A comedy featuring Steve Martin Jack Black and Owen Wilson creates certain expectations not the least of which is well laughter. But David Frankel’s (Marley & Me The Devil Wears Prada) anodyne feather-light film The Big Year in which the three actors star is less concerned with eliciting big laughs than offering earnest insights on the meaning of success and the value of friendship.
Delving into the subculture of hard-core birders (don’t call them bird-watchers) the film follows three men semi-retired industrialist Stu (Martin) schlubby corporate drone Brad (Black) and suburban contractor Kenny (Wilson) as they vie in a year-long competition known as the Big Year. The goal of the competition is simple: to spot as many different bird species in North America as possible. As current Big Year record-holder Kenny is something of a rock star in the birding world. His cocky carefree manner masks a stark determination to defend his hard-won celebrity – and his fragile ego – against the likes of upstarts Stu and Brad both of whom are Big Year rookies. None of the three leads stray far from type but they do offer slight tweaks to their usual screen personas: Wilson is sly and Machiavellian; Black tones down the buffoonery limiting himself to two (by my rough count) pratfalls; Martin’s sardonicism is tempered with humility.
There’s no prize for winning a Big Year; the sole reward is the adulation of fellow members of the birding community. Competition is surprisingly fierce. The three men frantically criss-cross the continent darting from one remote location to another in search of the next rare find. At first wary of each other Stu and Brad eventually unite over a mutual desire to defeat Kenny whose crafty gamesmanship has frustrated them both. Their strategic pact gradually evolves into a genuine friendship leading both men to discover that there are more important things in life than winning an amateur birding competition.
Shot on location in British Columbia the Canadian Yukon Upstate New York Joshua Tree and the Florida Everglades The Big Year is a visually striking film showcasing one breathtaking panorama after another. At times director Frankel appears more interested in the scenery than his characters who despite the script's copious exposition aren't particularly well-developed. The story at times seem aimless and unfocused and its relaxed pace may prove vexing for some. Indeed it did for me at first. But once I adjusted to its easygoing rhythm the film’s modest charms began to reveal themselves.
Those anticipating the upcoming World War Z movie adaptation were probably pretty thrilled to hear that LOST's Matthew Fox and, even more awesomely, Ed Harris, were part of the cast. Well, here comes a downer: they’re not. We reported that Fox and Harris were in talks to play supporting characters, both actors have pulled out of their roles in the film.
The good news is, Brad Pitt will remain on in the film's lead role.
But it's a bummer for those of us who really wanted to see Jack Shephard talking down to zombies. Apparently, World War Z sparked conflict with Fox’s schedule for I, Alex Cross: a mystery-thriller he's starring in alongside Tyler Perry.
As for Ed Harris…who knows. It’s possible that the film would conflict with his role in a Beth Henley play this coming February. But nothing is conclusive. So we all wonder…why did Harris leave the project? Who will take over the recently abandoned roles? What is the fate of World War Z? How long until Fox’s new movie’s title changes to Tyler Perry’s I, Alex Cross?
Poor Shrek (Mike Myers). The irascible ogre just can’t catch a break. First he has to leave his beloved swamp to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). Then he marries her and has to go meet the in-laws. NOW he’s stuck in Far Far Away as its de facto ruler after the frog king croaks. Oh and he finds out Fiona is pregnant too. All this throws the great green one into a tailspin because 1) impending fatherhood scares the bejeezus out him and 2) he believes he has no business being king. So Shrek sets out with his pals Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to fetch Artie aka Arthur (Justin Timberlake) Fiona’s cousin and next in line for the throne. Thing is Artie’s just a teenager—and kind of a loser one at that; he really doesn’t want to be king either. Meanwhile on the home front Fiona and her merry band of princesses have to defend the castle against the vain Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) who’s hell bent on getting revenge and taking over Far Far Away. And so the high jinks ensure. But it’s OK it all works out in the end. Certainly part of Shrek’s charm is its vocal talent. Myers Diaz and Murphy are all old pros by now—which is actually a good and bad thing. They are definitely more comfortable with their roles but Shrek isn’t nearly as charmingly irritable as he once was and Fiona not as feisty. Guess they are growing up. And Murphy used to get all the best lines as the jittery Donkey. Now that job has been delegated to the likes of Banderas as Puss as well as side characters such as the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) Pinocchio (Cody Cameron) and the Three Little Pigs (also Cameron). Also adding