Tag Archives: cinema

Love is a battlefield


Sara Veal

Nicholas Sparks has perfected the formula for the 21st century weepie, with The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and Nights in Rodanthe reducing hopeless romantics of all ages to tears.

Lasse Hallestrom’s Dear John, the latest cinematic adaptation of Spark’s work, gives you everything you’d expect – heart-wrenching romance, photogenic leads, dazzling vistas – and then some.

One beautiful spring day by a beach in Charleston, young Americans Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Channing Tatum) meet-cute, spurring an intense two weeks of romance, enough time to fall madly in love.

So in love that they are willing to withstand a year apart, while John completes his military tour of duty. To combat the distance, they faithfully exchange letters, a passionate correspondence that helps them endure their lives without each other.

Naturally, the obstacles pile up, the least of them being 9/11. While John helps fight the war on terror, Savannah has her own battles to contend with back home. But what seems at first to be a predictable tale on whether Savannah and John’s love is true and can conquer all, proves much more complex, resulting in a moving exploration of different kinds of love – love for one’s country, the love between a father and son – and the difficult decisions people must make in navigating their hearts and lives.

Tatum (She’s the Man, Step Up) and Seyfried (Mean Girls, Mamma Mia) are well cast, and given a decent opportunity to extend their range, while generating tangible chemistry, the linchpin to any good romance.

The chisel-jawed Tatum, who resembles a younger, harder version of Josh Hartnett, is brooding and laconic, convincingly expressing the inner struggle of a lonely young man. Decent yet dangerous, he is capable of steadfast love, but also prone to self-destruction. This story is more his than Savannah’s, you’ll feel strongly for him as his defences melt and when his heart breaks.

Savannah is almost good to be true, which, ultimately, is one of her biggest flaws. She’s beautiful, caring and wants to dedicate her live to helping those who need her. She’s a little unrealistic in her idealization, and the film at one point suggests she is defined by her relationship with a man – but Seyfried, an actress to watch out for, does just about succeed in bringing Little Miss Perfect down to earth. Both Seyfried and Tatum demonstrate perceptible maturity as their characters age, no mean feat.

Also worth mentioning are Academy Award-nominee Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, The Visitor), who turns in a pitch-perfect performance as John’s mildly autistic, coin-obsessed father, and Henry Thomas (E.T., Legends of the Fall) as Tim, Savannah’s neighbor. The father-and-son relationship quietly develops into one of the film’s main drivers, helping us to discover John’s tightly wrapped layers.

Thomas, no stranger to sweeping romances, acts both as a mirror to John and his father, in being a single father to an autistic son, and as an important wheel in Savannah’s development as a young woman. There were some aspects to his plot strands that may be discomfiting, but overall, the underrated former child star plays his part with panache, striking the right emotional chord.

Director Hallestrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat) once again demonstrates his intuitive ability to allow scenes to speak for themselves, encompassing distinctive motifs that enhance his storytelling – in this case letters, the coins and the moon. Hallestrom manages a varied pace, slowing down and speeding up rhythmically, helping to prevent the action from dragging.

The Charleston beach is exquisitely shot, a bittersweet backdrop to the evolving romance, while the war scenes are gritty without being gratuitous. The film avoids making its stance on the American “war on terror” too explicit, while showing the personal sacrifices the soldiers have to make to keep fighting it. More importantly, the film shows that even when there are foreign wars to fight, life for those left behind continues, and is no less difficult.

The letters themselves are an enthralling cinematic component, at once old-fashioned and yet plausible, allowing a plausible portrayal of a timeless romance against a contemporary backdrop – and are a refreshing antidote to this digital, instantaneous age. The letters become a testament to the power of words, both positive and negative.

If you’re in the mood for a thoughtful romantic melodrama that stops just short of being saccharine, this would be ideal. Dear John isn’t quite another The Notebook – but that’s a good thing.

Verdict: A poignant romance that manages to surprise, as well as satisfy.

Dear John (Screen Gems, 105 minutes)
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Produced by Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Ryan Kauvanaugh
Written by Jamie Linden, Nicholas Sparks (Novel)
Starring Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Thomas Henry


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Who’s been a naughty boy then?


