Panic Measures (Weekly Links)

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

A Town Called Panic. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Perhaps you enjoyed “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a film that used an old-school style of stop-motion animation. Part of the film’s charm was its handmade, imperfect look.

Well, “Mr. Fox” was all right. But when it comes to rough-edged stop-motion animation, make mine “A Town Called Panic,” a daft and frantic comedy involving a group of ill-matched toys.

The first awesome thing about this movie comes when you notice that the two central characters, a toy cowboy and a toy Indian, are actually toys of slighter different scales. Indian is slightly larger than Cowboy. We don’t know why, and nobody ever mentions it; perhaps they were manufactured by different toy companies.

Cowboy and Indian each has his feet rooted to a little green stand, the kind that allows toys to remain upright—just like the little Army men you had as a kid. So when they walk across a field, it’s sort of a weird teeter-totter scuttle.

They live in a house with Horse, a toy horse. It’s Horse’s birthday, so they get on the Internet and order some bricks with which they can build Horse a backyard barbecue.

An unfortunate input error results in 50 million bricks being delivered to their house, instead of the 50 they wanted. From this surreal mistake, the plotline moves like a rocket in a funhouse, dragging in village neighbors and eventually traveling into an underwater world (which is accessible via a village pond).

For 75 minutes, madcap stuff keeps happening, Cowboy and Indian keep doing stupid things, and their perpetually angry next-door neighbor Steven keeps screaming at them. (I am extremely fond of Steven.)

It’s hard to say why this is so funny, but it is. A minute into this movie, it seems like the most normal thing in the world that a horse should be sitting on a couch reading the paper, and Indian should come in and pour three cups of coffee with a tri-spouted coffeepot.

It’s like watching a video made by incredibly talented kids who haven’t been taught that there are certain things you can’t get away with. So they get away with everything.

The “kids,” in this case, are Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar, two Belgian animators. They based the movie on characters from their animated TV show, a cult program in Europe; they also do some of the voices, which are high-pitched and frantic.

You’d think the subtitles might be distracting on a movie like this, but the French language is part of what’s funny here—just the sound of it, I mean. And anyway, you could skip the subtitles and still know what the film is about. It’s about craziness, and a certain joy in being silly.

Extraordinary Measures (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Everybody likes stories of the little guy bucking the odds and out-witting the system, but “Extraordinary Measures” works a new wrinkle on this: it proves that as long as you can conjure up a measly 10 million bucks, you might have a chance at conquering a mysterious disease.

The film is based on a true story, albeit with fictional elements. There real person at its center is John Crowley, played by a chunky Brendan Fraser, who set about finding treatment for an incurable disease that afflicted his own children.

Crowley has two children with Pompe disease, and put his entrepreneurial skills at work to found his own pharmaceutical company in order to push the discovery of a useful treatment.

The film creates a composite character, a cranky doctor played by Harrison Ford, as the scientific counterpart to Crowley’s journey. The character, named Robert Stonehill, falls along conventional lines (he’s a Baby Boomer who listens to Seventies album rock while he dreams up his theories) and he has no touch for actual doctoring—his home is the lab.

So we get the contrast between Stonehill’s brusque egomania and Crowley’s dogged Everyman. Unfortunately, this contrast is much less interesting than the filmmakers think.

Similar conflicts are drawn up between Crowley and the corporate types (played by Jared Harris and Patrick Bauchau) who control the purse strings he needs to yank. The purse ends up holding a lot more than $10 million, which puts the viewer in the somewhat peculiar position of rooting for a large pharmaceutical company. But hey, a cure’s a cure.

The doctor is a character part for a leading man, which might explain why Harrison Ford looks somewhat tentative in the role. Ford is also one of the film’s producers, so playing second fiddle to Brendan Fraser’s concerned dad was presumably his choice.

