Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

Monsters vs. Aliens
parades and parodies a long line of sci-fi horror B-movie tropes and cliches. Much of the audience for this movie will have never seen any of the original creations being gently goofed on. That's okay, because as is true of many of the movies that come out of DreamWorks Animation (Kung Fu Panda), Monsters vs. Aliens is a freestanding parody, an amiable comedy-adventure that requires no previous knowledge of pop cinema's rich and ridiculous history to enjoy its good, gooey fun. (My astute, B-movie deprived six year old companion enjoyed it very much.) There's a supersized, superstrong, possibly 50-foot woman, a blob, a mad scientist/insect man (complete with skinny Vincent Price mustache), a creature who could be from the Black Lagoon, or some pond nearby, a giant insectoid thing that roars like Godzilla, and a bunch of trigger-happy military guys pointlessly shooting ineffectual bullets.

The gigantic woman is an unhappy bride-to-be named Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), who is about to marry a self-absorbed cad named Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd) when a meteorite ruins her wedding day and causes her to grow to enormous proportions. She's quickly whisked away to a secret government facility where she meets her fellow monstrous inmates: B.O.B. the blue blob (Seth Rogen), a shiny, gelatinous, elastic, one-eyed glob of goo; Dr. Cockroach, PhD (Hugh Laurie), a formerly human, now cockroachian mad scientist; The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a macho, finny amphibian; and a cute, enormous, fuzzy bug known as Insectosaurus, who is the big-eyed anime progeny of Godzilla, Mothra and all those monsters who ate Tokyo. When a gigantic alien robot invades Earth, the government calls on its captive monsters to save the planet.

What follows is familiar, wacky, and good-natured, and turns a previous generation's paranoia about the impending nuclear apocalypse into a shiny-happy fable of goofy goodness versus goofy evil.
Monsters vs. Aliens promotes the values of loyalty, friendship, individuality and iconoclasm (monster-style) over mindless conformity. But it does not eschew mindlessness altogether. B.O.B. the blob is the gooey, shimmery, brainless heart and soul of the movie, the nice guy who gets the girl (well, sort of). Rogen's stoner-dude delivery -- you can hear the smile in his raspy voice -- makes the guileless B.O.B. the poster boy for heart (metaphorically speaking) without smart, which, in the sci-fi/robot/alien menace/war of the worlds/the end is nigh context, is always a safer bet than smart without heart.

Employing the relatively new and newfangled Real 3-D technology (which is immeasurably superior to the oldfangled 3-D), plus, in some locations, IMAX,
Monsters vs. Aliens ups the ante on animation and visual spectacle. The 3-D really gives the animation visual depth and pop, making everything look bigger, shinier, blobbier, and richer. Because relatively few locations have 3-D screens yet (around here you'll have to trek to Albany or Poughkeepsie), the animation has to work on a "flat" screen too, so for the most part the gimmicky "thing zooming towards you" effects are minimized in favor of more subtle 3-D. Subtle, but definitely noticeable.
If the animation is crystal-clear and visually memorable, the movie's plot and gags stand out somewhat less, but
Monsters vs. Aliens maintains a consistently slapsticky affability, with a decent share of laugh-out-loud moments and enough zippy action to ensure that a good time is had by all.


Duplicity (2009)

Three movies jockey for position in
Duplicity: one is a charming, seductive love story; one is a sleek, spy vs. spy tale of intrigue; one is a satire of industrial espionage and corporate greed. They're all fun, and funny, and they all center on a pair of paranoid spies -- he's former MI6, she's former CIA -- now romantically involved with each other (maybe genuinely), and in the midst of a long con. But who is conning whom? That's the key question in Duplicity, and the answers, when they come, reveal additional layers of sneaky, twisty intrigue and duplicitousness (is triplicitousness a word? -- it should be).

The chief con man in Duplicity is writer-director Tony Gilroy (
Michael Clayton), who is utterly at ease with both the spy games and the witty banter. Here is a different kind of spy movie, in which guns are never drawn (nor even seen), nothing explodes, and no one is killed. There are fisticuffs, of a rather amusing sort, when the doughy CEOs of rival corporations have at each other in a symphony of slapstick violence on a rainy airport tarmac, but Duplicity is otherwise a bloodless movie. Which is not to say that the stakes are not high. Millions of dollars are on the line -- but it's not exactly life or death. Indeed, the object of all the intrigue and paranoia and lust (of the standard kind, and the corporate kind), is rather frivolous (although for a certain segment of the population, perhaps not).

