The following film reviews were all written by Fr. Peter Malone, a Missionaries of the Sacred Heart priest who has been reviewing films since 1968. He was elected as the first president of SIGNIS (The World Catholic Association for Communication) in 2001. He is a regular member of many interfaith juries at international film festivals all over the world. He has also written numerous books and articles on theology, spirituality and cinema. His books include Movie Christs and Anti-Christs, Film and Values, and Film and Faith.
THIS IS IT
(US, 2009, d. Kenny Ortega)
This Is It is an event before it is a film.
Michael Jackson was a world personality as well as the ‘King of Pop’. His death at 50 and the puzzlement and investigations about his health condition and his medication seized the headlines. It must have come as an enormous shock to those who were working with him on the concerts that were planned for London, 50 of them and sold out. Was Michael Jackson’s death the end of his fame and popularity? Interesting to remember that John Lennon was killed at age 40; Elvis died at 42, Judy Garland at 47, Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin also at 47. To varying degrees they and their music live on.
Columbia Pictures quickly bought the footage taken during the rehearsals for the concerts for $60,000,000. Director of the concerts, Kenny Ortega (who had directed the High School Musical movies) was commissioned to develop a movie out of the footage which would be released worldwide on October 28th, just over four months after his death on June 26th 2009. They achieved it and here it is, This is It.
Here is a perspective on the film from someone who is too old to be a Jackson fan – and remembers him first as singing Ben in the horror film of that name, the sequel to Willard, released when he was only 13 (and singing tenderly to Ben who was a rat!). It is a perspective from someone who is aware of Thriller and Jackson’s huge success and popularity with both his singing and dancing, from the Jackson Five days to 2009, as well as the myriad stories of his eccentricities, his Neverland Park, his friendship with children, his marriages and his own children and the charges and court cases.
The first comment about the film is about how Jackson himself comes across in This is It – quite impressively. We are presented with a man (turning 50 but not seeming like that at all) who gives no indication that he would soon be dead (much of which, of course, can be attributed to judicious editing to give a favourable impression). Rather, he is very much alive. The rehearsals show how demanding his singing and choreography were. It seems they did drain his energy and he needed painkillers and aids to sleeping. But, on stage, he is seen as fully alive, full of verve.
It’s the professionalism of the man that is also very impressive. Any potential candidate for the TV reality shows like The X Factor, Pop Idol…, should be made to sit down and study this film, to see that Jackson has learnt and perfected his craft, knows music and how it works, understands audience responses and does not tolerate in himself anything haphazard. As we watch the succession of songs in rehearsal (interestingly pieced together from several occasions as we can see by the different clothes he wears), we realise that he knows the songs perfectly, has created his choreography with meticulous detail and timing (with the assistance of Travis Paine), and remembers it accurately. He is no slouch, no taking lazy short-cuts. And he expects this of his singers and dancers. You can see from each song how he takes it all for granted and is at ease while the others are striving very hard to do their best.
Jackson is also more articulate than might have been expected. He can be twee, often talking about love and repeating ‘God bless you’. But, as he comments to his rather deferential director, Ortega, we hear a vocabulary that is extensive and expresses, sometimes imaginatively, what he wants of himself and others.
The concerts would certainly have been spectacular, many of the stagings of the songs extravaganzas in themselves. Huge city skyline sets. Sets remembering the Jackson Five. Computergraphics multiplying ten dancers into millions on a screen. We see Jackson and Ortega supervising the up-to-date filming of cemetery sequences for Thriller. And, amusingly, taking a number of old black and white classic movies and filming, in black and white, Jackson’s involvement in some sequences: Rita Hayworth’s Gilda singing Put the Blame on Mame, Humphrey Bogart and a gun chase…
The concert was to highlight ecological issues with images of nature and ‘Heal the World’.
For those who wondered what the concert would be like, the film offers plenty of song, dance and production glitz.
For the performers and the huge technical staff, they can be happy that their work has been caught on camera (maybe all the filming was for an intended film of the concert after the tour since so much of the detail of rehearsals was filmed and available for This is It).
And that is where the film is particularly interesting. We are on stage or backstage all the time. We hear the experts in lighting, staging, costume and so on commenting. We see auditions, support dancers learning their steps and, as the director says, being extensions of Michael himself: the robotic movements, the moonwalking style, the crotch-clutch-thrust gyrations… We see how Jackson himself handled rehearsals, giving all his energy and wanting perfection.
This is It is far more interesting and enjoyable than anticipated and is certainly an excellent tribute to Michael Jackson’s talents.
