Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Special Four-Film Review: Little Manhattan, Akeelah and the Bee, Bridge to Terabithia, Penelope

In 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, some great cinematic family treasures were released, so I thought I would give my views on four of the most overlooked masterpieces to have come out this decade.

In June of 2005, naught but the day after I saw "War of the Worlds," I was browsing the Internet and came upon a trailer for a movie entitled "Little Manhattan" (****), which at first glance seemed to be a charming and funny story about a really big crush a ten-year-old boy had on an eleven-year-old girl. The downside was that it would only be released in New York and Chicago on September 30 of that year, so I would have to wait on DVD. And I did. Boy, am I glad. "Little Manhattan," unlike many "kid's movies" these days, is gloriously enchanting in a way that few romances are. This is not a film about a crush of the superficial or superfluous kind, but a film about true, pure, unadulterated love. Yes, these are kids, and yes, they are immature in most ways. But weren't we all? More than that, these kids are troubled beyond words, with a longing and deep sadness (but undeniably a sense of real, kiddy joy).

The film was transcendent and ended up, for me, as one of 2005's finest achievements, a transcendent, almost angelic experience. And at its center (like "Bridge to Terabithia," to be talked about in a bit) was a revelatory, career-making performance by Josh Hutcherson. Yes, he of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" gave what I thought was easily an Oscar-worthy performance as the film's male equation of the budding relationship, Gabe, an already world-weary soul who gains a wisdom rarely, if ever, seen in a boy of his age. And newcomer Charlie Ray as Rosemary, the apple of Gabe's eye, is equally brilliant.

Then, not a year later, another highly intelligent near-classic was released in the form of "Akeelah and the Bee" (****). This film was clearly one of the best of its kind since the likes of "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and "Spellbound." An inspirational "intellectual sport" movie stripped down to its base elements, "Akeelah and the Bee," like the other four films in this review, was destined for failure. However, through miraculous performances by Laurence Fishburne and spirited newcomer Keke Palmer, as well as intricate direction by Doug Atchison, the film was a startling success.
Unrelenting in its refusal to give in to conventions, even when the plot itself is as conventional as they come, "Akeelah and the Bee" was more than charming and affecting--it was beautiful and effective. The problem with today's kid audience is that a film like this does not connect well with them. Kids get antsy, see, and movies as low-key and independent as "Akeelah and the Bee" don't come out very often. For me, however, this is something to savor and not to criticize. There is a line between kid film and audience-directed insult. Most films of this kind fall splat into the latter category. "Akeelah and the Bee" (as well as the other films in this category) does not, and thank heavens for that.

In 2007, director Gabor Csupo captured--there is no other way to put it--lightning in a bottle, a kind of rarity of the film genre, dealing with issues of mortality and livelihood and friendship and imagination. That film was the majestic and elegiac "Bridge to Terabithia" (****). It was one of '07's best, featuring another grand central performance by the clearly-talented Josh Hutcherson, who is fastly becomed the male Dakota Fanning of this generation. Hutcherson is utterly revelatory, in a low-key dazzler of an electrifying kid performance as Jess Aarons. Jess is a kid like any other has demons in his own way. He is constantly bullied around, and his dad is not the most personable guy. But then he meets Leslie, an imaginative and worldly wise girl who introduces him to the make-believe world of Terabithia.

But it's so much more than that. Do not, whatsoever, pay attention to the advertising campaign for this film. The fantastical sequences involving overgrown badgers, fairy people, and walking trees take up maybe fifteen minutes of screen time and are largely in the kids' heads. The final twenty minutes of this film are devastating, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting like few family films are these days. I think it is safe to say that "Bridge to Terabithia" easily tops the other films in this review on sheer charm and effectiveness (with a strong emphasis on the latter).

And then there's "Penelope" (****). Originally slated for release in October of 2006 after a successful run at Toronto and then inexplicably discarded for a full year and seven months, the film was finally released in the final week of February 2008. I saw it on a complete whim, with no real interest (further tarnished by a scathing review in Entertainment Weekly). I am glad I did. Truly one of the most romantic films to have come out last year, "Penelope" was astounding in its implications above all. Was it predictable? Yes, but only in theory. I found it increasingly difficult to know what would happen ahead of time, perhaps because the actors refused to mug or because the script refused to stick to convention 100% of the time.

The performances matched those of the great recent romances. James McAvoy in particular, doing much better work here than in the wildly overrated "Atonement," was affecting and unexpectedly powerful as Max, the only man for Penelope, a woman whose physical appearance (a snout for a nose) means nothing to Max. Ricci is vulnerable and beautiful onscreen. Her snout-nose is surprisingly not as ugly as others think; perhaps the idea of the nose is more repulsive than the nose itself, something I have always thought was the point the filmmakers were making.

These four films are just simply wonderful examples of the genre. If this article seemed random, it is because I'd been meaning to this all along. Watch these films. They're completely worth it.

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