The Tale of Despereaux
These animators have the tools to breakdance but are instead curtsying about like some stiff 19th century Whigs.
reviewed by Mark Burns
What a weird little flick.
Dor is a fairy-tale kingdom with a unique fixation on the magnificence of soup. Soup Day, explains the narrator (Sigourney Weaver), is bigger even than Christmas. All is luscious until Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a seafaring rat, follows his well-meaning nose unto holiday cataclysm. The tragedy ruins life for one monarch, who in turn lashes out against soup and vermin with a decree of criminality.
Enter Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a bold young mouse who refuses to bend to the Mouseworld order of timid scurrying. The large-eared mini-mouse’s outsize hunger for adventure delivers him into fealty to Princess Pea (Emma Watson), and so does he quest through human, mouse and rat society to restore the golden days of Dor.
The Tale of Despereaux, adapted from Kate DiCamillo’s book, stews in the charisma of original charms. Most notable is the strange and mystical centrality of soup. Of course, there’s that tiny mouse with enormous ears as hero. And a raft of children has been held in thrall by vivid imaginings of little creature-societies. Directors Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and rookie Robert Stevenhagen take a care to craft intricate realities in these vermin havens.
Still, it lacks spark. While DiCamillo offers much for the filmmakers to play with, jokes lack pop, and characters lack magnetism.
Characters go through the basic motions well enough, but their expressions, emotions and reactions come off tepid. These animators have the tools to breakdance but they are instead curtsying about like some stiff 19th century Whigs.
Story, taking a cue from the book, unfolds from the four perspectives of Despereaux, Roscuro, Princess Pea and Miggery Sow (Tracey Ullman), a pig farmer’s daughter turned princess’ chambermaid. It’s a bit much to take on in the brief format of a kids’ feature, and compressing all angles has abridged the better parts of the story.
Forgoing the finer points of storytelling, the filmmakers jump gaps in plot and hammer points home with an omniscient narrator who, at least to this adult, sounded flat and condescending.
For younger kids, however, the matronly serves to guide children through a tragedy and themes of loss, anger and forgiveness.
As animated films go, it could be worse. The Tale of Despereaux offers a lesson-rich fable in a gentle tone that kept a theater’s worth of young kids raptly attentive.
Fair animation • G • 100 mins.
© Focus Features
Jonathan Groff and Demetri Martin in Taking Woodstock.
You’ll smile amiably along, enjoying the good vibes.
reviewed by Jonathan Parker
An anxious young man tries to keep his parents and community afloat by bringing in a rock music festival, forever remembered as Woodstock, in the bittersweet comedy Taking Woodstock. Master director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) tells us the behind-the-scenes story (or at least one behind-the-scenes story) of the 1969 festival in his usual adept and gentle style.
Twenty-something Elliot (Demetri Martin) lives in New York City but returns regularly to his depressed upstate resort hometown of White Lake to help out with his folks’ rundown motel and lead the local Chamber of Commerce. The locals find him to be a nice, helpful boy but don’t take him all that seriously. That is until lighting strikes and Elliot manages to bring the Woodstock Aquarian Exposition with 3 Days of Peace & Music to town. Suddenly, the locals are divided along lines of xenophobia and making money, and concert organizers and concertgoers descend on the town in droves. Meanwhile, Elliot’s small-town values and youth-culture world collides.
On its face, it might seem weird to do a movie about Woodstock that never shows one performer or performance. But that’s exactly what director Lee does. I suppose Lee figures the film filled with the performances has been done: the original 1970 documentary that made the Woodstock experience such a worldwide phenomenon. Instead, we get some of the back-story of how Woodstock came to be, and we get to experience the Woodstock that most who were there probably experienced. Let’s face it, out of the half a million people who went to Woodstock, how many could actually see and hear the performances clearly?
