29 posts categorized "family movie"


Gimme that ol' time religion, a new putter

In a perfect cinematic world, a utopia, if you will, a wise, world-weary Robert Duvall on a horse would be quite enough to ignite dramatic sparks.

Utopia, however, is imagined perfection; an unobtainable, if noble, pilgrimage to a non-existent place.

"Seven Days in Utopia," lensed in the real Texas Hill Country hamlet of Utopia (85 miles northwest of San Antonio), features a somewhat real-life world-weary Duvall on a horse.  

Unfortunately, that is not enough to provide inspirational, not to mention entertaining, cinema.

Based on David Cook's book "Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia," the big-screen version is a warm-hearted call to religion with professional golf and the sleepy Texas Hill Country as a backdrop.

It plays like an uneasy mixture of "Tin Cup," which featured Kevin Costner as an imploding golfer on tour, "The Karate Kid" and summer Bible school at the First Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, TX, which I attended in my youth.

Lucas Black, reuniting with Duvall after sharing the screen in "Sling Blade" and "Get Low," portrays troubled golfer Luke Chisholm.

There is no gospel, according to Luke.

Browbeaten by his father into becoming the next young sensation on the pro golf tour no matter what, the Waco native has a meltdown on the course, breaks his putter over his knee and drives off to somewhere, anywhere to heal his deep emotional wounds.

Quite by chance, it would seem, he winds up in Utopia, TX.  Johnny Crawford, not the actor-singer who played "The Rifleman's" son on TV in the late '50s-early '60s, but a beloved town character played by Duvall, takes the young man under his wing.  

Seeing something of himself in Luke, Johnny offers to teach the lost soul in golf spikes the proper way to play golf in a week.  He also tosses in how to get your head right and how to make the Bible a companion and life guide, although the life lessons come semi-stealthly and as an added bonus.

"Seven Days in Utopia" would work better as a G-rated golf ball swatter, Bible-thumper if an experienced director, like Duvall, for instance, took on added duties as director.  Duvall directed himself to a best actor Oscar nomination in 1997 as a Texas preacher in "The Apostle."

First-timer Matt Russell, a visual effects coordinator sliding into the directing chair, appears more concerned with how things look (and there are some gorgeous shots) than how flat and hokey scenes are playing.

Duvall is fine, although uninspired, in a role he could play in his sleep.

Co-star Black, though, acts like he is sleep-walking much of the time.  If Black has another facial expression other than the stone-faced one on display throughout here, I'd love to see it.
Some will call "Seven Days in Utopia" sentimental hokum that means well and speaks from the heart, but -- like the lightning bugs trapped in a jar in a slightly strained life lesson scene -- fails to ignite into memorable cinema.

I, unfortunately, am among those naysayers.

From this aisle seat, this is a difficult stance to take for three reasons.

(1) Duvall has deeply moved me emotionally and intellectually throughout much of my 31-year career as a film critic.  I will never forget Duvall's broken-down country-singer/songwriter Mac Sledge in "Tender Mercies" (1983).  Sledge convinced me when he said, "I don't trust happiness.  I never did, I never will."

(2)  This is a small-budget film obviously made with a lot of love for God, film making and the Texas Hill Country.

(3)  After over three decades offering my opinion on movies to anyone who would listen, read or watch, this is my final review of a debuting film.

(More on that to come soon.)


'Smurfs' up!

If you're about 5, which I am give or take a half-century or so, "The Smurfs" frolic across a movie screen in eye-popping 3-D like Snow White's blue-tinted Dwarfs on holiday in a far, far away place called New York City.

Those slightly older than that might detect more than a little similarity to the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" franchise.

It's refreshing that this big-screen re-tooling of the TV cartoon "Smurfs" of the 1980s is aimed at kids.  Even though human adults co-mingle with the magically transformed Smurfs in a modern day Big Apple, there's no attempt at dual-aged comic appeal.  You know, jokes that appeal to the target kiddies and others aimed at kids' parents, who generally tag along to movies like this.

