Cinema Dope: Hello Dolly

9
Directed by Shane Acker. Written by Pamela Pettler, based on a story by Shane Acker. With Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, and Jennifer Connelly. (PG-13)

The new Gothic-tinged sci-fi fantasia 9, directed by Shane Acker and based on his own Oscar-nominated short film, is its own worst enemy: a technical marvel awash in beautifully rendered animation but still something of a lackluster film.

The trouble is immediately apparent when you compare the 79-minute film with the 10 and a half-minute short that inspired it—every essential feature of the longer work is already there in the short; in several cases the scenes are virtually identical. But even if you haven't seen the short—I didn't see it until later, when I looked it up online—you get the feeling that there is a great deal of padding to this resume.

Most of the excess fluff comes in the form of Pamela Pettler's script. The kernel of the story, then and now, is the same: a group of nine living burlap dolls are being hunted down by a mechanical beast, which then seems to extract their very souls; one brave doll named 9 is trying to save them all. To expand what was originally a mysterious and dialogue-free bit of dystopia, the revamped plot uses hoary sci-fi and action movie tropes to add precious minutes. Starting with the familiar "machines took over the world" scenario, there are so many cliches to follow that the film could have been named Running In Front of Fireball.

Considering the talent assembled for the voice cast, it's surprising more care wasn't given to the script; the dialogue rarely serves any purpose beyond telegraphing what will happen next. In that way, 9 often resembles a video game, and a particularly good one at that. One enemy is defeated only to make way for the next, while along the way you discover the clues that will enable you to finally vanquish your ultimate foe. For an afternoon of button-mashing in front of a TV screen, it would be just the thing; a movie, if it wants to last, needs more, and despite a few touches of darkness, 9 can never quite commit to giving it.

*

Extract
Written and directed by Mike Judge. With Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck, J.K. Simmons, Clifton Collins Jr., Dustin Milligan, David Koechner, and Beth Grant. (R)

Extract, the new comedy by writer/director Mike Judge (King of The Hill), returns to the workplace frustrations he mined so well in his 1999 film Office Space, a cultish hit that, like its 2006 follow-up Idiocracy, is destined to remain just important enough to be quoted on freshman dorm futons for years to come.

Judge's latest working-man story centers on Joel (Jason Bateman), the youngish owner of a flavor extract company he built on the memory of his mother's root-beer cookie recipe. Bored by the routine of the plant and frustrated at home by his wife's 8 p.m. sex curfew, he's planning to sell out to General Mills when a bottling floor mishap—a testicle is lost, and another is hanging on "by a thread"—puts the sale on hold.

The unfortunate owner of said testicle is Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), longtime worker and floor manager hopeful. While the honest Step just wants to get back to work, he's swayed into pressing a lawsuit by grifter Cindy (Mila Kunis), a flirty con woman who also has her hooks into the sex-starved Joel. The rest of the plant workers, still imagining a corporate buy-out, plan a mutiny.

Like much of Judge's work, the funniest bits here belong to the bit characters—Bateman may get top billing, but David Koechner (Anchorman's sports reporter Champ Kind) steals scenes as the clingy neighbor Nathan, waiting at the driveway's edge every time Joel returns home. Similarly, the extract factory scenes belong to Beth Grant and T.J. Miller as, respectively, a gossipy line worker and a metalhead forklift operator, and a shocking Gene Simmons doing his best impression of the old Caveman Lawyer skit from Saturday Night Live. (Most shocking: it isn't clear if he's ever seen the skit.) In the end, one wishes for more of their stories, except perhaps for that of pill-popping bartender Dean, an out of place Ben Affleck. Without them, Extract is the story of a suburban business owner pouting about the good life. Hank Hill would not approve.

*

Also this week: Let's face it, poetry readings can be tough. Take what is often an art form of solitary epiphanies and cram it into an overheated library conference room filled with MFA hopefuls, cheap wine and Dixie cups, and the sublime tends to get lost in the onion dip. But recently, there have been some noteworthy attempts to bring back the idea of beautiful surprise contained in the form—you may be familiar with the work of Drive-By Poets, a "non-profit public poetry postering project" that tacks up poetry on area bulletin boards, where it hangs next to flyers for upcoming rock shows.

A similar push to engage drives When You Think Of It, a movie in which "people are reading poems in many places." Conceived by the people behind the online journal notnostrums.com, the film, which records authors reading their work in laundries, cemeteries and lakes (among other places), comes to Amherst Cinema on Thursday, Sept. 17 as part of the Going Public Contemporary Lit Series. Locals may recognize their neighborhood coin-op as it is transformed into a performance space; whether you consider yourself a fan of poetry or not, there's no denying it will make you see your surroundings differently.

Another piece of local color comes to the Greenfield Garden Cinemas on Wednesday, when they host a screening of Touchstone: Dancing With Angels to benefit Greenfield Community Television and local low-power radio station WMCB-LP FM. The hour-long documentary about the Easthampton spiritual center, drawing on over two years worth of footage shot by director D.S. Fine, focuses on the remarkable journey of the center's co-founder, George "Shaker" McNeil, whose transgender rebirth—over the course of the film, the local farmer and activist transitions to Deborah Hall-McNeil—in many ways mirrors the sometimes tumultuous but ultimately uplifting history of Touchstone Farm itself.

Travel north a few more exits, and you'll find the 2009 Manhattan Short Film Festival in a week-long exhibition at Brattleboro's stunning Latchis Theatre. The MSFF operates a bit differently—even, I daresay, a bit more democratically—than most festivals: here, the crowd is the judge.

Here's how it works: from an initial pool of over 400 submissions, the festival jury winnows the field to 10 finalists whose films are distributed to theaters all over the world. (The festival plans to add Antarctic screenings in 2011, giving them a presence on all seven continents.) Over the course of a week, thousands of audience members see the films, and vote for their favorite; the winner is announced just days later.

Some of this year's entries include the animated French short Skhizein, about the strange life of a man hit by a meteorite; the U.K. film Hammerhead, about a young boy trying to reunite his parents; and Mozambique, by 17-year-old first-time director Alcides Soares. One of the millions of children in Africa made orphans by the AIDS crisis, Soares was given a movie camera and rudimentary lessons in cinematography by a pair of American television producers—the resulting film is the story of his survival. Whether or not he gets your vote, Soares is already planning his next project; in an interview on the festival website, he says, "I would like to film the lives of youth surviving in garbage dumps. But first I have to finish school and then I will start."

Author: Jack Brown

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