Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore


Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Even dogs can't save this movie from going to the dogs. Ahem.

(2010) Family Fantasy Comedy (Warner Brothers) Christina Applegate, Michael Clarke Duncan, Neil Patrick Harris, James Marsden, Bette Midler, Nick Nolte, Joe Pantoliano, Katt Williams, Chris O’Donnell, Paul Rodriguez, Sean Hayes, Jack McBrayer, Fred Armisen, Wallace Shawn, Roger Moore.  Directed by Brad Peyton

In Ghostbusters, a sure sign of the end of the world according to Bill Murray was cats and dogs living together. I wonder what he would have made of this.

A disgraced ex-police dog named Diggs (Marsden) is recruited into a spy agency called DOGS by Butch (Nolte). The fearless leader, Lou (Harris) informs them that there is a rogue former agent of their rival cat spies CATS named Kitty Galore (Midler) who has developed a secret weapon that would drive all the dogs on the planet insane, forcing them out of their long ensconced spot as man’s best friend and giving the cats a base to eventually overthrow mankind as the dominant species. Using high-tech gadget and good ol’ dogged determination (couldn’t resist), Diggs and his partners go after the bald sphinx Kitty and try to stop her fiendish plot.

That’s really all the plot you need to know. This is more or less a sequel to the 2001 family film Cats and Dogs which I found rather clever and charming, with effects that looking back seem a little bit low budget by today’s standards. The sequel has been percolating for awhile and it took nine years for it to finally bubble onto the big screen, where it was received with a bit of a thud. Live action/talking CGI animals are more or less commonplace these days.

There’s a pretty solid voice cast and a ton of references to the James Bond series (see below) which makes this at least a little more palatable to parents and grandparents who intend to use this as a babysitting tool. Unfortunately, most of the amusing bits about the concept are pretty much covered in the first ten minutes and quite frankly, there are a lot more butt sniffing jokes than most humans should be allowed to experience in their entire lifetimes.

Kids are going to like the cute puppies and kitties, but quite frankly I think kids are a bit more sophisticated about their entertainment these days than they were even a decade ago. They seem to go more for CGI puppies and kitties rather than the real sort, even if they have CGI lips mouthing CGI dialogue.

This was about as forgettable as family entertainment gets and I’ve seen some pretty awful family films over recent years. Here, nearly every human is a complete nincompoop and not even kids can save us – our salvation lies in the animal kingdom, which is embarrassing to say the least.

I have this off-the-wall theory – all me crazy – but that if you treat kids with respect and not like little morons with hands inside their parents wallets, not only will you make a movie that parents will want to take their kids to see but that kids will love as well and will want to see it several times. When you talk down to kids – just like when you talk down to anyone – they tend to tune you out.

That’s kind of how I felt here, like I was tuning out the movie. That’s a shame because there are some moments worth enjoying, and Bette Midler is pretty good as a megalomaniac. A little less Bond and a little more personality of its own would have served the movie better.

WHY RENT THIS: Dogs and cats are cute.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clever concept wears out its welcome. Even kids might find this low-brow.

FAMILY VALUES: This is rated PG for “animal action and humor” but really truly? This is fine for kids of any age. Seriously.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a number of James Bond references herein; from Police Captain Flemming (after Bond author Ian Fleming) to Lazenby (after former Bond George Lazenby) the character played by Roger Moore (himself an ex-Bond) to Paws (after Bond villain Jaws) and even the main character of Kitty Galore is a take-off on Bond girl Pussy Galore.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Looney Tunes animated short featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote in “Coyote Falls” which is significantly better than the main movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.5M on an $85M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Horrible Bosses

Tuck Everlasting


Tuck Everlasting

Into the fire from out of the fryer go the Tucks.

(2002) Family Fantasy (Disney) Alexis Bledel, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Jonathan Jackson, Scott Bairstow, Ben Kingsley, Amy Irving, Victor Garber, Kosha Engler, Richard Pilcher, Sean Pratt, Julia Hart, Elisabeth Shue (voice). Directed by Jay Russell

Many people yearn for eternal life, free from the terror of the unknown that is death. However, eternal life would be a mixed blessing at best, a curse at worst. How does one cope with remaining the same age forever; would eternal life mean the cessation of growth?

Winnie Foster (Bledel) lives a stultifying life in small town Tree Gap in 1914 New England. The daughter of a successful man (Garber) and a mother (Irving) who disapproves of anything that does not fit into her narrow world view, Winnie is rebellious and lively, aching to see the world and fearful that the societal conventions of Tree Gap will never let her venture far beyond her own parlor.

Being the anti-authoritarian sort, she ventures into the woods that border her home, property owned by the Fosters. There she sees a handsome young boy drinking from a spring that bubbles up from the roots of an ancient oak. The young boy is Jesse Tuck (Jackson). She questions him about what he’s doing there; he warns her not to drink from the spring.

Before she can do anything, she is swooped up by a man on horseback – Jesse’s brother Miles (Bairstow). He carries her to a cabin deep in the woods where they are met by the boys’ parents, Angus (Hurt) and Mae (Spacek). No, they’re not members of a survivalist organization; they’re just simple folk. Mae welcomes Jesse into her home, chiding Miles for being rude and frightening the young girl.

The Tucks are a family that doesn’t wish to be found but what they’re hiding from becomes clear when a mysterious Man in a Yellow Suit (Kingsley) comes around looking for the Tucks. When Winnie’s disappearance becomes public knowledge, he offers aid, providing a perspective nobody else can.

You see, the Tucks have a secret, one that has kept them isolated from the rest of the world for a very long time; about 90 years to be exact. Remember that spring that Jesse was drinking from? It grants eternal life to all those who drink from it, freezing them eternally at the age they were when they first drank. That’s a secret that people would kill for…people like the Man in the Yellow Suit, who has a connection to the Tucks that speaks to their dark past.

