Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009)

Apparently, in addition to the usual travails of being a teenager, these days an adolescent has to worry about vampires. It's only fair, I suppose. Vampires have their own worries in these complicated times. Used to be, a vampire could get by biting a few necks now and then. Nowadays, there are vampire wars. There's the neophyte Good vampires (the unkilling undead) who just want to get along with humans, versus your classic Bad vampires, who view humanity as an A+ buffet (or A negative, if your tastes run that way). In that vein, there's *True Blood* (my personal vampire addiction) and the Twilight saga, and now Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, the first movie adapted from Darren Shan's twelve-book series Cirque du Freak: The Darren Shan Saga. Yep, an Irish bloke named Darren Shan wrote a young adult book series about a kid named... Darren Shan. Cirque du Freak, the movie, comes across like *Twilight* meets *Harry Potter*, with all kinds of adolescent angst amidst the supernatural goings-on, but true to its name, Cirque du Freak is just a little more freaky.

Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) is your typical high school kid: a good student with loving (if somewhat overbearing) parents, and a troublemaking best friend named Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Darren is obsessed with spiders; Steve is way into vampires. The two of them sneak out one night and go to a mysterious show, the Cirque du Freak. One thing leads to another, and Darren is talked into becoming a vampire by Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a somewhat world-weary old vampire. Why does Crepsley want Darren to become a vampire? That's one thing this exposition-heavy movie never quite gets around to explaining. Darren's only half-vampire, anyway -- he can still go out in the daytime. He doesn't want to drink blood, so his various vampire powers are rather dim, too. Add an identity crisis and picky eating to the travails of half-vampire teen life.

There's a villain named Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), who is quite pale and tubby and up to no good. He is trying to instigate a war between the good vampires (like Crepsley) and the bad vampires, known as the Vampaneze. Mr. Tiny recruits Darren's buddy Steve to the side of the Vampaneze, which, needless to say, eventually leads to a Darren and Steve showdown. The showdown, although it is the culmination of this movie, doesn't resolve anything in the big picture, in which the long simmering vampire war continues to bubble. And the big picture -- in which dozens of books become dozens of movies -- is what Cirque du Freak is really about.

There's much to like about Cirque du Freak. It's colorful and kind of goofy around the edges, campy and comical and mildly outré. The cast and characters are a lot of fun: Willem Dafoe (looking quite undead) is fellow vampire Gavner Purl. Crepsley is dating the freakshow's va-va-voom bearded lady (Salma Hayek). Patrick Fugit is Evra, a green-skinned snake boy who just wants to be an indie rocker. Monkey Girl Rebecca (Jessica Carlson) is a possible love interest for Darren. There are all manner of oddballs in the Cirque: a dude with two stomachs, a dude with *no* stomach, a wolfman, a woman with big teeth...

But the movie quickly gets bogged down in the need to explain, and explain, and explain. There is clearly a very elaborate and complicated story within the Cirque du Freak saga about the Vampires and Vampaneze, and the mysterious Mr. Tiny's preoccupation with provoking a war. The role of the circus in all this is rather vague. Cirque du Freak, directed by Paul Weitz, and cowritten by Weitz and Brian Helgeland, goes to great trouble to explain the backstory without giving away too much of the mystery. The result is a movie that's all exposition and set-up, signifying practically nothing because it's just a big tease, a prologue for a sequel that hasn't been made yet. It explains everything and nothing, but not in some enigmatic, brain-tickling Zen kind of way. The goal, I suppose, is to leave the audience craving more. Cirque du Freak promises to satisfy that craving, to tell a good, complicated, compelling story in the future, but there are only hints here that this would-be franchise can deliver on that promise.


Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

The wild things that stomp and howl and snarl through Where the Wild Things Are are mostly big and furry and ferocious, but, as anyone who has read Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book (and who hasn't?) knows, some wild things are small and wear wolf suits and get sent to their rooms without supper for raising a ruckus.

That's what happens to Max (Max Records), a ruckus-raising, tempestuous, howling, sometimes naughty boy. Max is really good at two things: construction and destruction. Like any kid, Max has good days and bad days, and on one especially bad day, he gets in trouble. In the book, Max was banished to his room, where a jungle grew up around him, and the Wild Things made him king. In the movie, Max runs away, and finds a boat, and sails the wild, frothing seas to the island of the Wild Things. The huge, furry beasts are churlish and childish and prone to tantrums, and they make Max (a great bluffer) their king. It was either that or eat him.