to the humor are the various princesses especially SNL alums Amy Poehler as the sardonic Snow White and Maya Rudolph as turncoat Rapunzel plus Amy Sedaris as the dimwitted Cinderella. Timberlake is sweetly goofy as Artie while Brit comic legend Eric Idle voices the New Age-y on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown Merlin the magician with aplomb. It’s these characterizations that make Shrek the Third zing. Much like Shrek 2 this third installment ultimately comes off as a retread. They just haven’t been able to recapture the magic created in the original. Instead the filmmakers regurgitate the same comic set ups and in some cases the same jokes. Maybe they won’t ever be able to reach that same plateau. But you’ve still got to give the Shrek franchise props for being the granddaddy of fairy-tale spoofs. Even if the sequels don’t measure up the Shrek phenomenon on the whole has set the bar creating a certain charisma in the let’s-make-fun-of-traditional-lore milieu. Shrek the Third highlights include: Worcestershire High School where Artie goes to school which is full of John Hughes teenagers talking in medieval oh-thou-di’nt-just-say-that speak; Charming being relegated to doing third-rate dinner theater; Pinocchio trying to talk his way around not lying and more. Oh who cares what us dumb critics say anyway. Kids are going to love Shrek the Third regardless of whether it hits the mark or not.
The young and idealistic Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is driven by two forces in his life: airplanes and Hollywood. The Aviator begins in the 1920s as Hughes obsessively works on his silent debut film Hell's Angels which he ends up scraping completely to remake as a talkie thus making it the most expensive film of its time. While embarking on doomed affairs with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) Hughes also builds a plane that makes him the fastest man in the world in 1935. The millionaire even engineers a new bra to make the most out of Jane Russell's cleavage for his next film The Outlaw while running TWA and building planes for the government during WWII. Yet the mental illness that would consume Hughes later in life begins to rear its ugly head after he breaks up with Hepburn. As does his dogfights with Pan Am's Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) who sics his in-pocket politician Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) on Hughes--which coming after the flyboy crashes his experimental spy plane leaves him with only a couple of good fights left in him. Hughes eventually stands up to Brewster's senate investigation and then manages to finish and ceremonially fly the Spruce Goose. But soon he makes his final descent into undiagnosed and untreated madness.
The Aviator provides a bevy of tour de force performances. As the leading man DiCaprio gives us an Oscar-worthy turn as Hughes vacillating easily between the playboy the industrialist the aviator and finally the madman. In seducing a cigarette girl the suave DiCaprio says one of the best lines in the film: "I want to find out what gives you pleasure. Would you give me that job? " which pretty much sums up Hughes' modus operandi. The scenes between DiCaprio and Blanchett as the spirited Hughes and Hepburn are also fun and lively especially in their first meeting on a golf course in which Hepburn talks a blue streak while Hughes quietly admires her. Blanchett does an amazing job emulating the acting legend without doing a strict imitation. The worst performance in the film could be Blanchett's nose which looks nothing like Hepburn's but that's about it. The exquisite Beckinsale also does a marvelous job as Ava Gardner who had a brief and tumultuous affair with Hughes but ended up more his confidant than anything else. In supporting roles Alec Baldwin seems to be settling in nicely as one of Hollywood's favorite heavies playing Trippe's malevolence with a twinkle in his eye. As does Alan Alda who again delivers admirably as the elder statesman of "mean."
Marty Marty Marty. Why can't you make a nice two-hour film like everybody else? It's probably not fair to harp on the film's length but it isn't just long it feels long. Rather than being a cohesive whole director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan deliver a montage of expertly constructed scenes and sequences without giving us a true understanding of who Howard Hughes really was. Perhaps Howard Hughes is just too much of a character for one film. The closest we come to getting inside Hughes' mind is during the breath-taking crash of the FX-11 into a Beverly Hills residential area which is undeniably one of the best crash scenes ever filmed. Scorsese is obviously a master filmmaker but some of his old tricks aren't working here. The patchwork quality of the film is underscored by the director's varying use of different period styles--from a washed out look of a '40s home movie to a vivid contemporary look. Used to great effect in his films such as Raging Bull and Goodfellas now it seems out of place in The Aviator. It's true Scorsese will more than likely get another shot at Oscar gold for The Aviator but if he wins it will definitely be for his vastly superior previous work.