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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hoodwinked Too!: Hood vs. Evil

2006's Hoodwinked! was a low budget and mediocre animated film that managed to grab the attention of enough bored kids to become a modest success. I don't think anyone was begging for more, but there was money to be made, so here's Hoodwinked Too!: Hood vs. Evil. Director Mike Disa obviously saw no need for improvement. The sequel sticks with the original film's formula of simplistic animation (though it's certainly improved this time around), tired pop culture references, and forgettable characters. About the only thing that's different is you now have to pay more to see it, given that it's now in uninspired 3D.

picThe film kicks off with the heroes from the first film now working as agents for the Happily Ever After Agency (the H.E.A.) - a kind of fairy tale Mission: Impossible-style organization who set out to ensure every story has a happy ending. The returning heroes include the dim-witted Wolf (voice by Patrick Warburton), feisty Granny (Glenn Close), amphibian detective Nicky Flippers (David Ogden Stiers), and the overly-caffeinated squirrel Twitchy (Cory Edwards). They're short one member, as young Little Red Riding Hood (Hayden Panettiere, stepping in for Anne Hathaway from the first) is away in the mountains, honing her martial arts and pastry baking skills with a secret society known as the Sisters of the Hood. On their latest mission, the H.E.A. must rescue Hansel (Bill Hader) and Gretel (Amy Poehler) from the evil witch Verushka (Joan Cusack). The mission fails, and Granny ends up getting captured in the process. When word of this gets to Red, she leaves her training behind, and reunites with her friends to save the fairy tale world from this latest threat.

picThe plot is tied into a magical recipe for chocolate truffles that's been guarded by the Sisters of the Hood for years, as it holds the ability to give whoever eats it incredible powers, going missing. It's just an excuse to toss out some pop culture references, and halfhearted movie parodies of Goodfellas, Deliverance, and Silence of the Lambs. We also get a lot of B and C-list celebrity cameos including David Alan Grier (funny as a bridge-guarding troll), Brad Garrett as a Mafia giant, Cheech and Chong as the Three Little Pigs (who are now working for the forces of evil), and Andy Dick reprising his role from the first film as a sadistic bunny. The only actors who get to make any sort of impression are Hader and Poehler, as their bizarre performances as the strudel-addicted children get a couple laughs. Everyone else seems to know just how uninspired of a project they're stuck in.

picAt least Hoodwinked Too! feels like it belongs with a lot of the current crop of animated films. Aside from the wonderful Rango and the enjoyable Gnomeo and Juliet, kids have had to sit through some very slapdash offerings lately, like the forgettable Mars Needs Moms, and the beautiful but mediocre Rio. Still, I imagine most little kids will be able to see right through this lazy sequel. The animation is bright, but generally uninspired. The voice cast seems to be comprised of whoever the studio could afford. (Panettiere sounds uninterested, and is a poor replacement for Hathaway.) And aside from a couple stray gags, the laughs are few. There is a surprising number of action sequences, but they seem to be tailor made for a video game tie-in, rather than advance the story.
There's really not a whole lot else to say. It's barely passable, it will be gone from most theaters by the time the summer blockbusters start rolling in next month, and it's a lazy sequel to a movie most people don't remember in the first place. With a combination like that, you have to wonder why the film didn't just go straight to DVD. Or why the filmmakers didn't just toss out the script, and put some actual time into a new one.

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Part 1

I don't want to review Atlas Shrugged. I don't even want to think back on this crashing bore of a film. But, I saw it, and I must report my thoughts on it to you, the reader. And then I must never think of it again until December rolls around, and I start making my Worst Films of the Year list. Atlas Shrugged may eventually come to be known as a cure for insomnia, but it will never be known as entertainment.

picThe film, the first in a planned trilogy (hence the "Part 1" of the title), is based on the controversial book by Ayn Rand, one that has inspired debate for decades. I believe the only thing this adaptation will inspire is the desire to flee for the nearest exit. Only the most diehard of fans of Rand's work could stand to watch this stuffy, uninvolved, and altogether pointless film that consists mainly of C and D-list actors sitting around tables, and talking to each other endlessly about things that are neither interesting, or do anything to move the plot forward in any way. Oh, and just to add a little excitement, we also get shots of trains making their way through the countryside. Or sometimes even workers laying down railroad tracks! It repeats the same scenes and ideas over and over until we never want to see or hear people talk about trains ever again. When the movie actually decides to throw in a tepid and uninspired sex scene late in the film, we're almost grateful.

