Friday, July 29, 2011

The Smurfs

THE SMURFS (Raja Gosnell, 2011)

The little blue guys and gal in THE SMURFS live mostly care-free existences in their quaint village nestled in the wilderness, even if the evil sorcerer Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his cat Azrael are constantly trying to find and capture them. Gargamel wants to extract the Smurfs’ essence and thus add some extra zing to his magic, but he is clueless as to their whereabouts in the Middle Ages-like surroundings.

The Smurfs are named after their personalities, so it’s the appropriately dubbed Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) who accidentally tips off Gargamel to their hidden homes. While escaping his clutches, six Smurfs are sucked into a portal that delivers them to present day New York City. Gargamel follows closely behind but temporarily loses track of the magical, three apples high creatures in The Big Apple.

The Smurfs wind up in the home of stressed marketing executive Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) and his pregnant wife Grace (Jayma Mays). While the Smurfs seem relatively unfazed in this unfamiliar world, they’re also eager to get back to the portal during the next blue moon and return home. Patrick and Grace graciously agree to assist them and keep Gargamel at bay when he pops up again.

Belgian comic book artist Peyo created the Smurfs in the late 1950s. They found popularity in the United States with the 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. A computer-animated feature film about the Smurfs would seem to be the most sensible way to update this kiddie material for a new generation. Instead THE SMURFS and director Raja Gosnell take the eponymous CGI creatures and plop them into a boilerplate, live-action, fish out of water story.

Rather than catering to the kids, who are the only ones likely to care about a Smurfs movie in the first place, the makers try in vain to produce something hip to appeal to all ages, or at least the parents who grew up with the cartoon. Why else is Tim Gunn given a speaking part or do Joan Rivers and TOP CHEF’s Tom Colicchio make cameo appearances? I don’t think five-year-olds are demanding to see their favorites from Bravo’s lineup in this movie.

Such calculated decisions rarely pan out well on the creative side, and THE SMURFS provides a textbook example in the case against this treatment. First and foremost, THE SMURFS’ celebrity voice casting tends to value names that can appear on the poster and stars who will show up on the red carpet. Rather than use voice artists who might better embody these sweet blue beings, the film presents the jarring sounds of George Lopez as Grouchy and Alan Cumming doing a Scottish brogue as Gutsy. Then there’s the nondescript Katy Perry as Smurfette, whose inclusion seems to hinge on putting a Smurf twist on a joke referencing “I Kissed a Girl”. The only one who fits is Jonathan Winters, whose performance doesn’t rely on identifying him as Papa Smurf.

Whether it’s the inappropriate substitution of “smurf” for vulgarities or Smurfette recreating Marilyn Monroe standing over a vent in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, the crass humor is out of place for a franchise that is known for sincerity sometimes to the point of sickly sweetness. THE SMURFS itself is one big merchandising trove, yet it’s also littered with scenes that are little more than ads for Guitar Hero and FAO Schwarz.

Harris does a yeoman’s job in not overacting among the CGI Smurfs. Azaria’s hammy performance as Gargamel is fun in its unrestrained weirdness. It’s readily apparent, though, that THE SMURFS would have been better served by sticking with the all animated introduction for the entire running time than adding live action. After all, bringing the story into the physical world often pulls focus from the title characters who are seemingly the attraction.

Grade: C-

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The NeverEnding Story

THE NEVERENDING STORY (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984)

Still grieving the recent death of his mother and suffering at the hands of school bullies, young Bastian (Barret Oliver) is having a hard time in THE NEVERENDING STORY. His father’s advice is to get his head out of the clouds and buck up. It’s time to move on. No good can come from dwelling on the pain.

Such advice may sound all well and good, but for a kid who feels alone, these consoling words are neither comforting nor helpful. So Bastian retreats into books, which affords him the ability to escape his everyday worries and experience adventures from a safe distance.

One day while hiding from his three harassing classmates Bastian encounters a man in a book shop who is reading something he deems too dangerous for the boy. Like any child who has something forbidden dangled in front of him, Bastian can’t resist wanting to know what such a book might contain. He borrows it when the bookseller steps away for a few moments. Instead of going to class and facing his tormentors again, Bastian slips off to the school’s attic, a dusty old place that looks more like a medieval sorcerer’s quarters than an academic storage area.

