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Column Fri Mar 27 2009
Monsters vs. Aliens
One of the biggest corners of my heart is held in reserve for old (usually black-and-white) sci-fi films. I'm talking ginormous man-in-suit monsters, slow-moving aliens with tentacles and either one or 50 eyes, or regular-sized animals that are made to look humongous as they terrorize poor citizens like us. Watch any of them repeatedly and you notice one thing almost without fail: they are about 85 percent chatter and 15 percent actual creature feature... if you were lucky. The philosophies and theories bandied about were pretty hilarious, and were usually just an excuse to keep the cameras rolling to get that running time to at least 75 minutes. Now imagine taking the best parts of these alien invasion flicks, these giant spider films, these creeping menace pictures, and these home-grown mutated abominations of nature movies and tossing them all into one big 3D animated work, and you have some idea of just how much fun Monsters vs. Aliens was for me.
In a way, you could look at Monsters vs. Aliens as the ultimate superhero team movie. A colossal alien robot lands on Earth carrying a message from one Gallaxhar (voiced with pure maniacal splendor by Rainn Wilson), who tells the President of the United States (the inspired casting of Stephen Colbert in this role is enough to recommend it) that he's essentially going to destroy the world. Fair enough. In his very Dr. Strangelove-like War Room, the President listens to his advisors list the options on how to handle this situation. But only Gen. W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland, complete with gravelly Southern accent) has a solution that seems like it might work — to unleash a group of captured "monsters" that the government has hidden in a secret facility on the alien invader in exchange for their freedom.
The film actually opens with a wedding. Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is about to wed weatherman Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd). But just before the wedding, a meteorite falls from the sky and lands on Susan. She miraculously survives, but during the ceremony she grows to 49 feet, 11.5 inches tall (I guess rounding up would have been a copyright violation). Her cowardly husband-to-be leaves her at the alter — actually she destroys the church, so the alter is pretty much kindling at this point — and Susan is quickly snatched up by Monger's team and she's placed in a giant holding cell.
So who makes up the world's only defense against alien destruction? Seth Rogen voices B.O.B., a gelatinous creature who has no brain and is virtually indestructible; Hugh Laurie is the mad scientist Dr. Cockroach PhD, a play off of The Fly; Will Arnett is the cocky Missing Link, a big of a cross between The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Bigfoot; and an oversized slug/caterpillar thing called Insectasaurus. Susan is given the code name Ginormica, and the team sets off to deal with the powerful alien robot.
There's no doubt in my mind that B.O.B. is going to be the fan favorite of the bunch. Aside from being just plain funny, B.O.B. is basically the stoner creature — he's easily distracted, giggles at everything, and, you know, he's a blob of a guy. It's great to hear Laurie's British accent return to add a bit of gravitas to Cockroach's ravings. And although Witherspoon basically sounds like herself, she has the toughest job. She's our entry point into this story and these characters. She's scared, has no idea exactly what the limits of her powers are, and she called upon to perform this weighty task at a time in her life when the bride-to-be Susan didn't now what direction her life was going to take after getting married. I've heard the complaint often that there are no strong female lead characters in animated films anymore (Coraline aside). Complain no more — Susan is your girl, er, woman. And she fills out a nearly 50-foot black jumpsuit rather nicely.
One of the fun things about the film is also that there are guest voices tucked away in some very small roles. Listen carefully for the likes of Jeffrey Tambor, Amy Poehler, Ed Helms, Renee Zellweger and John Krasinski. No joking, some of these people have one or two lines, tops. But the best thing about Monsters vs. Aliens is that it takes its cues from science fiction films of old. Gallaxhar isn't some play on one particular alien from another film; he's every alien enemy rolled into one. These are details in the camera work, the music and the story that you will absolutely love if you have an affection for these types of classic genre works.