picA movie of Atlas Shrugged has been in the works for a while, and once had names like Clint Eastwood attached to it. But now, we get this hastily thrown together, badly acted tripe that barely looks made-for-TV quality. It tells the story of an economic crisis in the year 2016, where the U.S. is pretty much in ruins due to government influence. Gas prices are astronomical, city streets are in shambles, and trains have replaced planes as the main method of travel. The film focuses on one particular railroad company - Taggart Transcontinental, which was once a mighty corporate empire, but has been run into the ground by its current head, James Taggart (Matthew Marsden). James' sister, Dagny (Taylor Schilling), isn't about to see the family name get trashed by her brother and those greedy government officials. So, she teams up with an industrialist named Henry Reardon (Grant Bowler), who thinks he may have a new kind of steel material to make railroad tracks with that would be cost efficient and practical.

picAll the while, the government keeps on getting in the way with smear campaigns and threats. Meanwhile, the great businessmen of the world are mysteriously disappearing, as they are all approached by a mysterious man who lurks in the shadows, and offers to take them away to a special place. This leads to the film's central question - "Who is John Galt"? We don't learn the answer to this question (at least not in this movie), but everybody keeps on asking it. When they're not talking about the mysterious Mr. Galt, they're usually sitting around office and dining room tables, reciting some of the most banal and lifeless dialogue I've ever heard in my years of going to the movies. The fact that no one really says their dialogue with any real passion makes it all the more lifeless of an experience.

picAtlas Shrugged is not simply a bad movie, but a bad movie that is dead inside. It's one of the most aggressively boring movies I've ever seen. Nothing of interest happens in its entire running time, there's not a spark of life to be found within it, and the whole thing just feels like a cynical cash grab on the book's famous name, which it turns out, it is. Producer John Aglialoro rushed this film into production, as his rights to the book were about to expire. He slapped his cast and crew together, called it a film, and now audiences everywhere are paying the price. Why make a movie like this? Why have your actors say dialogue like, "Why these stupid altruistic urges"? Why spend so much time showing railroad tracks being put together? Most of all, why give nothing of interest to anyone but the most fevered fans of the original work?
But will fans even like it? I honestly can't say. The movie is so dead emotionally, I can't imagine anyone being able to sit through it. After the film's final fade out, we're promised a Part 2 is on the way. I say it would take a miracle for this movie to inspire a sequel, but stranger things have happened. Besides, the fans already know what happens next, and know who John Galt is. I, for one, couldn't care less, and won't be going out of my way to find out the answers anytime soon.

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Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

According to promotional materials, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night is based on (and I quote) "one of the world's most popular comics, with over 60 million copies sold worldwide". So, why hadn't I ever even heard of the character, I wondered? Turns out, the character's main claim to fame is over in Italy. It also turns out that when this movie premiered over there last month, the fans criticized how many liberties the movie takes with the characters. Most American audiences won't be concerned with that, I figure. They'll be able to see Dylan Dog for what it is - A mediocre and unmemorable comic action thriller that, despite some fun ideas and a sense of humor, is largely dead in the water.

picThat's not to say that director Kevin Munroe (2007's T.M.N.T.) and screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnell and Joshua Oppenheimer (A Sound of Thunder) don't try. They've given the film an offbeat sense of humor that shows through from time to time, and its New Orleans setting is perfect for a story that largely deals with the supernatural, since the movie can take full advantage of its strange superstitions and settings. But the movie's just not fun or exciting, and it never grabbed me. The first big strike against it? Dylan Dog himself is kind of a bore. He's supposed to be a paranormal private eye, whose job is to keep the peace amongst the vampires, werewolves, zombies, and other monsters that secretly walk amongst us. He informs a character at one point that there's a pact these monsters made that keeps everybody in line. If anybody steps out of line, it's his job to take care of it. Sounds interesting. Wonder how he got the gig of protecting the supernatural and human world in the first place? Guess you have to read the comic for that one.