The story is simple enough.  In an attempt to avoid peril at the hands of evil  wizard Gargamel (talented Hank Azaria with a shaved head and prosthetic buck teeth), a six pack of tiny Smurfs are sucked through a magic portal and deposited in a stream in Central Park, New York, Earth.

Gargamel and his hissing cat Azrael soon show up as well, and the race is on.  But Papa Smurf (voiced with serious wisdom and wit by the ageless Jonathan Winters) and Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) manage, quite by accident, to land in the apartment occupied by a nervous ad exec (Neil Patrick Harris) and his good natured wife named -- what else -- Grace (Jayma Mays).

There's not really anywhere to go in a family comedy featuring main character a little over seven inches tall that the Chipmunks haven't already ventured, of course.  But director Raja Gosnell ("Scooby-Doo," "Beverly Hills Chihuahua") and a handful of screenwriters keep the mayhem coming.

The little blue dudes and one, only one little blue lady (Smurfette, voiced by Katy Perry), are adequately computer-generated and in 3-D (in select theaters).

Harris ("How I Met Your Mother" on TV), proving versatile enough for almost any show biz situation, fully commits to his plight of playing second fiddle to a handful of little blue, well, handfuls.

"The Smurfs" turns out to be fun for the entire family, whether you're a kid or a parent watching your child giggle at the silliness.

But what do I know?  I'm this many (holding up four fingers and a thumb), give or take a half-century or so.


Larry the overused 'Cars' guy

In its first sequel with more likely to come, Disney/Pixar's "Cars" franchise heads to Europe and Asia with Mater, the good-natured rusty tow truck, out front.

That, of course, means a spotlight vocal prance by Larry the Cable Guy.  It also means a heavy helping of corn pone humor.  In other words, "Cars" has shifted into a cash-for-clunkers franchise in its second drive across the screen,

I freely admit to being a Larry the Cable Guy fan.  By that I mean the clever comedian with the sleeveless shirt and the raunch-riddled mouth who has turned lowbrow redneck humor into his own license to print money.

Unfortunately, that's not the Larry we get in the "Cars" sequel.  We get a sanitized voice that's muffled into a G-rating.

And even worse, Larry is expected to carry the entertainment load this time, instead of just being one of the more interesting digitally animated four-wheeled characters hanging out in Radiator Springs, a place where cars act like humans instead of automobiles.

"Cars 2," another slick, occasionally eye-popping example of Pixar expertise, is too long at almost two hours, especially for kids beginning to squirm behind their oversized 3-D glasses.

And, from this aisle seat at least, it's too boring.  That surprises me a little with Pixar head John Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis at the helm.

Like Chevy Chase's "Vacation" franchise, "Cars" heads for Europe (and Asia) in search of new locales to perhaps find success in exotic backgrounds of Tokyo, Paris and London.

Owen Wilson returns as the voice of hotshot race car Lightning McQueen and is generally fine, if a little too laid-back.  McQueen lines up against chief rival Francesco Bernoulli (voiced with appropriate flair by John Turturro) in a series of Grand Prix races, which Mater either messes up or saves.

The film's other driving force is a spy caper featuring master British spy car Finn McMissile (veteran actor Michael Caine) and British desk agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who's pressed into field spy duty.

Frankly, the young kids in attendance seemed strapped in and paying more attention than I expected.  For those who hopped on this one-trick cinematic pony the first time around, though, "Cars 2" will likely come off as an unnecessary second drive around the animated garage.

Some good news, though:  The "Toy Story" short cartoon "Hawaiian Vacation" is a pleasant added-on surprise before "Cars 2" cranks up.

I am, however, still trying to figure out why a long trailer for "The Lion King" re-release in September takes anxious movie-goers around the "Circle of Life" one more time before "Cars" can start its engines.


Fur flies in battle heavy 'Kung Fu Panda 2'

In the first animated family comedy "Kung Fu Panda," we learned what funny guy Jack Black might look like if he was born a noodle-making panda named Po in fictional ancient cartoon China.

