Away We Go (2009)

In Away We Go, a pair of adorable, smart, educated, self-employed thirty-somethings discover they're going to have a baby. Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) live like college students in a shabby, rundown, unheated house with unreliable electricity. But they live near Burt's parents, their future daughter's only grandparents. Pretty sweet.

Then the soon-to-be grandparents (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) excitedly announce that they're moving to Antwerp. Before the baby arrives. This is evidence of their self-absorption, and it prompts a crisis in Burt and Verona. They want to be good parents, not moving-to-Antwerp type parents, and they want to raise their child in the sort of place that would allow for, as Burt describes it, an idealized sort of "Huck Finn-y childhood." Fair enough. A road trip ensues, as Burt and Verona visit various friends and relations in various locales, auditioning communities and neighbors for their nascent family. What they find is not good.

It is meant to be not good in a funny way in this movie directed by Sam Mendes and written by husband and wife literary team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. And Away We Go is spasmodically funny, but also generally unpleasant. Their friends are all parenting disasters -- caricatures of loud, obnoxious, self-absorbed individuals, or people suffocating in their own unhappiness and grief. There's not a happy, well-adjusted, intact family in the bunch, and certainly not the sort of idealized, all-American family Burt and Verona seem to be looking for. (But wasn't Huck Finn's father a mean, abusive drunk? Maybe they are finding that Huck Finn-y childhood they were looking for. Maybe Burt and Verona are barking up the wrong family trees.)

The friends all fail their auditions, but as caricatures, they offer some comic relief in a film that is generally sort of mopey and wan (like the soundtrack, dominated by songs by Alexi Murdoch). The first failure is Lily (Allison Janney), Verona's former boss, and a loud, vulgar drunk with a spray-can tan, sullen kids, and an even more sullen husband (Jim Gaffigan). But Lily is no worse than Burt's cousin LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a soft-spokenly strident gender studies professor who drives a Prius and is militantly opposed to putting her children in strollers. She takes political correctness and New Age hokum to the far end of the spectrum, where they are laid out for ridicule. Janney and Gyllenhaal are both awfully funny, and their utterly awful mothers stand out in a movie in which maternal instincts have gone completely haywire, if they're present at all. If the actresses were not such over-the-top hoots, you might feel bad about hating their characters as much as you are clearly supposed to hate them. But if Krasinski and Rudolph were not such cute and charming actors, you might also be inclined to slap them around a bit and tell them to grow up already.

Which is to say that Away We Go is occasionally amusing because of good performances and appealing actors, but it is not especially involving or interesting. There is something ad hoc and inauthentic about Away We Go -- the characters never quite seem like real people who inhabit a real world. They are types, and the types are on display like diorama exhibits in a sort of Museum of Suburban Misery as imagined by gently smug, freewheeling young adults such as Burt and Verona. We must extend the category of "young adult" here to include thirty-somethings having a self-made crisis in which each exemplar of broken family tells them something about the sort of people they don't want to be, and the kind of family they don't want to have. Burt and Verona are hothouse flowers -- their foray into the world outside convinces them that they like living in a hothouse, and that they just have to find a different, better location for their hothouse, and their little bud. They might want to rethink the Huck Finn-y childhood, however.


Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)

If you have a passing familiarity with science and prehistory, you might well wonder what kind of crazy mixed up revisionist monkey business the creators of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs are getting up to. Dinosaurs in the Ice Age? Coexisting with mammals? Sure, why not? If you can accept talking mammoths and sloths palling around with sabertooth tigers, why have a problem with Paleolithic-Jurassic mashups? Anyway, prehistory is not what your kids will be asking about after they see Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. They're going to have some questions about families, and childbirth, more likely, because the movie is all about the many ways that families are formed, and the bonds that hold them together.