picThe idea behind Dylan is interesting, but the character himself is anything but. He's underwritten, and exists mainly to be dragged from one end of the plot to the other. He's played in the film by Brandon Routh, who you might remember from another comic book movie a few years ago (Superman Returns). Despite the fact that Dylan's in almost every scene and even narrates the film, we learn very little about him, other than he has a dead fiance in his background story. Routh looks the part of the hero, but he brings no personality or chemistry to the role. Fairing much better is his wise-cracking partner, Marcus (Sam Huntington), who has much more personality, and probably would have made a better hero. Even after he dies, he still has more charisma than Dylan. How so? Early on, Marcus is killed by a zombie. This turns Marcus into one of the living dead, and he spends the rest of the movie dealing with his new zombie state, and trying to get used to it. In one of the film's most clever scenes, he attends a support group for new zombies coming to terms with the fact they're now the living dead. The group believes that even though you're dead, you can still live life to the fullest.

picIf the movie had been able to have fun with itself like that more often, this probably would have been a better movie. Instead, it gets mired in a nonsensical and labored plot that makes less sense the more you think back on it. Dylan is hired by a young woman named Elizabeth (Anita Briem from TV's The Tudors) to investigate the murder of her father by a beast that broke into their home. He quickly deduces that the culprit is a werewolf, which he finds suspicious, and starts nosing around and asking questions of some of the usual suspects, such as a werewolf and old friend named Gabriel (Peter Stormare) and a shady vampire named Vargas (Taye Diggs). Ultimately, it's revealed that everyone is trying to get their hands on an old artifact that can grant control over a powerful demon. Possession of said artifact could cause a war amongst the different supernatural forces - something Dylan wants to prevent.

picDylan Dog spends too much time having the characters stand around, explaining the plot, instead of having fun with itself. There's too much exposition dialogue, and even when it does try to explain itself, it still sometimes doesn't make much sense. I assumed that much of the info being left out was common knowledge to fans of the comic, but then I read about how vastly different the movie is from the source material, so maybe something got lost in the editing room. Even so, the film is a hollow experience. I didn't buy the relationship between Dylan and Elizabeth, the monsters aren't that interesting, and although he gets off some good one liners, Worthington as Marcus seems to be inhabiting a different movie from everybody else - one that's probably more fun.
Let's just think about that movie for a moment. Just think of the possibilities that zombie support group idea could lead to, possibilities that Dylan Dog doesn't even begin to search. Or, how about a zombie trying to lead a normal life, despite his current status as the living dead who needs to eat flesh to survive? These ideas could have taken the movie to new heights. Too bad Dylan Dog is grounded by its own plot and uninteresting lead.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Water for Elephants

Even though I have never read Sara Gruen's acclaimed novel, I can tell that this film adaptation is lacking something the book most likely contained - A deep insight into the characters and their actions. Though handsomely mounted, and not really a bad movie, Water for Elephants constantly feels like its skimming the surface, like we're only getting part of the story. The movie feels bare bones in almost every way emotionally, especially the central love triangle that is supposed to drive this old fashioned romantic melodrama.

picAs the film opens, a wizened old man named Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) is visiting a circus, and shares the story of his youth, and how he ended up working for the famous Benzini Brothers Circus in the early days of the Great Depression. Flashback to 1931, where we find the much younger Jacob (Robert Pattinson) about to graduate from Cornell University with a degree in veterinary science, when his parents are suddenly killed in a car accident, leaving him homeless and broke. He wanders the streets for a while, until he hops aboard a train that he hopes will take him somewhere where he can find work. The train turns out to be a circus train, and its iron-fisted owner, August (Christoph Waltz), briefly considers tossing Jacob off, until he finds out he can use Jacob's veterinary skills to care for his animals. Of main interest to August is the new elephant that he recently purchased to be a star attraction in his show. The elephant is to be the centerpiece of a new act for August's wife, the lovely Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

picThe scenes depicting life in the circus during the Depression are quite fascinating, as director Francis Lawrence (I am Legend) and screenwriter Richard LaGranvanese (P.S. I Love You) show us what life was like for those who worked behind the scenes, as well as show an honest flair for how circuses were run during its time period. But it's the romance that grows between Jacob and Marlena as they work together that gets most of the screentime. After August's attempts to train the new elephant with cruel and brute force fails, Jacob and Marlena work out a more humane system to train the beast for Marlena's act. As they spend more time together, they begin to fall for each other, which is eventually noticed by the jealous and violent August. It's a plot concept that's almost as old as the movies themselves, but it can still work, and Water for Elephants does have a certain old fashioned charm that almost drew me in.

