Thursday, April 15, 2010

Kells (yes); the Joneses & a new doc (no)

As most filmgoers by now know, The Secret of Kells became a surprise Oscar nominee for best animated feature. At the time, the movie hadn't been widely seen in the United States, and no one gave it much of a chance to defeat Up, the obvious frontrunner and ultimate winner. But for my money – what little there is of it – Kells qualifies as one of the most enchanting animated films of 2009 or of any other year for that matter. And guess what? Kells involves no 3-D, no puppetry and no computer-dominated trickery. The movie tells the simple story of a young monk who has a variety of adventures as he strives to complete an illustrated book. A serviceable tale plays second fiddle to the beautifully realized visual environment that co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey create. The movie boasts drawing that's purposefully two-dimensional, but still entirely encompassing, somewhere between an illustrated storybook and a stained glass window. The tale focuses on preparations at a medieval abbey for a Viking invasion. That invasion is depicted in ways that may unsettle the youngest children, so it's possible that adults may become the movie's most vocal supporters. The voice work – by Brendan Gleeson (as the abbot); Mick Lally (as Brother Aidan); and Evan McGuire (as the young monk) is first rate and never cutesy. Still, the artists win the day, giving Kells the wonder that an illustrated book must once have had for those lucky enough to encounter them. Secret of Kells is a stirring and entirely gratifying piece of work that takes us into a world of fairies, forbidding forests and even monsters, reminding us that sometimes we must go deep into the woods to revive weary imaginations.


I debated about how much to reveal about The Joneses, a satirical comedy about the wanton consumption habits of folks who live in affluent suburbs. After a few minutes of hand-wringing, I opted for saying little about the Joneses, except to note that director Derrick Borte has made a movie that's obvious, a trifle distasteful and too eager to cop out in the final going. David Duchovny and Demi Moore play a perfectly matched husband and wife who, in the picture's opening moments, move into a perfect new neighborhood with their two high-school age kids (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth). When the Joneses open the door to greet their next door neighbors (Glenne Headly and Gary Cole), Duchovny and Moore are smiling so broadly, we immediately suspect that something untoward must be lurking beneath the movie's surface. We soon learn the family secret (no, I'm not telling), and the movie turns into an assault on blind consumerism of the kind suggested by the title; i.e., the push to keep up with the Joneses. How this story plays in an improving but still distressed economy is anyone's guess, but The Joneses tempers its satirical bite by delivering a finger-wagging message. Duchovny acquits himself well. Moore, of course, looks fit, but it doesn't take long for the movie to be weighed down by the behavior of its characters. I wouldn't want them for neighbors, and I was sorry to have spent a couple of hours with them.


The documentary Dancing Across Borders has an interesting story to tell. Too bad it doesn't tell it in particularly well. Director Anne Bass visited Cambodia in 2000 and was taken by the prowess and charms of a 16-year-old dancer named Sovkannara. Bass decided to make a film and to bring Sovkannara to the United States where he could study ballet. Scenes of Sokvannara's arduous training quickly become monotonous. Although he's clearly a gifted dancer, it takes time for Sokvannara – known as Sy in New York -- to adjust to the toe-dancing rigors of ballet. Eventually Sokvannara's life turns into a heartening success story, but a lack of depth (and finesse) confines the movie to the realm of anecdote.

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