Thursday, March 31, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Mar. 18-31

3:10 to Yuma (2007) ****
Director: James Mangold
Writers: Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, Elmore Leonard (short story)
Starring: Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Ben Foster, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Alan Tudyk, Peter Fonda, Kevin Durand, Gretchen Mol

This is the 3rd or 4th time I’ve seen the recent remake of “3:10 to Yuma”, this time taking it in with the man who developed my love of westerns, my father. I had read much about the movie since I first saw it in theaters. I had read about the homosexual overtones to the relationship between Ben Foster’s Charlie Prince character and Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade. I certainly can’t dispute them, however, to some degree I just want a good western to be a good western.

So my father turns to me after Charlie Prince’s first appearance and says, “Now, he’s gay, right?”  Not really wanting to go into that with my dad, I said, “Well, that’s one way his character can be interpreted.” As the movie churned on, I couldn’t get Charlie Prince’s role in the movie out of my head. Certainly, he could be gay. He loves Ben Wade. But is it because he’s gay, or is their relationship more like the way a mangy cur might love a person with the fortitude to pick it up off the street? It’s probably for both reasons.

Prince’s role in the gang is a little more complex than his simply being in love with Wade. He’s a leader to the men as well, even when Wade is around. While he takes control of the gang after Wade’s capture, he also takes care of Wade before he’s captured. He’s like the mother of the family to Wade’s strict father figure. When the situation calls for it, he executes dad’s rule. He also cautions the father about over stepping his bounds. There’s a sense when Wade invites a whore to join him in Mexico, it’s to avoid having to deal with the coddling Prince. That’ll let him know the marriage is over.

Anyway, while it’s interesting to look at the function of characters when they’re used in an untraditional way, it can be distracting in a western that is so good on so many other levels. However, it speaks to the strength of this western, which eschews the two dimensional characterizations that led to the once popular cinema genre’s demise.

Read my original review here.

You Only Live Twice (1967) ***
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Writer: Roald Dahl
Starring: Sean Connery, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, Tetsurô Tanba, Teru Shimada, Karin Dor, Donald Pleasence, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, Charles Gray

Watching the older Bond films is always a precarious balance between nostalgic admiration and cringe inducing filmmaking practices that have since gone out of date. In “You Only Live Twice” the notion that any white person, let alone Sean Connery, might actually pass for Asian is absurd. Also the little compact helicopter sequence might’ve seemed impressive at the time, but is a silly contrivance today.

What works in this fairly minor Bond film are the signature aspects of the series. Bond’s womanizing, the striking villain’s lair set by production designer Ken Adams, and Bond’s blasé approach to his job as an international spy and assassin make this rather typical Bond tale as enjoyable as any in the pantheon of the Bond legacy. This particular Bond is significant in that it marks the first time ever in the series that Bond’s arch nemesis Blofeld’s face is seen. The casting of Donald Pleasence in the iconic role is a good choice and the striking scar across his right eye makes his visual impact stronger than his actual role in the story.

Interesting fact: Actor Charles Gray, who played Bond’s first contact, Henderson, in this film, would later be cast as Blofeld in Connery’s eventual return to the series four years later in “Diamonds Are Forever”. His drastically different appearance from Pleasance and the next film’s Blofeld, Telly Savalis, is explained in the opening sequence of “Diamonds” where Bond appears to finally defeat his nemesis.

Vernon, Florida (1981) ***½
Director: Errol Morris   
Starring: Albert Bitterling, Roscoe Collins, George Harris, Joe Payne, Howard Pettis

Errol Morris’s second film takes its queue from his first. The basic idea is to film a bunch of eccentric thinkers to prattle on about their “deepest” thoughts and see what ridiculous things they say. The great thing about Morris’s approach is that he never judges his subjects. Judgment is left up to the audience. These are people being earnest and honest. They don’t necessarily hear what is coming out of their mouths. The guy talking about brains is priceless. The turkey hunter speaks so sincerely about the “sport” of turkey hunting, listening to the turkeys and not seeing them. I wonder if Morris filmed more of the actual hunting or captured a turkey or two on film and chose not to show them to make his subject seem a little more absurd, but I don’t think so.

A Hell of a Note (1977) ***½
Director/Writer: Eagle Pennell
Starring: Lou Perryman, Sonny Davis

Ever since I watched Eagle Pennell’s “The Whole Shootin’ Match” a couple of weeks ago, the cinematic language of his movie has haunted me. His images and characters are so raw and direct; I just had to return to his work. “A Hell of a Note” is the short film that preceded “Shootin’ Match”. Its story isn’t as deep as the latter film, but it proves Pennell is a dedicated storyteller, rather than just a documentarian.

The story follows a couple of friends trying to escape the mundane life of working for a living by drinking for a life. It stars Lou Perryman and Sonny Davis, the same cohorts as “Shootin’ Match”, as its central figures, who find that a life of escape can end with little fulfillment. Perryman’s pleas to his friend in the film’s final moments tell of the futility that follows all of us if we let it. 

Pennell did not make many movies. Many of them are difficult to come by, but they are well worth the search. I intend to seek them all out.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind  (1977) ****
Director/Writer: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, François Truffaut

I miss the days when Steven Spielberg wrote scripts too. His “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” must’ve saved him thousands in psychiatrist bills. I mean what better way to write off your childhood trauma of a broken family by writing a movie where dad leaves his family because he’s been called to be a guest on an alien spacecraft. You can hardly blame him for being irresponsible and acting like a madman and generally making a mess of his life and those of his wife and family if that’s the reason why, can you?

On top of that Spielberg gets to throw in all of his childhood fantasies and obsessions into the mix. There’s his obsession with World War II airplanes, his fantasies of aliens, a globetrotting problem solver who doesn’t even speak English and also made some of Spielberg’s favorite films that also worked out childhood issues, music plays an important role, and Spielberg really got a chance to develop his unique use of light and shadows. Did you notice how Truffaut actually looks a lot like Spielberg? It’s no surprise that he’s also the facilitator of all the action that takes place in the movie.