And, oh yeah, that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, even roly-poly pandas.

The sequel, aptly titled "Kung Fu Panda 2," offers these insights:

That loving goose that runs the village noodle shop is not Po's natural father after all.  (Take a second if you need it to get over the shock.)

And perhaps most importantly, audiences will be told that the best way to fight really, really well is to find inner peace.

That's a pretty thin story arc for a movie franchise featuring the voices of A-list stars like Black, Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Jackie Chan (Monkey), Seth Rogen (Mantis), Lucy Liu (Viper), Dustin Hoffman (Master Shifu) and others.

From this aisle seat, the first time around in 2008 was a novel hoot.  Po learned to kung fu fight with his idols, the kung fu masters listed above, and generated a ton of fun going through the process.

The sequel, written by the same team of Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, feels a little strained when it comes to story fodder.  Jennifer Yuh Nelson moves up from head of story on the original "Kung Fu Panda' to the director's chair in this one, and may still have a little to learn when it comes to battle overkill vs. character development and depth.

And while I'm on my soap box, the bow to the unnecessary trend of pushing 3-D glasses for a premium price is not only unnecessary, it's ineffective.

To me, the animation looks a little muddy and less defined for the second Po go.  And the emphasis is on fighting, which is sometimes creative but repetitive and boring at other times.

Gary Oldman, who hammed it up recently as wolf-hunter Father Solomon in "Red Riding Hood," brings gusto to his vocal role.  He's Lord Shen, a peeved peacock that embraces the Industrial Age only to forge cannons to wipe out his foes and, while he's at it, kung fu.

Young children might delight in all the mayhem.  Adults who bring them, however, are likely to be yawning before Po even raises a paw to bid farewell to his Pa.

Duty calls, you see, even for a fun-loving panda that would probably rather hang around the kitchen and see how many noodles he can stuff into his furry mug.

Since movie studios need to worry about bottom line profit margin and pandas do not, I get the feeling that once around the kung fu block was enough for Po.

It certainly was for me.


CGI Critterville visits 'Chinatown' in 'Rango'

In the ever-increasing deluge of animated films, there are soaring adventures for kids like "How to Train Your Dragon," somber thought pieces for adults like "The Illusionist" and those that aspire to appeal to several generations, such as "Up."

"Rango" is a wild card, even using the aforementioned parameters.

"Rango," my friends, is for movie lovers.  While it might appeal to kids to some extent, director Gore Verbinski aims this amazing critter Western not only at adults, but at adults with such diverse movie-viewing experience as "Chinatown" and, dare I say, "The Terror of Tiny Town."

"Chinatown," of course, was Roman Polanski's sleaze-oozing potboiler of 1974 starring Jack Nicholson and late, great director John Huston as a power broker with a tight grip on the L.A. water supply.  All you need to know about "The Terror of Tiny Town" (1938), an awful movie, by the way, is that it spoofed traditional Westerns by inserting little people into all the traditional roles.

"Rango" does the same, but with critters small and smaller.

Johnny Depp, who has "Arrrrrrrrrrrded" his way through a trio of Verbinski-directed "Pirates of the Caribbean" adventures, injects a ton of personality into the title character.  Rango, or at least the violently displaced family pet that will become Rango, is a chameleon.

He gets lost in the desert near Las Vegas, then, by chance, winds up in the dusty Western town aptly called Dirt.  The water supply has gone bone dry and the mayor, a devious turtle voiced by Ned Beatty (looking a little and sounding a lot like Huston), seems to always be sipping some.

After bragging a little in the saloon following a series of cactus juice shots, Rango is named sheriff.  A posse is formed and the little lizard that could (or maybe not) hits the trail to bring water back to Dirt.

To fully understand the beauty of the CGI animation in "Rango," you just have to experience it.  Say what you will about Verbinski turning an old Disney theme park ride into a cash cow movie franchise, he has done wonders here.

In addition to Depp, who is marvelous, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy and the great Harry Dean Stanton all lend their voices (and are  all tremendous) to a well-imagined character menagerie.

