Monthly Archives: September 2009

Couples Retreat (2009)

Vince Vaughn is a likable scamp. He’s generally played the same quick-witted, charming, motor-mouth lout in every movie since 2005’s smash, Wedding Crashers. He’s been working fairly nonstop since then and has, by all accounts, become something of a box office draw, which seems bizarre if you think about it long enough. So the best thing I can say about Vaughn’s new comedy Couples Retreat is, hey, at least he’s making sure his pals can pay the bills.

I think it was that famed poet Pat Benatar who said love is a battlefield. She never went through marriage counseling (note: maybe she did, I don’t care to actually research this). The movie centers around four dysfunctional couples that take a vocational to a tropical island resort. Dave (Vaughn) has trouble prioritizing his wife, Ronnie (Malin Akerman). Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) have been together ever since she got pregnant in high school. They’re at each other’s throats and secretly looking to cheat on each other. Jason (Jason Bateman) and his way younger wife, Cynthia (Kristen Bell), are unable to conceive a baby. They’re very organized about their life and cannot handle life’s deviations. Finally, Shane (Faizon Love) has been dumped by his wife and is taking the loss hard. He’s found comfort in a flighty twenty-year-old girl (Kali Hawk) that he can barely keep up with. The vacation is interrupted when the couples learn that they must participate in the resort’s relationship therapy sessions or leave. The couples must stick it out to in order to save failing relationships and ride those nifty Jet skis.

Couples Retreat sure doesn’t feel like any vacation for the audience. Directed by Peter “Ralphie” Billingsley (longtime friend and producing partner for Vaughn and Favreau), the pacing is leaden and the movie feels like its coasting without any momentum. Structurally, the plot is not your series of escalating events but more a relentless parade of tiny plot speed bumps, seemingly indistinguishable from the last. Many scenes just bump right into each other with little transition. Billingsley does not show that he comprehends the rhythms of comedy. Even at a mere 107 minutes, this movie felt twice as long to me. Like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, it just takes way too damn long for these people to get to the freaking island. I don’t need a half hour of setup for stock characters. Many scenes will go on too long and then just sort of come to an abrupt end, like Vaughn and his friends were saying, “Well, we’ve taken this as far as we can go. The scenes don’t end in climaxes or revelations or punch lines, they just end. So after a while I felt like Couples Retreat was one long draggy middle of a mediocre movie stretched out interminably. It’s the equivalent of an eternity of waiting in a doctor’s office.

The character work is haphazard at best. You would think with the premise involving introspection and communication that the screenplay might offer up some deeper characters. You would be mistaken. Each character is given one note/generalized conflict to work, and they stay exactly within that narrow field of play. The male-female dynamics are Joey and Lucy have been together since high school and now they each have wandering eyes. Of course this kind of waffling infidelity is played for such sophomoric yuk-yuks like Joey getting caught masturbating and Joey getting an erection during a massage. You see a trend there? Cynthia and Jason are too anal retentive about their lives and the fun has died out. Sounds like room for some comedy. Oh, and they are also having trouble conceiving, which is way too serious a topic for this kind of movie. It’s somewhat amusing to think of Vaughn as the most stable character in a family comedy; it’s sort of like when Christopher Walken was the voice of reason in 2004’s equally bad, Man on Fire. What is Vaughn’s problem exactly anyway? He’s a “video game seller” who spends too much time… selling video games? The particulars of his job are too nebulous; does he work at a large chain, does he work at a software production company, what does he do that he can’t bother helping out his wife for one afternoon? You could almost certainly eliminate Faizon Love’s character completely. He’s just in the movie to crank out obligatory “older guy with too young girl” jokes, and his resolution is so hackneyed and reliant upon ridiculous coincidence (surprise, his ex-wife has tracked him down to the resort!) that it hurts the brain.

