Zombie dogs! Neeson! Southern-fried jail tales! And more, in this week's new movies
It's finally Halloweentime! (Though Walgreens would have you believe that season started in August.) Hollywood prepares appropriately with a few spookier picks (for kids, Frankenweenie, reviewed below; for older crowds, found-footage anthology V/H/S, discussed in my interview with some of the filmmakers here.) For good measure, you can check out my interview with Dee Wallace, star of some horror classics but making the press rounds for the 30th anniversary Blu-ray release of E.T. The Extraterrestrial.
Of local interest, the Mill Valley Film Festival is up and running, with some stellar picks noted here (HOLY MOTORS!) and an interview with indie pioneer Allison Anders, who debuts her new Strutter at the fest, here.
Bitter Seeds Just what we all needed: more incontrovertible evidence of the bald-faced evil of Monsanto. This documentary on destitute Indian cotton farmers follows an 18-year-old girl named Manjusha, a budding journalist who investigates the vast numbers of farmer suicides since the introduction (and market stranglehold) of "BT" cotton — which uses the corporation's proprietary GMO technology — in the region of Vidarbha. Before BT took over in 2004, these cotton farmers relied on cheap heritage seed fertilized only by cow dung, but the largely illiterate population fell prey to Monsanto's marketing blitz and false claims, purchasing biotech seed that resulted in pesticide reliance, failing crops, and spiraling debt. It's a truly heartbreaking and infuriating story, but much of the action feels stagy and false. Should Indian formality be blamed? Considering the same fate befell Micha X. Peled's 2005 documentary China Blue, probably not. Still, eff Monsanto. (1:28) Roxie. (Michelle Devereaux)
Frankenweenie Tim Burton's feature-length Frankenweenie expands his 1984 short of the same name (canned by Disney back in the day for being too scary), and is the first black and white film to receive the 3D IMAX treatment. A stop-motion homage to every monster movie Burton ever loved, Frankenweenie is also a revival of the Frankenstein story cute-ified for kids; it takes the showy elements of Mary Shelley's novel and morphs them to fit Burton's hyperbolic aesthetic. Elementary-school science wiz Victor takes his disinterred dog from bull terrier to gentle abomination (when the thirsty Sparky drinks, he shoots water out of the seams holding his body parts together). Victor's competitor in the school science fair, Edgar E. Gore, finds out about Sparky and ropes in classmates to scrape up their dead pets from the town’s eerily utilized pet cemetery and harness the town’s lightning surplus. The film’s answer to Boris Karloff (lisp intact) resurrects a mummified hamster, while a surrogate for Japanese Godzilla maker Ishiro Honda, revives his pet turtle Shelley (get it?) into Gamera. As these experiments aren’t borne of love, they don’t go as well at Victor's. If you love Burton, Frankenweenie feels like the at-last presentation of a story he's been dying to tell for years. If you don’t love him, you might wonder why it took him so long to get it out. When Victor's science teacher leaves the school, he tells Victor an experiment conducted without love is different from one conducted with it: love, he implies, is a variable. If that's the variable that separates 2003's Big Fish (heartbreaking) from 2010's Alice In Wonderland (atrocious), it's a large one indeed. The love was there for 29 minutes in 1984, but I can't say it endures when stretched to 87 minutes 22 years later. (1:27) Presidio. (Sara Vizcarrondo)
The Mystical Laws As The Master gathers Oscar buzz for its Scientology-inspired tale, another movie based on the teachings of a similarly-named religion, Japanese fringe sect Happy Science, opens this weekend. But that analogy is incorrect, for The Mystical Laws way more resembles 2000's Battlefield Earth, demonstrating and preaching its source material's tenants rather than questioning them. Visit Happy Science's website and you'll find a New Age mix of Christianity and Buddhism, with woo-woo about truth and love. Its founder, Ryuho Okawa, claims to the reincarnation of "El Cantare," sort of an über-god who controls all spiritual activity on Earth. Anyway, now there's an anime flick based on one of Okawa's hundreds of books; it's about an evil overlord with planet-ruling aspirations who gets smacked down by the powerful combo of aliens, a guy who realizes he's humanity's "light of hope" (basically a Jesus-Buddha combo, with psychic powers to boot), and an eight-headed flying dragon. There is Nazi iconography; there are Star Wars-inspired plot points. At one point, the hero preaches directly to the camera. It's all very heavy-handed. A far more amusing use of your time would be to go to Happy Science's website and click the tab marked "Astonishing Facts" to learn the spiritual fates of historical figures: "Currently Beethoven lives in the lower area of the Bodhisattva Realm of the 7th dimension in the Spirit world, and aims to transcend the sadness evident in parts of his music and become an expert in the music of joy," while proponent o' evolution Darwin "is now serving a penance in Abysmal Hell." Hey, wait a minute! Isn't science supposed to be "happy?" (2:00) New People, 1746 Post, SF; www.newpeopleworld.com. (Cheryl Eddy)
