PUSS IN BOOTS
Stanley Roper was arguably the funniest character on the long-running TV series Three's Company (not a difficult feat, admittedly), but that didn't mean it was wise to yank him and the missus out of their supporting stints on that hit show in order to place them front and center in a sitcom (The Ropers) that barely lasted a year. Similarly, Jennifer Garner's Elektra worked well in tandem with Ben Affleck's blind superhero in Daredevil, but absolutely no one cared when she was given her very own starring vehicle. So even though Antonio Banderas' Puss in Boots owned the Shrek franchise from the moment he was introduced in the second film, that was no reason to elevate him to, erm, leading-cat status in Puss in Boots.
Certainly, the fault doesn't rest with Banderas, who's as game as ever. But this animated effort wants to have it both ways: It retains the sort of tiresome, snarky humor that defined the Shrek series while also trafficking in the type of obvious morals found in more traditional toon fare. The end result is a listless movie that doesn't have much to offer beyond keeping the kids quiet for 90 minutes.
The plot concerns the uneasy alliance between Puss, the equally accomplished Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, re-teaming with her Desperado co-star) and the annoying Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) as they attempt to first steal three magic beans and then the fabled Golden Goose. There are a handful of amusing exchanges ("I thought a cat always landed on its feet." "No! That's just a rumor spread by dogs!"), but for the most part, the stale wisecracks are on the order of "First rule of Bean Club: You do not talk about Bean Club." With soft lobs like this, it's clear Puss in Boots is one movie that was declawed before it even got close to the screen.
Can a movie survive on premise alone? That would be a resounding no, since its success also rests squarely on the shoulders of the execution. Yet in the case of In Time, the premise is ingenious enough to cut some slack elsewhere. The movie may not probe as deeply into its subject as desired, but it's nevertheless an enjoyable watch, full of propulsive action and intriguing scenarios.
Comparisons to Logan's Run are absurd, since this picture sports its own ideas on what the future might hold. It's a world order in which everyone is genetically designed to live until 25 years of age, at which point they're given one extra year to keep for themselves or use as currency. Because in this story, time literally is money, as a cup of coffee costs four minutes, a bus ride costs two hours, and so on. The rich have the means to acquire hundreds of years to tack onto their lives, while the poor barely have enough time to struggle from day to day.
In Time focuses on one of the 99%: Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), whose life is turned upside down after a disillusioned millionaire (Matt Bomer) transfers a full century to him. Amanda Seyfried co-stars as the rich kid who joins Will on the lam, Cillian Murphy plays the Timekeeper (aka lawman) who's in hot pursuit, and writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) is the one who deserves credit for crafting this heady mix of science fiction and social commentary.
THE RUM DIARY
Johnny Depp has long worshipped at the altar of Hunter S. Thompson, so perhaps it's this idolatry that prevents him from acknowledging that The Rum Diary, an adaptation of a 1959 Thompson novel that wasn't even discovered until 1998 (reportedly by Depp himself), is a crushing mediocrity. As he did in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the actor again plays a fictionalized version of the influential journalist -- here, he's pre-gonzo Paul Kemp, a mild-mannered writer whose stint at a struggling American newspaper in Puerto Rico allows him to eventually discover his fire, his passion, and his desire to stick it to the "bastards."
Unfortunately, fire and passion are just two of the elements missing from this arid, disjointed effort, which isn't presented as a shaggy-dog story so much as a flea-bitten one. Kemp's interactions with a cheery capitalist (Aaron Eckhart) and his beauteous fiancee (Amber Heard) are rarely believable, while Giovanni Ribisi delivers one of his typically twitchy -- and typically awful -- turns as one of Kemp's confidantes.
Ribisi's histrionics aside, The Rum Diary is unbearably sedate -- a Prozac picture when a touch of reefer madness would have helped.
Winner of two awards at this year's Cannes Film Festival and certain to earn Michael Shannon some serious Oscar consideration, Take Shelter takes place in a spacious, wide-open Midwestern region but feels constrictive and claustrophobic at every turn. That's the intent of writer-director Jeff Nichols, who largely leaves it up to viewers to decide whether his film is a metaphor for the feelings of paranoia, persecution and dread that grip this nation in modern times or merely a story about a man who might be mentally unbalanced.
Curtis (Shannon), a blue-collar worker blessed with a loving wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter (Tova Stewart), starts having dreadful dreams in which he's attacked by those closest to him (his spouse, his best friend, his dog) in the middle of a nasty storm. These nocturnal nightmares are soon joined by daytime hallucinations, and Curtis has to decide whether he's turning into a paranoid schizophrenic like his institutionalized mother (Kathy Baker) or whether he's having premonitions involving the end of the world.
No one knows for sure -- least of all audience members -- and while the story is such that Nichols could have ended it in a haze of ambiguity, he wisely elects to commit to a particular outcome. I of course won't reveal any particulars, so let's just say that Rod Serling would have been proud.
Cineastes won't allow something as trivial as Tower Heist to dislodge Dassin's Rififi or Kubrick's The Killing as their caper film of choice, but as far as seasonal multiplex blockbusters go, this one's not bad at all. The much maligned Brett Ratner, whose last two features were the godawful Rush Hour 3 and the series-sapping X-Men: The Last Stand, basically stays out of the way of his four writers and 10 stars, allowing them to strut their stuff in this comedy about a group of working stiffs who decide to take financial revenge on the crooked Wall Street fat cat (Alan Alda) who swindled them out of their savings.
The characters are far more interesting than the actual heist that eats up the final portion of the film, so it's a good thing we're allowed to spend plenty of time getting to know them during the first hour. Ben Stiller is fine as the building manager who plots the robbery; Eddie Murphy displays some of that '80s brashness (long buried under family-film complacency) as a career criminal who lends a hand; and Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe contribute some well-timed laughs.
Then there's Tea Leoni as a diligent FBI agent; her drunk scene is one of the highlights of the film and makes me wish that Hollywood would remember to employ her on a more consistent basis.
Call it the anti-Shakespeare in Love. Call it the more cultured cousin to Inglourious Basterds. Just don't call Anonymous a fact-based story.
There have been many speculations advanced that William Shakespeare actually did not write the countless classic works attributed to him, but the conspiracy theorists can't quite agree on the true identity of the genius behind such works as Hamlet and Macbeth. Among the suspects are Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and Stephen King (well, OK, maybe not), but perhaps the most popular alternative is Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
Anonymous, directed by disaster-flick specialist Roland Emmerich (2012) and written by John Orloff, takes that ball and sprints with it. In this picture, the Earl (Rhys Ifans) yearns to take pen to paper, but his high standing prevents him from doing so. He asks accomplished playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to front for him, but when Jonson balks, an obnoxious and illiterate actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) jumps at the chance to take credit.
More than simply focusing on these writers guild disputes, Anonymous also moves through the years to chart court intrigues, particularly the Earl's dealings with a lusty Queen Elizabeth who seemingly has more (illegitimate) children than Kate Gosselin and Octomom put together (Joely Richardson plays the young queen while her real-life mother Vanessa Redgrave plays the elderly Elizabeth).
Lively in most spots, draggy in others, Anonymous seeks to make a name for itself with its controversial stance but will most likely end up getting buried in a pauper's grave by the season's more high-profile titles.