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Films in Focus!


The Heat Is on
for Autumn Films


Kids are heading back to school (already!). Giant robots are giving way to think pieces (well, not entirely, as you’ll see later in this column). Fall is just around the corner, and that means an array of films vying for more-refined eyes (mostly) and a thinner but satiating slice of the box-office pie. Here is a slew we’re looking forward to as temperatures cool outside.
Sept. 2: “Shark Night 3D” -- Not to be outdone by their pint-size, razor-teethed pals the piranhas, sharks are going three-dimensional in late summer. Guaranteed to be a b-movie delight. Starring Sara Paxton.
Sept. 9: “Contagion” -- An all-star cast (Kate Winslet, Matt Damon) must battle with a pandemic that threatens to wipe out mankind. Talk about Angry Birds! Directed by Steven Soderbergh, who’s always up for a stylistic challenge, this should be one deadly awesome flick.
Sept. 16: “Drive” -- It Guy Ryan Gosling becomes a Hit Guy in this high-octane stuns-and-crime story. It’s rumored to have begun as a tongue-in-cheek heist, but it morphed into a grittier drama once Gosling took over the driver’s seat from Hugh Jackman.
Sept. 20: “Pearl Jam Twenty” -- Whoa-o, whoa-o, they’re still alive! The godfathers of grunge get the documentary treatment by “Almost Famous” writer/director Cameron Crowe, featuring classic and new interviews with the band, as well as revealing archival footage of fellow rock misfits Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley.
Sept. 30: “50/50” -- Cancer isn’t funny. But sometimes those coping with it need a reason to smile. Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt give it a shot in this buzzworthy dramedy.
Oct. 7: “Real Steel” -- Don’t fret if you’re down about Hugh Jackson dropping out of “Drive.” He was too busy fighting Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots! This man-versus-machine movie looks so ridiculous, it’s got to be amazing.
Oct. 14: “The Big Year” -- For this writer, the plot is the least important of details about “The Big Year.” It’s led by Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin. However, their characters are described as avid bird-watchers, so getting overly excited about this one might be a bit cuckoo.
Oct. 21: “The Three Musketeers” -- After sitting out the most-recent installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Orlando Bloom is back to his swashbuckling habits. The Alexandre Dumas work has been done to death, but this 3-D version might be sharp enough for modern audiences.
Oct. 28: “In Time” -- They say time is money. In this futuristic piece, that’s not just a metaphor. The roster is impeccable, boasting everyone from Justin Timberlake to small-screen hottie Matt Bomer, and the plot, in which immortality can be purchased, sounds heavy but entertaining. One to watch out for amid all those obligatory Halloween slashers.
Nov. 4: “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” -- This is probably going to bring new meaning to “lighting up the tree.” Our favorite multicultural stoners wreak havoc on the wholesome holiday, with a little help from frienemy Neil Patrick Harris.
Nov. 9: “J. Edgar” -- Expect another Oscar nomination for Leonardo DiCaprio as he walks a mile in the shoes (possibly high heels?) of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Academy Award-winner Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), this biopic is being touted as a surefire awards-season biggie.

 

Strong Performances Can’t
Anchor Lightweight ‘Help’

This ought to be the “feel-outraged hit of the summer.” While the blockbuster heroes are busy fighting Nazis, commies and villains with no noses, “The Help” looks back at a time when Americans were fighting one of the toughest battles of all: racism.
It is sickening to know that a mere half-century ago, the States -- particularly the Jim Crow South -- were fully embroiled in legalized discrimination against blacks. It’s more repugnant that few stood up against the practices.
Eugenia Phelan aka Skeeter (Emma Stone) is one of the lone white voices daring to confront the bigotry in Jackson, Miss. Having been brought up by an African-American maid herself, she witnesses her Southern belle friends turn into hideous beasts when it comes to the treatment of their servants.
The leader of this two-faced pack is the pert Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a debutante who relishes in ruining the life of her maid, Minny (Octavia Spencer). Down the road, absentee mother Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) all but relinquishes custody of her “plain-looking” daughter, Mae. The matronly, sweet-as-molasses Aibileen (Viola Davis) comes to her aid.
It’s a world Skeeter can no longer relate to. She went and got herself a college education while her so-called associates latched onto husbands and popped out children like Pez dispensers. Her dream job is to become a journalist, but upon returning home, she gets saddled with ghostwriting a cleaning etiquette column. Not exactly the most scintillating subject for a proto-feminist.
Aibileen lends Skeeter a hand with the articles, forging a taboo partnership whites and blacks daren’t pursue publicly back then. But in doing so, the spunky writer sees beyond the surface of everyday prejudices and realizes there’s a compelling story to tell. Aibie and Minny reluctantly agree to dictate their histories as maids to Skeeter, knowing that the backlash upon publication could be deadly.
“The Help,” like so many other Disney-funded, “big issue” films, adequately mixes the harsh and the lighthearted. (Minny’s ultimate confrontation of the spoiled Hilly is a riot, as is Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of the trashy yet bubbly Celia.) But only adequately. The dialogue drags in many scenes, padding an excruciating two-hours-and-17-minutes runtime.
Much of the faultiness may lie with inexperienced director Tate Taylor. His employment was seemingly a favor to his longtime friend, “The Help” author Kathryn Stockett. But favors between friends don’t always make movie magic. This adaptation feels more like a Lifetime weekend film -- too small and safe in scope to really make a difference and fully capture the heated emotion of the South in the 1960s. Caution didn’t cause the revolution, so why should a silver-screen retelling tiptoe around the dark parts?
Perhaps if wrenched from the paws of Disney and divvied up to, say, Focus Features, “The Help” might have had more potency, more bite. There is nothing pretty about racism, but Taylor tries to put a nice little bow on it to appeal to modern, PC audiences.
“The Help” could use some assistance in getting its point across. Davis and Spencer certainly lift up its droopiness with their fiery performances, but for the most part, this movie is too tame and frilly for its subject matter.
“The Help.” Rated: PG-13. Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes. 2.5 stars.