Sara Veal

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, German auteur Werner Herzog’s gritty, surreal treatise on corruption and addiction, makes little attempt to win over its audience yet is strangely watchable, with a compelling anti-hero, absurd humor and lashings of suspense.

The film, which superficially draws on Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film of the same name, opens amid the chaos of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. Police officers Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) and partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) are taking the opportunity to cover up a recent act of corruption when they come across a convict drowning in a jail cell. The partners joke about letting him drown, but Terence decides to save him, garnering a back injury in the process, which the doctor later informs him will be permanent.

Terence is promoted to lieutenant for his heroism. Six months on, he’s as corrupt as ever, but now addicted to painkillers, including cocaine, looking for every opportunity to score, whether raiding confiscated property or extorting clubbers.

At the same time, he’s just started investigating a case about a murdered immigrant family from Senegal, which is likely the work of drug lord Big Fate (rap star Xzibit). As his actions grow more extreme, the viewer is pressed to wonder whether Terence will manage to solve the case before his bad behavior catches up with him.

Veteran filmmaker Herzog’s (Rescue Dawn, Nosferatu the Vampyre) works are known for their quirky, conflicted protagonists and explorations of the limitations of Western society. Bad Lieutenant delivers on both counts.

Terence is often abhorrent, more villain than hero. He’s worse than most of the criminals he chases. He’s hooked on drugs, gambling and women, and prone to violent and erratic acts. Nothing is taboo – he teams with a drug baron to feed his habit and pay off debts, he offers his prostitute girlfriend up to thugs, he even tortures two elderly women for information.

Aside from an unnaturally smooth face that negates his 46 years, Cage is excellently cast. Love him or hate him, he’s definitely taken on interesting parts in his career, from hangdog lovable (It Could Happen to You) and mournfully saccharine (City of Angels) to despicable (Face/Off).

Sometimes his quirky approach to acting drags down the film (see squeaky voice in Peggy Sue Got Married), but here, despite his audacity, he keeps it real. Sadly, you can believe that someone like him exists – and sometimes, even more disturbingly, you find yourself rooting for him.

The supporting players turn in similarly bizarre yet believable performances. Eva Mendes as hooker Frankie Donnenfield is sultry and damaged, and she and Terence have an interesting, affectionate dynamic – they certainly seem to deserve each other.

Xzibit, as the main villain of the piece, seems far more reasonable than Terence, which sums up the film’s iconoclastic stance. Val Kilmer, on the other hand, as Stevie, is hinted to be a few more steps over the line than Terence, which is one of the few aspects that make the latter seem heroic.

The film’s mix of hyper-realism and surrealism is enforced by the grainy, hand-held camerawork. At first, you feel like you’re following a police officer on his day-to-day activities around the Louisiana bayou to Biloxi, Mississippi, and then the weirdness gradually builds to a crescendo that also serves to convey Terence’s increasingly addled state of mind. It’s alternately suspenseful, thrilling, hilarious and sickening. Herzog evidently has a reptile fetish, inserting a few mad sequences involving crocodiles and iguanas that may or may not be Terence’s drug-induced hallucinations.

For a while it seems that the film, like Terence, is on a purely madcap, destructive bent, with no end goal, which is likely due to Herzog’s penchant for improvisation. Just after the half-way point, the action drags, and you’ll find yourself wondering if you can be bothered to continue watching. But, toward the finale, like its protagonist, the film adopts a circular pattern, finishing up where it began, with a measure of resolution for the characters.

It’s not completely satisfying, but it is cinematic, leaving the viewer with much to chew on about the nature of corruption, and its seeming inevitability, and the way addiction continues to loom like a shadow over those first caught in its claws.

And without preaching, it also hints at the desperation of the Katrina survivors, whose challenging existence before and after the disaster has provided fertile ground for men like Terence and Big Fate.

Verdict: Not for the faint-hearted, but if you stick with this demanding crime drama, you’ll be rewarded with a visceral, refreshingly offbeat cinematic experience.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

First Look Studios, 121 minutes
Directed by Werner Herzog
Produced by Edward R. Pressman
Written by William Finkelstein
Starring Nicolas Cage. Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Xzibit

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To New York, with Love


Sara Veal

New York has hosted countless cinematic romances, from the tragic West Side Story and unforgettable An Affair to Remember to the modern day fairytale Sex and the City.

