Shrink, Shrank, Shrunk

Some of the synopses of this movie about a psychiatrist who kind of deteriorates into depression and drug abuse make it sound like a sort of wacky, black-ish comedy.

Don’t be fooled. Shrink is a movie about surviving the suicide of someone you love, and in a larger sense, surviving life with is failures and even successes. There are some darkly funny moments, but a whole lot of depression.

Kevin Spacey plays a psychiatrist to the stars: A successful man with successful clients who wallow in neuroses and look to him for excuses for their bad behavior. But he’s increasingly depressed over the loss of his wife, and unable to use the information in his bestselling novels to help himself out of his funk.

I should put in a ROBIN WILLIAMS ALERT for Trooper York: Williams plays–well, I’m guessing a character maybe based on Jack Nicholson?–and he’s actually not very convincing. But he’s not in it much, and he’s not obnoxious.

The main characters are an agent played by Dallas Roberts, who is as powerful as he is neurotic, a screenwriter/tenuous relative to Spacey played by Mark Webber, a troubled urban school kid played by Keke Palmer, and an overly successful strung-out actor played by Jack Huston (yes, of those Hustons).

That’s a lot of main characters. Which gives us the primary failing of this movie.

There’s a writer by the name of Robert Newton Peck who wrote a cute little book on how to write, in which gave various rules about what to do and what not to do. One of the things that stuck with me was “Stay in the phone booth with the gorilla.” In other words, you don’t mention that your main character is in a phone booth (okay, outdated now) with a gorilla, and then go off on 12 tangents while leaving everyone wondering about the character, the gorilla, and the antiquated phone booth.

This doesn’t create suspense, typically. It does create annoyance. And so, while have our main-ist of main characters, played by Spacey, we’re constantly being yanked away from the interesting stories and pulled into another story which isn’t nearly as interesting. Then it gets interesting and we’re pulled away from that into another one.

Paul Thomas Anderson has gotten away with this, arguably, with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, except that he lets the scene finish before switching to a new scene. Not completely resolve, but finish as a reasonably self-contained unit. The exception being when the stories overlap in a suspenseful way and are about meet up.

This movie just sprawls, sort of fecklessly unsure of where it’s going, but reasonably sure about the quality of the material it has in its characters. Who, when you break them down sound pretty cliché: the psych who can’t help himself, the troubled urban kid, the desperate screenwriter, the self-absorbed agent, the star who self-destructs because he’s not producing quality “art”, the starlet trying to sleep her way to the top, the aging actress who can’t get good roles….

Geez, I may have talked myself into thinking this is a worse movie than I thought before I started this review. The characters don’t come off horribly hacky, though. The movie is really buoyed by the relationships of the main characters with the supporting characters, like the titular character with his drug dealer Jesus (Jesse Plemmons). Although this is sort of hacky, too, since, fercryinoutloud, his name is Jesus. Not hay-soos–he’s a ginger named “Jesus”.

Well, at least they don’t put any words of wisdom in his mouth, exactly.

Another bright spot is Pell James as Daisy, pregnant assistant to the high-powered agent, who gives us a reason to like both the agent and the screenwriter. Robert Loggia brings some nice gravitas to his short role. And Saffron Burrows as the aging actress (she’s 36 or 37!) is delightful.

Ultimately, though, the movie founders: It’s too unfocused, even remote from its own characters. We don’t get enough time with them to appreciate their changes, and the movie doesn’t sell their flawed selves well enough to allows us appreciate their transformations. They’re actually not really in conflict with each other most of the time.

The whole thing comes off a little boring, a little listless. Marijuana plays a big part; maybe there’s a connection there. Heh.

The Boy was not thrilled. He thought it could’ve been funnier and overall less drab. I tend to agree.

Second movie in a row we saw that took place in L.A., though. (Previous one: Funny People).

Nursery University, or WTF is wrong with New Yorkers

Well, I say “New Yorkers” like they were all the same, but that’s my prerogative as a guy from L.A. Really, of course, I’m referring to Manhattanites, who are like our West Siders: Wealthy, mostly white, socially conscious, status seeking, etc.

Not sure they’re competing for spots in nursery school for their kids, though, which is what Nursery University is about. This documentary follows around some of these people as they navigate the overcrowded pre-school system in the hopes of pawning their spawn off on somebody.

Sorry. That was needlessly snarky. But I couldn’t help but feel that some of these kids would be better off at home. Mostly, though, I found myself marveling at how old everyone was. This is not just prejudice, although I’d be surprised if any of the white folk were under 40. And one woman had twins at 57!

Isn’t that nice? She’s single, 57 and has twins, one of whom (the boy) pretty clearly has a brain injury. That’s gonna be fun when she’s 70 and he starts going through puberty.

The big question I had was whether these particular schools actually offer, you know, better education, or if it was just a matter of prestige in getting in and paying for them? It’s not addressed clearly in the documentary but it’s hard to believe that there aren’t some reasonably good $15,000/semester schools that might be nearly as good. Or even $12,000. Laws of supply and demand being what they are, I couldn’t figure out what the supply was so small given the degree of the demand. (According to one admittance person, the demand has been going on for five years. Certainly enough time for more schools to open up.)

