Monday, November 30, 2009

What I Saw Over Thanksgiving Weekend

People have different Thanksgiving traditions. Some people play football. Some people have loud fights with their families. I see movies. Last year I had a post on movies to see with your family in the midst of a turkey-based food coma. Much like last year, the perfect Thanksgiving movies got pushed to Christmas. But even without Nine and The Princess and the Frog, I found plenty to watch over the holiday weekend.

Grade: B+

First up, the movie I actually saw on Thanksgiving day. In a lot of ways, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is like The Incredibles, which I saw and loved during Thanksgiving five years ago. Again you've got a family in which the parents gave up their dangerous and preferred line of work to settle down with a family, only to come back to it after the father gets restless. This time they're foxes and not superheroes, but it still leads to a movie ostensibly for kids that's really more for adults.

Hating on Wes Anderson has become popular, between The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, but Foxes is a strong step towards winning those former fans back. That dry, sardonic Wes Anderson style is still very much here, but it's used for something much more fun. A lot of the humor comes in the "animals acting like people" form, but the voice cast helps sell it. There's a bit of Daniel Ocean in George Clooney's Mr. Fox, a former chicken thief who misses the thrill. Anderson mainstays Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray are back to keep things light. Meryl Streep is underused, but does a lot with what she's got.

All that said, there's still plenty of dark stuff to make you question whether kids should see it, as you'd hope from something based on a Roald Dahl book. Mr. Fox gets his tail shot off, and all the animals' lives are continually in danger from all the angry farmers. But the stakes make all the many capers legitimately suspenseful. Especially after the mopey Where the Wild Things Are, it's nice to find a kids' movie for adults that wants to excite instead of depress. Hence why it gets fantastic in the title.

Grade: B

When I walked in to see 2012, I was expecting it to be really stupid but fun, and you know, it delivered on both counts. Continuing a string of big-budget disaster movies from destruction master Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 boasts the least specific threat with the craziest amount of damage yet. From the trailer, it's hard to judge what's destroying Earth. Earthquakes? Fireballs? Mayans? Turns out to be some combination (of the first two), but you won't be listening to the talk of neutrinos in the earth's crust. You'll be watching shit blow up.

All of Emmerich's movies are basically the same, it's just a matter of recasting the roles and switching the targets of destruction, so it's probably easier to discuss 2012 with Independence Day in mind. The story starts when a scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor filling in for Jeff Goldblum) discovers that, due to some evil neutrinos, the world will be destroyed in 2012. After telling his compassionless superior (Oliver Platt) and the president (Danny Glover), they form a plan to help a select group of the worthy survive the coming onslaught.

After a whole lot of prep, around 30-45 minutes into the movie we meet our actual protagonist, John Cusack (playing Will Smith), a writer with an ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and two kids. Somehow, the four of them plus the ex-wife's boyfriend wind up as the only people in America able to outdrive earthquakes, outfly explosions, and outswim floods to survive. Nothing about any of their escape scenes makes a remote amount of sense. Just try counting the number of times somebody falls into an earthquake-induced abyss and makes it out alive. But it doesn't matter, because there's high-quality disaster porn all around, like skyscrapers shattering on top of Cusack's limo and their plane magically bursting through smoke clouds.

There's nothing here we haven't seen before in any of Emmerich's other movies, but that doesn't mean 2012 doesn't still have its merits. For one thing, the explosions are probably bigger than in his previous movies. It is the end of the world after all. And to me at least Ejiofor, Cusack, Peet, Glover, and Thandie Newton make for a more appealing cast than that in The Day After Tomorrow (no offense). Though no matter how many famous monuments get destroyed (and there are a lot), nothing's as iconic as that destruction of the white house in Independence Day. As far as dumb action movies go, I'll take 2012 over Transformers 2 any day, but that doesn't mean I'll ever revisit (or remember) it.

While not catching up on movies in theaters, I also tried to make some progress on my Netflix queue, which I've been woefully neglecting ever since the TV season began (and pretty much all summer as well). First on the DVD front (to keep me entertained on the train) was Adventureland, a coming-of-age movie set in the '80s from the director of Superbad. But one thing I didn't realize from the trailer: not a comedy.

Jesse Eisenberg, known as "the guy that's not Michael Cera even though he plays the same characters," plays a college-grad with no job prospects who's forced to work at a local amusement park to pay for grad school. You'd think between bonding with the community of park workers, the wacky antics of such a place, and '80s nostalgia there'd be plenty here for laughs. And there are some, but there's a lot more angst as Eisenberg's character falls for Twilight-er Kristen Stewart, a fellow park employee who's sleeping with (gasp) Ryan Reynolds' married rocker/handyman.

The romance is cute and all, but it's nothing that hasn't been done in a million coming-of-age movies beforehand. It's Adventureland itself that makes the movie stand-out, especially strong supporting players like Martin Starr as an unlucky-in-love nihilist and SNL's Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the married couple who run the park and account for approximately 95% of the movie's laughs. The drama's handled well enough that it's still enjoyable to watch, but if there was more Hader and Wiig and less moping, this might not have been left for Netflix.

Finally, Drag Me to Hell, a VERY well-reviewed horror movie that was hailed as a return to the comic horror Evil Deads of Sam Raimi's past. Maybe I just don't get horror - or this movie - but I'm not seeing the comedy. Yes, there are occasional moments of gross-out camp, especially when they bring the demon in question to form during a seance, but those moments seem vastly out of tone with the rest of the movie.

Playing into the times, the story begins when Alison Lohman's bank worker denies a gypsy woman an extension on her mortgage, and the woman returns the favor with a gypsy curse. Soon Lohman's being attacked by the toothless crone and a goat demon when not swallowing flies or bleeding out the nose.

Thing is, the movie hardly goes horror to horror. It actually spends a lot more time looking at her life at the bank and her relationship with boyfriend Justin Long (yes, the Mac guy). Since most of the movie is played straight and without camp, the campiness of the horror is less funny than disjointed. As such, I didn't find it funny - or scary - just sad. Now, I was going to have issues with this movie regardless because (SPOILER ALERT) she kills her cat to offer to the demon, which pretty throughly turned me off to it. But overall, it's definitely got its moments; it just doesn't congeal into a single consistent movie.

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