Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Wild / ** (G)

Featuring the voices of:
Samson the Lion: Kiefer Sutherland
Benny the Squirrel: Jim Belushi
Bridget the Giraffe: Janeane Garofalo
Larry the Snake: Richard Kind
Nigel the Koala: Eddie Izzard
Ryan the Cub: Greg Cipes
Kazar the Wildebeest: William Shatner
Blag the Wildebeest: Patrick Warburton

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Steve “Spaz” Williams. Written by Ed Dector, Mark Gibson, Philip Halprin and John J. Strauss. Running time: 94 min. Rated G.

The first comment I ever heard anyone make about this film was that it looked like they probably liked it better the first time they saw it when it was called “Madagascar”. That comment was made the first time I ever saw “The Wild” trailer back in the fall of last year. It may have been me that said it. Unfortunately, it was true.

The primary difference between “Madagascar” – which I enjoyed, but many did not – and “The Wild” is that “Madagascar” was willing to take some risks with its ideas and even designs, while “The Wild” wants to play it safe despite its rather absurd concept. Right down to the realistic rendering of its CGI created animal characters, the creators of “The Wild” don’t seem to understand that zoo animals with aspirations and behavior patterns matching those of human beings is something based more in the abstract than within the realm of reality.

The film opens with a fantasy sequence, which despite its traditional hand-drawn looking rendering turns out to be the most visually stunning sequence of the movie. It is a visualization of a story the hero, Samson (Kiefer Sutherland, TV’s “24”), is telling his son Ryan (Greg Cipes, “Club Dread”) about his life in the wild before becoming the resident lion of the New York Zoo. Samson thinks his stories will inspire Ryan to find his “roar.” The technique back fires, inspiring Ryan to stow away in a storage box headed for the wild, where he can find his voice in the same environment as his dad.

There is an incident before Ryan stows away where he is shamed that acts as a good example of how the filmmakers fail to create a fully realized universe for its characters. At night the Zoo becomes a place where the animals get to live their fun lives after their “work” days. As most of the animals are gathered in the artic environment pen to play games, Ryan and a couple friends decide to go scare the antelope as they might actually do on the African plain. I can’t help but wonder why aren’t the antelope like the rest of the animals joining in on the camaraderie of the after hours activities? Why are they the only animals that continue to act and react like animals when the zoo has closed to visitors?

The answer is… for the convenience of the plot alone. Ryan’s shame in scaring the antelope and causing a stampede within the zoo is the all too contrived catalyst which sends him packing; therefore forcing his father to head out into – first the big city, then the wild – looking for his lost son. Samson is not alone in his adventure. He brings along four friends: an awkward giraffe named Bridget (Janeane Garofalo, “Duane Hopwood”), a moronic snake named Larry (Richard Kind, “The Producers”), a wisecracking squirrel named Benny (Jim Belushi, TV’s “According to Jim”), and an even wisercracking koala named Nigel (Eddie Izzard, “Ocean’s Twelve”). Does any of that sound familiar?

During their journey this haphazard group of animals comes across some sewer crocodiles in the underworld of Manhattan. In a scene that has the potential to be both suspenseful and humorous the filmmakers turn these guido gators into a simple joke of “this way is quicker,” “No, that way is quicker.” Jokes are compromised in order to further the plot, rather than the plot supporting the jokes.

Soon the animals have somehow piloted a tugboat to the titular wild, where upon the fate of Ryan leads them into the den of a clan of wildebeests that have decided to take the throne of “kings of the jungle” by becoming carnivores. Once again the filmmakers squander some of their best resources by not offering the two primary wildebeests more screen time. William Shatner (“The Practice”) chews as much verbal scenery as he can as the insane leader of the carnivorous vegetarians, while Patrick Warburton (“Kronk’s New Groove”) provides his typical voice over gold as the clan’s choreographer. Monty Python’s Eric Idle also provides a humorous wildebeest song. It is too bad they didn’t use this trio for the lead characters.