Comedian Martin is terrifically believable in his first real movie role as the quietly determined Elliot. If anything, he underplays the lead, which makes him more sympathetic. Lee’s typical directorial inclinations are to pull back on delivering big emotional wallops and let the on-screen actions speak for themselves. Along those lines, this film refuses to build up to any wow moments. Indeed, this is a story that really doesn’t go much of anywhere except to share some basic Woodstock experiences and present some simple and expected conclusions. The comedy — and this is Lee’s first real comedy — also rarely smacks us in the face with any big jokes. Instead, we just smile amiably along, enjoying the good vibes.
Good comedy • R • 121 mins.
Talk to Me
Don Cheadle so stands out as 1960s’ D.C. disc jockey celebrity Petey Greene that we overlook the movie’s more unbelievable and maudlin moments.
reviewed by Jonathan Parker
An ex-con becomes a Washington, D.C., disc jockey celebrity in the involving and solidly entertaining bio-pic Talk to Me. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) tells a very straightforward chronological tale, supported by a lead performance from Don Cheadle so outstanding that we overlook the movie’s more unbelievable and maudlin moments.
Petey Greene (Cheadle) cut his deejay teeth working the microphone and spinning records at Virginia’s Lorton Prison. His charming fast-talking ways may have even allowed for his early release and return to the streets of his native D.C. There Greene pushes his way through the door of soul radio station WOL and demands that straight-laced program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) put him on the radio. Through sheer will and his connecting with Hughes, Greene gets his wish, creating controversy and growing an impressive audience. The partnership of Greene as star and Hughes as manager flourishes before ultimately breaking.
Talk to Me is based on the life of the real Petey Greene, yet much of it seems the stuff of tall tale. It hits its stride in dealing with the struggles to succeed and the changing face of celebrity during the 1960s and ‘70s. Indeed, in many ways Petey Greene foreshadowed today’s shock jocks. While Greene was certainly shocking, he also was telling it like it is, without a lot of bluster for bluster sake. That, at least is what the film leads to believe.
As a long-time resident of D.C., I was hoping for a little more D.C. history, as well as more ’60s and ’70s shots of neighborhood locales. Instead, this low-budget film had to rely on sets and back. Still, Talk to Me does a standup job of walking us through what surely was an intriguing part of a changing America and a changing D.C.
The film echoes a time when celebrity was often created and could thrive locally, whether by deejays or local bands or local TV personalities. Talk to Me directly takes on the plight of the regional radio star and the ability, inability or unwillingness to make it big nationally. The film says there was only one Petey Greene, but its subtext reminds us that there were surely Petey Greenes in cities across the country.
Good drama-comedy • R • 118 mins.
Smart, entertaining, well crafted and grandly stylized, the graphic novel based on the Battle of Thermopylae makes rousing cinema.
reviewed by Mark Burns
Spartans rage for freedom against the Persian empire in this grandly stylized Hoplites vs. Immortals glory film.
The manly men of Sparta are plodding through a spate of peace when emissaries of the Persian king Xerxes come riding into town bearing ill tidings. Offer tithings to their god-king, Xerxes commands, and submit to Persian rule. This ruffles the war brush of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, the Phantom from Joel Schumacher’s 2004 Phantom of the Opera), who responds by marching out to the hot gates, a seaside mountain pass, with a host of 300 elite Spartans. There he makes a stand to be remembered for the ages as his small force of warriors and allied Greeks check Xerxes’ massive invading army.
The film, adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, is based on the Battle of Thermopylae, perhaps the most storied battle of antiquity. In truth some 7,000 Greeks, led by 300 elite Spartans, did make a stand against a Persian army at least 150,000 strong (Herodotus claimed over five million) and ultimately spared Greece from Xerxes’ conquest.
In this tale, the odds are more like 300 vs. a million with uncounted token Arcadians thrown in behind Leonidas. Greek traitor Ephialtes is re-imagined as a Gollum-like hunchback. Xerxes and his heralds are the gods of glam in their glittery menace. Warty old priests consult an oracle atop a great stone spire, and the swarms of Immortals at Xerxes’ command are as mad wraiths. The conquering army lunges at the defenders with gnarled freaks and fantastically adorned exotic beasts plucked from the dark edge of antiquity’s maps. It’s a bold mix of history and fantasy, surprisingly loyal to truth given its rabid stylization. The Spartan struggle is given full respect, the warriors’ history elevated to myth in true Greek fashion.