Bastian curls up with the book, THE NEVERENDING STORY, and begins reading about Fantasia, a land which is being slowly overtaken by The Nothing. After this darkness in the form of encroaching storm clouds arrives, where once there was something, now there isn’t anything. The Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) knows how to combat the malevolent force but is unable to resist it because she is dying. Enter the child warrior Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), who is summoned and sent on a quest to find a cure for the Empress before The Nothing destroys everything.

As a testament to the power of books, the often gloomy THE NEVERENDING STORY comes off as a READING RAINBOW episode covering existentialism. This is heavy stuff for an epic children’s fantasy, even if it’s leavened by Henson-esque creatures. The inhabitants of Fantasia and a mourning Bastian aren’t trying to ward off tangible villains but are dealing with the eternal struggle against despair.

Whether it’s the production’s German roots showing or the prevailing children’s psychology of the time, THE NEVERENDING STORY confronts angst head on instead of offering any coddling or easy reassurance. The directness empowers the tale’s frightened heroes because courage is defined as the ability to stand up to one’s fears and author solutions in the continuous battle with mortal concerns. Reading is not a passive activity for Bastian but an active engagement that permits safer interaction with individual and collective anxieties. In a bit of meta exercise, it is suggested that those of us viewing are similarly employing the imagination through THE NEVERENDING STORY to keep at bay or conquer fundamental doubts and uneasiness.

At the helm of his first English-language film, director Wolfgang Petersen treats the kid-oriented material seriously to overall benefit and detriment. THE NEVERENDING STORY doesn’t condescend to young viewers. In so doing it provides them with plenty to mull over while taking in the stranger delights akin to ALICE IN WONDERLAND by way of THE DARK CRYSTAL. The lighthearted moments and playful exchanges, such as a Rockbiter extolling the vintages of particular stones he’s chowing down on and an ancient turtle ambivalent about impending doom, hint at a less stern composition, but mostly the playfulness juts out awkwardly in a film whose personality prefers affection at arm’s length.

THE NEVERENDING STORY’s virtues derive in part from its weirdness and uncompromising tone. Much of children’s entertainment instructs about self-actualization, but rarely is the message realized in a manner as respectful of its young audience’s intelligence.

Grade: B-

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Friends with Benefits


As in NO STRINGS ATTACHED, the protagonists in the romantic comedy FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS seek to enjoy carnal pleasures with a trusted pal without a dating relationship’s emotional complications or commitment. Dylan (Justin Timberlake) gets to know Jamie (Mila Kunis) when she recruits him to become the art director at GQ. The job requires him to move from Los Angeles to New York City. Without a social network in his new home, Dylan starts hanging out with Jamie, and the two become fast friends.

Both were recently dumped in their long-term relationships. Dylan and Jamie are feeling frisky and attracted to each other but don’t want to risk ruining their new friendship. Instead, they agree to have casual sex without any expectations of romantic obligations. In fact, such feelings and action are not just discouraged but deal breakers.

For awhile the pair enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company in and out of bed without needing to perform the duties incumbent on those who are dating. Gradually, though, the arrangement proves to be harder to navigate without feelings getting in the way.

Just as Dylan and Jamie wish to stake out a relationship on their own terms but ultimately conform to the norm, FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS wants to blow up the romantic comedy formula but finds itself succumbing to the template’s demands and sentiments. The characters and the filmmakers think they are more evolved than to follow established patterns. The time-tested sturdiness of these structures prevails, but the different paths to these ends is just as rewarding.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS benefits from Timberlake and Kunis’ sparkling lead performances. While it may seem common logic to build a romantic comedy around two people liking and getting to know each other, so many films in the genre substitute petty bickering for compatibility and push the lovers apart so they can have a big reunion. Timberlake and Kunis show why that way of doing business is often wrongheaded. As they flirt and grow fond of each other, so too does the audience gain affection for them. Here is an attractive pair matching wits and deepening their connection whether they realize it or not. In some respects, that’s all this type of movie requires. The lead actors use their star power to radiate warmth and humor. It’s simple and effective yet frequently bungled by the purveyors of romantic comedies.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS also looks better as the second film of the year with a similar but less successfully executed premise. Here the set-up and follow-through regarding commitment-free sex is actually explored, unlike in NO STRINGS ATTACHED. It helps too that FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS’ Dylan and Jamie don’t seem pathological in interpersonal communication, which was the defining characteristic of Natalie Portman’s NO STRINGS ATTACHED character.

