PICK OF THE WEEK
U.S.: Nathan Greno, Byron Howard, 2010, Walt Disney
Tangled is the latest movie for part of the team from Bolt, writer Dan Fogleman, director Byron Howard and Howard's new co-director Nathan Greno. Bolt was a funny-animal road comedy that was brassy and sassy in a Looney-Tunesish way. This one, the Disney Studio's 50th cartoon feature, tries to bend the best of the old classic Disney with the digital, computerized new age, and it's commercial too, but far more ambitious.
Tangled has a ripe, rounded, ultra-colorful look -- like the Pixar movies, it's both playful and expert -- and it's all about that sturdy Grimm Brothers lass, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore). It's about her 70 flabbergasting, glorious feet of golden hair and the huge imprisoning tower in which she's spent 18 claustrophobic years, with her witch of a "mother" Gothel (Donna Murphy). And it hauls on stage an Errol Flynn-ish handsome rogue of a dashing rascal named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), and all the funny animals and grotesque but lovable thugs and daffy creatures of the enchanted forest whom Rap and Flynn meet on her magical quest to reach and revel in the beautiful lights and castle of the kingdom's distant and beautiful city.
Unbeknownst to Rap is the fact that she's a princess, kidnapped as a babe by the woman who now masquerades as her mother: evil, glamorous Gothel, a second cousin to the evil, glamorous witch-turned crone of Disney's 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Gothel becomes a show-stopping villainess, with Broadway pipes (Murphy has won two Tonys), and she covets the restorative powers in Rapunzel's magic hair, a secret ingredient that has kept Gothel young for ages.
That's the Grimm/Disney setup. There are also a brace of snappy, poppy, semi-showstopping songs, composed by Alan Menken (a perfect Disney composer), with words by Glenn Slater, who proves a reasonable substitute for Menken's late, great lyricist-partner Howard Ashman, a master of wordplay and Menken's collaborator on the kiddie Rodgers-and-Hart-ish song scores for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
Tangled -- for all its jokes about its cutie-pie heroine's multi-purpose hair (used variously in the movie as manacles, whip, lash, escape-rope, mop, blanket, hideaway and erotic come-on), is cleverly written and visualized, inventive, well-acted, and mercifully devoid of cute little bunnies, and tricksy little pixies. This movie -- which was produced by Roy Conli and executive produced by Mr. Pixar himself, John Lasseter and Glen Keane -- tries to live up to its landmark position as Disney cartoon Feature Number Fifty, by being a culminating work, a fusion of Disney's lucrative digital present with its glorious classic-animation, line-drawing past. (Extras: deleted and extended scenes; featurette; storybook; 50th Anniversary countdown; teasers.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Fair Game (B)
U.S.; Doug Liman, 2010, Summit Entertainment
Fair Game is an almost formulaic political bio-drama, but the formula isn't a bad one.
Basically, this is a good-hearted, well-done show, crisply and knowledgably written, sympathetically directed and extremely well-acted -- by Naomi Watts as Valerie, Sean Penn as Joe, and a strong supporting cast that includes Bruce McGill, Noah Emmerich, Anand Tiwari, Adam Lefebvre as Karl Rove), David Andrews as Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and, as themselves, George Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice. (Some of the names in the cast list are partly redacted and I hasten to add that almost none of the three real-life cameo stars would have had anything to do with this movie if they could help it -- though it's their best work.)
But the Plame-Wilson-Libby-Rove affair is no laughing matter.
The real-life Plame was a longtime CIA operative, with a lot of agents in the field. Wilson was an ex-ambassador and adviser/consultant who had investigated for and briefed the U.S. government on the so-called "Yellowcake from Niger" rumor, and concluded it was almost certainly a crock. Wilson, a feisty guy, then sat through Bush's tense speech recounting the road to doomsday and the "mushroom cloud" awaiting us all unless we did what he wanted us to: invade Iraq and uncover the supposed weapons of mass destruction. Wilson became angry and wrote a New York Times op-ed piece saying it was all a load of baloney. And it was.
Truth has consequences, of course. What followed was the famous Robert Novak column, outing Valerie as a CIA officer, ending her career, damaging her marriage and her and Joe's lives and spewing heavy negative implications.
Watts and Penn, both excellent, capture the professional savvy of the Wilson's, and the drama of their disrupted patrician comfort zone and their marital battles, as well as Valerie's accelerating unease and Joe's increasing anger. Watts suggests, with great economy and a mastery of undercurrents and subtext, the look and feel of a woman used to power and privilege, trying to do a hellishly difficult job while her world explodes around her.
As for Penn, he has Joe's brainy manner, quietly combative mood and wavy, gray-streaked hairdo, and a hint of much of what lies beneath it. It's crucial for Penn to seem both stubborn and absolutely straight-arrow in this role, and he does, he is.
The movie is oddly constructed and frankly, it spends too much time on the domestic drama. I just wanted more legal thrills, more comeuppance. But it's good -- though a good documentary on the Wilsons might have been more effective. (Extras: commentary with Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson.)
Safe...Not Sorry (C)
U.S.: various directors, 1951-1982, Kino
How many of you remember those often awful 16mm educational films we had to suffer through in junior high and high school? Make you shudder? Now they'd probably make you laugh, maybe even feel some half-dopey nostalgia, as in Safe...Not Sorry, a collection of vintage, if hardly classic, films on safety.
Some of the most fascinatingly bad films you'll see anywhere have been gathered by Skip Elsheimer, founder of the A.V. Geeks and collector/owner of thousands of these cinematic oddball curios, into a collection of 14 preachy, often terrible, but usually amusing little movies that evoke the half-obnoxious, half-delightful sense of once again sitting at your school desk while the lights go down and an overenthusiastic voice, accompanied by corny dramatics, warns you about the dangers of everything from school fires to broken ladders to loaded rifles to perverts in the park.
