Archive for the ‘Boxoffice’ Category

Hesher

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Joseph Gordon-Levitt dominates this slight, worth-a-watch dramedy about an anarchic headbanger who invades the home of a grieving widower, grandmother and son like a bear claiming a cave. With tattoos of a middle finger on his back and a dead stick figure on his chest, Gordon-Levitt’s Hesher is raw destruction, and aggro comedy writer/director Spencer Susser even punctuates his one-liners with a blast of crunching metal. (”Ever been skull-f–ked?” DURNAdurnDURN! “Would you like to be?”) He’s a can’t-miss attraction in a movie that goes nowhere, and with the odds high that the Sundance flick will get swooped up for an indie release, odds are he’ll be a cult hero for a new generation, assuming badass audiences can get past all that killjoy plot about grief.

Young T.J. (Devin Brochu) meets Hesher when the boy shatters a window at his squat. Hours later, he spots him in a hallway at school smoking cigarettes with impunity. (Granted, this school might not be too sharp—no one seems to notice that T.J. looks four years younger than his classmates.) Hesher seems too bold to be true. Cruising around their small town in his battered black van, he’s like an apparition from the gods of metal—we’re waiting for the tyke to discover that he is Tyler Durden. But when Hesher stomps into T.J.’s living room, stripping down to his skivvies and settling in to watch porn, we realize T.J.’s depressed father (Rainn Wilson, unrecognizable) and elderly grandmother (Piper Laurie) can see him, too, and that Susser’s script doesn’t see the homeless metalhead as a allegory for grief, but as an actual character who needs a character arc.

The flick’s third-act rush for a resolution softens its no-holds-barred attitude and the film ends on a lull. Brochu is a fine young actor, but the film’s bigger issue is Susser’s sudden urge to satisfy those audiences who want a movie about headbanging to end in a group hug. The energy is drained by a forced love triangle between T.J., Hesher and a lonely grocery bagger (Natalie Portman). As always, Portman is grievously miscast—she and her agent would do well to emulate Gordon-Levitt, who continues his crusade to prove himself as the next great talent. In (500) Days of Summer, he was pert and idealistic with eyes as wide as a puppy. Here, he’s about-faced to play a truly threatening grunt that keeps his eyes squinted half shut like a hungover frog. Gordon-Levitt stares at the world like a wolf prepared for attack—he’s destructive even when it’s not in his best interests, getting clobbered by a gas grill as he wrestles it into a stranger’s pool. Hesher wreaks so much carnage that his major turning comes when he—gasp!—cleans up someone else’s mess. You don’t resent the movie that surrounds him, but you don’t need it. Gordon-Levitt was born to rock and we salute him.

Click here for Hesher in Boxoffice Magazine

Nowhere Boy

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Sam Taylor Wood’s biopic of 17 year old John Lennon opens with the first chord of “A Hard’s Days Night”—a one second blast of reverb that, like the film itself, is recognizable but stops just shy of infringement. This is the life story of the Beatles’ most complicated genius (according to himself), remixed for added drama. The Weinsteins have thrown their weight behind the flick’s mass appeal, and while it’s sure to be picked apart by Lennon devotees—say, those who have penned Wikipedia bios for his mom, aunt and uncle that run nearly as long as the file on Liverpool—indie box office sales will sound mighty sweet.

Like Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There—which never once came out and said the name “Bob Dylan”—Nowhere Boy bites its tongue and refuses to say “The Beatles.” A scene where John (Aaron Johnson) tells his guardian and Aunt, Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), he and The Quarrymen have just changed their name is a tease. She’s not interested in hearing about the band, and she never would be. (Which makes you wonder just what the two talked about on their legendary once-a-week phone chats that continued until his death.) Mimi prefers Tchaikovsky, schoolwork and nagging John to wear his glasses, already in their signature shape, though for now he’d rather shove them in his pocket. John’s mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), was the rock ‘n’ roll fan, and Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay suggests he only picked up a guitar to get closer to her. Julia was a winsome heartbreaker forced to give up custody of John when he was five. (Mimi kept calling social services on the single mom for having her son share a bed with her and her new boyfriend.)

