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Films I Neglected To Review: Real Geniuses
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "April and the Extraordinary World," "Bling," "The Family Fang," "The Man Who Knew Infinity" and "Phantom of the Theatre."

In the wonderful new animated fantasy film "April and the Extraordinary World," we are presented with an alternative history of the world in which the mysterious disappearances of the world's most promising scientists, which occur before they can make their big breakthroughs, means that scientific progress never developed much past the Age of Steam. In 1931, genial scientist Pops (Jean Rochefort) is, with the help of his son and daughter-in-law, trying to perfect a serum that will make people invincible - which he had tried to create for Napoleon III back in 1870 with disastrous results - when the three mysteriously vanish, leaving behind only young granddaughter, April and her talking cat Darwin. Ten years later, April (now voiced by Marion Cotillard) and Darwin have perfected the formula at last, a move that makes them the target of both the police and the mysterious forces responsible for the disappearances of the scientists. They need the formula, of course, but do they want to use it to help save the world or finish it off for good.

Blending together steampunk sensibilities with the delicate fantasy charms and real-world concerns of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, this film, based on the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, is a delight from start to finish. Visually, the film is a knockout in its depiction of a Paris whose extended dependence on coal leads to everything from people wearing gas masks on the street in order to breathe to the creation of a second Eiffel Tower so that they can be used as an end point for a gondola connect France with England. From a dramatic standpoint, everything hums along wonderfully as well - April is a bright, spunky and compelling central character and the environmental message it contains is presented in an ingenious manner that pulls off the neat trick of stressing the importance of conserving natural resources while quietly suggesting the ways in which our real environment has indeed been aided over the years by technological advances. It does get a tad silly towards the end once the entities grabbing the scientists and their ultimate plan are revealed but until then, this is a brilliant family film that, even in its subtitled version, that viewers of all ages will be able to cherish and adore.

On the other hand, while I suppose I cannot officially say with 100% certainty that "Bling" is the single worst animated family film that I have ever seen, it is certainly a top contender for that sorry title. This is one of those films that is so bewildering that even a brief recounting of its particulars will lead many of you to suspect that I am either just making things up or suffering from some weird neurological condition. Would you believe me, for example, if I were to tell you that the not-exactly gripping premise involved two guys - a genially dopey builder of sentient robots for a local amusement park (Taylor Kitsch) and a crazed super villain (Jason Kravitz) with his own robot sidekick (James Woods, in what was presumably a rare lapse of judgement on his part) who both are trying to propose to the loves of their lives, respectively a pretty and popular news reporter (Jeanette McCurdy) and her mother, the snobbish mayor (Carla Gugino). After buying a ring he cannot afford, our hero tries to devise an elaborate proposal scheme and winds up running afoul of the super villain and his plans, resulting in a lot of frantic noise and chaos before the merciful arrival of the end credits.

"Bling" is not just a terrible movie but an utterly bewildering one to boot because at no point does it ever seem to have an idea of who it has been made for in the first place. For starters, I daresay that most kids will be staggeringly uninterested in watching a dimwit struggle to acquire a ring and work up the nerve to propose to his long-suffering girlfriend - my guess is that this has all the kiddie appeal of having to sit around in the store while your mom goes shopping for a new bra. Perhaps realizing that they haven't exactly come up with the most gripping of premises, the filmmakers throw in a bunch of ill-fitting elements ranging from elongated chase sequences to robots that have been inexplicably designed to fart noxious gases whenever a cheap laugh is neeed, which I fear is often in this case). The CGI animation is crummy, pretty much on a par with what might have just barely passed muster on television 20 years ago, and the vocal performances are as lifeless as can be. (Hopefully the DVD will include footage of the actors recording their dialogue so that we may savor their reactions to the material they are working with.) Thrown in a pro-materialistic message that is highlighted for most of its running time and which perhaps only Kirk Cameron could completely embrace and you have a movie so baffling that some hardy viewers may actually want to seek it out for themselves, especially if they missed such animated clunkers as "Doogal" and "Food Fight" and don't want to miss being on the ground floor of a new animated flop for a third time. Trust me, however, that even as a possible form of punishment for exceptionally bratty children, "Bling" certainly does not deserve a ring, though I can think of at least one finger that I would love to give it.

On the heels of his directorial debut, "Bad Words," actor Jason Bateman once again returns to a cinematic exploration of family ties that oftentimes choke with his sophomore effort "The Family Fang." In it, he and Nicole Kidman played the adult children of a couple of hard-core performance artists (Christopher Walken and Maryanne Plunkett) who became famous a few decades earlier for a string of elaborate "Jackass"-style public pranks that oftentimes utilized their own kids for maximum effect. Having barely survived the psychic tolls of their youth - he is a struggling writer and she is an actress with some stability issues - the two are pulled back into the lives that they thought they had escaped when their parents go missing, leaving behind a car an enough blood to suggest foul play. While not entirely sure that Mom and Dad are not just pulling another stunt, the two siblings begin to investigate the disappearance for themselves and while trying to come up with clues to their whereabouts, they also begin to uncover the hidden truths behinds their own pasts and how the reverberations of those events continue to be felt three decades down the line.