picBut we have to face the fact that there is no real chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon. Whenever their passions are supposed to be burning, especially during a brief PG-13 sex scene late in the film, it ends up feeling more tepid than it should. This is not entirely the fault of the actors', as LaGranvanese's screenplay makes us feel like we're watching these characters from the sidelines. Although Jacob and Marlena are likable enough, there's just not a lot to them, or to their relationship. When they start taking dangerous risks in order to be together, it feels more like manipulations of the plot, rather than a general desire to be together. I can only assume that Gruen's novel went deeper into their love, and those familiar with the book will understand their feelings more than I did. It's actually the antagonist August who ends up being the most interesting, as Waltz gives a complex performance, at least until the third act, which requires him to resort to almost cartoonish villainy.

picEven if the love story at the center of Water for Elephants left me wanting more, I was quite entertained by some of the other elements. This is a beautiful looking movie, with some memorable shots, including one of Jacob and August sitting on top of one of the train cars under a night sky as it makes its way down the track. And even if Pattinson and Witherspoon can't create any real chemistry together, they are fine enough on their own. I also admired the attention to detail to the sets. Everything feels authentic, and the train cars where most of the film's action take place each have their own unique look and style, creating a sort of social order for those who work for the circus. This is a well-executed film that is lacking a certain something in its central spark that's supposed to push it over the top.
I certainly do not regret seeing the movie, and I wish I liked it even more than I did. As it stands, I wish it had dug more into the characters and their relationships. This is an adaptation where something just feels a tiny bit off, even if you're not familiar with the source material. I don't think fans of the book will have a lot to complain about. Those who aren't familiar won't have much to complain about either, unless they're looking for a richly passionate romance.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Conspirator

Robert Redford's The Conspirator talks about a time in American history that is not covered in much detail in most American History classes in school - The aftermath of President Lincoln's assassination, and a military trial that was so desperate for justice and someone to blame for the crime, that a woman who possibly had alleged involvement with the murder found herself on trial, with an entire nation wanting to see her dead for a crime her son committed.

picThat woman was Mary Surratt, a name that has pretty much been lost to history. It's commendable that the film tries to shine some light on this forgotten part of the story. As for the film itself, it's compelling at times, and somewhat sluggish at others. Screenwriter James D. Solomon often writes his dialogue with a heavy hand, and some of the scenes suffer from a strange sort of stiffness that prevents some of the information we receive from packing the punch we think it should. But, when the film does work (which is often enough for me to recommend the film), it is undeniably powerful. It's handsomely filmed, has a strong and talented cast, and is bound to have people talking about the story and looking up the real facts when it's over.

picIn the film, Mary is played by Robin Wright, who brings a sort of quiet intensity to her role. We learn that in 1865, Mary Surratt ran the boardinghouse where the plot to kill Lincoln was conceived. Her son, John (Johnny Simmons), was one of the conspirators in on the plot. But after the assassination, John disappeared. Mary appears to be arrested and put on trial, because her son could not be found, and the government needed someone to be blamed in his place. The fact that she refuses to give any actual real information on her son only adds to the nation's anger toward her. Although we do get to witness the assassination early on in the film, the movie is more focused on the trial itself, and how the government seemed to make up its case against Mary as the trial went along, even resorting to paying off certain people to testify against her.

picThe man defending Mary at her trial is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who fought for the North during the Civil War, and now finds himself conflicted as he's defending this woman who may have been involved with the murder of the President. He doesn't want to represent her initially, but is pressed into doing so by his superior, Reverdy Johnson (a very good Tom Wilkinson in a minor role). Frederick obviously wants nothing to do with Mary Surratt, and believes her to be guilty. However, during the course of the trial, Frederick begins to suspect that the government officials are intentionally stacking things against his client's favor, and questions if Mary could ever get a fair trial. As evidence begins to mount that she just might be innocent, he becomes desperate to show the corruption going on within the trial.

