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Clever pooch: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Made for Each Other
By Laura Leon

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Directed by Nick Park and Steve Box

Fans of Wallace & Gromit unite, and rejoice! The plasticine duo—Wallace, a fuddy-duddy English inventor, and his loyal mutt Gromit—have made the leap to the big screen with their (and their makers’) intense good humor, sly wit and incredible imagination intact. In Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, old friends have finally found the long-missing next step from short gems like A Grand Day Out and A Close Shave, and new recruits surely will be easy to come by.

The plot is simple: Wallace (Peter Sallis) and Gromit have formed a humane animal collection service, Anti-Pesto, which specializes in removing pesky bunnies from the gardens of their fellow villagers, all of whom, it seems, have that English green thumb. Of particular import to the Anti-Pesto service is the imminent annual vegetable fair, at which time the biggest and best melons, etc., are judged by none other than Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham-Carter), known to her familiars as Totty. Before long, Totty and Wallace are smitten, but here, as elsewhere, the course of true love is not meant to run smoothly. First off, there’s Totty’s other suitor, the obnoxious, gun-toting Victor (Ralph Fiennes). And then there’s the matter of the, er, title character, a Jekyll/Hyde type of foul-up that resulted from one of Wallace’s more unusual brainstorms, and threatens to wreak havoc not only on the romance, but on the fair. Put simply, no carrot is safe until Gromit, forced into action upon Wallace’s developing some odd symptoms of his own, figures out a way to save the day.

It’s insanely silly, and it was nice to see that the theatergoers with whom I saw the movie seemed to truly appreciate the endless good humor—much of it tongue-in-cheek, most of it dry—that abounds from this confection. Directors Nick Park and Steve Box, who cowrote the script with Mark Burton and Bob Baker, clearly delight in a combination of the absurd with the downright homey, which of course is best personified by the main coupling of Wallace, all British middle-class appropriateness, and the mute Gromit, who for all his silence, conveys countless more expressions, soul and thought than, say, Brad Pitt or, for that matter, W.

Bad Habits

Thumbsucker

Directed by Mike Mills

In fairness to director Mike Mills, his first feature-length film (he comes to the big screen via music videos for the likes of Air and Moby) is far short of disastrous; at times, it’s quite subtle and touching. But it suffers from a curious weakness, curious and extremely rare in filmmaking: an excess of respect.

The film, based on the novel of the same name by New York magazine book reviewer Walter Kirn, is the story of Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci), an insecure and fragile 17-year-old thumbsucker. Justin is a bright and likeable underachiever being raised by parents Audrey (Tilda Swinton) and Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio), who seem little more mature than their eldest boy. Audrey is a nurse who competes in cereal-box dream-date contests in hopes of escaping the loneliness she feels even in the midst of her family; Mike is a former pro-football prospect turned sporting-goods-store manager who requires Justin to use his and his wife’s first names because, as Justin tells a friend, the name “Dad” makes Mike feel old, and “Mom” makes him think of Audrey as old. Mike’s active parenting is contained mostly to shaming Justin for his “pathetic” childish habit. Justin receives a bit of surrogate fathering from his orthodontist, Perry (Keanu Reeves), not to mention an ostensible cure for his oral fixation, but to a great extent he is left to fend for himself.

The acting in the movie—particularly that of Swinton, D’Onofrio and Pucci—is exceptional. It’s consistently nuanced, deep and natural. Though the viewer can hardly approve of their parenting styles, Mike and Audrey are always more than merely convenient buttresses for Justin’s teen angst. Just when you think you’ve gotten as much from the characters as you’re going to, they turn—just slightly—to reveal a different facet, reflecting light in a slightly different way. And Pucci is a real find. A more appealing portrayal of a sweet and troubled young man is hard to recall. Even Reeves is well-used as the new-agey doc who, in one of the funnier scenes in the movie, advises Justin to call upon his power animal to help him overcome his bad habit. (“C’mere,” Justin yells. “Do it in your mind,” Perry corrects.) Serviceable Vince Vaughn turns up with a smallish and funny role as Justin’s debate-team coach, as well.

With such well-cast talent, it’s understandable that Mills would give his actors free reign. But he lingers too long. To his credit, the director gets exactly what he needs in each scene; to his discredit, he then hangs around a while, enjoying the performance. This no doubt well- intentioned approach seems to apply to the treatment of the source material as well. I’ve not read Kirn’s novel, but I’d bet that one important scene with Benjamin Bratt, as the drug-addicted movie star for whom Audrey pines, is lifted more or less verbatim. And, frankly, it’s just a bit much. (The fact that Kirn has a cameo in the flick may be further evidence of a too-close relationship with the novel.)

You hate to slam a guy for giving talented actors room, or for daring to preserve the literary aspect of his inspiration; but it’s an old rule of thumb (sorry) that when editing a work of art, the first thing that’s got to go is the thing the creator loves most.

—John Rodat

Bearable Lightness

Everything Is Illuminated

Directed by Liev Schreiber

Based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated is about a collector and writer, named Jonathan Safran Foer and played with earnest solemnity by Elijah Wood, who seeks solutions, or perhaps just solace, in artifacts from the past. These may be they old photographs of his namesake grandfather, who barely escaped Nazi-occupied Ukraine, or more mundane items, such as grandfather’s false teeth. The gift of an aged photo, showing the young elder Foer with a woman named Augustine, propels the current-day Jonathan back to the old country in a quest for answers to questions that, in the movie at least, aren’t exactly spelled out.

Jonathan’s tour guide and translator is a rap-obsessed Odessan named Alex (Eugene Hutz), who is enamored of all things American, particularly blacks and bling. Joining them on their tour to find the Foer family origins is Alex’s expletive-spewing grandfather (Boris Leskin). As they travel deeper into the Ukraine, a change overcomes them, particularly the grandfather, who is haunted by flashbacks involving what appear to be German soldiers. Along the way, the movie plays the inevitable culture clashes for laughs, although at times—such as when Alex must ask a rough-looking road crew for directions—the diverging cultures and expectations take on a sinister hue. This bespeaks the potential danger that awaits not just the unsuspecting tourist, but also the hapless sojourner into the past.

Many have complained that the movie is not at all a dark and somber treatise on the effect of memory, or on our understanding of both past and present; but that it is too lightweight, even whimsical. And yet, I think its lightness is its strength. Even those who were enamored of Foer’s book have to admit that something in its massive entirety had to go, so Schreiber’s decision to focus on the one thread that parlays neatly into a road movie is understandable. Moreover, Schreiber’s artistic decision lifts this movie from the heap of other movies that deal, either directly or tangentially, with the Holocaust with reverence, awe, anguish and pain. If one of his decisions, as a first-time director, is to tweak the book’s underlying theme of shared and universal guilt, into a more palatable idea that we all are victims, it nevertheless still emphasizes the idea that, as the title implies, everything truly is illuminated in the light of history, both personal and societal.

—Laura Leon


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