And I haven't even talked about the unbelievable 3D. I've seen a lot of 3D in recent months, but this has got to be the best 3D I've seen in an animated film. There's something about having the giant creatures interacting with smaller people that makes the 3D pop off the screen, and without tossing stuff at the camera every five minutes. There's a scale and depth to this 3D work that is unrivaled. One of the sequences the crowd at Ain't It Cool's Butt-numb-a-thon X saw was a fight scene on the Golden Gate Bridge. Holy crap, that is the absolute best scene in the movie. And seeing it a second time in the context of the completed film, I was even more impressed with it. Your jaw will collect bugs from being open for so long.
Now please understand, this movie is rated PG, which means it's aimed directly at the younger sect. But honestly, I had as much fun watching this as the kids in my audience. And being able to understand the clandestine adult humor and the sight gags and more overt stuff, I may have even enjoyed it a little more than the youngsters. Co-director (along with Rob Letterman) Conrad Vernon was also a director on Shrek 2, probably the best melding of evergreen jokes, modern references and innuendo in an animated work allegedly aimed more at children. He knows where all the lines are drawn and exactly how far over them he can put his big toe. Sure the film is sweet and charming most of the time, but it's when things get a little ornery and mischievous that things really start to cook. There's a devilish undercurrent that props up Monsters vs. Aliens and makes it something special. In case you couldn't tell, I had a blast watching this movie.
The Haunting in Connecticut
I had to think about this one, perhaps more than I've thought about most attempts at scare films in recent years. I can't imagine anyone who likes a good creepy movie hasn't become more than a little frustrated in recent years with PG-13 horror films that use the same old tricks of jump music (I've heard these moments referred to as "Dolby punches" — loud music or noises designed to make the audience jump the same way a light falling from the ceiling and crashing behind you might) and CGI effects. I know I sound like a broken record when I say this, but it bears repeating — CGI isn't scary and cheap tricks to make the audience flinch with no attention to mood or character is cheating and ultimately will make the horror fans of the world hate your movie.
While technically quite competent and featuring some good acting, The Haunting in Connecticut is textbook horror for teens. I'm not saying that these movies can't be good — the American version of The Ring is a prime example of truly scary PG-13 horror — but this one doesn't take advantage of some excellent opportunities to tell a new kind of haunted house story mixed with a family drama. In its current state, the film feels watered down, fake, rushed and tampered with by a studio (Lionsgate) that thinks it has its finger on the pulse on what kids today want to see — welcome to the house that Saw built.
Based on the true story (yes, your BS meter should be ringing right now), Haunting in Connecticut is the story of the Campbell family, whose eldest son Matt (Kyle Gallner) is dying of cancer. After months of driving Matt many hours to and from the clinic in Connecticut where Matt receives his treatments, the family decides to rent a house closer to the doctors and make the agony of that drive a distant memory. Kyle's mother Sara (Virginia Madsen) appears to be her son's primary caregiver, while dad (Martin Donovan, the man cursed with playing a string of "shitty father" characters in movies, but he's so good at it). It doesn't take long for things in the new house to go from strange and unexplained to downright dangerous.
The initial scenes in this film as the family explores and discovers its new surrounding are pretty solid. Sara discovers a drawer filled with "death photos" — the once-common practice of taking posed photos of or with recently deceased loved ones. A few of these are shown during the film's opening credits, and they always creep me out. The one of twin brothers — one living, one dead — sitting on a bench together will stick in my head forever. Eventually Matt discovers a sealed-off room that reveals the house's first of many secrets — it used to be a funeral home. Great idea. I'm getting tired of houses being built over burial grounds, so this was a nice twist. But when you start to get deeper into the house's long-buried past involving the original owner's clairvoyant young son who would lead séances to contact the recently deceased, or when Matt begins to have visions and nightmares about the house's hidden contents, my interest began to slide in the wrong direction.
If you've seen the poster, then you know that the film also is one of the few I've seen that deals with the phenomenon of ectoplasm being coughed up during séances. Despite the clear use of CGI, the moment in the movie is one of few truly fucked up images, but it was too little too late at that point. Most of this movie is just scene after scene of you asking the family (hopefully in your head), "Why don't you leave?" Now, I'll give the film credit: it does offer a reasonable answer to this question, yet it still feels forced and stupid that Sara would be willing to endanger her family for the reasons. Another truly annoying aspect to the film is that Donovan's character vanishes for huge sections of the story. Dad used to have a drinking problem, which resurfaces amidst all of these house troubles, and he just vanishes to deal with his demons. OK, why is this important to a story about violent poltergeists? What does it add to the overall story? With an ounce of cynicism, the answer is nothing. Even his reappearance doesn't amount to anything, and it would have made more sense to make Sara a single mother than to keep this useless character around.