picMcAvoy's passionate portrayal of Aiken is one of the major elements that prevents The Conspirator from becoming a stuffy bore. Though the dialogue is sometimes stilted and ham-fisted, McAvoy, Wright, and the rest of the cast (which also includes Kevin Kline and Evan Rachel Wood) bring the right amount of intensity and humanity to their characters. Plus, the film's central theme is riveting. It's fascinating to see the case against Mary being built up as the trial goes along, making it impossible not to get involved. Redford uses a deliberately slow pace, but at the same time, you can tell that he is stacking up the tension and the anger in his audience. We begin to share Frederick Aiken's frustration over the lack of justice in the courtroom, and become even more involved. The movie asks some hard questions, makes some interesting points on the topic of family and patriotism, and the central theme of the government's rush to judgement is a timely and terrifying one.
For all its obvious faults, The Conspirator still managed to work for me, and its ending (which I will not reveal) is undeniably powerful, and bound to stick with you long after it's over. This could have easily been a wooden and deadly dull film, but the performances and Redford's ability to mount subtle tension lifts the material. It may not be perfect, but The Conspirator is a film that stays with you.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Scream 4

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed a horror film called Insidious, a flawed but admirable throwback to old fashioned haunted house movies. Its reliance on atmosphere and traditional scares that we haven't seen in a lot of recent films of its type made it seem almost kind of fresh. Now we have Scream 4, which is a throwback of a different kind, and a far less admirable one. It's a fairly bland reboot of the film franchise that kick started the then-dormant slasher genre back in 1996. The formula's the same, the surviving original cast members are back, and there is some nostalgic fun to be had early on. But the movie's just not very interesting, or the least bit scary for that matter.

picScream 4 reunites director Wes Craven (who has hit hard times creatively since the original Scream series ended back in 2000), screenwriter Kevin Williamson (although according to reports, screenwriter Ehren Kruger did some rewrites), and lead stars Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette. The film even returns to the setting of the original film, the quaint little town of Woodsboro, where it all began. The movie is at least self aware that a little over 10 years have passed since the last film. After all, being self aware is a big part of the success of this franchise. The original film delighted in putting characters who were fans of slasher movies, and well versed in their conventions and cliches, and sticking them into a real life one, with the characters making the same mistakes the ones in their favorite movies do. (I still remember the scene where a guy is watching the original Halloween, and is yelling at Jamie Lee Curtis on the TV to turn around, as the killer was behind her, completely unaware that there was an actual killer standing right behind him as he watched the movie.) The idea worked well in that film, but three sequels later, the joke is pretty much played out. And despite the best efforts of the cast and crew, this new film just elicits yawns instead of thrills.

picThe film at least starts out promisingly enough, with series heroine Sidney Prescott (Campbell) returning to her hometown in order to plug a book she's written about overcoming the various turmoils she has faced during the earlier three movies. Somehow, she's been able to move on from having everyone close to her get butchered by various psychos wearing a Halloween costume, and is ready to share her inspiring story with the world. Of course, as soon as she returns to the town of Woodsboro, new murders start popping up. Someone is once again dressing up in the Grim Reaper-style outfit (known affectionately to fans as "Ghostface"), and killing the people around Sidney. This does not bode well for Sidney's young cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), nor many of her teenaged friends, which include closet film buff Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), next door neighbor Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), Jill's ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella), and school film geeks Robbie (Erik Knudson) and Charlie (Rory Culkin). It doesn't help that these kids have a bad habit of staying on the phone line when there's a scary voice on the other end, or going in dark places they really shouldn't. Must be something they pass down to their kids over in Woodsboro.

picIn a subplot, Sidney's old friends Dewey Riley (Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Cox) are still living in Woodsboro and married, though not exactly happily. Dewey is now the Sheriff, and seems to be spending a lot of time flirting with the female deputy (Marley Shelton), a plot that is dropped almost the instant it's brought up. As for Gale, she's out of the news business, but longs for the days when she used to investigate the crime stories she was covering. The new series of murders gives her that chance, as she sets out on her own to do a private investigation. I can picture all of this working, but that would require a screenplay that was actually interested in following what the characters have been up to in the past 10 years or so. Scream 4 is not, unfortunately. The characters are hollow shells of who they used to be, and while some interesting ideas are tossed out there (such as the marriage turmoil between Dewey and Gale), the movie doesn't follow through. Maybe the filmmakers were worried about the real life turmoil that's been following Arquette and Cox in their relationship? Whatever the case, it feels like a lost opportunity for some much needed character development.