The pre-school people themselves are quick to point out that the value of the nursery school education, while not insignificant (in some impossible to quantify way) is certainly exaggerated. This doesn’t seem to encourage them to expand, but curiously, it also doesn’t seem to encourage them to raise prices.

I suppose this is very indicative of my mindset. Normal economics just didn’t seem to be in play. Making things more confusing was the fact that most schools used a lottery for admission! So, how prestigious could it be to get into a place that selects (at least in part) through sheer randomity?

And then I had a stylistic question, documentary-wise. When the kids that get into their schools do get in, was triumphant music really in order? I mean, what is it we’ve witnessed here, exactly? People who have chosen to live in this strange place, by these strange rules, have achieved some sort of victory.

So. Yay for them.

The minority couple from Harlem got into a school, too, along with some financial aid. But I just wasn’t clear on what this was buying them.

This is probably because I’m not from Manhattan. And don’t think much of status-based education. But I know this can end up being big money and opportunities, so I really had a hard time loathing the parents. Even the guy who seemed really gay and his South American wife were ultimately endearing. Though one can’t help but hope that they wouldn’t end up warping their poor children–particularly the family that relocated because their child wasn’t accepted into nursery school.

It’s a strange, distorted world. But, hey, it supplies “Law & Order” with plenty of plots.

Nice documentary. Not great. Left a lot of unanswered questions. But an interesting peek into that particular, peculiar world.

The Goode Family

Mike Judge has come a long way since his seminal Beavis and Butthead cartoon “Frog Baseball”. (Heheheheh–I said “seminal”.) At least financially. Those early shorts, along with the lesser known “Inbred Jed” cartoons, revealed a lot of his sensibility and grasp of human character.

“King of the Hill”–possibly the only primetime show with a genuinely conservative lead (excluding cartoonish parodies done by far-left liberals like Seth MacFarlane’s “American Dad”)–is something of a phenomenon, having run for thirteen seasons (and possibly being picked up for more by ABC) distinguishes itself by being consistently funny and also essentially kind. Kind sitcoms are only slightly rarer than funny ones, but kindness seems to be one of Judge’s hallmarks. Even the biting satire of Idiocracy and Office Space had an essential benign optimism.

So, it’s not surprising that “The Goode Family”, Judge’s new show is both funny and kind. In fact, it’s “King of the Hill”, only instead of the well-meaning, stalwart Hank Hill, we have the well-meaning, and less stalwart Gerald Goode. (Mr. Goode is surely in touch with his feminine side, a proposition that would appall Mr. Hill.) Judge uses a voice closer to his Office Space character’s (the passive aggressive Chotchki’s manager) but the cadences are still very similar to Hank’s.

It’s also a bit more exaggerated, I think, than KotH. At one point, Helen Goode (the wife, played by Nancy Carrell) is at the Whole Foods-clone and looking at a big board which lists things that are Good on one side, and things that are Bad on the other. As she watches, “farm raised catfish” toggles between good and bad several times.

There is a religious aspect to all of this, as well as a social-religious aspect. Where people used to go to church for guidance and also to one-up each other, the Goodes go shopping. And you sort of have to admire Helen for handling the paper-or-plastic dilemma in a way that makes every other woman shopping–who had all been trying to make her feel bad a second ago–feel ecologically inadequate.

There are a lot of good dynamics here already: The Goodes’ neighbor is a black man who doesn’t eat vegetables. Gerald’s boss at the university is more interested in the bottom line while paying lip service to diversity. Helen’s father brings rib take out over to the (naturally, vegan) Goodes house.

And then there are the two kids: Ubuntu (Judge regular, David Herman) , the child that the Goodes adopted from Africa, without realizing he was a blond-haired South African; and Bliss (Linda Cardellini) who rebels in the first episode by eschewing frank talk about sex with her mom for an abstinence group.

Christians make an appearance in the form of purity pushers. David Herman also plays Trayvor (Trevor?) who Bliss likes and who is an aspiring Michael Moore-type “documentary” maker who is planning to ridicule them. The show doesn’t dance around the fact that these open-minded, tolerant people–represented most squarely by Helen–really aren’t particularly interested in–or comfortable with–people who disagree with them.

So, a lot like “King of the Hill”.

I was laughing out loud through a lot of the episode. Here are some lines I liked:

Gerald, trying to distract his wife from Bliss’ interest in abstinence: “The View is on. The pretty one is saying crazy stuff again.”

Helen, who doesn’t approve of Gerald’s support of Bliss, and also doesn’t want their newly 16-year-old son to drive: “You’re teaching our son to drive and our daughter to not have sex: Where have I gone wrong?”

Gerald, in response to Helen’s objections that a man is wearing a flag pin: “Since the election we can all wear flag pins!”

If you missed it on ABC Wednesday, you can view it at and

Manic Monday Apocalypso on Friday!: Terminator Salvation

We were going to see the new Michael Keaton movie (he directs) called The Merry Gentleman, but it had cleared out to make room for the new Terminator movie, so we saw that instead.

I would save this review for Manic Monday Apocalypso but I figured some of you might consider seeing this this weekend.

I’d skipped the third movie in the Terminator series, feeling that it was really James Cameron that was the heart-and-soul of those flicks, that raised them above standard B-movie fare. (I’m dubious of Harlan Ellison’s claim on the property. Not that Cameron didn’t steal the ideas, only that the ideas are both fairly generic and not at all the point.)