As Duff plays her, Julia’s swollen with love and optimism, like a balloon that’s easily burst; when drained she falls into depression. And to shelter their daughters, Jacqui and Julia (who would write the memoir that inspired the film), common law husband Bobby (David Morrissey) wants to keep distance between her and her son, leaving young Lennon without a warm mother figure but with a need to convince himself that he’s cocksure enough not to need one. Wood’s portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-son fudges the facts but finds emotional truth. Johnson is wholly credible as the future rock king: handsome, smart, brash, impulsive, overconfident and angry, he makes everything we’d later learn about Lennon feel inevitable. When he first blows off 15 year old Paul McCartney with a masturbation joke before reluctantly bowing down to his guitar skills, the dynamics that would make the band conquer then implode are already sparking. By the end of the film, Lennon’s learned to share the mic with Paul and George (Sam Bell), but he can’t help strutting like he’s the star of the show, even though his own mom claps louder for Paul’s solos. Paul and George might have the skill, but John earned the swagger. And though this biopic is as tidy as a three minute pop song, when we see him look back one last time as he leaves Aunt Mimi’s for Hamburg and all that would come after, the music god is just a little more human.

Click here for Nowhere Boy in Boxoffice Magazine

Youth in Revolt

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

America’s sweetheart Michael Cera wears training wheels—or really, a training mustache—in his first attempt to go bad. Half bad, at least. In Miguel Arteta’s comedy (based on the great series by novelist C.D. Payne), Cera plays Nick Twisp, a stuttering virgin who adopts a roguish split personality named Francois Dillinger to win over his lady love, Sheeni (Portia Doubleday). Light, comic, and less black than the books, this is a fun piece of fluff that melts away like cotton candy. At heart, this is a cult flick at home on DVD players, but ticket sales will be sweet enough.

It helps that Arteta has assembled a standout character actor cast. Among the grownups plaguing Nick’s life are his divorced pop (Steve Buscemi), mom (Jean Smart), mom’s first boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) and her second (Ray Liotta). Dad’s girlfriend, Estelle (Ari Graynor), doesn’t count as the sweet blond is just a few years out of high school. Mom’s man-crazy and makes their family vacation to an RV park super awkward, what with the trailer rocking and all. But when Nick meets Sheeni, the hell trip is worth it. They’re equally pretentious. Only her parents are religious middlebrows who own a two-story trailer—the better to fit in their pipe organ—and Nick knows if he’s ever going to score with his lady love he’s got to find a way back to their hick town and fast.

Enter Francois. He’s a mustachioed rebel who does the things Nick shudders to do—like scheme to get evicted from home to get closer to Sheeni. But his girl is worse than he is and might be using him as a tool to get closer to her other boyfriend, Trent (Jonathan B. Wright), a 6′7” poet who has 40 pounds of muscle and fluency in French on the slim, stuttering Twisp. (And if she is still chasing Trent, Nick’s new passion project is sabotaging her life.) As the cigarette-smoking Francois, Cera is hilariously wicked—he needs to do eight more roles like this before he takes on another nervous nerd in a hoodie. Of course, that Cera opens the film whacking off is already enough to make some fan girls’ heads explode.

Payne’s book is more epic and shameless than Gustin Nash’s tidy adaptation, which focuses as much on Nick’s virginity problem as his need to top everyone with the wildest stunt. Sex is a little too conventional a goal for the kid willing to dress like a Christian girl named Carlotta if it’ll get him in Sheeni’s front door. (In print, the Carlotta adventures are an extended riot.) But the cast is so good and the humor so zinging that I’m glad the flick exists—especially if it prods audiences towards the series. Fred Willard’s reliably great as an ultra-leftist neighbor and Justin Long stands out as Sheeni’s older brother who invites everyone on a clichéd but fun wild mushroom ride.

Click here for Youth in Revolt in Boxoffice Magazine

Avatar

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

James Cameron writes solid—not surprising—scripts. Spoiler alert! In Titanic, the ship sinks; the real drama happens in the small moments that happen before, during and after. Avatar is both incredibly predictable and incredibly perverse. Not only does Cameron blur the line between reality and CGI, he’s at once jingoistic and anti-hawk. Right-wingers will feel welcomed in the first half, the left-brained will be vindicated by the climax. But both groups will pony up buckets of cash to see what pledged to be—and is—the spectacle of the year, and even just shy of three hours it’s a hell of a lot more whiz-bang fun than bread and circuses.

