While it may not be the revelatory work of a genius that some were hoping for, 9 is a darkly beautiful, sometimes even visionary, introduction of a promising new animator named Shane Acker, and despite its flaws, serves as a worthy entry in the ever popular subgenre/niche of post-apocalyptic sci-fi.
The material, expanded from Acker's Oscar-winning animated short of the same name, features breathtaking moments of sublimity, but the script by animation hack Pamela Pettler (Monster House) undermines Acker's vision by making the artistry subservient to a mash-up of familiar genre conventions and characters that are barely developed during the course of an all-too-brief 79 minute runtime.
Like the work of Acker's mentor Tim Burton (who has a producing credit), 9 tows the line between kiddie and adult fare, with the child-appeal of rag dolls on a quest complemented by some genuinely disturbing images that earned the film its PG-13 rating. (Parents of young'uns should view the film before taking the kids, lest they be kept up for the next month by nightmare-induced midnight screams).
The story is essentially another Man (or in this case, Rag Doll) vs. Machine tale where characters must discover the true nature of their origin in order to capably combat the tyranny of monolithic robots. There's not much original going on here, but, besides the visual beauty, 9 has the advantage of top-notch voice work from a slew of great actors. Elijah Wood plays the title character 9 (each doll has mysteriously been given a number, inscribed on its back, by an unknown creator) who, along with 5 (John C. Reilly), 6 (Crispin Glover), 7 (Jennifer Connelly) and 1 (Christopher Plummer), must go on a life-and-death scavenger hunt that's punctuated by frequent action sequences featuring some extremely menacing scrap heaps.
The moniker "Stitchpunk" has already been coined to summate the film's general aesthetic, and it's a suitable description for the retro-futuristic design of both the zipper-endowed, wide eyed stitch puppet characters and the post-industrial nightmare they inhabit.
Unlike the dystopian ideal of Wall-E (a misanthrope's wet dream of picturesque loneliness), there's nothing peaceful about the cluttered, war-torn terrain of a world just re-emerging from some terrible holocaust, but there's an anachronistic quality to the production design that lends a twisted beauty to an environment comprised by visions borrowed from the past, present and future. It's beautiful, stylized ugliness, and Acker is clearly more comfortable envisioning unique images of destruction and decay than he is fleshing out a coherent and compelling story. The plot isn't "bad" per se, it's just generic when coupled with the superior animation and design.
Here's hoping that for his next project Acker recruits a more talented scribe, because flawed as it may be, 9 is an arresting film that could've easily been great. A missed opportunity, but still worth the price of admission.
Here's a surprise: Sorority Row isn't nearly as stupid as everything from the title to the trailer might indicate. That's not to say that it's not stupid; it's still garbage and for most it will be a waste of time and money. But there's an unexpected level of energy and verve present in the film's first half that promises a better movie.
Regretfully, that better movie never shows as the slasher eventually descends into typical modern horror with a predictable and painfully mediocre payoff. Still, there are contained moments that are inspired and entertaining, and with a better project, newbie director Stewart Hendler may prove himself a filmmaker worthy of serious consideration.
Based on a little known slasher from 1983 called The House on Sorority Row, the film revels in the seedier aspects of its genre's conventions, with grainy, handheld cinematography, gratuitous nudity and gruesome kills that complement the victims' characteristics (the house drunk gets a wine bottle shoved through her throat, a potential tattle-tale gets a tire iron through the jaw, a previously bubble-bathing beauty is offed amid an overflowing sea of bubbles).
The story is typical whodunit pap: five Theta Pis play a prank on a fratboy as punishment for an attempted date rape. The boy's target pretends to OD from the roofies he slipped her, and the sisters drive her out into the woods and pretend to dispose of the body. Unfortunately, the boy decides to drive a tire iron through the girl's chest, just to make double sure that she's dead, and the tasteless prank suddenly becomes real murder.
The sisters agree that the body must be disposed of, despite the objections of Cassidy (Briana Evigan), who sensibly disagrees with the cover up.
Several months later, on the day of graduation and its obligatory house party, a hooded killer shows up and begins eliminating the girls and their friends.
Despite the numerous red herrings, the identity of the killer is telegraphed relatively early on, and any remaining joy of the mystery becomes more the "how" of it, rather than the "who."
Among the film's highlights are a grizzled Carrie Fisher as the hard-nosed house mother, the introduction of a smart new actress named Margo Harshman (who plays Chugs, the aforementioned house drunk), and some impressive technical flourishes, including an amazing opening tracking shot that begins ominously outside the dark house, Friday the 13th style, before entering a raging party to introduce the various characters.
Hendler proves here to have more potential than some of his acclaimed contemporaries, as he pays homage to the P.T. Anderson/Scorsese school of show-off shots with a sequence far more impressive than the similar imitations found in films like Donnie Darko and Blow.
Again, don't mistake the kudos as an endorsement. It may be above average in relative terms, but the bar is low and the film is no work of art. It is refreshing to see some semblance of directorial identity attached to this kind of dollar-baiting shit, and Hendler may very well be an excellent filmmaker with a masterpiece in him. This just ain't it.
Opening at the Circle this week is Little Ashes, a modest indie that focuses on the lives of three very famous Spanish artists: painter Salvador Dali, filmmaker Luis Bunuel, and writer Federico Garcia Lorca.
The film follows the three through their early years at a Madrid art school, and attempts to tell how the relationship between them would help to shape the artists they ultimately became.
Despite the subject matter, which begs for big budget period treatment, the film seems greatly strained by limited funding, causing the period qualities and costumes to feel artificial, more like dress-up than the real deal.
The issue is compounded by the woeful miscasting of current teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson (now known to teenage girls across the world as Edward, the dreamboat vampire from Twilight, though this writer prefers to remember him as Voldemort victim Cedric Diggory from Harry Potter) as Dali. The British actor seems to have a very difficult time immersing himself in the character, and though his performance is technically competent, he's never able to sell himself as the infamous artist. Instead, what we see is a promising young actor desperately out of his element; it'd be like Jude Law playing Che Guevara. He's too pretty and too British.
It's an interesting but minor film; art buffs and fans of the portrayed artists will likely find it more compelling than the general public. It's a shame, because with the right budget and treatment, it could've done what great biopics do best: educate and excite the uninitiated, rather than just preach to the choir.
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