This is based on a popular 1976 children’s book by Natalie Babbitt. One would think that the dark themes of the book would be watered down and Disneyfied by the Mouse House but amazingly, they are not. This is not pablum that has been dumbed down for the lowest common denominator; this is meant to provoke conversation and thought.

Hurt and Spacek make a good couple, with Hurt playing a wise old man quite well. Bairstow and Jackson play hot-headed youths whose penchant to act first and think later begins the whole mess but also rescues their parents on at least one occasion. The dynamic between all four actors is marvelous is a highlight of the movie.

Bledel is an actress I’ve never particularly warmed to; she’s always seemed rather shrill to me, but she is more than solid here. She is literally the audience surrogate in the movie and it is through her eyes that we see events. Bledel shows a very deft touch here, something she doesn’t always show in other movies she’s done. I hope she has more performances like this one in her; she would rapidly move to be one of my favorites if that were the case.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of creating the pre-World War I rural America, from the settings to the atmosphere; Irving plays the uptight upper class mother who wants her daughter molded into the very model of a proper well-bred lady, and it’s not a role Irving has taken on in the past but she makes it work here. Garber is in my opinion, one of the most underrated actors ever; his work on “Alias” and “Eli Stone” on television is as strong as anything that’s out there, film or TV.

Now, I do have one bone to pick with the movie – there is a theme tune that is used over and over again in the movie – you hear it constantly and I believe it is there to signify the mystery of eternal life. They could have done without ramming it down our throats.

The point of the movie is not necessarily that eternal life is either good or bad (although the general consensus is that it is bad) but rather the unfulfilled life is the worst of all choices. Winnie’s outlook of being doomed to a life that has no resonance with her, that leaves her gifts unutilized, her potential unrealized – that is the true tragedy. The Tucks may have longevity but they are hiding from life (although the boys have seen much of the world, they are now living with their parents…even when they’re 107 they always come back to mom and dad). Winnie, who has a short lifespan compared to theirs, embraces life and all it has to offer both good and bad. Truly, there is more value to quality of life than quantity.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written, well-acted and the world of the Tucks is set up nicely, as is the world of turn of the century rural America.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Theme music is used ad infinitum until a pleasant tune actually becomes tedious.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and some images and situations that might be scary for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Bledel’s feature film debut after establishing her name in “The Gilmore Girls;” the part of Jesse was originally offered to her Gilmore co-star Jared Padalecki but he declined in order to work with different co-stars.   

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with author Natalie Babbitt, and an interesting “Lessons of the Tucks” feature which examines themes and issues brought in the movie which is used in a similar manner as a standard trivia track.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie was unsuccessful.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Fountain

Zoom: Academy for Superheroes


Zoom

Tim Allen is pleased to find out that he isn't responsible for the problems of Zoom.

(Columbia) Tim Allen, Courtney Cox, Rip Torn, Chevy Chase, Spencer Breslin, Ryan Newman, Kate Mara, Michael Cassidy, Kevin Zegers, Thomas F. Wilson. Directed by Pete Hewitt.

I’m all for superheroes. I love ’em. Really, I do. Give me a movie about a superhero and I’ll almost certainly be there, unless it’s Catwoman. I will admit to missing that one, and after I saw it on DVD, I realized I’d made the right decision. I’ve even enjoyed the faux heroes of Sky High and The Specials.

Being a long time fan of the genre, I will admit that much of what goes on is intended for younger audiences. After all, comic books are part of the American landscape for most kids. That’s why it didn’t faze me – at least at first – that a superhero movie was coming out aimed directly for small fries. I enjoy Tim Allen, at least most of the time, so I had hopes that this would be along the lines of a GalaxyQuest for the spandex set.

Hope may spring eternal for a blogger, but not so much for Jack Shepard (Allen). He runs an auto shop that prides itself on taking the time to fix cars right. What his customers don’t know is that Jack was once better known by another name – Zoom, team leader of the Zenith Project, kids with special powers who had been trained by the government to be a genuine superhero team. They had been the pride of America, protecting us from threats foreign and domestic until an ambitious general named Larraby (Torn) irradiated them with gamma radiation (doesn’t Bruce Banner have a patent on that?) causing one of them, Concussion, to go berserk and attack his own team, killing all of them except for Zoom who is forced to run faster than he ever has before, creating a vortex into which his brother is sucked, never to be seen again. This leaves Jack without any speed powers (except in one finger) and retired, more or less happily, for 30 years.

However, there is a threat on the horizon. Nebbish scientist Dr. Grant (Chase) has determined that a transdimensional portal is about to manifest in our world, and when it does Concussion will be loosed on our world again. He and General Larraby decide to revive Project Zenith and use the powerless Zoom as a trainer for a new generation of heroes. Comely (but clumsy) psychologist Marsha Holloway (Cox) is sent to fetch Jack, promising him that the kids won’t be irradiated, but “natural ” methods will be used. A half million dollar paycheck doesn’t hurt either.

The kids – superstrong six-year-old Cindy Collins a.k.a. Princess (Newman), chunky twelve-year-old Tucker Williams a.k.a. Megaboy (Breslin) who is able to inflate various parts of his body, sixteen-year-old telekinetic Summer Jones a.k.a. Wonder (Mara) and seventeen-year-old Dylan West a.k.a. Houdini (Cassidy) who is able to turn invisible at will – are skeptical. The world has changed in thirty years and the idea of becoming a superhero, while cool, is a little passé. Zoom, for his part, is just going through the motions. He hasn’t been told what the kids are being trained for, so he thinks it’s just a government lark. He’s there strictly for the paycheck.

As time grows short, the pressure begins to mount on Jack to train the kids – or else. Gradually, he begins to grudgingly learn to like the kids and begins to actually prepare them for the life of a superhero, until he finds out the truth. Can he prepare the kids in time so that they don’t meet the same end as his previous team?

