In adapting a rather flimsy children’s book into a full-fledged feature film one has to take some liberties. We first meet the lovable little monkey in the wild where his curious habits wreck havoc. Meanwhile in the big city Ted (voiced by Will Ferrell)--aka The Man with the Yellow Hat--is a highly enthusiastic guide at the soon-to-be-closed Bloomsberry Museum. In order to save the museum (here’s where they pad it) he is sent on a mission to Africa to retrieve a lost shrine. But when he gets there the only thing he finds is a miniature version of it--and George of course. The lonely monkey decides to follow Ted all the way back to the city where his mischievous tendencies get him into even more trouble. George nearly ruins everything for Ted but somehow the little feller eventually grows on him. How could he not? If I can borrow a line from Madagascar little George is so cute I just like to dunk him in my coffee. When you’re reading Curious George out loud to your kids you don’t get the impression The Man with the Yellow Hat is a good-natured but geeky fellow gangly clumsy and clueless about women. Thank goodness the film has Will Ferrell to clear it up for us! You basically know what you’re in for once you recognize his voice and his natural comic timing shines through lending for some funnier moments (“OK I’m looking directly into the sun. Staring right at it. I’ve got to be honest with you it stings…”). The other voices in the film also do a fine job including Drew Barrymore as a schoolteacher who has a crush on Ted; Eugene Levy as the mad museum scientist; Dick Van Dyke as the museum’s old-time curator; and David Cross as his weasly greedy son. Based on the books and illustrations by Margret and H.A. Rey Curious George embraces the essence of the timeless stories created 65 years ago. The film apparently took awhile to find its voice. Producer Ron Howard originally conceived it as live-action film but quickly realized they could never get a real monkey as cute and fuzzy as George. Then CGI was considered but ultimately the filmmakers kept returning to the source: the late H.A. Rey’s original painstakingly beautiful illustrations. Thankfully they stuck with that idea. Curious George is lush and vibrant with all of Rey’s best efforts fully realized in Technicolor. And much like what the Piglet’s Big Movie did with Carly Simon and The Wild Thornberrys with Paul Simon Curious George is also sprinkled with original songs by hot pop singer Jack Johnson to give it a modern feel. So what if the story gets a little overblown in parts it will still introduce one of literature’s most enduring icons to the young-un’s--while allowing the adults to reminisce.
Based on the best-selling book by Mark Foster Game tells the remarkable real-life story of Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf). He was a working-class immigrant kid who in the early 1900s turned the privileged world of golf on its ear. The story begins with Francis working as a caddie at a posh country club where he masters the game by quietly practicing on his own. His French-born father (Elias Koteas) thinks he's wasting his time and should be earning an honest wage but Francis is far too smitten with the game to give it up. Francis finally gets his big break when an amateur spot opens up at the 1913 U.S. Open. With a feisty 10-year-old caddie named Eddie (Josh Flitter) by his side egging him on Francis plays the best he ever has. He eventually finds himself facing off against the sport's undisputed champion Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) a U.S. Open winner and six-time British Open champion (a record that still stands today). Their legendary battle changes the face of the sport forever--but I wouldn't necessarily call it the greatest game ever.
Game is one of those juicy little biopics actors can really sink their teeth into. Starting with our young lead LaBeouf (Holes) is sufficiently determined as the guy playing against impossible odds. His Francis with his liquid brown eyes and winning smile is full of optimism and raw talent that propels him into the majors. And he looks pretty authentic swinging a golf club too. Still it may be time for LaBeouf to move on from the Disney family fare and do something grittier sort of like what he showed in Constantine. Dillane--who was so achingly good in The Hours as Virginia Woolf's beleaguered husband--also does a fine job as the legendary Vardon a man haunted by his own demons. In a way Game is a story about both men who have more in common than they realize. Although a top professional in the sport Vardon has to fight against the elitist golfing community's prejudices. You see Vardon grew up dirt poor on the plains of Scotland and because of his background was never permitted into any "gentleman's" clubs. The cast of colorful supporting players add to the film especially Flitter as the caustic but encouraging Eddie. He may be small but he packs a wallop. The last shot of the movie features Francis and Eddie walking off the golf course at sunset evoking the classic Casablanca ending line "This is the start of a beautiful friendship"--which apparently really happened. The real-life Eddie and Francis remained friends for the rest of their lives.