Sendak's book is a simple, slender volume, short on words, and filled with beautiful, feverish visions of frolicking beasts and a boy with a wild imagination. The movie, directed with emotional intimacy and intensity by Spike Jonze, gently stretches Sendak's work into a feature-length film, but without substantially changing it or reinterpreting it. Jonze cowrote the film with Dave Eggers, and notably, this adaptation doesn't turn into a jokey, loud, candy-colored action movie (as so often happens, sadly, to beloved children's books when clumsily adapted for the screen). Jonze maintains the serious tone and muted pallette, and the enigmatic ambiguity of the book. Where the Wild Things Are is a movie *about* a young child, but it's not really a movie *for* children (or at least not for young children). The movie is frequently dark and menacing, and the hard-to-please Wild Things are often sad, angry and confused about what they want. The film takes seriously the emotional and psychological complexity of childhood, but also its simplicity. After a hard day of bickering and moping, hugging and biting, boys and monsters alike enjoy nothing more than the simple pleasure of a big, warm, snuggly pileup.

Occasionally, the whooping, soaring, soundtrack (by Carter Burwell and Karen O) is distracting, but the cinematography by Jonze regular Lance Acord is beautifully textured and richly evocative, and the Wild Things' island is a glorious place of sand dunes, seacliffs, caves, and forests where flower petals fall like pink snowflakes. The Wild Things, with their giant muppet bodies, have wonderfully expressive faces (achieved with digital animation), and voices provided by Jame Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, and Paul Dano. They make a delightfully complicated bunch of furry, feathery monsters. They behave like fractious, bickering relatives who, deep down, really love each other even if they can't stand each other. Records is a young actor with remarkable subtlety and a lovely openness and transparency.

Jonze has created a beautiful, rich and satisfying film that is wildly original and genuinely unique. Where the Wild Things Are is warm and scary, touching and thorny, an honest, enthusiastic, imaginative, child's eye look at the world in all its bewildering, astonishing, mystifying complexity. This is a movie that understands that childhood is enough to make anyone wild.


Zombieland (2009)

Zombies are right up there with vampires as the most enduring, most charismatic of monsters. Not charismatic, you say? Sure, vampires bring the sexy, while zombies are pretty messy eaters, and lousy conversationalists. But still, you gotta love the zombies. They're kinda like babies. Big, dumb, hungry, sloppy toddlers with a taste for human flesh.

Now, back in the day, zombies used to be slow and relentless. They'd moan about braaaaaaainnnnnns, and stagger after their victims, who pretty much had to do something stupid like fall down or stand next to a window to get eaten and subsequently zombified. Nowadays, like so much else in the world, zombies move fast. When did that start? 28 Days Later..., maybe. The zombies in Zombieland move fast, but they're still pretty stupid, which makes them hard to outrun, but easy to outwit. And since Zombieland, like any zombie movie, is premised on the notion that humanity is basically little better than zombies in the intellect department, the world is overrun with zombies pretty quickly.

And so, as Zombieland begins, there's one guy, who hails from Columbus, Ohio, who might just be the last non-zombie on Earth. Except that he isn't. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) soon meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), on a lonesome highway strewn with half-eaten corpses and overturned cars. Tallahassee has a big truck and lots of weapons, and a serious jones for Twinkies, which everybody knows is the foodstuff of the apocalypse. Columbus is, by his own admission, a big, neurotic ball of fear, but he's smart, and has devised an extensive set of rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse. Said rules are explained in detail, and helpfully flashed on-screen for your pre-apocalypse edification. Tallahassee, on the other hand, is just really, really good at killing zombies, and killing zombies is something he really, really likes to do, because he really, really hates zombies.

Columbus and Tallahassee mix like oil and water. Columbus is a nervous, chatty little guy who makes wry observatons; Tallahassee speaks little and carries a big bat (just in case he sees any zombies that need killin'). There are complications when they encounter Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and her big sister Wichita (Emma Stone), but the foursome, thrown together by chance, head off in search of a California theme park rumored to be completely free of the undead. I know what you're thinking -- since when is California zombie-free? They also cruise through Beverly Hills, where all those movie star mansions are sitting there vacant. T'is there they meet a non-zombie Bill Murray.

