Lovely, Still


All love is young love.

All love is young love.

(2008) Romance (Monterey Media) Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn, Elizabeth Banks, Adam Scott, Sean Tillmann, Kali Cook, Christopher Why, M. Michele Phillips, Christine Dixon, Mary Douglass, Scott Beehner, Todd Fink, Leo Fitzpatrick, Jules Blight, Candice Rose. Directed by Nicholas Fackler

Old age can sometimes mean loneliness. Husbands or wives pass away. Relationships, for whatever reason, end. We find ourselves with a whole lot of time and nobody to share it with. This is particularly difficult during the holidays.

Robert Malone (Landau) is in that kind of spot. He works in a grocery store, as much to fill his time as to support himself.  He is a lonely man who as Christmas approaches wraps up Christmas gifts for himself. His boss Mike (Scott) may well be his only friend.

One day he comes home to find his new neighbor Mary (Burstyn) in his living room – apparently he’d left his door open when he left for work. Far from being angry or upset, he is intrigued by the woman and feels doors opening in his heart that have been shut for a very long time.

Despite the misgivings of Mary’s daughter Alex (Banks) Robert and Mary begin dating and it is almost fairy-tale sweet. Robert is happier than he’s been since he can remember. As Christmas approaches he is eager to spend it with someone for the first time.

But it isn’t all holly and ivy. Robert is having odd dreams that are maddeningly indistinct but seem to have some sort of intense meaning to him. But what do they mean? And what do they have to do with Mary?

This is Fackler’s first feature film and all alliteration aside, it’s a pretty good one for a first go. He gets the benefit of two Oscar winners who give him a good performance in roles that are pretty decently written and allow the actors to let their natural charisma and charm show through. Burstyn is particularly charming but Landau inhabits his role nicely.

This is the kind of movie that can easily cross the line from charm to schmaltz and it does so several times, but not often enough to really be a problem. However, the problem here is that it takes a nice twist ending and telegraphs it a bit too broadly so that anybody can see it coming and does it in a way that’s really unnecessary. By resisting temptation to hit you over the head with clues about what’s coming they might have had a really excellent film.

As it is it’s decent enough, mainly due to the performances of all four of the leads. This is one of those sad cases where the filmmakers underestimated the ability of their audience to follow along and be intuitive to the direction of the plot. It’s necessary to respect your audience to go where you’re headed rather than lead them by the nose to where you want them to be. The former makes for a satisfied, grateful audience. The other just pisses ’em off.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweet and touching performances by Landau and Burstyn. Nice twist.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit predictable in places and the twist, which is a good one, is telegraphed a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES: While there are a few mildly bad words here and there, mostly it is the adult themes of aging and romance that might be too much for younger kids to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was mostly filmed in Nebraska and the score written by members of the acclaimed Omaha indie rock group Bright Eyes.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are interviews with the four main cast members.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $233,083 on an unreported production budget; it is unlikely the movie made much if any profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Away From Her

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Notting Hill

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Frankenweenie


Frankenweenie

Good doggie!

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchatta Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao, Tom Kenny, Christopher Lee, Frank Welker, Dee Bradley Baker. Directed by Tim Burton

 

The bond between a boy and his dog is something that ranks right up there with the closest relationships that we know of. Lonely boys, in particular, seem to become more attached to their canine companions. It is that feeling of unconditional love that is reciprocated; the dog can do no wrong, whether they bark at passing cars or leave an indiscretion on the living room carpet. These same boys as men will rarely love anyone or anything as much as they love their childhood dog.

Victor Frankenstein (Tahan) lives in the quiet suburban neighborhood of New Holland with his parents (O’Hara, Short). He is a smart kid, a science whiz who is something of a loner. He doesn’t have friends and doesn’t want any. In fact, he doesn’t need any – he has Sparky (Welker), an affectionate dog of indeterminate breed. Sparky goes everywhere with him, although he sometimes annoys the neighbor, the Mayor (Short again) by tearing up the flowers and marking the territory (ahem).

