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.
Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.
Charles Bronson may have passed away but the spirit of his Death Wish films lives on -- albeit in an absurdly twisted fashion -- in F. Gary Gray’s (The Italian Job Be Cool) gleefully over-the-top revenge thriller Law Abiding Citizen.
Taking a welcome break from his recent run of lame chick flicks Gerard Butler (300 RocknRolla) stars as Clyde Shelton a loving husband and father whose placid suburban existence is upended when a couple of mangy meth monsters burst into his home. Not content to merely burglarize the place they proceed to butcher Clyde’s wife and daughter as he lies in a heap on the floor periodically losing consciousness after being stabbed several times.
The killers are soon apprehended and a grieving Clyde who somehow managed to survive the whole ordeal eagerly awaits swift retribution from the justice system. Hoping for the grim solace that only the death penalty can provide he places his faith in Nick Rice (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) the hotshot district attorney charged with prosecuting the case to do the right thing and see to it that the two killers fry.
Nick however has other plans. Seeing the case as anything but open-and-shut and fearful that a not-guilty verdict in such a high-profile trial could derail his ambitious career plans (he sees himself as a Giuliani in the making) he opts to strike a plea deal: One man gets a death sentence while the other gets a mere 10 years in return for testifying against his cohort.
Chastened by the unseemly bargain Clyde takes matters into his own hands delivering his own uniquely painful brand of vigilante justice to the sinister men who destroyed his family. But he doesn’t stop there not by a longshot. His grudge extends much much further -- to the very heart of the justice system itself -- and he intends to bring the entire corrupt apparatus down even if he has to do it while locked up inside a jail cell. Which is where he ends up after police nab him for personally imposing the death penalty on the convicted killers.
Indeed Clyde proves to be something of a savant when it comes to killing people in creative cinematic ways employing exploding cell phones remote-control machine guns and other methods to take out the various judges attorneys and politicians on his hit list. Most amazingly he orchestrates all of this mayhem from behind bars. Seriously this guy’s flair for novelty violence makes the Joker’s antics in The Dark Knight seem amateurish by comparison.
The task of putting an end to all of Clyde’s mayhem naturally falls on Nick. And this is where Law Abiding Citizen’s fatal flaw emerges. Whereas Gray Butler and virtually everyone else seem to enthusiastically embrace the utter ridiculousness of it all Foxx plays it determinedly straight as if he’s the only one in the movie who isn’t in on the joke. Watching his performance it’s almost as if he’s making a different film than everyone else.
The right way for Law Abiding Citizen to end is for Foxx to administer an appropriately ironic death to Butler’s character utter something like “I rest my case ” and wink at the camera as he makes his exit. (Click here to read our exclusive interview with Foxx.)
I won’t give any spoilers away but suffice it to say this is NOT how the movie ends.
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.