(US, 2009, d. Shane Acker)
A futuristic film which has excitingly different animation style and has a challenging story that raises philosophical questions – which means that some audiences have been very enthusiastic and found 9 stimulating and challenging while others, finding the discussions and ideas a bit heavy-going have not been enthusiastic. This review is on the side of the enthusiastic.
Shane Acker is an architect and an animator who made an 11 minute award winning short, 9, in 2004. Producers, including Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Daywatch, Wanted), encouraged Acker to develop the short into a feature film. Burton collaborator, Pamela Pettler, wrote a screenplay with Acker.
The animation is different from the usual, especially with the bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes, bombed building sites, destroyed factories. Ferocious machines (reminiscent of those in the recent Terminator films – which may have been influenced by 9 for plot lines and visuals) have vengeful lives of their own and have wiped out the humans who created them. And the characters. While some humans are briefly glimpsed, the characters (1 to 9) are like string dolls, small in stature. With some general human characteristics (and even some facial expressions and postures of the stars who voice them), we wonder who they are and how they were made – all explained by the end, an interesting speculation that they are aspects of the soul of the scientist who made them so that he could survive and fight the machines.
1 is a veteran leader who tends to rush to judgment and is voiced by Christopher Plummer. 2 is a mysterious old character who ventures out to confront the machines (Martin Landau). 3 and 4 are twins who have encyclopedic minds but who do not communicate by word but, rather, by intuition and action. 5 has lost an eye and is the solid support type (John C. Reilly). 6 (Crispin Glover) is a weird artist who keeps drawing the talisman that the scientist has given powers to, both to destroy (as the machines do) or to control the machines (which is the mission of these characters). 7, in Jungian terms in the scientist’s anima, a feminine warrior (Jennifer Connelly). 8 is a bit slow, a large bodyguard for 1 (Fred Tatasciore).
Which leaves 9, the hero, who awakens in the laboratory and, discovering 2, begins to realise his mission but makes the huge mistake of bringing the machines to life. 9 becomes the leader, with mind and heart, as well as action, who rescues the trapped and liberates the world. He is voiced by Frodo himself, Elijah Wood.
The finale where the dead dolls appear and support the survivors before ascending (into their heaven?) is full of light and hope.
With flashbacks to the war between the machines and the humans, images of a dictator taking over the scientist’s creations to make them weapons and the post-war ruins all evoke the look of Hitler and World War II and a scarred and destroyed Europe.
Plenty to enjoy and think about for those who want something to reflect on as they watch 9 lead his followers into action.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
(US, 2009, d. Robert Zemeckis)
Quite an exhilarating experience of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, his meanness to his clerk, Bob Cratchit, his unwillingness to celebrate Christmas with his nephew, Fred, and his miserable and lonely life. We all remember that he encounters the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him that he will see three more ghosts, The Ghost of Christmas Past, who takes him back to see his childhood, his young days and his love for Belle but his choice of a life for money; the Ghost of Christmas Present, a jovial ghost who takes him to see the happy meal at Fred’s and Bob Cratchit’s toast to Scrooge, despite his family’s dislike of him, and Tiny Tim’s, ‘God bless us, everyone’; and the sinister, shadowy Ghost of Christmases to Come who reveals Scrooge’s death to him, buried unloved, housekeeper and friend gossiping about him as they look through his things – and the revelation that Tiny Tim has died.
Needless to say, Scrooge is mightily relieved when he lands back in his room and it is Christmas morning. He has a chance to save his life – which he does, to the full.
Though seen many times on screen, the story is always welcome.
What makes this version even more welcome is the amazing technology that has been used to bring Scrooge and Dickens’ characters and fantasy to life. The 3D version is well worth seeing for its animation and production designed to display the depth photography all the way through.
While the film stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge (as well as the three Ghosts), the technique used is that of ‘Performance Capture’ on which animation is built, using the performances of the cast (who do not have to don period costumes but can concentrate solely on acting, effects will do the rest). This technique was used by Robert Zemeckis for The Polar Express and, sometimes disconcertingly, for his Beowulf. Once one gets used to the idea and accepts it, it makes for a different kind of experience, having the benefit, not just of the voices of the cast, but their performances with added enormous visual flair for characters and backgrounds.
Carrey is very good as Scrooge (affecting an accent not unlike that of Alistair Sim in the classic version from the 1950s) but has moments of his familiar body agility and movements. Colin Firth is Fred. Gary Oldman is Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim (his Bob being animated as much shorter and plumper than Oldman himself, though audiences who know him will recognise him). Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn and Bob Hoskins are amongst the other actors who take on multiple roles.
