In recent years, Disney plus Pixar has led to some terrific animated features, but Disney minus Pixar has led to yearnings to locate the nearest auditorium exit. Bolt is straight-up Disney, which would be worrisome if it wasn’t for the fact that Pixar guru John Lasseter has been handed the keys to the studio’s entire animation department. So while Bolt isn’t a Pixar production, it falls under the auspices of Lasseter (billed on this title as executive producer), and that might possibly be the reason this fast-paced confection is far better than such studio sourballs as Chicken Little and Treasure Planet.But make no mistake: This is still a long way from the giddy heights of the Pixar pack. It mixes the speed of a Nickelodeon toon project with narrative elements from The Incredible Journey, as Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), a canine who believes he really possesses the superpowers he employs on his hit TV series, gets separated from his owner/co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus) and ends up crossing the country in search of her. It’s entertaining while it lasts but dissipates from memory the moment it’s over, a condition predicated on the fact that neither the noble, stiff Bolt nor the typical toon preteen Penny are especially dynamic characters. There are some clever inside-Hollywood touches, but the lack of any real dramatic tension means that the scripters are ultimately forced to turn to a burning building to serve as the “villain” of the piece. Still, the visual design is inventive (the film is screening in 3D at select theaters), and kids and adults alike are sure to love the character of Rhino (Mark Walton), a portly hamster always on the go in his plastic ball. Whenever he’s on screen, you can be sure he keeps the movie rolling.
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Anyone who thinks that the Madagascar franchise is all about the Benjamin (Stiller, that is) has seriously overrated the importance of marquee names to animated flicks.
With rare exception (say, Eddie Murphy in the Shrek works), the most memorable cartoon characters have nothing to do with A-list casting (who even remembers that Bruce Willis starred in Over the Hedge?) and everything to do with matching the tone with the toon (I ask you, what superstar could have done better than relatively unknown Patton Oswalt as Ratatouille’s Remy?). So while the cast of Madagascar and its new sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, is headed by Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith, it’s really all about the penguins, baby. Certainly, Stiller (as Alex the lion), Schwimmer (Melman the giraffe), Pinkett Smith (Gloria the hippo) and especially Rock (Marty the zebra) do their part to make these movies two of the few tolerable non-Pixar/non-Miyazaki toon tales of recent times, but what truly blesses the pair is the presence of the flightless fowl. Led by Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath, co-director of both films), these penguins are among the least sentimental of all animated characters in the history of the film medium. Their cynicism shines through at every turn: After they run over a pesky human with a jeep, one asks, “Is she dead?” When informed that she’s not, he then tries to run over her again. Somehow, I don’t see Mickey or Porky taking this course of action. If this follow-up isn’t as good as its predecessor, that’s largely because the warmed-over central storyline -- so similar to The Lion King that there’s even a Scar stand-in -- has to compete with various other plot threads so diffuse that no real narrative momentum is ever established; there’s a rushed sense that wasn’t present in the first picture. But whenever the penguins pop up for their welcome routine, the movie takes flight.
Quantum of Solace
Casino Royale, the 2006 revamp of the hallowed 007 film franchise, turned out to be the best Bond outing since Reagan’s first term in office, so expecting Quantum of Solace to surpass it was probably asking too much. Fortunately, it isn’t long before we’re again immersed in the Bond mystique. Half gentleman, half bruiser, Daniel Craig’s Bond is still learning the ropes of his new status as a field operative, and it’s up to his superior, M (again played by Judi Dench with the right mix of exasperation at the monster she helped create and barely concealed pride at the confident, competent male she’s released to the world), to try -- usually with little success -- to keep him in line. In a first for the 46-year-old series, Quantum of Solace isn’t loosely connected to past pictures but is instead a direct sequel to its predecessor: To watch it without having seen Casino Royale would be akin to viewing The Empire Strikes Back without having seen Star Wars. The villainous organization in the previous picture is still full speed ahead, and revenge for the death of a loved one remains foremost on the mind of our hero. M is worried that this will cloud Bond’s judgment, but 007 is nothing if not effective at multitasking. And does he have his hands full, whether tangling with the dastardly Dominic Greene (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Amalric), forming a partnership with the lovely Camille (Olga Kurylenko, certainly a letdown after Eva Green’s brainy, biting Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale), or seeking help from coolly distant allies Felix Leiter and Mathis (returning co-stars Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini). While the CIA has offered Bond a helping hand on several occasions in past pictures, the outfit here is hellbent on stopping him, since American interests are better served by sucking up to a corrupt billionaire promising to line pockets rather than aiding a conscientious British agent who can offer no such shady dealings. But don’t think for a moment that real-world issues dominate the movie. The stunts are as outlandish as ever, and the typically lavish settings allow us to live vicariously through Agent 007 (in a Bond film, it’s always a toss-up as to whether the women or the locales are more seductive). Continually getting better as it charges along, Quantum of Solace turns out to be a successful second entry in the Craig/007 canon. If I rated with numbers instead of stars, it would merit -- dare I type it? -- a 007 out of 10.