Naturally, there can be no myth without heroic action, and the film delivers strong. The silly gesticulations of Brad Pitt in Troy are forgotten as Leonidas’ Hoplites form up in phalanx against the crashing hordes of Xerxes’ army.
To see the previews, one might gather that the film is naught but blood and battle cry. Granted, there’s much of both. They’re Sparta’s manliest men, after all. But surges of testosterone are broken by interjections of intelligent story.
Smart writing includes historical quips and runs with ballsy attitude. Sparta’s culture of strength and survivalism is driven home in recounting the king’s rites of passage. Once battle looms, a timely cleverness evolves within the story. At home, Queen Gorgo tries to win the council’s support while shady rival Theron decries her husband’s war as illegal. Even as this subplot unfolds, Leonidas rallies soldiers at the battlefront, touting the battle as a conflict of Greek reason and freedom versus Persian mysticism and oppression.
Similar nods mirror modern controversy, tempting conclusions of parallel without totally beating it into viewers’ heads. In doing so, the ancient tale is thrust into modern debate, lending relevance. That the story is so wholly developed and nimbly executed lends the movie real muscle.
Visually, the film’s a beauty. Director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) has infused nearly every shot with some manner of digital tinkering, whether a painted sky or distorted nemeses. Wild seas, lavish skies and cold stone all speak to the Spartan warrior aesthetic even as the colorful hedonism of Xerxes’ tent speaks to his own excess. The characters are rendered monstrous by costume and effect alike, and it’s by these combined visuals that the tale ascends to mythic proportions.
All said, 300 makes for rousing cinema: smart, entertaining and well crafted. Politicals might perceive neocon fantasy, but whatever your angle it’s a great ride.
Great action film • R • 117 mins.
3:10 to Yuma
Amble in to check this one out; it’s probably the best Western since Unforgiven.
reviewed by Mark Burns
One dusty loser rides for redemption in this smart Western.
Arizona rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is down on his luck, squeezed by drought and a merciless land grabber. Worse, he’s missing a decent bit of one leg and can’t get a drink of respect even within his struggling family. Chance pops him out of his dusty rut, though, when notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) storms through on a heist.
Wade missteps his way into handcuffs, and Evans stumbles into joining the posse meant to bring him to justice. More specifically, Evans wrangles a deal with a Pinkerton to earn $200 for helping deliver the outlaw to a distant railroad town and putting him on the 3:10 train to Yuma. Being the Old West, it’ll be a hard-won reward as they try to stay ahead of Wade’s vengeful gang, dodge gunslingers and survive the charismatic monster they’re delivering as human cargo.
Following the lead of Clint Eastwood’s moody Unforgiven, director James Mangold’s Yuma (adapted from Elmore Leonard’s short story) runs deep for its moralistic wrestling match along the muddied boundary of good and evil. Evans’ pride is almost as dead as his land, and this quest is his cure for the sad parch of his soul as much as it is for the cash. A strict sense of morality leads him stubbornly forward along the promised quest.
Wade, strangely honorable in his own right, wavers from near-decency to ferocity as a wild-card captive trying to veer Evans to his own cause. Complementing this wrestle of codes is a patchwork of others’ tainted motives and spotty truths, giving strength to the story by multiplying the shades of gray.
The tale proves a good yarn, delivering a character-rich Old West drama that considers one man’s struggle to reclaim his honor. Though the price, especially in hindsight, might seem a little ridiculous. Cold assessment might liken Evans’ introspective self-therapy to Dr. Phil with a body count.
Predictability creeps in now and then, and the ending comes into sight a bit early. These are minor blemishes, however, as the tale proves in whole to be a smart, fresh take on the Western quest.
While falling in step behind destiny, Yuma never delves so deep into introspection as to approach the deep pondering of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (a poetic gem). Bright action prevents this film from getting lost in its own head. Heels dig in for a brilliant start with an armored stagecoach heist. Gunslinging, occasionally tarted up with deft gun-twirling, proves exciting and peppers the film regularly enough to keep the pace brisk. Violence teeters toward savagery from time to time, but gore is minimal and the camera refrains from any torturous lingering.
