In Dream House – the new suspense thriller from Jim Sheridan (In America My Left Foot) – Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton a successful New York publisher who disavows his high-powered Manhattan lifestyle and relocates along with his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and two daughters (Taylor and Claire Astin Geare) to a picturesque New England hamlet. Their new home a quaint fixer-upper bears imprints of the family that lived there previously: Old tools and other belongings are strewn about the basement a secret room abutting the children’s bedroom is filled with discarded toys. Will and Libby see the items as charming artifacts signs that their house has a history a soul.
The new neighborhood is not so bucolic as it seems. The children complain of a man peering in on them from the front yard – a suspicion confirmed when Will discovers footsteps in the snow the next day. If that weren’t ominous enough Will later learns that five years earlier his new home was the site of a grisly murder spree in which the previous owner Peter Ward was alleged to have killed his wife and two daughters. Acquitted due to a lack of evidence Ward spent a brief time at a psychiatric facility before being released. Could the shadowy figure glimpsed outside the window be Ward returning to the scene of the crime preparing to kill again?
At this point Dream House pulls off a whopper of a mid-game twist that effectively re-frames the entire narrative. (I won’t spoil it for you but if you want to know what it is just watch the trailer which rather stupidly gives it away.) Until now Sheridan has worked steadily to foster the guise of a relatively conventional haunted-house tale presenting a portrait of idyllic domesticity while simultaneously building an atmosphere of looming peril. After the story drops its bombshell the film morphs into a sort of supernatural murder mystery with Craig’s character scouring for clues within his own tortured psyche. Characters and scenes that might have been dismissible as red herrings – a neighbor (Naomi Watts) appears oddly stand-offish; her ex-husband (Martin Csokas) cartoonishly gruff; the town cops inexplicably apathetic – gain sudden relevance.
It’s a clever gambit; it is also patently absurd. A talented cast helps make the twist easier to swallow but the film’s second half sheds credulity seemingly by the frame at points devolving into schlock. Which in a different film might bode well for some silly fun but Sheridan aims for a restrained tone that seems more suitable for a somber character study than a flagrantly preposterous suspense thriller. As it is Dream House is neither thrilling nor suspenseful.
At some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.
Walt Disney animation’s first foray into 3D ‘toon making isn’t just a technical triumph it thankfully also tells the clever story of Bolt (John Travolta). He’s a superstar TV canine who believes the superpowers he displays weekly on his series are for real --especially when it comes to the protection of his master and co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus). One day however the dog is accidentally shipped from his Hollywood soundstage to New York City. Lost alone and confused on the streets of the Big Apple Bolt is still living the show vowing to get to Penny who he believes has been kidnapped by the “green-eyed man.” And so he embarks on a cross-country journey to L.A. to save Penny. Along the way he is joined by an abandoned wily housecat Mittens (Susie Essman) and a TV-loving hamster Rhino (Mark Walton) who believes everything he sees on the tube is ALSO real. Of course Bolt is in for rude awakening when he finds out he is just a regular dog but he still needs to get to Penny -- even if it means she might not be there for him when he returns. Disney is not a studio that generally depends on superstar voices for their animated films but in casting Travolta and tween queen Cyrus they have scored a bullseye. Travolta’s Bolt is a delightful cross between the self-assured superstar and a pooch in denial. The actor doesn’t phone it in but instead creates an original and loveable dog that stands proudly in Disney’s large canon of canine greats. The action scenes created for Bolt’s TV series are lots of fun and the interactions with his traveling companions are choice. As Penny Cyrus is sympathetic sincere and she even gets to sing a duet with Travolta “I Thought I Lost You ” which she co-wrote. The show is nearly stolen though by comedian Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm) as Mittens -- a smart determined and emotionally wounded pet cat abandoned by her owners and forced to wander the streets alone. And by Mark Walton as the hilarious Rhino the obsessive fanboy hamster who rolls around in his ball. Walton is actually an animator in real life who happened to be so good at voicing Rhino during tests they just gave him the job. Disney vets Chris Williams and Byron Howard capably usher the venerable Disney label into the brave new world of 3D animation and the results are promising -- putting the audience right in the center of Bolt’s universe. The TV series action set pieces are particularly effective in using the technology. It’s not even necessary to see the film in 3D because the whole CG process has come a long way in a few short years and Bolt is one of the best looking most accomplished animated films in memory -- glasses or no glasses. Williams and Howard expertly blend humor pathos and blockbuster-style action scenes effortlessly giving “Bolt” an appeal beyond just the target kid demo.