The movie is loosely – verrrrrry loosely – based on an illustrated book by Jason Lethcoe. However, the similarities between his book and Sky High were too noticeable and so the decision was made to alter the storyline. What results is a pastiche from various movies, some good, some bad but none working cohesively. Allen and Cox do their work gamely and manage not to disgrace themselves. Neither does the young cast, although Newman’s Princess was so annoying that by the end of the movie I was hoping that a meteor might hit her, or at least some calamity would befall her that might cause her to miss the rest of the movie.

Because the movie is aimed squarely at a younger set, the action is dumbed down. The fact that Jack’s team (which included his fiancee, by the way) had been killed by his own brother could have been explored in greater depth, but it was glossed over, the filmmakers not wanting anything unpleasant for the tykes in the audience to dwell on. Mostly everyone acts like buffoons, and the comedy, such as it is, is of the pee-pee doo-doo ca-ca variety, as one of my writing teachers used to identify the style.

This very much has the look and feel of a Saturday morning made-for-TV movie, something that might have aired on the Disney channel or Nickelodeon (and it probably will anyway). Young kids who are not so discerning (and I’m talking of the four to six-year-old variety) will probably get a kick out of it, while their parents will spend their time eagerly anticipating the end credits. That’s a shame, because there are some nice elements here, enough so that they could have made a decent movie of it in better hands. Director Pete Hewitt (whose previous movie was Garfield which should tell you all you need to know) needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink this one. Incidentally, the movie was released theatrically as Zoom but was retitled for the DVD release on perhaps the hopelessly insane chance that the audience might not recognize it.

WHY RENT THIS: Allen and Cox are at least pleasant. Some of the special effects are tolerable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dumbed down for kids, the movie misses some real opportunities to explore complex themes. Newman is way annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the rumor is a little rude and of the toilet variety but otherwise okay for most kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A photo of the old Zenith team not only includes Allen and Zegers but also Alexis Bledel, Wilmer Valderrama and Devon Aoki.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a collection of four public service-type shorts aimed squarely at teaching youngsters good values.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.5M on an unreported production budget (but one I would guess would be north of $50M); the movie was a major flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Town

Nanny McPhee Returns (Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang)


Nanny McPhee Returns

Quoth the raven, nevermore.

(Universal) Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar Steer, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson, Daniel Mays, Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Sinead Matthews, Katy Brand, Bill Bailey, Ewan McGregor, Sam Kelly.  Directed by Susanna White

It’s been five years since movie audiences in the States met Nanny McPhee, the wonderfully magical nanny from the Nurse Matilda series of books by Christianna Brand. Has she been missed?

We’ll get to that question in a moment. First, to the plot; fans of the first film will certainly recognize some of the particulars. While the first film was set in the Victorian era, this is set during World War II as the Green household is struggling. Isabella Green (Gyllenhaal) is trying to keep her head above water while her husband Rory (McGregor, mostly seen in family photographs and a touching flashback scene when Isabella washes her wedding veil) is off at war. The bucolic family farm is in big trouble; Isabella doesn’t have the money to make the next tractor payment. Without that tractor, they won’t be able to harvest the barley and if the barley isn’t harvested, they’ll lose the farm.

Young Norman (Butterfield), the man of the house while his dad’s away, has come up with the solution of selling the piglets to Farmer McGregor (Bailey) who’s willing to pay them enough money to make the tractor payment. His sister Megsie (Woods) and brother Vincent (Steer) are none to pleased about it, although they are more or less resigned to losing the piglets in order to keep the farm. However, with their dad gone (and no word from him in over three months) and their mom working in the shop of chronically confused and forgetful Mrs. Docherty (Smith), the three are acting out and constantly bickering like, well, cats and dogs.

To add to the misery, their snooty cousins from London, Cyril (Vlahos) and Celia (Taylor-Ritson) are coming to stay with them to escape the bombs of the Blitz. Now everybody is fighting, and snarky Uncle Phil (Ifans) is plotting to get Isabella to sell her half of the farm so he can sell his half to pay off the gambling debts he’s run up, otherwise two hitwomen – Miss Topsey (Matthews) and Miss Turvey (Brand) will take his kidneys instead. Hey, there’s a war on – all the good hitmen are in the Army!

To bring peace to her household, in pops Nanny McPhee (Thompson, reprising her role – as well as her position as writer and producer – from the original) with a flatulent blackbird on her shoulder. As before, when she is needed but not wanted she must stay; when she is wanted but no longer needed she must leave. Also as before, she is decidedly not attractive with several nasty warts, a snaggle tooth and broomstraw hair. Most importantly, as before, she has the crooked walking stick which when banged once on the ground produces magical results.

It’s these magics that made the first Nanny McPhee so visually delightful but as in the first, while necessary to the plot, it is the heart of the movie that makes it compelling. In the first movie, that heart made one of the more wonderful children’s movies of recent years; here the heart is not as evident.

The performances are satisfactory enough, particularly among the child actors. In particular, Vlahos, Butterfield and Taylor-Ritson might easily have been cast as the leads in the Harry Potter series had they just started filming it this year.

There are some moments that do tug at the heartstrings. One of the best is a scene between Cyril, Norman and Cyril’s dad (Fiennes), a high muckety-muck at the War Office. The gulf between Cyril and his father is evident and it is just as plain that neither one of them knows how to bridge it, although they both desperately want to. It’s superbly done, and ranks with moments from recent Pixar movies like Up, Wall-E and Toy Story 3 as some of the best kidflick scenes in the past few years.

Gyllenhaal also does well as Isabella. She maintains a pretty decent British accent, and manages to walk the fine line between melancholy and manic cheerfulness without seeming fake in either; it takes skill to make them both work so organically but then again Gyllenhaal has plenty of skill. Thompson is surprisingly muted in her role as Nanny McPhee; she was certainly much more of a presence in the first movie but seems content to remain in the background for most of the movie other than to bang her cane occasionally.