A few years ago I watched the Special Edition with a friend and one of his teenage kids. His boy told me that “Close Encounters” was the oldest movie he’d ever seen. How sad for him and me.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Paul / *** (R)

Graeme Willy: Simon Pegg
Clive Gollings: Nick Frost
Ruth Buggs: Kristen Wiig
Agent Zoil: Jason Bateman
Haggard: Bill Hader
O’Reilly: Joe Lo Truglio
Moses Buggs: John Carroll Lynch
Tara Walton: Blythe Danner
The Big Guy: Sigourney Weaver

And the voice of:
Paul: Seth Rogen

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Greg Mottola. Written by Nick Frost & Simon Pegg. Running time: 104 min. Rated R (for language including sexual references, and some drug use).

British writers and performers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have carved out a pretty good career for themselves lampooning popular film genres. Their smart humor first appeared on British television with their space adventure show “Spaced”. Then they wrote and starred in two well-loved feature film spoofs, the zombie flick “Shaun of the Dead” and the buddy cop movie “Hot Fuzz”. The duo is back again spoofing the sci-fi genre, this time taking aim at America’s obsession with alien contact in the movie “Paul”.

The Paul of the title is an alien who crash-landed in the American Midwest in 1947, the time period that most alien contact in America pop culture can be traced back to. Pegg and Frost play a couple of British sci-fi writers on their first trek to San Diego’s ComiCon, who decide to follow it up with a tour of America’s most famous UFO sights.

The interesting thing about “Paul” is that it doesn’t really play like a spoof of the genre. It has all the earmarks by including men in black, hotheaded rednecks, bible thumpers preaching against anything not covered in the bible, car chases, conspiracies… oh, and an alien trying to get home. Yet, it feels more like a conversation that you might have with a bunch of stoner buddies over a couple of spliffs. It’s a good conversation. It’s funny. But, it seems held together by that satisfied consciousness glaze of a good high—from my basic understanding of such things—more so than by its cinematic elements.

Frost and Pegg are sci-fi author Clive Gollings and illustrator Graeme Willy respectively. Experiencing ComiCon is a lifelong dream come true for them. They’ve published one novel that was fairly successful by pulp sci-fi standards and are having trouble finishing their follow up. This presents two good recurring jokes in the film. The first is that they get the opportunity to show their book to their idol, a sci-fi writer named Adam Shadowchild, played in a brilliant cameo by Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”). Whenever they meet anyone else throughout the course of the movie they say with pride that they met Shadowchild, to which the universal response is “Who?” The second is that they show their new novel to everyone. The cover boasts a three-breasted alien, which elicits the equally universal response “Awesome!” from men and aliens alike.

The two grown geeks encounter the alien, Paul, while on the run from a couple of rednecks that think they’re gay—another running gag. Paul escaped from the government facility where’s he’s been imprisoned since ’47. Jason Bateman (“Juno”) is FBI Special Agent Lorenzo Zoil. Say it out loud. He is hot on Paul’s trail under the direction of The Big Gun. The Big Gun’s identity is presented as if it’s supposed to be a surprise, but it’s obvious from the first moment you hear her voice over Zoil’s radio that it is the frequent sci-fi star Sigourney Weaver of such films as “Alien”, “Ghostbusters”, and “Avatar”.

Zoil enlists the help of two rookie agents, Haggard (SNL’s Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio, “Role Models”), who are more into the idea of being FBI agents than they are actually plausible as them. The purpose of these characters seems to be to add the inherent action and tension elements that might otherwise be missing from this spoof if left to its more laid back nature. O’Reilly is the standard buffoon of the plot who does things like looking straight at Paul in a comic book shop, believing him to be a fake alien. Haggard is more of the wannabe agent, who delivers lines like Clint Eastwood might and eventually sends everyone’s schemes off the rails with his kamikaze approach to completing the mission.

Haggard and O’Reilly also offer some slapstick relief to the more dialog driven comedy of the movie. I believe their introduction is the first time I’ve ever seen FBI field agents playing hide and seek together literally in the field. O’Reilly is the only person Clive and Graeme meet who know their sci-fi idol by name. He also wonders why the alien on their book’s cover doesn’t have four breasts, to which everyone reacts in disgust. I mean really, are we supposed to be turned on by a cow?

Along the way, Clive and Graeme also pick up Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig, “MacGruber”), a one-eyed born again Christian whom Graeme takes a liking to.  As a bible thumper, she believes Paul is a devil rather than an alien until he enlightens her and heals her other eye. This rocks the foundation of Ruth’s beliefs and soon she’s experimenting with notions she once thought would send her straight to hell, such as swearing. Delivered with Wiig’s perfection in comedic timing and intonation, the results are quite hilarious, and I imagine will provide some great outtakes on the DVD.

But, all this is secondary to the true nature of the movie, which is to ridicule all the clichéd notions of alien science fiction in America by referencing and outright stealing lines from every popular Hollywood science fiction movie of the past four decades. Half the lines in the script are lifted from one sci-fi flick or another. There are notable references from “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, “Aliens”, “The Terminator”, “The X-Files” and dozens of other classic sci-fi movies and television shows in recent memory. In fact, one flashback depicts Paul giving Steven Spielberg (who provided his own voice) advice on how to make “E.T.”. I’m sure it’s entirely non-coincidental that Paul is sitting in a warehouse that looks remarkably like the Area 51 warehouse depicted in Spielberg’s own “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”. Plus, there’s one other major Spielberg reference in the film that I won’t point out, because if I have to, then you really won’t understand this movie.

I also don’t think it’s any mistake that Pegg and Frost tapped Greg Mottola to direct and Seth Rogen to voice the alien. Both Mottola and Rogen have had great success with their stoner-themed movies. Rogen rose to fame playing stoners in “Freaks and Geeks”, “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express”, while Mottola directed Rogen’s script “Superbad” and the excellent stoner comedy “Adventureland”. Paul spends much of the movie toking up, and like many a stoner before him he collects converts along the way. I’m also of the belief that if you were to watch this movie with someone who regularly partook of the Chronic, you would get a running commentary on all of the film’s references to other movies, which would be an invaluable supplement.

