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Column Fri Oct 23 2009

Amelia, Astro Boy, Motherhood, An Education, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, Antichrist and Walt & El Grupo


When it comes to biography films, the absolute worst thing you can be is pointless. But in so many ways, this look at the famous years of Amelia Earhart's life and career is exactly that. When a historical figure's accomplishments are so well documented and their demise so infamous, you don't need to spend as much time detailing the events that are in every history book. In fact, it's an excellent opportunity to get inside the head and heart of the subject. What's particularly frustrating about Amelia is that I know so little about Earhart as a child and her upbringing — all of the things that brought her to such notoriety — yet the film decides to introduce us to her after she's already fairly famous and well on her way to becoming the most famous woman in America.

Two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank is actually the perfect choice to play Earhart. She has a ready smile, more personality than the screen can contain, and substantial acting chops to get the job done. Richard Gere plays her faithful manager/husband George Putnam, and he's selected a voice that is perhaps a little too similar to the one he used in Chicago. Apparently he thinks everyone in the 1930s spoke like a Movietone News announcer. But the portrayal of their love affair that turned into a marriage left me cold. What's worse is that her affair with fellow pilot Gene Vidal (father of Gore, who is shown here as a young boy) also comes across as a little blah, which is doubly surprising since he's played by Ewan McGregor, who has had some success playing romantic leads. The biggest problem with McGregor is that he's barely in the movie enough to make you enjoy his company. It feels like miles of scenes with him in them were cut, whether they actually were or not.

Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala, The Namesake) is a wonderful magician when it comes to creating movies, and Amelia is loaded with gorgeous sets, costume, scenery, and cinematography. So the problem with the film does not lie in her abilities. No, the reason Amelia lies so flat and comes across as so dreadfully dull is the screenplay from Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, which feels like a collection of headlines, speeches and quotable quotes strung together in the sloppiest possible way. Even the most intimate scenes feel like the dialogue was ripped out of a drug store romance novel, and it cheapens the life story of an extraordinary woman.

The film is not without its moments. A quick scene in which Earhart meets Eleanor Roosevelt is brought to life mainly through the casting of Cherry Jones as the First Lady. Probably the best sequence, however, is the final 20 minutes or so, which depict Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) final moments in the sky. I'm assuming that what we see is based on fact, since their final broadcasts were heard by the Coast Guard stationed at what would have been their final refueling point before completing their journey in California. It's remarkably tense and well acted, and I wish the rest of the film had felt that intimate. Alas, most of what we get with Amelia is surface-level television biography fare that didn't tell me a thing about Earhart,or about what inspires someone to achieve the seemingly impossible. If Swank gets some sort of knee-jerk Oscar nomination for this role, I'll be surprised and hugely disappointed — coincidentally the exact two feelings I had about this movie.

Astro Boy

Appreciation levels of today's animated offerings seem to be squarely of a collective mindset that thinks that only films like Up and Coraline are worth your time attention because they appeal to adults almost more than they do children, and that movies like Monsters vs. Aliens or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or the Ice Age movies are strictly for the unsophisticated kids audience. What's interesting about Astro Boy, the first feature film to spotlight the wildly popular Japanese comic book and animated series, is that I think it straddles the line between light and dark, adult and kids fare rather nicely, and it does so with a smashing visual style that isn't quite equalled by its overly simplistic plot. In and amongst the message of friendship and treating everyone equally and the destruction of the class system (wha?!) are some subversive wonders that I got a real kick out of. For example, the movie opens with a child dying! Yay! Enjoy the hell out of that, you 7-year-old. Also, the primary villain is the President of the United States (voiced by Donald Sutherland). OK, granted he's the old-school, ancient white guy kind of president, but he's the president, and he's trying to kill a little kid for much of the film. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Astro Boy the movie attempts something the other versions of the Japanese character never did — to tell an origin story.

Nicolas Cage voices Dr. Tenma, a robotics expert whose life is nearly ruined when his son is accidentally killed. He comes up with the idea of creating the most human-like robot ever, a version of his son named Astro (voiced by Freddie Highmore) that is almost immediately banished from Tenma's life when he realizes he's made a terrible mistake. The action takes place in a version of the future where a functional piece of floating property known as Metro City exists in the clouds above the waste of a planet below, littered by millions of worn out or other wise dysfunctional robots. Astro meets some new friends on the surface, all of whom think he's human. His new friends include Cora (Kristen Bell), a punky little bundle of energy, who eventually grows to trust Astro and allows him to join their gang of youngsters, overseen Oliver Twist-style by Hamegg (Nathan Lane). Ham happens to run gladiator-style robot wars, which Astro is slightly appalled by, since the battles are to the death.