Character delivers this film; Pinkertons and railroaders and lawmen and outlaws comprise a flavorful stew of personalities. Bale realizes Evans’ dichotomy with just the right mix of weakness and resolve, while Crowe enlivens Wade with healthy doses of charisma and viciousness. Threatening to steal the villain spotlight, though, is outlaw Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand). Wade’s lieutenant is menacing as a smart, cold, deadly ferocious quick-draw boasting particularly nimble gunplay. At the opposite end, Evans’ teen son William (Logan Lerman) provides a nice counterpoint of wide-eyed innocence.
All plays out amid striking hues of Arizona scrub and genuine-looking setwork absorbed by skillful cinematography emphasizing grit over pop. The soundtrack has enough twang to stay country while lending itself to the overall classiness of the production.
There are just enough hiccups in the film to dissuade claims of greatness, but this film is easily library-worthy and deserves to be seen on the big screen. It’s probably the best Western since Unforgiven and, as a Western quest piece, ranks right up there with Lonesome Dove.
Consider it good, plus superlatives, and amble in to check this one out.
Good western • R • 117 mins.
An action flick with brains. Who expected that?
by Mark Burns
Conflicting loyalties color the thrills of this intelligent action/suspense flick.
Explosives expert Samir (Don Cheadle: Ocean’s Thirteen) is a deeply faithful Sudanese-American Muslim and former special ops soldier who’s knee-deep in the illegal arms trade. By a few convolutions, he ends up in prison with mid-level terrorist leader Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui: Vantage Point), and the two bond. With Omar’s endorsement, Samir becomes an agent for the global jihad with a direct hand in terrorist acts. The FBI is hot on his trail.
But all is not as it seems. Samir is an off-the-books deep cover agent guided by an autonomous CIA handler. When the U.S. comes under threat, Traitor becomes a race to stop Samir — even as Samir is racing to explode a terrorist network.
There is action and chase and violence, but Traitor is more a suspense piece about Samir’s harrowing personal journey than it is an action movie. Here’s the story of a man isolated between worlds:
Samir’s cover is so deep that he is considered a traitor to his country. As a peace-embracing Muslim, he is a self-styled traitor to his faith for the extreme means by which he combats terrorism. Then he’s ultimately branded a traitor to the cause of jihad. His tough fix runs a close parallel to Donnie Brasco, with an extreme undercover gig yielding unlikely bonds, the dilemma of how far to go to maintain cover and the theme of betrayal.
For all the character study, the plot maintains its urgency and dynamic, consistent flow as Samir — hunted by the FBI and called upon to prove himself to the terrorists — feels the press on both sides.
The tale also deserves kudos for its thinky contribution to terrorism flicks. It’s especially notable for using a devout African-born Muslim as its hero. The character of Samir serves as window on the moderate Muslim world, and Cheadle carries the role naturally through the extremes of internal and external conflict.
Additionally, the filmmakers give much attention to dissecting motivations and worldviews through conversations and smart theological debates between Samir and Omar. Even lesser baddies are humanized, as we’re introduced to the idea that at least some of the underlings are naïve victims of plotting, silver-tongued hypocrites. The plotting hypocrites have the least depth of interest, coming off as action flick caricature.
Action scenes are unextravagant but hit home with a solid punch of context and reality. Unlike typical action fare, even the successes are marred with tragedy, and moral victory is ambiguous. This plays well into the overall mood of the film as Samir endures for the greater good.
Traitor comes off a tad preachy at times. Sometimes literally, with frequent debate of Quran scripture.
Still, it’s a worthy ride. Director/screenwriter Jeffrey Nachmanoff (scripting for The Day After Tomorrow) capably adapts Steve Martin’s (yes, that Steve Martin) concept to great effect. Go figure. An action flick with brains. Who expected that?
Good action-adventure • PG-13 • 114 mins.