Though Cameron’s reputation is for decadence, his stories are always grippingly elemental. Here, we have a crippled ex-Marine named Jake (Sam Worthington, dull but serviceable) asked to take his dead twin brother’s role in an expensive and dangerous genetic experiment. His brother spent three years earning a PhD in the language and culture of the Na’vi, a slender, strong, long-tailed blue alien culture that’s learned to survive on the violently beautiful planet of Pandora. From space, Pandora looks a lot like earth. Up close it does too, but the resemblance clearest in the mining regions that the U.S. Military (now merged with the economy) has trampled with 10-story bulldozers. Through a biological link, Jake can step into his brother’s shoes (or really, bare feet) as an operator of a Na’vi spawned in a lab from his brother’s DNA.

Jake isn’t an anthropologist; he’s a moron. And if you think I’m being cruel, that’s literally his sole defining trait (and nickname) in the movie’s first third. He’s a headstrong, self-described jarhead dying to regain the use of his legs, even if those legs are 7 feet long, alien and blue. So what Cameron gives us is a boy who simply wants to run, thrown onto a planet where three groups battle for his heart and mind: Sigourney Weaver’s bio-cultural researcher (his ostensible boss), Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi as the initially charming military-industrialists (and Jake’s real bosses) who want Jake to infiltrate the Na’vi and kick them off their land and Zoe Saldana as the Na’vi princess Neytiri who slowly falls in love with this idiot that both her parents and her land have asked her to protect. This heedless jock just might be crucial to her culture’s survival. Okay, fine, he is. But as always with Cameron, the film’s destination isn’t his goal.

Both Lang and Ribisi are trying to mine a mineral Cameron bluntly calls ‘unobtanium’ from underneath the Na’vi capital. Priced at $20 million a kilo, it’s the sole motive behind earth’s invasion of Pandora. Even before they grunt buzzwords like “shock and awe” and “preemptive attack,” this is clearly a three-year, $300 million rebuke of Dick Cheney. (And if that price tag sounds outrageous, it’s the cost of one day of the ongoing War on Terror.)

Though it’s set in 2154, Cameron’s flick is so set in the present, it’s actually set in the past. Characters even reference jujubees and Ranger Rick—things that were practically extinct two decades ago. When Ribisi exclaims, “Look at that cheddar!” he sounds like Jay-Z circa 2001. The Na’vi are untouched by the rappers of the 21st century, but their lines are lifted from centuries of Buddhist texts about respecting the cyclical energy of life and death—stuff Ribisi dismisses as “tree hugger crap.” Eventually, we learn that all the trees on the Internet are connected through their roots like a shared brain—or really, tree Internet—and Cameron pans across them (and watches their destruction) with reverence, a palpable love he also extends to the bioluminescent ground, the thickets of motion-sensing ferns, the humid air, the clouds of insects, down even to the dirt which the newly mobile Jake curls his toes into and sighs.

Cameron wants us to appreciate the world he’s toiled to make. And it’s beautiful. His Pandora is a revelation—truly a must see. (Suspect anyone who claims to be underwhelmed—they’re jaded beyond hope.) But Cameron knows to give us long tracking shots that show off his creation instead of chopping it into a frenzy. Instead, he holds steady and piles it on, cramming casual moments like Jake and Neytiri hiking through the forest with details that fill every inch of the frame: the glowing moon, the swaying breeze, the humming flies, the dense leaves. You could say Cameron suffocates us with his enthusiasm, except he does so in a way that makes us want to come back for more.

Maybe it’s because we’re so agog at Avatar’s beauty that it takes us a few beats to realize Cameron’s slowly switched the game on us. Sure, the Na’vi kill for food and freedom, but they take lives with respect. (Well, at least the lives of their food.) We, like Jake, are seduced by the group’s humility in the face of every organism’s right to live. But we’re also on a planet heading towards war, where the metal death machines of the U.S. goliaths prepare to trample an indigenous people even though they’ve been warned the Na’vi alone are masters of the mountains, jungles and climate. (And you know that’s never an easy route.)