Meanwhile, the President is looking for ways to weaponize Tenma's Astro prototype. The President dons some battle armor (known as the Peacekeeper) and heads out looking for Astro, somehow absorbing all other robots in the process and becoming an ever-growing robot in the process. Not surprisingly, Astro's two worlds eventually do collide, and the inequity between the cloud dwellers and surface dwellers can no longer be avoided. Highmore (best known as Charlie in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) does a decent job voicing Astro and filling him with a sense of childish wonder, especially when he discovers how many kick-ass weapons his body has tucked away for high-pressure situations. I loved pretty much every scene involving the President; he's just so hilariously evil that you kind of wonder how this guy got the job. And Bell is cute even in animated form.

I wasn't blown away by any aspect of Astro Boy, but it is a fun, beautifully rendered work that I really wish has been in 3-D. The way the action sequences are directed, it almost felt like it was made to be in 3-D, but even in 2-D I was pretty captivated by the details in this world. Also keep an ear out for some fine voice work by the likes of the incomparable Bill Nighy, Eugene Levy as a servant robot, Charlize Theron, and Samuel L. Jackson as a big-ass robot. The film's plot is fairly simplistic, and this may be a case of getting through the origin story in the hopes that if another Astro Boy movie gets made, it will benefit from using a better story. But what's here is better than average, and if you don't like to think too hard during your animated movies, then this is your guy this weekend. Call this is a mixed review leaning in favor of recommending it. I had fun watching the pretty colors, but forgot most of what I saw within hours of it ending.

To read my exclusive interviews with Astro Boy stars Kristen Bell and Freddie Highmore and director David Bowers, go to Ain't It Cool News.


I'm not sure exactly what happened, but ever since she wrapped up the Kill Bill movies, Uma Thurman has been slowly but surely killing her career with miserable choice after miserable choice to the point where her last movie, The Accidental Husband, wasn't even given a theatrical release in the United States and is now slated to come out on DVD in a couple of weeks. All of this is doubly surprising considering that prior to Kill Bill, she was choosing some pretty strong films, such as Tape, Sweet and Lowdown, Hysterical Blindness and Chelsea Walls, which was directed by her ex-husband Ethan Hawke. I'm not saying her track record was flawless before reuniting with Quentin Tarantino (neither God nor I will ever forgive her for The Avengers or Batman and Robin), but nothing excuses a five-year run that takes you from Paycheck to Be Cool to Prime to My Super Ex-Girlfriend. And I realize that going straight to DVD or video on demand isn't the movie hell it was once considered, but The Accidental Husband was absolutely made for theatrical distribution and deemed by someone "not worth the effort."

But Thurman's latest and perhaps greatest sin against cinema and all things that are holy is Motherhood, a self-congratulatory slice of garbage that appears to be a tribute to anyone "brave" enough to have a baby and raise their child in a major metropolitan area — in this case, the West Village of New York City. Way to live on the edge, Uma. And while I'm all for celebrating motherhood (the practice, not the movie) and parents struggling to make ends meet while balancing career and child rearing, this isn't that tribute. This is about a woman (Thurman) living one day of her not-so-terrible life simply trying to do too much in one day and waiting until the last minute to plan her daughter's birthday party. Uma's Eliza is stretched thin, and her criminally inattentive yet still sweet-as-a-daisy husband (Anthony Edwards) is largely to blame. But she still finds time to flirt with a young, handsome delivery guy (Arjun Gupta), and add entries to her somewhat famous mommy blog. And for some reason, Minnie Driver is on hand as Eliza's best friend, who decides to unload a gross story about using one of her child's bathtub playthings as a sex toy. Thanks for that, PG-13 movie.

I don't tend to read the hype-machine elements of any film's press notes, but I happen to notice a reference that floored me in the notes for Motherhood, which is said to be "equal parts Mrs. Dalloway and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Bullshit and bullshit. This is a grating, insulting celebration of upper middle class living. Don't dislocate your shoulder patting yourselves on the back. There's really no one to blame more than writer-director Katherine Dieckmann, whose last film, Diggers (which she didn't write) I genuinely enjoyed. I am impressed every day by my friends with children. But they don't think of themselves as saints worthy of a choir of angels singing their praises to the heavens because they got their kid to school on time. And Thurman just doesn't do frazzled well. She's wearing glasses to hide her flawless features (fail) and tugging at her pulled back hair constantly to convey the sense of this woman on the edge persona that just comes across as nothing but false. Motherhood began by boring me then graduated to annoying me, and left me cold and angry at its very existence. There is nothing authentic or educational about Eliza's tribulations. If anything, you'll probably leave the film going, "What is she whining about?" Do yourself a favor and leave this one in the Diaper Genie.