Like Mystic River and Flags of Our Fathers, Changeling is good, not great, Clint Eastwood — although as far as emotional resonance is concerned, the latest from the consummate director certainly reverberates more strongly than either of those other features. Based on a true story and brought to the screen via an ambitious screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski, Changeling stars Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, a single mom whose only son (Gattlin Griffith) goes missing one fateful afternoon in 1928. The Los Angeles Police Department, mired at the time in corruption, spots an opportunity to do something right and eventually reunites the mother with her boy. The only problem is that they bring back the wrong child, but rather than risk further embarrassment for the department, a zealous captain (Jeffrey Donovan) decides to drown out Christine’s protests by any means necessary, including labeling her as an unfit mother. Eastwood’s stately picture slowly extends its reach, as various other plot elements circle the central story of a parent’s unbreakable bond with her offspring; while some suffer in the mix (John Malkovich, as a crusading reverend fighting for Christine’s rights, could have benefited from more scenes), the overall result is a movie that will disappoint only those who require tidy endings wrapped up in pretty bows.
The Secret Life of Bees
The Secret Life of Bees is the sort of Southern-spun, honey-soaked confection that, in the wrong hands, could have turned out dreadful. Yet Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood largely stays away from grandiloquent gestures designed to manipulate audience emotions, relying instead on sound storytelling and a set of accomplished performers to punch across the story’s humanist appeal. Set in 1964 South Carolina, the story centers on young Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), who’s haunted by memories of her late mother (Hilarie Burton) and ill-treated by her unfeeling father (Paul Bettany). Hoping to learn more about a mom she barely remembers, she runs away from home, dragging her caregiver Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) along with her. She heads to a town where she knows her mother once stayed, and, upon arrival, she and Rosaleen end up taking shelter in the home of the Boatwright sisters: patient August (Queen Latifah), suspicious June (Alicia Keys) and sentient (if simple-minded) May (Sophie Okonedo). There, Lily not only finds the answers she seeks but also the family she never had. It’s only been two years since I last saw Fanning (in Charlotte’s Web), yet she seems to have passed that vaguely defined mark between adorable moppet and self-assured teen. cs
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
The latest from writer-director Kevin Smith is always likable even if it isn’t always inspired. As he proved with Chasing Amy (still the Citizen Kane of his output), Smith can deftly pull off the proper mix of sweet and funny and raunchy; in this case, though, only the “funny” clears all hurdles, as the “sweet” is of the standard variety while the “raunchy” often overwhelms the picture. Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are aptly cast as Zack and Miri, lifelong best friends and present-day roommates who are so broke that they can’t even afford to pay their utility bills. After a life-altering high school reunion, Zack hits upon the brilliant idea of making their own hardcore adult film in order to raise significant amounts of green. Initially, the eight-person cast and crew (played by, among others, Smith vets Jason “Jay” Mewes and Jeff Anderson and former porn star Traci Lords) plan to mount a Star Wars spoof titled Star Whores (featuring such characters as Hung Solo, Princess Layher and Darth Vibrator), but after that falls through, they opt to use a coffeehouse as their setting. Rogen and Banks are both utterly winning, and their charisma helps offset the fact that their characters’ romance takes off down a disappointingly predictable path (remove the risqué trimmings, and we’re left with a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com). The vulgar material is alternately hilarious and off-putting, although any movie with the imagination to cast perpetually boyish Justin Long as a gravel-voiced Hollywood gay porn star obviously has much to recommend it.
body of lies
Despite Russell Crowe’s shared marquee billing, this is really Leonardo DiCaprio’s film, as the young thespian handles the part of Roger Ferris, a compassionate CIA point man working in the Middle East under the jaded eye of his ruthless superior (Crowe) back in the U.S. Hoping to track down a bin Laden-like terrorist (a menacing Alon Aboutboul) responsible for a series of attacks on America and its allies, Ferris ends up traveling to Jordan and entering into a terse relationship with Hani Salaam (Stardust’s Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian intelligence. The film’s best scenes are between DiCaprio and Strong, as their characters alternate between working together and keeping each other at arm’s length. Better than the vast majority of the post-9/11 terrorist yarns, Body of Lies is both more ambiguous and ambitious than such heavy-handed duds as Rendition and Redacted. Director Ridley Scott (who last teamed with Crowe on American Gangster) and The Departed’s Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monaghan (working from David Ignatius’ novel) refrain from merely putting Ferris and Hoffman through the good-cop-bad-cop routine: Ferris’ idealism isn’t always beneficial, while Hoffman might be a prick, but he occasionally exhibits more clarity than might be expected.
Imagine The Constant Gardener after a frontal lobotomy, and that’s Max Payne in a nutshell. The latest bomb based on a popular video game, the film stars Mark Wahlberg as the title character, a New York cop who is still obsessed with solving the murders of his wife and baby. It sounds like standard Death Wish fare; the picture even opens with Max luring three drug addicts into a subway restroom, then proceeding to inflict Payne -- excuse me, pain -- on them. But as in The Constant Gardener, a major pharmaceutical outfit figures into the proceedings, though it’s safe to say that Ralph Fiennes never had to contend with winged demons flying all over the cityscape. cs