For the bulk of every Rocky and Bullwinkle episode, moose and squirrel would engage in high concept escapades that satirized geopolitics, contemporary cinema, and the very fabrics of the human condition. With all of that to work with, there's no excuse for why the pair and their Soviet nemeses haven't gotten a decent movie adaptation. But the ingenious Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy Sherman are another story, intercut between Rocky and Bullwinkle segments to teach kids brief history lessons and toss in a nearly lethal dose of puns. Their stories and relationship were much simpler, which means that bringing their shtick to the big screen would entail a lot more invention — always risky when you're dealing with precious material.
For the most part, Mr. Peabody & Sherman handles the regeneration of its heroes aptly, allowing for emotionally substance in their unique father-son relationship and all the difficulties inherent therein. The story is no subtle metaphor for the difficulties surrounding gay adoption, with society decreeing that a dog, no matter how hyper-intelligent, cannot be a suitable father. The central plot has Peabody hosting a party for a disapproving child services agent and the parents of a young girl with whom 7-year-old Sherman had a schoolyard spat, all in order to prove himself a suitable dad. Of course, the WABAC comes into play when the tots take it for a spin, forcing Peabody to rush to their rescue.
Getting down to personals, we also see the left brain-heavy Peabody struggle with being father Sherman deserves. The bulk of the emotional marks are hit as we learn just how much Peabody cares for Sherman, and just how hard it has been to accept that his only family is growing up and changing.
But more successful than the new is the film's handling of the old — the material that Peabody and Sherman purists will adore. They travel back in time via the WABAC Machine to Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, and the Trojan War, and 18th Century France, explaining the cultural backdrop and historical significance of the settings and characters they happen upon, all with that irreverent (but no longer racist) flare that the old cartoons enjoyed. And oh... the puns.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a f**king treasure trove of some of the most amazingly bad puns in recent cinema. This effort alone will leave you in awe.
The film does unravel in its final act, bringing the science-fiction of time travel a little too close to the forefront and dropping the ball on a good deal of its emotional groundwork. What seemed to be substantial building blocks do not pay off in the way we might, as scholars of animated family cinema, have anticipated, leaving the movie with an unfinished feeling.
But all in all, it's a bright, compassionate, reasonably educational, and occasionally funny if not altogether worthy tribute to an old favorite. And since we don't have our own WABAC machine to return to a time of regularly scheduled Peabody and Sherman cartoons, this will do okay for now.
If nothing else, it's worth your time for the puns.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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A brief break from Mr. Coppola this week, because I just read a novel, Queen of Kings, inspired by the life of Cleopatra, and it's forced me to begin to come to terms with the death of Elizabeth Taylor, which led to re-watching one of the truly great classic movies: 1963's Cleopatra. The filmmaker Guy Maddin is fond of pointing out that film is a medium of ghosts. We are always watching the ghostly movements of emotions long gone, pageantry long gone, people long gone. It is this forever-after image that gives the impression that stars never die, and Elizabeth Taylor, certainly, has always felt bigger than death. No movie makes this clear more than Cleopatra, because there is no greater figure of feminine power, intelligence or sexuality than Cleopatra.
The movie famously went far over budget, but less well known is the fact that Elizabeth Taylor was paid more for that movie than any actor had been paid up to that point. Think about that for a moment. Is there any other profession in which the highest paid person in 1963 was a woman? It would be sad, in a way, if the role for which Taylor had been paid so much was exclusively a sexpot role, but Cleopatra is far more than that, and 20th Century Fox knew there was only one person on the planet who could portray the Egyptian Queen.
I love ancient history, but I'm the kind of guy who in high school used VHS tapes of I, Claudius as a seduction tool. Don't laugh, it worked. Cleopatra is every bit as important a historical figure as Brutus, Caesar or Mark Antony. Cleopatra throws a monumental shadow over the most turbulent time in Ancient Roman history. Her decisions, personal and political, guided the fate of two nations, the ramifications of which can still be felt today, forever intertwining Africa and the West.
The gray line between the personal and the political is exactly what the life of Cleopatra was all about, and that for me is where the 1963 film draws its strength. Yes, the pageantry is a marvel to behold, and yes, all the politicking and assassinating and catapulting are delicious -- but never has a movie so deeply embraced the love that can guide history. The long scenes between Taylor's Cleopatra and Rex Harrison's Caesar build a love between spiritual equals who recognize one another as such. These are characters who achieve a unique intimacy even as they fight to preserve the integrity of their own countries. And then when Richard Burton's Mark Antony comes on the scene, well, let's just say that even ghosts can take part in love triangles.