The movie has the benefit of being made in one of the most gorgeous places on earth. I’m sure the cast and crew had a great time making this movie. Too bad it doesn’t translate well to the paying customers. I was surprised at how stodgy the overall film is. I expected it to look down on hedonism, and I appreciated the movie treating marriage as a serious commitment that constantly needs to be engaged, but what is up with how stuffy this message comes across? The people who aren’t in relationships are seen as little party animals looking for their next carefree fix. Sure marriage is going to look better to the masses when you make the alternative so irresponsible. However, prolonging unhappy, extremely dysfunctional couples who can no longer stand each other isn’t helping either. Can’t some dysfunctional couples just grow apart? Why must there be reprehensibly forced happy endings all around? Couples Retreat, after awhile, kind of feels like your grandmother lecturing you about your relationships.

There’s much potential for laughs with Couples Retreat, but you’ll do no better than scattered chuckles. This is definitely a case where all the good jokes were highlighted in the trailer. Couples Retreat squanders so much talent, mostly consisting of a boy’s club and giving the actresses little to do or play off of. Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid), Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and Davis (Sex and the City) are all very capable comedic actresses; Kali Hawk quickly becomes irritating with what she’s been given. The island therapists include the hilarious John Michael Higgins (The Ugly Truth) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover), who must be contractually obligated to appear in every movie this year. I would have thought that eccentric therapists plus the natural conflicts of couples counseling would have provided a wealth of funny material. It’s a shame then that the counseling scenes are kept short. It would be a better asset for this movie if it spent more time in therapy and less time doing goofy, trust building exercises by island guru Jean Reno. Seriously, swimming with sharks is supposed to help a deteriorating marriage how? There are comic setups that look like they’re going to lead to something juicy, and then they just fizzle, like a Guitar Hero battle that goes from silly to lame all too quick. A buff and tan yoga instructor (Carlos Ponce) gets a little too in touchy-feely with his female pupils. But then it stays at a distance, hammering home the same PG-13 safe sight gags. It’s like watching people dry hump for laughs. As I expected, the funniest parts are the naturally combative interplay between Vaughn and Favreau. Part of that may be because they’ve been friends for over a decade and part of that might be that both are credited as screenwriters, along with producer Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas).

Let’s look at how I’ve described Couples Retreat in this review. Waiting in a doctor?s office. Listening to your grandmother condemn your relationship. Doesn’t sound like much of a good time, does it? The comedy consists of mostly one-liners with a whole lot of dead space in between. The characters are so limited, the actors are shamefully wasted, and the comic set pieces are too meandering to be amusing. Somewhere there’s an edgier, R-rated version of this movie that got scrubbed clean to fit a PG-13 mandate. You see glimpses of the naughtier movie Couples Retreat might have been. This is a movie in need of some serious counseling of its own.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Imagine a world where people could only tell the truth. Sounds scarier than anything in horror movies today.

Mark (Gervais) is trying to romance Anna (Jennifer Garner) but even the waiter tells him she’s out of his league. She tells him upfront that she finds him unattractive and he will never have any hope of having sex with her. She’s more interested in Mark’s snide but handsome co-worker, Brad (Rob Lowe), who she feels is a better genetic match. Mark is about to be fired from his job, writing historical screenplays about the 13th century, and his secretary (Tina Fey) delights in telling him that she loathed every minute they spent together. This is a world without a filter. Until one day Mark goes to take out money from the bank, and something inside his brain switches. His balance is $300 but he asks for $800, and the bank teller apologizes for the computer error and gets Mark his full $800. He explains to his barfly friend Greg (Louis C.K.) that he said something that wasn’t. Nobody understands. “I’m a black Eskimo,” Mark says. Everybody takes him at his word. Mark is the only human on earth who has the ability to tell a lie, which he uses to his great advantage whether it be gambling, getting out of a traffic ticket, or unearthing a “lost” historical chapter about ninjas and aliens that makes for a stirring “non-fiction” film. Mark can’t even explain what he’s done, since the world lacks even a word for “lie.”

Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson concoct some interesting and inspired ideas of what a world bereft of lying would be like. Naturally, advertising would be completely different if people had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; imagine prescription drug ads that only said, “This is a placebo. Your penis won’t ever grow bigger.” The slogan for Coca-Cola is, “It’s very famous,” and the slogan featured for its rival, Pepsi, is, “When you can’t have Coke.” No one has any concept of fiction, of people pretending to play parts, so movies only consist of an older man sitting comfortably and reading a historical account with some minor dramatic inflection. Movies have become book reports. The sign in front of a retirement center says, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People,” and a motel sign reads, “A Cheap Place to Have Intercourse with a Near Stranger.” However, I’m puzzled by how forcefully open every person is. Just because you can only speak the truth doesn’t mean you have to be talking constantly. I understand Gervais’ point about the need for lies to protect people’s feelings, but just because you think someone looks fat doesn’t mean you have to blurt it out. When Mark greets Anna at the door for their date she reveals, “You’re early. I was just masturbating.” It’s funny, sure, but did she feel compelled to link the two statements? It seems in this world, everyone is incapable of keeping their mouths shut.

The premise of the movie is terrific, and I’m honestly shocked no one has thought of it before. But the premise wears a little thin after the first 30 minutes of people speaking with no filter. You begin to expect outrageous comments that will be hurtful and blunt, and because you expect them it takes away the shock value and lessens the humor. But then The Invention of Lying takes a sharp right turn at about minute forty and becomes a radical and subversive and much funnier movie. Mark is comforting his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) who is afraid of leaving existence. She’s afraid of a cold nothingness. So Mark explains to her that there is an afterlife, a world beyond our own, where everybody gets to be around their loved ones in a mansion, and there’s no pain. She closes her eyes and dies in peace with this new knowledge. The doctors and nurses are amazed and beg to know more. Mark has created the idea of religion and God! He’s mobbed by people and camera crews demanding him to explain what he knows. Mark then works up the courage to establish a system of 10 rules to follow, which he tapes onto old pizza boxes. He then addresses his flock and has to explain the complicated minutia of religion, with hilarious questioning from the acolytes. Mark explains that there is a “man in the sky” who watches everything we do and is responsible for everything that happens. “Does that mean the Man in the Sky gave my sister cancer?” someone asks. Mark tries to explain the nature of a loving, all-powerful deity who willingly allows bad things to still happen. “Screw the Man in the Sky,” someone yells, “He’s going to kill us all. We need to fight back!” You try explaining the nature of the unknown to people.

It’s at this point that the movie transforms into a biting satire on belief and belief. I was cackling but I noticed that my theater seemed to get awfully quiet the longer the religious satire went on. I almost spat out my drink when I saw a spinning newspaper headline that said, “Man in the Sky Continues to Give Children AIDS.” It’s offensive but completely within the bounds of religious questioning. Gervais and Robinson aren’t ridiculing religious belief; in fact they seem to prove that it has a definite place of significance within society and can be beneficial psychologically. The satire isn’t savage and still manages to play with the amiable, fable-like nature of the story. Gervais isn’t laying out an argument that believing in an unforeseen deity is stupid. The movie isn’t condescending or hectoring, like Bill Maher’s anti-religion documentary Religulous, but it does take some slyly subversive swipes at the nature of faith and its reliance upon the unproven.

The Invention of Lying suffers from trying to be a romantic comedy. Too much of its conflict is spent on whether the chubby guy can get the pretty girl. The movie gets a tad sentimental for dealing in bitter-truths, and Gervais and Robinson steer the film to the ultimate romantic comedy setting: objecting at a wedding. I wouldn’t have minded the rom-com asides if they didn’t feel like they kept striking the same chord. Mark wants to be in a relationship with Anna. She points out that he’s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. He persists. She points out that he?s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. This goes on and on until the inevitable break at the end. Mark, and especially Gervais, is an appealing guy, self-effacing and witty, even downright cute at turns, but when Anna keeps repeating the same looks-first mantra, it makes her seem increasingly shallow and him seem like a glutton for punishment. Garner is a fabulous comedic actress and packs a lot more emotion into her character than I would have expected given the conceit.

