9 posts categorized "G"


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.)


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.


'Cats' -- Way off-off-Broadway and real

So much for the carefree hakuna matata (No worries for the rest of your days) when it comes to the nature documentary "African Cats."

The circle of life plays out in harsh reality in the third modern-day feature from the Disneynature division of the Mouse House.

Co-directed by seasoned nature filmmakers Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill ("Deep Blue," "Earth"), "African Cats" does an excellent job of showcasing chosen lions and cheetahs as they live, love, hunt and fight for survival in Kenya's savanna.

Unlike Disney's beloved "Lion King," which had its share of life-or-death situations, "African Cats" makes it clear from the opening credits that survival of the fittest in this wild will eventually get around to the sad facts of unfortunate life.

Whether this G-rated film is suited for "general audiences; all ages admitted" is best up to parents, of course. The gritty nature of the subject matter (lions attacking lions, a lion standing down a hissing alligator, etc.), however, would make it impossible for this critic to expose the harsh real world to a child under the age of 7 or so.

Samuel L. Jackson, a very able actor, narrates "African Cats" with enthusiasm. By giving all the key animals names, though, the filmmakers blur the line between entertainment and what could have been a spectacular fly-on-the-wall approach to just allowing nature to run its course on its own terms.

There's no question Scholey and Fothergill, as well as their talented crew, showed admirable patience over the course of more than two years to allow the captured saga to play out.

In "African Cats," the audience gets equal doses of playful lion cubs or newborn cheetahs tumbling over each other as they depend on Mom for protection and guidance.

In the real world, though, as is shown here, not all babies survive. And the hyenas that strike during a brilliantly photographed storm really do appear to be laughing, eerily, at their prey.

The directors are careful not to show bloody kills and graphic mating.

I wonder, then, if their attempts to shield the audience from the harshest reality is short-changing the "nature" half of the Disneynature business plan?


Bard to the bone

Lawn statues take on "Romeo and Juliet," perhaps the greatest love tragedy in the history of the written word.  Not counting "The Hangover," of course.

Who says Hollywood is out of ideas?

Actually, with serious apologies to William Shakespeare, "Gnomeo & Juliet" isn't all that bad, especially if you're a kid and you're getting your first dose of Shakespeare and 3-D glasses at the same time.

For adults, though ... You know what, adults can enjoy this silly back yard, off-the-wall Shakespeare reboot as well.

Seven credited writers (Yes, seven and that's not counting Mr. Shakespeare) turn the world's infamous family feud into a stand-off between the Reds and the Blues.   They fight.  They sling insults at each other across the fence they share.

And they're all lawn gnomes.

Two of them, though, are in love.  And yes, Gnomeo (James McAvoy) is a blue and Juliet (Emily Blunt) is, at first glance, a dreaded Red.

I would have probably bailed on this vibrantly colorful silliness if Juliet had wailed from her balcony:  "Gnomeo, Gnomeo, wherefore art thou Gnomeo?"

Or maybe I wouldn't have.

Director Kelly Asbury ("Shrek 2") keeps things moving along.  The animation occasionally dazzles and the voice talent is top notch.

In addition to Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada") and McAvoy ("Atonement"), Michael Caine is a hoot as Juliet's father, Lord Redbrick, and Maggie Smith (the "Harry Potter" movies) delights as Lady Blueberry.

"Gnomeo & Juliet" is a cinematic truffle.  Delicious in its foolhardiness for a while, and then tossed from the mind and forgotten.

But remember this.  When humans aren't looking, the gnomes out in the back yard might just be up to something.


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.


Third time a charming 'Toy Story' too

Well, kids of all ages, there's still plenty of entertainment giddyup left in Woody's pull-string.

"Toy Story 3" defies the usual second-sequel doldrums with a rousing story and spirited, lovable characters, as well as a sweet-talking villain in the form of a cuddly teddy bear that smells like strawberries.

The 11-year gap between the second "Toy Story" and this one evaporates the instant a frolicsome blend of computer animated characters both familiar and new launch an emotional adventure that, believe it or not, pushes Woody, Buzz Lightyear and pals to the brink of fiery toy hell, a.k.a. the furnace at the city dump.

The first "Toy Story" arrived in 1995 with the impact of last year's "Avatar."  John Lasseter and his creative geniuses over at Pixar altered the animation universe with mind-boggling technology.  Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and the rest of a boy named Andy's pals rolled out of the cinematic toy box as the first full-length animated feature created entirely in a computer (CG) by artists.