Lang considers Worthington a traitor to his race. In a gleeful if incidental pun he accuses his soldier of abandoning his principles for “some local tail.” His ladylove is brandishing a hell of a non-hensile posterior. I found Saldana’s Neytiri a little too hippie and sinuous to equal the best of Cameron’s ass-kicking femmes—by contrast, Sigourney looks killer even wearing a cardigan and pearls.

Through Neytiri’s love for her planet, Avatar treats the death of a space coyote with the respect given Hamlet’s mother. It also wastes the lives of thousands of Na’vi and Earthlings as easily as crumpled tissues. You can call that hypocrisy. Or you can look at the uncanny insight of Cameron’s other works and ask yourself what he’s up to? I think it’s underestimating Cameron to claim he’s unaware of the central contradiction of his ecological blockbuster. He’s set up a conflict where he asks us to identify with the aliens killing people with arrows. Are we not men? We are. And we’ve been primed to feel the moral weight of death on both sides. (There’s even a burning, six-legged, space horse straight out of Guernica.) If we’ve managed to keep our brains screwed on through all the stunning visuals, we’re not going to check them when the first bombs go off. And that this applause-worthy battle keeps its feet on the ground (even when its fighters are on starships and dragons) is a feat bested only by its damn gorgeousness.

Click here for Avatar in Boxoffice Magazine

New Moon

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Talk to a Twilight fan (or Twihard or Twimom or Twitard, if you’re nasty) and you’ll hear concessions: Stephenie Meyer’s books are poorly written, Twilight is too melodramatically directed. Even Edward, they’ll admit, is way emo and Bella sullen with entitlement. And that’s from the devoted. New Moon isn’t good enough to seduce new fans, but it’s not bad enough to break off relentless infatuations. And though it’ll make a mint, the big test is if fans will leave clamoring for the next two movies (the third of which is in production and the fourth plagued by concerns that it’s unfilmable).

Enjoying all of New Moon’s 130-minute running time (as I did, well enough) takes the ability to swoon and snort simultaneously—say, when a fantasy Bella runs through the woods in gray chiffon, or Edward recites the closing lines of Romeo and Juliet by heart. (He has been in high school for 80 years). We pick up at the start of Bella’s (Kristen Stewart) senior year where she’s devastated to turn the ripe old age of 18. Her vampire love (Robert Pattinson) stopped aging at 17 and Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the young Quileute Indian waiting for Edward to screw up with the irresistibly glum beauty, is just sweet 16. (And if you think Melissa Rosenberg’s script is too weepy to make a cougar joke, you’d be wrong.)

When Edward breaks up with Bella and skips town, throwing in a few hurtful kicks so she won’t follow, New Moon becomes a melodrama about a broken heart that gradually and sweetly mends. Edward and Jacob (or for fans, Team Edward and Team Jacob) represent the poles of immediate love with a stranger or patient love with a friend. As a sensible girl, I’d go Team Jacob, and not just because Jacob’s wolf pack requires going topless. (If you’re wondering how they keep their pants post-transformation, that’s a secret for the book.) But Bella’s again fallen for a reluctant killer—the werewolves’ temper has already gotten one of their girlfriends maimed—which means even more shots of screaming and crying and running in the rain. But though Bella’s dad (Billy Burke) advises her to “love who is good for you,” she still carries a torch for Edward—just the sight of his face sucks the air from her body. (Ironic, given he once crooned to her, “Bella, you give me everything just by breathing.”) They share the ultimate of teenager status symbols: a great love no one understands. In the ’50s that got sweethearts run over by trains. Here they battle carnivorous vampires. Same difference.