They're wacky families, of course. In this third Ice Age movie, woolly mammoth Manny (voiced by Ray Romano) and his baby mama mammoth Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting a little bundle of woolly joy. The other members of their quirky "herd," Diego the sabertooth tiger (Denis Leary), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), and possums Crash and Eddie (Seann William Scott and Josh Peck) anxiously await the new arrival. When Sid finds some dinosaur eggs in an underground ice cave, he becomes a single "mother" (in his own words) to a brood of cute little T. rexes. And then he gets kidnapped by fierce Mom T. rex, occasioning a rescue operation that takes his pals to a subterranean Jurassic world occupied by lots of dinosaurs and one crazy weasel named Buck (Simon Pegg), whose nemesis is a terrifying white T. rex known as Rudy. Meanwhile, Scrat the hapless squirrel still hunts that elusive acorn (his own white whale, of sorts) and finds himself in a wordless love-hate relationship with a duplicitous but foxy lady squirrel.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is the first of the Ice Age movies to get the 3-D treatment, and the animators at Blue Sky have done a nice job of it, using the technology to add depth and texture to the animation. (According to my six year old companion, taking the 3-D glasses off during the scary bits of the movie -- which makes everything kinda fuzzy -- makes them less scary, which is an added benefit of the technology.) The movie boasts some terrific action sequences involving hot lava, zooming pterodactyls, chompy raptors, and prehistoric bobsledding, and also a lot of laughs, both for the kids (fart jokes, gooey slime) and for their elders (refs to Jaws, Moby Dick, The Flintstones and the complexities of romance). It's just the sort of shenanigans you'd expect from a bunch of goofy mammals lost in a Jurassic park.

The Ice Age gang, as it has always been, is composed primarily of single male critters whose yearning for familial bonds and comforts is expressed in different ways. Sid, the goofy, googly-eyed sloth, embraces the role of very nontraditional surrogate mom with gusto, and he's both an adopter and an adoptee in his unusual interspecies family. Ellie and mother T. rex represent the fuzzy and savage dimensions of motherhood, and moms as both protectors and cuddlers-in-chief. Manny's got the traditional overprotective father role, and the rest of the gang serve as honorary uncles in a story that embraces the "it takes a herd" approach to childrearing. In other words, there's plenty of cute and cuddly to go with the ferocious and frantic, and between all the 3-D enhanced falling off of cliffs and dodging of rampaging raptors, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs offers up characters and a story with depth and dimension too.


The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

How timely is The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, how perfect for these days when past mistakes and misdeeds persistently bubble to the surface, ruining any illusions we might have of smooth sailing ahead. In this remake of the 1974 thriller (which was also set in a time of financial ruin and decline), a ruthless, vengeful madman named Ryder (John Travolta) takes a NYC subway car and 19 passengers hostage. Ryder demands ten million dollars in ransom, and gives the city one hour to cough it up, but what's interesting about him is the way he peppers his ransom demands with financial jargon. He's obviously not your ordinary, bottom-feeding predator, this Ryder, but some subspecies of Wall Street shark, accustomed to life at the top of the food chain.

The mayor of this post-9/11, mid-recessional city (James Gandolfini) is a Rudy/Bloomberg hybrid - he lacks the appetite for grandstanding, but not for philandering, and he's a tycoon who knows how to swim in shark-infested waters. The hapless man in the middle of the shark tank is Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a dispatcher working for the Metropolitan Transit Authority -- it's his job to make sure the trains run on time. It's one of Garber's trains that gets hijacked, and it's Garber that Ryder wants to talk to.

Much of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 takes place in the claustrophobic, fluorescent-lit confines of the hijacked train, in the even more claustrophobic oily blackness of the subway tunnels, and in the MTA control center, and much of the movie is just Garber and Ryder talking over the radio. Director Tony Scott likes a moving target, and if he doesn't have one, he makes one. His camera bobs and weaves In The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and his kinetic, energetic visuals mimic the rhythms of the trains, and the way the world looks through the windows of a moving subway car -- a blur of fast movement, and flickering, zoetrope-like impressions of a static tableau set in motion. Windows and computer screens (as high tech windows) figure prominently in the look of the film, and frame the action, and, in rare still moments, resemble the frames of a strip of movie film. The dialogue in Brian Helgelund's screenplay fixes on the radio-mediated back and forth between Ryder and Garber as each man tries to suss out the other, and get a glimpse into his adversary's soul through carefully chosen words.

There are a few holes in the plot, and the ending is perhaps less plausible than all that precedes it, but The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is an efficient, compelling, utterly watchable and absorbing thriller. The action is choreographed to perfection, and the filmmakers take Ryder's one hour deadline seriously -- there's no padding in this lean movie, which, allowing for some before and after, clocks in at an hour and 35 minutes. But tucked in between the movement and mishegas of the hijacking and hostage-taking, the negotiations and spasms of violence, the movie efficiently packs in a parable about greed, easy money, and moral choices.

Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler keeps the movie's palette natural, which is to say, unnatural -- the greenish hue of the subway car and the cool blues and hot reds of the control center dominate (Garber, with his mustard shirt and amber glasses, represents some kind of earthy, grounded middle). When the film is above ground, the camera is usually flying high above, but always ready to plunge back into the subterranean darkness, because this is a movie about moral turpitude, and the battle between the light and the dark, both within two men, and within the soul of the city. Ryder, down in the dark, is angry, whiny and self-righteous. He's the sort of guy who spreads pain and blame, assigning responsibility for all of his misdeeds elsewhere. It's no accident he speaks the language of money, greed, excess, and personal unaccountability. Travolta deftly balances Ryder on the sharp edge of insanity -- he is predictable and rational, but only because he is brutally cunning, and does exactly what he says he will do no matter how insane it is. Washington's Garber is no saint -- he's worked his way through the ranks of the Transit Authority, from motorman to supervisor, but appears to be working his way back down following his own minor financial scandal. He's the quiet, stoic everyman here, to contrast with Travolta's hyperbolic, voluble kvetcher. Ryder fixates on what he has in common with Garber, and the mayor (mired in a career-imploding marital scandal). And The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 boils down to this question -- what's the difference between the good guys and the bad guys? Is it luck? Choices? Temperament? Character? Garber's got something essential -- moral fiber perhaps -- that Ryder lacks. Whatever it is, it's the reason Garber is on the side of right (most of the time, anyway), and Ryder isn't, and why Ryder has to warm himself in a cloak of righteousness, and Garber doesn't. And that's as timely (and timeless) a story as any in tumultuous times like these.


Drag Me To Hell (2009)

Long before he brought Spider-Man to vivid life, director Sam Raimi specialized in raising the dead. As a young horror auteur, Raimi's Evil Dead movies were cheeky, invigorating, horrifying, and grueling. Raimi tweaked genre conventions with slapstick humor to make movies that were as funny as they were scary and disgusting. In Drag Me To Hell, Raimi takes a break from mega-blockbuster superhero movies to return to his prime, evil roots. He's still got it. Drag Me To Hell is scary, creepy horror that's also funny and deeply disgusting.

The victim this time around is Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a kindly young bank loan officer. Christine is hoping for a promotion to assistant manager, but her boss tells her she's a bit too soft for such a tough job. To prove her mettle, Christine turns down an old one-eyed gypsy woman who pleads for one more extension on her mortgage payment, lest she lose her home of many years. Old Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) has fallen on hard times, but this is not a story about banks that give risky mortgages to people with no money. That would be a different kind of horror movie.

Christine may know banking, but she's not savvy about avoiding impending doom. Never rebuff an old, one-eyed gypsy crone, or you are just asking for trouble. Although she turns the old lady down in the nicest possible way, trouble is what Christine gets, when icky, unforgiving Mrs. Ganush, with her gnarly, scabrous fingers and rotten dentures, lays a curse on her. Much screaming follows, and eruptions of bodily fluids, and grueling punishment as an evil spirit stalks Christine and prepares to... drag her to hell.

Being tormented by demons and then dragged to eternal hellfire may be a bit severe as punishment for a moment of modest career ambition and less-than-nicetude, but the lack of proportionality is a necessity in horror, so long as the audience is to sympathize with the victim and learn a valuable lesson about avoiding terrible curses. Be nice to old gypsy crones, don't open mysterious doors, don't look in the box, and don't think for a minute that some flimsy old lock on some flimsy old door will keep the demons at bay, or you will pay dearly. Christine has three days before her goose is cooked, according to Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), the Indian mystic she consults. Rham Jas accepts American Express, and turns out to be quite knowledgeable about gypsy curses, and proceeds to assist Christine in her strenuous efforts to escape her fate. Christine's skeptical boyfriend Clay Dalton (Justin Long), a psychology professor, is supportive but not much help as wind, insects and creepy shadows repeatedly assault Christine and mess up her house. Bad things happen. Most, but not all of them, happen to Christine. Suffice it to say that if someone you know is cursed, you might do well to keep your distance for, say, three days or so. Texting and Tweeting are almost as good as being there, and a lot safer.

The horror genre has been, of late, overrun with torture porn and soggy remakes of Japanese horror flicks. Raimi's an old school, DIY kinda horror filmmaker, and he makes excellent use of all the old tricks in the horror arsenal. Shrieking violins, moaning breezes, menacing shadows, blowing curtains, curling smoke, and flash cuts all prove to be as effective as any newfangled computer generated special effects in evoking dread and raising goose bumps. Retro creeps notwithstanding, Raimi (who cowrote the screenplay with his brother Ivan Raimi) is not above adding maggots and gore to the mix, or to defiling corpses in ways both comical and repulsive. Drag Me To Hell is part Nosferatu, part Exorcist, part Looney Tunes, because Raimi's the kind of filmmaker who insists that after you scream, you must also laugh.


