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Wisconsin Film Festival 2009

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Wilmington on DVD: Moonrise Kingdom, That's My Boy, Chernobyl Diaries

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Moonrise Kingdom (A-)
U.S.: Wes Anderson, 2012, Universal

Once upon a lovely little time that we'll never get back again and that most of us never knew, there was a boy "khaki scout" named Sam (played by Jared Gilman) and a choir girl named Suzy (played by Kara Hayward). And his scout troop and her choir were in separate camps or places on an island called Penzance. Sam and Suzy were young, no more than children really. But they behaved like adults -- just as the adults around them behaved like children: Ed Norton as the scoutmaster, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as the bemused Bishops, Bruce Willis as the careful local sheriff, Captain Sharp, Harvey Keitel as Commander Billingsley, and Tilda Swinton as a mean woman improbably addressed as Social Services. There is also a Narrator played by Bob Balaban, and he's the one who gets to say "Once Upon a Time" or the equivalent in Moonrise Kingdom.

Sam and Suzy were in love and they ran away, and made their own little world of tents and books out in the wilderness -- as much wilderness as you can have on an island called Penzance that's imagined and photographed by director-writer Wes Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman, bathed in light and memory as if it were a huge, whimsical, beautiful toy.

But you can't run away when you're a middle-class child, at least not for long or too far. Fairly soon, the whole island is up in arms, searching for Sam and Suzy. Outside Penzance, the waters are getting stormier and wilder. A hurricane is brewing, and the music we hear -- that Sam and Suzy heard when they fell in love -- is Benjamin Britten's "Naye's Fludd" (or "Noah's Flood.") Is God angry? Or is it just time for a flood? "Moonrise Kingdom" is what the runaway children call their little world, their happy little refuge. The movie is ours, for a while, if we want it to be.

Wes Anderson makes pictures that are like big, beautiful, whimsical toys, few more than this. He and his cowriter, Roman Coppola (son of Francis) swim out into a dream and a storm, and they wave to us. The music flows over us -- not just Britten's music, but Mozart, Schubert, Saint-Saens, Hank Williams. Hank.

This is a movie that, it must be admitted, will probably mystify the average viewer. But what's wrong with being mystified? As we watch it, we're children again, briefly. Look for the horizon. Walk through the forest. Feel the sun. Hear the thunder. Wait for the flood.

That's My Boy (D+)
U.S.: Sean Anders, 2012, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In Adam Sandler's outrageously uninhibited, defiantly obnoxious, but likably good-natured new movie, That's My Boy, he plays, to the hilt, Donny Berger, an outrageously uninhibited, defiantly obnoxious, likably good-natured guy who became famous in the '80s when, as a lippy 13-year-old eighth-grader, he had an affair with his sexy middle school teacher, Mary McGarricle (Eva Amurri Martino), got her pregnant, and became a tabloid sensation.

A folk hero, almost. The teacher went to jail, but Donny was able to go on to a solid, sordid career in moron TV, junk journalism and sleazy public appearances, as a role model for nincompoops. He also raised his son, whom he proudly named Han Solo Berger, and did such a terrible job -- putting Han on a do-what-you-want-kid diet that made him obese and diabetic, and getting him a full-back tattoo of the New Kids on the Block that made him look like a fool -- that the kid fled home and vanished at the age of 18. Years later, he resurfaced (played by Andy Samberg) under a new name, Todd Peterson, with a new skinny bod, and a new respectable career as a hedge fund manager. (Respectable?)

And also a new bride-to-be: nasty, pretty, elfish Jamie (Leighton Meester), the local spoiled rich princess. On the sked: an expensive lawn party wedding staged at the posh estate of Todd's boss, moneyman Steve Spirou (Tony Orlando). And Donny is facing jail unless he can come up with $43,000 in back taxes for the IRS.

One would think Donny could get quick cash by selling his life story to Adam Sandler's production company, Happy Madison, but somebody else comes to the rescue: an old TV producer/cohort of Donny's. If Donny will exploit his old teacher-lover and his son, and get them both to appear with him on reality TV, the station will cough up the dough. Adam Sandler isn't afraid of looking like an idiot, and neither is Donny. So he shows up at the Spirou estate dressed in his best jeans, jean jacket and shag haircut, and triggering an avalanche of '80s hits on the soundtrack. Amiably, he goes along when the humiliated Todd introduces Donny not as his pops, but as his best friend.