In interviews, you get the sense that everyone involved in the franchise from director Chris Weitz to his stars would rather being doing something else. That translates on the screen; in the way the camera awkwardly steps in and back during another declaration of love, the way that Pattinson clenches his jaw when Edward has to say something ridiculous, the way you can feel Stewart trying her darnedest not to bite her lips and stroke her hair (two tics teased by everyone from the blogosphere to Taylor Swift on SNL). The ultimate question is: if fans reluctantly love the books and reluctantly love the films, what’s the source of their great love no one understands? It’s part-Pattinson, but not wholly. After all, few bothered to catch Little Ashes, his catastrophic turn as Salvador Dali. The best I can figure is that fans are in love with themselves, with this fun and festive club they’ve formed, the goofy romance of Twilight mania (after all, post-Springsteen, mass culture has sorely lacked messiahs.) How bad does the movie have to be to make them stay away? Much worse than this. Carry on, sweet sisters, carry on.

Click here for New Moon in Boxoffice Magazine

Michael Jackson’s This is It

Friday, October 30th, 2009

The Church of Rock and Roll!” yelps tour director Kenny Ortega as the crew rises to its feet for Michael Jackson’s rehearsal of “Billie Jean.” No question: to fans, Jackson was the messiah. And this documentary is his resurrection. This reverential but genuine before-the-concert film corrects the tabloid impression that Jackson spent his final days (years?) as a pill-addled hasbeen. Here, we see the master close to the top of his game—a feat for practice footage of a 50 year old who hadn’t toured since 1997. This is his ’68 Comeback Special and audiences will show their gratitude at seeing the legend restored with thrilling ticket sales during its two-week run.

First, we must confront the legitimate fear that This is It is exploitative. Our recent post-mortem culture has given us cause for concern. (Google “Anna Nicole Smith.”) If Britney hadn’t survived her head-shaving meltdown, I’d boycott any producer who tried to gild her final project into a special event. But as the film’s director, Ortega is as slaveringly solicitous to his subject as he is in the rehearsal footage where he appears. (Between helming the tour and this film, he also directed Jackson’s Staples Center memorial.) 100 hours of casual footage were shot and the two hours we’re given haven’t a hint that Jackson will die of a painkiller overdose eight days before the tour crew decamped to England. This is certainly due to a legal clause between Jackson’s estate, Sony and AEG Live that “footage that paints Jackson in a bad light will not be permitted.” It might—just might—also be that Jackson was fine. (The flick doesn’t do any favors for the doctor still hounded with a manslaughter investigation.)

For a man dismissed as a recluse, we here see his smooth teamwork as he receives compliments with ‘”God bless you” and offers criticisms capped by “With love. L-O-V-E.” For a rumored heavy pill user, he’s alert enough to vamp even a simple arm wave into eight small, crisp flourishes of shoulder, elbow and wrist. For someone on his last legs, he’s less winded than his backup dancers who have 30 lbs of extra muscle and 30 fewer years on him—plus he’s singing. And for a quick cash-in borne of financial desperation, Jackson’s attention is on every single drumbeat of the show. (I wanted to kick the chair of a nearby guy who snickered when musical director described the King of Pop as “hands-on.”) Based on his preparations for the show, Jackson sincerely believes he’s creating a gift for his fans—even hooking up Swarovski with scientists in the Netherlands to make sure his sparkles are the world’s sparkliest. He climbs out of giant spiders and halts prop bulldozers with a single, “Hooooo!” “We want to show them talent they’ve never seen before,” he emotes to the crew. And for 44 years, that’s just what he tried to do.

We’re used to the idea that athletic live concerts are grudgingly allowed some lip-syncing. We even take it as the rule. But we learn that Jackson was committed to singing, and did so even through these rehearsals, apologizing for protecting his voice as he belts out an album-perfect chorus. Stretched out through these ten intensive practices (my rough estimate based on his outfits), that’s dedication—especially with 50 exhausting concerts ahead. Those who never saw him live and only knew him through slick singles, videos and appearances get a tiny thrill from hearing the rawness that comes from his commitment to craft, those moments he skips a lyric because he’s shifted attention to his feet.