When the cane is banged, some imaginative things happen, mostly involving animals like synchronized swimming pigs (who also fly, which puts rout to that particular cliché) and a kleptomaniac elephant but also saluting statuary.

Where the movie falls short is in the humor, which mostly revolves around pratfalls, poo and farting. I realize that kids don’t have the most sophisticated humor on earth, but I think that the filmmakers underestimate the sophistication of modern kid audiences; it was, in other words, dumbed down a little too much. Kids are far smarter than we tend to give them credit for; the odd thing is that the kids in the movie are pretty savvy and mature. Why wouldn’t the kids watching the movie also be?

I wasn’t as taken by the sequel as I was the original, but there is enough charm here to motivate me to give it a tenuous recommendation. It was released in the UK in March and did solid box office business there as well as in Europe; enough so there is rumblings that a third Nanny McPhee movie may be in the works down the road. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how excited I am about seeing it after this one. Hopefully Thompson will be able to recapture the magic of the first and combine it with the kind of casting that was done for the second; now that would be movie magic indeed.

In answer to the question I posed at the beginning of the review, she was obviously missed in Europe where the movie has done well, but not so much in America where it has not; to be fair, the original Nanny McPhee didn’t do so much business in the States either. Still, I found that I liked the character very much – the love child of Dumbledore and Mary Poppins – and was looking forward to seeing the sequel. While I was disappointed, I am still hopeful that should a third movie be made, it will be better. Does that qualify me for a Leap of Faith medal?

REASONS TO GO: Gyllenhaal and Thompson are two of my favorite actresses and I can’t quite say no to a movie both of them would be in. There are some well-done scenes in the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The humor is dumbed down unnecessarily to a barrage of pratfalls and poo jokes.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of poo humor to keep the kids in lowbrow laughs; however, there are some themes that have to do with wartime and death that might make it a tough viewing for smaller or sensitive kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the Courage medal that Nanny McPhee wears, there is clearly an engraving of a lion, a nod to The Wizard of Oz’ Cowardly Lion. Also, as Nanny McPhee and the boys approach London, there are several anti-aircraft balloons seen floating in the air; the one above Battersea Power Station is in the shape of a pig, a nod to the 1977 Pink Floyd album cover for Animals, which depicted the same scene.

HOME OR THEATER: Unless your kids are clamoring to see it, you can get away with waiting for the DVD/Blu-Ray to come out.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Big Fan

City of Ember


City of Ember

Bill Murray loves a kidder and he's got a whole town square full of them.

(20th Century Fox) Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Martin Landau, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Toby Jones, Mary Kay Place. Directed by Gil Kenan

A city can be a place full of wonder and it’s only natural that a young person that comes of age will want to be a part of it in one way or another. However, cities can hide the most sinister of secrets and the older a city becomes, the more likelihood of skeletons hiding in urban closets.

Lina Mayfleet (Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Treadaway) have both come of age and are eagerly awaiting Assignment Day in the city of Ember, a darkened city lit by overhead lamps. Doon hopes for a job where he can make a difference in the city’s infrastructure whereas Lina is hoping for a slot in the Messengers. Of course, neither one gets what they want – Doon gets the Messenger slot and Lina is slotted to work a job in the pipes as a kind of plumber. However, the two swap jobs and attain a reasonable sort of happiness.

There is reason for concern though. The city is prone to blackouts that are happening with greater frequency and for longer periods. There are shortages of food and resources, and rationing is the word of the day. The appearance of giant moths, beetles, bees and moles are becoming more frequent and more dangerous. The city’s technology is breaking down with more and more machines simply failing to work.

The secret of Ember is that it is located deep underground. The Builders of Ember located it there after an unnamed catastrophe made life on the surface of Earth impossible. They also built a metal box with a timer set for 200 years, after which the box would open. The box is entrusted to the Mayor of Ember with strict instructions of Do Not Open until Christmas…200 years from now. The box is passed from Mayor to Mayor who keep the secret of the box’s existence from the people of Ember, until with 47 years to go a Mayor unexpectedly dies without passing the secret of the box to his successor. As a result, the box is put into storage, forgotten and ignored so when the box clicks down to zero, nobody notices.

Fortunately, it is locked in the home of Lina Mayfleet who discovers it. Meanwhile, Doon is discovering to his shock that the great machines that are keeping Ember alive are failing and nobody knows how to fix them. When the two of them go to the current Mayor (Murray) with their suspicions, all Hades breaks loose. It turns out that the Mayor is not only fully aware of the situation but is making precautions for his own survival at the expense of the citizens of Ember. The corrupt Mayor sends the troops out after the plucky kids, who have worked out that the box contains instructions on how to leave Ember and return to the surface, but can they escape their dying city before it takes them with it?

This is based on the first of a quartet of novels by Jeanne Duprau for young adults. This is director Gil Kenan’s second feature (his first was the marvelous animated feature Monster House) and he makes it visually arresting. The city of Ember itself is a rabbit warren, but it is the magnificent machines below the surface that make the grandest impression. This is obviously a decaying society, with lamps that fall from the sky, exposed wiring everywhere and a general air that everything is held together with duct tape and jury rigging. It looks like a city on the edge of falling apart.

The story is something of a parallel, with a 200 year old place grappling with a failing energy supply and environmental disasters. The old guard of the place is keeping the extent of the danger hidden from the citizenry who go about their lives (for the most part) like nothing is wrong, but the young people have a sense that they need to act and act soon. Sound like anywhere you know?

Ronan, who has already received an Oscar nomination in her young but brilliant career (for Atonement) has assembled an impressive body of work for someone so young, and does a wonderful job here, as does Treadaway. Far from being the smug, smart-assed teens we often see in the movies, they are smart, brave and real. They are onscreen for the bulk of the film and it is essential that the audience not only relate to them but like them, and I did.

