Michael Jackson's This Is It (PG)
Watching Kenny Ortega's feature documentary assembly of rehearsal footage of what would've been Michael Jackson's London comeback concerts makes one mourn his tragic loss anew; however, such is the force of the legendary entertainment icon's talent and energy that, in characteristic Jackson fashion, any sad feelings that arise are quickly, frequently wiped away by the pure joy he brings to the stage, even in barebones rehearsal venues. While it would have no doubt been great to see the finished This Is It tour production, ironically, the work that Ortega was forced to make under these tragic circumstances is perhaps an even greater testament to Jackson's galvanizing gifts and rather peerless professional dedication than any full-blown show could ever be. Beyond a concert "mock-up" culled from video intended only for Jackson's personal reference (much of which looks far better than expected, thanks to most of it being shot on high-definition cameras), Ortega offers a keen glimpse into the entire creative process behind the show and a rare look at how Jackson was so intensely involved in and focused on every last detail of this mammoth production, from matters of staging and choreography to the most subtle of musical nuances--in addition to what he brings to the table as a vocalist, dancer, and all-around entertainer. (That he often says during the rehearsals that he's holding back and saving himself is a wonder, since Jackson restrained is at far greater height of performance than most could ever hope to achieve.) The grandiose production numbers with troupes of back-up dancers that became synonymous with Jackson are plentiful here, and they don't lose any impact without full sets and costumes. But the most astonishing number of all (and the best illustration why Ortega's unwavering focus on only the work is far more powerful than any easy, maudlin manipulation he could have easily layered onto the film) is a late run-through of "Billie Jean" that finds a street clothes-clad Jackson on stage with only himself, the music, and his moves--punctuating what a pure, naturally captivating talent he was, and what a huge loss the world has suffered with his passing.
The Janky Promoters (R)
Studios dumping projects with name brand, bankable stars is nothing new nor unusual, but The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films's treatment of Ice Cube and Mike Epps' much-delayed fourth screen teaming has to be a landmark of some sorts in how a company's complete lack of concern for its own product could not be more brazenly apparent. First, there's the poster (and single-page official website), which on its large logo and credit block simply has the title stated as Janky Promoters, when the actual on-screen title is The Janky Promoters. And, most of all, there are those actual on-screen titles: the movie opens with a text card defining the term "janky," and it reads: "shady, untrustworty, dishonest, despicable"--yes, the word "untrustworthy" is actually misspelled like that, and co-star Glenn Plummer is credited as "Glen" Plummer (though the end credit roll spells it correctly). When the studio cannot even bother to proofread the credits from frame one before throwing the film onto screens (even if only 22, as the theatre count is on this unpublicized, obviously bare-minimum contractually-obligated theatrical run), and this from usually polished, image-minded professionals as the Weinsteins, it's a shock.
Just as shocking is the film itself, which, in terms of quality, really doesn't make much of a case for any company to support it. The premise is certainly workable for Cube's return to R-rated comedy: Cube and Epps are the promoters of the title, and they prove their monumental jankiness in their attempts to put on a Young Jeezy concert in sleepy Modesto, California. Given that Cube and Epps more than likely have had their fair share of experience with real-life janky promoters, one would think that Cube's script would have some clever and biting jokes about the many such unprofessionals who infest the business, but the sole inspired moment is in a fairly throwaway visit with Cube's not-so-upstanding mother. The rest of time is fairly one-note in its obvious, rather dully executed, and unfunny comic directions: Cube and Epps cut costs by putting up Jeezy (who appears as himself) and his entourage in a cheap motel (which, predictably, employs some ghetto groupies on the make in the housekeeping staff); Cube tries to push his wannabe rapper son (Little JJ) to Jeezy; etc. Cube and Epps still have chemistry, but both seem on autopilot here, as does director Marcus Raboy, who just slogs through the motions with little energy or visual creativity. Perhaps it's for the best of all involved that this remarkably forced effort will barely be a blip before hitting DVD shelves next month, where it really would feel at home alongside the straight-to-disc product.