“The Wild” plays like a string of missed opportunities. I have nothing against Sutherland or the other voice talents utilized here, but other animated features have been able to capitalize upon the comedic talents of its vocal artists in a way that this feature doesn’t (except with its villains). It is as if everyone on this ship was so worried about getting there they forgot to enjoy the journey, and isn’t the journey more important than the destination when you are just trying to be wild?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

10 Best Sports Movies

What was the best sports movie ever made? This seems to be a question that has been on the minds of sports fans and film buffs lately. Listening to my XM Radio I’ve caught a promo spot for a talk show where the hosts are discussing the merits of “Rudy” versus “Raging Bull.” And to my surprise, when I went to one of the websites to which I contribute movie reviews, Midwest_Freelancer, last Monday, I was surprised to see one of my colleagues, Eric Williams, a sports writer, writing about movies in an article entitled “The Greatest: A look at the Top 10 sports movies ever.”

Having already put some thought into the subject, I quickly jotted down a list of films before reading Eric’s article with not just a little excitement. Having never met Eric, nor discussed films with him in any medium, I was fascinated to see the difference between what a sports fan felt were worthy sports movies as opposed to what a film buff thought were significant entries. I was shocked to see the similarities in our lists. Seven out of the ten films on each of our lists were the same. The order of the lists different, but the evidence seems quite clear that the films on his list and mine are quite solid candidates for the best sports flicks ever made.

When it comes to sports, I am a football fan who just looks in on other sports. Eric and I would certainly differ on football. Although I am from the East Coast, I am a Giants fan and would probably not be welcome in Eric’s Philadelphia arena. But it isn’t really the sports themselves that make a sports film great. It is usually the characters and often a story that is comprised of universal issues of acceptance and loss. Here is my list of ten favorite sports films.

Hoop Dreams (1994).
This documentary presents basketball as a way of life for two black inner-city Chicago kids who are recruited by a predominantly white private school outside the city limits. It depicts the highly competitive high school basketball program as a high stakes game where these kids find their entire futures on the line at an age where their dreams to become NBA stars are powerful tools for those who might want to exploit them and are their only hope to escape the tumultuous street life that surrounds them. Interestingly enough, the ups and downs within each of these boys’ family lives provide as much drama and suspense as the free throws on the court.

Field of Dreams (1989).
Proving you don’t have to be deeply rooted in sports to appreciate a film based around one, Ray Kinsella, portrayed by Kevin Costner in this baseball fantasy, isn’t even an athlete. He is a man whose bumpy relationship with his father ended without closure until the day his Iowa corn field spoke to him. “Build it and he will come,” became one of the most quoted prophetic lines in film history and is just a hint of the mystery and magic this enchanting film has in store for its audiences. With a sure-footed cast including Costner, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Amy Madigan and Ray Liotta as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson of the infamous “Chicago Eight” White Sox players who were banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series; “Field of Dreams” offers the fantastic escapism that only movies can provide and the hope that even a simple farmer can realize a dream as genuine as wanting to share one last game of catch with his dad.

Rocky (1976).
Who hasn’t run up a set of steps humming the “Rocky” theme under their breath, holding their arms in the air once they reach the top, turning to show the world they are a champion. And Rocky didn’t even actually win his championship bout with Apollo Creed. It was a draw, but no one can deny the power of this ultimate rags-to-riches story of a loser in life who climbs his way to a shot at a boxing title through perseverance and faith in himself, with only a few fellow losers backing him. Rocky’s training run through the slums of Philadelphia to the top of the steps of the Museum of Art acts as a summary of his personal journey throughout the film. It is also a well acted drama and romance. This one has it all.