picInstead, we get the characters making a lot of references and jokes about current horror films, "torture porn", and being self aware a lot. While humor has always been an element to Scream, I think this movie plays up the jokes more than I remember in the earlier films. The opening sequence (which is basically a movie-within a movie-within a movie gag) comes dangerously close to spoof territory. It's not just the fact that a lot of the jokes fall flat, but it also pretty much kills any tension the movie tries to create. Truth be told, the gags in this one just aren't that clever, the most desperate being that one of the characters is named Anthony Perkins. Funny names are seldom funny, and come across as being just stupid in a thriller. The one joke that did make me laugh is when the characters are talking about the declining quality of the Stab films, a series of fictional slasher movies based on the Woodsboro murders, and how the series hit rock bottom when they introduced time travel to the plot in Stab 5. (The series is currently up to 7, we learn.)

picThe real problem with Scream 4 is that it tries too hard to capture what made the first movie work. The original seemed effortless, while this one seems labored and playing up the gags and the references to other horror movies too hard and too often. It comes across more like a cry of desperation from the filmmakers, rather than a movie that needed to be made. Rather than revisit the characters we have come to love, or address them in interesting ways, the movie simply regurgitates the old formula, puts some new faces in (none of whom are developed in any interesting way, and exist simply to get stabbed by Ghostface), and expects to win us over with nostalgia alone. That's not enough, especially with a screenplay this thin. Once the novelty of seeing these characters again 10 years later fades, there's simply not much of a story to tell.
Scream 4 was apparently a very troubled production (there are reports of fights with the studio, changes to the script, and last minute reshoots), and it shows in every way up on the screen. This is a halfhearted effort at best to recapture old glory, and one that will be embraced by only the most fevered fans of the franchise. There are some interesting ideas up there, but whether they were left on the cutting room floor or just not explored, they just don't add up to much.

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There's nothing particularly wrong with Rio, except for the fact that there are so many better choices out there for kids and families. Yes, the movie is bright and colorful (as long as you see the movie in 2D as I did, and not 3D), the voice talent is solid, and kids will likely be mesmerized by the large cast of talking and singing birds. But with so many animated films raising the bar in terms of script and storytelling, the movie ends up feeling kind of hollow. Never bad, just not very memorable.

picOne thing that does set the film apart is its choice of setting - Rio de Janeiro. It's an odd setting for a kid's movie, especially for anyone who has seen the movie City of God. The movie downplays a lot of what really happens in Rio (and Brazil in general), and focuses on some cute birds (and monkeys, and even a dog) going on family friendly adventures in order to get home. Apparently, the film's director, Carlos Saldanha (all three Ice Age films), was born in Rio, and considers his movie to be a love letter to his home. It certainly gives the film a vibrant and unique look, and the film's colors are some of the best I've seen in a recent animated film. But, I can picture some awkward conversations after the movie with parents trying to tell their kids why Rio de Janeiro is not exactly the best idea for a vacation destination.

picOnto the plot, which kicks off when a rare blue macaw bird who, is not very originally named Blu (voice by Jesse Eisenberg), is abducted from his tree home in Rio by some exotic pet sellers. He's stuffed in a crate, and shipped off to Minnesota, where the truck carrying him hits a bump in the road, causing the crate to fall out the back. Fortunately, he's instantly discovered by the kindhearted book seller, Linda (Leslie Mann), who raises and domesticates the bird. Through Linda, the little guy learns how to fist bump, ride around on a little toy car, drink hot cocoa, and even brush his beak. But he never learns how to fly. That all changes when an avian scientist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) discovers Blu through the window of Linda's store, and walks inside with an offer for both of them.

picTulio explains that Blu is the last male of his species, and he just so happens to have the last female blue macaw back at his lab in Rio. He wants Linda to bring Blu to Rio, so that the two birds can mate and save their species. The heroes make the trip to Tulio's bird sanctuary, but things don't work out as planned, when it turns out that the female blue macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway), has no interest in Blu, and would rather escape from the lab and live free. But before that can even happen, both of the birds are stolen by some smugglers, who break in with the aid of the evil cockatoo Nigel (Jermaine Clement). Blu and Jewel are chained together by the villains, and begin an adventure across Rio, as they try to escape from the smugglers. They're aided by a pair of comic sidekick birds (Jamie Foxx and recording artist, a free-spirited toucan named Rafael (George Lopez), and a bulldog (Tracy Morgan) who shows up late in the film, but doesn't have much to do with anything.

