Review: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009)

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is based on a popular series of young adult books that I haven't read. It's a bit bland and doesn't have much in the way of a really freaky, weird or dangerous atmosphere, but it's entertaining enough, sort of a bland temporary fix or appetizer for the upcoming bland feast of the second Twilight movie, New Moon, arriving next month.

The movie begins with two sixteen-year-old best friends in high school, Darren (Chris Massoglia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson, Bridge to Terabithia, Journey to the Center of the Earth). Darren is pretty popular (he tells us) and gets very good grades, while Steve's a bit more trouble, disliking his boring life and mixing Darren up in a class-skipping, rock-throwing incident early on, earning Darren a lecture, grounding and orders not to see Steve again from his parents.

Does he listen? Of course not. When he and Steve see a cool tricked-out purple hearse/Porsche driving around outside their high school, which drops an advertisement for "the world's oldest continuing freak show," they determine to sneak out and attend.

Did I mention that Darren loves spiders, while Steve's obsessed with vampires? That's important. The freak show includes a vampire, Crepsley (John C. Reilly), doing an act with his huge magical red-and-blue spider, along with some other acts. This part could have been a lot more freaky, but the film never quite embraces its freakishness in a totally satisfying way.

But it impresses Darren enough to get him to sneak back to the vampire's dressing room to steal the spider, and Steve enough, you guessed it, to sneak back to the vampire's dressing room to make a desperate plea for Crepsley to rescue him from his boring life and make him a vampire.

Without getting into any plot spoilers, the spider and the vampire both create further complications for the boys. The Cirque turns out to be sort of a clearinghouse for freaks, of course, as well as for supernatural beings who agree to live by its rules. This doesn't mean they have to get along, there may even be a war brewing with forces inside and outside of the tent. And Darren and Steve seem to be important pawns in a prophecy which both sides are interested in seeing play out.

Norm Macdonald, formerly of SNL's "Weekend Update," famously reviewed the movie version of Interview with the Vampire in three words: "Not gay enough," which is funny, but also revealing. There's just something gay about vampires who want to spend a lot of time with other vampires of the same sex, it can't be avoided, even if somebody's trying to avoid those implications for some young adult vampire movies like this one, or Twilight.

But it comes through anyway. The Vampire's Assistant mostly tries to avoid directly addressing any sexual issues, though there's a bit of a love story between Darren and a girl who works for the Cirque. But there are still some metaphorical analogies concerning the relationships among Darren and Steve, Crepsley and Mr. Tiny, a creepy master of a werewolf, Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson) and a small army of shrunken-head zombies, who's doing his best to foment a war between the more sedate vampires and the deadly "Vampanese."

If you like young adult vampire movies, there's not much to dislike here, and Chris Mossoglia has a certain vampiric presence in addition to a pretty likable screen presence. John C. Reilly adds some heft and humor without being too ridiculous, and the story's set up for perhaps more good things to come in future films. I was interested enough to see what might happen next.

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Review: Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Where the Wild Things Are is particularly all about mothers and sons (and okay, fathers too, marginally), children becoming adults, the tension between being too young to be powerful and responsible, and the necessity of learning how to be both.

It's extremely faithful in look and tone to Maurice Sendak's picture-book of the same name, though not quite as elementally weird and perfect. But it takes an essentially unfilmable story and creates a worthwhile film story which charms and amazes visually, while hitting emotional spots not contemplated in the original except perhaps by implication.

Max (Max Records) is a nine-year-old kid who's a bit of a loner, a fan of stuffed animals and costumes, wild stories and attention from his family. This is painted archetypically, so that the audience can identify with him as Everykid who's ever been nine, particularly from 1963 to the present. As his world comes into focus, complications ensue.

In fact, the opening event which begins to show and ratchet up the tensions in his life was as scary to me as Bambi's mother dying. I won't spoil it, though it happens pretty much right away, but it jeopardizes Max's safety in such an immediate, claustrophobic, complete and ultimately nonchalant way typical of childhood, that it sort of took my breath away, let me know right up front that director Spike Jonze is not fooling around, there's real wildness and danger in this tale. It's not Lord of the Flies, however, despite the island setting and childish nature of Max and the beasts he visits in his imagination, though there is a constant feeling of risk and potential disaster. It's gentler than that, kind of.

Max sails to the island where the wild things are after a confrontation with his mother (Catherine Keener) over the lack of attention he's been feeling all day hanging around the house, playing in the snow and trying to spend time with his sister, who's mostly on her way out. Overwhelmed by his own need for attention and the way that desire has hurt his feelings, despite his efforts to ignore it or engage it, Max runs out of the house and into the night in his wolf costume, and suddenly finds himself in a boat at sea.