The version captures the mood of Dickensian London. We are immersed in the life of the city as well as isolated in Scrooge’s home and accompany him on his flying journeys into the past and into the future. Small children may be alarmed at a number of the sequences which could be quite frightening (and make them fear Dickens for the future), especially a coffin and grave sequence which would be more than at home in a Tim Burton film.
Zemeckis’ screenplay nicely reminds us of the Christian dimension of the feast of Christmas with images of churches and crosses and the singing of many carols. And, of course, Scrooge’s meanness reminds us that the celebration is not about money or commercialism – if only that were true these days.
(US, 2009, d. Louie Psihoyos)
It seems as though this intriguing documentary will leave no one in the audience unmoved. Those with a passion for conservation, animal care against cruelty and exploitation will feel galvanised to go on the warpath. Those who dismiss this kind of commitment-to-a-cause film-making will be irritated if not angered and accuse the film of a partisan look at the issues and of skewing the evidence and the truth to make their points. In fact, these accusations have been made as well as the enthusiastic responses. The Cove has received many awards and generally favourable reviews.
It is about dolphins.
There is the issue. Are dolphins considered so cute and intelligent that they should be rounded up for performance in sea theme parks, the Flipper syndrome from the very popular TV show of the 1960s? Or should they be left free in the ocean? And are they creatures that can be eaten, especially by cultures who rely on food from the sea? Many westerners, despite a predilection for sushi, tend to be against this. But, the Japanese and others question the use of cattle and pork as fitting for food. How important are these cultural differences?
The film, which builds aspects of a feature film into its structure, especially a final undercover raid on the secret cove where dolphins are killed, makes a case against the exploitation of dolphins both for amusement and for food. Particular accusations are made against the Japanese government and its representative at international whaling conferences and the coverage (banned by local authorities) of the village of Taiji where each September the dolphins pass and are coralled and sold for large sums to parks or killed for their meat is highly accusatory. As part of the campaign by the mayor of Taiji, dolphin meat was included in compulsory school lunches in Japan – however, the film points out that the increase in mercury from dumped waste has meant unhealthy mercury levels in the dolphin meat.
Several authorities are interviewed about the culling of the dolphins but the main speaker is Ric O’Barry who spent years training the dolphins on Flipper but who came to appreciate their sensitivity and worth and began to campaign to save the dolphins. He has been arrested many times for protest and trespass and has no hesitation in expressing strong views.
The Cove shows the power of a well-made film to challenge presuppositions which is always a valuable thing whether the conclusions from dialogue support the stance of the film or not. The producers are The Oceanic Preservations Society.
CIRQUE DU FREAK, THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT
(US, 2009, d. Paul Weitz)
Perhaps adult audiences were wondering, while watching this contemporary vampire film (which does not rely very much on traditional vampire lore), why they were not feeling more involved. A suggested reason is that the story, the performances and the direction are aimed directly at a young teenage audience who would ‘get it’ and not want the subtleties associated with a film aimed at adults. There is nothing wrong with this. Speaking of vampires, this is also the case with the 2008 box-office phenomenon, Twilight. It was produced for a teenage sensibility.
That is probably the best way to describe Cirque du Freak. It is made for a teenage (younger teenage) sensibility – and, more probably, for boys.
Paul Weitz (both American Pie and About a Boy) made his previous film for a younger audience, the campaigned-against Golden Compass. (His brother Paul, with whom he directed Golden Compass went off to direct the other teenage vampire film, the Twilight sequel, New Moon.) He stays with fantasy elements (very well illustrated during the unusual opening credits sequence) while the story is set in a perfectly ordinary middle America home and school. It opens with the hero, Darren, playing computer games in a coffin while his funeral is going on. So, the question is, how did he get there?
Darren is a good student but is pressurised by his parents to be a good and exemplary boy (especially after some window breaking misbehaviour with his best friend, the irresponsible Steve). When they are given a flyer for the Cirque de Freaks, off they go without approval. Well, you will have to see the rest if this intrigues you (in a young teenage way) and see how Darren steals a spider, makes a bargain with a friendly vampire to become a half vampire, lives with the ‘freaks’ who include Salma Hayek as a bearded lady, is dragooned into confronting Stephen as a war between the good vampires and the bad vampires is engineered by an evil fat man called Mr Tiny.
Josh Hutcherson has been making films for some years and is more assured on screen as Steve than Chris Massoglia who is perfectly ordinary (where more oomph would have been helpful and credible) as Darren. John C. Reilly makes the friendly vampire almost believable. And (though not immediately recognisable) Willem Dafoe comes in and out as a mysterious and spooky figure.
It all comes together at the end but only to provide the basis for the next instalment from a series of novels by Darren Shan (the central character’s name).