The mayor’s niece – Elsa (Ryder) is staying with her uncle, along with her poodle Persephone (Baker). She and Victor are in science class together at school, being taught by the somewhat haughty Mr. Rzykruski (Landau), a sinister looking soul but one who loves science with a passion. Along with Victor and Elsa are Edgar (Shaffer), an unlovely hunchback who can’t keep a secret; Bob (Capron) a rotund young boy with an easy-going nature and an insatiable appetite and Toshiaki (Liao), an Asian boy with ambitions of winning the science fair that go well on the road to obsession.

Tragedy strikes however when Sparky is killed. Victor is inconsolable, despite his mom and dad’s best efforts to cheer him up. He misses his dog terribly – his only companion. Victor watches a film that he made with his dog over and over again, unable to let go. Then, a lecture by Mr. Rzykruski that involved stimulating a dead frog’s muscle with an electric charge suddenly turns a light on in Victor’s brain. He would bring Sparky back to life.

He digs up his beloved dog from the local pet cemetery and turns his attic into a lab using whatever he can scrounge from around the house. There are lightning storms in New Holland regularly and that very night he uses one to revivify Sparky, whom he’s had to patch together with sewing thread. Still, the dog seems no worse for the wear (with an occasional ear or tail being thrown off when he gets excited) but Victor realizes most people will fear what he’s done and certainly nobody will understand it. Sparky needs to remain hidden but there’s not much chance a dog as rambunctious as Sparky will remain cooped up in an attic for long.

This is more or less an “old home week” kind of project for Burton. Way back in 1984 he did a “Frankenweenie” short which this comes from, albeit far more involved and expanded upon both from a cinematic and story standpoint. This is stop-motion animation just like The Corpse Bride was and has a similar spindly pipe cleaner leg oversized head saucer eyes kind of look to it, kind of like a gringo Day of the Dead look.

SCTV vets Short and O’Hara work nicely together as the parents while Tahan, whose Victor resembles Burton facially (and is likely meant to be his surrogate) doesn’t overplay, which sometimes happens in animated features. Landau does an excellent job with the science teacher who looks like a kind of cadaverous Vincent Price. The Eastern European accent also brings Bela Lugosi to mind.

There is a definite love letter to classic horror films here (as mentioned below), with appearances by Frankenstein, Dracula, Ghiderah and the Mummy. There is also a good deal of heart here, particularly when it comes to a boy’s devotion to his dog. I cried twice during the movie (no points if you can guess when) which takes some doing. There is also a certain amount of quirkiness that you would come to expect with a Tim Burton movie – his trademark, I’d say. It’s different from indie quirkiness in that it has a more ’50s suburban feel as interpreted by Roger Corman.

While the movie seems to have a difficult time deciding what era it’s in (at one point there are references to home computers but the look and feel is definitely more 1950s Americana), there is no doubt that this is a movie that knows its own roots and sticks to them. I hadn’t expected much from Frankenweenie after Burton’s misfire with Dark Shadows earlier this year but I should have known better. This is certainly one of his best movies in the last 10 years.

REASONS TO GO: Hits some powerful emotions. A return to form for Burton after his last misstep.

REASONS TO STAY: A little mannered in places. Some era confusion.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that might be a tad scary for younger tots. The theme of losing a beloved pet might also be too much for sensitive kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Tim Burton-directed movie not to feature Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter since 1996.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The reviews have been strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nightmare Before Christmas

CLASSIC HORROR LOVERS: There are homages throughout the film to various classic horror films and genres from the obvious Frankenstein to Vincent Price, the Toho giant lizard films, gothic Hammer horror and Gremlins among others.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Taken 2

City of Ember


City of Ember

Bill Murray loves a kidder and he's got a whole town square full of them.

(20th Century Fox) Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Martin Landau, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Toby Jones, Mary Kay Place. Directed by Gil Kenan

A city can be a place full of wonder and it’s only natural that a young person that comes of age will want to be a part of it in one way or another. However, cities can hide the most sinister of secrets and the older a city becomes, the more likelihood of skeletons hiding in urban closets.