Through its magnetic stars, funny crudity, and observation of people’s foibles in relationships, FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS consummates the deal that viewers enter with romantic comedies. Deliver regular laughs. Construct an atmosphere in which love can thrive. Mission accomplished.

Grade: B

Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger


In CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) doggedly attempts to sign up for military service during World War II. His puny stature gets him declared 4-F time and again, but each rejection just makes him try harder on his next recruiting office visit.

Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) notices Steve’s selflessness and nobility and offers the gung-ho New Yorker a special opportunity to serve his country. The expatriate German scientist has developed a treatment that can transform Steve into a super soldier. Being dosed with the serum and vita-rays will greatly enhance his physical appearance and moral fortitude. Although the procedure is not risk-free, Steve accepts without hesitation.

Despite reaching his full potential through technology, military superiors limit Steve to playing the role of Captain America to promote war bond sales. While on tour to perform for the men fighting on the Italian front, Steve finally gets the chance to prove himself in battle. British officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and genius inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) help him slip away for a daring one-man rescue mission of captured troops.

It’s here that Steve encounters Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), otherwise known as Red Skull. The onetime Nazi commander underwent an earlier and flawed version of Dr. Erskine’s treatment, which has magnified his capacity for evil. Schmidt has designs on taking over the world himself and has split from Hitler to lead HYDRA. Schmidt possesses a powerful cube of the gods called the tesseract and is harnessing its energy to create unbeatable weapons. If Steve is to protect his countrymen and the world as a whole, he must defeat Schmidt.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER director Joe Johnston also helmed the retro comic book adventure THE ROCKETEER. Once again he shows a knack for conveying old-fashioned awe and wonder in patriotic service without shifting into jingoism or recruitment ad. Both films feature heroes who are quite square, but the period settings play to the advantage of the characters’ sincerity. By golly, Steve Rogers is going to perform his civic duty however he can. In the era of the tortured superhero in movies, it’s refreshing to come across one with enthusiasm and a pure spirit.

By virtue of his unsullied goodness, Captain America himself is a one-note character, but help is on the way from a strong supporting cast. As Red Skull, Weaving makes an exceptional villain to be feared. The latex mask he wears in the bad guy’s disfigured condition looks exponentially better than the CGI’d GREEN LANTERN character he resembles. Cooper gives the perfect amount of swagger and smarts to the character who will be Iron Man’s dad.

Atwell’s Peggy Carter is more than a romantic prop for the hero. She’s as tough and driven as the boys fighting the good fight, yet she also let down her guard when admiring Steve and being disappointed by him. For as misguided as CAPTAIN AMERICA’s conclusion is, Peggy and Steve’s radio conversation, which echoes Powell and Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, identifies the human cost that pays for valor.

CAPTAIN AMERICA is the last cinematic piece of the puzzle that will make way for next summer’s superhero extravaganza THE AVENGERS. At times it feels as though CAPTAIN AMERICA suffers because it is a prelude to the blockbuster-to-be. The opening scene not only ruins the potential emotional impact of the climax, but it also gives it away within the first ten minutes. On top of that, the final scene suggests that everything preceding it was merely a long teaser for the admission to be bought next May. Johnston’s fleetly assembled superhero film deserves better, but the botched finish doesn’t undo all the goodwill that CAPTAIN AMERICA earns.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


BADLANDS (Terrence Malick, 1973)

Set in the late 1950s, BADLANDS follows 25-year-old garbage collector Kit (Martin Sheen) and 15-year-old Holly (Sissy Spacek), who are running from the law for their killing spree that stretches from South Dakota to Montana. Kit looks like James Dean and shows interest in the red-haired, freckled-faced teen, who admits to not receiving that kind of attention at school. It’s no wonder this man from the wrong side of the tracks captivates her. That her father (Warren Oates) disapproves only makes Kit more attractive. Kit and Holly’s outlaw adventure across the Great Plains is instigated when he kills her father and burns down her home. It’s them against the world as the couple hightail it out of town for a life of survival off of the land and anyone who gets in their way.