The challenge this time for Lasseter and his Pixar staff, who now create under the Disney banner, was to tone done today's advanced computer technology.  The goal, achieved grandly, I might add, was for the 21st century versions of Andy's toy box pals to maintain the original tone of movement.

That accomplished, Lasseter (executive producer this time after directing the first two) and director Lee Unkrich (co-director of "Toy Story 2") sought to continue the exhilarating combination of action-adventure, comedy and heartfelt feelings.

The story, conceived by Lasseter, Unkrich and "WALL-E" writer-director Andrew Stanton, dips high and low on the emotional roller coaster.   Andy, once again voiced by John Morris, is 17 and packing for college.  What to do with his childhood pals?  Trash 'em or box them up for the attack his mom (Laurie Metcalf) dictates.

There's a mix-up and all the toys except Woody are set out with the trash.  This is the point where the latest "Toy Story" moves beyond quirky to something a little darker than you will expect from a PG rating.  Michael Arndt, an Academy Award winner for his edgy "Little Miss Sunshine" screenplay, sends Woody and the gang off to Sunnyside Daycare.

It appears perfect  at first.  Rex (Wallace Shawn), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the rest haven't been given playtime attention in years.  But Lotso (Ned Beatty), the deceivingly sweet-sounding teddy bear in charge, wants to throw the new arrivals in the path of what a battered Buzz Lightyear later refers to as "inappropriate age behavior."

Levity balances the weight of the adventure at times.  And never better than when Barbie (Jodi Benson) meets Ken (Michael Keaton) and falls head-over-high, high heels for a guy who appears to be nothing more than a Barbie fashion accessory. (And a light-in-the-loafers one at that.)

Know this, though, parents:  Arndt pushes this tale into dangerous plot turns.  In fact, he presses it into dark areas where probably almost any other scribe writing for kids would back off.

Thankfully, Lasseter and his computer gurus embrace the dangerous story curves and pepper them with delightful and frightful new toys.  My personal favorite is the ominous cymbal-clanging monkey in charge of Sunnyside security.

"Toy Story 3" may be a little too scary for very little kids.  Otherwise, the magic is back for an unprecedented third time.


Your 'Frog' prince has come; hop to it

With all due respect to recent giant leaps in computer animation technology, "The Princess and the Frog" churns up a singing, dancing, eye-popping musical fairy tale gumbo the old fashioned way and with great success.

Welcome back, traditional hand-drawn animation.  I never thought I'd be glad to see an animated comic-romance where everything stops so the ingenue or the handsome leading man or, in this case, a trumpet-blowing alligator or a 197-year-old magic queen of the bayou could wail a tune.

It happens quite often in Disney's retooling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "The Frog Prince."  Co-directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who called the shots on "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and more, this laugh-filled tale hops to with rousing jazz, blues and gospel music from Oscar-winning composer Randy Newman ("Toy Story," "Cars").

You probably don't need to be told that at some point a princess will kiss a frog in hopes of the frog turning into a handsome, and quite human, prince.  This story, written by the directors and Rob Edwards, varies the theme to include a wild trip through the swamps around Roaring '20s New Orleans.

Although the 95 minute running time might challenge the attention span of little tykes (I might cut out one or two tunes), there's no lack of forward story movement, pulsating music and shadowy voodoo, which they do and might be a little much for very young kids.

Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose "Caroline, or Change") pumps determined life into Tiana, a rich (in family love) poor girl with a big dream.  She wants to open a restaurant that her Daddy (Terrence Howard) also dreamed of but never accomplished.

It's not as simple as kissing a frog to make it happen in this well-constructed romantic-comedy, however.  There are more obstacles than Tiana can shake a gumbo spoon at.  For one thing, the slimy frog claiming to be Prince Naveen of far-off Maldonia might just be a frog.

All the voices are right on the money.  John Goodman bellows as Big Daddy.  Keith David, whose animated form looks a lot like they had Samuel L. Jackson in mind, fills the screen with frightening voodoo menace as Dr. Facilier and  Broadway vet Jenifer Lewis ("Eubie," "Hairspray") stops the show as a backwater bayou voodoo-doo queen encouraging two frogs and an oversized alligator to "Dig a Little Deeper" if they want to be human.

Gather up the kids, in fact the entire family and head to the theater knowing that "The Princess and the Frog" is a tremendous success at recreating the nearly lost art of hand-drawn enchantment.


Even Americanized, 'Ponyo' is magical

The more I think about "Ponyo," Disney's Americanized version of Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki's magical twist on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," the more I admire its ability to spin animated fantasy.

