The Art of Getting By

June 17, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano
Directed by: Gavin Wiesen(debut)
Written by: Gavin Wiesen (debut)

While one could argue about where the line between brilliance and bull starts to blur with films like Richard Linklater’s 2001 mindbender “Waking Life,” Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 mystical sci-fi drama “The Fountain,” or anything from the conceptual mind of director Terrence Malick, the creative weight they carry should be considered when deciding whether you ultimately deem the work profound or phony. There is no need to do the same with “The Art of Getting By,” a self-important, stock indie that finds a way to hit every superficial cliche possible and still has the audacity to flaunt itself as a thoughtful look at teenage romance.

Originally titled “Homework” when it hit the festival circuit earlier this year at Sundance, the now pun-tastic dramedy directed and written by debut feature filmmaker Gavin Wiesen is as pretentious as an artist who spreads layer upon layer of white paint on a canvas and titles the piece “The Absence of Being” or “Black.”

In “Getting By” there are so many sensitive characters with depressing philosophical views that you’d think they were all slacker spawn of Friedrich Nietzsche. Director Terry Zwigoff pokes fun at such pretensions in his 2001 comic-book film “Ghost World” (a tampon in a teacup in an art class is described as “a symbol for womanhood and … repressed femininity”), but in “Getting By” there is no room for that kind of humor much less any unique ideas or relatable personalities. The film just takes itself too seriously. Sure, everyone’s experienced being young and in love before, but Wiesen’s take on hopeless romanticism is chock full of artificial scenarios and sentiment and is as unmotivated as its rebellious emo hero.

His name is George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore), a precarious 17-year-old kid and self-described fatalist who would rather doodle in his notebook than actually study or do his classwork. George isn’t suffering from senioritis. He just doesn’t see a logical reason to complete his assignments when there is so much more to worry about, like global warming, terrorism, and tsunamis. “It’s my shtick,” George declares when asked why he never does his trigonometry homework. Naturally, George is really just a misunderstood old soul who is very bright despite not applying himself academically. Think Max Fischer from “Rushmore,” except far less witty and way more wussy. Plus, George is an artist, so Wiesen writes him as the tortured stereotype usually found in movieland.

When he meets New York City transplant Sally Howe (Emma Roberts), a trendy classmate who finds his oddities charming, the two start spending time with each other, frolicking through Manhattan and skipping school to take in French cinema and talk about their miserable lives. When George corners himself into friend-only territory (he basically cries when Sally half-teasingly asks him to have sex with her) a more mature boy (Michael Angarano) with a palette-brush combo in hand steps up to seal the deal.

When compared to other quirky coming-of-age pics, “Getting By” is about as unoriginal as they come. It’s not offensive just because Wiesen cut his angsty lead character from the same cloth as “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” or “Bart Got a Room “or “Thumbsucker,” it’s that his execution of such heavily navigated terrain isn’t nearly as distinctive as it needs to be to avoid getting lumped in with every other sad-sack storyline that came before.

Without giving much of a reason for George’s aloof lifestyle, it’s difficult to maneuver our way through his misanthropic mind. After an hour of watching him pout, you’re ready for someone to just pump him full of Paxil and tell him to get over it.

Astro Boy

October 22, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Charlize Theron
Directed by: David Bowers (“Flushed Away”)
Written by: David Bowers (“Flushed Away”) and Timothy Harris (“Space Jam”)

For those familiar with Japanese anime and manga, there is no one more influential from the genre than the late Osamu Tezuka, the artist behind such revered creations as “Metropolis” and “Kimba the White Lion.” If Tezuka was already on your radar, then you probably also know that in the early ’50s he published the comic book “Astro Boy,” the story of an android child created by a brilliant scientist to take the place of the son he lost in a car accident.

While most families who flock to the theaters to see the Hollywood version of Tezuka’s vision probably won’t care too much about the mythology, they should still know that the original story is much more appealing that the one director/writer David Bowers (“Flushed Away”) has jerry-rigged for us in the animated feature “Astro Boy.” Borrowing from films such as “WALL-E,” “Pinocchio,” “Oliver Twist,” and a host of other enchanting classics, Bowers fashions together some respectable computer-generated images young kids will enjoy, but the narrative is left as a mishmash of charming ideas and political undertones that transform into a fairly routine animation.