Ricky Gervais is catching fire as of late, and it seems that America is finally waking up to the charms and brilliance of this squat comedian. He created The Office, the standard for squirm-based comedy, and appeared in the underrated supernatural comedy Ghost Town last fall. Gervais shows the necessity of lies in our world, from sparing hurt feelings to making mass-market entertainment. The world needs dishonesty. When The Invention of Lying is on-target, it is a hilarious, almost brilliant, comedy, with its best gags saved for taking on “the Man in the Sky.” It’s too bad then that the entire movie doesn’t live up to these flashes of comedic brilliance. Still, the movie is sweet enough and ends on a satisfying level, even if The Invention of Lying begins as one movie and ends as another. Gervais is an appealing lead, though he doesn’t prove much in the way of a director, and he has some real dramatic acting chops too, nicely put to use during his mother’s deathbed scene. I hope more Americans wake up to this man’s charms. Gervais continues to show audiences the sharp wit that has made him one of the world’s foremost funnymen.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Unborn (2009)

Writer/director David S. Goyer’s horror movie wants to be all things to all people and thus comes across as both conventional and sloppy. The story is about some evil presence that predates religion (all religion?), but somehow this is tied together with Nazi experiments on twins and a spooky kid that pops out. Most of the scares are cheap and silly, often giving way to vivid hallucinations that break when another character enters the room. Really, what is Holocaust material doing in such a by-the-book spook flick? It’s like a Jewish version of The Omen. The story manages to be hokey and too convoluted at the same time. Gee, for a movie that has the word “born” in the title and features a character getting sick weeks after sex, I wonder what the awesome twist ending will be? The movie is tedious from start to finish, though technically competent aside from the acting. It is unfathomable to me that Gary Oldman is a supporting actor in this tripe. It seems like the real purpose of this movie was to engineer gratuitous shots of Odette Yustman (Cloverfield) in her teeny, tiny cotton panties. In fact, I think there’s one review that only talks about her rear and its appeal, which is naturally why it is prominently displayed in the movie poster. When the malevolent spirit is going by its in-utero nickname, “Jumby,” it loses some serious scare factor. See this as a companion piece to the Oscar-winning drama, The Reader. Then tell me which has the stranger message.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

This mordant family drama has an intriguing premise, sisters who start a business cleaning up after messy crime scenes, but the film suffers from a crippling passivity. It’s nicely acted all around, especially Emily Blunt as the more troubled, wild child sister. The dysfunctional characters are established with momentary glimpses to back-stories, mostly tragic, but the narrative just sort of nudges them along. Sunshine Cleaning is a little too removed and clinical for its own good. The working-class characters are rundown but that doesn’t mean the movie has to feel the same way. Subplots and characters will be abandoned or left with no resolution. Alan Arkin’s scheming grandfather character never seems related to the plot, and he feels like he was lifted from another movie with a wackier veneer. It also makes time for cute sentimental elements that don’t jibe with the film’s tone, like using a CB radio to talk to loved ones in heaven. Sunshine Cleaning is sweet and sincere drama with some dark humor mixed in and it comes across as affable entertainment. Still, this movie had much more promise, if only it was less reserved and afraid to get its hands dirty.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Observe & Report (2009)

During the middle of a mean prank, a police officer walks out of hiding and says, “I thought this would be funny but it?s really just sad.” That’s my feelings with Observe and Report, the second mall cop comedy of 2009. Writer/director Jody Hill specializes in pained, awkward, tasteless humor, but with this it’s like he made a comedy and forgot to put jokes in it. The ongoing joke is how crazy a bipolar mall security guard named Ronnie (Seth Rogen) is, but it’s hard to laugh when he just keeps coming across as scary. Hill’s movie has more in common with Taxi Driver than other comedies. We follow one dangerous man with delusions of grandeur who has violent tendencies. The humor can be daring, off-putting, and extremely risqué, like a date rape joke where Anna Farris wakes up in the middle of the act and encourages Ronnie to continue. What is the point of all the provocative envelope pushing, in the end? Is Hill trying to lock his movie into a ready-made cult status? I enjoyed Hill’s TV show Eastbound & Down starring Danny McBride (who makes a cameo here as a crack dealer). That show succeeds with a blustery, unhinged, delusional lead character because we know the character is a vulnerable loser lashing out because he realizes he is a loser, we can empathize and eventually root for the brute. Rogen, often a chubby teddy bear in comedies like Knocked Up and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, is lashing out because he won’t stay on his meds. He’s too dim to even realize his lowly place in the universe, so his bluster and rude behavior is ultimately just repellent because it provides no insight to his character. And yet, after having said all that, the movie is consistently interesting, if you want to call it that, and goes in unforeseen directions. This is a challenging movie and the biggest challenge is to try liking it. Good luck.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fame (2009)

