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Wanderers in the wasteland: 9.

Valley of the Post-Apocalyptic Dolls

By Ann Morrow

9

Directed by Shane Acker

9, who is made of burlap, has a zipper on his chest and a powerful object inside, though he doesn’t know it until 2 pulls it out of him. 9 (voice by Elijah Wood) and 2 (voice by Martin Landau) are rag dolls stitched into life by a scientist in the last days before a machine-made apocalypse. The (animated) world the dolls inhabit is a vast metal junkyard covered in a brownish haze; organic life has been exterminated, but scrap-metal monsters roam under the command of an unseen intelligence.

Before 9 can fully understand his environment, feisty 2 is abducted by a mechanized predator that hunts the dolls with one infrared-like eye and one floodlight-like eye. As 9 finds out, 2 was acting as a scout for a tribe of dolls under the leadership of 1 (Christopher Plummer), a wizened elder who keeps the tribe safe by avoiding “the Beast” at all costs. 1 philosophically refuses 9’s request to rescue 2, and 9’s questions, such as “Why does the Beast hunt us?” are silenced by 1’s enforcer, a much larger but cottony doll who brandishes a butcher knife.

Directed by Shane Acker with a flair for pacing, 9 is Burton-esque (as in co-producer Tim Burton) in the best sense: The film has a nightmarish sensibility that swerves between gentle humor and unexpected scares, such as the creepy, caterpillar-like decoy that sucks its prey into its hidden intestines. The dolls and the monsters are believably living and breathing, despite their outlandishly inorganic components, and every tableau is a dank, clanking, wonderland of Orwellian ingenuity. One doll finds refuge from the heavy metal landscape in a stony enclave containing a statuary garden, and later, twin dolls come to the rescue with their salvaged archives of old manuscripts (providing another foray into simplified but enjoyable debates on the nature of the origins of their existence).

At its least original, 9 recalls both The Terminator and The Tale of Despereaux (one doll uses sewing needles for spears). The script (expanded by Corpse Bride co-writer Pamela Pettler from Acker’s story) revolves around a creation myth that holds few surprises. It’s the inventive art direction, though, instead of the plot that gives every peril a rollicking energy—especially after the arrival of adventurous warrior 7 (Jennifer Connolly).

Made of suede, burlap, linen, and implements from some long-ago sewing circle, the dolls, with their curio visuals and curious personalities, enliven the film through its murkiest turns of metaphysical mayhem.

I (Heart) Eunuch

Paper Heart

Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec

Chances are that if you have any interest at all in seeing Paper Heart, you will be prepared for an above-average dose of twee. Michael Cera almost qualifies as a separate category of MPAA rating by now. And the hallmarks of his work—equal parts dry wit, precociousness and naivete—certainly inform Paper Heart. But, though he is the “hot property” in the flick, Paper Heart isn’t really a Cera vehicle. This is co-star (and the movie’s co-writer) Charlyne Yi’s story, and the movie—for better and worse—takes its shape and feel primarily from her.

L.A.-based comedian and musician Yi plays L.A.-based comedian and musician Charlyne Yi, a young woman more bemused than beaten by love. She claims never to have experienced the emotion, to the extent that she wonders if she might be biochemically different from average folk. To investigate, she enlists filmmaker friend Nicholas Jasenovec (Paper Heart’s actual director, though portrayed here by actor Jake Johnson) to create a documentary about her search for the definition of love.

Along with a cameraman, they visit a small handful of middle-American locations, interviewing couples about their experiences of love and romantic union, as well as discussing with scientists the evolutionary functions of attraction and pair-partnering. These unscripted interviews are innocently amusing (to the varying extent that the people interviewed are), and serve mainly to highlight the impossibility of empirically educating one who is not in love as to what it is, or feels like.

Into this documentary, the filmmakers insert a scripted love story, with Cera (playing Michael Cera) as the pursuer. The appeal of this plotline will depend on one’s tolerance for that actor’s style of bantering awkwardness, doubled—and then some. Yi’s disconnect from the experience of love is believable, given her presexual childishness. But, though it provides several endearing and genuinely funny moments, it grows bland and nearly cloying.

In keeping with the premise, Paper Heart lacks big passionate moments. And, to one way of looking at it, that’s admirable restraint. But, on the other hand, the combination of the distancing mockumentary/documentary device, the use of puppetry to illustrate intense experiences recalled by the interviewees, and the actors’ convincingly tentative and insecure performances makes for a noticeably neutered experience. Even the children interviewed on an Atlanta playground evince a greater spark and delightfully confused joie d’amour than Yi.

Paper Heart is a witty and well- written movie, with its share of amusing moments. But like its lead—despite her claim, “I am a dude”—it’s got no balls.

—John Rodat


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