It's easy to be cynical about holiday movies or even the holidays themselves. Rise of the Guardians simply won't let you though even if you don't partake in Christmas or Easter. Without getting too highfalutin the stars of Guardians have more in common with pagan myths than the craven cash-grabs we associate with Judeo-Christian holidays. What's more North (aka Santa voiced by Alec Baldwin) and Bunny (as in Easter voiced by Hugh Jackman) are joined by more universal figures like Tooth (as in Fairy voiced by Isla Fisher) the Sandman Jack Frost (Chris Pine) and Pitch (aka the Boogeyman voiced by Jude Law). Overseeing it all is the silent Man in the Moon who gives the Guardians their directions.
Jack Frost wants to be believed in and seen by children as much as he wants to understand where he came from. When he's called to help the Guardians protect the world from Pitch he's hesitant to join but the possibility of being believed in and recovering his memories is too great to pass up. When Pitch succeeds in giving boys and girls bad dreams they stop believing in the Guardians which in turn threatens their existence. Nothing is worse than not being believed in. They also get some help from one open-minded little dude named Jamie (Dakota Goyo) who is a big believer in the unknown. (A little detour in the story with Jamie's little sister is freaking adorable.)
The characters are fabulous and no small part of what makes the movie work. Based on The Guardians of Childhood books by William Joyce and adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote the excellent Rabbit Hole) Guardians stands out because the story isn't wedded to any one mythology. North is a big Russian with tattooed forearms and his real helpers are yetis — yet another mythic creature. Bunny is more of a wild hare with an Aussie attitude and his inner sanctum is lush and green calling to mind the fertility rituals originally associated with spring. Tooth is a fantastic hummingbird woman who has an army of beautiful tiny hummingbird ladies who travel around the world to collect lost teeth. The teeth contain memories so they're treasured by Tooth and her Baby Teeth as her helpers are called. Sandy is silent and communicates through symbols that appear over his head formed from his own sand; he's funny but also laid-back as you'd want the creature doling out dreams to be. Jack Frost is a mischievous cute young guy with anime hair who loves snowball fights and snow days and Pitch is a sour Brit who sends out awful but beautiful black stallions made of sparkly dust to put fear in the hearts of children.
It's a visually stunning experience making full use of 3D; famous cinematographer Roger Deakins acted as a visual consultant as he did on animated films like WALL*E How to Train Your Dragon and Rango. Alexandre Desplat's score is evocative without being overbearing or manipulative. The writing is funny without being too self-referential and the only pop culture reference I caught was to Crocodile Dundee. Frankly it's hard to find fault with Rise of the Guardians. Maybe they could have included Hanukkah Harry?
Premonition’s premise is so implausible it’s really hard to get emotionally involved in the film—although this is something it desperately wants you to do. Instead you spend most of your time just trying to figure out why this woman Linda Hanson (Bullock) is running around like a crazy person waking up one day to find her husband Jim (Julian McMahon) is dead and then the next that he’s still alive. It’s exhausting frankly. On Thursday she’s told Jim has died in a horrible car accident the day before. Then she wakes up and it’s Tuesday finding Jim is still alive and well—and possibly having an affair with a co-worker. Then she wakes up on Saturday and it’s the day of the funeral. WTF? Of course in volleying back and forth through this week from hell Linda is forced to look at her tired marriage and somehow preserve everything that she and Jim have built together before it’s too late. Oh it’s too late all right. Too late to care what happens. Bullock is a fine actress when she tries her hand at something more serious such as Infamous or Crash—heck we’ll even throw in 28 Days. Of course we prefer her to be the cute and fun Miss Congeniality of the big screen but we understand her need to stretch a bit. However this thriller stuff really isn’t her forte (remember Murder By Numbers?) especially when she looks about as confused as we are on why she’s even in this movie. And what’s with her compulsion to star in movies about time jumping? Her last movie Lake House although considered a middling hit has the same elements albeit in a far more romantic milieu. Whatever the reason Premonition fails to tap into any of Bullock’s more innate qualities leaving her floundering like a boat lost at sea. And everyone else in the movie acts as mere window dressing including Nip/Tuck’s McMahon as the faltering and ultimately doomed hubby. Just a big waste of talent. Oh man I really would have liked to sit in on this pitch meeting with the studio execs. Screenwriter Bill Kelly whose claim to fame up to this point has been the stellar Blast From the Past must have walked in and said “Do I have a mind bender for you! ” and proceeded to try to explain the mess that is Premonition. And oddly enough those execs bought it. Still it seems the studio may not have had a lot of faith in the movie despite reigning in Ms. Bullock—they hired a no-name German director Mennan Yapo to take the helm. All this inexperience clearly shows in almost every frame of the movie. Muddled camera work shoddy dialogue lingering and unnecessary moments of Linda lying in bed in various positions nothing about Premonition makes sense. Not even the title since Linda really isn’t experiencing a premonition but more a trip through the space-time continuum. Now if this were an episode of Star Trek...
