Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, July 25, 2011

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2011)

50. Winnie the Pooh
“Winnie the Pooh” is even more of a throw-back then Disney’s last few animated features. In a world of bright, chaotic CGI animation that often features adult humor, cartoonish violence, or attempts at serious themes, this film is quiet, playful, and unabashedly sweet. Compared to this year’s “Cars 2,” a movie featuring broad humor, a world spanning plot, and a disconcerting amount of serious spy violence, it’s like another world. The central conflict here involves a slapstick quest to capture an imaginary monster or attempts to replace a sad donkey’s missing tail. Our protagonist has no discernible character arc beyond his desire to eat lots and lots of honey. (Well, okay, Pooh does learn a little about friendship along the way, but, mostly… Honey.)

The movie carries on a visual motif from the original “Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” in that the whole movie takes place in a book. But it takes the interaction further. The characters often interact with the words around, bringing the very layout of the page into the plot. As in the older film, a narrator not only describes the scenarios, but often chats with the characters, goading them on when they don’t follow the story. (John Cleese steps in for the long-gone Sebastian Cabot.)

As with the last few animated features, “Winnie the Pooh” is a musical. The characters often sing-song little cheering ditties while, on the soundtrack, indie-movie-starlet and Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl-for-life, Zooey Deschanel, sings sweet little acoustic melodies. During an extended day-dream sequence, Pooh imagines himself in a world full of honey, set to Zooey’s whimsical soundtrack. Deschanel also provides the ending credits music, a catchy number called “So Long,” that perfectly sums up the film’s themes of friendship and play.

The movie’s pace is incredibly laid-back, intentionally calling to mind a little boy playing with his toys on a lazy Sunday afternoon. As I said earlier, there’s not much here in way of story. The movie doesn’t even really follow the three-act structure, breaking the first rule in the screenwriter’s book. (Pretty daring for a kid’s flick.) For around the first half-hour, the movie focuses on a contest to replace Eeyore’s misplaced tail. Though the gang does their best to cook up creative replacement, nothing quite satisfies Eeyore and nobody gets the prize, a giant pot of honey. However, for the second half, the movie shifts focus. Christopher Robin disappears, leaves a note, which the goofy animals misinterpreted as a ransom letter from an imaginary monster called the “Backson.”

This leads to the film’s two highlight sequences. The first is a colorful musical number, done in the style of chalkboard illustrations, describing just what kind of monster a Backson is. (He puts holes in your socks.) A trap is set for the creature but, naturally, our heroes wind up in the trap instead and have to rely on little Piglet to get them out, leading to some of the biggest laughs in the film. Somewhere in the middle of this, Eeyore and Tigger have a boxing match, somebody dresses up as the monster and, well… You can probably see where this is going.

The film is barely over an hour long and its episodic nature extends past the main feature. The movie opens with a short called “The Ballad of Nessie.” It’s a sweet little fable designed to teach kids that it’s okay to cry and features the cutest, most charming rendition of the Loch Ness Monster that I’ve seen recently. Cute little Nessie would make a proud addition to any collection of Disney memorabilia. “The Ballad of Nessie” is a fantastic little short and almost outshines the main feature.

“Winnie the Pooh” isn’t out to redefine the medium, but, it is daring in its own quiet ways. It’s got no celebrity voices (unless Craig Ferguson counts. And he’d be the first to say he doesn’t.), instead filling its character’s mouths with veteran voice actors. (Including Jim Cummings, who has now voiced Pooh longer then Sterling Holloway ever did.) When every week brings around star-studded CGI talking animal movie, a short little cartoon about a boy, his bear, and the adventures they have, seems more out-of-place then ever. And, if the theater I saw the film in is any indication, it might be too calm for most modern kids. The parents laughed and smiled while the little ones squirmed.

It makes me sad to think there’s no room in today’s kids marketplace for the simple pleasures of “Winnie the Pooh.” The fact that Disney opened this opposite the biggest film of the summer, in the middle of a crowded blockbuster season, doesn’t make me think they had much confidence in it. If nothing else, “Winnie the Pooh” will find it’s home on video, where it will provide a serene escape for both parents and kids. [Grade: B]

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Director Report Card: Lucky McKee (2011)

5. The Woman (2011)
As a huge fan of Lucky McKee and someone who generally enjoys the work of Jack Ketchum, I was eagerly anticipating their latest partnership. It’s a true collaboration too. McKee’s screenplay for “The Woman” and Ketchum’s novel were written at the same time and the two manuscripts influenced one another. Despite having not read the books “Off Season” and “Offspring,” nor seen the latter novel’s film adaptation, I considered myself familiar enough with both director and author to know what to expect.

But I sure didn’t expect this. “The Woman” is the most brutally horrifying film I’ve seen this year and maybe in years. It’s not an exploitation movie, but rather a movie about exploitation. McKee combines his feminist angle with Ketchum’s trademark brutality. Ketchum often writes about violent sociopaths barely concealing their psychopathy under a smile of civility. That concept is presented in a story about a dysfunctional family barely held together by fear and a tyrannical patriarch. McKee then injects the whole thing with his themes of how twisted masculinity has subjected, objectified, controlled, and abused women throughout the decades. The movie would almost play like a perverse satire if the horror wasn’t presented in uncompromising, sickeningly tense detail. The movie isn’t subtle, but sometimes subtly isn’t necessary.