I choose to take it as a sign of old-fashioned celebrity politesse that Ortega allows Jackson to be remembered for his talents. He’s human here—at least, far more than we’re used to seeing him—his worst fault is his affection for Christian Audigier and t-shirts with Popeye spackled in bling. To snipe that a pop star doesn’t merit the reverential rank of Mother Teresa is petty (and proof one hasn’t read Christopher Hitchens’ savage takedown The Missionary Position). But the film doesn’t ask experts (read: celebrities) to wax on about his worth. The only people that talk about him are the only people who should—the crew who knew him when he was at his most-Michael: performing for the public, the only constant in his life. Every hand on deck gets a turn, from the backup dancers who wept when they were cast, to Orianthi Panagaris (the 24 year old blonde lead guitarist that I want to be when I grow up), to the in-ear monitor audio technician given his due in the credits. Jackson is the star, but Ortega is clear that this isn’t a one-man show. The tour Jackson called his “final curtain call” might be his last bow, but his inspiration lives on.

Click here for Michael Jackson’s This is It in Boxoffice Magazine

Motherhood

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Some movies, like Roman Holiday, invite you to escape into their worlds, buy a plane ticket to Europe, cut your hair into bangs; Motherhood, the grueling comedy by Katherine Dieckmann, is a warning to stay away. It scares straight any wishful daydreams about parenting, living in Manhattan and even looking like Uma Thurman. If babysitters can be found, the draw of cathartic frustration might build a decent matinee attendance of secretly miserable moms (apparently this is the majority of moms, if the blogosphere is to be believed). If the audience expands beyond that, ob-gyns adjacent to theaters should see a spike in inquiries about tubal ligation.

Thurman plays a harried mother of two who was once a promising grad student in writing with an interest in experimental erotic narratives, and now barely has time to hammer out a few pithy sentences on her mommy blog, The Bjorn Identity. The blog is named, presumably, after the hipster baby backpacks, however Thurman and increasingly distant husband Anthony Edwards are too broke to afford the name brand. It’s daughter Clara’s (Daisy Tahan) sixth birthday, and Thurman’s under even more insane pressure than usual to buy and set up goodie bags, cake, decorations and snacks on top of moving the car for street sweeping, cleaning the house, walking the dog, taking her younger son to the park, checking in on their elderly neighbor and schlepping up and down the six flights of their ratty Greenwich village walk up. What else could go wrong? A film crew could commandeer the block, best friend Minnie Driver could get justly outraged at her most recent blog post, neighbor child Isabelle Fuhrman (the killer Orphan in a too-short cameo) could brag about her far superior party and, oh yeah, she could be surrounded by other New Yorkers who haven’t acted this hostile in a movie since Crocodile Dundee.

Dieckmann is right to recognize that normal mothers (read: neither saints nor train wrecks) are rarely the centerpieces of Hollywood flicks. There’s a need for moms to pick up the Zinfandel and vent about the truth: that parenthood feels a lot like subjugation and despite every dish soap commercial claiming moms can have it all, more often than not, they can’t. Thurman drags us to every dark place: her character is aching to once again feel smart, sexy and worthwhile. And the script gets in a few good digs at the playground snobbery that pits moms against moms like panicked, blustering birds at a cockfight. But the jokes don’t register enough as jokes to enjoy watching this disastrous day play out. In the last minutes of the film, Dieckmann softens and says that the sublimely inarticulate love a parent feels for a child can in one shared smile balance out a day’s worth of hell. But largely, we see the sulphur. Thurman suffers in this role, her hair soaked with sweat, glasses careening off her nose. When young mail courier Arjun Gupta ventures a flirtation with her at her most frazzled, she’s so vanished into this miserable mom that we, too, are caught off guard—what then, we wonder, can motherhood wreak on us mere mortals? At least for the cost of a DVD, sex-ed classes have a new way to promote abstinence.

Click here for Motherhood in Boxoffice Magazine

Amelia

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

The woman the earth couldn’t hold proves a slippery subject for audiences curious to know the real Amelia Earhart. Mira Nair’s good-looking biography doesn’t hold Earhart up as a saint: she was stubborn and self-interested as hell. But ultimately, we whiz by her, faults and all, so fast we remember only a blur defined by a knockout wardrobe and broad grin. Modest houses who trickle in to rate Amelia’s Oscar chances will find there’s little to object to—or love about—this drama besides its easily achieved femmepowerment message; it’s far less ambitious than its subject—and less memorable.