Before the main feature begins audiences are treated to an added bonus--The Flight of the Osiris a really cool $5 million computer-animated short film created by Matrix writer-director brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski that connects the story to the next installment The Matrix Reloaded. Taking place after The Matrix left off it's a wild ride showing one rebel ship trying to fight off the evil machines--and unfortunately losing the battle. Done in the animated futuristic style of last year's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within the film will certainly whet Matrix fans' appetites. Moving on....As with any good King tale Dreamcatcher begins with relationships. This time the action centers on four best friends--the agreeable Jonsey (Damian Lewis) the tortured Henry (Thomas Jane) the flippant Beaver (Jason Lee) and the lovelorn Pete (Timothy Olyphant)--who as kids 20 years ago saved a mentally challenged kid named Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg) from some bullies and somehow were bestowed with uncanny powers of telepathy by the eerie little kid that bonded them all beyond ordinary friendship. Now as adults they feel burdened by their powers but soon find out how glad they are they still have them. When the guys head to a hunting cabin in the woods for their annual blowing-off-steam session the happy reunion is cut short by a deadly alien force which has invaded their snowy surroundings. While the U.S. military lead by Colonel Abraham Curtis (Morgan Freeman) and Capt. Owen Underhill (Tom Sizemore) quarantines the area to get rid of the infectious alien presence known as the "Ripley" (named after the main character in Alien) the foursome are haplessly drawn into the aliens' evil plan finding themselves once again inexplicably linked to their old friend the now cancer-stricken Duddits. It's a race against time to stop the invasion but the four men use all their strength to stand together--one last time.
The natural rapport and strong bond between the four main characters needs to be believable to make Dreamcatcher palatable. Fortunately the actors playing them live up to the task and when they are all on screen at one time it works; unfortunately scenes featuring all of them are few and far between. The British Lewis who was so damn good in HBO's Band of Brothers as leader Richard Winters gets his first starring role in a feature film and brings the same level of quiet intensity to his Jonesy as he did to Brothers. Olyphant (Go) and Jane (The Sweetest Thing) play Pete and Henry like they've been lifelong pals offscreen while Wahlberg is almost unrecognizable as Duddits proving he can get rid of those good looks and put in a nice performance. And finally Jason Lee who's been suppressing his witty sarcastic self far too long in stinkers such as A Guy Thing steals the show as the curse-word lovin'--and incredibly brave--Beaver. The plot line revolving around Freeman's and Sizemore's characters is far less interesting with Freeman turning in his usual steady performance but somehow missing the mark as Curtis a military man who has seen way too much.
The talent behind Dreamcatcher is clearly evident. Director/co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and co-writer William Goldman do a wonderful job setting up the action with the quick back and forth dialogue between the four men. It gives you an immediate intimacy with the main characters something King likes to do in his writing as well. Kasdan also uses interesting imagery of a large and dusty library that represents the inside of Jonesy's mind where he hangs out and shuffles old boxes full of memories around to make room for new ones. When the alien takes over Jonesy's body Kasdan frames the action by showing Jonesy trapped inside this library watching what is happening to his friends and trying desperately to keep the invading menace at bay. Ultimately though just when it should jump on the horrific momentum it's built up the film begins to fall apart as we move away from the four main characters and start dealing with the military operation. Perhaps the main problem lies in the fact it is too derivative--of other alien movies (Independence Day meets Alien meets The Thing) and worse of other Stephen King movies (Stand By Me meets It meets The Tommyknockers). In other words it ends up being a highly anticlimactic rehash.