A chilling factor for me is that this movie is directed by the infamous McG, who helmed the two Charlie’s Angels movies. There was much to dislike about those strangely uneven films but they at least weren’t boring. And that’s not a bad way to describe the new movie, though it’s not nearly as uneven as those earlier films. Unfocused might be a better term.

So, let’s talk about the good things. Fine acting, as you would expect from Christian Bale. In smaller roles are Jane Alexander (who could be her own MMA feature for her 1983 role in Testament), Helena Bonham Carter and the great Michael Ironside. The primary supporting roles are played by Sam Worthington and Moon Bloodgood, who I thought were fine, but seem a little callow in comparison. (Partly and maybe mostly, this is their characters, and by the end I think the actors have fleshed them out more than the writers did.) Anton Yelchin, fresh of his Checkov role in Star Trek manages to come off pretty dang tough, and evocative of Michael Biehn in the original movie. They even have a little girl in the Newt role.

Elfman does the music, and does a fine job, though there’s not enough of it. This may sound strange, but there’s not an over-reliance on CGI. The T-800–the classic Terminator–has been slightly redesigned. It was a skinny, skeletal thing in the original, stop-motion animated. But we’re sort of jaded to that now, I think, and the redesign has a more muscular build–like it’s a guy in a Terminator suit. This is a good choice.

Also, the CGI is really good. That helps a lot. It might not be a guy in a Terminator suit, but if not, it’s smooth. This helps the action feel a lot more credible, and to McG’s credit, there are some good old-fashioned fights and vehicle stunts, instead of the CGI spectaculars that get so numbing.

There are a lot of other really nice touches, too, which I won’t spoil by enumerating here.

This movie falls well short of greatness, though. First, we have the time-travel problem. The story requires John Connor (Bale) be the savior of the human resistance, but he mostly seems like a pain in the ass. In fact, I went through 2/3rds of the movie wondering what the hell he was doing that was even necessary, given the way the war was going. That was nicely resolved, though, and ultimately made sense. So I didn’t count that against it.

No, the real problem is with the characters of Marcus and Blair. We see Marcus put to death in the first scene of the movie (in 2009, presumably), and yet he’s walking around in 2018, and Connor and Reese (Yelchin) are secondary characters to him, and–to a degree–his relationship with Blair.

But because the story really should be about Connor and Reese fulfilling the prophecy of the first movie, we get a lot of cuts from Marcus to Connor or Reese, sometimes disrupting the flow of the action. Also evoking Star Trek, in the sense that the baggage the movie is required to carry is both its strength and its weakness.

This forces some awkward scenes, such as Connor having to decide what to do with Marcus. He actually makes up his mind and then yells, inexplicably, “Who are you?!” Bale does a good job, but the whole scene–a dramatic focal point–flops.

The next big dramatic moment, where Connor delivers a speech about how humans are different from machines, also flops out of sheer silliness and inappropriateness.

And without giving too much away, the story hinges on this bit of information which allows the main Skynet base–and silly me, I thought the Skynet base would be, you know, in the sky–to be attacked. Things don’t come off as expected (do they ever?), yet the Skynet base ends up seeming ridiculously easy to get in and out of.

And there’s the other thing, the big thing, which is that the view of the future doesn’t quite hold up. The original concept had humans as a ragtag underground resistance. This movie carries that idea forward, but at the same time, features humans with subs and jets–neither of which would really be sustainable in that context–and says there are areas the robots haven’t ventured. (And, queerly, at the same time, those areas are not where the humans are strongly based.)

To top this all off, there’s a strongly hierarchical command structure and traditional military at the begining of the movie, with a suddenly completely casual rebel feel at the end. And they communicate via radio. Like, regular radio.

But I suppose I’m just overthinking it. One of the nice thing about those old WWII movies, though, was that were enough people around who had been there, that movies had a certain verisimilitude I’d like to see more strongly applied to post-apocalyptic stuff. (As you know if you’ve read this blog for long.)

Anyway, The Boy liked it very much, though he was a bit taken aback by the PG-13ness of it. And it’s true, this is a much gentler movie than the first two. There were certain things that didn’t hold together for him, but it didn’t keep him from enjoying it.

So, once again, a good summer popcorn movie, like Star Trek, but rife with flaws, like Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Next NEXT Generation

I’ve never been a Trekkie or a Trekker. In fact, my mom was a big fan of “Star Trek” and because I hated certain episodes (“Miri”, “And The Children Shall Lead”) but had to watch them anyway, it took me a couple of decades to where I could like the show.

I got into “The Next Generation” for a while but it got more and more ponderous as the series wore on. It seemed that every alien just needed a sympathetic ear and all technology was environmentally destructive. (I’ve heard that Roddenberry had to remind the writers that technophobia was not an appropriate attitude for the show.)

I loved “Deep Space Nine”. Which, it must be confessed, is barely Star Trek at all. Dark, with religion and spirituality woven in, reveling in the dark parts of society that Roddenberry would have us believe didn’t exist (yet which all turned up in the third season of the original series).