Where the Wild Things Are (PG)
Being based on the children's book by Maurice Sendak that's beloved by a number of generations, a feature film of Where the Wild Things Are would appear to be a surefire, pre-sold family blockbuster, but not for nothing has this been a bit of a problematic project for Warner Bros. the last couple of years--and the reason for whatever audience-unfriendly qualities is the same reason why it's such an interesting, if not exactly kid-safe nor completely successful, film: director Spike Jonze. While not nearly as outrageous as his previous films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation., his more quirky artistic impulses shine through here, chiefly in his decision to not graft on new, manufactured, conventional movie "story" onto the book's fairly thin existing tale (unlike Jumanji, whose entire storyline was added to an essentially plotless book), which plays as simply on screen as it does on the page: rambunctious young Max (Max Records), after an argument with his mother (Catherine Keener), escapes to a fantasy world populated by giant "Wild Things" whom he comes to rule over. Jonze and co-scripter Dave Eggers do add some necessary embellishments to the story, such as fleshing out Max's reasons for escape and lending the individual Wild Things some distinctive personalities (helped by voice actors such as James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, and Forest Whitaker), but on the whole the film operates much like Sendak's book, relying largely on some imaginative and truly arresting visuals (the wonderfully expressive Wild Things are a marvelous marriage of practical costumes and puppetry with CG-enhanced facial movements, and the Australian locations used for their homeland are stunning to behold) to craft a rather somber mood piece about the carefree "fantasy" of childhood and owning up to the reality of growing up. If this is completely in line with Jonze's established tack of using the fanciful to illuminate issues that are very real, this fairly downbeat film also manages to drain away the core appeal of its source material. There may be wild antics with the Wild Things, but there's never any sense of genuine fun, even at first; there's no idyllic, carefree dream that goes sour, as from beginning to end the film is viewed through the morose filter of life-hardened adulthood in rueful reflection. As such, the film is an odd one caught between both audiences and intent: it looks and is sold as a kid film, but really it's one more likely to strike a chord to adults, in particular younger ones who recall that moment of transitioning out of the kiddie world bubble and into the concerns of the real world all the more clearly and wistfully; and for both audiences, there is none of the "fun" factor that completely infused Sendak's original work, from its vibrant illustrations down to its minimal text. As with any work from Jonze, the result is fascinating, and it does leave a lingering impression--but more due to the nagging feeling that it never quite connects, in terms of both its individual pieces and with an audience, than to Jonze actually meeting his grandiose thematic ambitions.
An Education (PG-13)
One of the great pleasures of watching mostly all films on a regular basis is witnessing one of those great, out-of-nowhere, a star is born performances, and one of the big stories of this fall movie season and the entire year is the breakout work of one Carey Mulligan, who announces herself as a major name to watch with her fantastic performance in this film based on the memoirs of Lynn Barber. If this story of a bright teenage girl who falls into a romantic relationship with a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) in '60s London is, at its core, a familiar coming-of-age tale, but its tackled with uncommon intelligence by director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby, who organically embed the story with points about the station and prospects for educated women at the time. But the film never falls into easy, obvious preaching due to the involving characters and performances--not only that of Mulligan, who makes every alternately blissful and painful step of her character's real-world "education" intimately felt; but also a terrific Alfred Molina, whose equally affecting work as her father is likely to be (understandably) overshadowed by his luminous young co-star's spectacular splash.
The Invention of Lying (PG-13)
For his feature writing-directing debut (with Matthew Robinson), Ricky Gervais has flirts dangerously with becoming one-joke and one-note. First is in its setting of an alternate reality where the concept of lying does not exist and people only speak the truth, for better or worse; once Gervais milks that scenario for its comic worth, then his character, a 40something schlubby loser, somehow develops the ability to lie, thus
setting up a scenario where everything he says, no matter how outlandish, is taken for gospel truth. And when that gets close to tiresome, he and Robinson luckily find some fresh directions to take, both subversive (those sensitive about their religious convictions would be well-advised to steer clear of this one) and conventional, with Gervais and Jennifer Garner (as his object of affection with a too-superior "genetic code") making for an unlikely but ultimately very appealing pair. Light and disposable entertainment to be sure, but the stars (including a number of amusing cameos) and that trademark dry Gervais wit keep the proceedings engaging enough.
Paranormal Activity (R)
Oren Peli's no-budget supernatural thriller is as no-frills and no-nonsense as its rather generically clinical title, mirroring its obvious conceptual and stylistic (and marketing) forebear, The Blair Witch Project, in how its often hand-held, video-shot footage begins wallowing in rather mundane minutiae of everyday life with a young couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) until the presence of unknown, unseen force becomes ever more increasingly clear in their San Diego home. Peli makes a number of smart moves here, such as cutting to the chase by beginning the film after the purported hauntings have already begun occurring, and maintaining a streak of dark humor that keeps the proceedings from becoming too self-important. But smartest of all is his skill at building the slow-burn tension, and the naturalistic performances and the grounded, fairly understated scare scenes give the film a real-world air that make the chills hit that much harder. Not the game changer the ever-building hype (fueled by the buzz-building midnight shows last weekend) may lead you to believe, but fun, creepy, unpretentious little haunted house rides like these are so hard to come by these days that slight overpraise is understandable.
This cheeky horror/action comedy wants to be nothing more than (yes, bad pun straight ahead) a bloody good time, and director Ruben Fleischer delivers exactly that with gusto. Of course, don't exactly look for a strong plot beyond the concept: in a world where the nearly all the population have become the flesh-eating undead, a group of four travel the country to find some sort of safe haven. Making up for the lack of plot is that well-cast core of four, who while certainly working within their long-established screen personae (Woody Harrelson = badass, blustery redneck; Jesse Eisenberg = awkward everygeek; Emma Stone = spunky yet sweet at the center; Abigail Breslin = precocious kid), do inject the always-silly, often-action-packed proceedings with a lot of personality. There may not be as many huge laughs as in similar films from, say, an Edgar Wright (much less a Sam Raimi), but the gleeful, gory abandon of the comedy and action sequences make for a fun ride.