Lina Mayfleet (Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Treadaway) have both come of age and are eagerly awaiting Assignment Day in the city of Ember, a darkened city lit by overhead lamps. Doon hopes for a job where he can make a difference in the city’s infrastructure whereas Lina is hoping for a slot in the Messengers. Of course, neither one gets what they want – Doon gets the Messenger slot and Lina is slotted to work a job in the pipes as a kind of plumber. However, the two swap jobs and attain a reasonable sort of happiness.

There is reason for concern though. The city is prone to blackouts that are happening with greater frequency and for longer periods. There are shortages of food and resources, and rationing is the word of the day. The appearance of giant moths, beetles, bees and moles are becoming more frequent and more dangerous. The city’s technology is breaking down with more and more machines simply failing to work.

The secret of Ember is that it is located deep underground. The Builders of Ember located it there after an unnamed catastrophe made life on the surface of Earth impossible. They also built a metal box with a timer set for 200 years, after which the box would open. The box is entrusted to the Mayor of Ember with strict instructions of Do Not Open until Christmas…200 years from now. The box is passed from Mayor to Mayor who keep the secret of the box’s existence from the people of Ember, until with 47 years to go a Mayor unexpectedly dies without passing the secret of the box to his successor. As a result, the box is put into storage, forgotten and ignored so when the box clicks down to zero, nobody notices.

Fortunately, it is locked in the home of Lina Mayfleet who discovers it. Meanwhile, Doon is discovering to his shock that the great machines that are keeping Ember alive are failing and nobody knows how to fix them. When the two of them go to the current Mayor (Murray) with their suspicions, all Hades breaks loose. It turns out that the Mayor is not only fully aware of the situation but is making precautions for his own survival at the expense of the citizens of Ember. The corrupt Mayor sends the troops out after the plucky kids, who have worked out that the box contains instructions on how to leave Ember and return to the surface, but can they escape their dying city before it takes them with it?

This is based on the first of a quartet of novels by Jeanne Duprau for young adults. This is director Gil Kenan’s second feature (his first was the marvelous animated feature Monster House) and he makes it visually arresting. The city of Ember itself is a rabbit warren, but it is the magnificent machines below the surface that make the grandest impression. This is obviously a decaying society, with lamps that fall from the sky, exposed wiring everywhere and a general air that everything is held together with duct tape and jury rigging. It looks like a city on the edge of falling apart.

The story is something of a parallel, with a 200 year old place grappling with a failing energy supply and environmental disasters. The old guard of the place is keeping the extent of the danger hidden from the citizenry who go about their lives (for the most part) like nothing is wrong, but the young people have a sense that they need to act and act soon. Sound like anywhere you know?

Ronan, who has already received an Oscar nomination in her young but brilliant career (for Atonement) has assembled an impressive body of work for someone so young, and does a wonderful job here, as does Treadaway. Far from being the smug, smart-assed teens we often see in the movies, they are smart, brave and real. They are onscreen for the bulk of the film and it is essential that the audience not only relate to them but like them, and I did.

This is quite a quality movie that took a critical lashing, another instance in which I think most of the critics simply blew it. The movie also crashed and burned at the box office, which is sad – I would have liked to have seen the sequels, but it is unlikely they will ever be made. Still, take comfort in that this is a rare instance of a kid’s movie that doesn’t talk down to its target audience, that treats them as intelligent, thinking people and appeals to their sense of wonder rather than their most base instincts. One City of Ember is worth a hundred G-Forces.

WHY RENT THIS: Smarter fare than most kid’s movies, with amazing set design.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing seemed a bit rushed, particularly towards the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of jeopardy and peril, and the giant moles and moths might frighten smaller tykes; otherwise, this is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The set for the city of Ember was built in the paint hall in a former shipyard in Belfast, in the city’s Titanic Quarter near where the RMS Titanic was built.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Yes Men Fix the World

9


 

9 battles the terrifying Fabrication Machine in a bleak post-apocalyptic world.

