The Princess and the Frog – Blu-ray review

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One of Disney’s most engaging animated features in recent memory.

The 1990s were a pretty damn good time for Disney animated films; even though the film that really kicked off their 2nd golden age, THE LITTLE MERMAID, arrived in 1989, nearly all their animated films released subsequently (a list that includes THE LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and ALADDIN) were both critical darlings and box office behemoths. But the early part of the 21st century was not as kind – Pixar’s mix of digital animation, carefully crafted screenplays and rich voice characterization clashed sharply with an unmemorable batch of Disney duds like BROTHER BEAR and HOME ON THE RANGE. Soon, other studios like Fox and DreamWorks entered the fray and made major cake with their own digital efforts (ICE AGE and SHREK, respectively) that emphasized adult-friendly humor and celebrity casting. We can just imagine the uncomfortable board meetings held at the mouse compound where a directive to ‘get with the times’ resulted in films like CHICKEN LITTLE and MEET THE ROBINSONS that seemed to evaporate into the ether immediately after viewing. In 2006, Disney seemed to admit defeat and simply bought Pixar outright, elevating Pixar’s founder, John Lasseter, to “Chief Creative Officer” of Pixar and Disney’s animation division, where one of his first official acts was to set Disney back on the path of hand-drawn animation, forcing a reversal of company policy that sent the studio scurrying to rehire the animators it had so recently let go. The first fruit of that labor made its way to theaters in the 2009 holiday season, and arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week – THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Though nominally based on E D Baker’s ”The Frog Princess” (which was, in turn, inspired by the original Grimm tale “The Frog Prince”), THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG bears little resemblance to either, creating one of Disney’s most engaging animated features in recent memory.
Set in a beautifully rendered 1920s New Orleans, the story centers around Tiana, a seamstress’ daughter who saves every penny to realize her father’s dream of opening a restaurant. Tiana’s mother spent much of her life designing dresses for the wealthy “Big Daddy” La Bouff to bestow on his spoiled but sweet daughter, Charlotte, allowing the two girls the opportunity to grow an unlikely friendship over the years. Charlotte dreams of marrying a prince – even if it means kissing a frog like in the fairy tales read to the girls by Tiana’s mother – while the independent minded Tiana dreams of making her own way in the world. As young women, both almost have their respective dreams within their grasp: Charlotte has her hooks into the recently arrived Prince Naveen, and Tiana has saved just enough tip money to afford the down payment for the restaurant. The trouble begins when the local voo doo practitioner, Dr. Facilier, learns a few very useful facts: that the Prince is actually penniless and looking for a new revenue stream – preferably a young, attractive one – and that his long suffering servant would jump at the chance to trade places with his royal boss. Things come to a head at the party thrown by Big Daddy to welcome the Prince, as Tiana finds that she has a few days to up her bid or lose her dream location for the restaurant, prompting her to swallow her pride, and – in classic Disney tradition – wish upon a star, only to be presented with a Prince in a rather difficult situation.
Put simply, The Princess and the Frog is one of the very best animated films that we’ve seen in the last few years; its bouncy, energetic score evokes a dream-like (and charmingly Disneified) New Orleans, decked out in all its colorful jazz age glamour. As a return to hand-drawn animation, the film is a complete success, demonstrating a warmth that still remains outside the province of most digital animation. While the script represents a bit of an Achilles heel with the poorly developed Prince Naveen – one that may prevent the film from being remembered alongside Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, the previous hits from Princess co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker   the charm of Tiana is ample compensation.
Disney heavily touted the addition of an “African American” Princess character to its animation stable in the months leading up to the release of The Princess and the Frog, and we will admit to catching a whiff of the ever popular ‘urbanization’ (see either Alvin & the Chipmunks film for the depths that this can sink to – honestly, folks, it’s an insult to everyone). Ethnicity is actually quite deftly handled in the film; divisions of race (while Big Daddy is noticeably the only affluent character in the piece) aren’t ignored, but the story wisely sidesteps making a race-class statement and plows ahead with a celebration of Afro-American New Orleans life.
The show’s most memorable character, however, is the villainous voodoo conman, Dr. Facilier, voiced by the great Keith David (whom we vividly remember questioning another character’s belief in “voodoo bullshit” in John Carpenter’s The Thing). Keith has been an in-demand voice actor for years now, but this material seems tailor-made for his buttery intonations. Physically, the character bears a close resemblance to the similarly sinister character played by Jeffrey Holder in Live and Let Die, and really pushes the envelope of acceptable levels of ‘horror’ in a children’s film. John Goodman has been doing variations on the Big Daddy role going all the way back to The Big Easy, but damned if you ever catch him phoning it in. And though the name might not be familiar, nearly anyone who has watched prime time television in the last 5 years will recognize the voice of Bruno Campos coming out of Prince Naveen.
There’s an early sequence in The Princess and the Frog that plays along with one of the Academy Award-nominated songs, “Almost There,” as Tiana dreams about the nightclub she has been saving for. This wonderful sequence – along with Facilier’s gleefully macabre number, “Friends on the Other Side” –showcases the traditional Disney animation style at its best. And though it doesn’t quite sustain the energy of its crazy-fun first half, this is still our favorite Disney film in years.
Our review copy of The Princess and the Frog was the familiar 3-disc format that the studio has been using for their high-profile HD releases: a BD, a DVD with limited bonus materials, and a digital copy DVD – a nice option for those without BD players but with an eye pointed to the future. The image on the BD is little short of breathtaking. The 1080p image achieves a level of perfection that is usually reserved for digital animation; the film has a uniquely warm color palette and the images almost seem to glow from within – this is a flawless presentation.
As usual, all the extras are presented in HD, though the pickings feel a little slight, with more EPK-style featurettes than we usually like (“Disney’s Newest Princess,” in particular, feels too much like studio back-slapping and self promotion). We did enjoy “Conjuring the Villain,” as he was our favorite character, and had limited fun with the storyboard feature that lets you watch the original visual conception of the film along with the audio track.

2nd Annual Wonder Awards Nominations

What were the best horror, fantasy, and science fiction films of 2009? Well, we’re here to tell you, with this year’s nominations Cinefantastique’s second annual Wonder Awards. In a year when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science broke with tradition by nomination two science fiction films (AVATAR and DISTRICT 9) in multiple categories (including Best Picture), it might seem that the essential brief of the Wonder Awards – shining a light on worthy genre films – is less necessary. However, as pleasing as it is to see the Oscars inching toward recognition of cinefantastique, there are still many titles that go overlooked. Hence, we present this year’s list of nominations.
The big favorites for Best Horror, Fantasy, or Science Fiction Film of 2009 are STAR TREK (11 nominations), AVATAR (9 nominations), DISTRICT 9 (7 nominations), CORALINE (4 nominations), UP (4 nominations).
Other multiple nominees include MOON (4 nominations), SHERLOCK HOLMES (4 nominations), ZOMBIELAND (3 nominations), THE LOVELY BONES (3 nominations), PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2 nominations), ORPHAN (2 nominations), THE ROAD (2 nominations), and TERMINATOR SALVATION (2 nominations).
This year’s nominees for the Edgar G. Ulmer Award are DEAD GIRL, GRACE, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS, MOON, and PONYO. This award is dedicated to high-quality horror, fantasy, and science fiction films that would otherwise be overlooked because their limited theatrical release prevents them from being seen by enough voters to qualify in the Best Film category.
Not only were several films nominated in multiple categories; a few people also pulled off the trick: Henry Selick (Screenplay and Production Design for CORALINE); Pete Docter (Direction and Screenplay for UP); AND Neil Blomkamp (Direction and Screenplay for DISTRICT 9). The most notable multiple nominee is composer Michael Giacchino, who was nominated in the same category for two different films: STAR TREK and UP.
In general, Cinefantastique’s contributors spread their votes around. Although there is a great degree of consistency between picks for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, there is some variation, and the strength of support ranges widely from category to category. Also, dark horse candidates several nabbed nominations, especially in the acting categories.  In general, there seems to be a broad consensus about which films deserve major consideration, but there is a also an attempt to recognize  less obvious contestants who did good work in films that did not reach the critical mass of popularity necessary to galvanize voters into awarding major nominations across the board. Overall, in a year that saw a fairly wide range of enjoyable cinefantastique, this list represents a solid consensus on the best in horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema. 

