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by Bill Gibron

3 Apr 2008

It’s becoming painfully obvious that modern moviemakers know nothing about making a true family film. Not just a movie aimed at a certain unsullied demographic, but an effort that sparks the imagination of anyone from ages eight to eighty. The latest attempt at finding the right formula is the undeniably uneven Nim’s Island. As a work of whimsy and wonder, it offers too many unexplainable elements. We never fully grasp the reality - or unreality - of the situations we see. On the other hand, there are parts and performances here that illustrate the direction such a project could take, especially when not guided by studio pressures or focus group interference.

On a magical South Pacific atoll, Nim Rusoe and her oceanographer father Jack lead an idealized, tranquil life. Keeping in touch with civilization via satellite phones, the Internet, and a monthly supply boat, he studies plankton/protozoa while she plays with her animal pals. Nim is also a voracious reader, and her favorite book series centers on a macho adventurer named Alex Rover. One day, an email arrives asking for information on a local volcano. It appears to be from Rover himself. Nim responds, but doesn’t know that she’s really ‘talking’ to Alexandra Rover, author of the wildly successful tomes. Living in San Francisco as a literal hermit, the agoraphobic scribe wants to avoid the real world as much as possible. But when Jack goes missing at sea, and a cruise ship arrives, Nim grows nervous. She asks for Alex Rover’s help. Thus begins a journey of self-discovery for both our anxious author and the little girl she is determined to save.

There are two amazing elements to Nim’s Island, a pair of performers that literally lift the movie out of its ditzy doldrums every time they threaten to overwhelm the spectacle. As an Oscar nominee for her work in Little Miss Sunshine, Abigail Breslin does her best to infuse the quixotic nature of the narrative with fun and familiarity. As a character who literally talks to sea lions and lizards, who can craft a tasty treat out of vegetables and meal worms, who easily survives monsoons but panics the minute she sees other humans, it’s a hard act to sell. Our spunky little lead is supposed to be viewed as heroic and helpless, capable on the outside but frightfully needy within. Breslin brings all this to her work, and it’s one of the reasons we connect with the otherwise cracked events playing out.

The other shining star is two time Academy award winner Jodie Foster. Following up her magnificent turn in last year’s The Brave One, this comic about-face verifies why she remains one of our best modern actresses. Sure, her skittish psycho routine seems a bit forced at first, but that’s just because we don’t truly understand Alexandra Rover’s plight. Foster finds the right beats so often, building a character of such subtle complexity that we forgive the blatant slapstick and pratfall foolishness. By the last act, when the danger turns from imaginary to very, very real, Foster’s face illustrates all we need to know. While some may consider it over the top, this is one performance that perfectly matches the tone attempted here.

Unfortunately, novice filmmakers Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin confuse crazy quilt culturalism with fantasy, Apparently, juxtaposing Englishmen, Americans, Aussies, Islanders, and any other eccentric ethnicity one can muster is supposed to signify something otherworldly. All it really does is mandate a set of subtitles. Similarly, there’s a reliance on cartoonish imagery and obvious CGI (especially a pelican named Galileo) that breaks the magical mood the pair strives for. Sometimes, they get things just right. The opening credits that explain what happens to Nim’s mother are novel and well done. But the entire cruise ship episode stinks of a poorly produced pilot for a Downunder sitcom. When combined with the scattered script, which sees too many leaps in logic, even for an imaginary adventure, we get the distinct impression that there is a better version of this material to be had. Nothing Flackett or Levin do inspires the kind of recognition that will make little girls want to be Nim.

Indeed, the identification factor is the primary problem that ultimately undermines Nim’s Island. We don’t mind being whisked off to places unknown, interacting with individuals totally unlike ourselves, as long as we see a little authenticity in their actions. Even the wildest, most outlandish feats will fly just as long as we feel connected to what the characters are doing. But Nim’s Island is all too insular, lost in its own unique universe somewhere between Swiss Family Robinson and Joe vs. the Volcano. As a book (by Wendy Orr), one envisions a pleasant, pulpy page turner. As a film, some of it succeeds. The rest renders the pleasantries only passable.

by Bill Gibron

3 Apr 2008

The media just loves to fawn over George Clooney. With his combination of classic Hollywood charisma and contemporary self-effacing nerve, he tends to enhance, and sometimes overwhelm, the projects he touches. From his early, ineffectual work in films like One Fine Day, to the critical acclaim accompanying his turns with the Coens, he’s a student of the old studio system as well as a jester in his own idiosyncratic kingdom of considered cool. But what’s most fascinating about this man’s career is not his rise to mainstream prominence. Instead, his unique turns behind the camera - Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck - indicate an artist willing to bend tradition in order to place his own unique stamp on cinema. His latest effort, the attempted screwball comedy Leatherheads, is no different.