That said, one of Haunting in Connecticut's strongest elements is the acting. Madsen (Candyman, Sideways) does the strong, self-sacrificing thing convincingly. Gallner (who has had strong recurring roles on such shows as "The Shield," "Veronica Mars," "CSI: NY" and "Smallville") is probably the best of the bunch here. He has the appearance of a slightly smaller version of Twilight's Robert Pattinson, and I bought that his pallor and sickly demeanor would made him the ideal choice for the ghost in this house to contact, since he's half dead already. Amanda Crew from Sex Drive is strong as well as Matt's cousin, who has been brought in to look after the family's younger kids. Not faring quite as well is the usually reliable Elias Koteas as a priest who's brought in to exorcise the house or at least find out how the living can help the dead in their time of need. Koteas' performance is from another planet, one in which wild gestures are the only means of communicating.
Australian first-time director Peter Cornwell and screenwriters Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe have the framework for a pretty good movie here. But something got lost on the journey from the page to the screen. To begin with, everything feels rushed. Learning a bit more about the characters outside of this personal nightmare might have helped, and with these fine actors in place, I would have actually cared about what happened to these people if I'd gotten to know them better. The thing is, I believe Cornwell has an eye and the right enthusiasm for freaky imagery and getting across a well-earned scare or two in a horror setting, but in the end, The Haunting in Connecticut just doesn't provide an overall satisfying experience.
I'm convinced that writer-director Ramin Bahrani will never, ever run out of stories to tell because he possesses that rarest of gifts — the ability to find an interesting story in every aspect of life involving people whose stories simply are never told in movies. His first film, Man Push Cart, was literally about a food vendor in New York City whose cart is stolen and the struggle to find it again. In the critically acclaimed Chop Shop, Bahrani tells the tale of a young boy who works on a sort of chop shop row in a New York burough, where he guides cars looking for a quick cheap fix using stolen car parts. If you haven't seen his films, they are fascinating and wonderful works. His latest extraordinary effort is Goodbye Solo, perhaps his most story-driven work to date and one that takes him out of New York and back to the director's hometown in Winston-Salem, N.C. Reminding me in spirit of a less noble but equally strong version of The Visitor, this film traces the intersecting lives of two very different men.
Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) is an always-positive Senegalese cab driver whose dream is to become a flight attendant. He gets a strange request from a customer — pick him up in two weeks and drive him a great distance outside the city to a secluded location in the mountains and leave him there. The old man who makes this request is William (Red West, one-time member of Elvis Presley's Memphis Mafia), and he's willing to pay a lot of money to Solo to follow these instructions. Solo senses that the old man might be planning on ending his life on this journey and rather than attempt to talk William out of it, he simply attempts to befriend him and become his personal driver for the two weeks. Lest you think this is some story of two unlikely friends, think again. William gets so tired of Solo's intervening ways and constant stream of questions about his past that any bond between the two men is severed thoroughly.
Solo's life is also complicated, as he has a daughter and girlfriend he lives with, but his flight attendant scheme is a source of tension in his home, and for a time, he goes to live with William. Much like his other films, Bahrani has cast people I believe to be non-actors in his lead roles, and they excel in their work and bring these rich and interesting characters to life. There's no concern on their parts about how they are lit or which side is their good side; they simply play their roles as honestly as they are capable and tell a story that feels authentic and honest. But Bahrani never forgets to be entertaining and keep us guessing exactly what his characters will do next and what small secrets they are hiding just ripe for discovery. Goodbye Solo is at times devastating, hilarious, but above all else, it's very real and captivating. He makes you glad you stepped into this unknown world of the everyday and gave a story rarely told a shot. This is his best and most fully developed work, and you should seek it out. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.