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Merry ‘Potter’

“The Host” isn’t shy.


ZELLWEGER: As Beatrix Potter.
  • ZELLWEGER: As Beatrix Potter.
Though I tend to love blood, exploding stuff and skanky sex on film, it’s good to cleanse the palate every once in awhile with something more gentle. Which brings us to what turned out to be — surprisingly — one of my favorite films of the last year: “Miss Potter.”

Sweet as clover honey and soft as a baby duck, “Miss Potter” is one of those flicks so touchy-feely that a lesser reviewer might dismiss it as fluff, denying that its tale of love and love lost touched him.

I, however, am no lesser reviewer.

The Miss in question is the famous Victorian children’s author Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger, doing her Bridget Jones accent). Sheltered by her parents, entering Old Maid territory, and maybe a little too obsessed with the world of intelligent animals she has created in her bedroom/painting studio, Potter is something of a recluse when the film opens, hidden away from the outside world with only her creations to keep her company (recalling director Chris Noonan’s previous work as the screenwriter of “Babe” — Potter’s animal friends like Peter Cottontail really do come to life as she creates them with her brush and ink, a technique that’s employed to terrifying effect during the more tragic times of her life).

With her first book completed and itching to see it published, Potter goes to the publishing house owned by the three Wayne brothers. The curmudgeonly older brothers soon foist the bubbly Beatrix and her book off on their baby brother Norman (Ewan McGregor). The older brothers think that Potter’s book will be a flop, and — with Norman having just entered the family business — they figure he won’t be able to screw this doomed first assignment up too badly. The surprise for everyone, however, is that her book soon finds a niche market, with its sweet stories selling to everyone, including the Queen. Before long, Potter is a famous author, and she and Norman find love while publishing her subsequent books. Dark days lie ahead, however, and tragedy looms for Potter and her beau.

Wonderfully acted on all counts, “Miss Potter” is a sweet little morsel of great cinema, one that was obviously overshadowed by more bloodthirsty fare during the awards season. Though Zellweger is great here as isn’t-she-peculiar old maid Beatrix, it’s a testament to the ensemble cast that “Miss Potter” feels less like a celluloid star vehicle than a very good stage play. With enough tragedy to handily balance out any dips into melodrama, it’s a lovely story about creativity, friendship, love, and dedication. If you’re looking for an antidote for the big-budget, big-explosions blockbuster, go see it.

— David Koon

Bong Joon-ho, the director of the new Korean monster movie “The Host,” doesn’t play coy with his audience. Not 20 minutes into the film, and the titular creature is lassoing sunbathers in the park with its tentacles and sucking them down through a gruesome series of mouths that open like Russian nesting dolls. Remember the Frankenfish, that Asian snakehead they found in Arkansas a couple years back that could walk and breathe out of water? Same idea, writ large and with appropriately gruesome monster amenities — short surging dinosaur legs, a serpentine tongue to slither across fresh kill and a prehensile tail to uncoil for slow, terrifically creepy descents. And — oh, yeah — it’s a metaphor for American imperialism.

The monster, as it turns out, is a product of environmental recklessness. In the film’s opening scene, an American military doctor orders his Korean colleague to dump hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde into the drain because, well, see, the bottles have become too dusty. The drain leads to the Han River, a wide stripe of water that cuts across Seoul, and apparently formaldehyde makes tadpoles grow into tank-sized tadpoles.

That same kind of cartoonish misguidedness cuts across all, mostly American, figures of authority in the film (who could inspire such a type?). As the monster wreaks havoc, in Bong’s nod to SARS, American military scientists pronounce the creature the host of a deadly virus, begin to lead the effort to segregate the “infected” and ready “Agent Yellow,” a noxious gas aimed at curing the virus.

Still, for all the CGI wonder and socio-political undertones, “The Host” is a family drama at its core. The film follows the highly dysfunctional Park children — one is an alcoholic, another a champion archer whose only weakness is her struggle to let go, literally, and another is a narcoleptic who might also be retarded — as they follow their father on a quest to find Hyun-seo, the beloved child of the narcoleptic Gang-du, whom the monster has snatched and secreted away in his sewer lair.

As silly as that set-up sounds, it unfurls into a wonderfully layered film. Hyun-seo is taken by the monster because her hapless father trips and falls and mistakenly grabs the hand of another little girl when he gets up. It’s an emotionally turbulent sequence that begins with a kind of humor — Bong captures Gang-du’s fall in artful, awkward slow motion in one of the ultimate movie tropes: people are funny when they fall. But just as soon we’ve started to chuckle, we’re beset by the greatest fear of any parent.

And so it goes in “The Host.” You laugh in unexpected places, you shiver in terror, and you worry the Park family will self-implode because of all of its emotional baggage. It’s the most unexpectedly appealing monster film in years.

— Lindsey Millar

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