Columbus, who has never had any luck with the ladies, has to think his odds have improved, since he's practically the last man on Earth. So he tries his luck with Wichita, thus injecting a mildly diverting little nerd-meets-cool girl romance in between the zombie carnage. The rest of the movie is snappy, snarky banter peppered with lively undead action.

Zombieland is a horror-comedy-road trip movie that's light on horror and heavy on the comedy. It's chatty, goofy, dark, and it's pretty darn hilarious. Most zombie movies are not played for laughs, of course, because zombies are no laughing matter (at least when they're trying to gnaw your limbs off). These zombies are no exception. Not funny at all. But killing zombies, well that's something else altogether. The undead are dispatched (can the already expired be re-killed?) in a variety of bloody good ways in Zombieland, with instruments of destruction as varied as machine guns, a toilet, and a banjo. And Bill Murray is so funny you could die laughing.


The Invention of Lying (2009)

Keats wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Well, maybe.

The Invention of Lying is about a man who, as the title suggests, invents lying. He lives in a world much like ours, except that humans don't tell lies. In fact, they *cannot* tell lies. More than that, they cannot help but tell the truth at all times, it seems. So it is, in addition to being a world without lying, a world without tact, discretion, or a sense of fellow-feeling, a world in which people are cruel and callous and boorish... but honest. Brutally, unflinchingly, unfailingly honest. They don't even have the words "truth" and "lie" -- the concepts simply don't exist.

Now lest you think a world without falsehood and deception would be paradise indeed (in which case, you must be a Kantian), The Invention of Lying defends the radical thesis that lying is beneficial. A little white lie now and then would spare a poor shlub like Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) from hearing what his coworkers really think of him. He wouldn't get Too Much Information from his blind date Anna (Jennifer Garner) about how she gratifies herself, or about how he fails to measure up in the looks, income, and personality departments. He wouldn't be told, repeatedly and by seemingly everyone, that Anna is out of his league. And it would make Mark's job a lot easier. Mark, you see, is a screenwriter, but since there are no falsehoods, nor even embellishments, art simply does not exist. Instead, Mark writes dreary historical documentaries about the 13th century when, lets face it, not much that was very entertaining happened.

And then one day Mark somehow tells a lie, and since no one has ever lied before, no one has any reason to doubt Mark's veracity, and so his lies are wildly successful. Which is how he comes to invent religion, when he tells a beautiful lie about the afterlife, and a Man in the Sky, to comfort a dying woman. Word gets out. Mark has invented God.

So there you have it -- without lies and artifice, there could be no art, and people would be miserable because they would know the honest truth about everything. And without falsehood, fabrication and fiction, there would be no religion and no God. (Also, screenwriters are prophets!) Because humanity is so literal-minded, yet so ingenuous, Mark is forced to explain why the Man in the Sky is so mean. Why does he cause cancer, and burn down houses? Ah, but he also puts out fires and cures cancer! Mark does his best to defend the Man in the Sky against charges that he's a big fat jerk, but theodicy is a thankless job (and it's worth noting that, confronted with theodicies, Kant himself basically punted).

The Invention of Lying is wry and dry, and darkly, philosophically funny. It comes thisclose to being a really radical satire, and it could have been darker, and more philosophical for my taste, but it lazily drifts off into the safe territory of romantic comedy. The romance is funnier because it's completely one-sided, of course, since a world without lies is also a world without romance (take that, Keats!). Loser boy meets girl, girl rejects loser boy, loser boy wins! but still can't get girl, etc. Will Anna stop being such a shallow, callous creature and finally marry Mr. Right, who is both a big fat liar and a *hero*? This is where The Invention of Lying really lays it on thick, but we want movies to lie about love, right?

Speaking of a world without art, The Invention of Lying is, to be honest, a pretty crummy looking movie. Gervais (who invented the British version of *The Office*, and *Extras*) cowrote and codirected the movie with Matthew Robinson, and it looks about as bad and cheaply made as the pompous documentaries filmed by Mark's employers (the aptly named Lecture Films). Every expense was spared, apparently, in the filming of The Invention of Lying, although there's a crackerjack cast filled with topnotch talent (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, Louis C.K., Jonah Hill, and Jeffrey Tambor, every one of whom, in some homage to verisimilitude, appears to have done his or her own hair and makeup). The Invention of Lying, like Mark Bellison, is kinda frumpy and dumpy looking on the outside, but on the inside, it's occasionally (if inconsistently) brilliant. No lie.