Friday, May 21, 2010

Shrek Forever After

Nine years ago almost to the day, the first Shrek unexpectedly delighted the world, and me-- with it's twisted mash-up of fairy tale folklore mixed with anachronistic pop culture wit. The film firmly established DreamWorks Animation as a powerhouse, for better or worse (with them for every Kung Fu Panda delight, there must be a Shark Tale bitter aftertaste), as well as being the first recipient of the animated feature Academy Award. Thinking back, the first films brilliance still resonates, but it hasn't aged well thanks to three sequels that couldn't replicate the first movies magic. Shrek 2 had its moments, and I remember at the time enjoying it, but I can't honestly say I remember anything about it; the less said about the ill-advised Shrek the Third the better. What those films lacked was any nugget of a plot-- it was all self-referencial parody, not just of fairy tales, but of anything. Both films were a combined three hours of filler.

And now we come to the final chapter, as touted by it's marketing team-- I'm sure the real story of that will be decided after opening weekend grosses. Aside from that it's also in 3-D, for not much other reason, than the oppurtunity to milk an extra three to five dollars per ticket, I perhaps cynically, but not altogether disingeniously presume. For the 3-D doesn't particularly add anything visually. The technology is displayed competantly, even playfully in a few choice sequences, but as is the case with most third-dimension motion picture PA (Post-Avatar), it's not exactly revelatory. Honestly, I got a headache about forty-five minutes in.

While all that sounds nasty and bitter, I admit I actually kinda dug Shrek Forever After, because it's the first film since the first that has a fully conceived plot; it's a rather lazy one, but it works for the most part because it has a bit less of the smug self referencial humor of the last two, and a lot more of the heart and joy of the first film. We start with the happy ogre family: Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers), living harmoniously with his princess wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and three ogre children; while pesty, scene-stealing Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) along the side for mayhem. The familial bliss and predictability of domestic life (as well as national celebrity) start to get to our favorite ogre, whose mid-life crisis makes him long for the old days where he was feared and left alone. Enter Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohm), a mischievious conjurer, with Napoleonic tendancies, who grants Shrek his wish: one day of ogre solitude, in exchange for another day of his life.

Of course it goes awry, as Shrek goes the George Bailey route from It's a Wonderful Life (or more of Hot Tub Time Machine, perhaps), and the rest of the film is him trying to right the very stupid wrong he made; the old don't know what you've got till it's gone routine. In the parallel Shrek universe; Fiona is an Amazonian ogre fighting, Xena style, and Rumpelstiltskin in the king of Far Far Away. Like I said, the plot is lazy, but I couldn't help being gently touched by the climax; I can be a softie too. And the voice-work is solid: Murphy and Banderas still manage to make their irritating pests as cute and cuddly as possible. Observant audience members will be able to spot the vocal work of Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Jane Lynch (Glee), Craig Robinson (Hot Tub Time Machine) and Kathy Griffin.

And while I can never necessarily claim to support the Shrek empire: the great first film never needed sequels to justify or further explore anything in the slightest, I can't entirely dismiss it either. As much as these four films have lampooned everything in pop culture sight, and as little subtlty as expressed, Shrek with it's pop song soundtrack and simple non-judgemental message, does have a big heart, and sometimes that is taken for granted. B-

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 picks up right after the first Iron Man, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has admitted to his adoring public his true identity, while Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), Russian physicist watches in plotting fashion. So kicks off Jon Favreau's second installment, which has a few of likable touches that made the first film so popular, but feels like a film of diminishing returns, and ultimately just a teaser for the tasks ahead at Marvel Studios. So yes, Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury and a flurry of other nuggets prelude an inevitable big-budget spectacle a few years from now. All of this is well and good, if the film felt like it stood alone in any real, substantial way. Instead the entire last section of the film feels a blueprint for a business model, not an enticing story. There doesn't seem a whole lot at stake in Iron Man 2, but a whole lot of exposition taking place. And I'm not quite sure whom to blame for this: I don't blame the actors, most of whom are competent, even quite good, nor do I really blame Favreau, whose easy-going film rhythm seems disjointed perhaps by a production more concerned about said big-budget spectacle a few years from now, instead of the big-budget spectacle here and now. All of which seems ridiculous for a film that requires a least two more films to be completed beforehand (Thor and Captain America), and not to sound skeptical, but what if those films suck? And what if the un-proven chemistry between monster Marvel superheroes lacks any firepower? Just throwing that out there: let's not count our eggs before the chickens hatched.