BADLANDS is loosely based on a similar string of real-life killings by Charles Starkweather and his young girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in 1958, although writer-director Terrence Malick uses their story as a jumping off point for his interests than an investigation of true crime personalities. Instead of a psychological portrait of two young killers on the road, it studies the mundanity of murder. Kit and Holly seem not to be disturbed or excited by taking lives. Killing comes naturally and is carried out without consideration for the act’s meaning. They kill because it is an avenue to getting what they want or preserving themselves. They kill because it’s what they do.

The way of nature is a consistent theme in Malick’s films, and here in his debut he cuts to the chase regarding an unyielding universe that operates outside of philosophical constructs. In the animal kingdom Kit and Holly’s deeds would not be judged within a moral framework, nor would they be when considering man’s dominion over all creatures great and small. Shooting a dog to punish a child or tossing a catfish into the yard to suffocate because one is angry are not doings deserving of guilt or ethical penalty much like raising cattle for slaughter is unobjectionable. (In these instances one must account for when the film takes place and was made.)

But of course humans conduct themselves within the parameters of what society deems acceptable and unacceptable. This is why Kit and Holly’s brazen attitudes about the sanctity of life shock the sensibilities. Holly’s flat, matter of fact narration and Sheen and Spacek’s dispassionate performances reflect the emptiness in their characters and the problem of living outside higher and human-determined law. (In fact, the only time they appear to conform to the world’s expectations is when they hide out in the forest free of constraints and playact as civilized people.) Kit and Holly are frightening not because they are unknowable but because their actions stem from nature.

Additionally, this outlaw pair is scary because they’re dumb and likable. Malick has come to be known and revered as a cinematic poet and philosopher, as a filmmaker who explores big ideas, but in BADLANDS in particular he also shows a knack for off-kilter humor. Kit’s cocksure carriage, as though he’s embodying a role in a movie in his head, and the weird ideas that both verbalize breed affection. There’s something hilariously twisted about an adult killer insisting his girlfriend stop by school to get her books so she can keep up with her studies while they are on the lam. If only their strange notions and convention breaking were less sociopathic.

BADLANDS is a clear announcement that Malick is and would be a major talent to watch.

Grade: A

Friday, July 15, 2011

Winnie the Pooh

WINNIE THE POOH (Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall, 2011)

In WINNIE THE POOH the tubby little cubby and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood work together to overcome the two issues of a most pressing nature in their community. Eeyore (Bud Luckey) has lost his tail, so a contest is held to find the best replacement. The prize for finding the ideal tail is a big pot of honey. Pooh (Jim Cummings) is already eager to help his pal, but the prospect of satisfying that rumbly tummy of his in the process doesn’t hurt his motivation.

Additionally, Pooh and the others plot to capture the Backson, a frightful creature that is imagined when Owl (Craig Ferguson) misinterprets Christopher Robin’s note and his promise to be “back soon”. A litany of terrible things the Backson does is invented, but the animals persevere in an effort to rescue the boy.

With its hand-drawn style (even if it is computer-animated) and quiet sincerity, the latest Disney animated film featuring A.A. Milne’s beloved characters is a delightful throwback to classic children’s entertainment. WINNIE THE POOH is what it always has been, or at least what many know from the decades of shorts and features the studio has made.

The characters aren’t susceptible to the prevailing trends of their times but instead submit to simple and gentle storytelling that endures across generations. Going to the Hundred Acre Wood at the movies is the equivalent of visiting a nature preserve. Here’s a space where viewers can take a break from the hustle and bustle that dominates the options in kids’ media diversions.