Hilary Swank, she of the sharp shoulders and golden Academy touch, does what she can to invest Amelia Earhart with life. Earhart is half of a good character: she’s bold, individual and iconic. A romantic iconoclast, she wrote her manager and husband-to-be George Putnam (Richard Gere) on the eve of their wedding, “I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly…I cannot guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage.” Earhart kept her word when she plunged into an affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) and continued to invite him over for dinner. Independence was her key trait. It made people then and now want to tether themselves to her strength; in turn, she defended her right to be aloof.

Putnam manufactured her into one of the first media celebrities, and here we see her reluctantly endorsing cigarettes and luggage. But the tabloid scalpel didn’t yet exist that would carve depth in the living icon. Nair can’t give us more than a handsome press release for a woman who didn’t like explaining her achievements beyond, “I want to do it because I want to do it.” And her early death protected her from collecting a lifetime of mistakes or the standard shabby decline into booze. As glossy flicks go, I’d happily buy my nieces tickets. Earhart’s life and love philosophy might be bracing, but at least she refused to be defined by her liaisons, as did Coco Chanel in her biopic last month.

Swank has fun in the role—I haven’t seen her smile this much in years—but she isn’t given much complicated to do besides frustrate her friends when she digs in her heels. Gere, too, could handle giving Putnam more dimensions as he only gets to wade ankle deep in jealousy, grief and hucksterism. Towards the end, we’re meant to feel the financial squeeze that underlined the couple’s crazy around-the-world stunt, but the pressures of the outside world never register. How could they when she’s got all those slick outfits—her buckles, scarves and goggles make her steam punk’s pin-up girl. Christopher Eccleston has a small but powerful role as Fred Noonan, the navigator that vanished with Earhart on her last flight. One investigator speculates they survived long enough to settle in on Nikumaroro Island in the Pacific, where bones of a 5′7″ Caucasian female were unearthed in 1940. But ultimately, this film concedes that for all Earhart’s interviews, she lived the way she died: unknowably.

Click here for Amelia in Boxoffice Magazine

Where the Wild Things Are

Friday, October 16th, 2009

Spike Jonze kicked off his career with skate videos and for the opening seconds of this, his career-changing film, he returns to his roots, shattering any expectations that he’ll mimic Maurice Sendak’s otherworldly tableaux by tracking Max on a shaky cam rampage through his home. It looks like a punk home movie, and it’s exactly what we need—it’s a reminder that Max isn’t just a spooky kid who goes berserker in a crane stance; he’s a sweaty, snotty, panting, aggravating animal whose legs (and emotions) pump faster than any adult’s. Jonze has spent five years fighting to bring his vision of the book classic to theaters, and beyond a few fumbles it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better. Adults will buy the bulk of tickets. Max’s hungry and threatening Wild Things might inspire some parents to leave the kids at home, and so deny their kids the shivery delight they once got from Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal when they were younger. (Junior will be sure to catch it on DVD.)

Sendak’s classic is about rage, frustration and empathy without tidying these themes into a moral. In ten sentences it mapped childish fury and invited us—but did not order us—to follow along. Like a kid throwing a tantrum, it’s willfully inarticulate. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers give it words. Here, Max (Max Records, raw and great) is a lonely boy who’s being outgrown by his teenage sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and overlooked by his loving but exhausted single mom (the queen, Catherine Keener.) Max’s sister and mother have both reached that age where the problems of childhood seem small. To Max, every smashed snow fort is an outrage that he can only express through destruction, and after he’s burnt out his rage he’s left shivering, afraid and guilty. Jonze not only remembers the emotions of youth, he makes us feel them—Where the Wild Things Are takes place in a world where every interaction is fraught with landmines and, in an instant, playtime can turn to war.

