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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2007

Making up for lost time

More hits and misses from 2007

They came, and then they went . . . and somewhere in that time I saw them, but never got around to reviewing them for IGMS. Here, I make up for that mistake, with a few notable - for better or worse - entries from earlier this year.

Bridge to Terabithia
Buena Vista Pictures
Director: Gabor Csupo
Screenplay: Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson, based on the novel by Katherine Paterson
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Robert Patrick, Zooey Deschanel, Lauren Clinton and Bailee Madison
Rated PG / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Now available on DVD
(out of four)

Most of the complaints about Bridge to Terabithia stemmed from solely from the way the film was marketed, rather than about the movie itself. Granted, expectations were generated by the commercials and trailers, which depicted a WETA-created fantasy world not unlike The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia.

Only, as everyone soon discovered, the film wasn't really fantasy at all - that was the side element, the fantastical creation that childhood friends Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) used to protect themselves and each other from the pain of adolescent alienation.

That is where the spirit of the film (and, I presume, the book) is based - in the relationship between the two main characters and the power that it holds over both of them. In addition to the surprisingly strong performances on everyone's part, what works about Bridge to Terabithia is the way it deals so earnestly with issues in the characters' lives without condescending to them. It is not always easy and it is not always happy and every problem doesn't have an easy way to deal with it. In fact, quite the opposite.

The fantasy elements are there, and work effectively as a creative force binding Jesse and Leslie together, temporarily free of everything else that might otherwise seem too much for a kid to handle. Those who expected a pure fantasy adventure might have gone away disappointed, but that isn't the movie's fault. Leave the marketing at the door.

Disturbia
Paramount Pictures
Director: D.J. Caruso
Screenplay: Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Sarah Roemer, David Morse, Carrie-Anne Moss, Aaron Yoo and Viola Davis
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 45 minutes
Now available on DVD
(out of four)

If you're going to completely steal the premise for one of the greatest suspense thrillers - even one of the greatest movies period - the best thing you can do is alter it as much as possible to avoid too many direct comparisons.

Writers Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth and director D.J. Caruso do just that in Disturbia, an obvious re-working of Rear Window that is modernized in such a way that it could not possibly take place in any other milieu than 21st Century suburbia. It's not just windows and binoculars anymore - it's digital cameras, camera-phones, computers, all kinds of sets of eyes. All of these are used by Kale (Shia LaBeouf) to spy on his neighbor, Mr. Turner (David Morse) who seems to be up to no good. Kale is under house arrest after slugging one of his teachers, so he has to rely on his electronic equipment, his friend Ronnie and his bikini-clad new neighbor Ashley.

The film slowly moves from Rear Window to a Silence of the Lambs-type, but does so without too many ridiculous theatrics. Sure, it's way too convenient, but like all good suspense, Disturbia effectively suspends our disbelief. When the thriller elements are toned down a notch, the actors (particularly LaBeouf) are interesting enough that we don't try to look back and poke holes into everything. I wish the script could have come up with a more satisfying, less obvious climax. But the least I could say is that the movie as a whole is a lot more satisfying and less obvious than LaBeouf's other 2007 hit, Transformers.

Angel-A
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Luc Besson
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Starring: Rie Rasmussen, Jamal Debbouze, Gilbert Melcki, Serge Riaboukine and Akim Chir
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Now available on DVD
(out of four)

OK, Luc Besson has never exactly been known as a serious dramatic filmmaker, I'll grant you that. But he's often been a very entertaining one (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, The Professional), and I don't mean that in a condescending way.

Which brings us to the unbearable lightness of Angel-A, his latest offering that first hit American screens at this year's Sundance Film Festival. In a fest full of both brilliant and terrible films, Angel-A was quickly and easily forgotten. It's a fanciful tale of a small-time crook (Jamal Debbouze), deeply in debt, who nearly tries to commit suicide off a bridge until noticing a tall, leggy blonde, Angela (Angel-A, get it?), played by Rie Rasmussen (the excellently undressed brunette from the opening scene of Femme Fatale) trying to do the same thing and decides to stop her. Of course, she's a guardian angel, and over the course of the day she will do all that she can to forgive his many debts, even if it means using her feminine wiles. It's divine intervention of the sexiest order.

Capra could make a concept like this mean something. We don't necessarily expect "meaning" from Besson, but a little more effort than fluffy character types and adorably trite conversation would have been nice.

If you want to see a surreal black-and-white French romance in which one character stops another from jumping off a bridge, go rent Patrice Leconte's The Girl on the Bridge instead. Trust me.