WINNIE THE POOH toys with its storybook origin, as the titular bear wanders onto the page, collects letters from sentences to assist in a task, and interacts with the narrator. These fourth wall breaking techniques never feel like meta intrusions on the material but like a child’s interaction with a parent reading the tales. The writers and animators have great fun playing with the text to sneak in some small lessons about narratives and make their funniest jokes.

Pooh isn’t smarter than the average bear, but he and his friends serve as wonderful examples for the little ones following their adventures. Although the gloomy Eeyore seems under a perpetual cloud, Pooh and company are typically filled with good cheer and courage, even when experiencing doubt and worry. Ever mindful of how children perceive a world that is at turns wondrous and scary, the film approaches the challenges these characters face in a manner that remains optimistic while not ignoring the bittersweet. To do so is to respect the youngsters who are watching.

WINNIE THE POOH is aimed squarely at kids, and its abbreviated running time of 69 minutes is just long enough to pass the time before they get too squirmy in the seats. It also shouldn’t be too long for adults who, like me, may find some of this overly familiar. (I swear I’ve seen these specific subplots before, but maybe they were variations on similar incidents.) I should note that the screening I attended had an inexplicably and verging on painfully loud audio presentation, one that’s in defiance of the tranquil nature of the work. It likely affected the degree of my evaluation for what is intended as a quiet, low key charmer.

Grade: B-

Friday, July 08, 2011


ZOOKEEPER (Frank Coraci, 2011)

Five years after being rejected during an elaborate marriage proposal on the beach, Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) finally appears to be getting over the heartbreak. His ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) spurned him because his job isn’t important enough in her eyes, but he excels in his chosen profession and has become the head zookeeper at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. Seeing Stephanie at his brother’s engagement party rekindles old feelings and has Griffin working hard to impress her again.

The zoo animals want Griffin to be happy and scheme to make him look good in front of her, but true to form, he bungles the staged rescue. At this point the creatures choose to break their code of silence with humans and speak to Griffin so they can instruct him in the animal kingdom’s ways of courtship.

Griffin is understandably freaked out that he can talk to the animals, but he quickly adapts and follows through on the pointers he’s given. He begins walking with a swagger and marking his territory, even if it means urinating in potted plants at a classy restaurant. Still, Stephanie doesn’t seem really interested in Griffin until he leaves the zoo to work at his brother’s luxury vehicle dealership.

If a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters can produce Shakespeare, then ZOOKEEPER must have been banged out by one primate pecking away at a keyboard between sessions playing on a tire swing. This nearly laugh-free amalgamation of DOCTOR DOLITTLE and NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM spends far too much time on romantic comedy machinations and away from the talking animals that are presumably the film’s calling card.

ZOOKEEPER is targeted at a family audience seeking amusement in the silly exploits of conversant zoo inhabitants, but it expends a lot of its running time and energy on the main character’s pursuit of a shallow woman everyone knows he’s not meant to be with. As unfunny as the wise-cracking zoo animals are, their antics are preferable to a boilerplate romance that no one’s heart is in. If a love story is absolutely necessary--and it really isn’t in a movie meant for children--keep it in the workplace. Have the animals conspiring to bring together Griffin and his compassionate co-worker Kate (Rosario Dawson). At least that way there will be more scenes with the zoo denizens.

Another ZOOKEEPER miscalculation can be spotted in the celebrity voice cast. Featuring Sylvester Stallone and Cher as a lion couple, producer Adam Sandler as a monkey, and Nick Nolte as a sullen gorilla, the roster is notable for its collective weirdness than effectiveness. Granted, the performers have been handed dire material, but the familiar, if not always easy to identify, voices put in minimal effort and tend to distract.

Nothing about ZOOKEEPER suggests it was ever anything but a crass excuse for selling tickets to parents perhaps tired of taking the kids to animated movies. Still, the product placements in the film are the most shameless of any in recent memory. Out of nowhere the gorilla asks if a casual dining place is as great as it sounds. Later on the zookeeper and the gorilla spend a raucous evening living it up in this particular establishment. More thought seems to have been put into this virtual commercial and truly strange scene than the remainder of this lazy excuse of a film.

Grade: D