I'm usually not a fan of films from other countries that have been Americanized for mainstream consumption.  Not only do we rarely get a filmmaker's full vision in those instances, key elements are often lost in translation.

That happens to some extent in "Ponyo."  But with American animation master John Lasseter, the Pixar guru now working under the Disney/Pixar banner, at the transition helm as co-director (with Brad Lewis and Peter Sohn), creative seepage is held to a minimum.

"Ponyo" is the enchanting tale of a deep sea goldfish-girl who rides a jellyfish to the surface, then meets and falls in love with a curious little 5-year-old boy named Sosuke.

Lasseter is wise to keep the Japanese names in place, even though recognizable voices Tina Fey (Sosuke's mother), Liam Neeson (Fujimoto, the under-sea scientist), Cloris Leachman (Noriko), Lily Tomlin (Toki) and Betty White (Yoshie) purr through the speakers.

Sosuke and his mom live in a house on a cliff by the sea.  Dad (voiced by Matt Damon) lives there too.  But he's a fisherman and never quite seems able to get home.

Sosuke, wise beyond his five years, is close friends with residents (Leachman, Tomlin and White) of the senior citizens' home where his mother works. 
Once he rescues the curious little wide-eyed "goldfish" from the sea, however, the curious little boy transfers almost all of his attention to the precocious little girl-fish.

Anyone who keeps up with pop society will be amused that Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas, who lend their voices to Ponyo and Sosuke respectively, are the junior siblings of pop sensations Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.

Lasseter may have seen the value in this novelty, or he may have been nudged a little by Disney management when it came time to cast the vocal roles. 
It doesn't matter, though.  Cyrus and Jonas, young (both 8) performers in their own right, are just fine vocalizing the strange relationship between a human boy and a chickie of the sea.

Even without its native voice, "Ponyo" explodes on screen with the magical enchantment and vibrant colors Oscar winner Miyazaki ("Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle")  is famous for.

I'd love to understand Japanese so that I could soak in every nuance of "Ponyo."  With that not a possibility, the Americanized version is a fitting substitute, although it treads water a little too long on screen for animated fare aimed at kids.


Soft-hearted 'Hannah' a tween sensation

It would be easy to be hard-hearted about "Hannah Montana: The Movie."

I'm pretty sure some film critics, especially the snobbish ones who take themselves way too seriously, will do just that and tear this fun-loving, but flawed romp down. They'll point out that as a story, it barely moves from A to B-minus.

After all, it's a simple movie that's corny, corn pone and simpleton much of the way. I stopped counting Billy Ray Cyrus's Jed Clampett-like "Wee doggies!" after a couple, for instance.

This is also a movie for young girls and about a slightly older teen who happens to be a very successful singer. And parents, this is probably all your tween-ager around the house really needs to know: Even though it's a narrative tale of sorts and not a concert film as such, Miley Cyrus sings a dozen new tunes in her feature film starring debut.

The plot couldn't be less complicated. Hannah, the big L.A. singing star, has been invited to New York for a spotlight performance at the music awards. Dad (Billy Ray) has had enough of Miley's blonde ambition, however. And besides, it's her grandmother's birthday.

Miley, strong-willed and starry-eyed, gets her way and strolls into a private jet to stand up grandma. When it lands, though, it is in small-town Tennessee. Miley flips her wig a couple of times seeking her true self.

Not to worry, Hannah fans -- either in the movie audience or in the movie itself -- there's a new Miley or Hannah song around every country corner.

In fact, British director Peter Chelsom ("Shall We Dance") and screenwriter Dan Berendsen even manage to include a hip-hop country ditty titled "Hoedown Throwdown." And when Miley/Hannah tires of strumming her guitar or goofing around with puppy love (with Lucas Till as ranch hand Travis), Taylor Swift and the Rascal Flatts boys drop by to take some of the warble pressure off.

Teen sensation Cyrus may not be as accomplished as Hayley Mills or even Lindsay Lohan (both in "The Parent Trap" for different generations) were juggling two personas on a movie screen.

Cyrus, of course, has another dimension beyond movie acting going for her.

The frenzied legions of her fans will care little if she's Hannah or Miley, as long as she sings songs like the rousing "The Best of Both Worlds" and the heartfelt "me and my Daddy" ballad "Butterfly Fly Away."

Parents who escort their daughters should try to keep all grimaces out of the line of vision of their kids.

This is about their generation, Mom and Dad. Let them have a little fun.

I remember going to see Elvis Presley in his feature-film acting debut in "Love Me Tender" when I was a tweener way back in the previous century.

Wee-doggies! Now that was a movie.