Raging Bull (1980).
On the other end of the emotional spectrum is Martin Scorsese’s abject look at real-life boxer Jake LaMotta’s life. Unlike “Rocky”, LaMotta’s success in the ring is not reflected in his personal arena where the pugilist in him boils out into the living room. His wife (Cathy Moriarty) and brother (Joe Pesci) take the brunt of his self-destructive disposition. Robert De Niro provides one of his career defining performances as LaMotta, gaining 60 pounds to portray the retired champion. His sad attempt as a night club comic fulfills his failure at all but his boxing career. Not exactly an uplifting story of hope, but a masterpiece of cinema.

Brian’s Song (1971).
Sappiness and sports movies seem to go hand and hand sometimes, but I challenge any grown man not to cry at this true-life story of friendship in the National Football League. Gayle Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) was the fresh upstart to seasoned veteran Brian Piccolo (James Caan) for the running back position when he joined the Chicago Bears in 1965. Although, they played the same position they become close friends through tragedy and triumph. Piccolo even nurses Sayers through a serious injury, but the tables are turned when Piccolo is diagnosed with cancer. Made with the full co-operation of the NFL, this original version of the story is rendered more realistic with the casting of many of the Chicago Bears players as themselves.

Touching the Void (2003).
Yes, there are films made about sports other than baseball, football, basketball and boxing (and golf, that one’s coming). While mountain climbing is a sport that can only be understood by those with the thrill seeking (or is it suicidal) nature to actually participate in it, this movie proves it is fraught with the suspense and drama necessary to make for compelling filmmaking. “Touching the Void” is a documentary based on the bestselling first hand account of mountaineer Joe Simpson about his near death experience with climbing partner Simon Yates. Told in their own words, documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald recreates their harrowing experience on the face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with stand-in climbers on the actual location. The story of Simpson’s survival after a fall results in a broken leg near the summit of the mountain and Yates’s unfathomable decision to cut Simpson lose when another fall threatens to take both of their lives is a visceral look into the strength of both the human will and the resilience of the human body to survive.

Caddyshack (1980).
Comedy is also something that goes along frequently with sports. I suppose the athletic crowd like their fart and boob jokes, but very rarely is the classless so pitch perfect as it is in this send up of the country club set. Giving the audience the point of view of the golf version of blue collar by focusing on a caddy who is trying to win a scholarship to pay for college helps to sell this absurd look at what is supposed to be society’s upper crust, but the true key to this movie’s success are the totally whacked out characters. The cast doesn’t so much provide great comedic characters as offer their own zany personalities to them, from Chevy Chase’s burnt out club pro to Bill Murray’s spaced out assistant grounds keeper. The gopher is the only one who isn’t out there.

Hoosiers (1986).
Gene Hackman stars as a second chance coach with an opportunity to bring a small town high school basketball team to the Indiana State Championship. Hackman is at his best as this volatile coach who faces several hurdles, including his own spotty past and a town determined to keep him an outsider. Dennis Hopper puts in another powerful performance as a drunk who signs on as the assistant. While proving one of the more archetypal pictures on this list, rarely has the second chance sports picture been presented so well.

Million Dollar Baby (2004).
Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winner “Million Dollar Baby” is almost like two movies in one. For much of the film it is a great boxing picture about a female boxer (Hilary Swank) with more will to win the most professional boxers out there, and her determination that eventually persuades an old veteran (Eastwood) to take her on his training schedule. As always Eastwood provides insightful human observation to go along with the boxing mold of a nobody rising through the ranks. That human observation pays off when the story takes an unpredicted dramatic turn and becomes something very different than your typical sports flick. Eastwood’s years of experience as a filmmaker afford him the knowledge to make a message picture without providing the audiences opinion on the message for them. Morgan Freeman rounds out this intimate cast of compelling performances.