  • UP


  • James Cameron for AVATAR
  • Neill Blomkamp for DISTRICT 9
  • Duncan Jones for MOON
  • J. J. Abrams for STAR TREK
  • Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (co-director) for UP


  • Henry Selick for CORALINE
  • Neil Blomkamp & Terri Tatchll for DISTRICT 9
  • Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman for STAR TREK
  • Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (story by Docter, Peterson & Thomas McCarthy) for UP
  • Ruben Fleischer for ZOMBIELAND


  • Katie Featherston in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY
  • Isabelle Fuhrman in ORPHAN
  • Charlotte Gainsbourg in ANTICHRIST
  • Saoirse Ronan in THE LOVELY BONES
  • Zoe Saldana in AVATAR


  • Sharlto Copley in DISTRICT 9
  • Robert Downey Jr in SHERLOCK HOLMES
  • Viggo Mortensen in THE ROAD
  • Chris Pine in STAR TREK
  • Sam Rockwell in MOON


  • Vera Farmiga in ORPHAN 
  • Zoe Saldana in STAR TREK 
  • Susan Sarandon in THE LOVELY BONES
  • Amanda Seyfried in JENNIFER’S BODY
  • Sigourney Weaver in AVATAR 


  • Jackie Earle Haley in WATCHMEN 
  • Woody Harrelson in ZOMBIELAND
  • Jude Law in SHERLOCK HOLMES 
  • Stanley Tucci in THE LOVELY BONES 
  • Karl Urban in STAR TREK


  • 2012




  • Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg for AVATAR
  • Henry Selick for CORALINE
  • Tony Noble for MOON
  • Sarah Greenwood for SHERLOCK HOLMES
  • Scott Chambliss for STAR TREK


  • Anthony Dod Mantle for ANTICHRIST
  • Mauro Fiore for AVATAR
  • Trent Opaloch for DISTRICT 9
  • Javier Aguirresarobe for THE ROAD
  • Daniel Mindel for STAR TREK


  • James Cameron, John Refoua, Stephen E. Rivki for AVATAR
  • Julian Clarke for DISTRICT 9
  • James Herbert for SHERLOCK HOLMES
  • Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey for STAR TREK


  • James Horner for AVATAR
  • Bruno Coulais for CORALINE
  • Christopher Young for DRAG ME TO HELL
  • Michael Giacchino for STAR TREK
  • Michael Giacchino for UP


  • MOON


Voters consist of regular contributors to Cinefantastique Online (found listed under the “Authors” tab in the right-hand navigation bar), plus outside contributors from some of our favorite websites and blogs (listed under “Recommended Websites,” also in our right-hand navigation bar).
Each contributor was allowed to vote for five titles in each category. Votes are weighted so that a vote for #1 in a category outweighs a vote for #2; a vote for #2 outweighs a vote for #3, etc. Consequently, if two films received the same number of votes, one could earn a nomination while the other was left off, depending on how high voters place each title on their lists.
In cases where there is disagreement about which category a nominee should be slotted into (Lead Role versus Supporting role, for example), all votes are moved to the category in which the majority cast their votes.

Trick r Treat (2009)

“My dad taught me tonight is about respecting the dead. All the Traditions – putting out Jack O’ Lanterns, putting on costumes,
Putting out treats- were to protect us. Nowadays, no one really cares.”
–Principal Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker).

Michael Dougherty’s TRICK ‘R TREAT could be the best “Halloween” film of all time. Maybe that’s a heady pronouncement, but it is certainly the best horror anthology flick ever made. Now, given the spotty record of that black-sheep of the horror flick cannon, that might seem like a damning statement of faint praise. There is perhaps, no harder sub-genre to pull off in the land of filmic fear than the horror movie omnibus: the crafter of such a collection has to fight the hazards of the brevity and narrative compression for each patchwork piece; avoid the pit-falls of inconsistencies of tale, tone, pacing, performance; and the effectiveness of the Framing Device, a formula that often unravels like the straw on a witch’s broom. It’s a failing-ground for the minimally talented non-auteur: the mediocre filmmaker who can’t sustain a single, involving narrative can always turn to the Horror Movie Anthology format for a quick buck, right?*
So, when I saw the DVD cover for Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat at DVD Planet, I squinted at it as fiercely as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. I knew that Dougherty had solid credits behind him (he co-wrote X-Men and Superman Returns), but I was dubious, given the genre’s modern-day track record. Yet, I decided to give it a try. After all, the anthology film was one of the first of frights I cut my teeth on as a young horror buff trooping to the Compton’s Allen Theater in the 1960s and ’70s with my brother Mark. I loved the British Amicus classics such as Tales from the Crypt, The House That Dripped Blood, and Asylum; it was only later permutations of the genre that instilled doubts as I plunked down my hard-earned cash for this new film. 
There are moments where Dougherty’s cheeky-creepy post-modern take on those omnibus films of yester-year (and not so long ago) seems almost a little too sleek, a little too smarty-pants insouciant for its own good, maybe too-well crafted, but it’s impossible to deny the savor and commitment of this blood-dipped candy-apple of a chiller, which returns the former pagan holiday back to the delights of old-school frights. Anyone who remembers what it was like to be young, trundling out into the dark night, mask on head, treat bag in hand, steeling the nerve to go up to a stranger’s Jack O’ Lantern-lit porch to ring the doorbell will make Trick ‘r Treat a featured favorite for future October 31st viewings.
Guided by the spirit of fairy-tales and such genre stand-bys as EC and DC Comics (“House of Mystery” and “House of Secrets” come to mind here just as much as “Tales From The Crypt” and “Vault of Horror”), Dougherty’s smartly crafted filmic paen to All Hollow’s Eve traditions (while adding a knowing nudge here and there at the holiday’s entrenched commercialism and adult-party posteuring) is one inspired little “boo!” of autumn night angst. Perhaps Dougherty succeeded all too well in bringing the fear down to an adolescent’s mask-eye view: Warners, maybe a tad unsettled by all the kid grue and jeopardy, opted to pass on a theatrical release, and chose the direct-to-vid route. It’s one of the two injustices that afflict a film which should have received theatrical distribution to the respect and acclaim it deserves. (The other injustice is the lack of Special Features on the DVD, but more about that later.)
One of the film’s irresistibly clever ideas is to ditch a straightforward narrative, interweaving the four tales of fear (ala Pulp Fiction) during a single Halloween night in the Ohio burg of Warren Valley, which takes the holiday very seriously. After a terrific prologue (which will wind up as a chunk of the epilogue) in which a premature Jack O’ Lantern snuffer is turned into a grisly “Trick” by a tradition-defending beastie, the movie splits its narrative into a series of interlaced plot-lines. These include virginal Anna Pacquin (garbed-up as Little Red Riding Hood in one of the movie’s ironic touches), searching for Mr. Right before heading out to an unspeakable woodland bacchanal where she and her hottie gal-pals are going to party with their “dates”; a high school principal (Dylan Baker) who is also a season-minded serial-killer; a quartet of cruel youngsters who visit the site of a grisly local urban-legend to play an gruesome “Trick” on a mentally challenged girl (Samm Todd); and a grumpy old Halloween hum-bugger (Brian Cox, looking very much like John Carpenter) who seems to have a real chip on his shoulder towards the meaning of the season. And, popping up every now and then there’s “Sam” (short for “samhain”) a monstrous little sprite in burlap sack-mask and orange pajamas, who takes serious (and murderous) umbrage to those who deny respect to the traditions of the All Hollows Eve holiday.
Though it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see some of the “tricks” and “treats” coming (it doesn’t mitigate the fear and fun factor), you cannot help feeling a voluptuous glee in the manner in which Dougherty plays with filmic time and confidently weaves the various plot-lines together, breaking up the action with the occasional bit of comic-book graphic transition and having characters reappear for random bits in other stories. This yields some fine pay-offs: there’s an early scene wherein Cox, as Dylan’s curmudgeonly neighbor, is hammering at his window trying to get the Dylan’s attention (he’s distracted by matters of his own, to use an understatement) only to be whisked away from the glass by something unseen, produces juicy dividends when the scene plays out later on. Ditto for Dylan’s unexpected reappearance later in the episode, when his storyline solidly intersects one of the other narrative pieces (it would be irresponsible to give away any more details but it provides satisfying closure).
This is all dished up with equal parts camp and terror, with minimal computer fuss (it’s hard not to smile at the cheesey fun of a simple fx fixtue like a murderous scuttling severed hand). The movie captures the holiday’s autumnal sense of death and dread: maybe the neighbor next door will give you a big handful of candy, or maybe he’ll plant you in a moon-lit grave in his front yard; maybe the mean old man next door has a good reason for scaring kids off his stoop when they beg for candy, or keeping a loaded shot-gun on the wall; maybe putting a scare into the “Strange Kid” with the pumpkin fetish isn’t the best idea.
The movie’s best segment, which follows the EC-Comic formula to a T, and would definitely earn a Crypt-Keeper Cackle of Approval is the “Halloween School Bus Massacre”, with Gaines-style twisted twist and all, about a group of tweens who suffer the consequences of mocking the dead on All Hollows Eve. The way the tale unfolds (“It happened 30 years ago,” the mean but angel-winged gang-leader begins) – going from growing creep-out to outright terror – is near perfect. The flashback to a school-bus full of disturbed children (which to me resemmbled an hommage to the fitfully effective and fairly cruel ‘70s low-budgeter Devil Times Five aka Peopletoys), is one of the most unsettling scenes in a recent horror movie – and it’s totally done through masks and costumes! Glen MacPherson lays an October garnish of diffuse gold over the cinematography, which perfectly limns the unease and nostalgia of a great urban-ghost story. Given contemporary cinema’s penchant for preternaturally glib children, or swooning adolescent vampires, the fact that this story so rightly nails Halloween terrors from a kid’s point-of-view, is one of the most refreshing elements of the movie, and this segment neatly encapsulates one of the true pleasures of the film.
Sadly, Dougherty’s decision to put the kiddies front and center is probably what led Warners to sentence the movie to its DTV fate: the studio heads who viewed the finished cut must have gone apoplectic at the sequence in which a pumpkin-smashing tubby kid gets his grisly comeuppance when he’s fed some “Bad Candy” by Dylan Baker’s season-sensitive psycho principal. This is certainly the movie’s “gross-out” set-piece and the overall nastiest bit (it certainly plays into one of the worst All Hollow’s Eve fears). What is hackle-raising about the scene is the casting of the dotty school administrator: in a perverse and funny-queasy stroke, Dougherty gave the role to Baker, who was the unforgettably disturbing pedophile psychiatrist from Todd Solondz’s Happiness, and it is squirm-inducing to see him cozying up to the hapless victim on the porch step, waving a carving knife and good-naturedly teasing the doomed victim (“Oh, don’t worry, it’s for the Jack O’ Lantern, not you”): mental flashbacks to that earlier film left me in little doubt about just what Principal Wilkins was going to do. Certainly, the violence in “The Halloween School Bus Massacre” is more of the suggestive sort, and (for the most part) takes place off-screen, but it certainly had to have contributed to the general release jitters.Then again, given the playing time of many films these days, it could be a mixed blessing: Trick ‘r Treat will definitely wind up as any horror buff’s choice of chills come the dark, dead-leaf-bedecked long falls nights; the film seems destined to profit from a reputation as one of those Overlooked Gems.
On a technical level, Trick ‘r Treat is amazingly assured for a first-time director, and the film’s color palette nicely compliments those baleful comic-book thrills from the past; Macpherson’s photography, Robert Ivison’s editing, and Douglas Pipes’ music (the soundtrack includes a blackly comedic rendition of the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams Are Made of These”) compliment the film’s mood. Trish Keating deserves praise for the costume design (the masks of The Disturbed Kids of “The Halloween School Bus Massacre” episode are singularly chilling, while Anna Paquin’s chick support squad’s duds are a funny, ironic hoot.
The performers seem to all be clued in to the fun. Pacquin is quite good as the virginal miss who is well-prepared for any and all Big Bad Wolves, and the youngsters (especially Samm Todd) all deliver naturalistic, uninflected performances, giving their horrific scenes a greater sense of concern and investment. However, Baker and Cox are the stand-outs. Baker as the button-down, respectable town slayer (complete with a creepy son who loves “doing the eyes” on their “Jack O’ Lanterns”) does a terrific job; Cox steals the show as the movie’s “Scrooge” figure who has a good rationale (revealed in a fine twist) for his dislike of the season. Wearing a white frizzy John Carpenter mane of hair (he even gets to utter a choice line from Carpenter’s remake of The Thing), Cox gets a terrific Evil Dead-style battle with Sam that has a nice retro-effects feel and unexpected ending. If the film has a major weakness, maybe it’s the fact that the omnibus format has its own built-in Achilles heel: without a central conflict or identification figure, the empathy factor is a little thin at times (a good chunk of the cast are monsters, human or otherwise, thiough it’s hard not to root for Cox facing his own Trilogy of Terror-type beat-down in the latter part of the flick).
Sam himself is an endearing little boggart and one of the better monsters of the past few years. He’s actually a fairly complicated demon: pint-sized, in orange pajamas and burlap-mask, he’s seems rather vulnerable – until someone “disrespects” Halloween tradition, wherupon he launches into action (his main weapon is fairly cool and inventive) with results  that are fairly dire. His main screen time (he’s kind of the Ghosts of Halloween Past, Present, Future against Cox’s Halloween hating codger) is in the last third of the film, though he flits through the others inflicting damage, major and minor. That said, he’s no anonymous otherworldly avenger-slasher : there are definite Rules of Engagement on Sam’s mind, as well as propitiation. One of the movie’s smart points is that he doesn’t have a back-story, thus, dissipating his mystery and persona.
Aside from the injustice of not getting a theatrical release, the paucity of DVD Special Features is definitely a crying shame. The DVD offers both a Wide-Screen and Full-Screen version, and along with a set of language and subtitle selections in English, French, Spanish. The only real treat is “Seasons Greetings,” the director’s 1996 hand-animated short, which gives us our first glimpse of the burlap-masked Sam. The commentary by Dougherty on the short is actually more entertaining than the little film, which is a nice enough low-budget (albeit predictable) thrill, but it’s really a launching point for the future monster. Clearly, this was a labor of love for Dougherty and his small crew, laying down the creation of Sam (in Dougherty’s words,“9 months of blood, sweat and tears”) in hand-printed, hand-drawn, hand-colored frames, achieved by the director-writer with different-colored magic-markers. The short enjoyed success, playing a number of festivals as well as being featured on MTV’s Cartoon Sushi, and was scored by Evan Chen, with backgrounds painted by Dan KaNemoto, and “a lot of friends and students.”
One of the brightest revelations during the commentary by the creator, is how Dougherty came up with the “blood” on Sam’s face, following his triumph over his attacker: Dougherty had cut his hand while working on the ‘toon, and having an instant epiphany “flicked my hand and splattered blood over the art-work.” As nice as it is to have Dougherty provide narrative on this humble, chilly vignette, you are left craving more, like a trick-or-treater coming home with an empty bag: the Special Features begs for Dougherty’s commentary on the feature film, his take on the performances and effects, and, most of all, the travails that cheated Trick ‘r Treat from a full-blown film-release. Both the DVD, and horror movie buffs in general, cry out for it.