"Diane Arbus" isn't Diane Arbus the 20th century American icon; she's an imaginary composite Arbus. That's part of Fur 's self-important problem. The film is like a magic-house maze of mirrors--pretty but confusing unsatisfying and never-ending. It's also a Cliff Notes' version of Arbus as an artist. Kidman's Arbus who is transitioning into a solo artist's career is torn between split lives: A forbidden artistic affair with a full-body-haired Lionel (Downey) and her doting domestic husband Allan (Ty Burrell). Earlier in her life Arbus' father a furrier influenced his daughter's idea. In fact Fur's whole through-line is about hair of some sorts as Arbus sees herself as part of the imperfect obscured unshaven world she photographs. The real Arbus committed suicide in 1971 and this is her 122-minute tortured journey to understand herself amid the naturalistic damaged beauty of armless smallish characters. Sounds like a fun night out at the movies doesn't it? Kidman won't get any nominations for her Diane Arbus. But when the book is closed on her career playing Arbus will be regarded as one of her more fascinating performance. After her Oscar-winning turn in The Hours and then the very strange Birth amid broad comedies like Bewitched and Stepford Wives Kidman has shown her moody gazes before. She's sold all of us on understanding an artist's psychotic limits. Her performance as Arbus--nuanced and complex probably in need of more than one viewing (though the movie may prevent that)--is limited by unoriginality. In a Beauty and the Beast-inspired turn Downey Jr. plays the hairy Lionel not as a reclusive but instead conveys emotion through his warm eyes and controlled confident voice. Arbus finds his sensitivity and Casanova-esque flirting irresistible. Director Steven Shainberg best known for his kinky little indie Secretary chooses Fur as his follow up four years later. That’s a good--and bad--thing. His TV commercials background imbues his work with slick production sheen. Shainberg's hand-crafted meticulousness is evident from start to finish--from the 57-day shoot in New York to the subtle Alice in Wonderland visual allusions in Lionel's apartment to the 30-second shots of Kidman's porcelain face contemplating internal conflict. This is a special movie as was Secretary which won the Sundance Film Festival 2002's Grand Jury prize. Shainberg collaborating once again with Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson blurs the boundary lines of the three acts and mirrors the story’s messiness. Problem is it's confusing unappealing discomforting and sprawling in its artistic conceit. What's left is tedium guarded respect (maybe mild admiration) but certainly not affection. Fur is selfish in its perspective assuming that we care anything at all about the real—or imagined—Diane Arbus.
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?
Deep in the Carpathian mountains a team of scientists stumbles upon the entrance to a vast and intricate underground cave system--one that just screams "Explore me!" But this isn't your Aladdin Cave of Wonders garden variety filled with treasure and a genie in a lamp. Oh no. This Cave is deep treacherous and well possibly crawling with any number of things that could kill you. No matter. Biologist Kathryn (Lena Headey) believes there might be an entirely new ecosystem waiting to be discovered (what fun!) so she and her team hire experienced cave diver Jack (Cole Hauser) and his team to help them get in there. But what they all don't realize is that these ancient caves actually do contain brand new species of subterranean life both small and very very great. And could it be that some of the more deadly creatures have mutated from--gasp!--human life forms? Yeah they are about to get into some serious trouble.