An Education

I walked into this fantastic little British production knowing next to nothing about who was in it or what it was about. So as each new layer of the story revealed itself, I was more and more impressed as time went one. From an original script by author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy), An Education is a coming-of-age tale about a high school girl (played with youthful elegance by newcomer Carey Mulligan, who I believe is supposed to be 16 here) and an older suitor, played by Peter Sarsgaard. When Sarsgaard's character enters the schoolgirl's life, he takes her off her path to Oxford (more specifically, her father's path for her) and introduces her to a world of luxury, glamour and, yes, sex. But we realize early on that something is slightly hidden and off about Sarsgaard aside from the fact that he's pursuing an underage girl. He's got a secret concerning his job that she finds both disappointing and thrilling all at once.

The film would be worth seeing if only for Mulligan's performance. An Education is ground-zero for the world taking her seriously as an actress, and she's set the bar high for her acting career. I also liked Alfred Molina as her father, who starts the film as the typical overprotective dad, but whose weaknesses are quickly exposed and exploited by Sarsgaard as he somehow gets the girl's parents to approve of his intentions for their daughter. I may be making the film sound a bit on the sleazy side, but the truth is, the film operates on a largely sophisticated level. Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) does a tremendous job with this character study, which not only examines our leads, but also takes the time to get to know and peer into the lives of the supporting cast, which also includes Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Sally Hawkins, Lynn Barber and Dominic Cooper. The film is, at times, lighter than air and heavy beyond words. For such a small film, it takes you on one of the biggest life journeys I've seen in ages. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

This film is really simple to break down. Any time the action focuses on one of the two younger male leads — Josh Hutcherson of Zathura and Journey to the Center of the Earth fame, or newcomer Chris Massoglia — the movie breaks down. Whenever there's a more seasoned cast member inevitably stealing the scene from Massoglia (playing the focal character Darren) or Hutcherson (playing his best friend Steve), the movie is humorlessly entertaining. Fortunately for Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, based on the first three novels in a series of 12 by Darren Shan (yes, the author gave his lead character his name). The film almost demands comparisons to Twilight, and that's fine since both series are centered on young vampires dealing with not only life in the undead world but also their own unformed maturity.

Cirque du Freak is the better first movie thanks to its freak show environment that allows us to meet all sorts of bizarre-looking and -acting souls, including John C. Reilly's Larten Crepsley. Half the time, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be laughing at Reilly's portrayal of this foppish ringleader, who changes Darren into his own personal Renfield (go read your Dracula if you don't get the reference). Darren and Steve sneak out late at night and hit a traveling freak show that has come through their town. They somehow figure out that Crepsley is a vampire, and this leads to Darren sneaking into Crepsley's dressing room and getting busted. The friendship is fractured when Darren is turned (I guess Steve didn't like the idea of his friend becoming a vampire without him), but Darren is too busy marveling at the circus-like environment to notice at first. We meet such splendid creatures as Salma Hayek as the bearded lady, Orlando Jones as this hideously skinny dude, Ken Watanabe as Mr. Tall (sometimes the names tell you all you need to know), Frankie Faison as Rhamus Twobellies, Jane Krakowski as Corma Limbs (she can grow back severed body parts), Patrick Fugit's marvelously laid-back take as Evra the Snake Boy, and Willem Dafoe possibly gay vampire Gavner Purl, who is only in the film briefly, but if they make more of these, he'll play a more prominent role in future installments.

The big-picture story involves a 200-year-old war between tribes of vampires, the more villainous of the two called the Vampaneze, lead by the nasty Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson of "Rome" fame). And that pretty much sets the stage for what I'm hoping will be a franchise. Cirque du Freak isn't a great movie, but it's good enough that I'm curious where things go from this point. Director Paul Weitz (who co-wrote the adaptation with Brian Helgeland and is the brother of New Moon director Chris Weitz) has added a mildly perverse element to the story, which I sincerely appreciated. There's also a rich visual component to the movie that helps distract us when the plot gets thin, which is more often than I would have liked. Still, when you've got John C. Reilly as your maudlin, brooding vampire lead whose comic timing is active whether he wants it to be or not, something special is bound to result. All of this said, this film is clearly aimed squarely at the 'tween and young teen audience, even more so that the Twilight books. But a saga focusing on a mixed-up teen boy whose hormonal imbalance is replaced by a mild lust for blood is an appealing, if obvious, metaphor.