“Paul” is not as good as Frost’s and Pegg’s other two movie scripts. That’s mostly because it’s not really concerned with getting to where it’s going. Like it’s titular character, it’s content to be what it is. It’s unperturbed despite its sci-fi suspense and action roots. It’s much more about the journey than the destination. That’s not all that bad a notion, if you’re in the right mindset. Not that I’m saying you should light one up. I’m just saying.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mars Needs Moms / ** (PG)

Featuring motion capture and vocal performances by:

Milo: Seth Green (motion capture), Seth Dursky (voice)
Gribble: Dan Fogler
Ki: Elisabeth Harnois
Mom: Joan Cusack
Supervisor: Mindy Sterling
Wingnut: Kevin Cahoon
Dad: Tom Everett Scott

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Simon Wells. Written by Simon Wells & Wendy Wells. Based on the children’s book by Berkeley Breathed. Running time: 88 min. Rated PG (for sci-fi action and peril).

Whenever a movie comes out that’s based on a book, you inevitably hear about how the book was better. This is generally because in order to fit a novel into the two-hour running time of a feature-length movie, much of the details of the story must be cut. When it comes to children’s books, there usually isn’t enough material to cover 90 minutes of running time. A couple years ago the expansion of the children’s book “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” resulted in an irreverent and visually stunning film that didn’t seem to share much in common with the book of the same name. Now, comes “Mars Needs Moms”, another children’s book that needed to add an entire story to fit it into a feature-length film. The results this time are less imaginative and visually dull compared to the book.

I also come to this movie with the advantage of having heard the audio book version, performed by virtuoso voice artist Fred Berman. The fact that Disney did not employ Berman’s vocal styling was a disappointment to me, but those they did assemble do their best. Director Simon Wells (“The Time Machine”) uses the same performance motion capture technique used by Robert Zemeckis in “The Polar Express” and the most recent version of “A Christmas Carol”, where an actor performs all the action of the part and computers assign CGI animation based on that performance. Both the physical and vocal performances provided by the actors are energetic and affecting.

The basic story of both the book and the film is centered on a boy named Milo (the combined physical performance of Seth Green of “Old Dogs” and vocal performance of Seth Dursky), who doesn’t appreciate his mother (Joan Cusack, “Toy Story 3”), all the chores she makes him do, and most especially the fact that she makes him eat broccoli. He realizes how much he loves her when one night Martians kidnap her. They take her to Mars to help mother their children. Milo stows away in their space ship to save her.

The movie adds a couple of subplots to that story that make up the majority of the film’s action. Gribble (Dan Fogler, “Kung Fu Panda”) is another human trapped on Mars who helps Milo escape the Martians, but wants Milo to stay with him. There is also a Martian named Ki (Elizabeth Harnois, “Miami Medical”) who rebels against the strict rule of the Martian Supervisor (Mindy Sterling, “Austin Powers” series) and also helps Milo.

Where the movie falls flat is in its design. The book has very stylized illustrations by the book’s author, Berkley Breathed. Breathed is best known for his cartoon strip “Bloom County”. His characters are visually well-defined, floppy and full of weight. The colors he uses in the book are bright and span the spectrum. His Martians are fat and goofy, and sometimes spindly and freaky. None of these words can be used to describe the designs found in the movie. The Martians are all too typical, a basic humanoid form with some slightly exaggerated features, big eyes, and flat noses. That could describe countless aliens from an endless list of movies. Why wouldn’t they use Breathed’s designs?

As for the rest of the production design, it feels lifeless compared to most CGI animated fare these days. Too many grays, blues and darker hues, not enough bright and bubbly colors. The humans are almost too realistically rendered for this material, which is quite fantastical. They all look just like the actors performing them. It’s as if the filmmakers got so caught up in the motion capture concept that it never occurred to anyone to use their imagination.

Mars is bleak and featureless. The Martians live underground in a vast future city that shows how far into the Mars rock these aliens are willing to dig but little about how they live. There’s a vast sea of garbage beneath the city where all the unwanted beings are deposited along with the trash. This brings to mind the environmental concerns we grapple with on Earth, but nothing is ever said about this garbage pit. Surely some sort of surface dwelling that the Martians had somehow hidden from Earth’s detection could’ve provided a more interesting landscape for the events of this movie.

In the story’s final moments the movie begins to redeem its lack of imagination with some genuine emotions between Milo and his mom. The film contains a great message about the strength of the family unit and how too much bureaucracy can dull the spirit and hide what’s best for the greater good. By the end of the film this message has become the driving force, but with the gloomy design of the picture, its delivery feels heavy and forced.

I cannot fathom why Wells and his design team would abandon the beautiful imagery created by Breathed for his original book. The story has the potential to be at once fun, socially critical, and emotionally powerful. Instead, it feels like a paint-by-numbers coloring book. You can see a good story, but you’re powerless to change its drab palate and unimaginative artwork.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Mar. 11-17

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) ****
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Starring: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Robert McNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote

When Roger Ebert wrote about “E.T.” for his Great Movies series, he described showing it to his grandchildren, one of whom was quite young at the time, maybe 2 or 3. He claims that the film enthralled even the younger child, who never looked away from the screen for the entire running time.

Although I admired his point, I doubted the truth of it, having showed many movies to my children as they’ve grown. If it doesn’t have fighting, my youngest boy doesn’t want to see it. Although, I did get him to sit still for almost all of “The Black Stallion”. He, of course, complained about the lack of fighting anyway.

Now, I have three children. My 3-year-old adopted Chinese daughter poses my biggest challenge yet in training a cineaste during her formative years. She doesn’t have much language yet, and has showed little or no interest in the wall we like to stare at so often at night. The bright colors and amplified sound don’t pull her attention, even with Kai Lan on it. But, to my surprise, “E.T.” turned out to be the first thing on our TV that she’s even noticed. I believe Ebert’s words now.