The less said about “Voyager” and “Enterprise” the better. (Well, okay, “Voyager” was “Star Trek meets The Lifetime Channel”. “Enterprise” should have worked. And yet, didn’t. Well, I heard it got better after I–and practically everyone else–stopped watching.)

So, was I excited about the new “reboot”? Nah, not really. “Curious” is a better word. The only JJ Abrams stuff I’m familiar with is Cloverfield, which is a good movie made of a pretty thin gruel. All good directors can do that. See The Birds or, hell, look at what Gore Verbinski did with the Pirates of the Caribbean or even Mouse Hunt.

This is kind of the reverse scenario. There’s too much in the “Star Trek” universe–much of it contradictory–to capture in a movie. And if “Enterprise” proved anything, it was that retconning is incredibly dull, except perhaps to die-hard fans.

Now that I’ve seen it, my reaction is a kind of generally positive “Meh”. Read on.

Dropping the canon was an excellent choice: They actually manage to do some pretty surprising things by untethering themselves from the bloated beast that is the Trek universe, while still making plenty of references. And you can savor the irony of fans being upset by this by noting that the device used to justify the changes is a Trek cliché that formed the basis for half the movies and TV series.

It was also smart of Chris Pine, who plays Kirk, not to study Shatner. While I’ve long maintained that Shatner’s performance–his utter conviction in selling some truly awful storylines in front of papier mache backdrops–is a big part of the reason the original show is watchable at all, his performance style is too iconic to be imitated without creating an entirely surreal atmosphere. Pine–apparently drawing on Indiana Jones and Han Solo–still manages to evoke a famliar feeling Kirk.

Using relatively little known actors was also a good choice. The first person I recognized was Bruce Greenwood, playing Captain Christopher Pike, the captain that young Kirk is supposed to serve under. (OK, I “recognized” Eric Bana as the villain, but only because I knew it was him. Bana for some reason never makes enough of an impression on me where I could actually identify him.) I didn’t really recognize Winona Ryder (in Jane Wyatt’s old role as Spock’s mother), though, so maybe I should just give up that battle right there.

The acting is, overall, very solid. Casa Maelstrom favorite Simon Pegg does a nice job as Scotty and Karl Urban steals the show as “Bones” McCoy, channeling the late DeForest Kelley without seeming like a parody. Zoe Saldana plays the Uhura role Nichelle Nichols wishes Uhura had been wrttten for her. John Cho (Harold, of “Harold and Kumar”) plays a tough guy Sulu, while Anton Yelchin (Bird from “!huff”) does a super-young Chekov (with heavier accent than Walter Koneig) to round out the core crew.

The action is pretty good. Kirk is drawn as a rash, arrogant, cocky SOB, and this often results in him getting the crap beaten out of him. (He gets beaten up by redshirts! Who are actually portrayed as pretty tough in this, in contrast to the original series.) They resist the urge to make him a superhero, good at everything, which gives the rest of the crew a chance to do their things.

So, if I consider it a decent homage to the past and a good, fresh summer action flick, why am I sort of “meh”? I think because it’s not really great at either. One thing that Star Trek is known for is absurd plot resolutions, the sci-fi equivalent of deus ex machina. “The Next Generation” was so awful in this regard, that it probably put “reversing the polarity” into the cultural lexicon.

There are plenty of absurd situations which might be suspenseful if one didn’t know how things sort of had to turn out. And even if you don’t watch the show, there are certain things you know. So when Kirk is stranded on a remote planet with no way (in the story’s own terms) to catch up to the plot, you know that some sort of technological magic is going to have to arise.

This ultimately diminishes the movie. I would’ve liked to see a reboot like the Bond reboot that eschewed the dumber aspects of the franchise.

The other thing that really diminishes it is Leonard Nimoy. Not that I don’t love the guy, or that he does a bad job. It’s nice to see him don the ears again after 15 years. But he’s a crutch, the deus ex the machina. He acts as both fan service and plot device, and I thank God they didn’t resurrect Shatner for Kirk, despite the pressure. (Kirk pretty definitively died in the first TNG movie.)

The whole thing feels a little stale to me, even with the new angle and approach. Now I’m not sure a (much) better outcome was actually possible here–certainly much worse outcomes were–so I’m disinclined to cast any stones. The kids should like it, the fans (who are a shrinking base, I think) maybe less so, depending on how invested they are in the original history.

The Boy liked it quite a bit, saying it was a lot more than he expected. The two Trek fans I know (including the one I saw it with) also liked it. My mom’s convinced, well-trained as she is, that they’ll move the new franchise in to merge with the old history. I’m trying to explain that the whole point of the movie was to reimagine a lot of this stuff. We have a bet that a certain minor character that died is (or isn’t, I say) going to come back in a later movie as a result.

There’s a lot about this movie that is really well done, too. The production values are quite good. They eschewed the trend of making things darker, both with the physical setting and attitude, and kept it light, even when things were, plot-wise, dire.

Strangely, the music is sort of disappointing. Michael Giacchino, who did the marvelous scores for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, never really delivers the goods with a iconic, hummable tune a la Alexander Courage (who wrote the theme to the original) or Jerry Goldsmith (who wrote the movie theme which became the theme for “The Next Generation”).