The Oranges In director Julian Farino’s tale of two families, the Wallings and the Ostroffs are neighbors and close friends living in the affluent New Jersey township of West Orange. We meet David Walling (Hugh Laurie), his wife Paige (Catherine Keener), his best friend Terry Ostroff (Oliver Platt), and Terry’s wife, Carol (Allison Janney), during a period of domestic malaise for both couples — four unhappy people who enjoy spending time together — that is destined to be exponentially magnified over the Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities. We learn much of this in voice-over courtesy of stalled-out 24-year-old design school grad Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), a second-generation Walling whose narrative subjectivity the film makes plain. No one will fault Vanessa for editorializing, however, when her Ostroff counterpart, onetime BFF and present-day nemesis Nina (Leighton Meester), returns home after a five-year absence and, amid maternal pressure to date Vanessa’s visiting brother, Toby (Adam Brody), instead embarks on an affair with their father. The ick factor is large, particularly because it takes a while to keep straight all the spouses, offspring, and houses they belong in. But Farino works to convince us that the romantic spark between David and Nina should be judged on its merits rather than with a gut-level revulsion, a reaction we can leave to the film’s principals. To the extent that this is possible, it’s possible to enjoy The Oranges’ intelligent writing and fine cast, whose sympathetic characters (perhaps excluding Nina, whose heedlessness regarding the feelings of others verges on sociopathic) we wish the best of luck in surviving the holidays. (1:30) (Lynn Rapoport)
The Paperboy Lee Daniels scored big with Precious (2009), but this follow-up is so off-kilter in tone and story it will likely polarize critics and confuse audiences, despite its A-list cast. I happened to enjoy the hell out of this tacky, sweat-drenched, gator-gutting, and generally overwrought adaptation of Peter Dexter's novel (Dexter and Daniels co-wrote the screenplay); it's kind of a Wild Things-The Help-A Time to Kill mash-up, with the ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey starring as Ward Jansen, a Florida newspaper reporter investigating what he thinks is the wrongful murder conviction of Hillary Van Wetter (a repulsively greasy John Cusack). But the movie's not really about that. Set in 1969 and narrated by Macy Gray, who plays the veteran housekeeper for the Jansens — a clan that also includes college dropout Jack (Zac Efron) — The Paperboy is neither mystery nor thriller. It's more of a swamp cocktail, with some odd directorial choices (random split-screen here, random zoom there) that maybe seem like exploitation movie homages. As a Southern floozy turned on by "prison cock" (but not, to his chagrin, by the oft-shirtless Jack), Nicole Kidman turns in her trashiest performance since 1995's To Die For. (1:46) (Cheryl Eddy)
Taken 2 Surprise hit Taken (2008) was a soap opera produced by French action master Luc Besson and designed for export. The divorced-dad-saves-daughter-from-sex-slavery plot may have nagged at some universal parenting anxieties, but it was a Movie of the Week melodrama made on a major movie budget. Taken 2 begins immediately after the last, with sweet teen Kim (Maggie Grace) talking about normalizing after she was drugged and bought for booty. Papa Neeson sees Kim’s mom (Famke Janssen) losing her grip on husband number two and invites them both to holiday in Istanbul following one of his high-stakes security gigs. When the assistant with the money slinks him a fat envelope, Neeson chuckles at his haul. This is the point when women in the audience choose which Neeson they’re watching: the understated super-provider or the warrior-dad whose sense of duty can meet no match. For family men, this is the breeziest bit of vicarious living available; Neeson’s character is a tireless daddy duelist, a man as diligent as he is organized. (This is guy who screams “Victory loves preparation!”) As head-splitting, disorienting, and generally exhausting as the action direction is, Neeson saves his ex-wife and the show in a stream of unclear shootouts. Taken 2 is best suited for the small screen, but whatever the size, no one can stop an international slave trade (or wolves, or Batman) like 21st century Liam. Swoon. (1:31) (Sara Vizcarrondo)