Keri Russell plays Fraser’s wife, but screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs hasn’t given her much to work with. Instead, we get some basic personality conflicts, just enough science talk to make it all sound convincingly researched, and a handful of appealing child actors.

In one scene, Crowley brings a group of Pompe-afflicted children to appear before the scientists working on the treatment, a violation of company policy. He wants them to see the human side of the research process.

The film itself is a little like that—a calculated move to gain our sympathy and attention. That might be why it feels less like a living movie than a flat diagram: a series of equations to reach a result, like something drawn up on Dr. Stonehill’s blackboard. The result is as dull as its title.

The Tooth Fairy (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

“The Tooth Fairy” can be summarized like this: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars in a film about a hockey player who becomes a flying, tutu-wearing tooth fairy.

Now that you know that, we can dispense with any pretense about justifying this premise. There is no excuse possible.

Having said that, we can note that a movie that features The Rock as a tooth fairy could have been much, much worse than this one. How’s that for praise?

Dwayne Johnson’s character here is given a few Rock-like moments of arena showboating as the movie opens: Derek Thompson is a past-his-prime iceman who does specialty duty as an enforcer for a minor-league team.

Derek’s nickname, the “Tooth Fairy,” comes from his habit of slamming opponents so hard their incisors are separated from their gums. He has an entire routine built around this, including his habit of strutting on the ice and reeling off one-liners, which are so bad (“The whole tooth, and nothing but the tooth,” etc.) you suspect Arnold Schwarzenegger’s old screenwriters have finally found work.

When Derek thoughtlessly tells his girlfriend’s daughter there is no tooth fairy, he is visited by an otherworldly emissary and whisked away to the place where the tooth fairies come from.

Yes, there’s more than one tooth fairy. An entire army of them, in fact, which makes a lot more sense than the whole “there’s only one Santa Claus” scam.

Anyway. In order to atone for his jerkiness, Derek must be on call to snatch away teeth left under pillows, and leave a dime instead. (It’s still a dime, right?) He has a magical spritzer that will make him six inches tall, which results in a surreal and funny sequence that goes “The Incredible Shrinking Man” one better.

In fact, “The Tooth Fairy” has a few funny moments in the early going. The casting helps: it’s fun to see Stephen Merchant, the British comedian who co-created “The Office” with Ricky Gervais, in a large role as Derek’s magic-wand supervisor.

And the overseer of the fairies is played by Julie Andrews. I mean, the movie gets a half-star just for that. “Everybody’s got British accents around here,” mutters Derek, in understandable confusion.

Throw in an amusing scene with Billy Crystal, and the movie’s kind of all right for a while. Director Michael Lembeck (“Santa Clause 2”) can’t think of anything for Ashley Judd to do as Derek’s girlfriend, and eventually the film turns into just one more kiddie picture, but as kiddie pictures go it definitely does its job.

Dwayne Johnson still telegraphs his lines too much, but the likability he builds up from being a good sport is boundless. “Does this tutu make my butt look big?” he asks when he first gets his tooth fairy outfit. (The answer from Julie Andrews: “Yes.”) Not many macho men would go there.

Movie Diary 1/14/2010

The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers, 2010). It doesn’t sound too good in synopsis, and some of the ideas are pure hokum, but this is not bad. A lot of the action is even comprehensible, which is saying something in this middle-Transformers era we’re living in. (full review 1/15)

Wonderful World (Josh Goldin, 2009). Matthew Broderick as a Ferris Bueller gone to seed, moping around until his comatose roommate’s sister (Sanaa Lathan) comes from Africa. Much more normal than that sounds; if you like the two actors, this is also not bad.

A Town Called Panic (Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2009). Weird, giddy stop-motion daftness, from Belgium’s version of the South Park guys. This is an awesome movie. (full review 1/22)

The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch, 1924). Totally sure-handed situation comedy, with especially deft expressions and gestures from the cast. Fine opening: a close-up of a hole in a sock, and Adolphe Menjou pausing for a long, long beat.