Maybe I’m just a grouch, here, or still burnt out from past disappointments, not feeling energized (no pun intended) by the new stuff, and not excited enough by the old stuff to really have that carry me through.

It’s not that I thought it was bad, it’s just that it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.

Thidwick and The Darker Side of Seuss

Dr. Seuss was great for a lot of reasons, obviously foremost of those being his marvelous abilities with rhyme and meter–seriously, if you don’t believe that, read aloud just about any parody of him and compare with one of his actual books, and you’ll see that people grossly underestimate how hard what he did was to do well–but, in a strange way, also because he wasn’t a Mister Rogers-type character with sweetness and gentleness oozing from every pore.

That’s not a knock against Fred Rogers, who I think was the gentle spirit he portrayed, but I admit I had a taste (even as a child) for the darker side as well. I loved Roald Dahl, for example, especially for things like in James and the Giant Peach, where James’ aunts are squashed dead by the peach.

Dr. Seuss wrote about a lot of the dumber, darker side of humanity with Horton, and of course, his late-in-life Butter Battle Book. But I had not heard of Thidwick, and received it as a gift on my last birthday. (It was on my Amazon wish list.)

The Flower resisted me reading it aloud (as I do) because she thought the ending had Thidwick being killed, but I finally overruled her. And I was surprised; this should be a classic alongside of the Grinch, the Cat and Horton.

Thidwick is a moose who lets a bug sit on his antlers. The bug then invites more and larger creatures to join him, until finally his antlers are burdened with a multitude of pests, including (absurdly) a bear. Obviously, this impact his ability to survive, as he’s no longer able to forage or run from hunters. But he’s too polite–too nice–to tell them get lost.

So, we have here a marvelous allegory for so many things: the tragedy of the commons–and check out the Wikipedia article for a communist spin on why “tragedy of the commons” is misapplied, the dangers of modern liberalism, and just how one can start with a good principle (“a host must be good to his guests”) and take it to the point of self-destruction.

I don’t know if Seuss meant any of that, but it works, and it has a good ending. (The Flower didn’t like the ending actually; she’s not a big fan of comeuppance.) But I say check it out.

Sweet Coraline

One important rule of making it in Hollywood is to always be working on your next picture by the time your last one opens, and to have the one after that all nailed down. That way, if the one at the box office flops, you have two more chances before your career is finished.

This is probably impossible if you’re doing stop-motion animation. And so it came to pass that the director of Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach went eight years between movie releases: the disastrous Monkeybone and the reasonably successful Coraline.

I had held off going to see this movie, as it The Boy wasn’t really in the target audience–too old–and neither was The Flower–if not too young, exactly, then not particularly inclined to the creepy. But it has hung on and made an unexpected appearance at our local art house this week, when all the Oscar dross finally got pushed out. (Yay!)

The Flower seemed pretty confident that, as this was a fairy tale (my description), that they would all live happily ever after, and therefore it would be okay for her to see. But why o why, she lamented, didn’t they just tell you the ending beforehand? Then you’d know if you wanted to go see it!

This led to a less surreal discussion than the one I posted here (which occurred after the movie) between her and the boy about whether the ending was more important than how you get there.

So, about the movie: This is, indeed, a fairy tale about a young girl who moves from the big city into a sub-divided house out in the boondocks with her preoccupied parents. In the house, she discovers a tiny door with only a brick wall behind it. But if her parents aren’t around (asleep, away), the wall becomes a passage. And on the other side of the passage is a mirror image of her world, only this world fulfills her dreams of the perfect life.

Her other parents are doting and entertaining, her neighbors aren’t crazy old coots but magically talented, the garden is a living world of lights, and even her room is fantastically enchanted.

The only apparent thing that’s “off” is that all the people in this mirror world have buttons for eyes. (This, of course, is just a warning sign of how off the whole thing is.)

Creepy, eh? Now, fairy tales are creepy and horrific, in general. This isn’t much different, thematically, than Hansel and Gretel and the gingerbread house, or Celtic stories of “little people”, who were always doing horrible things. But if you’re going to take a kid to see this, make sure they’re not freaked out by eye stuff. (The other really disturbing part of the movie, that of the fat old women running around in skimpy clothing, was in the “well, there’s something you don’t see every day” category. The Flower recognized the reference to Boticelli immediately.)

The Flower is primarily disturbed by unhappy endings, so no issue with the eyes for her, though when the illusion of the other world started to come apart, my arm was grabbed and stayed grabbed for quite some time.

And come apart it does as the mystery of the “other mother” unfolds.

Wonderful voice work by Teri Hatcher (who shall forever be Lois Lane to me) and Keith David (as a savvy cat nemesis to the “other mother”), as well as Dakota Fanning as Coraline, John Hodgman as Father, and the comedy team of French and Saunders as the crazy old ladies next door. Ian McShane, late of Kung Fu Panda, plays an old Russian guy training mice in his apartment.

Ultimately, this is a satisfying movie, with solid Fairy Tale logic. Everything hangs together. I would swear I’ve read the tale before in another form; certainly the concept of a fairy world where illusions make very mundane or even nasty things seem marvelous is not new. But I can’t remember any particular fairy tale that goes that way. (Fritz Leiber wrote a Fafhrd/Grey Mouser story called Bazaar of the Bizarre in that vein, and the theme of great-illusion-masking-horrible-truth was used in the 2000 version of Bedazzled.)