Some significant improvements need to be made before another chapter in this series can get made, primarily having to do with Massoglia and Hutcherson's acting. The former simply can't yet, as he stands there like a newly planted tree that people simply step around as easily as they could mow down. The latter is a better performer, but there's a smug quality to him that goes beyond what is called for in the character. It's a knowing that because of his good looks, somewhere out in the darkness young girls are swooning over him and his confidence. And it kind of takes over from his actual acting. We'll call that quality "Pattinson-esque," after the man who perfected it. Cirque du Freak gets a barely passing grade for what happens on the outskirts, but the next film better make its foreground at least as interesting or I smell trouble.


In what was the most divisive film at the Cannes Film Festival, and may end up being the most divisive of the year, period, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist opens with what is the most beautiful prologue you will see in 2009. It ends with acts of sexual brutality (inflicted by a man and a woman against each other and themselves) that are difficult to describe even on the filterless internet. In between these unforgettable book ends is actually where the controversy occurs. There's a whole lot of psychobabble between a distraught wife (the wonderfully neurotic/psychotic Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her therapist husband (the remarkable Willem Dafoe). I found the on-the-go, free-flowing analysis fascinating; others have found it mind-numbingly inane and insufferable. And I don't think I'd pick a fight with people who feel that way.

The cabin-in-the-foggy-woods setting and the bizarre, excessive mutilations in the film's final minutes gave the entire experience a fairy tale quality to it, and I think it's possible that Antichrist actually hypnotized me. If less intriguing and talented actors were at the center of this movie, I don't think I would have liked it as much. But Dafoe and Gainsbourg maneuver through this murky plot like masters. If you have the stomach for the violence, the rest of Antichrist will probably impress you. My first reaction after the film ended was that it was neither as bloody or shocking as I'd been led to believe. It was the emotional trauma of the entire work that stuck with me and not simply the shocking visuals. Give this one a try, if only to celebrate the fact that Von Trier is still making movies that people cannot stop talking about. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Antichrist (and Cirque du Freak) star Willem Dafoe.

Walt & El Grupo

Truly one of the most interesting tales I've ever heard about the early years of Walt Disney Studios is the one that took place when the still fledgling company experienced its first strike (by certain low-paid artists who wanted to get paid as much or around the same as the studio's top animators). Discouraged by his funny little company getting so serious, Walt Disney (the man, not the studio) entered into an agreement with the Roosevelt administration to lead a team of artists, story editors and others in the organization on a goodwill trip through South America (specifically Argentina, Brazil and Chile), where Disney's team would learn as much as they could about certain Latin cultures and created Latin-themed animated works. The fear by the U.S. government was that rising Nazi and fascist influences were slowly infiltrating South America, and what they wanted Disney to do is a little unclear. The traveling circus of creatives was collectively known as El Grupo (the group, as in "Sr. Disney and el grupo, please come this way."

I'm familiar with a couple of the resulting animated short features, but I was oblivious to the wonderful story of the lengthy journey these folks took, and just how many sketches, animations and other means of expression the artists came up with on the trip. In many ways, because each local government would roll out the red carpet for Disney and his teammates, the creatives never got a chance to really dive in and sample a country's personality and people. This beyond intricately researched documentary does a remarkable job of finding letters that were written to loved ones back home from the artists and writers. Those who were on the trip or the surviving members of their families are interviewed, and some incredible facts comes to light about the way storylines, music and characters came out of the 10-week trip.

Director Theodore Thomas (whose last work was the must-see Frank and Ollie, about two of Disney's original animators who helped shape the Disney style) has a genuine gift for piecing together archival film footage, photographs and hundreds of sketches to put together a joyous portrait of a group of friends that took a working vacation together and came back rejuvenated and full of ideas. As lest you think this is some sort of Disney puff piece, not so. The details about the artists' strike do not paint Uncle Walt in the best light, and the film seems to indicate that the people who went on the trip didn't end up producing nearly as much as they thought the would. (Walt & El Grupo does lay to rest rumors that Disney was frozen upon his death, which is disappointing to me on some level.) I was fascinated by the movie from start to finish. There's so much to learn about film history, U.S. history, and how the two coincide more often than you might think.

I think it's a split decision as to whether or not the trip did any good in the name of world relations, but if only to see Walt & El Grupo come to light, it was worth it from where I'm sitting. I truly loved this documentary, and would love to see more like it from the Disney folks (the Making Of features on your deluxe DVD are a nice start). The only downside to this movie is that it's only opening in Chicago at AMC Pipers Alley, the single worst movie theater in the state of Illinois. So hold your breath, lower your standards, but prepare to be someone be dazzled by this winning experience despite the theater's best attempts at ruining your good time.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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