But at the same time I can't detest Iron Man 2, and that's because the spirit of performance is alive in well in Mr. Robert Downey, Jr., who can't be anything but watchable. His playboy narcissist billionaire has charm in spades, and the contortion of his line readings are irresistible; I still think the casting of him as a superhero in a big-budget film is one of the smartest risks that a major studio has taken in years. Unfortunately, this time around Mr. Stark is in a bit of plot hole with a bum ticker that prevents him from kicking ass throughout half the film-- nobody's particularly interesting in a sore superhero, am I right? And let's be perfectly honest-- Iron Man isn't exactly the most complicated or compeling crime-fighter, he's a jovial ass, and that's what we want from him.

There's isn't a whole lot on plot here, just the entrance of a slew of characters, and a stepping stone for the next Marvel film: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark's loyal girl friday becomes CEO of Stark Industries, while the entrance of mysterious Natalie Rushman aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) allures Tony. Meanwhile, the government wants the Iron Man suit, as does rival company CEO Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), and Russian baddie Vanko wants to kill Stark for all the horrors his family did his father. Add a little tension between Col. Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard), and a slight mid-life crisis for Stark, spin and add a couple of noisy and disjointed action sequences, that's the movie in a nutshell. And while the story feels far too overbloated, yet under nourished, the acting is always interesting.

Rourke, playing Whiplash, is a menacing villian and does a wonderful job-- it's hard not feels the imposing prominence of Mr. Rourke. Even if it feels only like he's posing for long stretches, it's still a bit chilling. His stance is leaps and bounds more interesting than Jeff Bridges' villian in the first Iron Man, and Hammer, as played by Rockwell is compelling on another turn. Playing Stark's rival and contemporary, his smug aura and reek of desperation make him, if not a worthy adversary physically, than at the very least an enjoyable irritation. The problem is that neither Rourke or Rockwell seem to be the same movie-- they're tonally opposite of one another, and the writer Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) and Favreau never seemed to fully connect them together with they're manically divergent acting styles. The same goes for Johansson, whose Black Widow is amusing enough, but her covert superspy status feels a couple of decades too late. On a tangent, it would be really nice if Ms. Johansson went back into the serious acting that started her career-- it's been a tad too long since this gifted actress as had to do much aside from being a fanboy's sextoy.

And what's left of nice chemistry between Downey, Jr. and Paltrow played so effectively in the first film: it's somehow dimenished. It doesn't help that Paltrow is saddled with the thankless direction of icy businesswoman, while her knight and shining armor is battling his own heart. The breezy, effortless, rat-a-tat screwball comedy that both were delightful with is evaporated, which is unfortunate. But then again-- hopefully all of this will lead to the most awesome experience ever in 2011. C

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Los Angeles Film Festival Line-up

Opening Night Film:

  • The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko (Focus Features)

Closing Night Film:

  • Despicable Me, Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin (Universal Pictures) – WORLD PREMIERE

Bonus By Invitation Screening:

  • The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, David Slade (Summit Entertainment) – WORLD PREMIERE

Gala Screenings (5):

  • Animal Kingdom, David Michod – Australia (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Cyrus, Jay & Mark Duplass (Fox Searchlight)
  • Mahler on the Couch, Percy & Felix Adlon – WORLD PREMIERE
  • Revolución, Mariana Chenillo, Fernando Eimbcke, Amat Escalante, Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo García, Diego Luna, Gerardo Naranjo, Rodrigo Piá, Carlos Reygadas & Patricia Riggen – Mexico – NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
  • Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim (Paramount Vantage)

Narrative Competition (9): The Narrative Competition is comprised of films made by talented emerging filmmakers that compete for the Filmmaker Award. The winner is determined by a panel of jurors, and films in this section are also eligible for the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature.