And Selick’s work is good here. He demonstrates (again) that much of the visual artistry of Nightmare Before Christmas was his, if you didn’t pick that up from James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone. (His pallette is less ruthlessly grey/white/red than Burton’s.) Since it was meant to exploit 3D–my brain doesn’t do 3D so we saw it regular-flat-style–it has more than a few moments that are conspiculously sticky-out-of-the-screen-y, but it’s not horrible in that regard.

And the stop-motion is very fine, indeed. It’s even more impressive to think that, in this day-and-age when computers can simulate this style of animation (or even more, that computers fulfill the needs stop-motion animation was originally meant to address), that there are teams of people out there moving little dolls around a millimeter at a time. And you get to marvel at the broken mirrors, the running water, and all the other little things that seem impossible with just stop-motion. (There are some parts that were surely computer animated, but not that many!)

The only caveat I have is that the movie is probably over-rated. It’s very good, but not a mind-blowing revelation. I think a lot of the hype comes from the fact that Neil Gaiman–a comic book luminary along the lines of Alan Moore or Frank Miller–wrote the story on which this was based.

It’s a fine story. And a fine movie. Part of the reason for both, though, is that it doesn’t have grand pretensions. It’s a nice, moral fairy tale. Enjoy it for being that.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Cannibal Women In The Avocado Jungle Of Death

This little known camp gem is the story of a–well, I’m not exactly sure, really, that it’s post-apocalyptic. All I know is that somehow, the Avocado Jungle has sprung up between San Bernardino and the Arizona border, it’s the only source of the apparently vital avocado crop in the US, and a hyper-feminist group of cannibals known as the Piranha Women are refusing to let the precious fruit (vegetable?) be harvested.

This is a profoundly ridiculous movie, part Apocalypse Now, part Indiana Jones, and a kind of kissing cousin to the Richard Chamberlain/Sharon Stone camp spoof Alan Quartermain and The Lost City of Gold.

Adrienne Barbeau (hi, Troop!) is Dr. Kurtz, leader of the feminists, while Shannon Tweed heads a crew consisting of Karen Mistal Waldron and–I’m not making this up–Bill Maher. There’s some very good chemistry between Barbeau and Tweed, and Karen Waldron is surprisingly good as the dumb blonde. (I mean that seriously, she looks like a bimbo, but she has good comic timing.)

Obviously, this isn’t Citizen Kane, but I laughed like an idiot. (“Like” he says.)

Actually, Bill Maher is the weak link in this, which surprised me at the time I saw it because I was a big fan of his. But the reason the movie works to the extent it does is because everyone is playing it straight, like a ZAZ movie, and Maher can’t stop smirking. That aspect of it is painful to watch.

You definitely have to have a taste for this style of camp, which was really huge in the low-budget direct-to-video ‘80s, but if you do, it’s one of the better ones. (And if you are, you should also check out Nice Girls Don’t Explode from the same era.)

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Watchmen

I would hate to judge an author by the film adaptations of his work, but if I were to do so for Alan Moore, I would say he was a nihilistic misanthropist who was far enough left to make Chosmky blush. And also that he was an idiot. But while the latter would probably be true of assessments made of most authors based on screen adaptations, there may be some merit to the former.

This is the guy who gave us V for Vendetta after all. Also League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I have to believe that’s not as stupid as it sounds, and it couldn’t possibly be as dumb as the movie made it out to be. I just have to believe that, if I’m to have any faith in humanity at all.

Let me back up a bit and just talk about the movie: This is a decent superhero action flick, surprisingly entertaining for its length (two-and-a-half hours, not counting credits). The story takes place in an alternate 1985, and the premise is that masked heroes started appearing ca. World War II, and a second generation appeared in the ‘60s and helped the USA fight (and win!) the Vietnam War. (As if we lost that war for military or even enemy morale reasons.)

This win, and apparently the use of our five superheroes by President Nixon allows him to seek a fifth term–1968, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984–and somewhere around his third term, he makes masked vigilantism a crime. So our heroes are retired (a la Incredibles, which probably took a little inspiration from here) and either working clandestinely or not at all.

The story begins with one of the heroes, the Comedian, being killed. The Comedian’s kind of a psychopathic Punisher type who really enjoyed Vietnam, and in one appalling scene opens fire on a crowd of protesters while screaming about the American Dream having come true. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a fine job playing this “nuanced” character.

The hyper-violent Rorschach, who most reminded me of The Question, suspects foul play. Or rather, suspects fouler play than just a random burglary. He warns the Nite Owl, reminiscent of the Blue Beetle, but really evocative of a clunky Batman (complete with lots of money and toys), and the Nite Owl warns Ozymandias, now a super-successful businessman who’s working on a cheap power source with the help of Dr. Manhattan.

Dr. Manhattan was exposed to some super-science thing that allows him to see into his own future and past, and apparently to give others the same power. Like his girlfriend, the Silk Spectre, who seems to be the only hero who inherited the position from her mother. Anyway, Dr. Manhattan’s superpowers don’t include giving a damn, which puts a strain on their relationship.

