Based on the popular American Girl series of books and doll line this first edition focuses on Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin) an aspiring young cub reporter who during the Great Depression finds her sunny world turned upside down when her father’s (Chris O'Donnell) car dealership goes under and he must leave Cincinnati to find other work. This leaves Kit and her mother (Julia Ormond) to fend for themselves selling eggs and home-grown veggies and renting out rooms in order to keep the family home. Kit always has time for others bringing home a stray Basset hound or convincing her parents to let a couple of hobo friends (Max Thieriot Willow Smith) help out around the house in return for meals. They are among the colorful characters in her life including the Kittredge’s new tenants a magician (Stanley Tucci) a man-hungry dancer (Jane Krakowski) and a ditzy librarian (Joan Cusack). Kit also spends a lot of time writing articles including a glowing one on the hobo community which she hopes to sell to the craggy publisher (Wallace Shawn) of the local newspaper. When a crime spree suddenly hits and the Kittredge’s savings are wiped out blame is pointed at the hobo camp. With the help of her buddies Stirling (Zach Mills) and Ruthie (Madison Davenport) Kit must solve the mystery and save the day. With a part tailor-made for her Breslin is the perfect Kit endlessly optimistic determined and hopeful. Clearly she is the child star of the moment walking capably in the footsteps of the Culkins and Fannings of the world. The film not designed for anyone over 10-years-old really belongs to the kids with both Mills--as the awkward Stirling--and Davenport--as best friend Ruthie--add a lot of charm to the proceedings. Also doing nicely is Thieriot (Jumper) as one of the young hobo boys and Will Smith’s daughter Willow in a surprising turn as his good friend (who may or may not be who she seems). Adult roles are largely one-dimensional but a good supporting cast makes the most of them particularly Tucci and the colorful Cusack. Shawn is fun as the editor Kit keeps trying to impress and O'Donnell and Ormond are sympathetic parents. Director Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park) competently directs this old-fashioned live-action family film that is so “G” and squeaky clean it seems out of place with all the hipper CGI-type of fare aimed at younger audiences today. Since this film was obviously designed to sell the enormously popular American Girl dolls you can’t expect a masterpiece. Still there is a certain sweetness and longing for a life long ago that makes this more a cousin to something out of the ‘30s or ‘40s like Judy Garland’s Meet Me in St. Louis than to Breslin’s previous hits Nim's Island and Little Miss Sunshine. How her fans react will be interesting but clearly the filmmakers (which include executive producer Julia Roberts) are just hoping to move some merchandise and put a smile on the faces of the very youn--and very female--target audience. If Rozema’s pleasant film does that you can expect a slew of sequels based on other American Girl dolls.
Although actor/screenwriter Mike White writes with hilarious wit for his comrade in comedy Jack Black--in films such as School of Rock and Orange County--he is also becoming a master at the slice-of-life dramedy. With The Good Girl he expertly gave us a bored married woman stuck in a nowhere job trying to capture a little happiness. Now with Year of the Dog he hands us the ultimate sad sack Peggy (Molly Shannon) who is practically inseparable from her beagle Pencil. Life is uncomplicated and safe with her beloved pet an excuse she uses to great effect in order to avoid human contact as much as possible. But Peggy's world comes crashing down when Pencil meets a mysterious demise in the neighbor's yard. Shattered Peggy isn’t sure where to turn to fill the void. Friends family and co-workers try to distract her but in the end she emerges from her loss with a newfound sense of what will make her happy in the world. Molly Shannon huh? The SNL alum has generally been relegated to kooky sidekick roles after her disastrous (but somewhat guilty pleasure-ish) starring vehicle Superstar. But who knew she had the chops to pull something like this off. She’s perfect as the lonely downcast Peggy who has completely resigned herself to living with her dog as her only companion. Shannon gets to show off her wacky side in certain moments--like when she “adopts” about 20 dogs and lets them run all over her house--but the actress plays the majority of her role with restraint and great subtlety. Also quite good is Peter Sarsgaard as a fellow dog lover who starts off as a potential love interest for Peggy but ends up disappointing her like all the other humans in her life. His character’s unassumingly sweet and charming personality still wins you over even when he’s being a jerk to Peggy. Someone needs to give him an Oscar. In supporting roles there’s John C. Reilly as a blowhard and hunting enthusiast who lives next door to Peggy (and could be the reason Pencil died in the first place); Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern as Peggy’s concerned but rather uptight brother and sister-in-law; and finally Regina King as Peggy’s saucy workmate just trying to give her friend a little excitement. Kudos all around. Mike White also tries his hand at wielding the camera for the first time with Year of the Dog--and much like his minimalist writing style he keeps the action fairly simple and focused. He seems to love the one-on-one scenes with his characters sitting across from each other--either in the living room at a lunch table or a desk--oftentimes with filled with long uncomfortable (or sometimes very comfortable) silences. Static yes but White obviously realizes his movies are more about what’s being said (or not being said) than the visuals. He also shows a real talent in guiding his actors to pitch-perfect performances--a very important part of being a good director. Of course not a lot happens in Year of the Dog which can be a drawback to indie movies of this ilk. It could be considered a giant bore-fest if you can’t connect with people who love their pets way too much. But if you can settle in and really listen to White’s quirky but ultimately realistic view on life as its dealt out you’ll really enjoy this stellar effort from the burgeoning filmmaking talent.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!
December 18, 2003 12:55pm EST
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.
October 19, 2001 5:57am EST
The film opens with prison warden Colonel Winter (Robert Redford) greeting the highly respected General Irwin (James Gandolfini) at the start of his 10-year sentence for disobeying a presidential order. When they meet Irwin makes a snide remark about Winter--a non combatant--proudly showcasing military trinkets and memorabilia in his office. The comment instantly touches off a power war between the two which ends with Irwin threatening to take over the prison and flying the American flag upside down--a symbol that the castle has fallen. Winter rises to the challenge and the two begin their strategic plotting. Irwin wins the respect of his fellow inmates in an overly drawn scene where he is forced to carry large stones from one pile to another in the prison courtyard and forms an army of inmates using clichéd chess tactics to demonstrate his assault plans. Winter meanwhile watches from his cozy office overlooking the courtyard as if he was watching a reality series on a big-screen TV.
The highly regarded General Irwin is a simple solemn type which unfortunately is what is fundamentally wrong with the film. While Redford does the brooding thing quite well the script never calls for him to do anything more than that. James Gandolfini takes on the role of prison warden Colonel Winter with fitting simplicity. He accentuates Winter's dumb-thug persona by over-enunciating his words and speaking in an unnaturally slow manner. Redford and Gandolfini both churn out great performances but it would have been more rewarding had the script called for their characters to be more well-rounded. Steve Burton plays Winter's right hand man Captain Peretz convincingly considering what few lines he has. His body language facial expressions and dialogue manage to convey his character's thoughts even when his lines don't.
Directed by Rod Lurie (The Contender) The Last Castle is a well-paced story without a dull moment. It concludes with a dramatic and exciting climax but the problem is it's just too simple. While it's easy to get caught up in the story it's hard to buy how easily the inmates are able to take control of such a heavily guarded maximum-security prison. Using cafeteria trays as shields is one thing but hurling stones using a giant catapult that somehow went unnoticed by prison security is hard to swallow. So is the fact that these inmates a group of hardened criminals cooperate so easily with hardly any friction. While it could have been a very emotional story it fails because the characters are one-dimensional and never really explored including the two main characters played by Redford and Gandolfini. One is a great strategist and the other draconian but viewers are left to guess why and how they got that way.