  • · Dog Sweat, Hossein Keshavarz – Iran – WORLD PREMIERE
  • · A Family, Pernille Fischer Christensen – Denmark – NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
  • · Hello Lonesome, Adam Reid – WORLD PREMIERE
  • · The New Year, Brett Haley
  • · Of Love and Other Demons, Hilda Hidalgo – Costa Rica/Colombia – NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
  • · Orly, Angela Schanelec – Germany/France – NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
  • · Parade, Isao Yukisada – Japan – NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
  • · Upstate, Katherine Nolfi, Andrew Luis – WORLD PREMIERE
  • · The Wolf Knife, Laurel Nakadate – WORLD PREMIERE

Documentary Competition (9): The Documentary Competition is comprised of films made by talented emerging filmmakers that compete for the Documentary Award. The winner is determined by a panel of jurors, and films in this section are also eligible for the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.

  • · Camera, Camera, Malcolm Murray – WORLD PREMIERE
  • · Circo, Aaron Schock – USA/Mexico – WORLD PREMIERE
  • · One Lucky Elephant, Lisa Leeman – WORLD PREMIERE
  • · Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, Lev Anderson, Chris Metzler – WORLD PREMIERE
  • · Farewell, Ditteke Mensink – Netherlands – US PREMIERE
  • · Life with Murder, John Kastner – Canada – US PREMIERE
  • · Make Believe, J. Clay Tweel – WORLD PREMIERE
  • · Vlast, Cathryn Collins
  • · Where Are You Taking Me?, Kimi Takesue – NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE

International Showcase (20): The International Showcase highlights innovative independent narrative and documentary features from outside of the United States. Films in this section are eligible for Audience Awards for Best International Feature, Best Narrative Feature, or Best Documentary Feature.

  • · 1428, Du Hai-bin – China
  • · Army of Crime, Robert Guédiguian – France (Kino)
  • · Bibliotheque Pascal, Szabolcs Hajdu – Germany/Hungary/England – NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
  • · Café Noir, Jung Sung-il – South Korea – NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
  • · Disco & Atomic War, Jaak Kilmi, Kiur Aarma – Estonia/Finland
  • · Down Terrace, Ben Wheatley – England (Magnolia Pictures)
  • · Eastern Plays, Kamen Kalev – Bulgaria
  • · Eyes Wide Open, Haim Tabakman – Israel/Germany/France (New American Vision)
  • · Family Tree, Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau – France
  • · Golden Slumber, Yoshihiro Nakamura – Japan – NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
  • · Judge, Liu Jie – China
  • · La Pivellina, Rainer Frimmel, Tizza Covi – Austria/Italy
  • · Lebanon, Samuel Maoz – Israel (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • · The Peddler, Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano, Adriana Yurcovich – Argentina
  • · R, Tobias Lindholm, Michael Noer – Denmark
  • · The Red Chapel, Mads Brugger – Denmark
  • · Secrets of the Tribe, José Padilha – England/Brazil
  • · Space Tourists, Christian Frei – Switzerland
  • · Street Days, Levan Koguashvili – Georgia
  • · Woman on Fire Looks For Water, Woo Ming Jin – Malaysia/South Korea

Summer Screenings (12): The Summer Screenings section offers an advance look at this summer’s most talked about independent film releases from the festival circuit. Films in this section are eligible for Audience Awards for Best International Feature, Best Narrative Feature, or Best Documentary Feature.

  • · Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm, Jacob Hatley
  • · Cane Toads: The Conquest, Mark Lewis – Australia/US
  • · Cold Weather, Aaron Katz
  • · Four Lions, Christopher Morris – England
  • · Kings of Pastry, D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus (First Run Features)
  • · Marwencol, Jeff Malmberg
  • · Monsters, Gareth Edwards (Magnolia Pictures)
  • · Night Catches Us, Tanya Hamilton (Magnolia Pictures)
  • · The Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev (The Weinstein Company)
  • · Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham (IFC Films)
  • · Welcome to the Rileys, Jake Scott (Apparition, Destination Films)
  • · White Material, Claire Denis – France (IFC Films)

Outdoor Screenings at the Ford Amphitheatre (4): These official Los Angeles Film Festival selections, sponsored by Brand X and American Airlines, are included as part of the 2010 Ford Amphitheatre Summer Season; a multi-disciplinary arts series produced by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission in cooperation with Los Angeles County-based arts organizations. Films in this section are eligible for Audience Awards for Best International Feature, Best Narrative Feature, or Best Documentary Feature.

  • · Centurion, Neil Marshall – England (Magnolia Pictures)
  • · The Last Exorcism, Daniel Stamm (Lionsgate) – WORLD PREMIERE
  • · The People vs. George Lucas, Alexandre O. Philippe
  • · Thunder Soul, Mark Landsman

International Spotlight (4): A tribute to a forgotten giant of South American cinema, Argentina’s Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, sponsored by Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

  • The Fall (1959)
  • The Hand in the Trap (1961)
  • The House of the Angel (1957)
  • The Seven Madmen (1973)

Selections from the Ambulante Film Festival (3): Sponsored by Hoy, and returning for a second year, Ambulante is a traveling documentary film festival produced by the non-profit organization Documental Ambulante A.C., in collaboration with Canana, Cinepolis, and the Morelia International Film Festival. It was created in 2005 by Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, and Pablo Cruz to promote documentary culture across Mexico. Films in this section are eligible for Audience Awards for Best International Feature or Best Documentary Feature.

  • One Day Less, Dariela Ludlow – Mexico – US PREMIERE
  • Presumed Guilty, Roberto Hernández, Geoffrey Smith – Mexico
  • The Toledo Report, Albino Álvarez Gomez – Mexico

Community Screenings (4): These films will be presented free to the public. Films in this section are eligible for Audience Awards for Best Narrative Feature or Best Documentary Feature.

  • · Climate Refugees, Michael P. Nash – Grand Performances Screening
  • · Gasland, Josh Fox
  • · Lost Angels, Thomas Napper – WORLD PREMEIRE
  • · A Small Act, Jennifer Arnold – Project:Involve Screening

The Beyond (4): The Beyond offers films that dare to be different. Films in this section are eligible for Audience Awards for Best International Feature, Best Narrative Feature, or Best Documentary Feature.

  • All About Evil, Joshua Grannell
  • Bitter Feast, Joe Maggio – WORLD PREMIERE
  • Mandrill, Ernesto Diaz Espinoza – Chile
  • Separado!, Gruff Rhys, Dylan Goch – Wales – US PREMIERE

Special Screenings (3):

  • The Life of Richard Wagner (1913), Carl Froelich
  • The Wheeler Boys, Philip G. Flores – WORLD PREMIERE – Netflix FIND Your Voice Winner
  • Utopia in Four Movements, David Cerf, Sam Green

UCLA Film & T.V. Archive Collaborations

L.A. Film Critics: The Films That Got Away (2): Co-presented by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

  • The Happiest Girl in the World (2009), Radu Jude – Romania
  • Katalin Varga (2009), Peter Strickland – Romania/England

Downtown Confidential (2): Co-presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive

  • Hickey and Boggs (1972), Robert Culp
  • The Driver (1978), Walter Hill

The Film Foundation Screening Program (2):

  • The Leopard (1963), Luchino Visconti – Presented by The Film Foundation and Gucci as part of “Cinema Visionaries.”
  • The Music Room (1958), Satyajit Ray – Presented by The Film Foundation and American Express as part of “20 Years/20 Films.”
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