Movie of the Week: The Last Mimzy

It’s been a long time since a movie caught me completely by surprise. Even if I haven’t seen any previews, I usually have some idea of what to expect from reviews I’ve read before I sit down to watch a DVD. But I had no idea what I was getting into with The Last Mimzy. I had seen the movie for sale in stores, so I knew it was out there. From the cover, it looked like a magical kid movie, but since I hadn’t really heard of it, I figured it was probably mediocre at best. I’ve been on a children’s movie kick lately, enjoying simple, fresh, fantastic stories, so I put it on my Netflix queue figuring I’d watch it some afternoon just for fun.

Kurt pulled it out the other night and asked what it was. I played it down. He’ll watch animated films with me, but I don’t think films for children would be his first choice most nights. However, he said, “Let’s watch it,” and we did. And we both got an amazing surprise.

First, this is not a kid’s movie. It’s a science fiction/fantasy movie with main characters who happen to be children. Second, it is not mediocre. Not even remotely. It’s beautifully filmed and has a talented cast. Third, it’s spell-binding. The story unfolds without even attempting to give explanations for what is happening, although we understand everything in the end. Unlike many movies for children, The Last Mimzy lets you watch things happen and figure it out for yourself. It makes the assumption that you have a brain and know how to use it.

I don’t want to give any of the surprises away, so here is a bare bones summary of the plot. Two modern children find a box on the beach, one that presents them with odd objects that they treat as toys. Ten-year-old Noah (Chris O’Neil) studies a transparent rectangle that is full of lights and shapes and begins to see and experience the world in a new way. His younger sister Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) listens to Mimzy, the stuffed rabbit she finds in the box. Both children are soon behaving oddly, worrying and frightening their parents. As the adults around them become more concerned and start to act, Noah and Emma realize they have an important mission to complete on behalf of Mimzy and the people who sent her.

The comparison the marketers made for The Last Mimzy was to E.T., but I think they missed the boat. If they wanted a Spielberg comparison, they should have gone with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While both stories are about making contact with an alien race, Mimzy is closer to the mysterious and awe-filled adult approach of Close Encounters than it is the juvenile and humorous E.T.

Although the film has beautiful cinematography and an excellent cast, The Last Mimzy is not perfect. Nit-pickers will find some nits to pick. But it is so much better than the majority of things Hollywood spits out for children that it’s a good example of what other movie makers should be striving for.

Movie of the Week: Lars and the Real Girl

LarsThe one-line concept for Lars and the Real Girl borders on revolting: a man orders a life-sized sex doll and introduces it to everyone he knows as his girlfriend.
The reality of this movie is sublime: a man acts out his ideal, loving, and non-physical relationship with another person by interacting with a doll, and the entire community around him supports him as he works through the emotional issues that have been holding him back.
Lars (Ryan Gosling) has a hard time interacting with others. At dinner with his family, he is withdrawn and barely eats. At work he gives everyone the same forced smile and nothing else. Whenever another person touches him, he feels pain. Everyone wishes he had a girlfriend, but Lars knows a relationship with a woman is impossible for him.
Enter Bianca, a life-sized, life-like sex doll. Lars treats her like a living human being. When he first tells his brother and sister-in-law he has a date, he mentions that she is in a wheelchair and on the quiet side.  Gus (Paul Schneider) and Karin (Emily Mortimer) are too delighted to care – until they meet her. Lars holds conversations with Bianca, and interprets her “whispers” for the others. At dinner, he is a lively companion, talking, eating, relaxing to a degree not seen before.
Gus is horrified and convinced that his deluded brother needs to be hospitalized. Karin has other ideas. In the end, they agree to take Lars to the doctor, under the guise of getting Bianca an examination, and the doctor plays along. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) is a psychologist as well as a doctor, and she believes that mental illness isn’t just a disease, that it can be an opportunity to communicate. She explains that Lars is trying to tell them something, and he needs their help.
Thus begins what becomes a community-wide effort to support Lars as he lives his delusion that Bianca is a real woman. I don’t want to give away any more details for fear of spoiling things, but I can guarantee that this clever script and the delicate performances by the entire cast have memorable results. The magnitude of the love and understanding Lars receives from others is what makes this such a unique and moving film. The word compassion is never mentioned, but the movie drips with it, ultimately showing how compassion towards others leads to healing for all. Charming, optimistic, heart-warming, unpredictable, and full of hope, Lars and the Real Girl is a jewel of a film. Don’t miss it.