The rules, or the unclear grasp of them, are the same in the land of the Wild Things, but the danger is heightened. Now, if Max screws up he won’t be spanked—he’ll be eaten. (Putting actors in 9-foot suits makes the physical tension real—when a beast casually throws an arm around the boy, we see Records struggle to remain standing.) After a nasty fight with his mother, Max arrives in their land and meets seven monsters, some of which share different pieces of his personality. Carol (James Gandolfini) is hot-tempered and passionate; The Bull (Michael Berry Jr.), an outsider; KW (Lauren Ambrose) is determined to prove her Independence; Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is suspicious; her mate, Ira (Forest Whitaker), is pacifying; Douglas (Chris Cooper) is brave and athletic; and Alexander (Paul Dano), the littlest by far, is ignored and despondent. (This is one case where I wish voice casts weren’t tied to stars—their modern, recognizable grumblings strip the mystery and majesty from the monsters.) Max and Carol’s instant bond helps the boy establish himself as their fearsome king. But as allegiances shift and affection gives way to apathy, Max is forced to broker peace between the squabbling seven and satisfy their demands for happiness, lest they turn him into a pile of bones. In short, he’s pressured to meet irrationality with empathy—just dessert for parents who’ve cursed their brats with “Wait until you have your own kids!”

Where the Wild Things Are is so patient and non-judgmental that you’re welcome to simply bliss out on the visuals. The artistic team has created marvels—everything feels dirty and hairy and real and full of grand obstacles (the way I saw our shag carpeted living room when I was a toddler). Jonze has captured youth. That youth is arbitrary and unhinged and totally focused on the moment means that Wild Things will frustrate people looking for a tidy blockbuster that’s mechanically driven towards bursts of applause. Away We Go, Eggers’ last script (written with his wife Vedela Vida), grasped the confusion of adults, but because it avoided Big Teachable Moments, it was dismissed as a trifle. I can also see that happening to Wild Things, but like the book—still going strong after 46 defiant years—it won’t slink away just because it’s hard to tame.

Click here for Where the Wild Things Are in Boxoffice Magazine

Free Style

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Motocross is a high-risk sport where riders vault their bikes over muddy hills in death race (or, more often, broken arms race) to the finish line. Yet while teen heartthrob Corbin Bleu (High School Musical) blasts his bike high and fast, this solid, likable teen drama stays grounded, and is all the better for it. The combo of gasoline and romance could draw in teenage boys and girls—or, perilously sideline both—but at worst, Free Style will putter along on good word of mouth.

Bleu plays Cale Bryant, an amateur motocross racer who vows to turn pro. Of course, to everyone else this is an (exhaust) pipe dream—something the script cops to, frankly. But to Cale, even the conventional life course seems impossible. College isn’t in the cards and he’s already working two jobs to support his mom (Penelope Ann Miller), a diner waitress, and younger sister Bailey (Madison Pettis, cute as the dickens). Making the national pro team seems as likely as anything else, a last ditch hope Cale’s girl Crystal (Tegan Moss) and best friend Justin (Jesse Moss) can’t entirely understand.

Jeffrey Nicholson and Joshua Leibner’s script doesn’t demonize Cale’s friends for expecting him to fail, and it doesn’t congratulate him for not readying a back-up plan. It’s the Rocky of the X-Games generation—Cale might claim that failure isn’t an option, but he and we and director William Dear all know that’s just a slogan. What matters is hard work, and for every scene of Bleu tearing up the track on his bike, Dear has one of Bleu delivering pizza or stacking up VCRs at a big box electronics store in order to scrape together the cash for his next entrance fee. While Cale isn’t a flashy enough role to be a star-maker for Bleu, he’s solid enough to make me want to see what he’ll do after he graduates from Disney.

Free Style’s working class pulse gives it a credibility most teen flicks lost somewhere in the ’90s when the wrong-side-of-the-tracks Reagonomics of Pretty in Pink gave way to the McMansion house party hijinks of American Pie. There’s plenty of drama and a closing nail-biter of a race. The major villain, a rich motocross rival (Matt Bellefluer) who steals Cale’s girlfriend, is also saddled with a domineering father who pushes his son to win by any means necessary. And when Cale’s new crush (Sandra Echeverría) comes with a father (Gustavo Febres) who wants better for his daughter than a motocross dreamer, we’re allowed to empathize with a self-made man who worked hard to go from dishwasher to restaurateur. Add that to the confident but quietly played casting stroke of having the very blonde Miller play the mom of two mixed-race kids and you have a film Barack Obama would approve of screening for Sasha and Malia—there’s even a jab at private health insurers.

Click here for Free Style in Boxoffice Magazine