This is quite a quality movie that took a critical lashing, another instance in which I think most of the critics simply blew it. The movie also crashed and burned at the box office, which is sad – I would have liked to have seen the sequels, but it is unlikely they will ever be made. Still, take comfort in that this is a rare instance of a kid’s movie that doesn’t talk down to its target audience, that treats them as intelligent, thinking people and appeals to their sense of wonder rather than their most base instincts. One City of Ember is worth a hundred G-Forces.

WHY RENT THIS: Smarter fare than most kid’s movies, with amazing set design.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing seemed a bit rushed, particularly towards the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of jeopardy and peril, and the giant moles and moths might frighten smaller tykes; otherwise, this is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The set for the city of Ember was built in the paint hall in a former shipyard in Belfast, in the city’s Titanic Quarter near where the RMS Titanic was built.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Yes Men Fix the World

G-Force


G-Force

All things considered, maybe lab testing comestics wouldn't have been so bad.

(Disney) Zach Galifianakis, Nicolas Cage (voice), Bill Nighy, Sam Rockwell (voice), Penelope Cruz (voice), Will Arnett, Jon Favreau (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), Tracy Morgan (voice), Kelli Garner. Directed by Hoyt Yeatman

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer can be counted upon for loud, action-laden movies with plenty of special effects. So how would he fare with a kid’s movie?

The G-Force is comprised of leader Darwin (Rockwell), commandos Blaster (Morgan) and Juarez (Cruz), computer expert Speckles (Cage) and surveillance expert Mooch. The difference is, not a one of them is a human being; the first three are guinea pigs (and please don’t refer to them as hamsters, it offends them), Speckles is a mole and Mooch is a housefly.

They are the result of a government experiment by FBI nerd Ben (Galifianakis) who has given them the means to communicate with humans. Outfitting them with all sorts of high tech gear, they break into the house of billionaire appliance maker Leonard Saber (Nighy) to find some evidence of nefarious criminal activity.

When all they find is the blueprint for a new coffeemaker, straight-arrow Agent Killian (Arnett) shuts down the team and the animals are dispersed to a pet store. However, Darwin is certain that Saber is up to no good and he knows there is a 48 hour deadline before something really, really bad happens. His mission is to break out of the pet store with new flatulent friend Hurley (Favreau) with the help of psychotic part-ferret Bucky (Buscemi), find out what Saber is up to and save the day. He’ll have to avoid the FBI and their humorless agents who are chasing them, but they have turbocharged hamster balls (of the sort that Rhino used in Bolt) to elude their pursuers.

This is all in silly fun, and those who come to the theater looking for logic and plot or going to be tearing out their hair. Director Yeatman has a couple of visual effects Oscars to his name (one for technical achievement) and does a pretty decent job here, pacing the thing like you’d expect for a Bruckheimer movie – non-stop action with little pause for gathering ones wits.

The voice acting is credible, although Cage goes for the silly voice award of 2009. His nasal, Midwestern-accented take for Speckles is hysterical. Cruz goes for a bit of sex appeal and elevates her character above the typical Latina marine we’ve seen in cliché after cliché since Aliens. Tracy Morgan goes the ghetto route and comes off as kind of a cut-rate Chris Rock.

The live characters are pretty good, too – Nighy is always interesting, even when doing characters that are essentially boring and Arnett plays up the ramrod-stiff Killian to the point of ridiculousness which was certainly his intention.

The filmmakers are shooting for a pre-teen demographic, so there is a surfeit of fart jokes and robots – the global “threat” turns out to be giant robots made up of household appliances that apparently plan to stomp the human race out of existence. Me, I’d just wait ‘em out until their warranties expire.

Still, this is essentially safe and harmless fun that will keep most of your kids more than happy. The younger ones will coo over the lovable furry critters while the older ones will ooh and ahh over the cool robots that are a bit of a sly jab at the Transformers. There is certainly a dumb factor here – those who appreciate kids movies that don’t talk down to kids and treat them like they actually have brains are going to be sorely disappointed in G-Force but those who are looking just for something to keep their kids occupied and out of their hair for an hour or two will be quite satisfied.

Hmm, a kid’s movie that doesn’t pander to kids and treats them with intelligence. Locating a movie like that might be a job that even the G-Force can’t handle.

WHY RENT THIS: Harmless, mindless family film fun.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not what you’d call snappy dialogue or smart plotting. The preposterous meter is off the scale.

FAMILY VALUES: G-Force is suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ferris wheel shown in the film is located on the island of Okinawa in Japan in a shopping and entertainment district called American Village.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a notable featurettes on super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and also an interesting feature on how the germination for the idea behind G-Force came from director Yeatman’s pre-teen son.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Pontypool

The Karate Kid (2010)


The Karate Kid (2010)

Jackie Chan explains to Jaden Smith why his forearm isn't as long as the Great Wall of China.

(Columbia) Jackie Chan, Jaden Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Rongguang Yu, Zhenwei Wang, Han Wenwen, Shijia Lu, Luke Carberry. Directed by Harold Zwart

Relocating to a different place, particularly one with a vastly different culture, carries with it inherent feelings of loneliness and isolation. These feelings can be exacerbated if you’re the victim of bullying.

Dre Parker (Smith) has seen his world turned upside down. First, his father dies. Now, his mom (Henson) is being transferred by the auto manufacturer she works for in Detroit to their new plant in Beijing, China. All Dre knows is that he has been ripped away from everything he knows and cares about to live in a strange new place where nobody speaks English, the food is weird and funny, terrible smells waft about at any given moment.

Initially he finds some solace in the violin prodigy Meiying (Wenwen) who actually does speak English, and the lone Western friend Harry (Carberry) that he finds in his apartment complex. However, his relationship with Meiying attracts the attention of Cheng (Wang), the school bully who happens to be the best Kung Fu student in the class of Master Li (Yu), a brutal sort who believes that Kung Fu is meant to be the means not only to victory but complete annihilation.