Needless to say, the boys were totally enveloped by the movie. The younger boy never even mentioned fighting, although he did want to know if the man with the keys on his belt was there to kill E.T. We told him to just watch the movie and he’d find out. Maire could only watch the amazement on the boys’ faces when her eyes weren’t glued to the screen. We sat and ate pizza (and later popcorn) and our children got to experience a momentous experience from our own childhoods.

D-Tour: A Tenacious Documentary (2008) ***
Director: Jeremy Konner
Starring: Jack Black, Kyle Gass

I am an unmitigated Tenacious D fan. I can’t explain it to people who don’t understand, but the D are like the nerd gods of rock, the gods that all of us who wanted to be rock stars might actually have had the chance of being; if we had the help of Jack Black, that is. “D-Tour” follows the D on the promotional tour for their second album and subsequent release of their feature-length movie. It is not some typical self-worshiping “promotumentary,” however, as it truly documents the trials of that tour and the failure of their dream movie project at the box office. It contains the D’s energy and their love of rock and crude humor, but it also contains all the setbacks. The two most noteworthy points in the film are Black’s utter shock at the failure of the film, which didn’t even perform in the top ten at the box office on its opening weekend; the other is a meltdown by Black’s bandmate Kyle Gass at a taping of the David Letterman show. The band was invited to perform; yet only Black was invited for an interview. They threaten to walk if Gass isn’t allowed on the couch as well.  While it’s usually kickass, sometimes it sucks to be the D.

In Between Days (2006) ***½
Director: So Yong Kim
Writers: So Yong Kim, Bradley Rust Gray
Starring: Jiseon Kim, Taegu Andy Kang

Everything about adult life is more complicated than teenage life. If we only knew then how well we had it… But there is one thing about being a teenager that I don’t miss—relationships. Oh, they were so much more complicated. The indie film “In Between Days” follows a romance that never really happens. It takes place in a northern American city; but you might not realize it, since so much of the dialogue is in the Korean language.

Aimie is a teenager who feels isolated and alone in the wintery city. She lives with her mother, and although we hear her talking to her father, he’s out of the picture. By the end of the film we realize her conversations with her father are only what she wishes to say. It seems the only light she can find in her world is the friendship she shares with Tran. She wishes it to be more, and perhaps he does as well, but ah… their assumptions and difference persist in getting in the way. Such is the plight of teenage love.

Pom Poko (1994) **½
Director: Isao Takahata
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki (idea), Isao Takahata
Starring: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Tress MacNeille, Clancy Brown, John Di Maggio, Jillian Bowen, Marc Donato, Kevin Michael Richardson, J.K. Simmons, Wally Kurth, Jess Harnell, Maurice Lamarche, Brian Posehn, Olivia D’Abo

“Pom Poko” is the type of movie I don’t want to say anything negative about. It comes from the wonderfully inventive Japanese animation studio Ghibli, run by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Hayao Myazaki. “Pom Poko” is based on an idea of Miyazaki’s, but written and directed by one of his partners. It embodies the best notions of the studio, smart storylines, interesting characters, a-typical animal protagonists, and combines both human and environmental messages. It’s a blend of hand drawn animation styles. The raccoon heroes are drawn at times realistically, like the rabbits in “Watership Down”, at other times in traditional anime style, with large expressive eyes and mouths, and also in a minimalistic style when they are overcome by their emotions. Parts of the story are presented like a documentary, parts in first person narrative, and parts in third person. There are an abundance of colorful characters and the raccoons are depicted as creatures that have trouble committing to anything but partying. The film goes off on tangents, which is attractive at first. Unfortunately, the movie runs far longer than it should, and eventually the tangents become tiresome. I can’t help but think under Miyazaki’s direction the movie would’ve been sharper and more focused, depicting the raccoons’ struggle against the encroachment man rather than reflecting it.

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) ***
Director: Chas F. Reisner
Writer: Carl Harbaugh
Starring: Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Tom McGuire, Marion Byron, Tom Lewis

I’ve seen a few Buster Keaton films at this point and there does seem to be something to the debate as to which was the best silent film comedian, Keaton or Chaplin. While Chaplin is often moving, there’s something pure and innocent about Keaton’s comedy. “Steamboat Bill Jr.” is the simplest of the Keaton films I’ve seen, relying mostly on sight gags that have become standards, like the dance he does for the baby around a corner that places the baby out of sight from Bill’s father who just observes his son dancing for no reason. I liked how Keaton’s character loves his father no matter what. Although, his father rejects him at first, the fact that his father always stands up for him gets a laugh out of me every time. This is not one of those silent films that will convert anybody who believes silents are some sort of lesser format, but it’s a good jumping on point for someone looking into the comedy stylings of Keaton. If you want to sell someone on the magic of the silents, show them Keaton’s “The General”.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles / **½ (PG-13)

SSgt. Michael Nantz: Aaron Eckhart
TSgt. Elena Santos: Michelle Rodriguez
2nd Lt. William Martinez: Ramon Rodriguez
Michele: Bridget Moynahan
Pfc. Shaun Lenihan: Noel Fisher
Cpl. Kevin Harris: Ne-Yo
Corpsman Jibril Adukwu: Adetokumboh M’Cormack
Cpl. Jason Lockett: Cory Hardrict
Cpl. Nick Stavrou: Gino Anthony Pesi
Joe Rincon: Michael Peña

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Written by Chris Bertolini. Running time: 116 min. Rated PG-13 (for sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction, and for language).

What would happen if you took a realistic war film, like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down”, and applied the filmmaking and story telling philosophies from that movie to the plotline of an alien invasion movie, like “Independence Day”? You would get Jonathan Liebesman’s “Battle: Los Angeles”. Liebesman’s approach to the material is sometimes sloppy, but the notion of depicting an alien invasion from a military point of view makes logical sense and provides a new perspective on the invasion subgenre of sci-fi.

