The Secret of Kells (2009) ****
Directors: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey
Writers: Tomm Moore, Fabrice Ziolkowski
Starring: Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally, Liam Hourrican, Paul Tylac
The Oscar nominated animated cartoon “The Secret of Kells” reminds me that animation is a format that is different than live action. So many of Hollywood’s animated films, Pixar included, approach storytelling in the same manner as their live action fare, with a heavy emphasis on plot. “The Secret of Kells” has a plot, yes, but it is much more about the graphic art used to tell that tale.
The plot is so very simple. It involves a walled city with a bishop, or some such religious figure, as its leader. He is focused on keeping the marauding hordes from entering the dwellings of those under his protection. His son discovers he has a gift for creating story-telling art, but his father wishes him to do as everyone else in the village and build their wall. Most of all, it is forbidden that he, or anyone, should step outside the protection of the city. Of course, the boy does and discovers a girl spirit in the woods. She shows him where to find the best berries for making ink. The boy’s defiance of his father’s rules is discovered and you can pretty much guess where it goes from there.
Where is goes, however, is so much less important than how beautiful that journey is. This is not a CGI movie that approximates some odd-shaped version of reality. It’s very stylized two-dimensional art that has texture and details that don’t reflect a realistic environment. This is what animation is for. So many people say that animation is to tell a story that can’t be told with live action, yet animation has gotten so close to live action that they even have actors act out roles to motion capture the animation. What’s the point of that? This is animation as a stylistic choice. This tale could be told in live action, but you’d miss all this beautiful art.
Rabbit Hole (2010) ***½
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire (also play)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Diane Wiest, Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh
I can understand why someone might think, “A movie about a couple trying to cope with the death of their child? Yeah, I don’t want to see that.” I had “Rabbit Hole” for a week before I finally committed and put it in the Blu-Ray player. What makes a movie like this worth watching is what you don’t know going into it. You know it’s going to be sad. You know the couple is going to have trouble coping. One will be in denial. One will be pushing the other too much.
What is unexpected in this one are the ways in which the script realizes what the characters don’t, that their perceived isolated experience isn’t so isolated. The rest of the woman’s family is affected in unexpected ways. Her mother lost an adult child. Her sister has just become pregnant.
The child was lost in a car accident and this story remembers that someone else was involved in that as well. He’s a high school kid. I like that he doesn’t drive any more. Not much is made about this fact. He rides the bus. Someone else drives him to the prom. There’s nothing to say he will never drive again, but it’s right that he needs time to recover from the tragedy before he can think about getting behind the wheel again.
Is there anything truly surprising here? Not really, but there are great performances by Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Sandra Oh as another parent recovering from the loss of a child, Diane Wiest as Kidman’s mother, and Miles Teller as the high school kid. Yes, it will probably depress you, but it ends with hope.
Roadkill (2011) **
Director: Johannes Roberts
Writer: Rick Suvalle
Starring: Kacey Barnfield, Diarmuid Noyes, Colin Maher, Ned Dennehy, Eliza Bennett, Eve Macklin, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Stephen Rea
The day I’ve dreaded has finally come. I find myself in the position of criticizing a movie that a friend of mine held a major role in creating. Now, if I liked the movie, none of this would be a problem, and that is why I eventually had to accept the notion that I had to include it in my Penny Thoughts. If I’m willing to say I like something that a friend of mine made, I have to be willing to say that I don’t like it as well.
My friend is Rick Suvalle, the screenwriter of the SyFy original movie “Roadkill”. While this may sound like a copout, I don’t blame Suvalle much for the problems I had with this movie. I will say that the introductory passages in this road trip monster horror flick are filled with a little too many clichés of the genre, even down to including a token black character. Suvalle may have been playing at these clichés, however, since he abandons cliché when it comes to the order of death for these characters. I’ll have to ask him if he was inspired by the movie “Feast”, which also breaks the rules of who can die when in a horror movie. Suvalle’s ending is also a stroke a perfection rarely seen in a made for TV movie.