picEven for such a simple plot, Rio meanders instead of grabbing our attention. Even kids may find their attention drifting in and out as the birds argue, sing, and crack jokes, but do little else. Despite the exotic locale, we see very little of Rio, and the action is pretty low key throughout. It gets to the point that the only thing holding our attention is the beautiful animation, and the brilliant colors on the different birds on display. The first half of the film, dealing with Linda and Blu's relationship, is kind of sweet, and probably the best part of the movie. Once it turns into a chase picture, though, with the birds trying to stay ahead of the smugglers, it loses something. The characters lack the personality we saw early on, and the movie eventually turns into a very pretty, but repetitive kid's film.
Very little kids might become attached to Rio, but older kids will probably be able to see there's not much here behind the attractive visuals. This is a case of a movie where everyone is obviously trying their best, but there's very little to it to begin with. With so many animated films working beyond their intended audience, Rio plays it far too safe, and suffers for it.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Win Win

Here is a sweet, unassuming little movie that manged to win me over by the end. I wasn't sure if it would succeed at first. For the first half hour or so, Win Win is kind of aimless. It's sweet and kind of likeable, but it doesn't seem to be leading to anywhere. But then, the pieces of the plot start falling into place, and I found myself caring about the characters. The movie's far too neat and tidy to be great, but it's definitely good, and it made me feel happy watching it.

picThe movie stars Paul Giamatti in the kind of character he seems to be born to play - A well-meaning, but insecure man who life has passed by. His character, Mike Flaherty, is the embodiment of that. He's a small town lawyer with a struggling practice, where he can barely afford to pay the bills, or fix that heater in the basement that is constantly clanging away, disrupting him, as well as his co-workers and clients. He's a family man, with a devoted wife (Amy Ryan) and kids, but even at home, you get the sense that the spark of life is gone. We meet some of the other people in Mike's life, including Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor), an accountant and the head coach of the local high school's losing wrestling team (Mike is the assistant coach), and Terry (Bobby Cannavale). Stephen seems to be in the same place in life as Mike, while Terry's not quite old enough yet to realize that all of his dreams are shattered yet.

picAs Mike shuffles through his unfulfilled life, he soon learns that his law practice is in danger of shutting down, due to financial problems. He doesn't want to break the news to his wife and kids, but soon he discovers a way out of it. One of his clients, a man by the name of Leo (Burt Young) is in the early stages of dementia, and is being forced out of his home. Mike initially takes Leo's side to let him keep the home, but when he finds out that the estate will pay $1,500 a month to Leo's legal guardian, Mike sets it up so that he himself is named the guardian to his client, and Leo gets shipped off to an old folk's home. Leo has a daughter, who should rightfully be entitled to the money, but she's a drifter and a drug addict, and no one knows where she is. This chain of events sets the plot proper into motion, and these characters, who seemed kind of simplistic, begin to take on a life of their own.

picTurns out Leo has a grandson, a shady teen named Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who basically dresses and acts like he's the poster child for jaded youth. Kyle has come to live with old Leo, wanting to get away from his addict mother, but winds up living at Mike's home instead. Mike eventually bonds with the kid, and finds out he was a champion wrestler at his old high school as well. The familiar plot points are put into motion. We know that young Kyle will lead the losing wrestling team to victory. We know that Mike and Kyle will become friends, and start respecting one another. We know that Kyle's mom is going to show up at some point and ruin things. We know all this, and they all happen on cue. But Win Win is a little bit quieter and smarter than the formula suggests. It follows conventions, but it's not a slave to it. There's some pleasant and funny dialogue provided by writer-director Tom McCarthy. Plus, young Mr. Shaffer as Kyle seems like a real kid. He's not a pre-packaged "bad boy with a heart of gold" Hollywood-type. He's quiet and unassuming, but demands our attention. Kind of like the movie itself.

picThe movie has a lot of little charms like that. I liked the way that Giamatti and Tambor seem to use humor to hold onto their sanity as they go through their dull lives, and deal with the realization that they have a terrible wrestling team, until Kyle shows up. I liked the way the movie doesn't try to play up everything as some big development. The movie is laid back, funny, and kind of sweet. I would have liked more scenes about Mike's home life, maybe give Amy Ryan more to do as his wife until her big scene when she finds out that her husband has been taking money from his client's estate. Still, she does what she can with the role, and everyone else is very good, too. This is not a movie of great performances, but there sure are a lot of likeable ones here.
Yeah, Win Win is very predictable, and the ending is wrapped up far too tidy. So what? This isn't a gritty or realistic film, and doesn't aspire to be. It's a small little movie that probably won't be noticed too much, but those who discover it will remember it fondly. The more I think about it, that was probably McCarthy's intention when he made the film. If it was, he succeeded. This is a sweet and often funny movie.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Your Highness