The multinational, highly diversified corporations at the center of all the intrigue are Burkitt & Randle and Equikrom, headed by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, respectively, as different species of ruthless executive predators. One can imagine them reading Sun Tzu over their morning steak and eggs, and drafting Patton-inspired speeches about the premium diaper wars. Each corp has a spy division, running security, psy ops, and counterintel, spreading disinformation, bugging phones, hacking office equipment, spying on rival employees, spying on their own employees, and spying on their own spies, including Claire (Julia Roberts), Ms. CIA, now deep undercover infiltrating a rival firm, and Ray (Clive Owen), Mr. MI6.

Ray and Claire have history, dating years back to an incident in which she seduced him and stole some secret codes. Love followed (or was it an elaborate revenge plot?), as it so often does after the unwilling exchange of top secret intel. They find common ground, professionally and sexually, but they both have trust issues, and good reasons to be wary and suspicious of each other, and one of the fun questions
Duplicity asks is whether they are paranoid because they're spies, or whether they're spies because they're paranoid. And whether a spy should date another spy, or if a spy could ever really date anyone else. Owen and Roberts are perfectly matched, evoking old Hollywood glamour (think Grant and Hepburn) and adding real sparkle and sharp teeth to their quick-witted, hot- and cold-blooded banter. Theirs is a battle of wits between evenly matched opponents, and they simmer and boil over with romantic comedy regularity and fizz. They're greedy, sneaky, and suspicious, but they're also charming, smart, sophisticated and handsome. Is it just me, or do most romantic comedies seem to feature cute, bickering idiots these days? Ray and Claire act like grown-ups, not cute idiots, which is a refreshing change.

The story, with its back and forth, convoluted timeline, reveals tiny bits of intel to the attentive viewer without ever giving up the game. Treachery, double and triple crosses, a complex and constantly shifting emphasis on different plotlines -- the whole movie is a big, elaborate con of the most enjoyable kind.


Race to Witch Mountain (2009)

In 1975, Disney had a big hit with
Escape to Witch Mountain. If I ever saw it, it did not leave an impression. It was about a pair of orphans, played by Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, who had paranormal powers and were on the lam from Donald Pleasance. In the sequel, Return from Witch Mountain, Bette Davis and Christopher Lee were after them. In the "re-imagined" Race to Witch Mountain, director Andy Fickman cuts to the chase. And then does it again, and again, and again... True to its name, sort of, Race to Witch Mountain features a lot of car chases and a numerous car crashes. It also wastes no time in explaining the extraterrestrial origins of Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig). They are the kind of alien kids who cannot use contractions when they speak, and who also always refer to people by their first and last names, although they introduce themselves by their first names only. Maybe they don't have last names on their planet. What really gets the attention of cabbie Jack Bruno (or JackBruno, as the kids like to call him), however, is that the cute, weird, ├╝ber-blond space tweens have a big wad of cash, and ask to be dropped off at a remote shack in the middle of the desert somewhere near Las Vegas.

Jack (Dwayne Johnson), needless to say, gets more than he bargained for (despite a big tip), especially after men in black, led by E.T.-hater Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds, who on his worst day is not as scary as Bette Davis) come after the illegal aliens. Jack thinks the bad guys are after him, since he's a cabbie of the hard luck and heart of gold variety who regularly finds it necessary to beat up menacing thugs. He's also a former race car driver, which is fortunate because high speed chases, car crashes, and explosions ensue. And then there's more where that came from, all of which causes Jack's trusty yellow cab to do much off-road driving and take a considerable beating. Truly, the Crown Vic is a durable and surprisingly all-terrain vehicle.

Somewhere along the way, a discredited astrophysicist, Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino, gamely playing along), joins the entourage as they race to Witch Mountain, where there is a super secret government facility performing super secret government experiments on UFOs and other stuff you're not supposed to know about. And also, the kids' flying saucer is there, which they need to escape
from Witch Mountain and save Earth.

Did I mention the Siphon? That's the deadly alien assassin sent to Earth to exterminate Sara and Seth, lest their mission to spread peace and environmental responsibility throughout the galaxy succeed, or something like that. Anyway, he's bad news, and the cause of still more explosive action and a whole lot of shooting.

Race to Witch Mountain is a serviceable, competent film, and a very excitable one in which something new and generally predictable is happening all the time. The dialogue is primarily expository rather than conversational -- Seth and Sara have a whole lot of 'splainin to do. The movie's message is pro-environment and anti-Patriot Act. The government is mean and menacing, and using CCTV to spy on everyone everywhere. And people who go to science fiction conventions get a lot of good natured ribbing, because they're all geeks and nerds who like to dress up as Storm Troopers, see. Hey, that's why what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, baby.