Most of my problems had to do with the restrictions of a made for television production. Reaction shots were either cut short or non-existent. There are almost no establishing shots in the entire production. And, there are some missed opportunities when it comes to commentary by the characters on the events as they are happening. Most of these deficiencies have to do with time restrictions placed upon the production for commercial breaks. The special effects are also somewhat lacking for a creature feature, but I’ve seen worse.
Considering the restrictions, the filmmakers actually get away with some fairly gritty horror moments. As far as SyFy productions go, this is the best original production I’ve seen from the network. I’ll admit I haven’t really seen that many, but “Roadkill” is a hell of a lot better than “Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus”. I’m sorry if that’s not a very high bar to measure against, Rick.
On a side note, Rick has a wonderful blog about being a stay at home dad to two beautiful girls in the City of Angels with the surprising title of “I Peed on My Kid!” Read it here.
The Illusionist (2010) ****
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Writers: Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet
It seems this is the week I catch up with the foreign made cartoons that should’ve won the Best Animated Feature Oscar for the past two years. “The Illusionist” comes from the same director as “The Triplets of Belleville”. It boasts an original screenplay credit for the great French filmmaker Jacques Tati, coming from an unproduced screenplay of his. Tati was best known for a series of films starring his alter ego, a character named Monsieur Hulot. Sylvain and Tati are a good match, since neither are very focused on dialogue. They’re more about actions.
“The Illusionist” is a little more somber than the Hulot films I’ve seen, and certainly something calmer than Sylvain’s previous, “Belleville”. It proves how inconsequential dialogue can be to storytelling, however, as it tells the story of a dying breed of artist. It follows an illusionist that you can tell once captivated audiences with his magic tricks, but now plays to dwindling audiences and as second fiddle to flashy musical acts. The band he follows up on one gig bears a good resemblance to The Beatles.
On a small gig in Scotland he catches the eye of a young woman who follows him away from her sorry existence as a barmaid. Their journey together also proves that the old is being replaced by the new in life as well as entertainment. Soon the illusionist must let her free to the younger model in men. Although, it isn’t exactly an upbeat story, Sylvain’s visuals are just as stunning as in “Belleville”, and the story proves even stronger.
Gulliver’s Travels (2010) *
Director: Rob Letterman
Writers: Joe Stillman, Nicholas Stoller, Jonathan Swift (book)
Starring: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris O’Dowd, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, T.J. Miller
When Jack Black fell down on top of an unfortunate Lilliputian who disappeared between Black’s cheeks, the tone of this adaptation was clear. This was delightfully funny to my boys, but particularly disturbing to myself, especially since they never showed the little guy being removed at any point. I shudder to think that this is how my boys will think of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel.
Western of the Week
The Outlaw (1943) *½
Director: Howard Hughes
Writer: Jules Furthman
Starring: Walter Huston, Jack Buetel, Jane Russell, Thomas Mitchell
Howard Hughes’ “The Outlaw” is best known for the fact that Hughes used his engineering skills to design an underwire bra to better emphasize actress Jane Russell’s “assets.” The results drew the ire of the Hollywood Production Code Administration, which blocked the film’s release for some time and forced Hughes to cut a minute and a half of footage from the final product.
The problem is the movie really isn’t very good. It involves a fictional relationship between Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid and the woman that comes between them while they’re on the run from Pat Garrett. The movie doesn’t really know how to handle these real-life characters as it alternates between treating them like the infamous outlaws they were and treating them like comic buffoons. Even the score by an uncredited Victor Young alternate between something you might hear in a Looney Tunes cartoon and something from an overblown Harlequin style romance.
The HPCA might’ve been more worried about the film’s use of innuendo as much as it was concerned about audiences ogling Russell’s breasts. There are a few scenes where I was waiting to hear the guitar warble associated with a porno as the picture faded to black. Sexism is on blatant display as Russell is treated like a piece of property traded between the two criminals. There is a rather humorous scene, however, as the two bicker over which is more valuable to them, a horse or the girl. I’m not saying it’s right, but it is funny.