The first thirty minutes of the movie are the most tedious as Liebesman and his screenwriter, Chris Bertolini (“The General’s Daughter”) take us through the typical disaster flick character introductions, military style. We meet a ridiculous number of people in a matter of minutes, each in their own defining scenette that’s supposed to give us all the information we need about each of them. Liebesman tries to make the process easier by posting titles cards announcing each character’s rank, first initial and last name. But there are so many of them, all looking the same in their uniforms and crew cuts that we cannot discern one from the other by the time we actually get to the story. Further hindering these introductions is the use of steady camera work that gives us shaky images, even when there isn’t a battle going on.

Once the alien invasion begins, however, it all becomes quite intense and interesting. The filmmakers curiously decided to give us our hero unit’s approach to the battle of the title during the opening credits, before flashing back to character intros. In the immediate lead up to where we came in, we get what appears to be a very likely portrayal of how such an event might go down. The initial news reports suggest a meteor shower. Then the Marines are deployed to provide some sort of support. The infantry unit we follow will learn the same things the audience does as we learn it. So the news reports shift to some sort of worldwide invasion, as these “meteors” seem to be landing at strategic cities all over the world. And, they don’t appear to be space rocks any more.

The unit’s second in command is Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart, “The Dark Knight”), a twenty-year veteran who has just applied for retirement. He’s a war hero, but his last combat mission had a sketchy resolution with Nantz emerging as the sole survivor of his unit. His new unit questions their safety under his command. With his more complex background, Nantz provides the only emotional entry in the movie. Eckhart is the right choice for this, displaying the external toughness necessary to carry his men through their ordeal, but with enough acting chops to suggest much more underneath.

However, the commander of the unit is 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Martinez, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”). I feared the Martinez character would fall into the typical military leadership role of being clueless during a real combat situation. The script plays with this notion. He’s just out of OCS training, graduated top of his class. He wants a mission real bad, and he does have trouble adjusting once the bullets and lasers start flying. In the end he doesn’t turn out to be totally clueless or reckless, as a 2nd Lieutenant is typically portrayed in movies. That was a bit of a relief, but I’d hoped for a more realistic set up of the character.

I admired the filmmakers’ attempts to look at this plot entirely from a military standpoint. In doing so, many of the typical alien invasion clichés are avoided. You don’t get the pro-alien characters who are given no good reason to trust the visitors. You don’t get the big effects sequences where all the world’s best known landmarks are destroyed, because every one knows the most important place to take out first in an alien invasion is the Eifel Tower. I think we are given a glimpse or two of the Santa Monica pier, but there’s no undue attention given it by either filmmakers or aliens.

I also liked that they didn’t dumb down the military angle to the audience. The dialogue almost requires a military interpreter to translate it into layman’s terms; yet no one ever asks for that since they’re all soldiers. The alien attack is described in military terms as textbook strategy. It’s a tactical ambush. There’re no staged peaceful meetings, no lingering questions about the aliens’ intentions. They are here to wipe us out and we must use our military prowess to defend ourselves and defeat them. Simple.

There is a sequence that illustrates the directness of the approach. The Marine unit is pinned down in a police station. They find a wounded alien and pull it inside to determine just how to kill it. The question of how to kill the alien invaders is often a mystery of this type of film, but they’re usually thinking on the grand scale of things. How do we wipe them out? Here it’s a much more visceral and survival based discovery for the soldiers. They start tearing the creature open to find vital organs. They stab each one looking for where to place the kill shot. Without this information they won’t be able to leave the building, let alone win the war.

I find myself torn after watching this movie. There are great big chunks of it that I liked. However, the list of negatives I find in it seems to grow each time I go over it in my mind. It is fairly unique as an alien invasion film. It leans more toward its military combat film origins. Yet, even that angle provides some unattractive features. As a whole, the film lacks varied action levels, locations, and loudness levels. Although it may appeal to diehards of the alien invasion or military genres, it has too little for me to get behind it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rango / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:

Rango/Lars: Johnny Depp
Beans: Isla Fisher
Pricilla: Abigail Breslin
Mayor: Ned Beatty
Roadkill: Alfred Molina
Rattlesnake Jake: Bill Nighy
Doc/Merrimack/Mr. Snuggles: Stephen Root
Balthazar: Harry Dean Stanton
Bad Bill: Ray Winstone
The Spirit of the West: Timothy Olyphant

Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies presents a film directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by John Logan. Story by Logan, Verbinski, and James Ward Byrkit. Running time: 107 min. Rated PG (for rude humor, language, action and smoking).

Every time you see the sun you hear a faint sizzling sound. Someone is diverting the water away from a western desert town. A steel guitar pangs lonesome notes on the soundtrack. Every frame is filled with dust and dirt. Is this Clint Eastwood’s long awaited return to the great American film genre, the western? No. It’s the first foray by George Lucas’s cinematic tech child, Industrial Light & Magic, into the increasingly lucrative CGI animation/family entertainment market.

“Rango” is the latest genre laden, pop culture-referencing animation aimed at adults and children, and it’s good enough they didn’t even bother to release it in 3D. It follows the exploits of a pet chameleon in search of an identity. He gets more than he bargained for when he is ejected from his fish tank habitat into the grueling desert environment of the American west.

Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise) provides the voice of the hapless hero, adding more character than most vocal performances to this lizard in the midst of an identity crisis. Depp captures minute nuances in his vocal performance that wonderfully convey the internal struggle of this actor who can create a character out of thin air, but has no idea who he really is inside. Of course, the crisis he winds up in will test his true mettle, not merely his acting prowess; and he will learn his true self.

That crisis comes about when he wanders his way into the town of Dirt. Like something out of a classic Hollywood western, Dirt seems to be held up by the last remaining spirit of its town’s people; and that is about to give way because of a water shortage that is driving all the farmers and town folk away from the area. In this story the town folk are all animals. Lizards, toads, rabbits, mice, weasels and moles make for a range of western archetypal characters, including bankers, bartenders, ranchers, ruffians, thieves, outlaws, schoolchildren, and even the lonely matron struggling to keep her father’s dreams going.

Screenwriter John Logan (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”) does a good job of intimating that everything in Dirt hinges on its mysterious Mayor without waving signs that say watch out for this guy. Coming off last year’s CGI hit “Toy Story 3”, it would seem Ned Beatty is finding a late career calling providing voices for bad guys that sure want you to think they’re good. Here—like so many of the other characters in “Rango”—his voice is graveled by the dryness of the desert. And yet, the Mayor always seems to have a glass of water at hand.