Poor Dodge Connelly. All he knows is football. He’s been playing an unappreciated professional version of the sport for years, unable to capture the public imagination the way the college game has. When his team folds, he heads to Chicago to talk with old ally C.C. Frazier. The sleazy entrepreneur is representing Princeton star Carter Rutherford, and Connelly thinks he can con the young war hero into going legit. Of course, as with every story like this, there’s a dame in the mix - in this case, ace Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton. Quick with a word and decisive on a deadline, she is out to undermine Rutherford. Seems his WWI mythos might just be bunk after all. Of course, destroying his reputation may just put the fledgling fortunes of professional football in jeopardy - and Connelly won’t let that happen.

You’ve got to give Clooney credit for trying, especially when most of Leatherheads is a jaunty, jazz age dream. He’s definitely learned a lot from his many collaborations with ones Joel and Ethan, and his visual flair never fails him. This is a smart, good looking movie, never overplaying its period piece precision or resorting to camp or kitsch. Clooney’s attention to detail is flawless, his comic timing as polished as the brass of a speakeasy’s spittoon. So why then is this movie merely good, and not the amazing masterpiece it wants to be? Where did this director and his dedicated cast go wrong, especially in light of all the things they both get so very, very right?

One answer may be the genre. As Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day indicated, the screwball comedy is a dead genre for a reason - it’s hard as Hell to recreate. Not only was the format a product of its time, but it also reflected the obvious anxieties of a world between wars. Clooney clicks into the aspects that cause instant recognition - ditzy dialogue, razor-sharp put downs, lightning quick conversations - but never finds the narrative mechanics to amplify everything else onscreen. During the opening football sequence, we see the kind of cinematic zing required to pull this off. By the middle of the second act, all that pizzazz has petered out.

Then there’s Renee Zellweger. While far more tolerable here than in other starring roles, she’s still the hollow feminine side of a rather lax lover’s triangle. With a pinched up face that blocks her needs to be expressive eyes, and a delivery pitched somewhere between community college thespianism and The Hudsucker Proxy, she never settles in to her function here. It’s the same with John Krasinski as Rutherford. He is supposed to be a genial lox, the kind of wide eyed innocent who doesn’t mind dipping into the dark side once in a while - or at least, that’s how the script handles him. He goes along with the get rich quick scheme forwarded by Connelly and Frazier, rather mercenary in his decision. But then, when Zellweger’s Littleton betrays him, he acts like a hurt puppy - albeit one that freely stained the companionship carpet whenever and wherever he wanted.

It’s up to our creative cheerleader to hold everything together, and it’s a testament to Clooney’s talent and magnetism that he manages to make it work. Connelly’s moxie, his sense of purpose and passion for playing football comes across loud and clear. Similarly, when smitten with Littleton and jealous of her wandering attentions, we believe in the legitimacy of their love. It’s too bad that the second act gets bogged down in ancillary plot points. Had Leatherheads simply stayed focused on showing how football moved from a college to national pastime, we’d have a winning sports epic. But emotions that should soar merely lumber along, failing to get our undivided attention.

As a result, Leatherheads stands as an almost success. It does the best it can with the cast and content collected, and still ends up delivering an occasionally delightful entertainment. It’s clear that, as he continues his career, Clooney’s choice behind the camera will be as brave and as interesting as the movie roles he options - maybe even more so. No one but this mainstream man-crush could use his considerable clout to forge a ‘20s era experiment in style and sass. While it doesn’t always work, Leatherheads definitely looks and feels right. And in the case of this clever attempt, two out of three is all that’s really needed.

by Bill Gibron

3 Apr 2008

Who, exactly, are the Rolling Stones circa 2008? Considering that it’s been 45 plus years since Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Brian Jones played ballsy blues badboys to the Beatles scrubbed and sanitized pop laureates, one has to challenge where a group of aging 60+ year olds fit within the modern mainstream music scheme. Granted, they are legends, myths making noise long after many thought them relevant. True, it takes an intense amount of chutzpah to step on stage and endlessly recreate your greatest hits from three decades past while hoping to work in a few of your current composition. It’s a concept that’s bested other icons - David Bowie, for one - and yet the artists formerly known as the greatest rock and roll band of all time continue to soldier on.

So when it was announced that Martin Scorsese, the moviemaking mind behind such monumental aural efforts as The Last Waltz and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, was planning on capturing the Stones on their latest tour in support of their 22nd studio album A Bigger Bang, fans and film fanatics were agog. Imagine the combination - the man responsible for some of contemporary cinema’s most masterful works directing the last real remnants of the socially conscious ‘60s through a sonic discourse of their entire career. The results should be something magical indeed. But Shine a Light suffers from something akin to inadvertent over familiarity. Instead of appreciating the Stones for surviving all these years, the movie appears to mock them for hanging on for far too long.

