MICHAEL JACKSON'S THIS IS IT
For a film that seemed to have "commercial exploitation" written all over it, Michael Jackson's This Is It is an intensely loving and even indispensable piece of work -- a joyous celebration of performance drive, hard work, and a fearsome amount of skill. Culled from roughly 100 hours of rehearsal footage from the late star's planned concert tour, director Kenny Oretga's behind-the-scenes account doesn't offer much in the way of insight, nor is it meant to. Yet it's still a first-rate spectacle that, at times, provides an almost ridiculous amount of pleasure; somehow, miraculously, Ortega and his editors have shaped their footage into a documentary that boasts the kineticism, excitement, and boundless ebullience of a kick-ass movie musical.
With its emphasis on hits of the Thriller era, the This Is It concert was obviously designed as a love letter to longtime fans. But what's especially inspiring about the subsequent film is how much of it is a love letter to Jackson's fellow artists -- the designers, technicians, musicians, choreographers, and (most notably) on-stage talents for whom the tour was an actual once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Wisely and shrewdly, Ortega opens the movie with in-rehearsal interviews with Jackson's backup singers and dancers, nearly all of whom profess teary-eyed disbelief at their good fortune, and their passion and sincerity linger through the 100 minutes that follow; Ortega continually suggests that This Is It is as much their triumph, and that of its backstage participants, as it is Jackson's. By making you aware of what was lost here beyond the tour's star, Ortega's approach to the material emerges as beautiful and humanizing, and lends the concert's knockout set pieces a healthy measure of gravitas.
And man oh man are those set pieces knockouts. Of course, we'll never know what the finished product would have looked like, but even in rehearsals, such numbers as "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Smooth Criminal," and "Billie Jean" are so visually imaginative and stunningly well-choreographed that you can't help but grin from ear to ear, and that's without experiencing the concert's promised 3D and CGI effects. (The sight of Jackson towering above the crowd on a cherry-picker may have been the event's least high-tech offering.) This Is It's footage finds Jackson conserving his vocal energies on nearly every number, but he's barely holding back on his dance moves -- his backup dancers, meanwhile, aren't holding back at all -- and there are moments here when his physical prowess and visible delight at being onstage again are nearly blindsiding. Even in death, Jackson is a consummate entertainer.
Yet incredibly, there's nothing ghoulish or unpleasant about the experience of This Is It, much as there wasn't when watching Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. (For a couple of hours, Jackson's spectacular magnetism, like Ledger's, kicks all of your unresolved thoughts about his demise right out of your head.) As someone who was only a moderate fan of the artist -- albeit one who, in 1983, eagerly stayed up late with friends to watch the MTV debut of the Thriller video -- there were a few scenes here I could've done without, particularly the rehearsal for Jackson's maudlin, preachy take on his maudlin, preachy "Earth Song." But even given such (forgivable) indulgences, I wouldn't have missed Michael Jackson's This Is It for the world. Ortega's film is a remarkable rescue job, of sorts, on what looked to be a remarkable live experience, and it allows its subject -- whatever your personal feelings about the man -- the graceful, glorious exit he wasn't allowed in life.
Not being familiar with the character's Japanese-anime origins or his 1960s TV cartoon, I had no idea what to expect from the animated feature Astro Boy. But considering its generic title, I certainly didn't expect it to be a 90-minute blend of Pinocchio, Frankenstein, Transformers, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Oliver Twist, and Stephen King's Pet Sematary. Then again, what reasonable human being should have expected that?
After a weaponry experiment kills his young son, a tortured scientist (voiced by Nicolas Cage) creates an invulnerable, robotic substitute (Freddie Highmore) implanted with his child's memories. Eventually, however, the scientist ditches the poor, confused "kid," forcing Astro Boy to contend with parental abandonment, a number of metallic friends and foes, a group of ragtag, parent-less human children, and a fey Fagin in a sweater vest (Nathan Lane). Am I alone in thinking this material doesn't exactly scream "Fun for the whole family!"? Yet that's exactly what director David Bowers appears to be aiming for, and the dichotomy between Astro Boy's rather disturbing, sinister undertones and the gee-whiz mania of the on-screen antics is bizarre, to say the least. (Similarly strange is Astro Boy's hair, with its two brunette spikes that switch placement on his head from shot to shot.) The littlest of kids might have fun with the incoherent explosions and butt jokes, and the movie at least offers an impressive sense of scope and a few good chase scenes. It remains, though, a film that tries way too hard to appeal to every conceivable demographic, with its highbrow allusions routinely off-set by dopey low comedy, such as Eugene Levy's housekeeping 'bot surveying the goings-on with a harried whine of, "I am so freaked!" Me too, Eugene.
CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT
That invaluable character actor John C. Reilly has been many things on-screen: poignant, hilarious, an unexpectedly first-rate singer. But until Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, he's never really had the chance to be suave. It turns out Reilly can pull that off, too.
In this melding of three novels in author Darren Shan's young-adult series, he plays 200-year-old vampire Larten Crepsley -- a popular fixture in the traveling freak show of the title, and a new mentor to the teenaged half-vampire Darren (Chris Massoglia) -- and Reilly is so effortlessly, almost accidentally charismatic in the role that he easily walks off with the picture. Unlike the undead characters in, say, True Blood or Twilight, vampirism for Crepsley isn't a lurid thrill or (sorry) a cross to bear -- it simply is, and Reilly's mordantly offhanded acceptance of his blood-sucker's plight lends the movie a desperately needed low-key allure. Within the somewhat desperate busyness of director Paul Weitz's adaptation (co-written by L.A. Confidential's Brian Helgeland), Reilly's confidence and throwaway wit keep Crepsley enigmatic and funny throughout, and the performer is even captivating enough to convince you that Salma Hayek would find him irresistible. (In this particular context, though, that might not be considered a major score. The mind boggles at how Freud would analyze Hayek's buxom Madame Truska, who magically grows facial hair whenever aroused by a man.)
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant did a box-office swan dive in its opening weekend, and it's not hard to see why; the movie is too complex and casually vicious for kids, too childish and silly for teens, and too disjointed, derivative, and stylistically confused for everyone else. Yet for all of its faults, the film is never dull. (Massoglia, actually, is pretty dull, but there's so much going on around him that his presence doesn't bother you.) It's filled with enjoyably low-rent visuals, Lynch-lite imagery, and outstanding makeup effects -- particularly when Michael Cerveris appears as a morbidly obese shadow figure -- and the cast is fantastically eclectic, with spirited work by Ken Watanabe, Josh Hutcherson, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Frankie Faison, Jane Krakowski, and Orlando Jones. (The latter two engage in a memorable Lady & the Tramp-style dining experience when they each nibble on opposing ends of one of Krakowski's fingers. Don't ask.) Best of all, beyond Reilly, is Willem Dafoe as a gaunt, insinuating vampire with heavy eyeliner and a John Waters moustache. He isn't given much to do, but Dafoe's two scenes hint at the happy perversity that a more streamlined version of this tale might've delivered, and briefly make you regret the Cirque du Freak movie sequels that, now, will likely never be.