Reviews: This is It, Cirque Du Freak, Amelia

This Is It


A sadness permeates the opening moments in the behind-the-scenes piece This Is It, but it has nothing to do with Michael Jackson's death. Instead, the sequence - filmed, like the rest of the movie, while Jackson was very much alive - centers on the talented young dancers and singers who auditioned to be a part of the King of Pop's planned series of London concerts.

As each person describes the thrill of being included in the Jackson legacy - many of them tearing up as they speak - they comment on how much this opportunity means to them, with one or two even stating that this concert gave them a newfound purpose in their unfocused lives. It's a heartbreaking sequence, considering that Jackson's death meant that none would be able to live the dream that seemed within their collective grasp.

It's a smart way to open the film, filling audience members with emotion before the man himself takes the stage to prepare for his mammoth undertaking. After all, many folks (myself included) turned away from Jackson once he made the complete transformation to tabloid freak, and, to be sure, certain audience members are sure to experience an initial wave of nausea as this physical grotesquerie with a dubious history gets ready for his close-up.

But then an amazing thing happens. It starts with the music, those generation-spanning hits that have the power to produce instant bouts of affectionate nostalgia. Then there come the dance steps, not as fast and furious as before, but still deft enough to catch the eye.

And finally, there's the sheer spectacle, the showmanship that was arguably as responsible for keeping MJ in the light as any other aspect of his carefully constructed career. Combined, these elements make resistance futile, and for two shimmering hours, all the ghosts of scandals past melt away, leaving in their wake an entertainer whose only desire is to dazzle. And dazzle he does.

With all of the footage coming from the rehearsals that took place from April through June of this year, This Is It provides backstage access to all the prepping for what promised to be one hell of a concert. With the special effects work completed for many of the show's rear-screen spectacles, the movie is able to hint at the larger-than-life dimensions that even at their most bombastic never threaten to obscure the human dynamo working front and center.

Ever the perfectionist, Jackson comes across as prickly on occasion but generally displays patience and warmth toward those around him - albeit always at an emotional distance. Yet when he gets into his zone as a performer, he invites everyone to the party, grooving as one with his backups and even allowing others to occasionally snag the spotlight. He tackles most of the major hits, including "The Man in the Mirror," "Beat It" and, of course, "Thriller." The Jackson 5 sequence, complete with vintage footage, is unexpectedly moving, as is an elaborate production number set to the lovely "Earth Song."

Ultimately, This Is It doesn't quite feel like a documentary, nor does it seem like a concert film. It's clearly a love letter to the fans, but, perhaps more importantly, it's an olive branch to the latter-day critics, cynics and naysayers, all of whom have probably shown up to bury Jackson, not praise him. But the joke's on us. Wisely remaining within the parameters of the rehearsal arena, the movie keeps sensationalism and sordidness at bay. And by doing so, it allows us one final look at the Man in the Mirror, an unblemished view that reflects back nothing but a desire to let the music play.



Based on a series of books for kids, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant would seem to be aimed at either those young viewers with an affinity for the Twilight franchise or perhaps at those young viewers seeking an alternative to the adventures of Bella and Edward. Either way, this PG-13 confection would seem to be geared primarily at the teen crowd, with adult attendance a passing afterthought. But older moviegoers who can recall the spate of like-minded horror flicks from the 1980s will find much to appreciate as well. Those ‘80s efforts like Fright Night, Vamp and The Lost Boys placed teen protagonists in horrific situations and armed them with plenty of humor to go along with those wooden stakes. Like its predecessors, this film similarly mixes comedy with fantasy, and I'd be surprised if writer-director Chris Weitz and co-scripter Brian Helgeland hadn't studied those pictures before embarking on this project (on the other hand, similarities to 1932's classic Freaks and 1972's forgotten Vampire Circus were probably coincidental). Here, the school-age hero is 14-year-old Darren (Chris Massoglia, who even looks like ‘80s mainstay Ralph Macchio in certain shots), who, at the urging of his rebellious best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), sneaks out to catch a one-night-only presentation by a traveling freak show. The lineup includes a snake boy (Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit) and a psychic who can sprout a beard at will (Salma Hayek), but it's spider-wrangler Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) who catches the boys' attention. Crepsley turns out to be a "good" vampire - he dazes rather than kills humans, taking just enough blood for sustenance - and while Steve gets rejected for having "bad" blood, Darren soon becomes the vampire's protégée and finds himself having to steer clear of the soul-sucking Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) and an army of "bad" vampires. Reilly hardly conjures up images of suave bloodsuckers like Christopher Lee or Frank Langella, but his casting proves to be a real boon to the film, providing it with a central vampire whose wit is as sharp as his teeth. Beyond him, there's plenty to enjoy here - too much, since the picture ultimately collapses under the weight of its busy storyline and fails to adequately utilize its strong supporting cast (Hayek and Willem Dafoe as a dapper vampire especially could have used more screen time). Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant ends with all signs pointing to a sequel, but given its bloodless box office, it's safe to surmise that a stake has been driven through that particular course of action.



In its effort to be one of the first Oscar-bait titles out of the gate, the stately but sterile Amelia ends up stumbling over its own feet. A handsome production that fusses over every detail in order to provide the proper look, this biopic forgets to include any sort of spark necessary to get its motor running. As aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, Hilary Swank adroitly mixes tomboy charm with feminist strength, but she's let down by a script (by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan) that doesn't allow her to burrow even an inch under her character's skin. Her Amelia is painted in broad strokes, and as such, the dramatizations of her aerial achievements don't carry the power that should automatically go with lofty historical territory of this caliber. Where the movie most succeeds in its exploration of Amelia's relationships with two distinct men. Publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere) was the person who discovered Amelia and guided her career; they eventually married, but the film posits that she embarked on an affair with fellow flight expert Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) before returning to her loving husband. Swank and Gere don't exude magnetism in their scenes together, but it's not that kind of relationship: Theirs is a partnership forged from mutual respect and common ground, and it's a credit to both performers that the union feels authentic and enviable.  As for Amelia's dalliance with Vidal, it's the only time the movie allows its heroine to be recognizably human rather than merely an untouchable icon. The final portion of the picture naturally centers on the ill-fated 1937 flight that led to the disappearance of Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) over the Pacific Ocean. Despite our knowing the outcome, this segment is fairly tense, although some feeble fabrications surrounding the tragedy prove to be as daft as the cinematic theory that the Titanic sank because the watchmen were too busy watching DiCaprio and Winslet smooch to notice the iceberg right in front of them. We've seen it before: An acclaimed independent director gets seduced by mainstream Hollywood and ends up taming his or her wild side in order to toe the studio line. Here, the unfortunate one is Mira Nair, whose Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala were vibrant, colorful achievements that brought life and vigor to the big screen. Conversely, her take on Amelia Earhart seems earmarked for a day at the museum.



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