The cast is appealing. Johnson, an actor of considerable charisma (and improving acting) plays a variation on his usual character, a peevish (in a funny way) tough guy who's really nicer than he looks. Jack is not terribly unlike Beck, the character he played in
The Rundown (2003, back when Johnson was still known as The Rock). The Rundown, come to think of it, was kind of like an adult version of Race to Witch Mountain, although with considerably fewer explosions and more insanity. Anyway, Robb's Sara is the livelier of the two ETs, maybe because her character is the fun one. She can read minds and talk to animals, while Ludwig's Seth can merely manipulate the molecules of his body to unlock doors and stop cars and such, none of which looks as exciting as it sounds. Ike Einsenmann and Kim Richards, all grown up now, have small parts in the movie.

Race to Witch Mountain is a junior sci-fi adventure movie, which is different from adult sci-fi adventure movies mostly in that there is no blood or gore, no probing, and all apparent deaths occur discreetly offscreen. Also, everyone always wears their seatbelts, so catastrophic car crashes never result in injury. Pro-environment and pro-seatbelt? We have much to learn from those cute alien invaders.


Watchmen (2009)

Unfilmable. That's how Alan Moore, who wrote the groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen, described it. Technically, he was wrong. It was filmable. Whether it was worth doing is another matter.

Moore declined to have his name listed in the film credits for
Watchmen, which is now somewhat perversely credited only to co-creator and illustrator Dave Gibbons. Director Zack Snyder (300) has made a faithful (if superficial) adaptation of Moore's intricately structured, deconstructionist graphic novel, changing a few small details, and leaving out certain tangential and background elements (like the comic-book-within-the-comic-book) that were critical to the dense narrative structure of the graphic novel (but which were not, Moore was right, amenable to the narrative structure of this conventional movie). The film contains little hints at those excised bits (which will be available in supplemental DVDs), but only someone familiar with the graphic novel will notice them, or care.

What is left, then, is the core narrative, a story of not-so-super superheroes living in an alternative history 1985 America. Richard Nixon is on the fifth term of his never-ending presidency, having won the Vietnam War with the help of Dr. Manhattan, the only character in
Watchmen who has actual superpowers. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has all the powers though, having, through one of those unfortunate nuclear accidents ubiquitous in comic books, achieved some sort of quantum state in which his molecules are endlessly malleable, and he is able to see the past and the future and everywhere. He's also blue and hairless and nude. He could, if he wanted to, drape some clothing molecules around himself, but he's kind of past caring about such trivial things. And everything is trivial to Manhattan. With Dr. Manhattan on its side, the US has a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union (remember them?), but the world is on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Manhattan shuffles molecules and mopes around in a kind of post-human funk, an existential nihilism, the sort of imponderably massive boredom with humanity that must be the heavy burden of an omniscient and omnipotent being.

Dr. Manhattan's girlfriend is the less super Silk Spectre II, aka Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), who has an uneasy relationship with her mother, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino). Manhattan's disaffection and ennui have left Laurie feeling blue, and she turns for comfort and companionship to Nite Owl II, another second-generation supe whose alter ego is the nebbishy, mopey Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson). Dan has put all his costumed vigilante stuff in mothballs and spends his time reminiscing with the elderly Nite Owl the first (Stephen McHattie). These all-too-human heroes are a bored, mopey, world-weary bunch, but to call them brooding would be to give them too much credit and assume a sagacity for which there is little evidence. The only ex-hero enjoying his retirement (since masked vigilantes were outlawed by Congress) is the smooth Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the smartest man in the world, a pacifist, and a wealthy industrialist who collaborates with Dr. Manhattan on eco-friendly alternative energy research.

Meanwhile, another old time masked avenger, a big thug called The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), has been murdered, leading his old compatriot Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) to suspect that masked heroes are being assassinated. Rorschach wears an eerie mask of constantly shifting inkblot shapes, and sees the world in black and white terms. True to his name, he's a masked avenger who imposes meaning and order on an otherwise meaningless and disorderly world. He's also a psychopath, and the most interesting, affecting, and complicated character in the movie (and novel). Haley gives an outstanding performance that deeply humanizes the deeply misanthropic Rorschach (and his equally crazy alter ego Walter Kovacs), in a movie that desperately needs genuine depth to counter its shallowness.

Watchmen originally came out in 1986-87, when it made more sense to set the story in 1985. 20 years on, it makes less sense, although the filmmaker acknowledges the anachronism in an opening credits montage set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." The montage makes cheeky (and occasionally scandalous) use of reenacted and reimagined scenes from late 20th century pop and pulp culture, along with faux news footage, a faux Zapruder film, and more. It all made me wonder if Snyder actually listened to Dylan's song, or if he was being ironic. Maybe the latter, but it is just the first of several instances of noticeably weird, anachronistic, and/or cliched music choices, my favorite of which is Leonard Cohen singing "they sentenced me to 20 years of boredom" over the end credits, which pretty much expressed the way I felt at the end of the movie's plodding two hours and 40 minutes.