Movie of the Week: Penelope

I came across this movie almost accidently when I was looking over the DVD rack at a big box store. Having a penchant for fantasy, including magic and fairy tales, I was drawn by the advertising, but I bought the movie (even though I had never heard of it) for the cast, which includes Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O’Hara, and Reece Witherspoon. Witherspoon is also the producer of this gem which sadly did not do as well as the box office as it deserved to.

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Penelope Wilhern (Ricci) is a rich girl born under a curse that has given her the face of a pig. Desperate to protect her daughter (and their family), her mother (O’Hara) hides Penelope from the world, and then works hard to find her a blue-blood husband in order to break the curse. When Edward (Simon Woods), one of the potential grooms, gets away without first signing the required gag order, he is determined to warn the world of the existence of the monster. The world thinks he’s nuts. So he teams up with a reporter with a grudge against the Wilherns (Peter Dinklage) and a young man from a blue-blood family that has lost its wealth (James McAvoy) to get a photo of Penelope to show to the world.

The story is a charming twist on the usual Beauty and the Beast story, with the man having to see through the ugliness to the person inside. But unlike most Beasts, Penelope isn’t burdened by her looks. While the reactions of others to how she looks causes her pain, she has many interests in life. When her mother’s attempts to get her engaged fail, she decides to go out into the world on her own, with a scarf over her face, and learn about the real world. Even after the truth of her appearance is public, she is living a fuller and happier life than she did when she was trapped in her parents’ house and trying to fall in love with young men through a one-way mirror.

While there is magic and a definite fairy-tale feel to the movie, it is also full of modern situations and even satire. The Paparazzi are everywhere, trying to get pictures of Penelope before and after she comes out into the open. At Halloween, both children and adults are dressed in her unusual coat and sporting pig-nosed masks. And the suitor who is supposed to get her picture has a gambling addiction. The movie successfully melds the magical and the modern, giving the story a timeless reality of its own.

Ricci and McAvoy both play sensitive, complex characters who are aware of the machinations of those around them and manage to go their own ways despite them. Ricci in particular handles the combination of Penelope’s innocence with her inner strength masterfully, giving us a young woman who understands her mother’s demons while meeting the outside world with a mix of wonder and fear.

The upshot is: I loved it. I don’t know how much the cast or the fairy tale components of the story may have biased my opinion on this one, but it seems to me a cleanly drawn story with quirks, twists, charm, and surprises, including how the curse is finally broken. Penelope is a truly modern fairy tale that does away with many of the awkward fairy tale traditions without losing any of the satisfaction or appeal of the classics. How this movie failed to make it in the market is beyond me. I wish it the best of success on DVD.

Movie of the Week: Martian Child

Another great movie came my way recently.  Before I watched it, I knew Martian Child was about a writer played by John Cusack. I guessed that I would like this movie (being a sucker for both stories about writers and John Cusack in general), but it turned out to be even better than I expected.

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John Cusack plays David Gordon, a successful science fiction author living under a cloud. His beloved wife has been dead for two years, and he has been isolated and grieving. As a couple, they had planned on adopting a child, but that dream died with his wife. When David gets a call from a social worker about a child she thinks might be right for him, David shows up in person just to say no. Despite his determined non-interest, David begins to learn things about Dennis, the boy the social worker wants him to adopt, and his curiosity gets the better of him. When asked why the social worker thought he would be a good parent for Dennis, she tells him that the boy believes he is from Mars.