  • In compelling contrast, that Canadian indie fave, The Signal offered the terrific twist of one scary-brainy narrative helmed by three different directors.

Jennifer's Body (2009)

The Blu-ray disc offers a great transfer and some good extras, but even in unrated form, this allegedy horror-comedy is not particularly scary, sexy, or funny.

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Overexposure is a tragic affliction for a young actor – tragic because the films that pay the price are often not the ones responsible for causing the disease. Megan Fox rode two TRANSFORMERS pictures to every magazine cover and television show that could be possibly frequented by men between the age of 14 and 30. Securing her for the lead role in JENNIFER’S BODY must have seemed like a coup, offering the budding sex symbol the first film that she would carry on her own, supported by a script from Diablo Cody, still reasonably hot (well, lukewarm at least) from the massive indy-cred-of JUNO. However, something happened on the way to the forum, and JENNIFER’S BODYdramatically upended upon release, barely limping it’s way to recoup its meager $16 million production budget (here’s hoping DVD sales can pay for all those TV ads). Now, our own lascivious nature should have placed us right in the marketing crosshairs for the film, but we were oddly unmoved by the pre-release hype – finding our Spidey-sense tingling at terms like “feminist” and “empowerment” when what we wanted to hear were words like “scary” and “sexy”. But in the end, it seems that the American movie going public may have been just plain tired of having Ms. Fox shoved down their collected throats, like medicine for an ailment they never had.
High school students and childhood friends Jennifer (Fox) and Anita (Amanda Seyfried) alleviate the boredom of life in Devil’s Kettle with a trip to a local road house to see a hot band, Low Shoulder. A mysterious fire guts the bar just after the band begins their set, killing dozens and sending a near hypnotized Jennifer into the arms – and van – of lead singer Nikolai (a very funny Adam Brody, who should have been in this film a lot more). Anita (who goes more commonly by ‘Needy’) reluctantly returns home alone, only to find Jennifer in her kitchen later that night, covered in blood and vomiting a black, viscous fluid. The next day, Jennifer seems to be her usual bright and perky self in class, until she lures the captain of the football team into the woods, transforms into a demon and eats him. As Anita’s relationship with Jennifer grows more…complicated, she’s drawn closer to her boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons) – whom Jennifer seems to be eyeing for her next course. Anita attempts to track down the band – now a major success after the post-fire publicity – and find out what happened to Jennifer that night in the woods.