I wonder if there is an audience for a movie like Your Highness. Is there a big demand for films that try to spoof cheesy 80s fantasy epics like Conan, Krull, and Willow? Well, perhaps I should be more specific. Is there a big demand for films that don't even bother to spoof the films I mentioned above, and instead reference their plots, then throw in a lot of four letter words and drug humor? This is a tired and weary one-joke movie, and that joke is everyone in the movie talks and acts like they're in a fantasy epic, except for the main character, who reacts to everything with modern day sarcastic quips and obscenities.

picThat would be Thadeous (Danny McBride), the slacker Prince of a faraway kingdom, and the constant embarrassment to his father, King Tallious (Charles Dance). While Thadeous' brother, the noble and daring Prince Fabious (James Franco), is off righting wrongs and saving maidens from towers, Thadeous prefers to stay behind at the castle, smoking weed, and hanging out with his best friend and personal servant, Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker). The plot (such as it is) kicks off when Fabious returns victorious from his latest mission. He has saved the lovely Princess Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel, who is given nothing to do in her thankless role) from an evil cyclops, and plans to marry her. As the kingdom launches into a lavish celebration, it is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the evil warlock, Leezar (Justin Theroux). It seems that Leezar was the one who captured the Princess in the first place, and wants her back. The villain escapes with Belladonna, and now Fabious must go on another perilous quest to save her, this time accompanied by his brother Thadeous, who has never gone on a quest before.

picIt's a serviceable set up for a fantasy spoof, but the problem is Your Highness never really does anything funny with it. We're supposed to laugh at the fact that Thadeous is completely out of place from everything and everyone else around him. This might be funny in a different movie, but the screenplay credited to McBride and his writing partner Ben Best never really goes beyond that simple idea. (Actually, there are reports that the script was pretty much tossed out on the set, and most of the film was improvised.) And when it does go beyond that simple idea and actually tries to spoof conventions of the fantasy genre, it's juvenile and boring. Take the scene when the brothers seek guidance from a wise old wizard (voice by Mario Torres, Jr.), a CG creature that kind of looks like Yoda crossed with a catfish. We learn that the wizard is a child molesting pervert, and that Fabious spent much time with the creature as a little boy.

picI'm not against crude humor, I'm only against it when it's boring, as is the case here. The movie thinks it's shocking that the characters keep on using four letter words, but using those words alone aren't enough to get a laugh or to get a reaction. In fact, what shocked me more than the juvenile script is the fact that it looks like a lot of money went into this production. This is a big budget film, with impressive sets and effects. These are real and likable actors up on the screen being forced to say the banal dialogue and jokes. Heck, Natalie Portman, fresh off her Oscar win, shows up as the Warrior Princess Isabel, who also seeks revenge on the evil warlock and joins the brothers on their quest. She is given little to do here, and should thank her lucky stars that this movie came out after the Oscar voters filled out the ballots. Speaking of having little to do, Deschanel as the Princess mainly gets to sit around and wait for Leezar to rape her as part of an evil ceremony that will give him power.

picEven the director, David Gordon Green, is better than the material. Up until his last film, Pineapple Express, he was known for independent small films. While I have no problem with a filmmaker branching out and trying to go mainstream, I have to wonder what he saw in this project. What did anyone involved see in this project, for that matter? I sat there, hoping that the next scene would hold the answer, but it never did. Instead of an answer, I got a man who cuts off the penis of a minotaur, and wears it around his neck like a trophy. It's right about this time that I realized this was basically a very dirty kid's movie. With its juvenile humor aimed at 13-year-olds, and its fantasy setting filled with dragons, wizards, and magic, the movie seems to be targeted at a much younger audience than those who can usually get into an R-rated movie.
Your Highness speaks to nobody old enough to pay to get in, only to those who are young enough to sneak in without paying. I can only hope that the cast and crew had fun making it, so that something good came out of it being made. It had to have been more fun to make than it is watch. At least the actors on the screen got paid. All the audience gets to do is look at their watches.

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