 

 

 

A New Disney Renaissance,
Brought to You by Rapunzel

We remember, with great excitement, the first time we saw Ariel the mermaid try out her human legs. We remember how easy it was to suspend our disbelief that a ferocious beast and a bookish beauty could fall in love. We remember the anguish and loss when a lion cub was forced to say goodbye to his slain father. We remember because Disney animated features were once more than just cartoons; they were masterpieces.
The House of Mouse fell into a late-’90s, early-’00s din, when oddball titles such as “Treasure Planet” were taking a backseat to CGI competitors, such as the cynical “Shrek.” And it was Disney’s own younger cousin Pixar that completely overshadowed it as the factory of post-millennial brilliant family films. But there remained the newly adult Generation Y that carried memories of show tunes and magic carpet rides like in “Aladdin” that was still craving substance amid the computer animation sequences we’re accustomed to today.
Last year’s traditional ink-and-color release “The Princess and the Frog” was critically heralded and seemed a viable return to form, but audiences didn’t come in the same droves as they did to “Finding Nemo” or the “Ice Age” series. So now, finally, Disney has consolidated its two strongest components -- timeless tomes and astounding artwork -- in the holiday-season stunner “Tangled.”
“Tangled” is an extended retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, where the 18-year-old maiden of enchanted tresses (Mandy Moore) is zapped with wanderlust. She’s been cooped up in an isolated tower all her life by her shady “mother,” Gothel (Donna Murphy), who bogarts the girl because of the healing quality in her immense head of hair. Every year on her birthday, Rapunzel gazes out her window and sees a spectacular array of floating lights emanating from a castle. Her one wish is to witness them up close.
Cue the nimble cad Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi), a handsome swindler and thief on the run from royal guards and one comically clever horse. (The stern, interrogative Maximus is sure to become a favorite among tykes, as will Rapunzel’s precious sidekick, the chameleon Pascal.) He chances upon her tower and sneaks up there to hide. The girl takes a frying pan to his head and stashes his satchel. And when he comes to, she makes him promise to take her to see the lanterns in return for his freedom. (For someone so naive, she has wicked negotiation skills.)
If the fish out of water meets rogue charmer feels familiar, it is indicative of the Disney formula. But this has proven such a winning formula time and again that it is forgiven and appreciated.
One finds more familiarity in the songs that dot the soundtrack. Go-to Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken teamed with celebrated lyricist Glenn Slater to boost “Tangled” to the heights of its animated musical predecessors. Standout numbers include the boorish bro-down where Vikings dream of becoming interior designers and mimes, and the breath-taking romantic duet between Rapunzel and Flynn.
Disney purists who decry CGI as robotic will be silenced upon seeing “Tangled.” With overseers that includes directing animator Glen Keane (“The Little Mermaid,” “Pocahontas”) and executive producer John Lasseter (“Toy Story 3,” “Up”), the authenticity and attention to realistic detail is ever present. Like too many of today’s special effects-drenched offerings, the 3-D version is an extraneous ploy. The 2-D is mesmerizing on its own.
“Tangled” deserves to be an animated classic. The amount of heart that the film exudes (in its script, environment and songs) is a rare gift in this day and age.
“Tangled.” Rated: PG. Running Time: 92 minutes. 4 stars.