Anyway, there’s lots going on, and director Zach Snyder keeps the action coming so that the story never gets bogged down. I’m always amused by the sort of critical reception of movie like this gets: Apparently it confused the poor dears. It’s actually not at all confusing; it is, however, high volume, and some things are done shockingly poorly for such an A-level production.

The acting is largely top notch. I mentioned Morgan as the Comedian, but Patrick Wilson (most known to me as the guy who gets tortured by Ellen Page in the neat little horror flick Hard Candy) does a very fine job as Nite Owl, and Billy Crudup does well with a difficult role as the subtly emotional Dr. Manhattan. I found Malin Akerman, who plays the Black Canary-esque Silk Spectre, a little grating and occasionally radiating a kind of bimbotude, which was just tragically wrong for that part.

Once again, though, newly reborn Jackie Earle Haley (Bad News Freakin’ Bears!) just kicks ass as the uncompromising terror, Rorschach. And he does it, for the most part, through a completely opaque, featureless mask. (Featureless except for the shifting pattern on it.)

So, while the acting is overall quite good, there is some wicked bad makeup. The makeup for the Nixon and Pat Robertson characters, for example, is just ostentatiously bad. Carla Gugino, who plays the original Silk Specter, does a fine job, but her old age makeup reminds me of that episode of the Brady Bunch where Peter plays Benedict Arnold. (Maybe I’m just hyper-critical of old age makeup and maybe I was turned off by the Nixon caricature after Frost/Nixon, but that’s how it seemed.)

The familiar let’s-open-an-action-scene-with-a-pop-song approach takes a beating here, too. The Hendrix version of Along The Watchtower is used, for example, and it fell flat with me. Worst of all–people are talking about this one a lot–was the use of Leonard Cohen’s version of Hallelujah.

People, it was a dubious choice to have Leonard Cohen singing in the documentary about his own life, I’m Your Man. Putting his voice and the ridiculously clunky Hallelujah Chorus Singers that grace his recording of that song over a sex scene–not subtly in the background but loudly and insistently–was ridiculously tin-eared.

The other thing I’m on the fence about is the fact that, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, they’re all just regular heroes, not super heroes. That is, they have no powers. Except that they sort of do. I mean, in the opening scene where The Comedian is fighting his assailant, walls and furniture get smashed through. Rorschach scales walls as though attached to wires. Ozymandias is faster than a speeding bullet. And so on.

I dunno. A certain amount of “super” heroism is pretty much standard in action films. It was better than bogging down the film with a bunch of origins stories. (I had a minor but similar sort of feeling about the technology used by the Nite Owl. It was so clearly of today and not of the ’80s; I would have liked to see future tech as imagined in the ’80s.)

Overall, a flawed, but engaging movie.

The Boy pronounced it “Entertaining. But it had a message, and I don’t know what it was. It would have been better without it.”

But, of course, I knew what the message was, and I’m sure it seemed so incredibly profound back in ’86 when this was written, that a lot of people are clinging to the story’s “greatness” now without observing the irony that it was terribly, self-indulgently wrong. See, the authors proceeded from the standpoint that the human race was on the brink of destroying itself in ’85, and built themselves a story around that concept.

Man’s capacity for self-destruction is, of course, a fond topic for writers, as well as how to diver that energy elsewhere. Ray Bradbury wrote an upbeat little story called “The Toynbee Convector”, for example on how a time machine saved humanity. This wouldn’t be that story.

No, this is a story where imperialist America goes unchecked and–you know, when you get down to it, the villain is none other than Richard Nixon–brings the world to the brink of destruction.

Heroes are made from sadists and neurotics and mass-murderers, and the desire to create a “nuanced” story turns–as it always does–into a soap opera’s celebration of pettiness. Dr. Manhattan gains incredible knowledge and wisdom, and as a result becomes detached from his humanity–not so detached that he can’t cheat on his wife with a younger woman, but detached enough that he can’t decide whether humanity is worth saving. The climactic scenes work–they vary from the graphic novel–but they don’t bear much thinking about.

It’s not that there aren’t a lot of conflicting messages here, because there are, and there are supposed to be. You’re supposed to make your own moral, which is what good artists allow the viewer to do. But the backdrop that that decision is supposed to made against is false, and rife with ugliness and ennui.

I haven’t read the graphic novel; The Boy and I both eschewed that, feeling that the movie should stand on its own, and I think it does. Ultimately, whether the grim world view presented–and the few upbeat notes therein–are the influence of Moore (who had his name taken off the production) or Snyder or Gibbons (who illustrated the comic) doesn’t really matter.

It’s so very ’80s, though, like Blade Runner, American Psycho and The Dark Knight Returns. The ’80s generation, in its own way, is insufferable as the ’60s generation was: Faced with unprecedented wealth and the demise of the great threat of our time, everyone was just so freaking convinced the world was coming to an end. (At least the Dark Knight embraced the notion that hard times meant heroes had to be even more heroic, on an even larger scale.)

Just in case you thought it mattered which Republican was in the White House.