Fighting his way to the shore, he encounters a scene of destruction, with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the most dangerous and unpredictable of the beasts, razing the beasts' village because he's lonely for his friend K.W. (voice of Lauren Ambrose), who's perhaps a bit crazy and spending a fortnight talking to owls. Quickly figuring out he needs Carol on his side in his strange new circumstances, Max convinces the beasts that he is a king, and so cannot be eaten by them. Carol is so moved by his tales that he decides Max should be the new king of the beasts, as well.

The beasts are an amazing creation of Jim Henson's creature shop, as well as digital tweaking of their facial expressions as they interact with Max and each other. They are built to be realistic, in that they lumber and move under the same kind of gravity as the human characters, while being two or three times larger and stronger and able to perform acrobatic feats. It's a great tribute to say that the film is not about its effects at all, while at the same time being consumed with and all about its effects. They work to create their characters, exactly.

There are a few reservations. There are some times when the action slows and one is brought to mind of some wacky, eccentric idea of therapy that smacks a bit of the worst ideas of the sixties and seventies. The beasts, of course, while being believable characters, are also characters in Max's own imaginative story, so that they represent aspects of his own personality, or people in his real life in certain ways. They have to rehearse some situations Max is concerned about to show him what he thinks. So when the dialogue gets too pointed a few times, the audience is left to wonder if this is all scream therapy, an acid trip or a bad Ionesco play. Thankfully, while it threatens at points, it never quite slips away irretrievably in such a direction.

All in all, Where the Wild Things Are is more than worth seeing for fans of the book young and old, or even, should such people exist, non-fans unfamiliar with the classic tale. It does get slow in a few places, and one wishes for a bit more fierceness, drums and music from the beasts themselves, but that is not to say that anything is really missing emotionally.

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Review: Paranormal Activity (2009)

For an obvious rip-off of The Blair Witch Project or various TV shows which use the same kind of atmospheric approach to documenting paranormal activities (notably A&E's "Paranormal State" or "Psychic Kids"), Oren Peli's new film Paranormal Activity is sort of a gem, quite effective and enjoyable.

Like Blair Witch, the film purports to be "actual footage" of real events. Like Cloverfield or Quarantine, however, some visual effects are used quite sparingly to pay off the supernatural story, and, as in the latter two films, this is effective.

The two main characters, who share their names with the actors, are Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, a young couple who live in a suburban house in San Diego, and who set up a video camera to document a haunting or possession Katie has been experiencing since she was eight years old.

The chief pleasure of the film is watching the two characters interact as events progress, and the haunting gets more and more serious. We watch their playful, tense, and then more seriously weird interplay, alternating with nighttime shots of their bedroom, with both asleep or awakened by different occurrences, the left side of the screen dominated by an increasingly interesting view of their open bedroom door and the hallway beyond.

It doesn't sound like much to work with, so it's a tribute to Peli's keen sense of suspense and economical use of effects that it turns out to be plenty enough to work with to terrify the audience.

The film does threaten to get boring--and that's when it stops being boring. I mean, literally the second my rear end started to hurt and I wondered if it was going to be worth the wait, the suspense built up so far started to pay off well and interestingly.

It also stretches believability a bit that the characters react certain ways and get certain responses, when other ways for it to work out seem to make more sense, but this is not a big complaint. The actors make the characters believable with a sort of relentless ordinariness and charm.

There are also questions raised about the nature of the events which are never quite resolved, but in the end, it doesn't matter or take away from a tense if subdued thriller. The "actual footage" is allowed to speak for itself, and it provides most of what's needed.

Paranormal Activity isn't groundbreaking, but it's well done, convincing and respectful of the audience and its own rules. See it for the tense atmosphere and the strong performances by Featherston and Sloat.

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Review: Zombieland (2009)

I've now seen every Jesse Eisenberg movie this year, from Adventureland to Zombieland, so I'm qualified to say that, while he's appealing and has a flair for certain comic moves, he also lacks charisma in a way that's detrimental to his ability to play lead roles. He doesn't ruin either film, in fact, he's pretty good, there's just something missing. If it costs more to get Michael Cera for a part, I'd say that would generally be a good investment (or Anton Yelchin or Johnny Simmons [Jennifer's Body] or Patrick Fugit).

Speaking of Patrick Fugit, Zombieland reminded me in a way of a sweet, similar film called Wristcutters: A Love Story, in which he has to navigate a similar post-Apocalyptic landscape. That movie was deep and funny in a similar way to Zombieland, but deeper and funnier. But on the whole, Zombieland is a gentle and genial zombie flick with plenty of entertaining elements, mostly humorous rather than horrible, although the zombie effects are at times quite horrible (and that's a compliment).

Eisenberg plays a character known only as Columbus, after his hometown and his destination in the film. Columbus follows certain rules for surviving Zombieland, and it's fun to watch these play out, although the particular devices used for doing so seem to set up some things which don't quite ever pay off. The audience is led to believe that some throwaway gags are going to build up to something which they never build up to.