It would have been shorter if not for Snyder's injudicious use of slow motion effects (his trademark, I suppose, since he employed it equally indiscriminately and ponderously in
300). Snyder uses slo-mo to belabor the film's violence, and to fetishize it, but someone ought to tell him that slow motion no longer imparts instant profundity to moving images (a side effect of the wholesale cheapening of the effect in music videos, for which we can probably thank 80s phenom MTV, which kids these days might not realize used to show music videos). Well, okay, slow motion is very 1980s, and Watchmen is very 1980s, so I guess it makes some kind of nostalgic, artistic sense, like using black and white film stocks in a movie about the 1930s. Maybe. But I'm willing to bet that's not where Snyder is coming from in Watchmen, which uses the slow motion and slow-to-momentary-pause-motion to emphasize and linger on blood spatter, bone crunching, bullets exiting flesh, flesh being separated from bone, exploding fireballs, and flying, exploding, disintegrating bodies. Violence is the reductive raison d'etre of Watchmen, transforming a story that is violent into a movie that is about violence. I'm not griping in general about violence in movies, or movies about violence -- just griping about movies that are uninterestingly about violence and uninterested in thinking about violence.

Slow-motion is also employed, most annoyingly, to show Laurie's long hair flipping and whipping around. Laurie's distinguishing features as a superhero are her long hair and willingness to have sex with other superheroes (which latter is a problem I had with the graphic novel too), a shallowness of character exacerbated by Akerman's cutie-pie voice, which would make it hard to take her seriously even if the movie wanted you to look at something other than her flying hair and that formfitting latex bodysuit. Anyway, Laurie is party to the movie's risible sex scenes (sans latex), but it is cruelty and brutality that are meant to titillate in
Watchmen. If deconstructing superhero mythology is what Watchmen (the graphic novel) was about (and it was, at least in part), then deconstructing bodies is what Watchmen (the movie) is about, in large part. And what else? A superficial nihilism and even more superficially reasoned moral subjectivism in which we are offered a choice between the logic of mass murder and the irrationality of mass extinction.

Watchmen graphic novel was complex, layered, and intricately constructed, even if the ideas therein were not as deep as the novel's literary pretensions promised. The movie adaptation, on the other hand, has arty pretensions that capture, in great, bombastic detail, the surface layers of plot and action, and peel back the veneer just enough to reveal that there's not much underneath.


Let the Right One In (2008)

As strange love stories go, vampire stories generally count among the strangest. Let the Right One In surely counts as even stranger still, a beautiful, haunting, chilly story of pre-teen love, torment, and bloodsucking. This Swedish film, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (which borrows its title from the Morrissey song "Let the Right One Slip In") is blood curdling not so much because of its depiction of vampirism, but in its deadly accurate depiction of the cruelty, desperation, and loneliness of pre-teen life.

Twelve year old Oskar (Kare Heldebrant), pale, blond and tormented by bullies, fantasizes about revenge. Night after bleak wintry night, he kills time in the snow-covered courtyard of the apartment complex where he lives with his divorced mother. It's there that he attracts the attention of a new neighbor, a 12 year old girl name Eli (Lina Leandersson) who, except for her dark hair, is even paler than Oskar. She's a ragged child, and looks poorly cared for by Hakan (Per Ragnar), the weary, middle-aged man (her father, her guardian, her servant? -- it's never made clear) she lives with. Hakan suffers a series of misadventures while attempting to procure blood for Eli -- he is, in effect, an ineffectual serial killer, and she is, it turns out, a vampire. Eli, despite gnawing hunger, declines to dine on Oskar, instead befriending the friendless boy. Oskar, at least at first, doesn't seem to notice how peculiar and doleful the girl next door is, but mostly, he doesn't care. When you're all alone, a friend is a friend, no matter how odd.

Eli hints to Oskar that she has been twelve years old for a long time.
Let the Right One In makes very clear what a terrible fate that would be -- to live forever on the edge of adolescence, neither child nor adult, in that most confused, tortured, and insecure time of life. Eli and Oskar are both awkward and tentative, and both, in their own way, can also be cruel. Director Tomas Alfredson doesn't romanticize adolescence or vampirism -- Let the Right One In is unambiguously frank about the grim horrors of being either twelve or a vampire (or even worse, both). Let the Right One In is about alienation and isolation, and the recognition that you don't have to be undead to have trouble connecting with people. The very ordinary loneliness of Eli and Oskar has nothing to do with her being a vampire, and everything to do with being a pre-teen and (for whatever arbitrary reason) a social outcast.

The film's chilliness is expressed in its quiet, still, and meticulous cinematography, as well as its wintry Scandinavian setting. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema abjures the kind of jumpy, hectic movement and off-kilter framing that mark so much of contemporary horror, in favor of a quieter, more contemplative approach that makes the film's occasional spasms of violence and bloodletting (and blacker than black humor) that much more arresting.