We all know that Dennis is going to wind up living in David’s house, at least for a while. What you can’t predict about this movie is what the boy will do and why, and how far David will go to help him. Dennis has a clear understanding of who he is – a Martian on Earth – and that he has to learn how to be human. As a result, David runs into many challenges as he integrates Dennis into his life. He gets advice of all kinds from his sister (who has kids) and his sister-in-law (who does not).  He works hard to live with Dennis on his own terms, to support him in his world vision so he can become whole again. His efforts are simultaneously sweet, sincere, and funny. In the end, healing needs to occur on both sides, and eventually it does.

As I would have predicted, John Cusack is at his best as the intelligent but quirky David. What I didn’t expect was the moving performance by Bobby Coleman as Dennis or the beauty of the film as a whole. Dennis is seriously shut down emotionally, and Coleman does a good job of getting across the fear that is just under the surface of his strange habits and beliefs. The director Menno Meyjes enhances this performance through beautiful cinematography that is in complete harmony with the dialogue and plot. When Dennis’s explorations uncover the beauties in the world around him, the shots and scenery fill us with wonder and awe. When David begins to rant about the speed of the Earth around the sun and the sun through the galaxy, the lights outside of the car windows turn into colorful streaks, reminiscent of the blurred stars seen at warp speed. A hyper-reality is achieved, one that is both beautiful and believable.

Martian Child was delightful and touching. Long before I knew how the story would end, I was in love with this movie. The care taken by the director and the many great actors involved shows in every scene and was stunning right from the start. I can’t wait to watch this jewel of a movie again. And again. And again.

Movie of the Week: Waiting for Guffman

Before Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003), there was Waiting for Guffman (1996). I remember reading mixed reviews for Guffman when it came out, but now that I’ve seen the movie, I think the critics I read did not appreciate Christopher Guest’s inspired improv mockumentary film style. What a pity.

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Waiting for Guffman is the story of an amateur theater group who performs a musical about the history of boring Blaine, MO, for its sesquicentennial celebrations. Christopher Guest plays Corky St. Clair, a transplant from New York City and the creative force behind the play. We watch as he finds his cast and directs them in song and dance.  The news that a representative from a theater company in NYC, Mort Guffman, is coming to see the show results in outsized dreams of taking their play to Broadway. Determined to do the town proud, Corky asks the city council for $100,000, and his response to their answer is one of many moments in which the production seems doomed to fail.

As always, Guest surrounds himself with a stellar cast, including co-writer Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, and Fred Willard. He also teamed up once again with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer to write songs for the musical that are both parodies and great music in their own right, just as they did for This is Spinal Tap. As music teacher Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban) conducted the overture for Red, White, and Blaine, I was concerned that the music was actually too good for the intent of the movie. Certainly, the comedy is still there, as the overture is ambitious and dramatic, and requires the trumpet player to simultaneously play the timpani, but it’s no surprise when the audience applauds with enthusiasm. I wanted to applaud myself. The movie includes the entire musical as well as a follow-up to show us where the stars are three months after their stage triumph.

The improv style of the humor in both the parodied musical and the interviews is dry and quirky, which I love. I did not for a moment forget that the actors were improving with intention, and it made the movie that much more enjoyable to me. I love to see actors having a good time.

I found Waiting for Guffman just as original and just as funny as Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.  If you haven’t seen it yet, treat yourself to an hour and a half of fun. (And keep your eye out for the Remains of the Day Lunchbox. Get yours today!)

Movie of the Week: Mansfield Park

As a Jane Austen fan, I’m always interested in the film versions of her books. I’ve loved some (the TV-series of Pride and Prejudice; the movie version of Sense and Sensibility written by Emma Thompson; and the TV-version of Persuasion; all three from 1995) and disliked others (the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice; the 1999 movie version of Mansfield Park). What I like best are the scripts that are as true to the book as they can be despite the fact that they have had to condense characters and trim the plot. Of all of Austen’s books, Mansfield Park is probably the hardest for a modern audience to relate to because so much of the plot hinges on a moral system we cannot understand. The 2007 TV-version of the book finds a good middle ground, staying true to the book while making the characters and situations appealing to the modern viewer.

