give her the adventures she dreamed of, knowing those pages would be blank. He is lost, cantankerous and alone, walking with one of those canes with four tennis balls on them. When Russell (Nagai), an overweight Asian-American Wilderness Explorer comes to his door asking him if he can aid Carl in any way (so he can get the final merit badge to become a Senior Explorer), Carl literally sends him on a snipe hunt. The good-natured Russell is only too happy to help.

Around their home developers are putting together one of those godawful mixed use apartment buildings with shopping and casual dining on the first floor. His home stands in their way, and they are constantly pressuring him to sell which he adamantly refuses to do, despite the best efforts of their construction foreman (Ratzenberger). When a construction worker backs into his mailbox which is marked by Ellie’s handprint, Carl loses it.

This gives the faceless developers the opening they need. Carl is taken to court where he is judged a menace to society. He is ordered sent to a retirement facility, which would allow the developers to raze his home to the ground.

Carl is faced with a decision. He can accept his fate and give up on life, or he can take the opportunity to finally become the explorer he and Ellie always wanted to be. With the ingenuity of a born balloonist, he ties thousands upon thousands of balloons to his home, fashions an ingenious steering system through his weather vane and heads up.

Flying over the city, he feels liberated for the first time since Ellie left. He settles into his favorite easy chair to enjoy his flight when there is, oddly, a knock at the door. When he opens it, he is startled to discover Russell, who had been chasing the Snipe (which he admits looked oddly like a field mouse) under the porch at the time of lift off. Russell had scrambled onto the porch and now was a reluctant stowaway. Carl, knowing that it is too dangerous to leave him exposed on the porch, invites him in.

After a storm tosses them about, they at last arrive on the plateau of Paradise Falls, but on the wrong side. They don’t have a great deal of flight capability because the helium is slowly leaking from the balloons. Carl means to drag the house to the opposite side of the plateau to at last retire to the place he and Ellie meant to be.

Before he can do that, he must contend with talking dogs, a rather persistent chocolate-eating bird and an embittered and obsessive Charles Muntz. He must also weigh doing the right thing against completing his dream, but what if doing the right thing would mean betraying the person who has meant everything to him his entire life?

This is being hailed as Pixar’s finest creation to date, and not without justification. First of all, there’s the look of the film. It is brightly colorful, virtually eye-popping in every detail. The animation is stylized, yes but with an amazing and rich detail that will make repeated viewings a pleasure.

Then there’s the tone. Director Pete Docter – who previously helmed Monsters, Inc and co-wrote WALL-E – has crafted Carl Fredricksen’s life with loving care. The opening sequence which essentially sets the table is a stunning bit of filmmaking. Poignant and heartbreaking in spots, it also has some laugh-out-loud funny moments. In many ways, Carl Fredricksen is the most complete character in terms of personality that Pixar has ever created. Fredricksen has a great big heart, but that heart has been broken. He is cantankerous, short-tempered and a bit selfish. He is far from perfect, but when the chips are down he comes through.

It is to Docter and Pixar’s credit that they create an action hero who is old and not in the best of shape. In fact, only Muntz is the kind of fit hero we are used to seeing in adventure movies. Russell is certainly out of shape and Dug (Ranft), the likable talking dog that befriends Carl and Russell, is more of a mutt than the sleek, menacing dogs that Muntz uses as his army.

This was the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival, an honor normally reserved for French live-action films, and an honor richly deserved. There is no doubt in my mind that this film is deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture; whether or not that happens is anybody’s guess, but it certainly is a better movie than Finding Nemo and to my mind, Beauty and the Beast which did get the nomination in that category, the only animated feature thus honored to date.

Poignant without being sentimental and never talking down to its audience (which may blow some of the more heart-rending scenes right by younger viewers), this is another triumph for Pixar. Yes, the kids will love the bright colors, the action and the strange creatures of Paradise Falls, but their parents will appreciate the well-rounded characters, the thoughtful story and the uplifting message that we are never too old to begin an adventure. Up is one of the best movies you will see this year.

WHY RENT THIS: Simply put one of the best movies of the year. Poignant in places and funny in others, it presents a well-rounded and believable character in Carl Fredricksen. The colors are eye-popping; it’s a gorgeous movie to look at.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the more heart-wrenching moments may go over the head of younger children, who may get restless in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all but the very youngest of children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Pizza Planet truck from Toy Story can be seen in the streets while Carl’s house is rising, and also in the final scene in the parking lot.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Blu-Ray contains a new Dug animated feature, as well as footage from the filmmakers trip to Venezuela, which would inspire the Paradise Falls location in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Ugly Truth