Cleopatra isn't a pure-blood Egyptian, of course. She is of the Ptolemaic line and therefore has as much of the West in her as anything else. Nonetheless, Egypt was her home, and the Egyptian Gods are the ones who guided her soul throughout a life dedicated to the prosperity of her nation. Because of how important Egypt was to Rome, and because Cleopatra had given birth to Caesar's son, Caesar's successor Augustus had to deal with the Egyptian Queen. Which is why it is impossible to tell the story of the West without appeal to the Gods of Egypt.
The aforementioned book, Queen of Kings, tells the story of Cleopatra and Augustus when most stories talk about her end: the moment of her death. Queen of Kings then uses the metaphors of dark fantasy to dive into the spiritual, political, emotional and magical relationship between Egypt and the West, all while telling a harrowing adventure, a great love story, and revealing the final secret behind the reign of Augustus. It's that big because Cleopatra's that big, and only Elizabeth Taylor could encompass her.
And now she's gone, alas. Between Maria Dahvana Headley's Queen of Kings and Stacey Shiff's recent biography, there's been a lot of talk about a new movie about Cleopatra, but I just can't think of an actress up to the task. Angelina Jolie? Maybe. I hope. I hope there's someone. Because in this world of American decay and globalization and interconnection, it's time once more to remember that there is no real separation between the personal and the political.
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.
Oscar winner Barry Levinson (Bandits) received the Golden Eddie for filmmaker of the year Sunday at the 52nd American Cinema Editors Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Pietro Scalia won best edited dramatic feature for Black Hawk Down while Jill Bilcock won best edited comedy or musical for Moulin Rouge, reports The Hollywood Reporter. The television categories were dominated by HBO editors, which won three of the six awards. Veteran editors George Watters and Antony Gibbs received lifetime achievement awards.
Even after the 25th anniversary of his death, Elvis Presley is still drawing controversy. Elvis Presley Enterprises has licensed a company to replace George Washington on some of Tennessee's 2002 quarters with a color illustration of Presley. While defacing U.S. currency is considered a misdemeanor crime, the King of Rock 'n' Roll quarters are in a gray area because they are not part of a deceptive scheme, the Associated Press reports.
Harrison Ford, who divorced screenwriter Melissa Mathison last year, was seen strolling down Madison Ave. with Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart, bundled in winter jackets and wearing blue jeans and caps. According to PageSix.com, the also couple attended a post-Globes party together, and when the waifish Flockhart spilled red wine on her dress, Ford kissed her on the cheek and told bystanders, "She's a beautiful girl."
Madonna has refused to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award this year, worried that it might make her seem old and out of date. According to People, the 43-year-old singer was asked to accept the award in recognition of her 18-year career that started in 1984. Instead, the award went to Sting, who insisted the title of the award be changed to Outstanding Contribution before he'd accept it.
Tom Cruise is indeed sporting see-through braces, his spokeswoman Pat Kingsley told Reuters. After taking one of his kids to an orthodontist in Beverly Hills, the doctor noticed that Cruise's bite was out of alignment. The 39-year-old actor will likely have the braces on for a year or so but will take them off for movies.
Sylvester Stallone saved his pregnant wife, model Jennifer Flavin, and good friend Mira Sorvino from a stalled elevator after the two women were stuck between floors in the backstage elevator. The incident occurred during the Entertainment Industry Foundation's Love Rocks party last Thursday at the new Kodak Theater in Hollywood. Stallone took off his jacket and manually pried open the doors with his own hands, pulling the women to safety, according to myvideostore.com.
Singer Kylie Minogue told British talk-show host Michael Parkinson that she intends to marry boyfriend James Gooding, reports Sky News. Minogue, who has had a string of high-profile relationships including late INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, said she has found happiness with the British model.
Anjelica Huston has been added to the cast of Blood Work, a new suspense-thriller from Warner Bros. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film is based on the novel by Michael Connelly and stars Clint Eastwood as an FBI profiler tracking a serial killer under unusual circumstances involving his own history and blood analysis. Eastwood is also helming the film, which began filming Tuesday in Los Angeles.
Paul McCartney returned home to Liverpool, England, for a surprise appearance Sunday at a tribute concert for George Harrison, Reuters reports. The audience joined McCartney in an impromptu version of "Yesterday" in memory of the late Beatle, who died of cancer last year at the age of 58.
Don't expect Paul McCartney's wedding to Heather Mills next month to be a showy affair. A friend of McCartney told Scotland's Sunday Mail that the couple considered marrying in Skibo Castle, near Dornoch--where Madonna married director Guy Ritchie a year ago--but decided to go for something simpler instead, either at a small church or register office. The couple got engaged last July after meeting two years ago at an awards dinner.
The Screen Actors Guild and the Association of Talent Agents reached a tentative agreement Monday that would allow talent agencies to make and receive investments in companies involved in production, reports AP. The current rules, which went into place in 1939, were drafted to prevent conflicts of interest and protect actors from exploitation by talent agencies working for either producers or movie studios. Movie studios and television networks, however, would still be banned from owning or investing in a talent agency.