These movies are truly bad. But they've also become entertainingly bad, and some of them are actually less awful than others. The best of the bunch here include the supernatural romance and ode to school bus safety Ghost Rider, the suspenseful tale of a dad trying to guess what happened to his absent family in Ten Long Minutes, the genuinely disturbing re-creation of an elementary school fire in Our Obligation, and (largely because of its narrator, that matchless movie fussbudget Edward Everett Horton) the bike safety marathon farce One Got Fat. Retaining camp interest are two memorable little pictures by the undisputed top dog in the safety film sub-sub-genre, Sid Davis, a.k.a. "The King of Calamity." Sid's legendary career in cautionary cinema was started with help from the movie actor for whom he once doubled, Duke Wayne, and the King's contributions here include the chillingly everyday study of pedophilia Dangerous Stranger, and the ghastly compendium of household perils, Live and Learn.
As for the worst of the worst, it would hard to make a movie any badder than Safety: Harm Hides at Home (even the title is horrible), the utterly inept tale of the adventures of a sexy superheroine named Guardiana or Safety Woman, whose insignia is three torches (shouldn't it be three fire extinguishers?) and who keeps materializing in the homes of unsafe children, just when something has gone terribly wrong. There's also the stupefyingly banal Say No to Strangers, another warning against candy-bearing deviants, created by Irvmar Productions, a company that usually made "sleazy exploitation," and the clownishly bad Trigger Happy Harry, a ridiculous comedy about gun safety sponsored by the National Rifle Association. (Extras: introduction by Skip Elsheimer; notes on each film.)
Little Fockers (D+)
U.S.: Paul Weitz, 2010, Universal
I wonder if there's any real need to say anything at all about Little Fockers -- the latest sequel to the Robert De Niro-Ben Stiller, Meet the Parents/Meet the Fockers comedy franchise -- except just this: This movie is not funny.
Little Fockers has most of the same cast as Parents-Fockers -- including Stiller as Greg Focker, beleaguered male nurse, once engaged and now married to Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), daughter of gruff CIA operative Jack Byrnes (De Niro) -- who thought Greg was an idiot or a traitor -- and Jack's nice wife Dina (Blythe Danner). There's also Pam's rich, persistent New-Agey ex-boyfriend Kevin (Owen Wilson), plus Greg's one-time counterculture Jewish parents, Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) and Roz (Barbra Streisand).
Quite a cast. But Little Fockers not only didn't make me laugh. It didn't even make me fantasize about laughing.
Here's an example of an alleged Little Focker joke. (Or a "fock-yock" maybe). Hard-ass Jack has decided to put his affairs in order. So he calls in accident-prone son-in-law Greg -- whose five-year-old twins are the Little Fockers of the title, and whose impending twin double birthday is the plot hook. Jack tells Greg that he will now anoint his longtime butt/target, non-macho Greg -- who has been pratfalling, wreaking unintentional havoc, damaging heirlooms and pets and otherwise fouling up since the series began. Greg will now be, as Jack puts it, the Godfocker. Another heir, Bob, had his chance; he could have been the Bobfather. (Another actual joke.)
De Niro doesn't crack a smile during his Godfocker scene -- that's obviously the way he's been directed -- and yet the only way the joke could have worked is if Jack had smiled, as if he thought it was funny.
Nor will you chuckle, I'm betting, when Streisand cavorts on her sex education TV show. Or when Hoffman ambles around trying to promote flamenco orgies. Or when Wilson reveals the tattoo of Pam he's got just above his ass.
Like I said, this movie is just not funny. Horny, maybe, but not funny.
U.S.: The Brothers Strause, 2010, Universal
Alien monsters invade Los Angeles, and they do it even more unbelievably than the ones in Battle: Los Angeles. Here, the flying robot monsters not only lay waste to L.A., but -- demonstrating the same perverse Puritanism that afflicts the fiends of Halloween and Friday the 13th, they zero in on a group of fornicating L.A. glam-yuppies, and a couple being lured from New York, some of whom seem to be working in visual affects in the movies.
These yuppies are so stone-stupid they have lovers' quarrels in the middle of monster attacks, and repeatedly run around rooftops and lock themselves out of their apartment building. Anyway, this movie, directed by the Brothers Strause has good visual affects and a lousy script. Awful stuff. The best acting is by the monsters, who at least try to get the movie over with faster. (Extras: commentaries with the Brothers Strause and screenwriters Joshua Cordes and Liam O'Donnell; deleted, extended and alternate scenes.
Helena from the Wedding (B)
U.S.: Joseph Infantolino, 2010, Film Movement
The average romantic comedy from the major studios may be pretty mediocre these days, but this little low-budget indie does what a romantic comedy should, and then does what a romantic drama should as well. It's about a party in a snow-covered lodge among some 30-something friends, whose couplings and friendships and sense of entitlement may all be getting frayed at the edges. Lee Tergesen and Melanie Lynskey play the married hosts, Alex and Alice, and they're both excellent. And so, despite relatively short screen time, is Gillian Jacobs as Helena, the younger knockout from the wedding, who walks into the room and immediately raises the male temperature.
As for the rest of the ensemble -- Dagmara Dominczyk, Paul Fitzgerald, Dominic Fumusa, and Corey Stoll -- well, they're all good. So is the dialogue, a sore spot in many of the new movies they call "romcoms." This one is something better: a real romantic comedy, with real-seeming characters. (Extras: Awaiting Examination short, Sweden, Elisabet Gustafsson, 2010, a fable about nonconformity that suggests John Hughes doing Franz Kafka.)