Jerry Maguire (1996).
While not technically a movie about sports, Cameron Crowe’s personal look at the life of a sports agent who must lose everything before he discovers how to truly attain what is good from life is so immersed in the sports industry that I can hardly overlook it as a sports film. Yes, it is about romance and discovery and determination; it is about life, which is what we are all trying experience when we partake in activities such as sports. Cuba Gooding, Jr. provides the life of the party as Rod Tidwell, the Phoenix Cardinals wide receiver who is the only client willing to stick it out with Tom Cruise’s titular character through his journey of self-discovery.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck / **** (PG)

Edward R. Murrow: David Strathairn
Fred Friendly: George Clooney
William Paley: Frank Langella
Don Hollenbeck: Ray Wise
Joe Werschba: Robert Downey, Jr.
Shirley Wershba: Patricia Clarkson
Sig Mickelson: Jeff Daniels

Warner Independent Pictures presents a film directed by George Clooney. Written by Grant Heslov and Clooney. Running time: 93 min. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements and brief language).

As I was compiling the cast list to director and actor George Clooney’s latest enlightenment “Good Night, and Good Luck”, I kept thinking that I was forgetting to credit one of the major roles of the film. The role was that of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who in 1954 was featured on five episodes of Edward R. Murrow’s CBS news magazine show “See It Now”. Murrow became the first broadcast journalist to criticize McCarthy’s “witch hunt” tactics in his war against the spread of communism in America.

McCarthy, in the movie, is represented only with actual footage of McCarthy himself; which explains why I did not cite him as one of the actors of the film. The amazing thing about this footage of McCarthy’s own speeches and his taped responses to Morrow’s attacks, which were aired as part of an equal air time clause agreed upon by Morrow and the producers of “See It Now”, is how wrong McCarthy comes across just by looking at his own words. It is a phenomenon that I wish I could say I did not recognize in our current political climate.

Much of the success of the film, however, lies in the fact that, like the standards Morrow himself adhered to, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov apply so little editorializing to the story themselves. Like Morrow and his staff’s decision to only use McCarthy’s own words to make their point, the filmmakers tell this story simply and succinctly, with very little dramatic flourish. They leave the audience with the feeling that this was what happened and that’s all they want you to know, any judgment is yours to make or not.

This is not to say the film is made without art and craft. Filmed gloriously in black and white to evoke the feel of that b&w television time period, Clooney includes music interstitials between each major development in the story that both reflect on the time period and subtly comment in a way that is not really part of the story.

Along with telling the story of the news commentary pioneering engineered by Morrow (David Strathairn, “Twisted”) and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney, “Syriana”), the movie also goes into the political and business stances taken by CBS Chairman William Paley (Frank Langella, “The Ninth Gate”), Morrow’s favors to CBS of conducting celebrity interviews for allowing him to take on McCarthy on his show, the mental breakdown of CBS News anchor Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise, “Twin Peaks”) sparked by personal attacks against him in the print media, and most interestingly, the secret marriage of two CBS employees Joe (Robert Downey Jr., “The Singing Detective”) and Shirley Werschba (Patricia Clarkson, “The Station Agent”) despite the CBS policy (at the time) of not allowing the employment of married couples.

The film opens with the Werschbas discussing the statements each employee being told to sign by CBS corporate that states they are not members of the Communist Party. Their relationship, like all the stories in the film, is a mirror of what McCarthy was in the midst of putting the entire country through with his commission investigating the threat of communism in the American citizenship. Joe leaves his wedding ring at home everyday even though it is obvious to everyone in the office that he and Shirley are married. The two are good employees but one must eventually be sacrificed for a rule that no one understands. Nobody wants to out the couple, but when budget cuts require staff cutbacks Head of CBS News Divisions Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels, “The Hours”) asks one of them to be the sacrificial lamb so another employee who is in coherence with CBS employment standards doesn’t have to lose their job.