The Western cliches come fast and furious.  But combined with the visual brilliance, "Rango" morphs into an animated comic-adventure that's sure to become a topic of conversation when the next movie awards season heats up.  (No need to worry about that now.  That won't happen for a couple of weeks at least.)

My only minor complaint about this tongue-in-and-out-of-cheek Western spoof is that screenwriter John Logan ("The Aviator," "Sweeney Todd") gets a little too mystical at times.  And, at almost two hours, it definitely runs too long for small children.

I do wish Logan had sneaked in one line, though:
"Forget it Rango, it's Dirt."


'Tangled' shines as golden family fun

In the somewhat confusing world of Disney animated movies these days, a movie based on the classic tale Rapunzel is called "Tangled."

That's where the muddled presentation ends, though.  This goldie locks yarn packs computer-generated vim, vocal vigor and spirited animal characters to go along with the familiar story of a beautiful girl with magical hair that measures 70-feet in length.

"Tangled," available in 3-D and traditional 2-D, is a robust comedy with romance the entire family can enjoy together.

Snatched by Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), an evil women hoping to keep the secret of eternal youth all to herself, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) grows up in a tower in a secluded area of the forest.

Her parents, the king and queen, release floating lanterns in a desperate attempt to reach their kidnapped daughter each year on her birthday.   As that special day approaches to signal the start of her 18th year, Rapunzel lets down her hair and runs off with Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a thief with a heart of gold as bright as Rapunzel's rather extended hair.

Co-directors Nathan Greno (getting his feature-film shot) and Byron Howard ("Bolt") take full advantage of Dan Fogelman's ("Bolt") briskly paced script.  There's more than a little of something for everyone.  Girls will love the fairy tale romance.  Boys are likely to delight in the action sequences, and parents can breathe easy knowing that Disney -- and more specifically these days, co-executive producer John Lasseter -- is going to keep everything in the family film arena.

Moore, who's been toiling in TV lately ("How I Met Your Mother," "Grey's Anatomy"), brings effervescence mixed with a teeny bit of rebellion to Rapunzel, which should have been the title character.

Animation film-makers must agonize over whether their vocal co-stars will generate the needed on-screen chemistry using only their vocal chords.  In this case, the directing duo had nothing to worry about.  Levi (as Flynn Rider), the title character of "Chuck" on TV, matches Moore syllable by syllable as the career thief who might just not be so bad after all.

Animated flicks often overdo their computer-generated animal sidekicks.  While that is the case somewhat with Rapunzel's overly cautious pet chameleon Pascal, Maximus, the duty-bound palace guard horse Maximus is a hoot.  

Actually, Maximus only looks like a horse.  He sniffs around for clues like a police dog.  It may sound like it would get overly tedious, but Maximus works to the maximum.

And so does "Tangled," despite its title change and rather one-dimensional story tone.

Gather up the family and treat yourself to the newest animated film delight.  I'm betting you'll be glad you did.


'Megamind' arrival dulled by 'Despicable Me'

I suppose if you're a kid, today's steady diet of event or semi-event animated comedies is a cool thing.

But "Megamind" bursts from the screen in 3-D just shy of four months after "Despicable Me," another -- and better -- tale of a super villain who turns out to be a softie.  The similarities and rapid-fire releases diminish the entertainment power of the second to arrive, if you ask me.

Both filled the sound booth with solid talent for vocal elements.  Steve Carell was the baddie who adopted kids for personal gain in "Despicable Me," then found the beauty in family life.

"Megamind" boasts Will Ferrell as the title character; a blue-tinged alien visitor with a swelled head who fights so hard to be bad.  Alas, though, way deep down is goodness, which, in the early going, is his downfall.

Young children will have no clue that rookie screenwriters Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons borrow heavily from the Superman story to send baby Megamind from a shattering planet far, far away to grow up on a planet as blue as he is.  They up the ante, though.  As the baby who will be Megamind hurtles through space, he gets a Bronx cheer from another baby -- a he-man looking little egotist -- on a similar path.