Director Gore Verbinski (“The Mexican”) never focuses too long on any one subject matter. Rango is put through his paces, proving himself as a hero to the town when he inadvertently saves it from a bird of prey. The town’s people, who were cold and unfriendly to him at first, make him sheriff. Poor clueless Rango is so into his role that it never occurs to him to ask what happened to their previous sheriff. Verbinski gives the audience a visual clue.

Soon Rango is leading posses, chasing water thieves, discovering long hidden secrets, and generally unraveling a mystery by happenstance that some would rather have left covered up. Verbinski wisely never slows the pace of the film, save for one sequence in which Rango meets The Spirit of the West, who looks and sounds (thanks to Timothy Olyphant, “Justified”) remarkably like Eastwood’s Man With No Name character from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. The frenzied pace provides an adventure atmosphere that suggests other classics, like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.

Like many of the films of the CGI animation renaissance, “Rango” isn’t merely a fun time for children. In many ways, it’s aimed more at the adults. The western genre is something of cinematic nostalgia, and throughout the picture the filmmakers make references to other movies that only adults would know. Any movie that has a reference to Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in its first ten minutes is not something just for the kids. The plot itself is pulled straight from “Chinatown”. While “Rango” comes nowhere near the greatness of “Chinatown”—even amongst the rather smaller pantheon of CGI animation—it is more than just a rollicking good time to be had in the cinema.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Mar. 4-10

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) ****
Director/Writer: George Lucas
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smitts, Matthew Wood, Anthony Daniels, Christopher Lee

So Natalie Portman follows in Alec Guinness’s footsteps as an Oscar-winning “Star Wars” alum. Of course, Guinness received his Oscar long before “Star Wars” and was good enough in the first movie to receive another nomination for his work. Portman’s “Star Wars” appearances were more like a stepping-stone to her Oscar work.

Nevertheless, every time I’ve watched the conclusion of the prequel films I’m shocked by how much better this one is than the other two.  It’s almost as if Lucas’s writing is ghosted by someone else when compared to the scripts of the first two. But, even in those, it’s the plotting that has been their strength, not the dialogue. Here the plotting reaches a new level of excellence as the Chancellor’s plot as the evil Darth Sidious comes to its twisted and inevitable conclusion. It helps that the dialogue doesn’t get in the way so much this time around.

A major problem that Lucas faced in this prequel series that few give him credit for is the fact that from the beginning everyone knew exactly how the whole thing would turn out.  Perhaps he needed to show us more about the conclusions earlier in the series, because it is those inevitable “Star Wars” myths like the Emperor’s ascension, Yoda’s exile, the births of Luke and Liea, and the battle between Obi Wan and Anakin that are so satisfying to finally witness. Yet, what really impresses me is the completeness and intricate execution of Palpatine’s plot to destroy the Jedi and become Emperor. Lucas doesn’t make the mistake of assuming Palpatine is powerful enough to have thought of everything, but he’s placed so many failsafes into his plan, he can’t possibly lose.

I’m sure many will question my opinion, as even this chapter has diminished in people’s minds since it’s release. But if you look at Palpatine’s plotting in this one, it’s hard to find a place where Lucas has allowed him to miss something. Even his reliance on others to do things that are not within his power is not random and produces results that are plausible within those character’s personalities.

Read my original review here.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) ****
Director/Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom, August Diehl, Denis Menochet, Sylvester Groth, Martin Wuttke, Mike Myers, Julie Dreyfus

It’s been a year and a half since I saw this QT masterpiece in theaters. One reason I took so long in getting back to it is because I’ve been trying to convince my wife to watch it. She’s not having it, mostly due to the unseemly title “Inglourious Basterds” I think. I think she’d enjoy Shosanna’s revenge story.

Me? God, how I enjoy Tarantino’s rich dialogue. I could watch this movie again right now. In truth, this movie is just a series of conversations at tables with a few of them lacking the table. Most of these conversations end in sudden, brutal violence. But, the conversations themselves hold all the suspense, excitement, thrills and exquisite detail of any good action sequence. And, it’s so much more interesting than a typical action flick.

Read my original review here.

My Dad Is 100 Years Old (2005) ***½
Director: Guy Maddin
Writer: Isabella Rossellini
Starring: Isabella Rossellini

The first movie of Guy Maddin’s I ever saw was “The Saddest Music in the World”, which starred Isabella Rossellini as a beer baroness who holds a contest to find the music of the film’s title. Not long after that she collaborated with Maddin on this 16-minute tribute to her father, Italian neo-realist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. In it she plays herself and several of her father’s contemporary filmmakers: Alfred Hitchcock, David O. Selznick, Frederico Fellini, and her own mother, actress Ingrid Bergman. They discuss the validity of her father’s work while Rossellini describes memories of her father and professes her love for him in juxtaposition to the criticism of his fellow filmmakers.

In light of the criticism against Roberto Rossellini’s work as being static and boring and dealing too much with the realities of life, Maddin makes for an odd choice to direct a tribute to him. Maddin’s films are filled with such dreams and fantasies. They combine those film notions with reality in a way that I’d call a dreamumentary, where it’s impossible to separate dream from reality. Rossellini’s work was based solidly in reality. Nevertheless, Maddin and Isabella Rossellini create perhaps the most fascinating tribute I’ve ever seen of a fellow filmmaker in this unusual film.

The Whole Shootin’ Match (1978) ***½
Director: Eagle Pennell
Writers: Eagle Pennell, Lin Sutherland
Starring: Sonny Carl Davis, Lou Perryman, Doris Hargrave, Eric Henshaw

I imagine the relatives of the filmmakers who made “The Whole Shootin’ Match” saw the final product of their hard work and imagined it was one big waste of time. Perhaps I don’t give people the credit that the film’s director, Texan blue-collar auteur Eagle Pennell, gives his own characters. They are people who would be called white trash today, but they aren’t people who’ve given into their lot in life. Just like any of us, they have their hopes and dreams to cling to. They’re stuck in their patterns, but they strive for better.