These are good people doing their jobs, which is to do right by the American public. Freedom comes at a high cost, and it takes daring people to question the powers that be to ensure that freedom. This is what is glimpsed here in Clooney’s wonderful film. Morrow and McCarthy exchanged Shakespearean quotations during their important moment in history. Both used this line from “Julius Caesar”, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Clooney is quickly proving himself to be a star with little fault because of his ability to look within ourselves. He may just shed that reputation of being in the worst Batman movie if he keeps master craftsman work like this up.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Ice Age: The Meltdown / **½ (PG)

Featuring the voices of:
Manny: Ray Romano
Sid: John Leguizamo
Diego: Denis Leary
Ellie: Queen Latifah
Crash: Sean William Scott
Eddie: Josh Peck
Fast Tony: Jay Leno

Twentieth Century Fox/ Blue Sky Animation presents a film directed by Carlos Saldanha. Written by Peter Gaulke, Gerry Swallow and Jim Hecht. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG (for some mild language and innuendo).

Watching my 4 year-old son Jack as he took in the most anticipated film of the year so far for him, I was struck by what we as adults have lost in those year since smaller moments could define an entire experience. During certain sequences in the digitally animated prehistoric-set sequel “Ice Age: The Meltdown” Jack seemed as if he was going to pull his seat out of the floor to which it was bolted. His face showed wonder and excitement. He spoke out loud, uncontrollably to the characters on the screen.

There were even moments were I found myself caught up in the thrill of watching well-known imaginary friends in peril. One sequence in particular involved the heroes of the original “Ice Age”; Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano, TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond”), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo, “Land of the Dead”), and Diego the saber tooth tiger (Denis Leary, TV’s “Rescue Me”); and their new friends Ellie (Queen Latifah, “Taxi”), Crash (Sean William Scott, “The Rundown”), and Eddie (Josh Peck, “Mean Creek”) as they make their way across a frozen lake. The Ice Age has ended and the valley in which all these animals live is beginning to melt. During their lake trek the ice begins to break up. The break up of the ice pack is tense enough, but unbeknownst to the group of animals is that there are a couple of dinofish that have also thawed out in the meltdown and are stalking the group as prey. The scene is pretty intense.

This action sequence comes fairly early in the events of the story. There isn’t really another action sequence until the very end of the film, when the ice walls of the valley the animals are trying to escape finally melts through. This flood sequence is fairly similar to the ice pack scene and is the only other time in the film when the villainous dinofish come into play.

There are a few other memorable moments, such as the opening sequence where we discover that the three heroes have come to reside in what resembles an ice age theme park, with water slides and children’s programs, and a development that finds the moronic Sid being worshiped by hundreds of mini-sloths bent on sacrificing him to save the planet. But these are merely a series of neat ideas that are strung together by a flimsy story involving the meltdown, which no one really seems all that concerned about, and Manny’s search to find another mammoth.

The Mammoth he eventually finds isn’t quite what she seems, to herself at least. Abandoned as a child, Ellie was raised by a family of possums and obliviously exists trying to be a fun loving, care free possum like her “brothers,” Crash and Eddie. Ellie tries to hang from trees with her tail, although the branches always break with her mammoth weight. Crash and Eddie are just the other side of crazy for no reason other than they have to top the zaniness of Sid.

This story of Manny bringing enlightenment to Ellie (and thus himself, of course) drags the stretches between the effective moments of the film to a snail’s pace. The characters really aren’t interesting enough to pull off these quieter moments and leave the audience longing for something to happen. There was a moment in the middle of the film where Jack just got out of his seat and started looking around the theater. I asked him if something was wrong, but I think he just didn’t understand why nothing was happening. It wasn’t just a four year-old’s impatience because nothing was happening in the movie.

A saving grace of the film was that the filmmakers realized the saber tooth squirrel Scrat was the most successful feature of the first film, and they have brought him back in force this time around. I think Scrat got to see more screen time with his relentless search for acorns in this sequel. From scaling “Mission: Impossible” type cliff edges to doing his own “Kung Fu Hustle” on a school of piranha, Scrat seems to trying to attain the same station as Kenny from “South Park.” Like Kenny, it is Scrat’s continual demise that keeps the audience coming back for more. I would have much rather watched a feature length collection of Scrat’s adventures than witness more adventures of the other characters, who are not yet old enough to feel as tired as they do in this film.