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As a young girl, Fanny Price, poor cousin to the Bertrams, is taken into their home out of charity to Lady Bertram’s sister, who is saddled with a large family and little income. As an adult, Fanny (Billie Piper) is both proper and sensitive. She feels the harsh words her unthinking uncle and aunts speak and tries hard to be as inoffensive as possible. She has to watch as her beloved cousin Edmund (Blake Ritson) pursues Mary Crenshaw (Hayley Atwell), a woman determined to marry the eldest son for his money, but who finds herself attracted to Edmund instead. Mary’s brother Henry (Joseph Beattie) is cut of the same cloth and woos both Maria and Julia Bertram, even though Maria is already engaged.

When her uncle is away, Fanny’s cousins, with the help of the Crenshaws, plan to put on a play about lovers, and Fanny knows that Sir Thomas will disapprove. The assumption that play-acting is immoral is the biggest pitfall in portraying Mansfield Park to a modern audience. The impropriety of performing the play is central to the plot, as it gives several characters a chance to be intimate with one another in a way their society would not normally allow. But, two hundred years later, acting has lost the social stigma it had in the 1800s, and Sir Thomas comes across as a tyrant to a modern audience. By emphasizing the use both Mary and Henry make of the situation, Iain B. MacDonald’s version gives us at least a hint of why the society of the time disapproved.

What I love about this version is the portrayal of Fanny. In the book, she is incredibly reserved and proper as a result of her low status in the family, but the movie allows her to be young and lively life as well. She is shown running through the house at moments of great joy, and at one point, she enthusiastically plays hide-and-seek with a young girl. She is also wise, seeing through the pretenses of Mary’s brother, Henry, and refusing to marry him, despite the favors he does her and her uncle’s anger at “her selfishness”. The relationship between Edmund and Fanny is key to the story, and both Piper and Ritson make us well aware of the characters’ feelings for one another even when the characters themselves do not speak.

The movie was shot entirely at Newby Hall in Yorkshire and has a lovely look as a result. I found the production like Fanny – charming and straightforward – and I was impressed by the decision not to try to modernize Fanny or the story (as was done in the 1999 Mansfield Park). To keep the film at 90 minutes, many scenes from the book were removed or reduced, but not with severe cost. I would love to see what this crew would have done with the movie if they had been allowed more time and a broader scope of locations.

Movie of the Week: Murderball

A documentary about Quad Rugby, Murderball follows the paraplegic members of Team USA as they train and compete in international tournaments. The title reeks of violence, but the most violent parts of the film are the stories of how the handicapped players wound up in their wheelchairs. Played on indoor basketball courts, Quad Rugby (called Murderball when it was first invented) does have its share of violence. Players ram their reinforced wheelchairs into each other as they work their way to the goal line. Chairs get knocked over and players fall to the floor; a disconcerting sight, but core to the message of the film.

We learn early on that a paraplegic has some sort of dysfunction in every limb, and is not necessarily a limbless body, although one of the players has no legs and is missing his arms from the elbow down. We see hands that won’t grip struggle to take off tennis shoes and knobby elbows pour juice into a glass. Simple actions, like putting on a pair of pants, require patience and effort. Things we take for granted turn out to be a challenge for these handicapped men, who are independent despite their disabilities.

Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro treat their subject with respect and humor and avoid any form of sentimentality. They wisely leave it to the audience to recognize the tragedies that are part of every story and instead emphasize the lives these men lead. We see the men joke together, making fun of themselves without being bitter. We listen to them talk about women and sex. We see them interact with their families. Not all of them are likable; some are people we’d rather not know. The thing that brings these men together is not their handicaps, but their determination to push themselves and to do whatever they can despite their physical limitations.

The film is blunt and straightforward, and answers many questions about what life is like for people in wheel chairs. And the key word is people. The depiction of the team members as human beings is so strong that it is not long before you no longer see the chair, no longer notice the bent fingers or missing hands. All you see is the eyes, all you hear is the voice, and you learn that everyone is handicapped in some way. The challenge to us is to live life as fully as possible, despite our limitations, and the men in this film show us how much can be done with much less than most of us have.