In “Astro Boy,” Dr. Tenema (Nicholas Cage, whose voice simply doesn’t fit his character no matter how creative he gets with his monotonous tone) builds a robot in the likeness of his son Toby (Freddie Highmore) who he loses in a freak laboratory accident. Not only does the android look exactly like Toby, Dr. Tenema has equipped him with all of his son’s memories.

Unable to accept his science experiment as a replacement for his dead child (he probably should’ve said something a little earlier, huh?), Dr. Tenema turns his back on the robo-boy (in the original he sells him to a circus) and leaves him to fend for himself against a pursing military who wants to destroy him. To escape, Astro leaves the bustling Metro City for a new life on Earth, the planet under his hovering metropolis, which has been reduced to a landfill (sans cute, love-struck, squared robot to clean up the mess).

There, Astro Boy befriends a group of salvage yard youngsters and their makeshift leader Ham Egg (Nathan Lane) and learns to live life as – say it with me kids – a real boy. But living on Planet Trash isn’t an option anymore when warmongering President Stone (Donald Sutherland) aims to get his hands on the positive energy source that powers Astro’s superhero abilities.

While the action sequences keep the movie from nose-diving into a scrap-metal mess, Bowers comes up short as a storyteller for anyone who won’t be begging for “Astro Boy” action figures for Christmas. For teenagers and parents, the narrative will come off as stiff as Astro Boy’s rockabilly hairdo.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

February 14, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte
Directed by: Mark Waters (“Mean Girls”)
Written by: Karey Kirkpatrick (“Charlotte’s Web”), David Berenbaum (“Elf”), John Sayles (“Lone Star”)

Ever since the first “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” hit the big screen in 2001, fantasy films have become an essential piece of the studio’s movie arsenal. From the smaller-scale “The Brothers Grimm,” “The Bridge to Terabethia,” and “Ella Enchanted” to blockbusters like “The Chronicles of Narnia,” imaginative escapism at the theater is easy to find these days.

Enter the newest film to the genre, “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” which is based on the book of the same name by Tony DiTerizzi and Holly Black. The film follows three siblings (Freddy Highmore plays twin brothers Jared and Simon Grace), who move with their mother (Parker) into a creepy house known as the Spiderwick Estates.

Of course, there’s more to the home than a few dusty corners and eerie hallways. The estate holds a secret that stems back to the original owner himself Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn, who performs his classy scenes through some nicely scattered flashbacks). When Simon discovers a mysterious book called “Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You” he ignores the warning on the front cover that advises him not to read it.

Reminiscent of the game board in “Jumanji,” the book unleashes a host of creatures from another realm, including brownies, goblins, and faeries. There is also darker forces like Mulgarath (played by Nick Nolte), who wants to get a hold of the book for the powers it possesses. Also part of the noteworthy characters are Martin Short (“The Santa Clause 3”), who lends his voice as the bipolar Thimbletack and Seth Rogan (“Knocked Up”), who is a perfect fit for the voice of the piggish Hogsqueal (pictured above).

Highmore does a fine job playing both the Goofus and Gallant-type roles while some very impressive special effects allow both boys to react to each other and the make-believe world around them. Although Highmore is already 15 years old, he doesn’t seem to have hit that unfortunate mark in a child actor’s career (a la Haley Joel Osment of ‘The Sixth Sense”) where his or her face contorts into an unattractive, adolescent mutant. Highmore still has an innocent façade, which will keep him fresh for more role in this genre. He’s already been in a handful (“Finding Neverland,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Mists of Avalon,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Arthur and the Invisibles,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”).

Rich with creativity, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” is fun and whimsical although at times much scarier than its PG rating would have you believe. Still, even if your five-year-old is watching through his or her fingers, the family adventure should leave an impression for kids and adults alike.