So I give it a reserved recommendation–but you might find yourself a little embarrassed. There was talk of a sequel–I don’t think the movie will do as well as predicted–but that would only be slightly less stupid than a sequel to Snyder’s last film: 300.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Doomsday

I haven’t done one of these in a while but Hoosier Daddy was waxing enthusiastic on the charms of Rhona Mitra (whom I only know as the hot next-door neighbor chick that Kevin Bacon rapes in The Hollow Man) so I thought I’d have it on when Cinemax showed it in high-def. In Doomsday, Mitra channels Milla Jovovich through Kate Beckinsale. (And she does it in a cast that includes Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell; those English can turn out a cast regardless of the movie, can’t they?)

The movie itself–well, as I’ve said before, there aren’t really a lot of “sound” post-apocalyptic thrillers. Even the best usually suffer from some logical fundamental flaw. In Doomsday, writer/director Neil Marshall–who also wrote the surprisingly cogent The Descent–doesn’t even try.

This is one where knowing the director set out to lift things directly from other films doesn’t really help. You keep recalling where you’ve seen what you’re seeing, and remembering how much more you enjoyed that other film. For a complete neophyte, that wouldn’t be the case, of course, but unless the viewer is totally swept up in fairly run-of-the-mill effects–maybe hasn’t seen any film ever made–the whole thing is a head-scratcher.

The plot is that there’s a virus outbreak in Scotland (reminiscent of the disease in Planet Terror) so England decides to wall it up (Escape from New York). A little girl is rescued at the last moment but loses an eye (a la Snake Plissken) which later is fitted with a remotely-controllable prosthetic (Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire). As a grownup, she is a super-duper fighting machine (Resident Evil) working for some sort of special forces group that needs her to go behind the wall to retrieve the Mad Doctor working on a cure (Escape from New York again; actually, unless otherwise noted, assume the plot point came from Escape from New York).

Behind the wall her highly unprofessional SWAT-like team (Aliens) is beset by gang members (The Warriors) who destroy their vehicles (Dawn of the Dead-remake style) and the gang members even eat one of the crew (A Boy and His Dog). Escaping from these guys on a train (another Harry Potter reference?) they find themselves in a newly reconstructed medieval Scotland (Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness) where Mitra must fight a gladiator (Gladiator) before they can escape with the goods.

Malcolm McDowell plays a Colonel Kurtz-type character (Apocalypse Now) and the whole thing climaxes with a chase scene straight out of Road Warrior. The ending is a reasonable transposition of Escape From New York with Mitra betraying her ostensible bosses and then, inexplicably, becoming queen of the punk gang who tried to kill her? I think that’s what that last scene was about but I wouldn’t swear to it. It was very Escape, too, though, reminding of the “boxing” scene where Snake Plissken kills the big guy to everyone’s approval.

I just didn’t give a damn.

You could say, cruelly but not unfairly, that this film swam in cinematic greatness and never got wet. For all the budget, acting and fetching costumery, it comes off like any of 500 low-budget movies made after Road Warrior.

But since our topic is post-apocalyptical fun, we should look at how ridiculously constructed the apocalypse part was. One nice touch is that it’s just Scotland and the wall that fences it in is right where Hadrian’s Wall was.

OK, quarantining is fine. Logical even. Most of the movie takes place 20 years later, when nobody with the disease is left alive. The entire population is immune. Yet the plan is to send someone in to get the guy who may have found a cure. Though, really, why would anyone assume that? Diseases peter out without human intervention all the time. And what possible system could a guy cut off from all support develop to inoculate people? Scotland’s under surveillance the whole time, how bad could their intel be?

Given that all of Scotland’s immune, why keep up the wall at all? Especially after the disease turns up in England?

“Well, it’s there. And we had a divil of a time putting it up, so there it stays!”

The first thing they show us when we’re in the newly recovered Scotland is a veritable horde of cattle. So whither cannibalism?

And why, with plenty of food around, and the legendary resourcefulness of the Scots, do these post-punks just hang around waiting for someone to come through the gate to terrorize and kill them? Especially given that it had never happened before (or at least not very often)?

How do they keep their S&M gear so neat and shiny?

Where’d the cars come from? And if they had them, and gas, why not use them? And can you really unbox a 20 year old Bentley and have it run like it was fresh off the line? (If so, I suppose that would explain the expense.)

I can sort of see why there wouldn’t be any old folks among the punks, but where were the children?

Why does everything explode when a car hits it? Are they storing boxes of explosives everywhere? Why?

Is movie violence really more entertaining when you show everything getting reduced to a bloody pulp?

Why is it that there always seemed to be plenty of whatever technology that was needed around but nobody had bothered to try to turn that into a sustainable lifestyle? Why, if they were dealing with a limited supply, was use not strictly rationed and substitutes found?

Obviously, I’m overthinking this: The movie never rises above “ooh, look at the pretty explosions” and it was clearly never meant to. It was meant to be “outrageous” in the director’s own words.

But you have a problem when you can’t even be bothered to give us some characterizations that we care about. Even the Resident Evil movies (which you borrowed so heavily from) manage to do that. And you can’t blame it on the actors.

Note that this all could’ve been done with a more plausible storyline and it would have worked–well, it would’ve worked better. Or it could’ve been done completely outrageously, a la Shoot ‘em Up. Then it would’ve been funny, at least.

It seems instead like, on the one hand, they were going for an honest homage (like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark) while on the other they wanted to show they were too smart to be sincere about this stuff.

Until next time, mutants: Stay radiated!