As the recent (and superb) Daybreakers has reminded us, it’s entirely possible for a horror film to work on numerous levels as long as you don’t lose sight of the genre pool that you’re swimming in. The problem is that Diablo Cody’s script has no teeth for horror, and director Karyn Kusama seems to have little interest in exploring anything aside from Cody’s half-baked female empowerment agenda. The filmmakers are proud to point out the material’s girl power slant (as they do many times in the commentary and supplemental features), but in reality, the end product is no more enlightened than 1982’s Slumber Party Massacre, another weak tea horror tale that tried to sneak by on the basis of having been directed and written by avowed feminists. We enjoyed Kusama’s Girlfight, which had the courage of its convictions; Jennifer’s Body, however, had the gall to sell itself as a sensual horror-comedy without being particularly sexy, scary, or funny.
Looking back on Cody’s Juno, it’s easy to see how the fine ensemble cast and careful direction managed to flesh out the author’s too-clever-by-half dialog. Her scripts seem almost a throwback to those carefree days of the mid-’90s, when every screenwriter was trying to emulate Tarantino’s self-reflexive, hipster style; in Jennifer’s Body, there is almost no organic dialog between characters and every exchange, whether it’s between parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, or even ‘best friends forever’ Jennifer and Anita, feels overwritten and rehearsed (there’s a scene at the funeral of one of Jennifer’s victims in which the mother delivers a graveside haranguing at his assembled goth friends that is absolutely unwatchable).
The good news, however, comes from Amanda Seyfried, who comes closer than anyone else to making the script feel genuine. Her performance is open, honest, and completely winning. Frankly, we found her more attractive than her top-billed co-star; it’s another of the film’s logical leaps that we’re supposed to buy Seyfried as frump, clinging to Jennifer for popularity and acceptance (so much for empowerment!). There are other good actors here, but most are used in underwritten parts that make them little more than cameos: Amy Sedaris is wasted as Anita’s mom, as is the great J K Simmons as a teacher (sporting a prosthetic arm for no good reason, save a cheap laugh on the reveal).
And what of Megan Fox? She’s certainly not bad – and with a role so carefully tailored to her, failure in that regard wasn’t an option – but neither is she all that memorable. Though the title and publicity material say different, Jennifer’s Body really belongs to Seyfried’s Anita, as the film’s only dramatic content consists of her reaction to her friend’s demonic transformation. Little is required of Ms. Fox other than the sort of vamping that two films with Michael Bay should have her performing in her sleep, so perhaps this isn’t a true test of her abilities – but neither does it leave us panting for Untitled Megan Fox Project 2010.
There’s good news for the AV connoisseur, however, as the image on Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is nearly flawless. Jennifer’s Body is a well shot film, with a vivid, colorful palette that is faithfully reproduced on the disc without noticeable DNR or filtering. The lossless DTS track is unusually strong, and the BD also comes equipped with French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital tracks.
The major extra is the inclusion of an unrated cut of the film that runs almost a full 5 minutes longer than the theatrical version, clocking in at just over 107 minutes. Though the unspoken tease of these “unrated” cuts is the chance to see nudity or gore that was considered too strong for an R-rating, the changes often turn out to be more subtle: the unrated Jennifer’s Body actually features quite a few editorial changes, sometimes consisting of extensions lasting just a few seconds.
Also present are 14 minutes of deleted scenes; a featurette on the filming of the finale, “The Dead Pool” (both presented in HD); a gag reel; and video diaries by the cast (in SD). The best extra is a “Life After Film School” piece prepared for the Fox Movie Channel (and therefore in SD) that features a better than usual chat with Cody, while the most insipid is a 1-minute long clip mash-up of Ms. Fox vamping it up, called “Megan Fox” is Hot (in HD). There is also a digital copy.

The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

“ Love is a magic comfort food for the weak and uneducated.”—Connor Mead

Charles Dickens is surely rolling over in his grave over this non-romantic rip-off “comedy” of his hallowed holiday classic.
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a modern-day by-the-numbers serious-comedic spin on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is such a smarmy, unfunny and hypocritical riff, that DVD-viewers will pound their own stake of holly through its heart by giving it amiss come the next round of rental picks. Maybe it’s a telling point that this “Holiday Movie” wasn’t even released at Christmas, but made an untimely arrival last summer. In any event, yours truly chose the Chick Flick assignment to stretch my range of cinematic scrivening, but five minutes into it, was already regretting that I hadn’t turned to the, say, infinitely more healthy romantic banter of Ed Lee’s Header.
Directed by Mark Waters (he of the fairly decent Mean Girls and Freaky Friday), and scripted by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (The Hangover, Full of It), the movie, like its repulsive, womanizing photographer protagonist Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey), flashes a fair set of visual choppers, a decent cast, and well-scrubbed production values. But in the end, the flat, banal jokes, phony plot, and general mean-spiritedness wreck any chance of creating audience sympathy or selling its seasonal “All You Need Is Love” bromide. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a right nasty hum-bug, buoyed only occasionally by some decent turns in the minor parts.
Anyone familiar with Dickens’ novelette, and all its cinematic incarnations, will have no problem guessing how this version is going to play. Replacing miserly, X-Mas-loathing Ebenezer Scrooge with a heartless fashion photographer who earns $150K-a-year, the film presents its “hero” as a vile, womanizing jerk, who is so commitment-shy that he can’t even bring himself to consider “spooning” with any babe he dates and so contemptible in the cold exercise of his “love ‘em and leave ‘em philosophy” that he breaks up via conference call with his three latest victims – which is a fair indication of how superficial and smug the rest of the film is going to be. There is no doubt that a rude wakening lies ahead for Connor, and its easy to guess how the Dickens formula will sign-post each plot point before the inevitable happy conclusion.
McConaughey, who is one of the mainstays of the modern romantic comedy (How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days, and Failure to Launch to name just a few of his recent vehicles), is as tanned and toothy as a TV televangelist, and the actor essays Connor with reptilian, narcissistic style. The problem with McConaughey in the role is that the actor’s good-natured presence is totally at odds with the despicable character he is playing, and because of this, you can’t take him seriously as Lady Killer or Reformed Cad. He wavers between the two extremes, and never registers as anything approaching a real human being; Mead is so vile and off-putting that there is no way that one could believe for one tiny second that so many beautiful women would buy into his shtick. Credibility is strained from the onset with this hateful playa’ cypher, and it only gets worse. In fact, it’s hard to really envision this movie as a sought-for “Chick Flick” rental because it is so outrageously insulting to the distaff set. Renting Fellini’s City of Women would probably be a better use of time.
When Connor heads to New England for his brother Paul (Brecken Meyer)’s wedding to long-time girlfriend Sandra (Lacey Chabert), he wastes no time making the rehearsal as rancorous as possible by bashing on the institution of marriage and deriding love as “magical comfort food for the weak and uneducated.” Given Connor’s general attitude and predatory ways, you have to wonder why they invited him in the first place, let alone entrusting him with the wedding toast. Of course, you have to wonder why his nebbish brother is marrying Chabert’s Sandra – a shrill harridan who screams and bellows every line of trite dialogue. To complicate matters, Connor’s childhood love, and former conquest, Dr. Jenny Perotti (played with the usual awkward, coltish charm by Jennifer Garner), is the maid of honor. It should be no great revelation that Garner’s hottie doctor character believes that Connor The Conqueror, deep-down, is really a “sweetheart”: this character is another of the movie’s blatant and implausible elements: how could Dr. Jenny still believe in such an unrepentant, sleazy dog. The answer to that question is simple: because the dictates of the plot demand that she does.
Hashing through his ambivalent feelings toward Jenny (as shallow as Connor is, you can’t really say he’s wrestling with his conscience), and relishing the chance to bed the one bridesmaid (Amada Walsh) he hasn’t managed to seduce, Connor receives an unexpected jolt when he is confronted by the ghost of his legendarily libidinous Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas, having fun with the Marley role). He informs Connor that he will be visited that night by the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Present and Future who will show him the folly of his self-centered ways, and that if he does not change his life, he will wind up as alone as Wayne was when he died. The aforementioned statement is actually rather misleading: strictly speaking only one of the “Ghosts” of Girlfriends Past is actually a “girlfriend” (she lasted 32 seconds!).
This is where the cinefantastique elements kick in, such as they are. When Connor repairs to his bedroom expecting a tryst with said bridesmaid, he encounters his first spirit guide, the Ghost of Girlfriends Past: brace-wearing, frizzy-haired teen Allison Vandermeersh (Emma Stone), Conor’s first sexual partner. Allison takes Connor back to the ‘80s and shows him how, after being rebuffed by Jenny at his senior prom, Connor apprenticed himself to his womanizing cad of an Uncle Wayne (“the power of a relationship lies in who cares the least”, Uncle Wayne advises). This is probably one of the movie’s finer segments because at least Stone’s Allison and Douglas’ Wayne are a shade fun and lively. The rules of Haunting are a little muddled as Douglas and Stone can go from physically substantial to phantom insolubility at any given time. Yet, Wayne is downright creepy in his committed misogyny: when he takes Connor to a bar to give him his first lessons in defeating the opposite sex, you have to wonder why Child Services isn’t tearing Connor away from such an irresponsible and dangerous guardian.
The next “spirits” on the horizon are a bit of a cheat: the Ghost of Girlfriends Present is neither a Ghost nor one of Connor’s conquests but Melanie (Noureen DeWulf) – Connor’s long-suffering assistant and the only healthy relationship Connor has with a woman (you almost hope that they’ll wind up together). Melanie takes the time to show Connor the emotional wreckage of his harem lifestyle by showing him the weepy aftermath of his three-way break-up. It’s indicative, however, of the sloppy writing that Melanie’s “ghostly” persona shows up at the Happy Ending as the same time that the Real Melanie makes an appearance. Still, these scenes do have at least one effective and poignant moment of fantasy when a torrential downpour falls on Connor – composed of “all the tears of the women who have cried over him.” Unfortunately, even this scene ends in a vulgar payoff.
That takes us then to the “Ghost” of Girlfriends Future (again, not a Girlfriend), personified by an anonymous, ethereal beauty (Olga Maliouk) who shows Connor how his life will go if he continues to reject these last opportunities for love. She also reveals the equally tragic consequences for his brother Paul (this character kind of serves as the “Tiny Tim” figure by default), who after he has spent most of the movie defending his lecherous bro (Connor pretty much raised him), is headed for his own downward spiral after Sandra has discovered that he had had a years’ past indiscretion with one of the bridesmaids (the news leaked by Connor of course). So, with Jenny slipping away and Paul and Sandra’s nuptials in tatters, will Connor sink fully into the slime or will he seize redemption, reunite with Jenny, and save his brother’s wedding?
The major problem is the strong whiff of toxic hypocrisy at the heart of this fluff that is totally at odds with the narrative’s feel-good message. As much as the Ghost of Girlfriends Past trashes the McConaughey character for his selfish, predatory ways, it also unabashedly celebrates his womanizing by parading as much femme eye-candy on-screen as possible, and relishing the fall of every vacuum-minded boy-toy. Aside from a couple discerning female characters (Melanie and Anne Archer, slumming here), the rest of the chicks in this Chick Flick are shallow, vicious ditzes who exist only to feather Connor’s bed. This is the kind of world where all bridesmaids and fashion models are brainless, masochistic sluts eager to throw themselves at any conscienceless seducer. You wind up shaking your head and wondering “Doesn’t this guy’s reputation precede him? Don’t the gals possess a whit of esteem or emotional self-preservation?” On the flip-side, with the exception of one male wedding guest Brad (Daniel Sunjada), who has been invited for Jenny’s benefit, the groom’s men are all homely, spastic dweebs. This really is the kind of film that will send the most committed feminists into a fury.
It’s hard to put a finger on what is more outrageous: the total cynicism, or the filmmakers’ hard-sell of the hateful main character’s change of heart. Piled on top of Jenny’s laughable assertion that Connor is really a decent guy, is the unconvincing bid to give Connor a “heart” by portraying him as an orphan who had to singled-handedly raise his brother. Even worse, though Michael Douglas’ Hugh Hefneresque Marley character (who calls everyone “Dutch”) has been sent back to earth to convince McConaughey to mend his hedonistic ways, he himself shows no signs of repenting his past indiscretions. He’s still a randy swinger’on The Other Side. This really indicative of the objectionable smirky wink-nudge nature of Ghost of Girlfriends Past and effectively deflates the moral dilemma here: How can you accept the hero’s transformation if the ghostly moral messenger still waxes nostlgic for his lothario days? Even after the Big Change, I was unconvinced that either Connor or Wayne truly repented their lifestyle choices.
That’s not to say that Ghost of Girlfriends Past is absolutely awful or without merit. The basic structure of the Dickens plot definitely has its appeal, and there are a clutch of decent supporting performances on hand. It’s good to see the usually fine Robert Forster in anything these days, and he gets a good chuckle as Sandra’s dad, a USMC sergeant-turned-minister who offers a wholly inappropriate wedding toast to the bride and groom. Stone is energetic, annoying and sprightly, and is, at least, a character that’s wholly alive. Noureen DeWulf brings some much needed level-headedness to her role as Connor’s go-to girl (“There’s apple, bubble gum and Tandoori. I know it sounds gross, but have two of them and you won’t feel your face,” she openes as she comforts a trio of Connor’s victims). Anne Archer, in a brief appearance as the bride’s sexy mom, is sweet and savvy as one of the few women who see through Connor’s games, though getting a laugh out of the chase. Garner is good as Jenny, despite the character she’s playing, and Douglas gets a number of decent laughs as Wayne. Daryn Okada’s photography and Bruce’s Green’s editing is brisk.
The DVD offers no special features: it includes Wide-Screen and Full-Screen versions, and language choices of English, English for The Hearing Impaired, and Spanish.
GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST (May 1, 2009). Directed by Mark Walters. Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas, Emma Stone, Breckin Meyer, Lacey Chabert, Robert Forster, Anne Archer, Daniel Sunjata, Noureen DeWulf.