Up (2009)

Up answers the question that every kid with a balloon has pondered at some time: If you had a lot of balloons, could you fly? Up answers in the affirmative, confirming every kid's suspicions. It takes a whole lot of balloons, of course, especially if you, like Carl Fredericksen, want to take your entire house aloft with you. Carl is a retired balloon salesman, so he'd know how to do such things, naturally.

And so would the animators at Pixar, whose latest film Up soars and swoops and sails, but also keeps its feet (metaphorical feet and literal feet) on the ground. Carl's house is ripped from its foundations by thousands of balloons following their lofty, balloony imperatives, but it is Carl who needs uplifting. With his squat frame, square head and black square glasses, he looks like he's been squashed from above, or maybe gravity has pulled him downward over the years. It wasn't always so: as Up begins, he's a kid, dazzled by newsreels of heroic aviator and explorer Charles Muntz. Carl's not alone in his hero worship and quest for airborne excitement: newfound friend Ellie shares his spirit of adventure and wanderlust. In a lovely, silent montage, Up follows Carl and Ellie through marriage and through the years, as worldly concerns, heartbreaks, and everyday setbacks keep them tethered to their lovely old house until... there's just Carl, and a dream unfulfilled. Enter balloons, and a crazy, quixotic quest to plant that house in an exotic, faraway land.

And enter Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), an eager Wilderness Explorer scout who is determined to earn his final merit badge for assisting the elderly. He decides Carl (Ed Asner at his gruffest) is the elder he is going to assist, but curmudgeonly Carl thinks otherwise. Russell is an unwitting stowaway on Carl's great balloon adventure. Will Carl and Russell discover they can assist each other? Do balloons wanna fly?

Co-written and directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, Up is the first Pixar movie to be released in 3-D. The 3-D effects are quite subtle -- if you don't want to shlepp to a 3-D theater, you won't miss much, and you'll still get an eyeful of beautifully rendered animation and, more importantly, characters with real depth. It's been 14 years since Pixar dazzled everyone with their groundbreaking computer animation in Toy Story. They're actually a little late jumping on the 3-D bandwagon, but 3-D is the new "It" tech in movies, and although Pixar has embraced it (promising that all of their films will be in 3-D from now on), they have not abandoned their core commitment to great storytelling and characters as real (and in many cases realer) than any you'll find in a live action movie. The great innovation in Up is subtle: the emotional expressiveness of the characters is quite exquisite. Pixar has never embraced photorealism in creating human characters (which has never yet succeeded in being anything but creepy anyway), but their cartoonishly rendered humans are real in every other way. They have inner lives, and emotions, and all of that is visible and evident in their faces, in their body language, in their voices. In Up, the richness of inner space has been beautifully rendered and fully realized in a story with enough specificity and depth to engage adults, and enough simplicity, excitement, and adventure to captivate all the little Russells in the audience too.

Carl is old. He feels old, he looks old, he walks with a cane and has to work the kinks out of his old bones in the morning. He's an old crank too, gruff and grumbly, and not very appreciative of the plucky, nerdy kid who has tagged along on his quest. Russell's an egg-shaped hindrance in the way of all kids who don't live by the clock (not even the old lifespan clock that Carl no doubt hears ticking) and who obey the biological imperative to leave no stone unturned, no animal unrescued, and no tiny thing unexplored. He's all enthusiasm and hope and high spirits (and needy, and not very cool). Carl and Russell aren't the only fully-dimensional characters in Up: there's also a big, flightless bird who doesn't talk, and a dog, named Dug, who does, thanks to an electronic collar/universal translator that gives voice to Dug's every thought. Dug (voiced by Peterson) is not a deep thinker, but he's loyal and true, even when he's confused. Dug's a dog in need of a master as good and generous as he is; Russell needs a grandfather, and maybe a hug; Carl needs a swift kick in the butt and a tug at his shrunken old heartstrings (and as he drags his barely airborne house through the jungle, he increasingly needs to let go of his past). They all get more adventure than they bargained for when an unexpected villain turns up.

A square old man and a kid who isn't sassy or smart-alecky or snarky starring in a movie? Not exactly action-figure ready, are they? It's almost enough to make you think those Pixar folks are more interested in making good movies than in turning a quick buck. Huh. Imagine that.