Despite its simple plot, untrained acting, and low budget production there’s something of genius in “The Whole Shootin’ Match”. It’s a real slice of middle Americana. The characters aren’t stupid, even though they probably aren’t highly educated. They may not have made anything of their lives, but not for want of trying. And in many ways, their struggle is everyone’s struggle. They struggle against their place in the world, their own selfish choices, and elements that are also beyond their control. But through it all they maintain their desire for more in life.

Ghostbusters (1984) ***½
Director: Ivan Reitman
Writers: Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis
Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, William Atherton, Ernie Hudson

The main reason no “Ghostbusters” movie will ever be as good as the original is because it was in that film that they had their unrepeatable stroke of genius. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is unequivocal comedic genius. Making a big Michelin Man like image into what is supposed to be a giant Earth destroying monster, with his perpetually smiling face, is something that cannot be topped, no matter how hard you try. I certainly hope that “Ghostbusters 3” will live up to the original in terms of combining comedy with state of the art special effects. While the special effects will most likely be mind blowing, the current atmosphere in movies suggests that the melding of that with comedy just won’t be up to the snuff of 80s filmmaking. This is one of the few areas where I feel 80s filmmaking has yet to be matched, this notion of turning every genre into a comedy.

Machete (2010) ***½
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Ethan Maniquis
Writers: Robert Rodriguez, Álvaro Rodríguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez, Steven Segal, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Shea Whigham, Lindsay Lohan

“Machete” was one of the lost gems of 2010. Released on the dead zone weekend of the Labor Day holiday, “Machete” marks Robert Rodriguez’s latest tribute to 70s grindhouse cinema. Inspired by the fake trailer he made for the “Grindhouse” double feature he made with Quentin Tarantino, “Machete” follows the exploits of an ex-Mexican Federalé who finds himself involved in a political plot in Texas to elect a corrupt Senator funded by a Mexican drug lord. It’s filled with the same exploitational material that made his “Planet Terror” a jovial guilty pleasure. The violence is gratuitous and plentiful. Women appear nude just to expose their breasts to the audience. The dialogue is cliché and purposefully laughable. And the whole thing is an absurd exorcise in style that is much more fun to watch than it has any right to be. The filmmakers are even able to get a message about illegal immigration into the mix.

Read my original review here.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Feb. 25-Mar.3

Popeye (1980) *
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Jules Feifer, E.C. Segar (characters)
Starring: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, MacIntyre Dixon, Roberta Maxwell, Donovan Scott, Linda Hunt, Allan Nicholls, Bill Irwin, Wesley Ivan Hurt

When I saw “Popeye” as a kid, I did not know of directors or styles or themes or political and social commentary. I was a kid and wanted to see Popeye fight Bluto, and to see Olive Oyl and Swee’pea stumble into problems that Popeye has to get them out of and to see Wimpy try to get someone to give him a hamburger today if he pays them for it on Tuesday. In fact, I didn’t really even want that, since I didn’t really like the Popeye cartoons all that much; but, hey, it was a real movie, so it should be better, right?

Oh, how wrong I was. And, after twenty years and after having developed a grand appreciation for the movies of Robert Altman and movie styles and themes and socio-political commentary, “Popeye” is still a terrible movie. I’m sorry, Roger Ebert, but your admiration for Altman has blinded you on this one. This movie is as bad as everyone says it is.

The problem is that nothing meshes. Sure, Robert Altman is practicing that unique style of filmmaking he created where all the dialogue and actions overlap and the audience is treated to an overabundance of detail that all feed into the themes and richness of the story, but this is a cartoon character that operates on such a simplistic level, it cannot hold up Altman’s lofty ideals. Sure, Robert Evans was one of the slickest and hottest movie producers from the 70s, who had as much to do with the 70s renaissance of Hollywood filmmaking as any one director. But, his particular Hollywood slick doesn’t match Altman’s independent will. Sure, Robin Williams was at the height of his stand up prowess and the biggest star in comedy at the time, but he was fighting a major drug problem  and his take on Popeye’s mumbling makes it impossible to hear, let alone understand a word he says as the hero of this film. Sure, Shelley Duvall seems born to play Olive Oyl and was one of Altman’s finest company players from the seventies, but she alone could not carry this film. Sure, Harry Nilsson was one of the 70s originals in terms of innovative lyricists and musical genius, but originality and experimentation are not the best foundations when it comes to composing songs in a pop format like the movie musical.

This movie is just a mess. It looks like a mess. It sounds like a mess. And with everything in it running at full volume and full speed from start to finish, it’s a one note song that losses any sort of coherence and interest after the first ten minutes.

All About Eve (1950) ****
Director/Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Bettie Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff

I’ve known about one of the greatest movies about theater for quite a while. What I didn’t realize about “All About Eve” is that Bettie Davis isn’t the evil one. Oh, she’s a diva all right. She plays one mean witch, but it’s Eve who is the evil one. I always thought it was about an aging diva who is vicious and diabolical to the young up and comer of the New York Theater scene. I did not suspect that it was the young one who manipulated everything and everyone in her favor, slowly chipping away at the psyche of the veteran actress. The movie is delicious in its maliciousness, and Davis is spectacular as the seemingly paranoid diva, who ends up proving the notion that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

The Fighter (2010) ***½
Director: David O. Russell
Writers: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Paul Campbell

“The Fighter” is one of those stories that you’d think Hollywood made up if you didn’t already know it was true. The story follows two brothers. The elder brother, Dicky, is a former boxer who’s greatest moment was when he took down Sugar Ray Leonard in one high profile match. He has since succumbed to drug abuse and has a documentary film crew following him around. He claim’s they are documenting his comeback. They are actually making an HBO movie about drug abuse.