Antichrist (2009)

Lars Von Trier’s 2009 film ANTICHRIST is quite a work of art but after hearing so much about the film; I am surprised to say it isn’t at all what I’d expected. In fact I’m not sure this is a horror film at all – more a drama with some horror elements. Certainly a great piece of eye-candy, ANTICHRIST is entertaining, whilst being rather slow, and somewhat confusing.
The film opens with a stunningly beautiful and perfectly directed scene of our unnamed couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) making love. The passion is captured in graphic, slow motion, black and white, and in spite of the odd close-up shot of real sex (which is over very quickly) this is very tastefully done. Unfortunately for our couple, whilst they have their moment of ecstasy, their young son is climbing on the window ledge and falling several stories to the ground below.
Following the death of their son, the woman feels like she’s losing her mind and her husband, a psychotherapist, in spite of his own reservations, decides to treat her himself, whilst hiding his own grief he struggles to help her deal with hers. He takes her to a cabin in the wood to face her fears, and it is here that things go from bad to worse. Nature itself seems to be against them; even the acorns which fall constantly from the trees seem to have malevolence about them. The woman’s grief spirals out of control and only violent sex seems to pacify her. Her husband tries to talk her down, but spends a lot of time thrashing around naked with her.
It eventually becomes apparent that there is a reason for her behaviour, but I wasn’t convinced by this. Because of the title alone I had anticipated a bit of devilish involvement and all hell breaking loose, and though there are strange visitations by a deer, a crow and a very absurd fox, the devil doesn’t seem to be involved – whatever is happening to this couple isn’t powerful enough for the finger of suspicion to point at ol’ Beelzebub.
Eventually the wife completely loses it, and in a scene reminiscent of Stephen King’s Misery we are witness to a very bad case of spousal abuse!
The story is told in four chapters, as well as a prologue and an epilogue and the beautiful colours change from blues, through greens and browns, and it is this stylish and striking look of Antichrist which makes it special. Yes, the very real sex scenes are a talking point, and yes, the horrific violence is also worth a mention; however, both of these things are over very quickly, and it’s the beauty of the film that will remain etched on your brain after everything else has paled.
The two actors held my attention very well. One reason may have been their unusual looks – we all know Dafoe is a funny-looking man, but oddly, when Gainsbourg contorts her face in sorrow and anguish, she looks very similar to Dafoe! Strange looking or not, both actors were equally convincingly as they embraced each scene unflinchingly. Without them, ANTICHRIST might have been too strange to enjoy, but with them it is quite a compelling watch.
ANTICHRIST (2009). Director-Writer: Lars Von Trier. Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)

Cirque-du-Freak-The-Vampire-s-Assistant (2009)Despite assembling a number of very talented performers and production people, CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT is almost a study in how not to launch a successful film franchise.  Based on the first three books in Darren Shan’s young adult vampire series, Paul Weitz’s film adaptation is a promising stew that never quite blends.
At the heart of the problem is the main character: Darren (Chris Massoglia) is a nice guy who is fascinated by spiders, gets good grades, and tries to please his parents; however, he is a bland cipher characterized more by who he is not than by who he is.  His best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) is the typical parent’s nightmare image of a bad influence: Steve likes to torture small animals, pull cruel pranks, and wants to become a vampire.  He persuades Darren to sneak out of his house to attend a live freak show in town.
There they encounter Madame Truska the Bearded Woman (Salma Hayek), the disfigured Alexander Ribs (Orlando Jones), the mysterious Mr. Tall (Ken Wanatebe), and other colorful characters. The ringleader is Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), a flame-haired fellow who is secretly a vampire. Steve persuades the arachnid-obsessed Darren to steal Larten’s colorful spider, and later tries to persuade Crepsley to turn him into the undead, only to be rejected as unsuitable.
Through a convoluted series of events, Darren winds up agreeing to become a half-vampire in an effort to save his friend, the vampire’s assistant of the title (who can assist Crepsley because he can go about in daylight). Conversely, Steve is recruited by the Vampaneze, a sect of evil vampires who delight in partaking of human blood, unlike the more humane style of vampire represented by Crepsley. (It does seem like a permanently engraved trope of the genre these days is to pit “good” vampires against “evil” ones).
Despite the talented actors, the characters never get developed beyond the most superficial levels, even when Darren has to abandon his family to live with the Cirque, where he meets a roommate Evra the Snake Boy (Patrick Fugit) and encounters the shy but sassy Monkey Girl (Jessica Carlson).  SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE’s Willem Defoe does a delightful turn as a Vincent Price-like vampire, but it proves too little, too late. Reilly, as the seemingly indifferent mentor vampire, provides the most interesting performance, but he cannot overcome the jumble the film has become.
Apparently, Brian Hegeland’s original script was considered too dark, so director Weitz (ABOUT A BOY) attempted to lighten the project and create a sort of highlights assembly.  What emerges is a major case of tonal schizophrenia, as CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT shifts between light and dark, serious and fanciful, from violence to drama to comedy. Thank to some very choppy editing and unengaging protagonists, viewer ennui quickly outpaces the splendid production design and cinematography. In the end, the film seems to be setting up a series that its own lackluster performance guarantees we will never see.