Was there anyone out there clamoring for a remake of the 1980 movie Fame? If so, was there anyone clamoring for a remake that drains all life and intensity and passion from the original, leaving behind a squeaky-clean, shallow, and dumbed down version perfect for teenagers? As we churn through Freshman Year to Senior Year, we will follow scads of teens (played unconvincingly by actors in their 20s) that aren’t worth our time. The movie is overproduced and utterly simplistic. Fame is a genuine waste of most of the talent on screen.

Apologies to the Fame theme song, but I was hard-pressed to remember anybody’s name even minutes after the movie ended. Literally, I was walking back to my car and for the life of me could not remember a single character’s name. This is because the movie crams about a dozen characters and gives little to no time to them for development. We don’t get scenes, more like snippets of scenes, snapshots compressing four years of life, and yet Fame also fails in displaying any maturation during that time period. I understand that the actors have to act like they?re plainly “acting” at the start, but the script doesn’t focus much on the rigorous training these kids undergo. Somehow in between one of the many fadeouts, the students are just better. Cutting to the chase makes for fine drama, don’t you think? Screenwriter Allison Burnett (Feast of Love) foolishly thought the audience would be more interested in watching the characters in sub-par soap opera dynamics rather than long moments of training talent. Inside the classrooms are expert teachers played by the likes of Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth, Megan Mullally, and the stupendous Charles S. Dutton. We would all have been better served by spending more time at school.

The structure works out to this: small character snippet, then song and dance number, small character snippet, then song and dance number. Repeat. But the movie’s fatal flaw is that it has no showstopper. This is a movie about forging talent, and yet the song-and-dance numbers feel uninspired. They look competently choreographed but there’s little to dazzle because the sequences are few, treated indifferently, and edited within an inch of their lives. We are rarely afforded the luxury of enjoying the dancing. At least the Step Up movies knew that the audience didn’t come for the story. The high points for the film include a Halloween party with some impressive stutter-stop gyrations (does the school have a production design class to make all those fancy costumes and sets?) and an improvisational jam in the school cafeteria. One kid lays down a beat, others join in adding texture to the jam session. Though I suppose the aspiring actors are left with little to do. This moment isn’t necessarily fully believable but it effectively communicates the creative energies that should be coursing through a school dedicated to performing arts.

I don’t care about any of these characters, mainly because these people are one-line descriptions of characters. These are cardboard cut-outs of characters, and they do a disservice to cardboard. Jenny (Kay Panabaker, looking like Ellen Page?s little sister) is the mousy girl-next-door who needs to come out of her shell. On the opposite end, Malik (Collins Pennie) is an angry street kid who needs to tap into his life experiences for acting power (Burnett also has to make sure the “street kid” character has a deadbeat dad and a little sister who was killed in a drive-by shooting). One girl’s entire story is that she wants to be a dancer and wouldn’t mind annoying her stuffy WASP parents. She invites her new Hispanic wannabe DJ boyfriend (Walter Perez) out to dinner. Cut to thirty minutes later ad she’s breaking up with him to tour with a dance company. It’s supposed to be a moment of drama but I defy anyone to care. Why should I care about this relationship or these characters when the movie doesn’t bother to care?

The conflicts are usually contrived (oh no, the girl with the most talent in the rap group is told… she has the most talent), mostly involving grumpy, disapproving, fabulously wealthy parents. Denise (Naturi Naughton) is given both of these aforementioned conflicts. Her father demands she play piano, but she wants to sing, so how about she can play piano and sing? It hasn’t hurt Alicia Keys. In other instances, the conflict makes the characters annoyingly naïve, like when Jenny goes to the trailer of a sleazy soap actor to record an audition alone. When the characters do get a chance to speak their minds, well, you wish they would go back to dancing or singing. This also has to be the first time that Sesame Street is responsible for a student flunking out (an actor student gets a small-time gig on the long-running educational show and can’t keep her grades up at the same time).

