Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (B)
U.S.: Chris Renaud/Kyle Balda, 2012, Universal
Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is a big, bouncy, computerized cartoon feature with its heart in the right place about nature and resources and how important it is to shepherd them in the right ways -- and how important it is not to let greed and selfishness and the lust for money and exploitation of those resources set the agendas, blight the landscapes and ravage the earth. (I wouldn't think those would be controversial positions, but apparently they are.)
It's a good movie that should have been better. But The Lorax's wit and liveliness and sometimes magical visuals -- not to mention Danny De Vito's gently boisterous voice performance as The Lorax -- are undermined by the sheer scale of the project and its sometimes overbearing treatment and style. That tone makes the whole show entertaining but a little too techno-heavy, predictable and CGI slap-happy for its own good.
I havent seen the 1972 cartoon version -- the shorter, less expensive one directed by Hawley Pratt and narrated by Eddie Albert -- but I'm sure it would have been more congenial. The Lorax is a story that cries out for a gentler, more lyrical, more modest approach, for more Seussian rhymed narration. The book, published in the first Nixon presidency, was another of Dr. Seuss' delightfully rhymed and rhythmed storybook fables.
The Lorax was probably the most obviously political of all Seuss's books: an undisguised ecological fable that attacks mean corporate types, like the Once-ler -- the story's reckless, greedy job creator who strips the land and chops down the Truffula trees and their gorgeous little tufts to make the highly saleable miracle item, thneeds. (Imagine them telemarketed on cable.) The Once-ler and his minions and machines keep chopping and chopping until the very last Truffula tree is chopped down, and the landscape has become a desolate , smoggy wasteland, with the Once-ler left to lament his misdeeds and mis-thneeds.
It's also about the Lorax, a prescient feisty little mutton-chopped chap with a fuzzy face who "speaks for the trees," and warned the Once-ler that what he was doing was wrong. A perfect part for the movie's Danny De Vito, who was born to read Seuss -- even if I expected more.
Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is unabashedly political and pro-conservation, and that's what makes it controversial, I guess. But the movie isn't really as bad as its nay-sayers say, including the kind of right-wing scolds who think Happy Feet 2 was a treasonous plot.
Dr. Seuss's real name was Theodore Geisel; Zac Efron's Ted and Taylor Swift's Audrey, the teen-dream lovers of the movie, are a tribute to Ted Geisel and his wife Audrey. This may not be the best Dr. Seuss movie, but you'd be wrong to deprive your kids of seeing it.
Shallow Grave (A-)
Scotland/Great Britain: Danny Boyle, 1994, Criterion Collection
Like Joel and Ethan Coen's classic Texas noir Blood Simple, Danny Boyle's (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, London Olympics opening ceremony) Shallow Grave is a smart, stylish, dark little comedy of murder and money. It's a top-chop neo-noir, a straight-on view of an off-kilter society, an Edinburgh rogue's and semi-rogue's gallery, with eerily disturbing portraits of people we don't like all that much (or shouldn't, but maybe do anyway), but who fascinate and amuse us with their colorful, mad, oddly believable personalities -- and also by the sheer comic ineptitude with which they let themselves be pulled into a vortex of danger and evil.
Shallow Grave was director Boyle's first feature, and it was also a major British audience and critical/festival hit of 1994, whose prizes included the British Film Academy's Best Picture award. The film also introduced much of the British and international audiences to writer John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald, cinematographer Brian Tufano and three young soon-to-be-famous leads: Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and the magnetically boyish smirker Ewan McGregor.
They play three young professionals who live together in a large, posh apartment in Edinburgh's toney New Town. Alex Law (played by McGregor) is a bright yellow tabloid journalist and a smart-ass. David Stevens (Eccleston) is a fair, cadaverous-looking, more straight-arrow accountant, who starts off the story, Billy Wilder-ishly and Sunset Boulevard-ishly, from the morgue. Juliet Miller (Fox) is a doctor, a sexy, foxy smarty-pants, and also the woman the other two obviously adore -- though none of them, apparently, are sleeping together. Yet.
The apartment has another bedroom which the roommates want to rent out, and so they subject a series of prospective tenants (including a nice old lady played by McGregor's real-life mother) to a series of sadistic cross-examinations, after which they invariably nix them and laugh hysterically as their humiliated victims leave. The threesome's behavior is obnoxiously cruel (Hodge's script was at one point called "Cruel"), but they do have the merit of being funny and of having good timing, like the movie itself. They also laugh at each other's jokes, one of the first rules of friendship.
The one potential roommate whom the threesome do seem to like is a close-mouthed chap named Hugo (Keith Allen), who is suave and cold and somewhat sleazy-looking, and who looks as if he doesn't laugh at anybody's jokes. When they give Hugo the room, he promptly moves in, takes an overdose of drugs and kicks the bucket. And when they go over Hugo's effects, before reporting his demise, they discover a suitcase stuffed with cash.
This seems a typical set-up for Boyle, whose propensity for cautionary break-the-bank films might well earn him the nickname "Get Rich Quick" Danny Boyle. But here's where I stop the synopsis. Believe me, you don't want me to go any further, and not out of skittishness or fear, but because you likely and sensibly don't want to miss the deliciously macabre surprises and ingenious suspense set-pieces Boyle and Hodge keep detonating throughout the movie.
I will tell you that there is a grave in this movie, as well as some other finely written and very well-acted characters -- including a talkative cop called McCall played by the estimable Ken Stott (of Mike Hodges' I'll Sleep When I'm Dead), his quiet fellow cop Mitchell (played by Grave's screenwriter Hodge), and an exceptionally vicious killer played by the excellent actor-director Peter Mullan (of Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe).
McGregor, Fox and Eccleston play the spot-on lead trio near-perfectly, with a fine mix of comic buoyancy and a more serious, blacker edge, with just enough empathy to keep us absorbed in their fates, and just enough objectivity to let us see when they're slipping off the rails.
The acting throughout is admirable and economical, and so are the writing and directing and the cinema technique. They're everything we want from a sharp-witted, snazzy British thriller -- a posh noir worthy of Wilder, worthy of the Coen Brothers, worthy of Clouzot, worthy even of Hitchcock. It's the kind of movie that puts you on the hook, drives ruthlessly to the end and stays in your mind long afterwards. (Extras: commentaries by Danny Boyle, John Hodge and Andrew Macdonald; interviews with Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox and Ewan McGregor; Kevin Macdonald's 1993 Digging Your Own Grave, a "making of" documentary; Andrew and Kevin Macdonald's video diary of shopping around the Shallow Grave project at the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival; trailer for Shallow Grave; teaser for Trainspotting; booklet with excellent Philip Kemp essay.)