The beatings that Dre gets from Cheng and his gang become progressively worse until what appears to be the beatdown to end all beatdowns is interrupted by the taciturn handyman Mr. Han (Chan) who as it turns out is a Kung Fu master. At first, Han is reluctant to train Dre but when Han is backed into a corner by Master Li, he agrees to train Dre for the open Kung Fu tournament that is coming up soon.

Dre’s attitude is not the easiest to get along with and both his mom and Mr. Han are frustrated with him but as Dre learns to let go of his preconceptions and find his inner stillness, Dre undergoes a metamorphosis from a scared little boy into a strong, courageous young man.

The movie is based on the 1984 film of the same name, with Chan taking on the Oscar-nominated role that Pat Morita made into an icon, and Smith assuming the mantle left by Ralph Macchio. In many ways, the movie is almost a reverent remake of the first film; while not note-for-note, it certainly captures most of the main highlights of the movie and references them sometimes obliquely but usually in a pretty straightforward manner.

Chan has made a career of being a bit of a clown; while nobody can doubt his martial arts skills, he has always played characters on the light side, with a healthy dose of self-kidding. This is far from those kinds of characters, as Mr. Han has a dark secret that haunts him which gets released with some prodding from Dre. There is a scene in a car midway through the movie which is as impressive as any work that Chan has ever done.

Director Zwart also makes good use of the Chinese landscape, with beautiful vistas of mountains, lakes, as well as magnificent shots of iconic locations like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. China is a gorgeous country (having seen it firsthand only a month ago), and it is certainly one of the selling points for the film. Da Queen was particularly nostalgic about a scene set in a Beijing hutong, a specific type of alleyway where there are groups of traditional courtyard houses and is one of the most charming aspects of Beijing life.

Jaden Smith, so good in The Pursuit of Happyness is somewhat inconsistent here.  He has some moments that resonate emotionally in a realistic way, and then others that don’t ring as true. Da Queen thought more highly of him than I did; she seems to think he has a very bright future ahead of him and honestly, I don’t see why not either.

Kids seem to like this movie a great deal, and there’s good reason for that. Jaden is pretty appealing in most of the movie and the Kung Fu is pretty spectacular for those who haven’t seen some of the better examples of Chinese martial arts movies. The ending, while predictable, has a nice little twist in a nod to the original film and you’ll definitely leave the theater with a good feeling inside. One can’t fault a movie for accomplishing that alone; those expecting more may wind up disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming in its own way with a particularly strong performance from Chan. Beautiful cinematography of Chinese locations and monuments.

REASONS TO STAY: Smith’s performance is a bit uneven and those who saw the first film are going to feel a sense of déjà vu.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty intense scenes of bullying and violence and a couple of bad words, but all in all most audiences should be okay with it, and it certainly would make a good jumping off point for conversations with the kids about bullying.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene of the woman mesmerizing the cobra on the dragon statue while in the crane position is a tribute to the original film, in which Ralph Macchio defeats the Cobra Kai with a move from the crane position.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the vistas of China are amazing and should be seen in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Blind Date (2009)

Hotel for Dogs


Hotel for Dogs

Proof positive that Hollywood is going to the dogs.

(DreamWorks) Emma Roberts, Lisa Kudrow, Don Cheadle, Jake T. Austin, Kyla Pratt, Kevin Dillon, Johnny Simmons, Troy Gentile, Ajay Naidu. Directed by Thor Freudenthal

I will admit to a severe soft spot for dogs. Put a few dogs in a movie and it’s an automatic win for me. Keep that in mind as you read on, gentle reader.

Andi (Roberts) and Bruce (Austin) are orphans as well as brother and sister. They live with a pair of dopey foster parents, Carl (Dillon) and Lois (Kudrow) who has aspirations of rock stardom with a slightly more ambitious reach than their talent is able to grasp. Lois’ idea of cooking is heating up the most disgusting frozen dinners imaginable, which the two understandably leave uneaten more often than not.

For someone wanting a rock and roll lifestyle, Lois has a fair amount of rigid rules for her charges to live by, one of which includes no pets. This is bad news as the two are devoted to their dog Friday, a lovable mutt taken to getting his meals wherever he can. He, like most dogs, is also prone to getting into mischief at the most inopportune times which makes keeping his presence secret from Lois and Carl a bit harder. However, fortunately for Andi and Bruce, the two of them are idiots so they manage to keep Friday nearby.

Although basically good kids at heart, Andi and Bruce have a penchant for getting into trouble, which keeps their long-suffering social worker Bernie (Cheadle) busy. He warns them, after the latest incident, that they can’t afford to alienate their current foster parents as keeping the two of them together would be next-to-impossible if they were returned to the orphanage.

On one of Friday’s misadventures, he is picked up by the local pound which gives people only 72 hours to pick up their pets before euthanizing them. The kids manage to get Friday out of there, only to have him lead them to an abandoned hotel where a couple of other homeless mutts reside. The soft-hearted Bruce convinces the more practical Andi that they could care for the three dogs there, and as you might expect the three dogs become more dogs right quickly.

Pet store employees Dave (Simmons) and Heather (Pratt), both seemingly cast out of the Disney Channel/Nickelodeon school of cute tweeners (although only Pratt has television experience, on the Disney Channel series “The Proud Family” as well as the BET series “One on One”), stumble onto the situation and are enlisted to help, as is would-be ladies man Mark (Gentile). In order to better care for the dogs, Bruce designs and constructs elaborate devices that take care of specific needs; means of feeding the dogs, disposing of their – ahem – waste products, throwing tennis balls and even a simulator to allow the dogs the sensation of driving in a car.

Like any kids movies, there are always mean-spirited adults wanting to spoil the fun of the kids and this movie is no exception, with the foster parents and the testosterone-overload head of the dog pound Jake (Naidu). The kids will need to use all their wiliness to outwit the adults…all right, it really doesn’t take much.

