Tentatively coming soon: "Adventureland," "Observe and Report," "State of Play" and "The Soloist" - all quite different films that nevertheless share the common trait of likely being far more interesting than "Monsters vs. Aliens." Let us look forward to better days, my friends.
New In Theaters
"Monsters vs. Aliens"
1/2 (out of four)
2009, Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, U.S., PG
This subpar ripoff of Pixar sensibilities and aesthetics is every bit as lifeless and predictable as you would think. The animation quality of this DreamWorks production is unimpressive even by studio standards; it's the same kind of unimaginative, too-artificial work we've come to expect from Pixar competitors. The humor is off as well, and it's painfully clear that the writers of this assembly line consumer product watched some Pixar films (and, to be fair, some of DreamWorks' older, better works) and decided that it would be acceptable and effective to substitute maddeningly vague sexual and political references for genuinely clever, adult-oriented humor. Clearly they had to do something to appease the adult crowd, because on the surface, this dime-a-dozen cartoon about good-guy monsters (voiced by an array of A-listers, including Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen and Hugh Laurie) battling bad-guy space aliens who want to destroy the Earth is about as entertaining as any given programming block on Nickelodeon - that is to say, not at all, and perhaps it's even detrimental to our culture as a whole. Seriously, is this the kind of thing we want our kids watching? Go rent some old-school Disney movies, or some Looney Tunes, or some Wallace and Gromit, or any number of other things whose influence won't turn impressionable youths' brains into low-functioning gelatinous masses that mistake a cheap, lazy gag for guffaw-worthy humor. Please, won't someone think of the children?
New On DVD
"Tales of the Black Freighter"
2009, Mike Smith and Daniel DelPurgatorio, U.S., R
You couldn't expect Zack Snyder to cram absolutely everything into his adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel "Watchmen," and clearly this comic-within-a-comic was a necessary casualty of narrative cohesion. This 25-minute animated short couldn't have fit seamlessly into the feature film, but as a stand-alone piece (released recently on DVD along with another supplementary short film, "Under the Hood"), it's a masterfully compact yarn that deftly replicates the themes explored in the broader story of "Watchmen," and probes aspects of the mythos' underlying philosophy in some stark and fascinating ways. It tells the story of a sailor (voiced by Gerard Butler, originally a contender to portray Rorschach in the feature) whose vessel comes under attack from the dreaded pirate ship the Black Freighter. The only survivor, he finds himself stranded on a desert island and must use the bodies of his fallen brothers to fashion a raft and make his way home to save his beloved family from the clutches of the evil pirates. On this journey, our (anti)hero discovers the terrible price of fear and the hidden ugliness of hope, and his experiences provide a compelling parallel to the story told in Snyder's film. The visuals are top-notch, too, and serve as a nice reminder of what can be accomplished with more traditional, supposedly obsolete animation techniques.
"Under the Hood"
2009, Eric Matthies, U.S., PG
This faux-news program detailing the origins of the group of masked vigilante "super heroes" dubbed the Watchmen pales in comparison to its sister film, "Tales of the Black Freighter," and is probably reserved only for diehard fans of the Watchmen universe. Fashioned as a special edition of a 1970s news show called "The Culpeper Minute," the film features Stephen McHattie as Hollis Mason, aka Nite Owl, the first of the original Watchmen to reveal his true identity, and subsequently spill all his secrets in a tell-all book called "Under the Hood." The 38-minute film provides some interesting background on peripheral "Watchmen" characters like Hooded Justice and Mothman, and delves further into the sordid detail surrounding the relationship between Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) and the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). However, even at such an abbreviated length, the film wears out its welcome surprisingly early on, and might have worked better at about half the length. Still, it's worth checking out once, especially since it's featured as an "extra" on the unmissable "Tales of the Black Freighter" DVD.
2000, Anders Thomas Jensen, Denmark, R
Pity the poor Danes. Although their country - and other Scandinavian nations - boast a thriving film industry that produces some immensely talented and appealing performers (not to mention some visionary directors), very few of these movies and actors gain popularity in the United States. If a Danish film does get noticed here, it's usually a high-profile release by Lars von Trier (admittedly, the greatest of the Danish filmmakers that I'm familiar with), and the rest fall by the wayside, waiting to be discovered by cinephiles with access to a PAL-ready DVD player. Nuts to that. Join the revolution with "Flickering Lights" (available in the U.S.), a pleasant little ditty that showcases Mads Mikkelsen (seen stateside in "King Arthur," and as the villain in "Casino Royale"), one of Denmark's most popular and, in my experience, best actors. He is part of a five-man ensemble in this story about a group of petty criminals who make one last score and take the opportunity to snag the loot for themselves, thus abandoning their obviations to the dangerous crime boss who hired them. They hide out in a long-vacated restaurant in the middle of the woods to lay low and recover from wounds, and after a while they find that they quite like this new, freer, more serene existence. The film reminds me a bit of last year's "In Bruges," another story of hardened criminals taken out of their element, and is especially recommended for viewers who appreciate a similarly tweaked sense of gallows humor.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.