The main slice against Game is that it's about golf. Besides comedies such as Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore a serious movie about the game really isn't going to stir your soul say like football or baseball. But actor-turned-director Bill Paxton--who made his directorial debut with the creepy Frailty--takes the story and keeps it convincingly affecting. Much like Seabiscuit it's the real-life historical context that makes Game even more compelling. Paxton painstakingly details how the game was played at the turn of the century--and who was allowed to play it. The whole discriminatory arrogance surrounding the game makes the stakes even higher for our heroes. Vardon had a score to settle while Ouimet simply became the game's new hero paving the way for legendary whiz kids like Tiger Woods to step up on the green. Paxton also views Game as a Western. The final golf round between Vardon and Ouimet is the ultimate shootout á la the OK Corral in which the camera angles are inventive--a bird's eye view of the ball sailing through the air or gliding on the green into the hole. Plus he keeps the tension as taut as he can considering the less than exhilarating subject matter. Oh come on who isn't a sucker for a good sports underdog story even if it is golf?
About Schmidt is a curious slice of Americana. The film is really about ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives but the characters are so clearly drawn and the dialogue so rich you are immediately hooked. Somewhat reluctantly 66-year-old Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) retires from his long-standing job as an insurance salesman. He wonders what he is going to do with his time now. His wife Helen (June Squibb) convinces him to buy a motor home so they can travel around the country together in their golden years. That would be great if Helen didn't bug Warren incessantly. He is also plagued by the fact his only daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is marrying Randall (Dermot Mulroney) a dimwitted fellow Warren does not consider worthy of his daughter (and really isn't). Still Warren would go on living his life without any change indefinitely even if he wasn't very happy because darn it that's what you do. But suddenly things do change for Warren--Helen unexpectedly dies leaving him with a big empty house and his own nagging thoughts which he writes down in letters to the third-world foster child he sponsors in Africa for $22 a month. Finally one day he wakes up with a purpose in life--to stop Jeannie's marriage. He decides to drive the Winnebago across the country to convince her she's making a mistake but as with any good soul-searching journey he discovers more things about himself than anything else.
Oscar-winning Nicholson is one of those performers who continually surprises you. He may have that same maniacal grin and the unmistakable "Jack" voice but he is an actor of immeasurable talent--and he goes way out on a limb as Warren Schmidt. He plays all 66 years right up there on screen in vivid Technicolor--down to the gray hair wrinkles black socks and saggy boxer shorts. Nicholson lets his vanity go to epitomize the aging white Midwest American man. The process the actor uses to transform Warren from a cold and selfish man into a somewhat decent human being is mesmerizing. This is Jack's movie and he should almost certainly get an Oscar nod for this. But to give credit to the rest of the cast almost everyone in the film turns in gutsy performances. Davis (Hearts in Atlantis) downplays her good looks to play the mousy Jeannie who eventually stands up to her father. Mulroney's performance as the mullet-haired Randall is a far cry from his romantic leading man in My Best Friend's Wedding. The supporting role which stands out the most is Randall's New Age mom Roberta as played by Oscar winner Kathy Bates. She bares it all--literally and figuratively--and gives the spunky Roberta a wonderful very human twist. Her scene with Nicholson in a hot tub is one for the movie anthologies.
Much like his excellent films Election and Citizen Ruth writer/director Alexander Payne likes to paint a picture of true blue Americans perhaps somewhat exaggerated for the big screen but nonetheless real. Anyone who sees About Schmidt will know at least one Warren Schmidt in their lives--an uncle a friend but more than likely a father. Payne exquisitely details this man's life visually and with the spoken word. From the opening shots of the insurance building Schmidt works in to seeing Warren sitting in his empty office boxes packed waiting for the hour hand to hit 5:00 so he can leave to his less-than-happy retirement party you immediately understand what this character is all about. He lives his life by the book rarely venturing off the beaten path until at 66 he realizes he wants to break free. As soon as Warren starts his journey things unravel ruts are broken out of and even though Warren won't entirely change who he is he tries to be a better person. His toast to his daughter at her wedding reception is classic--you think at any moment he is going to ruin it for her and do something typically "Schmidt-like " but he ends up surprising you instead. There are only a few moments when the film drags a little but for the rest it is riveting.