This is somewhat loosely based on a children’s book by Lois Duncan, who also penned the book that was made into I Know What You Did Last Summer, a teenage suspense novel that Hollywood turned into a slasher flick. Duncan openly despises that adaptation; I suspect she’s a bit more sanguine about this film which is far more harmless.

The devices invented by Bruce are marvelous and make for the best moments in the movie. Even hard-hearted adult critics will get a kick out of them, not to mention the young kids that are the target audience of the film. Also, the main dog actors are given distinct personalities and make for some real “awwww” viewing. The young juvenile actors are pretty much as you’d expect; white-bread, bland and freshly scrubbed. Pratt obviously got the memo that has circulated around Hollywood that all African American teen girls are to be portrayed as sassy and full of ‘tude.

Dillon and Kudrow, both marvelous actors in their own right, overplay their roles which is essentially the only option they had. Only Cheadle, one of the best in the business, comes off as sympathetic among the adult cast, and he makes of his role something better than it was supposed to be, with a nice little speech near the end.

My problem with most kidflicks of this ilk are that they have the same basic premise; kids are wise and committed, adults are stupid and greedy which means that the kids will win every time. I don’t have a problem with depicting kids as cause-committed or even smart, but I get tired of adults being portrayed as buffoons in movies – how are kids supposed to respect the adults in their lives when they are constantly told on television and in movies that adults are neither to be trusted nor respected? I wonder if that doesn’t have a lot to do with some of the problems that the last couple of generations have had in terms of dealing with authority and rules, as well as with issues of frustration and instant gratification. Then again, I’m getting to be a grumpy old man.

Still, this is pretty harmless stuff and even entertaining in places. As I said earlier, I’m a sucker for a movie with dogs and when you throw in the kids, W.C. Fields is probably rotating in his grave. Certainly this makes for good viewing if you want to keep your kids occupied for an afternoon.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s dogs. Some fun Rube Goldberg-like devices.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Typical kidflick conceit of stupid adults/smart kids.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of doggie doo-doo humor but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the more than 70 dogs used in the movie were actually rescued from the pound. Several of them were adopted by crew members after filming wrapped.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the planning and execution of the doggie gadgets shown in the movie. As a nice touch, there’s a public service announcement on adopting pets from your local shelter. There’s also a linked website that will allow you to insert pictures of your own dog into a cover insert as well as into a special downloadable trailer.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Mary Poppins


Mary Poppins

Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke discover you just can't find good help anymore.

(Disney) Julie Andrews, Dick van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynnis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Else Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell, Arthur Malet. Directed by Robert Stevenson

Some movies transcend their original material. Very few remember the children’s stories of P.L. Travers but nearly everyone has seen and/or loves the Disney movie version.

The Banks children Jane (Dotrice) and Michael (Garber) have gone through nannies like Bill Cosby has gone through sweaters. Their father (Tomlinson) spends most of his day working at the bank and when he is home, he expects it to be run like a proper British household. His wife (Johns) is far too busy with the women’s suffragette movement to really spend time with her children. When they drive the latest nanny out, it’s the last straw. Mr. Banks determines to oversee the recruitment of a proper nanny himself.

The children have ideas of their own. They write a letter with the qualifications that they would like, which their father pooh-poohs. However, strangely enough, the torn-up letter of the children makes its way to the world’s most famous nanny; the estimable Mary Poppins (Andrews) herself. When a stiff British breeze blows the other applicants away, Mary Poppins floats in on the Eastern wind and gets the position.

She then proceeds to take her charges through a series of wonderful adventures through chalk drawings, on the rooftops and around London. She is assisted by her friend Bert (van Dyke), a jack of all trades who is best known as a chimney sweep. All of these are set to the most marvelous musical score ever set to a children’s film. And when the broken family is at last mended, Mary Poppins quietly sails away on the East wind that brought her to Cherry Tree Lane.

My wife recently posted on her Facebook status a query about a film that reminds her most of her childhood. I thought and thought and thought about it and came up with this one. If you define childhood as the ages before the affectations and cynicism of the teenage years set in, then this is the movie that defines my pre-teen years most closely.

Julie Andrews gave a career-establishing performance and along with her role as Maria in The Sound of Music (a role she attained due directly to her work here) is the one she is most closely identified with. Much to the distress of P.L. Travers, the Disney brain trust made Poppins more cheery, less cold than the one in the book. Andrews made her fresh and sweet, to go with the prim and proper veneer she affected. It would give Andrews the Best Actress Oscar at the 1965 Academy Awards.

No less outstanding is van Dyke as Bert the chimney sweep. His singing and dancing would establish him a one of Hollywood’s leading actors for the era and elevate him from the television fame which he then enjoyed. Van Dyke holds his own with some of the more intimidating actors of the era, including Wynn as the contagiously jolly Uncle Albert.

The music however is particularly outstanding and nearly everyone has a song that is close to their hearts from this film, from “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” to “Stay Awake” to the classic “A Spoonful of Sugar.” My own personal favorite is “Feed the Birds,” something I have in common with Walt Disney himself. I used to have an album with some of the music from Mary Poppins and I feel oddly comforted whenever I hear this song; I used to play it as a child when I was troubled and would feel immediately better. I think a lot of children use music that way.

Simply put, this is one of the all-time classics, one which in many ways doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves. It is symbolic of childhood and families, of the wonder and magic that is all around us and that we can rediscover if only we choose to. Children have no need to – they know it’s there, they live with it every day. How I envy them that.

So there you have it. The movie that most brings my childhood back to me is this one. I suspect that I’m not alone in that regard. So go ahead, whip out the disk or rent it (it’s available nearly everywhere and it’s almost always in stock) and settle in for two hours of childhood reclamation. It will do your soul good.