Darren Shan (Chris Masspglia) and vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) in the frightening tale of a boy who is pulled into a fantastic life of misunderstood sideshow freaks and grotesque creatures of the night. Credit: David Lee
Darren Shan (Chris Masspglia) and vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) in the frightening tale of a boy who is pulled into a fantastic life of misunderstood sideshow freaks and grotesque creatures of the night. Credit: David Lee


CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT (2009). Universal release of a Donners Co./Depth of Field production in association with Relativity Media. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Paul Weitz, Ewan Leslie. Executive producers, Courtney Pledger, Sarah Radclyffe, Andrew Miano, Dan Kolsrud, Kerry Kohansky, Rodney Liber. Co-producer, John Swallow. Directed by Paul Weitz. Screenplay, Weitz, Brian Helgeland, based on the “Cirque du Freak” series of books by Darren Shan.
Larten Crepsley – John C. Reilly
Mr. Tall – Ken Watanabe
Steve – Josh Hutcherson
Darren Shan – Chris Massoglia
Murlaugh – Ray Stevenson
Evra the Snake Boy – Patrick Fugit
Gavner Purl – Willem Dafoe
Madame Truska – Salma Hayek

The Fourth Kind (2009)

Alien abudction film provides encounters of the weird kind

The Fourth Kind (2009)The enigma of alien abduction is one of the enduring mysteries of our time. Beginning with the famous case of Betty and Barney Hill in 1961, in which a couple were allegedly abducted while driving down a New Hampshire highway late one night, these reports of extraterrestrial kidnappings have continued unabated into the 21st Century. While a minority of abductees claim that the experience is a positive one, most of those who have purportedly been taken relate terrifying stories about being subjected to strange medical experiments and mysterious mind games.

Alien abductions reached the zenith of their popularity in 1987 with the publication of horror writer Whitley Strieber’s book Communion and UFO researcher Budd Hopkin’s Intruders, which were serious explorations of the phenomenon that made the New York Times bestseller list. Because abduction reports were so similar to each other and presented a very limited narrative format (people are picked up, prodded and let go), the experience has not translated well onto the screen. Only two theatrically-released features were based on real-life cases, the film version of Strieber’s Communion (1989) and the abduction account of Arizona logger Travis Walton, Fire in the Sky (1993). Two telefilms, NBC-TV’s The UFO Incident (1975), a faithful rendition of the Hill abduction case starring James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons and CBS’s Intruders, based on the Hopkins book, were the two most powerful screen treatments of the abduction theme.

Now comes writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi’s The Fourth Kind with a tale of alien abduction allegedly based on 65 hours of “archival footage” of “actual case histories” relating to a series of purported abductions in the Nome, Alaska area in October of 2000. The film’s title is a reference to the typology of UFO sightings formulated by the legendary ufologist Dr. J. Allen Hynek that was used for the title of Steven Spielberg’s UFO opus Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with abduction being the fourth level of an ET encounter. Resident Evil star Milla Jovovoch plays Alaskan psychiatrist Abigail Tyler, who is mourning her husband Will after he was knifed to death by an unknown assailant in their home and is caring for her two children. Abigail is counseling Nome residents with sleep disorders who all tell the same story of waking up in the middle of the night and seeing a scary-looking owl staring at them and hearing voices speaking in a strange language. When one of her patients, Tommy (Corey Johnson), goes nutzoid after a hypnosis session and kills his family and himself, Nome Sheriff August (Will Patton) suspects that Abigail’s therapy was somehow responsible for the tragedy. Abigail and her psychiatrist colleague, Dr. Abel (Elias Koteas) fire back by citing dozens of mysterious deaths and disappearances that have occurred in the Nome area since the 1960s. “There’s something going on in this town that we don’t understand,” she warns the Sheriff.

Things continue to go bump in the night as Abby finds a weird-looking mark on her body and suspects that she herself may have been abducted and that aliens may have been responsible for her husband’s death. An expert in ancient Near Eastern tongues identifies the language on the police tapes of Tommy’s murder/suicide as ancient Sumerian, the first written language in history dating back to the Fourth Millennium B.C.E. The mysterious voice seems to be saying, “Our creation…examine, ruin and destroy,” in the ancient language Then another patient, Scott (Enzo Cilenti) insists on being hypnotized in the wake of an abduction experience he describes as “the worst you could ever imagine,” and is possessed by an alien force during the session that causes him to levitate and go into convulsions that literally break his back. A chagrined Sheriff August orders Abby confined to house arrest after this debacle, but a UFO descends on her house in the middle of the night to abduct Abby’s young daughter, Ashley (Mia McKenna Bruce). Despite the fact that a police officer witnessed the UFO while the police video recorder conveniently goes blank, August still blames Abby for her daughter’s disappearance. In the movie’s climax, Dr. Elias hypnotizes Abigail in an attempt to probe her own abduction memories and ultimately solve the riddles of her husband’s murder and her daughter’s disappearance.

Writer-director Osunsanmi presents this narrative using split screens that reportedly show the “real” Abigail Tyler (as portrayed by an uncredited actress) and her patients on “documentary” videos on one half of the screen going through the identical actions that are dramatized by Jovovich and the actors on the other half. Osunsanmi even becomes an actor in his own movie when he appears as Abigail’s interviewer in a tape purportedly made at Chapman University, a real college in Orange, California. In an effort to take The Fourth Kind “back over the line from fiction to reality,” (in the film’s own words), the movie attempts to pass off bogus video archival footage of therapy sessions and police videotapes as real documents. In addition, the release of The Fourth Kind was accompanied by a clever adcampaign designed to mislead audiences into believing that the events depicted are factual, even going so far as to set up a phony website about Dr. Abigail Tyler’s Alaskan medical practice and manufactured Internet stories about her. A September 1, 2009 investigative piece written by Kyle Hopkins for the Anchorage Daily News convincingly debunks the existence of Dr. Tyler and the events depicted in the film. As for the mysterious deaths and disappearances, of which there have been about 20 since the 1960s, an FBI investigation conducted in 2005 concluded that most of the deaths were related to alcoholism and exposure to the elements in Nome’s harsh environment, with no hint of alien involvement.

In cinematic terms, The Fourth Kind does establish considerable screen tension and uses the Blair Witch-inspired technique of filming people who are acting intensely frightened in order to induce similar feelings in the audience. Osunsamni’s style is documentarian, utilizing shaky hand-held camera setups, naturalistic lighting, time-coded video and split screen cinematography. The photogenic Milla Jovovich carries much of the film with her earnest portrayal of the tormented Abigail, but she is sometimes upstaged by the intense performance of the odd-looking unknown actress playing the “real” Dr. Tyler, who often appears onscreen in the same split frame. Professional thesps Will Patton and Elias Koteas lend their support, but none of the supporting characters is drawn in any depth. The film seems to take its cue from The Mothman Prophecies (2002), both in its subject matter of mysterioso goings-on in a backwater stretch of rural America and in its coy avoidance of showing anything overtly extraterrestrial. Much of The Fourth Kind was shot in Bulgaria, lending its “Alaskan” locations a temperate, forested look in lieu Nome’s real landscape of frozen Arctic tundra.

While purporting to be a true-life archival record of the abduction phenomenon, The Fourth Kind offers up a smorgasbord of ufological cliches and half-truths. To set the record straight, no abductee has ever murdered anyone as a result of their experiences, nor has anybody ever levitated or suffered back-breaking injury during a hypnotic recall session. Contrary to popular belief, alien abductions are not connected in any way we know of with missing persons cases, murders or unexplained deaths. According to research carried out by legitimate abduction investigators like Budd Hopkins, Raymond Fowler and David Jacobs, abductions are ongoing, intergenerational studies that would be severely impeded by its human subjects dying, and although abductees report painful and terrifying experiences, no one has been seriously harmed during abductions. The Sumerian language angle is derived from the work of rogue archaeologist Zecharia Sitchin, a theme which has been amplified in recent novels by Whitley Strieber but does not appear in mainstream abduction research. On the other hand, the film’s owl imagery has frequently been reported as what is termed a “screen memory” of gray aliens used to mask their true appearance, but whether this is a function of the human mind or an illusion produced by the aliens is open to debate.