McKee continues to suppress and refine his style as a director. As far as stylistic excesses go, the movie peaks in the opening minutes, in which it shows the ferocity of the titular Woman visually. Lucky refrains from the colorful flourishes of “May” and “The Woods,” instead recording most of the movie with a blunt, matter-of-factness. After that brief prologue, the movie settles in on its family.

Father Chris smiles and nods, seeming much too content and happy with his life, as if he’s working overtime to exude a sense of normality. He has a passive-aggressive, vaguely predatory tone with everyone in his life, from his neighbors to his secretary to, especially, his family. Wife Belle is obviously tightly-wound, a nervous wreck barely holding her self together. Teenage daughter Peggy is depressed, failing in school, dressing frumpily, and avoiding her social life. Son Brian shows affection for a girl in his class by sticking gum in her hairbrush. Even the otherwise normal youngest daughter Darlin seems blindly happy.

Obviously there is something very wrong with this family even before the father sees the untamed Woman in the woods. He is smitten with her immediately. (The movie illustrates this by playing a rock song over the first sighting, an admittedly heavy-handed moment. The movie generally leans on its soundtrack a bit too much.) By her nonchalant sexuality? Or by the opportunity to build his own girl from the ground-up, without any of society’s built-in attitudes? Dad captures the Woman, takes her back to his home, ties her up in his tool shed, and goes about his plan of “civilizing” the cannibalistic female. He involves his wife and children in this endeavor right from the beginning, having the kids treat this human being little better then a pet.

The Woman soon goes on to acerbate the all ready tense family situation. Her wildness seems to inject a dose of chaotic imbalance to the sterile family life. It’s not her anarchic, untamed femininity but her ability to read people with a glance, to know what they’re feeling and thinking. And why she rarely comes out and says it, just her unblinking glares are enough to pass judgment, to plant the seed of rebellion or guilt. Belle has an opportunity to stop the madness and Peggy’s kind, snooping teacher provides her with an out as well. But neither go for it, so tight is Daddy’s lease, even with the Woman casting confrontational stares from the tool shed.

The movie lays down its cards slowly, building upon the abuse inch-by-inch. Emotional blackmailing and strangulating oppression soon gives way to slaps and then much worse. In keeping with the Jack Ketchum brand, the real monster aren’t the cannibal cave people in the woods, but the smiling Stepford people in the suburbs, using their psychological powers to inflict much worse damage on their victims then a bloody wound. As the story builds, the intensity builds. A fever pitch is reached in the last fifteen minutes, when emotions come out, bounds are broken, and we realized just how much of a monster Chris Cleek really is. The climatic twist is shocking, disturbing, and completely unexpected. In another movie, it might pushes thing too far over the top, but by this point, the viewer is sucked in, dragged along uncontrollably by the movie’s unblinking eye. And then The Woman, locked away like so much boiling rage and fear and suppressed hate, is let loose. Like a lawnmower blade wielding hurricane, she expresses all those hindered emotions physically, viscerally, in a way the suppressed women of the family can not. The final act of the film is horrifying and captivating. You can not look away, no matter how much you’ll want too. And you’ll want too.

The cast is indeed impressive. Pollyanna McIntosh in the title role takes a penetrating glower and runs with it, doing a lot with a little. It’s not hard to imagine why the filmmakers would decide to build an entire movie around her or why the characters would be so obsessed with her. Sean Bridgers embodies the grinning madman of Chris Cleek a little too well. I can’t imagine being in a room with this guy, acting like this. You understand how evil he can be but also why he can be so completely in control of those around him. Angela Bettis puts her slender, fragile form and shaky delivery to good use as the constrained wife. She’s utterly kowtowed and completely reigned in, constantly afraid that anything will set off the monster(s?) in her home. (Until she finally snaps, which is cathartic, but goes about as well as you’d expect.)

If McIntosh isn’t the break-out star of the picture, it’s definitely Lauren Ashley Carter. With her big doe-eyes, cutie-pie lips, and general pixie cuteness, Carter certainly makes you want to protect her. She runs through the cycle of guilt and horror the character requires fantastically. Hopefully, she has a long, successful career before her.

Sadly, not every performance in the film is great. Zack Rand as the son is a little too flat. Perhaps intentionally. But his character is definitely the least defined of the family and, when the script calls on him to do big things later on, it’s the only time the movie feels engineered.

My reaction to “The Woman” was obviously very visceral. I was left disquieted and unnerved by the film. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one to have a strong reaction. But the movie isn’t a misogynistic shock machine like that one viewer believes. It’s a thoughtful treaty on gender relation, abuse, and control. When it’s shocks, it’s for a reason. In a Lucky McKee movie, an eye-gouge is never just an eye-gouge. Horror has always been the genre that sneaks social commentary in under pulp trappings. “The Woman” is a proud continuation of that tradition. It’s Lucky McKee’s best film since his debut, his most effective as a horror film, and an incredibly bold statement in an all-too-often routine genre. [Grade: A]