They are destined to battle it out as the citizens of Metro City -- especially TV  news roving reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey) -- look on in various shades of horror, gratitude and disbelief.

Hal (Jonah Hill), who gets a shot of super powers up the nose and turns into evil superhero Tighten, is a nice touch, except almost every animated flick seems to have a nerdy  TV cameraman hanging around.  Remember the guy in "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" last year?

You probably won't be able to recognize Brad Pitt by only hearing his booming voice as Metro Man (the other former baby who jettisoned to Earth).  It's a lively vocal turn for the A-lister, though.

As for Ferrell, he brings his usual strong comic farce force to the title character.  Ms. Fey ("30 Rock" on TV)  is surprisingly animated vocally as the crusading TV news reporter caught between two freedom fighters not so unlike Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca."

So, "Megamind" isn't great.  It is, however, fun, which brings us right back to what probably works just fine for kiddie movie-goers.


Nanny McPhee's back; cures new brat pack

"Little c, big P."

That's Nanny McPhee's standard spelling tip greeting to anyone meeting the magical, big-toothed nanny for the first time.

For many of us, this isn't the initial encounter with the timeless nanny in the dark cloak who speaks softly and carries a big stick, of course.

"Nanny McPhee Returns" is the follow-up to the 2005 original.  Like "Nanny McPhee," the sequel is based on Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" children's books that first lined shelves in the 1960s.  

And, like the first big-screen installment, the wildly imaginative script is penned by British actress/writer Emma Thompson, who also lurks behind the disappearing moles (complete with an errant ugly hair), the bulbous nose and the signature snaggletooth.

The two main differences between the first and second screen adventures is that there are five out-of-control kids to corral instead of seven.  Also, this time war rages between two sets of child siblings instead of between a single parent and unruly kiddos.

And speaking of war, the episodic soothing of young rowdy souls unfolds in something resembling World War II England, although the general store and horse-drawn carts look more like the 1920s than the '40s.

Thompson's script, holding nothing back, begins with a barnyard full of poo.  Before this enchanting adventure pulls out all magical stops and concludes in predictable fairy tale form, piglets will climb trees.  They'll also perform snout-spouting syncronized swimming water ballet.

If that's not enough weirdness, a baby elephant hops in bed with one of the kids and some of the most talented actors around take turns either chewing the scenery madly or turning in marvelous performances.

Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Crazy Heart," "The Dark Knight") does a little of both as Isabel Green, a mother of three with a husband off to war, two snooty young relatives coming to visit and a villainous brother-in-law named Phil.

More than likely instructed to do so by director Susanna White, whose experience lies mainly with TV projects, excellent actor Rhys Ifans ("Pirate Radio") is so silly as Phil that I didn't even recognize one of my favorite actors.

Maggie Smith (the "Harry Potter" franchise) takes her store owner character way over the edge as well.  But at least Dame Smith gets a chance to pull it back a little in the final reel.

On the other end of the spectrum, two-time Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes ("Schindler's List," "The English Patient") is superb and restrained in an all-too-brief scene as military official Lord Gray.

The special effects are marvelous, as is Thompson as Nanny McPhee, the mysterious task master with a golden heart.

We could all use Nanny McPhee, either on a movie screen in one of the most entertaining family films of the year, or -- need I say this? -- at home.


Pawing the spy beat to save the world

It's been a pretty ruff summer for live action movies with talking dogs.

"Marmaduke" was definitely yapping up the wrong tree back in June, even with Owen Wilson providing vocal life to the cartoon favorite's live action outing.

Now comes "Cats & Dogs:  The Revenge of Kitty Galore," the follow-up to "Cats & Dogs" of 2001.  That's an eternity between movies in doggie years, of course.  Chances are that the film's target audience of youngsters will have no, or very little connection to the first adventure.

The sequel is bigger and better with animals that really appear to be talking.  We can attribute much of that to advancement in technology as much as anything else.

The bottom line is extremely silly cat and dog spy adventure drivel in bits.  Some work better than others.