The Last Mimzy
New Line Cinema
Director: Robert Shaye
Screenplay: Bruce Joel Rubin and Toby Emmerich, based on the short story Mimsy Were the Borogoves, by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore
Starring: Timothy Hutton, Joely Richardson, Rhiannon Leigh Wryn, Chris O'Neil, Rainn Wilson, Kathryn Hahn and Michael Clarke Duncan
Rated PG / 1 hour, 30 minutes
Now available on DVD
(out of four)

If Steven Spielberg had gotten his hands on the story that is the basis for The Last Mimzy, he could have made a timeless family classic. Think of it as a weirder, new-age, hippie oddity version of E.T.

While it may not hold up against that classic, this is still a charming, if uneven, fantasy, with imagination to spare. Two siblings, Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) and Noah (Chris O'Neil) find . . . um, something on the beach one day, which contains objects that seem to be of extraterrestrial origin. All of a sudden, these seemingly average kids can do seemingly impossible things. They certainly catch the attention of Noah's teacher, Mr. White (Rainn Wilson) as well as the federal government. That tends to happen when you black out the entire power grid in the state of Washington.

Like E.T. - a clear influence on this movie - The Last Mimzy focuses a lot on the kids' gradual understanding of what is happening to them. At first, the rocks that levitate, the "paperweight" that can move objects from one spot to another instantaneously and the technologically advanced stuffed rabbit that seems to be able to communicate with the children all just seem like toys. It is only when the stakes get raised that the kids - and their parents, and their teachers, and the government - begin to see what is happening with a true sense of wonder and amazement.

Director Robert Shaye approaches the material with that sense of amazement. And while the events on screen may not be as awe-inspiring as the awe-struck faces of his actors may suggest, The Last Mimzy is nevertheless a unique charmer, a bizarre fantastical fable unlike anything else that came out this year.

Vacancy
Screen Gems
Director: Nimrod Antal
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry and David Doty
Rated R / 1 hour, 20 minutes
Now available on DVD
(out of four)

I have a small set of rules governing my life. Number nine on the list? If Kate Beckinsale is in the movie, I will see it. So, you see, I had no choice with Vacancy, despite its middling reviews and low box-office returns.

What I got as an added bonus was a film with a fabulous horror-movie concept that gets completely mishandled. A couple on the outs (Wilson and Beckinsale) run into car trouble and have to stay in a cheap motel out in the middle of nowhere, only to discover that they're about to be two more in a long line of snuff-film victims. It's part of the motel's charm, you see.

Conceptually, it's a combination of Psycho, Hostel and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell's 1960 masterpiece, which was forgotten when first released but rediscovered by subsequent generations). It's a dark, disgusting, twisted and amazingly simple concept that has the potential to be turned into a dark, disgusting, twisted and brilliant horror movie. Only the film never takes any chances. Once the concept is introduced, we're given a paint-by-numbers hide/escape/call the cops/run away/get caught/beat people up horror movie.

There are hints of great horror here and there, but they're never brought to life by director Nimrod Antal (who directed the excellent Hungarian film Kontroll a few years back), nor by the unimpressive script. Despite the great ideas that set the film up, Vacancy dissolves into another one of those movies that relies on the characters making extremely stupid decisions that undermine any terror we might expect to feel for them. The biggest disappointment of all is the third act - a big chase/fight/shootout scene. The film presents its seedy ideas, but never has the you-know-whats to follow them through.

...and an advance special:

Death Proof (Extended Version)
Dimension Films
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Sydney Poitier, Zoe Bell, Vanessa Ferlito, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rose McGowan
Rated R / 1 hour, 53 minutes
Releases on DVD Sept. 18
(out of four)

I've made it clear that I felt Grindhouse was one of the best cinematic experiences in recent years. Rest assured, it will be near the top of my top-10 list at year's end. Quentin Tarantino's masterful deconstruction and reinvention of the slasher genre, Death Proof, was a glorious piece of old-school filmmaking in and of itself.

And here, now, is the complete version, the version I saw at Cannes earlier this year. Nearly 30 minutes longer than the 87-minute version in Grindhouse, this version is fuller and better (though the back-to-back, three-hour, double-dip Tarantino/Rodriguez combo can't be topped for pure unadulterated entertainment value). It's the same movie, only we get a few more scenes that elongate the suspense and/or add a darker humorous context to the proceedings. For instance, we get an extended scene at a convenience-store parking lot where Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) introduces himself to the second set of girls . . . without them ever knowing it.

The chase scenes are still where the film fully realizes itself, still just as brilliant and hysterical and genre-bending as they were the first time. And while Kurt Russell surely won't get any attention come December and January, I insist that this is a performance worthy of Oscar consideration - or at the very least, a Golden Globe! Come on, Hollywood Foreign Press, grow a pair!

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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