Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.
Like Madagascar the story starts at the New York Zoo. Samson (Kiefer Sutherland) the lion is once again the star of the show but unlike Madagascar’s Alex Samson claims he came from the wild. He regales the other odd assortment of zoo denizens--including a talkative giraffe (Janeane Garofalo) a lisping anaconda (Richard Kind) a snarky Koala (Eddie Izzard) and a take-charge squirrel (Jim Belushi)--with tales of danger and excitement abroad. Of course Samson can’t tell the real truth that he was actually born in captivity and is making it all up because everyone including his rebellious teenage son Ryan (Greg Cipes) would think less of him. But when Ryan runs away thinking he can’t live up to his dad’s reputation and is mistakenly shipped off to the wild Samson has keep up the charade as the gang embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue him. The lion does come clean at some point in case you were wondering. Another vocal roster of big names another dollar. This time around we’ve got Sutherland Garofalo Belushi all doing the animal thing. There’s also William Shatner as a villainous wildebeest headed for the loony bin after deciding he’s tired of being the prey and turns predator. He’s even got his herd of wildebeest dancing a Busby Berkeley number around a volcano á la Lion King. Sigh. Luckily there is one saving grace--sort of: Izzard as the wisecracking Koala bear Nigel who gets mistaken for a god by the wildebeest and milks it for all its worth which isn’t a whole lot. Still if anyone has seen the British comedian’s hilarious HBO special Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill you can just imagine him strutting around as a Koala dressed in women’s clothing and doing his shtick. The Mouse House once again proves it doesn’t have an inventive bone in its body--or even the gumption to realize that had something with potential. Apparently the pitch from writers Mark Gibson and Philip Halprin had been mulling around Disney for about nine years before it got made giving the likes of Nemo and Madagascar a head start (I’d be peeved if I were those writers). But even if The Wild did come first it still wouldn’t be able to measure up mostly because the story is insipid. Wildebeest turning into predators? What’s THAT all about? The CGI-animation is spot on of course but we are definitely taking all of that for granted these days. No now what we want is a good compelling story. If not that then at least we should have a couple of really funny characters--like commando penguins or a fish with short-term memory--to help things move along. The Wild doesn’t have either so while children may be left mildly entertained for an hour and a half parents will be left twiddling their thumbs waiting for it to be over.
Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector opens with a man scratching his plumber’s-crack re-using a cotton swab to clean his ear and wearing the sleeveless shirt he uses as a towel. Naturally this is Larry (the Cable Guy) a health inspector. Halfheartedly inspecting the local food joints he’s leading the life that suits him well. But when his boss (Thomas F. Wilson) assigns him a serious-minded female partner (Iris Bahr) his world is turned upside down--or at least made less comfy. Larry’s called in to investigate “some fartin’ Jewish folks” at a swankier restaurant and learns that it’s not an isolated incident. While Larry’s unorthodox methods manage to arouse the interest of a waitress (Megyn Price) with bowel habits that he adores his tactics arouse the ire of the restaurateurs he investigates and it costs him his job. Now he’s forced to do whatever it takes to prove his innocence. Even the D-listers here must’ve gone straight to confession upon accepting these roles to help cushion their bank accounts. Let’s start with Larry the Cable Guy (of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour “Git-R-Done” fame) who is one of the most successful stand-up comics today. He’s right in his element seemingly with fart blanche on toilet humor but to the unconverted he’s a little more than grating. Speaking of grating the (hopefully) affected voice of Bahr makes the movie mostly unlistenable in addition to being unwatchable. But take pity on her for this is no way to jumpstart a movie career. Tony Hale clearly still reeling from the potential cancellation of TV’s Arrested Development (on which he plays Buster) also lowers his star and integrity with an ambiguous character here. And Joe Pantoliano shows his face. The once great character actor reaches a new low with this one even if his performance isn’t all bad. Health Inspector masters the art of the fart. But more disgusting than the settings with which the farts are juxtaposed is the ad nauseam (pun intended) level of over-usage. So congratulations go to along with fart Yoda Larry the Cable Guy director Trent Cooper who makes his feature directorial debut. And might we add what a fart-tastic debut it is! But it’s not all farts ladies and gentleman--all forms of gross-out humor are exploited unlike ever before. On the er serious side the collection of running jokes adds to a few legit laughs. Cooper helms a story that naturally doesn’t work deferring instead to Larry’s natural um charisma. The script offers no segue into Larry’s stand-up persona but anyone who sees this here flick ain’t lookin’ for no dang Oscar winner. Clearly Health Inspector will appeal to Larry’s following but is not meant for those of sound mind.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
Given that The Score's motto seems to have been "been there stole that " it's hard to imagine why it would interest the likes of De Niro Norton and Brando. Perhaps the determining factor was the prospect of working with one another. Couldn't be the rather pedestrian and obvious story and script credited to Kario Salem Lem Dobbs Scott Marshall Smith and Daniel E. Taylor which is a basic rehashing of everything from Sexy Beast to The Thomas Crown Affair. See De Niro's safecracker wants to retire and live happily ever after with main squeeze Angela Bassett. Lo and behold longtime partner-in-crime Brando offers De Niro the chance of a lifetime: steal a 16th-century French scepter from a Montreal customs house and live like a king. The catch? The inside man is the brash disrespectful and untrustworthy Norton. De Niro hates risks. Working with Norton represents a risk. Risks land you in prison he tells Norton. So naturally De Niro takes the risk we expect him to take. Too bad the risks offer little in the way of intrigue or surprise.
De Niro's cool and calm but there's little effort to make his thief anything other than an old pro out to enjoy his ill-gotten gains. Norton has the flashier role. He poses as a mildly retarded janitor to infiltrate the customs house. Cue endless scenes of Norton's Rain Man cocking his head asking the same dumb question and smiling at jokes made at his expense. Outside of the customs house he exudes cockiness impudence and a willingness to underestimate his partners. A coherent Brando still proves a distraction by constantly scratching his jutting jaw whenever he parks himself on the nearest stool. The prospect of seeing the men who won Academy Awards for portraying Don Corleone is tantalizing but the lengthy conversations between De Niro and Brando seem listless and devoid of weight. The same applies to the scenes--a disappointing two--between De Niro Norton and Brando.
The Score marks a distinct change of pace for director Frank Oz. One of the creative forces behind The Muppets Oz's post-Miss Piggy career includes such frenetic farces as Little Shop of Horrors and Bowfinger. Almost as a complete rejection of his past achievements Oz keeps The Score as po-faced and static as possible. There's no time for any humor when there's a safe to be cracked. Oz keeps the cameras trained on his cast seemingly afaird to move it in case he misses a gesture borne out of genius. Bearing this in mind everything else seems secondary. Which is how the heist feels. De Niro breaks in. We knew he would. He manages to open the safe. We knew he would. There's never a moment that doesn't feel manufactured. Even the last-minute twist feels like the comeuppance we've been expecting since De Niro first gave Norton a look of monumental disdain.