As an actor, Jason Bateman has spent much of his post-"Arrested Development" career wasting his talents on some of the most puerile and idiotic comedies to come out of Hollywood in recent memory (so as not to inadvertently jog any long-suppressed memories, the curious can look up his oeuvre on IMDb) and so it is interesting to see him trying to do more serious work as a filmmaker, However, as was the case with "Bad Words," the end result is a bit of a mixed bag. The performances by both Bateman and Kidman are good and Christopher Walken is impressive as the father for whom everything, including his own flesh and blood, is of secondary importance to him in comparison to his art. The trouble here is that the screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the novel by Kevin Wilson, is oftentimes too busy trying to pass itself off as a Wes Anderson-style family saga to find its own voice and it raises questions about the nature of art and those who create it that it is then unwilling to deal with in any particularly compelling manner. The end result is a miss, though it is a near-miss and the improvement shown here over his first effort suggest that Bateman's next work as a director might indeed be something to see.

"The Man Who Knew Infinity" is a film that is as dull as it is well-meaning and believe me, it is incredibly well-meaning. It tells the true story of Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), a young man from Madras, India, who, despite the lack of a formal education, was a whiz at complex mathematical theorems. After sending some of his work to noted Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) in the hopes of getting his work published, he is invited to Cambridge by Hardy to continue his work, only to face prejudice from his classmates and the faculty, who cannot believe that that an Indian is capable of doing such advanced work and demand that he offer written proofs of the work that he has thus far done entirely in his head. To go to England, Ramanujan is forced to leave both his wife (Devika Bhise) and mother (Arundhati Nag) behind and the latter uses this as a way of splitting the two of them up by hiding his letters to his wife so that she will think that she has forgotten him.

"The Man Who Knew Infinity" wants to be an inspiring drama about an Indian who managed to conquer both prejudice and advanced mathematics - if the pitch wasn't "Gandhi" meets "A Beautiful Mind," then it should have been - but while it includes all of the necessary ingredients, the recipe nevertheless falls flat. For example, the whole film revolves around our hero learning how to do mathematical proofs in order to demonstrate his genius to a disbelieving world and while this may not exactly be the most cinematic of concepts, writer-director Matt Brown pretty much fails to even make clear to audiences what this actually entails, let alone make it work in dramatic terms. Meanwhile, far too much screen time is devoted to the conflict between his mother and his wife, a plot thread that feels too much like something tacked on to give the screenplay the "heart" that it otherwise lacked. Patel and Irons are okay but they could play these roles in their sleep and in the case of Irons, it occasionally feels as if he has. The whole thing is just so banal and antiseptic that it is impossible to care about any of it - ironically, this is a film that might have been more successful if it had shown some of its work as well.

How does one make a ghost story in a country that largely frowns on content that deals with anything superstitious in nature? That is the challenge faced by the makers of the Chinese supernatural thriller "Phantom of the Theatre" and while the end result is nowhere close to being a classic, it still manages to be a stylish and occasionally gripping mixture of old-school storytelling and elaborate special effects. Borrowing a considerable amount from Gaston Leroux's warhorse "The Phantom of the Opera" and resetting it in Shanghai in the early 1930's, the story takes place largely within the walls of a movie theatre that has been closed since a fire broke out and killed the members of a family acrobatic troupe after a command performance for the young son of a ruthless warlord 13 years earlier. Having studied filmmaking in France, that now-grown son (Tony Yo-nung Yang) returns with the idea of making a horror film set entirely within that same building and even convinces popular actress Meng Si-Fan (Ruby Lin) to star in it. When the male lead dies mysteriously on the first day of shooting, though, the filmmaker is forced to take over the role as well and as others involved begin to die in the same way - burning to death from the inside out - he has to get to both get his film finished and figure out who is haunting their production and what their ultimate goal might be.

In theory, we are supposed to wonder whether there are actual supernatural spirits behind the deaths or if there is a more rational explanation for the seemingly inexplicable deaths. The problem with the film is that right from the start, the story goes so far out of its way to stress that none of the characters believe in ghosts and to provide plausible reasons for the events we have witnessed that any real sense of suspense or terror is lost. And yet, while the film more or less fails as a horror item because of this, it still has a number of things going for it. Director Raymond Wai Man Yip may not have made a scary movie by any means but he has made a fairly stylish one and the stylized period look on display is arresting. The two leads strike a number of sparks together, so much so that the subplot involving the director and his actual girlfriend, a medical examiner who offers up more in the way of rational explanations, seems even more superfluous than usual. In the end, "Phantom of the Theatre" probably will not impress those looking to be scared but if you can dial down expectations in that regard, it should prove to be a reasonably diverting experience.

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originally posted: 05/07/16 00:56:21
last updated: 05/07/16 05:14:09
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