Despite its many flaws and execrable advertising campaign, The Fourth Kind does manage to capture the mind-numbing terror of the abduction phenomenon, as anyone who has listened to the hypnotic regression tapes of Betty and Barney Hill can attest. But it’s also possible that the director is describing an entirely different phenomenon, that of sleep paralysis. This is an experience that occurs in a twilight state between sleep and wakefulness in which one seems to awaken paralyzed in bed. Some kind of being or entity is perceived to enter the room and approach the bed. The “entity” then begins to exert pressure on the sleeper’s chest until they awaken, only to find themselves alone in the room. Sometimes anomalous lights can be perceived, and sexual arousal can be a feature of the experience. Sleep paralysis is frequently found in people who suffer from bouts of sleepwalking, or somnambulism, and is also related to hypnopompic and hypnogogic sleep hallucinations. Alaska, where there are months on end of darkness or sunlight, is a prime location for sleep disorders (think of Al Pacino trying to get some shuteye in the Land of the Midnight Sun in the 2002 crime thriller Insomnia).

It’s easy to see how episodes of sleep paralysis, which is reported in many cultures around the world, could be interpreted as a close encounter with a ghost, a vampire, an incubus—or an alien. Indeed, all alleged alien abductions that begin in a sleep state are suspect. The abduction experiences described in The Fourth Kind all occur during sleep, and I suspect that director Osunsanmi has had a personal experience of sleep paralysis that provided the inspiration for this film. In other words, he may have been “sleeping with the aliens.”

Milla Jovovich in THE FOURTH KIND
Milla Jovovich in THE FOURTH KIND

THE FOURTH KIND (2009). Written and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi. Cast: Milla Jovovich, Will Patton, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Corey Johnson, Enzo Cilenti, Elias Koteas, Eric Loren, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Raphael Coleman, Daphne Alexander, Alisha Seaton.

This review originally appeared in Theofantastique. Reposted by permission of the author.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Walt Disney Pictures’ THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG offers solid support of at last two maxims:

  1. Never say never
  2. Disney’s still got it when it comes to traditionally animated 2D movies.

Not since 2004 has the studio produced a hand-drawn animated film: HOME ON THE RANGE, which Disney studio brass claimed would be the last traditionally animated film from their hallowed halls. Disney sited a declining interest in such animation and pointed to the disappointing box-office returns for RANGE as evidence. Apparently it didn’t strike them – at least publicly – that one of the major factors in its lackluster performance (it pulled in $50-million domestically while its budget came in at $110,000,000) was its flat plot and uninspired animation.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, on the other hand, does not lack care or inspiration. The work put into it shows – and does so quite appealingly. Its combination of soft, pastel colors and more primary tones are pleasing to the eye, as are the renderings of the draping landscapes surrounding New Orleans and the swamp lands that skirt it. And the filmmakers managed this on a budget of $5,000,000 less than RANGE – five years later down the road, no less.
All of the characters, too, are drawn with the same care and just the right amount of flair. Tiana is (as most know by now) Disney’s first black animated princess, and she is handled with as much love and attention to detail as any in the Disney portfolio. Anika Noni Rose voices her with fitting sums of strength and femininity. Bruno Campos (Prince Naveen), Keith David (the evil voodoo practitioner, Dr. Facilier), Michael-Leon Wooley (Louis, the trumpet playing, jazz loving alligator), and Jim Cummings (Ray, the scruffy but ever-romantic firefly) all bring fun and a good deal of personal style to their vocal performances.
Something else that impresses is the THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG’s approach to the character of Charlotte (voiced lively by Jennifer Cody). She could have been relegated to the simple dimension of a spoiled, jealous girl. Instead, although she is certainly spoiled, she does remain a steadfast friend and shows no embitterment in connection with Tiana’s eventual outcome, even though it’s what she wished for herself. In fact, she even wants to help. It was nice to see a true kind soul within this goofy, self-centered lass.
And this may seem an odd little notice to some, but another nicely handled aspect was the sound editing (supervised by Odin Benitez) and sound mixing (steered by David E. Fluhr, Gabriel Guy, and Dean A. Zupancic). It is subtle where called for, yet otherwise affecting at the appropriate points. It never makes an improper leap into simple or silly cartoon noise.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG also refuses to fall back on the I-just-wanna-hold-on-‘til-my-prince-charming-comes-along line of thinking. Tiana’s father works his fingers to the bone to support his family and build on a dream, and Tiana has his same attitude and work ethic. She holds down two jobs, saves every penny possible, and foregoes many of the little pleasures in life so that she can move forward toward her and her now-deceased father’s dream of owning and operating a restaurant-night club. This sends a good message to dreamy youngsters.
Things do awry, however, when a frog – who was transformed by the sinister Dr. Facilier – thinks Tiana is a princess after seeing her dressed in a tiara and an elegant gown at a costume ball. He talks her into kissing him so that he can be turned back into his princely self, but because she’s not really a princess the kiss backfires, and poor Tiana is transformed into a frog as well.
The rest of the time is spent with the two frogs trying to make their way to the good voodoo priestess Mama Odie in the hope that she can reverse Dr. Facilier’s evil spell. They meet several colorful characters along the way, including the aforementioned Louis the alligator and Ray the firefly. Incidentally, Ray and his firefly friends add a nice touch by creatively lighting up portions of the Louisiana bayou as our friends press on in their adventure.
As in all Disney fairytales, love strikes our two little frogs, so the ride’s end is a traditional one. Some “modernists” may complain about this aspect, but to them I say quit your whining. Almost all classic tales involve love on one level or another. “No man is an island,” as they say, and it’s a potent human need to seek out companionship and, yes, love. It rarely matters what one’s aspirations are in life; a desire for love always comes into play somewhere along the line. It’s a basic element in life and art, so I have no issue with it here.
No, my issue in this regard is the motivation for Tiana’s falling into love with the frog prince. He’s an amusing fellow, but the reasons for her eventual feelings for him seem relatively unmotivated. If THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG has an obvious weakness it is within the story itself and in some of its supporting characters, as in the case of the slightly underdeveloped, and thus underwhelming, Mama Odie (though still voiced affectively by Jenifer Lewis). While these flaws are certainly not glaring or destructive, the tale doesn’t quite hold up to the likes of relatively recent Disney classics such as THE LITTLE MERMAID (which kicked off the studio’s second “golden age”), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, or ALADDIN. However, it mounts a stronger rally for the position of Disney classic than POCAHONTAS, HERCULES, or TARZAN.
Though not rising fuly to the level of a Disney classic, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG was obviously inspired by the style of some of them (particularly BAMBI and LADY AND THE TRAMP), and it is a fun story. After all, it does take its cues from the famous inspirations of E. D. Baker’s novel The Frog Princess and the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale “The Frog Prince.” (By the way, Baker took his cue from the Grimm brothers too.) Ron Clements and John Musker (who previously collaborated on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN, and HERCULES) certainly wanted to do justice to these famous stories, yet fell a bit shy of greatness. But that’s okay; it’s still a nice cut above the average fare.
The same can be said for Randy Newman’s scoring and song arrangements. He’s handled at least five Pixar films and has never failed to delight. His efforts here may not quite rise to the level of some of his best memorable work, but it’s easily more than serviceable, thoughtfully mixing things up with ragtime, big band, gospel, zydeco, and jazz. He employs some wonderful horn work at the beginning, letting one know he’s going to have some fun with this movie and that audiences can too.
Inescapably, there will be those who see fit to attack THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG for its perceived black stereotyping in relation to New Orleans and its cultural history, including an interest in voodoo. However, to run from certain aspects of cultural heritage is to live in a kind of wishful denial. To show disdain for employing familiar beliefs and traidtions in a piece of popular art is to show, to some degree, a type of disdain for those beliefs and that culture as well. Isn’t it the varied beliefs and traditions within humanity that create its unique intrigue and lend themselves to exploration and expression through avenues such as art, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology?
In any case, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG makes no attempt to cast a negative light on anything, save for the evil of greedy selfishness. An open mind will see that steps were taken to implement Disney story traditions that date all the way back to its – and the – very first full-length animated film, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. And, of course, the specific story technique in question dates far back beyond that.
A few have also criticized THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG’s style of animation, but I believe that by and large these people are bringing their own cynical baggage to the picture (and perhaps they thrive on their role as “critic,” rather than reviewer). If you’re a true animation fan, you should find plenty to enjoy and even admire. And I, for one, send kudos to John Lasseter and supporters for reviving Disney’s traditional 2D, hand-drawn technique. Far from being a “step back in technology,” as I’ve heard at least one chap say, this form of animation is its own solid art form, and I’m happy to see that its death knell has been overstated by many these last several years. Disney, ya may not have done big classic great, but ya done good.