It begins with the otherwise astonishing IMAX presentation. While the movie will be available in the regular Cineplex format, seeing Jagger and Richards in 70mm clarity is shocking to say the least. It’s like watching outtakes from Dawn of the Dead, The Musical. Both men are indeed old, and not just in human years. They suffer from that rare malady known as rock and roll ageism. For every month they’ve spent on the road, or in a recording studio, they’ve ripened several decades. For his part, Jagger is still a jocular jumping bean, pulling off the preening moves and cock jock jerkiness that made him an icon. In fact, if Shine a Light has a single saving grace, it’s this enigmatic frontman. He is energy personified, able to whip up the crowd into a frenzy with little more than his onstage presence and instantly recognizable vocals.

But as they plow through their hit heavy playlist, as they touch on all aspects of their endless time as titans, certain elements undermine the show. Richards, for example, may be a substance abusing badass, a blood changing champion of music making debauchery, but he’s an incomplete element to the overall sound. Chopping away at his guitar, barely interested in completing a signature riff, he’s lost in his own world of aural satisfaction. Since most of the audience are far too young to remember when the Stones toured America in stadium showboating events, this offhand approach seems lazy. In fact, there are many times when Richard’s random strumming ruins an otherwise incendiary classic (“Brown Sugar”, “Start Me Up”).

It’s a zombie like malaise that stifles many otherwise amazing moments here. We really get into the groove of “Some Girls”, but then a bit of editorial oddness derails the experience (fans of the song will definitely understand). The band brings on some celebrity guests to fill out the evening, but only Buddy Guy delivers with his bravado blues belting on “Champagne and Reefer”. By the time we get to the encores, and the signature Stone tune “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, one actually yearns for DEVO’s deconstructionist take. Our old men are merely going through the motions, delivering what they think the audience wants while providing just enough effort to easily appease the masses.

For his part, Scorsese is stuck as documenter only. Unlike Waltz, or his amazing Dylan overview, there is little opportunity to add clarification or context to the Stones’ performance Instead, we get clichéd comic bits - interviews from 1964 addressing the band’s proposed longevity while, 44 years later, the guys are jamming away on “Tumbling Dice”. There is no mention of other band members, no recounting of the troubled history that followed their fame (we do get mention of Jagger and Richard’s run-ins with the law), or life outside the limelight. Indeed, Scorsese is striving for a Stop Making Sense kind of relevance - a movie where the music and how it is performed says everything about the artist featured.

In that regard, Shine a Light struggles. Diehards will drown in giant-sized waves of nostalgic recall, while the casual lover of the band’s output will grow restless towards the end. While the mood changing choices of country comforts like “Far Away Eyes”, or their bow to Marianne Faithful (who covered their composition “As Tear Go By”) are welcome, it’s the high energy entries that keep us engaged. Jagger is indeed the juice. Yet there is still something unsettling about the entire performance, as if part of the passion that drove these English lads to music four decades before has been lost in waves of commercialism and cash. Still, Shine a Light does deliver in a way few concert films can - especially given the timeless talents on display. It’s just too bad it’s not more illuminating. The Rolling Stones as a symbol of pop culture’s past deserve as much.

by Mike Schiller

3 Apr 2008

Have you heard of the Happy Tree Friends?  I hadn’t until I saw the trailer below.  Apparently I should watch more G4 so that I can be educated on these things.

Or, maybe I’ve been better off.  I haven’t decided yet.

Once I saw the trailer, for Sega’s soon-coming Xbox Live and PC download Happy Tree Friends: False Alarm, I couldn’t help but click around and find a few other animated shorts featuring the titular “friends” on YouTube.  The unrelenting violence of these cartoons is slightly hypnotic, enough to leave your mouth agape and a slightly sick feeling in your stomach as you watch, somehow unable to turn away.

Think of the Care Bears mixed with Rocky and Bullwinkle, Ren and Stimpy, and Itchy and Scratchy.  Except more violent.  It’s like watching your childhood thrown into a wood chipper.

What do you think?  Is there merit to the Happy Tree Friends formula, or is it simply shock humor for the sake of itself?  Most important of all, did watching it just ruin your weekend?

by Robin Cook

3 Apr 2008

From indie guitar hero to blogger: Carrie Brownstein has been keeping herself busy since Sleater-Kinney broke up. Monitor Mix is her blog at NPR, and she’s also branched out into comedy. Carrie had a few minutes before a blogger panel to talk about what she’s been up to, as well as her plans for the future. (Check out her March 20 blog post for an illustration of said blogger panel.)—Robin Cook

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Double Take: 'The French Connection' (1971)

// Short Ends and Leader

"You pick your feet in Poughkeepsie, and we pick The French Connection for Double Take #18.

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