Columbus is headed home to see if any of his family have survived the coming of the zombie virus when he meets up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a snakeskin-clad tough guy in search of the world's last remaining Twinkies. There's a little bit of a "bromance" going on between them as they learn to appreciate each other's strengths and weaknesses fighting zombies along the way.

Then they meet up with two sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigal Breslin, excellent), whose schemes lead them off course to Beverly Hills and a denouement set in an Adventureland-reminiscent amusement park.

Ah, but along the way, they decide to tour some movie-star homes, which leads to one of the best celebrity cameos I've seen. It was a surprise to me, despite having seen some previews of the film, so I won't ruin it by saying more about it, though who it is could easily be discovered. Suffice it to say that it works in spades, and there's an extra bit of it after the credits roll, so stick around for that.

Like I've said, the film is a genial enough horror comedy, perhaps a bit too indebted to the funnier Shaun of the Dead, but with some heart and point of view of its own.

The main cast are all pretty good, and especially Abigail Breslin as Little Rock, whose performance here makes one wish for a Western for her, perhaps even as Annie Oakley.

Like the recent, though superior Jennifer's Body, Zombieland works as a send-up of horror films, as well as a coming-of-age satire. But it's the priceless cameo that puts it over the top from three to three and a half stars.

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Review: Jennifer's Body (2009)

Jennifer's Body is a pretty delightful snarky high-school horror movie from the writer of Juno, the Oscar-winning Diablo Cody. The good news is, this is a much better script. I know I might be opening myself up to potshots from Juno fans, and it's not a terrible movie, but what's terrible about it is that the dialogue is much too perfect, in the now-familiar Diablo Cody way, with some mixed good and bad wordplay often getting in the way of the characters and story.

Jennifer's Body corrects this weakness well. It's not a heartwarming story like Juno, so it has a bit more room for error, but it doesn't abuse this. Instead, the dialogue feels much more natural and authentic for high-schoolers (even with the fantasy elements), and doesn't distract at all.

The film tells the story of two best friends, Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried) and Jennifer Check (Megan Fox), whose outing to see an indie band perform at the local hangout turns into a firestorm, with Jennifer hijacked by the band while in shock from the inferno which ensues, with strange consequences for their relationship, and Jennifer's body.

It's no spoiler to say that Jennifer is transformed into a vampire/wraith/ghoul/succubus who becomes a threat to the male population of their town, Devil's Kettle (so named because a local landmark waterfall ends in a whirlpool which swallows things). This is a neat metaphor for Jennifer's appeal to boys in general, and it plays out and pays off metaphorically as well.

At first, Needy does not know what to think of the metaphysical goings-on with Jennifer after that night, but she soon figures out that Jennifer has turned totally evil, despite her continuing appeal and knowledge of their past as best friends. Once she's sure Jennifer's become possessed, she resolves to fight, but by that time she's a bit too late to make a real difference.

There's a Tim Burton/Sam Raimi feel to the film, in a good way, with supernatural elements blending with the high school setting in a satisfying way. Some of the EC Comics feel of Raimi's recent Drag Me to Hell is present, but Jennifer's Body is much more well-integrated overall. Some of the effects are a bit cheesy, but not as cheesy as the cheesiest ones in Drag Me to Hell.

There's a pretty strong soundtrack, too, and an especially wonderful indie song by Ryan Levine which plays throughout the film, changing its meaning several times as the story develops, and quite effectively, I thought.

And despite the Transformers movies, it seems Megan Fox can really act. Granted, she's still playing the impossibly hot chick, for which she's uniquely qualified, but she does a great job hitting all the right emotions as she goes from gorgeous cheerleader to ravening monster. Amanda Seyfried is excellent as well, as the main character and the heart of the film, and Johnny Simmons as her boyfriend Chip is very good, too. There are amusing supporting turns for J.K. Simmons (apparently no relation to Johnny) as a teacher, Adam Brody ("The O.C.") as the band leader and Amy Sedaris as Needy's mother.

I found Jennifer's Body to be imaginative, clever, never over-clever, entertaining and lots of fun. It might pull a few punches, but it makes up for it by not pulling most of the important ones. And it's cool to see Diablo Cody hit one out of the park.

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Pence (again) leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for September

Rep. Mike Pence (IN) led September voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee for the second month in a row. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

September 2009

#1 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 28.4%
#2 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 15.7%
#3 - Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) ... 11.8%
#4 - Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 10.8%
#5 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 8.8%
#6 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 5.9%
#7 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 4.9%
#8 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 4.9%
#9 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 2.9%
#10 - Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) ... 2%
#10 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 2%
#11 - Sen. Sam Brownback (KS) ... 1%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... 1%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 1%
#12 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 0%
#12 - Other ... 0%

102 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

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