What does Donny do, in the face of all this love and and the new craze for '80s gags and allusions? (Wazzup? Wazzup!) He goes to the Culture Wars, waging a campaign to convert Todd from a tight-ass hedge fund manager financial exploiter jerk into somebody that might be proud to be pledged by Delta House. Lesson One: Donny pulls the entire bachelor party over to the local strip joint. The movie goes downhill from there -- not that it was ever particularly uphill.

We're a long way from the more ambitious (and better) Sandler movies like Punch Drunk Love and Funny People, closer to Little Nicky territory, or to slap-happy vehicles like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison. Sandler and his fellow filmmakers, director Sean Anders (of Sex Drive) and writer David Caspe (of TV's Happy Endings) have contrived plenty of silly, obnoxious gags for the show -- including a punch-out with two-fisted Father McNally (played stoically by James Caan), the drunken deflowering of Jamie's wedding dress (probably a movie first), some hot grandma encounters, and lots of opportunities for '80s rapper Vanilla Ice, who pops up as Donny's best friend.

Anyway, That's My Boy can be recommended without hesitation to anyone who liked Jack and Jill, or who likes everything Adam Sandler does, or who once bought a Vanilla Ice album and played it at least three times. I'm not certain how big an audience that embraces but I'm sure it's sizable. And enthusiastic. And loyal. Or something.

Chernobyl Diaries (D+)
U. S.: Brad Parker, 2012, Warner Home Video

Chernobyl Diaries is an awful picture, with a promising, botched setting and premise. It takes place in the abandoned city of Pripyat: gray, desolate, strange, the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor plant disaster -- a meltdown that sent the populace fleeing from the immediate area, and closed down the plant for good. Part of this movie was reportedly even shot in the real place.

But that's not enough.The premise is courtesy of director-producer-writer Oren Peli, begetter of the Paranormal Activity series, who has imagined what might happen if the doomed city Pripyat (which in real life is now a tourist destination) had been left to fester and rot and to sink deeper into radiation poisoning -- if peculiar, frightening things grew there, and strange beings lurked around the empty buildings, and six young Americans and Australians (three couples), decided to join a local tour guide, Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), for an "extreme tour" of the off-limits grounds and abandoned buildings, bypassing two surly checkpoint guards and driving into the center of God knows what.

That's not enough, either.

The movie, produced and written by Peli and directed (in his debut feature) by visual guy Brad Parker, has this one great central idea, and one or two more good ones, and many, many bad ones. Like a lot of the new horror movies, the whole movie depends for most of its plot on the bizarre lack of foresight, or outright idiocy, of the main couples -- who never should have gone on this extreme tour in the first place, but once there, should have (for the good of the story), behaved with more smarts than they do. They should have done something halfway smart to try to stay alive, or hide, or hang onto their occasional weapons, instead of bickering pointlessly with each other, abandoning all attempts to communicate with the outside world, exposing themselves to every possible danger visible or invisible, and continually running into every dark, confined, unprotected place they see.

The movie's set-up is its best part. Peli holds off the big scares (or scare attempts) until later, and concentrates on introducing us to the four young Americans on their vacation in Russia: two brothers Chris (Jesse McCartney) and his older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), Chris' girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley) and Natalie's best friend Amanda (Devin Kelley), who pairs off with Paul.

Sibling tension may contribute to Paul's insistence on the extreme tour of the Chernobyl sight, peddled by ex-Russian military guy Uri. In opposition to Chris, Paul gets the votes of the two girls to go, and, after being joined by strangers Zoe (Ingrid Borse Bodel) and Michael (Nathan Phillips), they all take a spin in Uri's van, slipping unauthorized onto the grounds, going on a quick tour of the buildings -- they can only stay a few hours because of radiation -- and then discovering the first of many bad things that will happen to them. Night is falling, strange wild dogs are howling, the van's engine has been ruined, and they may have to stay there, locked in the van, the entire night. What? You've gotta be kidding me.

Up to this point, Chernobyl Diaries is a pretty good movie, an absorbing one and even a scary one. Our interest is held by the fact that we know this is a horror movie and that these kids are going to up against it eventually, and even that some of them may die, and writer Peli and director Parker has at least given them some personality.

I don't want to describe any more. It was bad enough sitting through it all. But I will say this: Any movie that has a bunch of people seemingly trapped inside a forbidden, guarded area -- a group that includes not one but two cell phones, and several people who speak Russian, ought to at least try to explain why these kids don't try to communicate with the outside world. (Extras: additional scenes; featurettes.)

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