Let’s face it, in the world of performing arts not everyone is on an even playing field of talent. The movie stumbles early during its montage of auditions, which provides some comic relief in watching the hopeless and untalented. Mostly, this audition process is a blur, but Fame loses serious credibility points when it reveals that some of the auditioning students who WERE the comic relief actually were accepted! How does that work? The movie wants me to make fun of a character for being bad and then the next minute the movie tells me that this applicant beat out thousands of other aspiring performers. I’m sorry, but that’s a credibility gap that Fame never recovers from.

For dancers and singers, it’s clear when they have talent, and it’s easy for a film to indulge. But what happens to the actors? Everyone in the movie is already an actor, per se, so when we get treated to supposedly revealing monologues, meant to display great acting talent, it comes across as unremarkable. The only time I have been blown away by a actor auditioning in a movie was when Naomi Watts just became a different person in 2001’s Mullholland Drive. It was sensational the way that she oozed sensuality and took control of her audition scene. Is it too much to ask that the actors who go through four years of intensive work in their chosen discipline be … better? But my biggest irk was the pseudo-filmmaker (Paul Iacono) who displays no discernible talent. His biggest creative break that we see is taping a drunken student poorly reciting NWA’s “Boys in the Hood” and then vomiting. But wait; being an auteur, he also uses split screens. I really hate it when movies involve amateur filmmakers because it always goes one of two ways, either 1) the movie overdoes it to the point of parody, or 2) the movie underplays the actual creative work, meaning that there is no foreseeable impression of talent. Why can’t amateur filmmakers ever be authentically good in movies? In Fame‘s case, I never saw anything that would justify this kid’s placement at such an esteemed performing arts school; and HE was one of the opening comic relief kids too. Is there a legacy program that they have to adhere to at this school or something?

Now, Fame is rated PG but is it too much to ask for something a little edgier than another sanitized high school musical? For one thing, the movie dances around the subject of its would-be gay ballet dancer (Paul McGill) being gay. It’s implied in mannerism but that’s all the bait you get, folks. Any school that deals in theater, performing arts, dancing, and acting, well let’s just say that there?s more than one token homosexual. The original 1980 Fame dealt with sex, drugs, abortion, and the hardships of pushing your body to the limits for a dream. You don’t ever see these performers sweat. Instead, they sit around and spout bland “follow your dreams” platitudes.

The best moment in Fame is the end credits, and I don?t mean that to be disingenuous. During the end credits we roll through the various actors and they cut loose, dance, act goofy, and get an opportunity to be silly. And it is in those final moments where these people feel like people, where they have become unrestrained by the director and the screenplay. The movie itself is overly labored without having anything to show for it. The large amount of characters and quick jumps through time make it downright impossible to connect. Worst of all, the signature performance sections are few and lacking true style. This is a derivative, easily forgettable remake that doesn’t even know the right steps to be an entertaining movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

9 (2009)

9 began its life with acclaim. Director Shane Acker won a Student Academy Award and a 2004 Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short for his eleven-minute tale of post-apocalyptic ragdoll people. Blown up to feature length and with a screenplay by Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride), 9 the film is being sold on the name appeal of producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (director of Wanted). It’s being sold to gloomy animation aficionados. I can hear the producers saying, “These guys will see anything that?s dark and different.” I advise everyone to surf YouTube and watch the eleven-minute original short by Acker. You’ll save eight bucks and see the more effective and satisfying version of 9. If you wanted to boil 9 down, it’s like The Brave Little Toaster starring the villainous robots from The Matrix. Sound like a winner?