Parents may delight to some extent in the stars and former stars who ham it up giving voice to their respective critters.  Veteran songstress Bette Midler gets so far into her vocalization of feline villainess Kitty Galore, for instance, I can almost imagine her coughing up a fur ball at some point.

Also, I never thought I'd hear the lazy, raspy voice of Nick Nolte coming out of an Anatolian Shepherd.  But that's the "Affliction" star as Butch, the gruff DOG agent that's been pawing the beat for some time.

Canines and felines are forced to work together to go after evil in this one.  Christina Applegate brings an impressive balance of toughness and smarts to Catherine, the agent from rival MEOWS.

We only have to look as far as hairless Ms. Galore and the Bond-like opening credits that rookie feature film director Brad Peyton splashes across the screen to deduce that what comes next will be a heated up Cold War-like spy caper.

The only thing those who missed the original "Cats & Dogs" need to know is that animals talk when humans aren't around.  In fact, some of man's best friends and purring kitties have secret lives as elite spies.  In addition to fetching balls and rubbing between the legs of their so-called masters, they might just be off on a grand adventure when the humans aren't looking.

Kitty Galore, once a MEOWS agent, has gone rogue.  Unless cats and dogs put aside their inborn differences, the evil kitty with the Midler meow might just rule the world with a diabolical plot she's planning.

"Cats & Dogs:  The Revenge of Kitty Galore," available in 3-D (which adds a little pop), will entertain young, inexperienced movie-goers the most.

Know this, parents.  You'll need to put on your silly hats as well, or it'll be a long dog (and cat) day afternoon at the movies.


Leave it to Ramona

Klickitat St., home and adventure headquarters for precocious 9-year-old Ramona Quimby in "Ramona and Beezus," could be about a block over from where Theodore Cleaver of "Leave It to Beaver" fame gave his family lovable fits a half century ago.

Both exist in a sanitized, G-rated, somewhat timeless world where sibling rivalry is important, but daily household events come into play as well.  There's another time-line connection.  Beverly Cleary's tales of out-of-the-box thinker Ramona and her older sister Beezus were first published over 50 years ago.

Oozing a tad too much schmaltz at times, the big-screen version of Cleary's literary playground still serves up a lively mother-daughter, dad-daughter or family outing to the movies.

Newcomer Joey King fits perfectly into Ramona's inquisitive, feisty persona.  She's cute as a bug, as you might expect.  King, who started out on TV and who has provided voices for "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" and "Ice Age:  Dawn of the Dinosaurs," makes us believe she would hide a report card stating "bright, but lacks focus and shows a lack of respect for rules."

Ramona has a mind of her own.  When she leaps off the front porch in a homemade parachute, for instance, a third grader's imagination soars.  And so does Ramona.  Director Elizabeth Allen injects special effects to show her little ball of imagination floating happily through the clouds.

Some filmmakers tend to overdo it with setups like this.  But Allen, who made her feature film debut with the teen fantasy "Aquamarine" in 2006, shows logical restraint, using the flights of fantasy as well-timed accents to the live action.

Devotees of the book series shouldn't expect "Ramona and Beezus" to be lifted from one literary adventure springing from the Portland, OR neighborhood (but shot in Vancouver).  Screenwriters Laurie Craig (a co-writer on "Ella Enchanted") and Nick Pustay ("Camille") borrow plot points from several, including "Ramona and Her Father," "Ramona Forever" and others.

There's plenty of sisterly shenanigans between the young free-thinker and her older sister, who's in her first year of high school and having second thoughts about that nickname Beezus.

As the elder sibling, singer-actress Selena Gomez ("Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over") gets a chance to stretch a little.  Beezus is a girl in that awkward stage of thinking about boys in a different way for the first time.  And John Corbett ("Sex and the City") and Bridget Moynahan ("I, Robot") go through the motions well enough as parents navigating real-world problems (a job loss) in a slightly edgy, sanitized movie environment.

"Ramona and Beezus" is the kind of movie a little girl can reach out and hug.  Adults along for the ride might just smile a little along the way as well.