Tag Archives: C

ALIENS IN THE ATTIC

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C

The fact that it wasn’t pre-screened for critics might make you expect the worst of this kidflick, but “Aliens in the Attic” isn’t all that bad. In fact, if it were being shown on one of the family cable networks, it would be something adolescent boys in particular would enjoy. It’s out of place on the big screen, though, except for the most undemanding audiences.

The title pretty much says it all. The Pearson family—Stuart (Kevin Nealon), Nina (Gillian Vigman), their children Bethany (Ashley Tisdale), Tom (Carter Jenkins) and Hannah (Ashley Boettcher)—along with Stuart’s brother Nathan (Andy Richter) and his sons Jake (Austin Butler) and twins Art and Lee (Henri and Regan Young) and the kids’ grandma (Doris Roberts)—are vacationing at a Michigan lake house. (Curious geographic note: they’re shown leaving Chicago and arriving at their destination after a brief road trip, which suggests the makers didn’t look very closely at a map.) The place is invaded by four little creatures from the planet Zircon with a mission to recover a device buried under the house that will initiate an invasion of earth. And since the critters have a lobotomizing gun that can turn adults into helpless automatons—a fate that befalls not only granny but Ricky (Robert Hoffman), Bethany’s smarmy college boyfriend—it’s up to the kids to defeat them and save not only their family but the world.

I suspect it will come as no surprise that they do.

Much of the picture is devoted to slapstick battles between the CGI creatures (voiced by Thomas Haden Church, Josh Peck, Ashley Peldon and Kari Wahlgren) and the children, but time’s taken out for some heart-to-hearts between Tom, a smart kid who’s tanking his classes in order not to be thought a nerd (the experience with the aliens makes himself understand the value of knowledge, of course), and his dad, and even more violent action involving Ricky, who’s turned into a sort of crazy elastic man under alien control, and grandma (a big martial-arts fight between the two after the kids get granny’s control device is supposed to be the piece de resistance, but is taken too far). The big twist—though it’s hardly a surprise—is that one of the scouting party turns out to be nice and becomes the kids’ ally. And at the end there’s a “Power Rangers” moment when two of the critters grow to gigantic size and face off against each other.

The effects in “Aliens in the Attic” look pretty ordinary in this day and age, but they’d certainly pass muster on the small screen. It’s unfortunate that the “good” alien so closely resembles E.T. (adding an extra pair of arms isn’t really much of a disguise), and that his final goodbye is so closely modeled on Spielberg’s film (John Debney’s music even recalls John Williams’ at that point). But the youngsters are an appealing bunch, though Boettcher should have been reined in by director John Schultz a bit—her mugging is right out of a bad sitcom—and Tisdale comes off rather shrill. The adults are another matter. Nealon, as usual, italicizes every line, Richter’s doofus routine gets old fast, and Tim Meadows’ turn as the local sheriff is so laid-back it might have been phoned in. Roberts, looking very frail, doesn’t have the comic timing she once did (and should have been spared a gag about her dentures), while Hoffman—or his CGI double—chews the scenery, which is what he’s expected to do, and kids will love his “stuntwork.”

There’s some of the same sort of simple highjinks here found in such earlier kidflicks like “Sky High” and “How to Eat Fried Worms,” and the picture doesn’t descend to the level of stuff like the “Spy Kids” movies. But it lacks magic, and except as a harmless diversion for the youngsters in a rainy afternoon, you can safely hold off until it shows up on DVD.

PRESTIGE, THE

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C

Although it’s about two rival prestidigitators who try to outdo one another with amazing tricks, and is directed by the virtuoso Christopher Nolan, the man who gave us “Memento” (as well as “Batman Begins”), “The Prestige” is seriously short of cinematic magic. It’s a ponderous tale of envy and one-upmanship that promises much but in the end delivers surprisingly little.

That’s curious, given that the picture opens with an elaborate explanation, delivered by the old illusion-creator Cutter played by Michael Caine, of how a successful trick is structured–a pattern the script, based on a novel by Christopher Priest, obviously aims to imitate. It begins with an apparently “ordinary” (or at least not incredible) premise–in this case an on-stage accident which takes the life of Julia (Piper Perabo), the magician’s assistant and wife of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), one of the magician’s apprentices, who blames Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), the other apprentice, for her death. Then it proceeds to do something unusual with the premise–here, detailing a long-term performance duel between Angier and Borden in which each seeks to destroy the other professionally and personally. The rivalry ramps up when Borden unveils an astonishing trick, in which he’s miraculously transported from one side of the stage to another. An effort to find out the secret to that effect leads Angier to send his lovely assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to Borden as a spy–with unfortunate results–and to Angier’s trying to duplicate the feat in a way that Borden unravels and then fatally undercuts. That leads Angier to track down the mysterious Italian inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), Thomas Edison’s great rival and Borden’s supposed source, to develop a superior version of the illusion–which in turn takes the two men’s battle to a still higher level. All of which leads to what in the trade is called the “prestige”–the astonishing reversal, here involving another death (Angier’s, shown at the beginning of the film, for which Borden is convicted of his murder–also shown early on) and a series of revelations that explain what’s preceded, as well as the truth about how things actually turned out.

This precis has been kept fairly general to avoid “spoiling” the ending–something that would be as unconscionable in the case of a movie that’s attempting to fool you as it is with a magic trick. But it’s not improper to say that the big surprises regarding the duplication tricks, when they come, are either limp (in Borden’s case) or more than a little silly (in Angier’s). Some will say that as puzzle solutions, they’re simply unfair, since they haven’t been properly prepared for. But in any case, as legerdemain they’re surely unsatisfying.

Still, one might be willing to swallow a disappointing denouement if what’s preceded it has been sufficiently engaging. Unfortunately, despite an excellent physical production (by designer Nathan Crowley, art director Kevin Kavanaugh, set decorator Julie Ochipinti and costumer Joan Bergin), most of “The Prestige” is an oddly plodding affair, in which Nolan fails to match the vigor and intelligence of his earlier work. And the lead actors aren’t at their best, either. Caine comes off reasonably well, using his customary crusty elan to energize his scenes. But while it’s easy to understand why Jackman would have embraced a part that essentially allows him to give two performances–actors love to have an opportunity to show their versatility–he comes off strangely flat. And Bale, who’s done some really extraordinary turns in pictures like “American Psycho” and “The Machinist,” is no more than conventionally blustery as the lower-class Borden. (The big revelation about the character late on makes the performance, in retrospect, seem even weaker.) And then there’s Johansson, a lovely girl who once again shows herself an amateurish actress, particularly when outfitted in period dress. The only cast member who really stands out, in fact, is Bowie, who with thick black hair, impeccably tailored suits and a cooly enigmatic air, makes Tesla a striking figure. But he’s just window dressing in an otherwise rather mundane exhibit.

“The Prestige” also has the misfortune to follow “The Illusionist” into theatres. It’s not a literal, and inferior, copy of the that film, as “Infamous” is of “Capote,” but the comparisons are decidedly not in its favor. “The Illusionist” may be flawed, but its sleight of hand is still much more mesmerizing than what Nolan offers here.