Dicky also trains his little brother, Mickey. Micky’s boxing career has not been very illustrious. He has become a “stepping stone” fighter, a fighter that other fighters take on in order to build up wins to get to a title shot. His brother’s drug usage means his training schedule is compromised by Dicky’s inconsistencies. His mother is his manager and provides a good example that good intentions don’t always yield the best interests. When Micky finally starts to peel away from his family with help of his girlfriend, he begins to find the success that his potential indicated was possible. But can he make a title run without the informed insight of his troubled brother?

David O. Russell compiles a compelling film about family trust and the hard task of denying those people who feel they are acting in your best interests. It is a frustrating and ultimately satisfying story that makes for a solid entertainment. My only problem with the movie was its execution of its fight sequences. The fights don’t live up to the quality of other award winning boxing flicks that came before this one. Even some lesser pictures like “Ali” and “The Hurricane” were able to put together more varied and driving fight sequences than Russell does here. I also felt we need to see more of Dicky actually coaching his brother during the fights to show how well he served his brother when he tried.

127 Hours (2010) ****
Director: Danny Boyle
Writers: Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy, Aron Ralston (book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”)
Starring: James Franco

One man and a camera. That’s a risky move for a major motion picture, but Aron Ralston’s real life story of having to cut off his own arm after he was pinned by a boulder for more than five days is just too rich to pass up. Of course, while Ralston only had one camera, director Danny Boyle used many and a lot of editing to make this harrowing tale one of the best movies of the year.

I’ve heard the editing of this film criticized for being too hyperkinetic. The naysayers claim the filmmakers should’ve trusted the material more and just shown James Franco’s portrayal of Ralston in the mere desperation of the situation. Well, the situation itself provides the desperation. What Boyle does instead is create a collage of images depicting Ralston’s state of mind during the ordeal. Have you ever been stuck in a place for longer than you plan? Crazy things go through your head. The crazy things are very much a part of what Ralston went through over that five-day period. In fact, beyond what lead him to his predicament and his horrifying resolution to it, those thoughts are the only thing that occurred for five days. I can’t fault the filmmakers for trying to depict that.

Nowhere Boy (2010) ***
Director: Sam Taylor-Wood
Writers: Matt Greenhalgh, Julia Baird (memoir)
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Anne-Marie Duff, Kristin Scott Thomas, Josh Bolt, Thomas Brodie Sangster, David Morrissey

“Nowhere Boy” is easily the most emotionally powerful film made about a member of The Beatles I’ve seen. Taking a look at the teen years of John Lennon, Sam Taylor-Wood’s movie explores John’s reconnection with his mother just before her accidental death. Raised by his aunt Mimi, played here rather coldly by Kristin Scott Thomas, John’s relationship with his mother was far from traditional. As a rebellious teen, John seeks out his mother only to find she lives not very far from where he’s grown up without much contact with her. She’s a bit of a party girl, something quite the opposite of her sister. She has much to do with John’s obsession with Blues and R&B. The film shows us many major points in the forming of The Beatles, including John’s introduction to Paul and George, but The Beatles are really a background note in this movie, which seeks to understand the strange relationship between John, his aunt, and his mother. There are some details of which I was unaware that make for an emotionally shocking movie that is worth the watch even if you never cared about The Beatles or Lennon.

Pineapple Express (2008) ***½
Director: David Gordon Green
Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Judd Apatow
Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Kevin Corrigan, Craig Robinson, Amber Heard, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez

I’m hard on comedy. It seems most of the great comedies over the past couple of years can only manage three and a half stars in my mind. Many have lauded titles like “Tropic Thunder”, “Superbad”, and the “Pineapple Express”, but I can’t help finding slight flaws that keep them from greatness in my mind.  The major setback of “Pineapple Express”, however, is also one of the things I appreciate about it. Its action flick foundation is at once at odds with the stoner nature of the film and yet such a stroke of comic genius. Make stoners into action stars, the better with which to explore just what makes them such interesting comic fare. The stoner’s inability to make knowledgeable choices in situations of stress fuels most of the comedy and situations in which our “heroes” find themselves.

For my second viewing of “Pineapple Express”, I also tried to identify it as a product of the great direction of David Gordon Green, a champion of independent cinema dealing in character driven dramas. Green’s camera usually embodies a very distinct visual style that I can see glimpses of here, but not with the visual lavishness of most of his work. Most of the Green signatures can be found in the montage sequences, when our stoner heroes are traveling from one place to another or playing leap frog in the woods.

Green reunites with James Franco and Danny McBride in his upcoming stoner period flick “Your Highness”. It’ll be interesting to see if a greater comfort with this more mainstream fare allows Green to place more of his typical directorial style into the picture.

Kirikou and the Wild Beasts (2005) ***
Directors: Michel Ocelot, Bénédicte Galup
Writers: Philippe Andrieux, Bénédicte Galup, Marie Locatelli, Michel Ocelot
Starring: Pierre-Ndoffé Sarr, Awa Sene Sarr, Robert Liensol, Marie-Philoméne Nga, Emile Abossolo M’Bo, Pascal N’Zonzi

Thanks to outguessing Roger Ebert in our Oscar predictions, I got a free subscription to the movie-streaming site Mubi, which specializes in independent, foreign, avant garde, and short films. As such, over the next couple of months I may see more movies like “Kirikou and the Wild Beasts”, which may sound like the latest Japanese anime, but actually comes from the true inventors of the anime style, the French.

Set in an African village, “Kirikou” plays more like “Rikki Tikki Tavi” than “Spirited Away”.  Perhaps it’s just it’s English subtitle translation, but it plays a little less mature than most U.S. or Japanese animation. It tells four fables centered around an unusually small, smart and fast African baby named Kirikou. Kirikou is the subject of persecution from the evil goddess Karaba. She must contain Kirikou in order to corrupt and destroy his village, but the quick Kirikou will have none of that.

Despite its juvenile dialogue and dimwitted adult characters, there is an immense charm to this odd movie. Perhaps it’s greatest aspect, however, it its lush, beautiful African images. Think of the most striking images in Disney’s “The Lion King” and imagine a movie based almost solely on them, and you have the visual beauty behind “Kirikou and the Wild Beasts”. Note: Not for people who can’t handle the sight of naked female breasts presented as no big deal.