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MacGruber, Shrek Forever After



It's not unusual for a film to be held from critics until the last minute -- generally a 7:30 p.m. screening the night before opening -- but in the case of MacGruber, its studio elected to hold it until the last second, which in this case translated into a 9 p.m. screening the night before opening. The studio's vote of no-confidence in its own product was so pronounced that I'm surprised they didn't give away company stock options with every popcorn purchase.

After sitting through the picture, however, the studio's embarrassment is understandable. Based on the Saturday Night Live skit that was itself a spoof of the hit action series MacGyver, this largely laughless affair finds Will Forte reprising his role as America's top special operative, here asked to save the country from the machinations of his archenemy, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer).

"I'm going to pound Cunth!" MacGruber declares, just one of the countless times that scripters Forte, Jorma Taccone (who also directed) and John Solomon attempt to wring humor out of this oh-so-naughty name.

The first half is especially dreadful, with the filmmakers connecting with so few guffaws that moviegoers will eventually be struck with the realization that Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire contained more belly laughs. The finale, in which MacGruber and his team -- longtime friend Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and hotshot military officer Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) -- infiltrate Cunth's headquarters, picks up the pace somewhat, but not enough to really matter.

There are admittedly some scattered chuckles (the solitary subtitle is priceless), but too much dead air and inconsistencies in the main character reduce this to just another piece of junk for the SNL scrap heap.



The Shrek series now stands at 2-2 thanks to the latest addition to the cartoon canon. After the first two entertaining (if wildly overrated) installments made enough money to seemingly feed and clothe the entire U.S. population, the filmmakers opted to give us a pair of desperate lunges at more filthy lucre. Shrek Forever After is at least an improvement over Shrek the Third, but it's not enough of a step up to revitalize the ailing franchise.

This entry gives us a Shrek (again voiced by Mike Myers) who's none too happy with his domesticated lot in life. Feeling stifled by his family -- wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and three flatulating infants -- and longing for the days when he was hated and feared by everyone around him, he ends up signing a contract whipped up by the devious Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), one that eventually leads to an alternate reality in which Shrek never existed. Thus, Rumpelstiltskin rules the kingdom, Fiona is a resistance fighter, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) is an unwilling servant to the witches that serve as Rumpelstiltkin's enforcers, and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) has grown lazy and fat.

Living on the contract's borrowed time, Shrek has less than 24 hours to make everything right. Little kids will lap this up with the same zeal as Donkey digging into a stack of his beloved waffles, but adults will find nothing new here, just another retread of ideas exhausted in the previous entries. And while the plotline aggressively lifts from It's a Wonderful Life, it's clear that this isn't a wonderful movie, just an average one whose primary function will be to serve as a babysitter once it hits DVD.



A Spellbound or Mad Hot Ballroom for the NASCAR set, Racing Dreams ends up speeding past its niche market and working its magic on anyone with a rooting interest in the dreams and ambitions of this country's youth. Like the aforementioned pair of documentaries, this one also corrals a group of kids and tracks their endeavors to become the best in their field of interest. In this case, it's the world of racing, with all three subjects top contenders in the World Karting Association's championship series.

Twelve-year-old Josh Hobson of Birch Run, Michigan, is a brainy boy whose methodical, sensible approach to the
sport repeatedly wins races. Eleven-year-old Annabeth Barnes of Hiddenite, N.C., is a spunky, charismatic girl who dreams of becoming the first female to win a major NASCAR race.

Both kids are interesting to follow, yet the movie belongs to the third focal point. Thirteen-year-old Brandon Warren of Creedmoor, N.C., initially seems the least complicated, a good-ole-boy-in-training whose reckless nature (on and off the track) might prove to be his undoing. Yet as we get to learn more about Brandon and his family -- specifically, the grandparents who lovingly raise him and the deadbeat dad who turns up like an unwelcome wart whenever he's not behind bars -- we come to realize that this story is the most involving -- and most poignant -- one in the movie.

The racing footage shot and edited by Marshall Curry and his team is exemplary and should thrill even those who aren't fans of the sport. Yet even these sequences take a back seat to the sagas of the children,
all of whom retain pole position throughout this engaging picture.