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.
A billionaire TV producer (Robert Mammone) has a great idea for a reality show that he wants to put on the Internet and his goal is to beat the 40 million Super Bowl audience. He has compiled a crack team of young hip and immoral tech geeks directed by Goldman (Rick Hoffman) and puts cameras throughout a remote island where former prisoners are going to kill each other while audiences watch after shelling out the pay-per-view fee. The location is done on a remote secret island and the death row prisoners are bought from prisons around the world with the promise that the survivor gets to walk free. Among the contestants are a rogue Aussie named McStarley (Vinnie Jones) a martial arts expert (Masa Yamaguchi) a husband-and-wife team (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruz) a monstrous killer who doesn't do much more than grunt (Nathan Jones) and others known only as The Italian The German and other monikers quickly forgotten. Enter the sole American Jack Conrad (Steve Austin) who's in a South American prison for some obscure reason and is recognized on TV by his wife (Madeleine West) who tries to save him. However it looks like Conrad is pretty good at helping himself. Don't expect the acting to be much more evolved than what could be seen among the World Wrestling Entertainment superstars especially since many of them were plucked from the ring to star in this morality tale. But Austin (who had in a strong cameo in Adam Sandler's Longest Yard) proves he has a sense of humor as well as strength. Vinnie Jones is ridiculously over-the-top as the Aussie who's the hand-picked winner of this game shown setting up alliances Survivor style only to turn on them later. The supporting cast are refreshingly entertaining but one-note caricatures both in the contest and running the contest. It's obvious that they aren't going to be around long but the actors do milk their tiny roles for every bit of attention they can get. Rick Hoffman as the brilliant camera mastermind of the project is both whiny sniveling and mean-spirited so when he joins some of the rest of the crew and suddenly develops a backbone and a conscience he ends up stealing the movie with his acerbic humor. But it's the understated American hero Conrad who holds a mirror up to the people who like to watch this stuff. Director Scott Wiper who co-wrote this story has also acted in similar movies like this (A Better Way to Die). It’s obvious he knows what he’s doing with The Condemned and develops a sense of voyeuristic angst like those of us who can't keep our eyes off a train wreck. Like the darkly subversive Belgian film Man Bites Dog the camera crew remains safely distant and remote until the reality directly involves them. Then the crew wonders "What the hell are we doing?" while the audience might be thinking "What the hell are we watching?" Much like Series 7: The Contenders Rollerball and other movies which show a dark and bloody near future this kind of reality doesn't seem too far away and maybe proves that movies which provide this type of gladiator spectacle target a certain segment of the human population who need to blow off steam.
It's been a long time since John Lennon was gunned down in front of apartment building in New York City and even longer since Richard Nixon held office but U.S. vs. John Lennon focuses on how the then U.S. president tried to pull out all stops to discredit the famous Beatle and get him thrown out of the country. Ironically although three decades old this story seems like a fairly timely indictment on the Bush administration as it looks at how right-wing fanatics label anti-war protestors as un-American even though free speech is what this country is founded on as Lennon points out. Nixon's henchman J. Edgar Hoover tried drumming up all sorts of smut on Lennon. He and Yoko Ono were bugged followed threatened and nearly deported. Along the way Lennon became a bit paranoid and myopic even as he was opening his life to the press and offering interviews while in bed. Some of the more important pundits during the Vietnam War era are trotted out to give some perspective. Injured war veteran Ron Kovic Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein protestor Angela Davis writer Gore Vidal and a mellow Bobby Seale are among those who talk about what the world was like in the 1970s the end of the hippie era and the crackdown by the government. For the conservative side the only voice heard is G. Gordon Liddy Nixon’s former White House staff who comes across as creepy and unsympathetic and even criticizes the Kent State shooting victims as students who got in the way and should have known what was coming. Some of the most fascinating moments are the footage from Ono’s private vault showing Lennon as a passionate and often angry guy who was alternately confused and amused by anger directed at him for preaching peace. Filmmakers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld offer a very biased viewpoint as they play heavily on the anti-war images and how it is relevant today. They don’t really explore any of Lennon's troubles with the break-up of the Beatles or the criticism of Ono which were going on around the same time. No U.S. vs. John Lennon is about one thing and one thing only: Lennon’s public fight to keep his visa and remain in the U.S. while exercising his right to protest. The documentary is illuminating timely and almost as frightening as Al Gore's global warming Inconvenient Truth. There’s Lennon on the Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas shows as well as footage of the ex-Beatle being attacked by a reporter which he handled with a bemused calmness. Although it isn't as dire or as apocalyptic U.S. vs. John Lennon is just as important. Lennon ultimately did give peace a chance.