In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
With his soldier wife Grace deployed in Iraq Midwestern home supply store manager Stanley Philipps (John Cusack) is doing his best to be both mom and dad to Heidi 12 and Dawn 8. He doesn't have much of a support network--the military spouses' group he attends exactly once is all women who spend most of the meeting talking about sex (or lack thereof)--so when he gets the news he's been dreading he has no idea what to do. Unable to tell Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe) and Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) that their mom won't be coming home he instead impulsively takes them on a road trip to a far-away amusement park. Bouncy eager Dawn is unreservedly thrilled but introspective responsible Heidi knows something's up. As Stanley fumbles his way toward the sad truth the wounded family's physical and emotional journey proves quietly touching if not wholly gut-wrenching. From the first moment that Cusack appears on screen you know that Stanley isn't one of his typical hyper-verbal hipsters. Dressed in beige and sporting dorky Clark Kent glasses Stanley is 100 percent Regular Guy and Cusack dials down his usual energy to make the character convincing. It sometimes seems like he's overcompensating a bit--only in a few scenes does Stanley really seem to wake up--but the character is a man stunned by grief. Cusack is ably matched by newcomer O'Keefe who's stellar as Heidi. Aged prematurely by her mother's absence Heidi is conscientious and thoughtful with an independent streak that makes her act out even when she doesn't fully understand what's going on. O'Keefe fully inhabits her character making Heidi believable as a daughter a sister (the girls' interactions are refreshingly realistic) and a child on the verge of adolescence. Pushed slightly one way or the other Grace Is Gone could easily have become a propaganda piece either for or against the current war in Iraq. But writer/director James C. Strouse manages for the most part to walk the tricky line between flag-waving patriotism and anti-war zeal. Grace--and her contribution to her country--are honored but the devastation that follows a soldier's fall is made clear. What Strouse doesn't do quite as well is let his audience form their own emotional responses to his film. From the spare bleak score to the wrenching scenes of grief Grace can feel a bit manipulative ("you will be sad now!"). Perhaps for that reason it ultimately doesn't have the impact it clearly intended. Even the climactic cathartic scenes feel a little removed--maybe if we knew Grace like Stanley Heidi and Dawn did we'd be able to mourn her more passionately.
Oh cruel technology! With so many remote controls for so many devices Michael Newman (Adam Sandler) always clicks the wrong power button. He’s sick of it. The workaholic is also sick of being too busy to find time for his family. On a late-night trip to Bed Bath & Beyond in search of a universal remote he kills two birds with one stone. After passing the bed section and the bath section Michael reaches the “beyond ” where he meets an eccentric man named Morty (Christopher Walken) who offers a remote to control his life. No more wasting time or missing out--he can fast-forward rewind and pause; his life is his own personal TiVo. It’s all well and good until he abuses the fast-forward button and misses all the beautiful minutiae of life. Before long he’s old sick and alone and realizes--thanks to the rewind button--that he was never there for his family. It’s a simple twist of fate for Michael but it’s neither his only one nor his simplest. With Click some Sandler fans may fear he’s veering towards the Jim Carrey path of gradually more earnest roles. No fear necessary however for this is not Carrey’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (similar as the broad existential strokes may be) and it’s not even Punch-Drunk Love. It’s merely light tear-jerking Sandler-style. He does prove in addition to his beaten-path shtick-y performance that he has some drama in him after all these years--which may or may not foretell more serious roles down the road. But there’s still an abundance of his trademark goofiness to go around. As Sandler’s onscreen wife Kate Beckinsale might go unnoticed if not for her scene-stealing beauty. Her interplay with Sandler is husband-wife cute if nothing else. Consistently funny supporting turns from Walken and David Hasselhoff--as Sandler’s jerk of a boss--provide the usual semi-big names that Sandler movies typically boast. Click is a high-concept film--too bad it’s all “summer-ed” up (or down) because film might be the best medium to explore such a fascinating and potentially deep notion. But this is summertime Sandler after all and who better to keep the serious stuff from getting too serious than Sandler’s pal/collaborator (and director of The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer) Frank Coraci? The director has the Sandler fan base at heart and the result is thus decidedly unsubtle and not always pretty for a movie that should’ve in all honesty gone with more gusto towards the morose undertones the story puts into place--though the director at least didn’t completely steer away from dramatic elements. The usual goods are still here (i.e. fart jokes Sandler’s at times hilarious yapping) but the pivotal flashbacks and life themes feel crammed adding to the movie’s general unevenness. Bruce Almighty writers Steve Koren and Adam O’Keefe add their supernatural twist to straightforward comedy but they fail to produce anything beyond a slightly less-funny Bruce with a side of Multiplicity and Mr. Destiny.
Based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane Mystic River is full of characters wrought with heavy emotions--and burdens. Yet it is also a fairly simplistic murder mystery. Three 13-year old boys Jimmy Sean and Dave are playing on a street in a tough Boston neighborhood when two pedophiles pretending to be cops grab Dave and take him away. In that moment all three lives are irrevocably changed. Jimmy (Sean Penn) grew up as tough as his neighborhood doing time for robbery but finally settling into a comfortable family life with his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). Sean (Kevin Bacon) went on to become a cop but his personal life is in a shambles and he is estranged from his wife. Dave (Tim Robbins) has never been able to face his demons despite being a loving father and husband to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). Now 25 years later tragedy brings them together once again. Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter is found murdered and while Sean is assigned to the case with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) Jimmy seeks his own vigilante investigation with the local hoods--and Dave emerges as a prime suspect. As the mystery is unraveled all are pulled closer toward an abyss that will force them to face their true selves--and will mark them as irrevocably as the past itself has tainted their lives.
This is one of those dream scripts serious actors simply go gaga over--and the high-quality ensemble in Mystic River does their jobs superbly. To pinpoint the best performance of the bunch however is virtually impossible--and the Academy may have a tough time making the same distinction as there is surely going to be a nomination or two coming from this film. Penn as the emotionally charged Jimmy stands out a little ahead of the rest with his fury resonating throughout the film. Robbins' ultra-vulnerable Dave is also a remarkable study of a soul completely wounded by the horrors he has experienced. Linney and Harden too are excellent as the spouses; Linney as Annabeth is a strong defiant mother whose only impetus is to protect those she loves while Harden in contrast is meek and unsure as Celeste faced with the dilemma of showing faith and loyalty to her husband while at the same time being convinced he committed the murder. All the performances will quite literally blow your socks off.
With all its excellent acting Mystic River has the added benefit of being helmed by director Clint Eastwood who has enormous talent behind the camera. He likes his films to simmer; his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Oscar-winning Unforgiven are two examples. Mystic River is beautifully put together with lingering shots of Boston neighborhoods and the people who live in them. He doesn't move the camera much keeps things steady but knows when to pull in or pull out as the drama escalates (an aerial shot of an anguished Jimmy being held back by several policeman after he discovers his daughter's body shakes you to the core). Still there are some problems with this slow-burn technique in that sometimes things should move along rather than stand still. Eastwood seems also to have had trouble finding the ending. After a pivotal powerful climactic scene with Jimmy and Sean discussing Dave's kidnapping 25 years ago and its effect on all their lives Eastwood tacks on a few more final scenes of the men tying up loose ends resolving feelings with each other and their wives--and then going to watch a parade. It's a minor point compared to the quality of the rest of the film but it still leaves things on an anti-climactic note.