And feel free to add your voice to the discussion. Is there a particular movie that brings back memories of your childhood? Post it in the comments!

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful music, great performances, an imaginative premise and simply put, makes you feel like a kid again regardless of how old you are.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ve lost contact with the child inside you.

FAMILY VALUES: This family classic is suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only movie produced by Walt Disney himself to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The most recent 45th Anniversary edition comes loaded with special features, included several related to the recent Broadway production based on the film. There’s a feature on composer Richard Sherman, as well as a deleted song set to storyboards for the scene, and a short film based on a Mary Poppins story by P.L. Travers.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Dragonball: Evolution

Race to Witch Mountain


Race to Witch Mountain

AnnaSophia Robb tries to keep a straight face after convincing the others that Triple H was about to land a flying elbow out of the trees.

(Disney) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Tom Everett Scott, Christopher Marquette, Cheech Marin, Garry Marshall. Directed by Andy Fickman

It is said that everything old will become new again at some point. In Hollywood, that translates to everything old will be remade again.

A decidedly modern update of the 1975 Disney kidflick Escape to Witch Mountain finds a Las Vegas cab driver by the name of Jack Bruno (Johnson) trying to make a living ferrying whackos at a UFO convention up and down the strip. Jack used to be a driver for the mob but has tried to make a go of it on the straight and narrow. That isn’t easy with a couple of goons stopping by to remind him that once in the mob, always in the mob.

In the meantime, scientists are monitoring a spacecraft crash landing in the desert outside of Vegas. They send for Henry Burke (Hinds), a high muckety muck in the military whom everybody seems to be terrified of. He visits the crash site and is notified that the craft had been occupied but was no longer. He realizes that there are aliens running around and puts his team on high alert.

When a couple of kids materialize in the back seat of Jack’s car, he seems to take it in stride. When they apparently have a pretty good pile of money for kids their age, he gets a little bit suspicious. When they tell him to head in a general direction – “that way,” says little Sara (Robb), pointing – he is skeptical. When he finds out they have superhuman powers (Sara can control things with her mind, Seth (Ludwig) can alter the molecular density of his body which would make corporal punishment a bit problematic on both their parts), he is amazed. And when they are chased by Burke and his government goons in a fleet of sinister-looking SUVs with sinister-looking tinted windows, he gets annoyed.

Not nearly as annoyed, however, as he gets later when he takes on a sinister-looking alien assassin in a sinister-looking black spacesuit with a sinister-looking black helmet. If Vince McMahon had yanked off the helmet and exclaimed “I am your father, Rock” I wouldn’t have been surprised.

It turns out that the kids are the aliens everyone is looking for (ya think?) and that they need to retrieve a device that looks not unlike an iPhone that they need to activate in order to avert a full-scale invasion of the Earth by the military sorts who want to take Earth’s precious resources by force. The iPhone apparently can allow the aliens to re-create those resources (which have been irretrievably poisoned on their world) and allow them to save their planet without wiping out the puny humans. Now, that’s what I call an app!!

Still, they have to avoid the government goons who want to dissect them, the mob who wants to lay a beating on Jack and the alien assassin who wants to microwave them. They enlist the help of a legitimate scientist (Gugino) and a whacko alien abduction sort (Marshall) and must penetrate deep into the super-secret Witch Mountain base (so secret it doesn’t even appear on Google – which surely has the brass at Google running to their lawyers crying “NOT POSSIBLE”) and retrieve their spaceship before Earth becomes a smoking cinder swinging around the sun.

The original Escape to Witch Mountain had an air of mystery and intrigue to it (the kids in that version weren’t aware that they were aliens until near the end of the movie) while this is pretty much sheer action and adventure. Nothing wrong with that, I say – it’s certainly an easier sell to a newer generation of kids who prefer a much more direct approach than kids from my generation who didn’t mind figuring out things for ourselves (end of smug patting on the back segment).

The Rock (Dwayne Johnson is his given name but for me, as with millions – and millions – of others, he will always be the Rock) has the kind of effortless charm that makes him extremely likable, even when he’s laying the smack down on government goons. He needs to carry this movie and he does so very nicely. Gugino, a criminally underused actress who always seems to turn in a strong performance even in poorly written roles, has a nice chemistry with him that while not romantic makes their banter very believable.

I have to say that I didn’t appreciate that the movie seems dumbed down in places. Now, I’m not sure whether the filmmakers of today have a lower opinion of the ability of kids to follow a story, or whether the kids of today have difficulty following a story, but a lot more is essentially spelled out for the audience, whereas in the original we were given the clues to figure things out on our own which most of us did. I think filmmakers need to give the younger audiences more credit, although I will admit that it’s possible I’m giving them too much.

Robb, who was spectacular in Bridge to Terabithia, continues her development as one of the stronger juvenile actresses today. Unfortunately, Ludwig, who was a bit stiff and wooden in The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, exhibits those same tendencies here.

Of course, if you go looking for the Royal Shakespeare Company in a Disney kidflick, you’re going to wind up disappointed every time. For the most part, this is a competently assembled adventure/action movie that is strongly skewed to Disney’s target audience. Those parents who are made to watch the movie will be able at least to enjoy it on that level. I’d be interested in renting it side by side with the original, just for comparison purposes. If I ever get around to it, I’ll let you know what I think.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock’s easy charm carries the movie effortlessly and Gugino plays off of him nicely. Some pretty nifty special effects sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely dumbed down in places. While Robb is solid, Ludwig seems uncomfortable in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the action sequences and the unmasking of the baddie might be too intense for the tiniest of tots, but otherwise suitable for most family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who played the two children in the original, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, both put in cameos here. The character names given them reference their original character names; Tina for Richards (who was Tia in the original) and Anthony for Eisenmann (Tony in the original).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a mighty enjoyable little featurette that details the differences between the original and the new version, and how this version pays homage to the original.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Extraordinary Measures