How sad for Cole Hauser. He's a fairly serviceable actor with a penchant for solid action flicks (2 Fast 2 Furious) but he's picked bad scripts lately. Paparazzi? Please. Same goes for Morris Chestnut who plays Jack's right-hand man. He started out strong in Boyz N The Hood but had the unfortunate duty of being terrorized by giant snakes in last year's horrid Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. Also braving the big bad Cave are Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) as a spitfire rock climber; Eddie Cibrian (TV's Third Watch) as Jack's hotshot brother; and Daniel Dae Kim (TV's Lost) as a photographer. Only Headey (who also co-stars in this week's The Brothers Grimm) seems to add a bit of credibility as the earnest biologist. But really that isn't saying much.
The one positive thing you can say about The Cave is that it looks pretty darn authentic. With the help of professional speleologists and cave divers director Bruce Hunt--known as Australia's premier commercial director--paints a realistic view of what these caves represent and what dangers cave divers go through to explore them. Shot entirely in Romania the cave system described in the movie apparently exists in the Carpathian mountains and some do indeed contain various new species of life. Of course none of these creatures are big enough to rip your head off and gnaw on your remains--at least none that they have found anyway--but you never know. Nice thought. But all the pretty pictures and why-would-you-want-to-go-in-there? moments don't make up for a lackluster scarefest. The twist at the end is mildly compelling but perhaps The Cave would have been better suited as a documentary on the exploration of these Romanian caves for the Discovery Channel. At least you could fall asleep on a comfortable couch watching it.
Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his small hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend and remembers the fateful summer in 1960 when his whole world changed. The story flashes back to when 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his best friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully-John (Will Rothhaar) capture the pure joy of youthfulness. When a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves upstairs and starts to pay attention to Bobby the boy suddenly realizes what's truly missing from his life--the love of a parent. Bobby's mother Liz (Hope Davis) is embittered by the death of Bobby's father and shows little compassion for her son's growing needs. Ted fills a void with the boy opening his eyes to the world around him and helps Bobby come to terms with his real feelings for Carol--and his mother. But Ted also has some deep dark secrets of his own and Bobby tries hard to stop danger from reaching the old man.
The performances make the film especially in the genuine camaraderie of the kids. Yelchin Boorem and Rothhaar never deliver a false move with an easiness that makes us believe we are simply watching three 11-year-old children grow up together. Yelchin in particular is able to get right to the heart of this young boy who misses his father and clings to the only adult who will listen. And his scenes with Boorem simply break your heart. (Davis) does an admirable job playing a part none too sympathetic. She manages to show a woman whose been beaten down but who does truly love her son in her own way. Morse too is one of those character actors you can plug in any movie and get a performance worth noting. In Hearts you want to see more of him. Of course the film shines brightest when Hopkins is on the screen. It may not be an Oscar-caliber performance but the actor is unparalleled in bringing a character to life--showing the subtleties of an old man looking for some peace in his life.
If you are expecting the Stephen King novel you may be disappointed. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) deftly extracted the King formula of telling a story through a child's eye and explaining how the relationships formed as a child shaped the adult later. Hicks did an amazing job with his young actors especially Yelchin and Boorem. But where the novel continued into a supernatural theme explaining Brautigan's fear of being captured by "low men in yellow coats" (a reference to King's The Dark Tower series) the movie downplayed the mystical elements instead giving real explanations for Brautigan's man-on-the-run. That was the one problem with Hearts--we needed more danger. Introducing men from another dimension may not have been the way to go but had there been more tension the film would have resonated more especially when Bobby risked his own safety to save Ted.