War machines have killed humans. The only life on our planet is a handful of numbered ragdoll creatures. The main hero, #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), awakes in the home of a dead scientist. The outside world is demolished. He finds other little ragdoll people like him, each numbered 1-8. Together they must try and make sense of this scary new world and survive the roaming robots still on the hunt for… something. #9 accidentally gives life back to the monstrous Machine, who we learn is responsible for the downfall of mankind. Way to go, ragdoll. The Machine is patching together mechanical minions to take over the ashen remains of a post-apocalyptic world absent life. Seriously, I’m at a loss what the big evil Machine hopes to accomplish. Then again, maybe it’s just in need of a hobby.

Even at a scant 79 minutes, 9 the movie still feels stretched and draggy, chiefly because the plot is lousy and the character work stopped at the design stage. I was bored throughout, I didn’t care about any character, and the movie failed to even arouse my curiosity to solve the mysteries of the movie. I didn’t even care if I found out why these ragdoll creatures existed or what had happened to leave the world in chaos. I sat in my chair, completely uninvolved with what was happening onscreen. Part of this is because a majority of the plot involves these tiny characters walking from one point (a church) to another (a factory) over and over again; the plot could be substituted by a linear line connecting Point A and Point B. It’s all so crushingly repetitious. And these are not short distances either, compounded by the fact that it’s little eight-inch ragdolls walking these great expanses of land. I invite every reader to position two fingers on their hand, index and middle, and then proceed to pretend to walk across. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the miniature plot of 9 magnified for your edification. Just imagine weird robots chasing after your fingers and you get the drill. There’s not enough story here to make the jump and fill out a feature film.

The characters have an interesting design, to be sure. Each has different sewn parts but Acker makes the mistake of animation where the design is the full personality of the character. #8 is a big dolt, #1 is an old tyrant, #6 is a loon (voiced by Crispin Glover, naturally), #7 is a lady rag doll warrior complete with some purposeful enhanced womanly hips, and so on. The bland characters don?t ever take a moment to ask more important questions. These creatures have just been given life in a hostile world absent of life, so how about a moment where they ponder something a bit existential (Why am I here? What is life?) before they immediately speak English fluently and assimilate perfectly in a world they were born into moments earlier? The characters are a challenge to feel any empathy for.

The mechanical monsters designs also come across as highly derivative; then again, so does the movie as a whole. The main villain, The Machine, looks exactly like the Sentinels from the Matrix movies. It has a central red glowing eye, a head lined with pistons, lots of twisty tentacles, and even creates shockwaves of electricity that seem to bathe over the mighty creature. I think it even makes a similar noise as the Sentinels. Then there’s also one mechanical minion whose key design feature is a mutilated doll head. Too bad I already saw this exact same design in Toy Story 14 years ago. Here’s the thing: I don’t automatically cry foul whenever a design concept looks familiar, but when things just keep hitting you in the face with familiarity then it develops into a pattern. The overall film feels stitched together by the parts of other, better movies.

At least there’s a saving grace with bad animated films: you have something moderately interesting to watch considering the painstaking work that goes into every frame. That is not the case with the dreary 9. The entire landscape is post-apocalyptic, which means the sets are little more than ash, ruins, and barren remains. There are only so many scattered mechanical remains you can see before it all just starts resembling one vast junkyard. The setting is not 21st century, but more like mid twentieth in some unidentified Eastern European city (a film reel reveals that we’re in communist territory). I’m not saying that it’s impossible to find beauty in destruction, but this movie misses out. Acker and company has created a competently animated movie with a somewhat different look and feel, but there isn’t a single moment of wonder or awe to be had. It lacks an imaginative spark.

This animated tale lacks a sense of wonder, a sense of intrigue, even a sense of scale. The visuals and story are derivative of other sci-fi/fantasy films. In the original short, the characters were silent, causing the viewer to work harder at interpreting body language and context. If the ragdolls are just going to spout lame exposition gunk, they should have stayed silent. Director Rob Marshall’s upcoming big screen musical, Nine, need not worry about being confused with this film. In about two weeks, everyone except those with Hot Topic punch cards will have forgotten this mediocre movie. People who say, “It’s only an animated movie, give it a break,” are deluding themselves. No matter the genre, an audience should expect to be entertained. 9 just makes me hopeful that in the future Acker proves why he was targeted as a talent on the rise.

Nate’s Grade: C

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