Friendly fireflies add mood lighting to Louisiana bayou as our reluctant frogs fall in love.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (Buena Vista, 2009; 95 min.) Directed by Ron Clements. Screenplay by Ron Clements, John Musker, and Rob Edwards. Based on the works of E. D. Baker and the Grimm Brothers. Produced by Peter Del Vecho. Associate Produced by Paul D. Lanum and Craig Sost. Executive Produced by John Lasseter. Technical Direction by Eric Daniels. Production Design by James Aaron Finch. Art Direction by Ian Gooding. Visual Effects Animation Supervision by Marlon West. Music by Randy Newman. Edited By Jeff Draheim. Casting by Jen Rudin. Cast: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, Jenifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, Elizabeth M. Dampier, Breanna Brooks, Ritchie Montgomery, Don Hall, Paul Briggs, Jerry Kernion, Corey Burton, Michael Colyar, Emeril Lagasse, Kevin Michael Richardson, Randy Newman, Terence Blanchard, and Danielle Moné Truitt. MPAA Rating: G.

Sense of Wonder: 2009's Biggest Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Blockbusters


The genre delivered big bang at the box office, blowing most of the competition off the screen.

It’s the end of the year. Time to look back and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the last twelve months worth cinefantastique. Before getting into the artistic side of the equation (a thornier problem that requires some actual analysis on my part), let’s look at something more quantifiable: box office results. Judged purely on this basis, 2009 was another banner year for horror, fantasy, and science fiction, with those genres taking not only the win, place and show positions, but also filling eight of the Top Ten slots. Equally impressive, 19 horror, fantasy and science fiction titles surpassed the $100-million blockbuster mark (20 if you include ANGELS & DEMONS, which had a sci-fi MacGuffin fueling its plot).
One could try to dismiss the genre’s performance by noting that box office results were up across the board, topping $10-billion for the first time – apparently in response to the recession (despite rising ticket prices, a trip to the movies is still just about the cheapest night out). However, a close examination of the numbers suggests not that cinefantastique  benefited from a rising tide that lifted all boats; rather, genre films were buoys that raised the box office to new heights.
What conclusions can we draw from this? The most obvious lesson is a familiar one, from past experience: audiences enjoy escapism in times of stress, and what better way to escape than into alien worlds, future times, fantasy lands, or even dark and sinister realms of horror? (In the latter case, the escapism works a little differently; it’s nice to emerge from the theatre thinking real life doesn’t look nearly so bad as what was up on screen.)
Previous explosions of horror, fantasy, and science fiction have often been timed to unfortunate eras of history: the silent horrors of Lon Chaney after World War I; the first wave of sound horror during the Great Depression; the 1950’s science fiction films, filled with alien invaders and mutant monsters, during the Cold War, and on and on.
2009 continues in that tradition, as the world tries to dig itself out of a global recession and deal with the continuing threat of terrorism. The anomaly in this case is that the year saw a new President sworn into the White House, who was elected on a campaign of change, promising optimism for the future. Yet films conceived and created during the previous administration still resonated with audiences, indicating that the national mindset is still troubled and looking for escape from a lingering unpleasant reality. It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues in 2010.
Looking closer at the box office results, we can see a few trends, indicating what sort of escapism audiences preferred in 2009. The most obvious lesson – hardly surprising – is that films designed to appeal to a broad audience did well, while those targeted to a specific niche were less successful. You would be hard-pressed to strictly define any of the big winners with such limiting terms as “children’s film” or even, in most cases, “family film.”
Instead, the blockbusters tended to be PG-13 films with something for everyone. Live-action efforts like TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, STAR TREK, and AVATAR were filled with action that would attract teens and young adults, and they also include at least hints of sex appeal; however, they avoided going too far into territory that the majority would deem offensive or risque, and they usually retained a certain good nature that prevented most parents from fearing harmful effects for their children. Meanwhile, the top animated films were conscientiously family-friendly, yet they made sure to include spectacular action visuals (MONSTERS VS. ALIENS), humor (ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS) or deeper emotional resonance (UP) that would appeal to adult viewers, whether or not they were obligated to bring their kids to the movies. Although it did not do quite as well as the others, Henry Selick’s film version of CORALINE showed that even sinister stop-motion efforts could attract an audience, pushing the boundaries of what is considered a “children’s film.”
We also saw, as expected, that pre-sold audiences will patronize their favorite franchise, regardless of the quality of the films. STAR TREK deserved its multi-million dollar ticket sales, but TRANSFORMERS 2, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE,THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON and X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE proved that servicing expectations is the surest was to success; actually making a good movie is of secondary importance, if any. 
The good news is that original films can succeed just as well as familiar product. James Cameron’s AVATAR, for all its flaws, is already at #7 for the year, and it will no doubt continue to earn millions well into 2010. Likewise, Pixar’s UP seemed almost deliberately designed to flout commercial conventions (a grumpy old guy flying in house lifted by balloons – who wants to see that?), and yet it became the third biggest hit of the year.
Along these lines, 2009 also saw a pair of cinefantastique sleepers: DISTRICT 9 and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Both of these looked like interesting little movies that would reach at most a specialized audience in theatres before heading off to video and hoping to be discovered by wider audience there. Instead, each became a certified blockbuster, proving that movies without stars of pre-sold storylines can defy the odds, thanks to interesting storylines and clever filmmaking techniques.
The success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY also gave fans of genuine, quality horror – as opposed to mindless torture porn – reason to rejoice. The biggest horror hit of the year, its straight-faced, serious, suggestive approach easily surpassed the cruder shock techniques and campy antics of the year’s other horror films. The next biggest horror film for the year was ZOMBIELAND, which tempered its carnage with humor.
After that, it was several steps down to the likes of THE FINAL DESTINATION, FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE UNBORN, and DRAG ME TO HELL – all of which embraced the idea that the “horror movie” tag offered some kind of dispensation, relieving the filmmakers from concerns for credibility and good drama, as long as they supplied the scares. Perhaps the most encouraging news is that Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II topped out at less than $34-million, and the latest SAW sequel (number 6) fell short of $30-million. Though not as big a hit as PARNORMAL ACTIVITY, the spooky HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT easily outdistanced both of these sequels. Hopefully, Hollywood will heed the lesson.
So, then, let’s peruse the best box office results for horror, fantasy, and science fiction films in 2009. But be warned: as Cinefantastique’s late founder Frederick S. Clarke was wont to point out, artistic achievements and box office success seldom go hand-in-hand. The tremendous profits earned by genre titles this year ensure that the genres will continue to be well represented at cinemas for the foreseeable future, but that does not necessarily translate into challenging, ambitious cinefantastique that explores the full potential of what cinema has to offer.
3. UP – $293.0-million
4. THE TWLIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON – $281.9-million
6. STAR TREK – $257.7-million
7. AVATAR (still in release) – $250.4-million
8. MONSTERS VS. ALIENS – $198.4-million
9. ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS – $196.6-million
11. X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE – $179.9-million
14. 2012 – $161.5-million
16. G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA – $150.2-million
19. A CHRISTMAS CAROL (still in release) $136.2-million
20. ANGELS & DEMONS – $133.4-million
21. TERMINATOR SALVATION – $125.3-million
24. G-FORCE – $119.4-million
25. DISTRICT 9 – $115.6-million
27. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY – $107.8-million
28. WATCHMEN – $107.5-million
29. ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL (still in release) $100.2-million
35. SHERLOCK HOLMES (still in release) – $83-million
36. KNOWING – $79.9-million
38. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE – $75.8-million
39. ZOMBIELAND – $75. 6-million
40 CORALINE – $75.2-milion
45. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (still in release) – $70.1-million
47. RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN – $67.2-million
48. THE FINAL DESTINATION – $66.5-million
50. FRIDAY THE 13TH – $65.0-million
51. 17 AGAIN – $ 64.2-million
52. THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE – $63.4-million
56. GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST – $55.3-million
59. MY BLOODY VALENTINE3D – $51.5-million
60. LAND OF THE LOST – $49.4-million
63. UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS – $45.8-million
65. YEAR ONE – $43.3-million
66. THE UNBORN – $42.7-million
68. DRAG ME TO HELL -$42.1-million
69. ORPHAN – $41.6-million
71. PLANET 51 – $39.2-million
72. SURROGATES – $38.6-million
78. HALLOWEEN II – $33.4-million
80. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT – $32.8-million
85. 9 – $31.7-million
87. TOY STORY/TOY STORY 3 (3D) – $30.7-million
89. THE STEPFATHER – $29.1-million
92. SAW VI – $27.7-million
96. THE FOURTH KIND – $25.4-million
97. ALIENS IN THE ATTIC – $25.2-million
104. GAMER – $20.9-million
105. ASTRO BOY – $19.3-million
108. THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX – $18.5-million
113. JENNIFER’S BODY – $16.2-million
114. IMAGINE THAT – $16.1-million
120. PONYO – $15.1-million
131. SORORITY ROW – $11.9-million
134. PANDORUM – $10.3-million
139. DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION – $9.4-million
150. THE ROAD – $6.1-million