So, following the enthusiastic response to Paris, Je t’aime, it’s no surprise that the Big Apple was the next choice for a tapestry of cosmopolitan love stories. This American cousin is inferior to the French original, but succeeds as a gorgeous portrait of the titular city, with glimpses of silver screen brilliance.

Like its predecessor, New York, I Love You is made up of a series of vaguely connected short films, each by a different director, including Mira Nair (Vanity Fair) and Natalie Portman. There are 11 in the final cut – Scarlett Johansson’s directorial debut starring Kevin Bacon, and Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s featuring Carla Gugino, Goran Visnjic and Nicholas Purcell, will be saved for the DVD. Each filmmaker had to adhere to three guidelines: 24 hours to shoot; a week to edit; and a conveyed sense of a particular neighborhood.

The stories take place in New York’s five boroughs, and encompass a spectrum of romance, from long-term to passing fancy, and across religious, linguistic, cultural and age divides.

A wise-cracking pickpocket (Hayden Christenson) finds himself outclassed by the sleight of hand of his older romantic rival (Andy Garcia), undermining his attempts to win the girl (Rachel Bilson). Shortly before her wedding, a young Jewish woman (Natalie Portman) haggles over jewellery prices with her Jain supplier (Irrfan Khan), and finds they can understand each other unexpectedly well.

While scoring an animation, a composer (Orlando Bloom) struggles with his demanding employer, finding solace in the telephone support of their unseen liaison (Christina Ricci). Two sets of strangers (Ethan Hawke, Maggie Q, Robin Wright Penn, Chris Cooper), united by smoking cigarettes outdoors, speak frankly about sex in pairs, with unexpected consequences.

The night of his prom, a teenager (Anton Yelchin) faces embarrassment when he has to take his chemist’s (James Caan) wheelchair-bound daughter (Olivia Thirlby) as his date. A man (Bradley Cooper) and woman (Drea de Matteo), who have had what was meant to be a one night stand, agonize over their arrangement to meet up a second time.

A faded songbird (Julie Christie) broods in a stark, dilapidated hotel, drawn to the young, crippled porter (Shia La Boeuf) who tries to cheer her up with violets and champagne. A man (Carlos Acosta) and little girl (Taylor Geare) spend a carefree day in Central Park.

In Chinatown, a reclusive, laconic artist feverishly creates soy sauce paintings, hoping to convince his latest muse, a Chinese herbalist (Shu Qi), to pose for him. A young couple (Justin Bartha and Eva Amurri) bicker about romantic spontaneity, while an older couple (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman) also argue, reflecting on their 63 years of marriage.

Meanwhile, a French video artist films everything that catches her eye, and several characters encounter each other in the backseat of a cab driven by a man, who like everyone else in the city (and especially the film), is more than he initially seems.

These almost-dozen tales, all boasting pretty camerawork that well showcases the different corners of the city, vary in effectiveness. All initially draw you into their small worlds, but few live up to their promise. The best are Portman’s debut, with ballet superstar Acosta, which aptly captures the joy of being a kid, magnifying the wonder of Central Park through Geare’s wide eyes, and Yvan Attal’s (The Interpreter) segment, with the two smoking couples.

Nair’s sequence, featuring Portman and Khan, is self-conscious, eliciting laughs through verbal sparring and surreal imagery, without adding up to anything meaningful. Brett Ratner’s (X-Men: The Last Stand) with bright young things Yelchin and Thirlby, is cute but cheap, while Shekhar Kapur’s (Elizabeth) segment, with Christie and LaBeouf, is thought-provoking, yet out of place. The remaining shorts are forgettable or overwrought, but the way everything loosely comes together is sweet, if not entirely satisfying, so you are likely to exit the cinema with a smile.

Most the acting from the impressive collection of cast members meets expectations. LaBeouf, Geare and Wright Penn deliver the most memorable performances. Portman, despite her victory behind the camera, is jarring as the Jewish bride-to-be, her accent lacking authenticity. Hawke is the most irritating, as a chatterbox who has a lot of confidence about his sexual ability.

As a romantic film, New York, I Love You falls short. As an ensemble piece, it fails to add up to more than the sum of its parts – it’s no Magnolia, Crash or even Love Actually.