9 battles the terrifying Fabrication Machine in a bleak post-apocalyptic world.

(Focus) Starring the voices of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover, Alan Oppenheimer, Fred Tatasciore, Tom Kane, Helen Wilson. Directed by Shane Acker

Is our humanity found in the skin and bones we inhabit, or something else which resides within? And, once those skin and bones are gone, what becomes of humanity?

The future is a bleak place. Humankind is gone, wiped out by machines of their own making. The world is empty, devoid of any living thing, a monument to the hubris of our kind.

And yet, life perseveres. A rag doll awakens in a laboratory, ocular goggles blinking owlishly at a world he can’t understand. He has no name, only a number painstakingly painted on his back; the number 9 (Wood). As he gazes quizzically at the world around him, he notices movement; a doll, much like himself. Curious (and voiceless), he runs out into the ruined streets, past the body of an elderly human man.

The other rag doll sees the fear in 9 and gently tells him “I’m a friend.” He finds a speaker so that 9 might have voice. He is 2 (Landau), a wise rag doll out looking for an artifact, one that 9 happens to have with him. 2’s joy at finding the artifact is short-lived as they are attacked by the Beast, a cat-like machine that takes 2 and the artifact with it. 9 runs away and is found by 5 (Reilly) who had been looking for 2.

5 brings 9 to the Sanctuary, where their pope-like leader 1 (Plummer) interrogates 9 before accepting him into their small band, which includes the prophet-like 6 (Glover) and the large, bullying 8 (Tatasciore). 9, however, can’t accept just leaving 2 to his fate and convinces 5 to go with him on a rescue mission.

They go to an abandoned factory where the Beast has locked 2 in a birdcage. The Beast is occupied with the artift, allowing 9 and 5 to rescue 2, but the Beast attacks. They are saved by 7 (Connelly), a rebellious rag doll who had left the Sanctuary to fight back against the Beast. Unfortunately, 9 inadvertently awakens something far more dangerous than the Beast and must convince the remaining rag dolls that they must fight together against the thing that wants them destroyed.

This is based on a short film Acker directed several years ago that made the film festival circuit (Da Queen and I first encountered it at the Florida Film Festival and were extremely impressed). The short was silent and extremely well-made. So, too, is this well-animated but the story is a little less focused. This seems more like an action movie done as animated CGI, whereas the Short was something new entirely.

The imagery is definitely the reason to go see this. The ruined world is one of newsreels, vaguely Eastern European architecture and an almost steampunk sensibility, science fiction that shows the past as future. The mechanized creatures are terrifying, so much so that I wouldn’t recommend small children go and see this. The rag dolls have distinct personalities, from the fearful 1 to the inquisitive 9. Each seems to have a specific purpose, although it isn’t clear whether that was intentional or not. That is one of the maddening elements of the story.

I don’t mind a story that requires viewers to connect the dots – I encourage it as I think sometimes our intellect needs pleasing as well as our sense of wonder. However, if you’re going to do that, you do need to provide dots for us to connect. The feature is only 79 minutes long – barely over an hour – and I thought it could have used another 10-15 minutes to give a bit more backstory, particularly in regards to the Scientist (Oppenheimer) and his intentions.

I liked the movie enough to recommend it, especially due to the vocal performances which are wonderful, and the visuals which are breathtaking. As bleak as the world of 9 is, it is still a world worth exploring. I just would have wished that Acker and producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) would have given us more to explore.

REASONS TO GO: Acker has created a breathtaking visual world that is worth exploring. The voice actors give each doll a distinct personality.

REASONS TO STAY: It seems like whole parts of the story are missing, particularly the backstory of the Scientist.

FAMILY VALUES: Terrifying mechanical monsters make this a no-no for small children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sanctuary that 1 leads the characters to is based on the Cathedral of Notre Dame, famously the sanctuary of the Hunchback.

HOME OR THEATER: I would see it in a theater just for the experience of the visuals.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Standard Operating Procedure