 

Megamind: Brainy Idea:
The Bad Guy Gets to Win For Once

No matter how colorful they’re drawn, superheroes tend to inhabit a black-and-white world where good triumphs over evil. But what happens when the villain wins? DreamWorks Animation puts that question to the test with “Megamind,” an original superhero adventure that gives the eponymous blue bad guy, voiced by Will Ferrell, the keys to Metro City. In this refreshing twist on a familiar format, director Tom McGrath combines flawless 3-D animation with a bevy of comedic talent to craft an entertaining adventure with plenty of smart, grown-up laughs.
Although “Megamind” uses the tried-and-true superhero model, with its strapping, jutting-jawed hero (Metro Man, voiced by Brad Pitt) and lair-dwelling villain (Megamind) repeatedly facing off before the helpless citizens of Metro City, the film is an entirely original concept -- an unusual occurrence in Hollywood these days, where brand recognition is king (think sequels, comic book adaptations, remakes). But writers Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons use that model only as a familiar jumping-off point before diving in and turning it on its head.
The PG-rated adventure gets off to a rip-roaring, “Superman”-esque start as baby versions of Megamind and Metro Man are stuffed into space capsules by their parents and launched to safety before their planets are destroyed. As the capsules hurl through space, a fluke of nature causes them to briefly cross paths, bumping Metro Man into a life of privilege and heroic expectations and Megamind into a life of crime and self-hatred.
Megamind’s and Metro Man’s roles as hero and villain seem inescapable; they’re locked in an endless cycle, with the same predetermined ending. Even Megamind’s frequent kidnapping victim, the Lois Lane-ish TV reporter Roxanne (Tina Fey), is bored by the routine. Then, one day, the criminally insecure Megamind does the unthinkable -- he wins.
With Metro Man put to rest, Megamind and his fishy sidekick Minion (David Cross) joyously wreak havoc on the unprotected city (in one of the film’s best sequences). But then what? Bored and missing his lifelong rival, Megamind decides to create a new nemesis from scratch, picking Roxanne’s slacker cameraman (Jonah Hill) for the role. But just because you cast someone as a hero doesn’t mean they’ll live up to the standard, as Megamind and the rest of Metro City discover once his creation is let loose. The question is, does our villain have what it takes to play the hero?
It’s not difficult to predict the path that Megamind will take in this superhero take on “nature versus nurture,” but the fun is in the journey itself -- a fast-paced romp full of clever dialogue (Fey and Ferrell make for terrific banter), sight gags delivered in top-notch, purposeful 3-D animation, and silly goofs that only a personality like Ferrell can deliver (his mispronunciations are repeatedly rewarding). Sure, a percentage of Ferrell’s jokes fall flat, but the film’s rapid-fire, rock ‘n’ roll pace whisks us off to the next gag before the misfire sinks in.
“Megamind’s” frenetic pace hits a few speed bumps toward the end with a few too many emotional resolutions, as well as a love story. But at this late point in an otherwise entertaining film, the lull gives us time to savor the thought that an original idea can still find the light of day in modern Hollywood.
“Megamind.” Rated: PG. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. 3 stars.

 

Cheery ‘Morning Glory’
is Warm and a Little Too Fuzzy

Girl meets job, girl loses job, girl gets job back. This may not sound like your idea of a romantic comedy, but thanks to the bubbly efforts of its mostly delightful cast and frequently charming screenplay, you might fall a little bit in love with “Morning Glory” anyway.
Enjoy it while it lasts, though, because it won’t last long.
It is set in the YouTube-watching present, but this plucky career-gal comedy is like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” with more manic energy but less comedic punch. Lou Grant would kick this caffeinated fluff ball to the curb within the first few minutes.
The effervescent Rachel McAdams stars as Becky, a chipper and resourceful TV producer whose attempts to revamp a fourth-place morning-TV show are foiled by the grumpy noncompliance of Mike Pomeroy, the formidable news man played with too-convincing crankiness by Harrison Ford.
Because this is Hollywood, the frosty Mike thaws out just in time for the feel-good finale you’ll feel coming from miles away. Becky’s official love interest is the handsome producer played by Patrick Wilson, but the heart of the film is supposed to be the blossoming work partnership between the craggy veteran and his fresh-faced protege. But Mike is such a pill and Ford is such a stiff that “Morning Glory” falls into a serious funk every time the character harrumphs onto the scene.
But it takes more than a grumpy old man to bring down Becky and her industrious morning-show crew. And even at his dead-eyed worst, Ford doesn’t quite bring down the movie, either.
Diane Keaton is a dizzy delight as the diva-esque co-anchor who gets a surprise charge out of Becky’s outrageous TV stunts, and former “Mad About You” sidekick John Pankow has some nice, wry moments as Becky’s right-hand man. And in just a few indelibly sleazy minutes, “Modern Family” goofball Ty Burrell makes you wish the whole movie could be about his creepy character and his really creepy foot fetish.
Director Roger Michell brought you “Notting Hill” and scriptwriter Aline Brosh McKenna did the film adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Morning Glory” has some of the same warmth and breezy good humor. But Harrison Ford isn’t Hugh Grant or Meryl Streep, and as Becky makes her mad final dash in his direction, you might find yourself hoping for a happy ending that ends up somewhere else.
“Morning Glory.” Rated: PG-13. Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. 2 stars.