But as a love letter to a vibrant city, it triumphs, making one dream of hopping on the next plane to New York. Now, if someone could make a Jakarta, I Love You, it could do wonders for tourism…

New York, I Love You (2009, Vivendi Entertainment, 103 minutes)
Directed by Jiang Wen, Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Fatih Akin, Joshua Marston, Randy Balsmeyer
Produced by Emmanuel Benbihy, Marina Grasic
Written by Fatih Akin, Keenan Donahue, Natalie Portman, Anthony Minghella, Joshua Marston, Jeff Nathanson, Hu Hong, Jiang Wen, Meng Yao, Suketu Mehta, Shunji Iwai, Olivier L*cot, Yvan Attal, Xan Cassavetes, Stephen Winter, Hall Powell, Israel Horovitz, James Strouse
Starring Bradley Cooper, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Maggie Q, Olivia Thirlby, Julie Christie, Shia LaBeouf, Chris Cooper, Cloris Leachman

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Parker and Grant endure witless protection


Sara Veal

When city folk go to the countryside, there are two typical outcomes – at least in Hollywood. Deprived of cell phones and civilization, either they get eaten by inbred psychos or they learn about what really matters in life.

In Did You Hear About the Morgans? it’s the latter – although some might wish it was the former. But if you like Hugh Grant and/or Sarah Jessica Parker – or at least like seeing them suffer – you’ll be able to tolerate this predictable comedy.

Meryl (Parker) and Paul (Grant) Morgan are a Manhattan power couple. She’s a top real estate broker and he’s a successful lawyer. They’ve been estranged for three months, following Paul’s infidelity. Paul longs for forgiveness but Meryl still needs space. Unfortunately for her, she’s not going to get it. After the couple witness a murder, they become key figures in a federal case, and need to be relocated immediately, with new identities, to Ray, Wyoming, a small town in the middle of nowhere. Hi-jinks ensue.

The fish-out-of-water shtick is incredibly familiar – To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Sweet Home Alabama – and Did You Hear About the Morgans? adds little to the concept, sticking to mining laughs in a typical fashion. There’s a touch of timeliness in references to the global financial crisis and a throwaway comment about Sarah Palin (although that’s all a bit old by now), but otherwise, it’s pretty much a cinematic throwback, the kind of film that belongs in the 1990s.

The locals are salt-of-the-earth Republican meat-eaters, occasionally bordering on xenophobia (“We don’t take kindly to strangers around here”), while the urbanites are helpless in a world without Chinese takeaway and BlackBerrys. They’re disturbed by rural silence and amazed by starry skies and $10 sweaters.

Similarly, most characters are safely within the actors’ comfort zones. If this movie was a costume party, the invitation must have read “come as you are”. Parker’s Meryl is neurotic and hopelessly romantic, a blend of Sex and the City’s Carrie and Smart People‘s Janet. Grant does his usual bumbling Englishman thing as Paul, with a dash of Bridget Jones‘ Daniel Cleaver. There’s something for lovers and haters of the duo here, particularly the moments where Grant faces off with a bear and repeatedly endures slapstick violence.

Sam Elliot, as Sheriff Clay Wheeler, the Morgans’ keeper and Meryl’s country “cousin”, pimps out his patented laconic cowboy – he even only has John Wayne and Clint Eastwood DVDs. Mary Steenburgen perfectly complements him as his warm-hearted wife and deputy, much like her characters in Back to the Future Part III and the recent The Proposal. Elisabeth Moss, fabulous in Mad Men, draws on Peggy’s ambitiousness as Meryl’s personal assistant.

Yet the film is saved from feeling like a chore by how genuinely nice a place Ray seems. Yes, it occasionally looks like a Wild West set from the Universal Studios back lot, but the on-location vistas are beautiful – especially the golden cornfields and blue skies – and the townsfolk, though slightly caricatured, are pleasant and friendly.

Grant and Parker have little chemistry, but somehow you grow to care about them both and their marriage and general survival. The killer thriller aspect is perfunctory, serving mainly as a plot device, facilitating the relocation and finally paying off with an “I am Spartacus” moment that demonstrates the kindness of the Ray denizens. The real drama comes from the depth of the Morgans’ marital dilemma, which amid all the cartoony humor, is down-to-earth.

And although you’ll predict the outcome from the get-go, the finale is feel-good and well-earned. Just as you’d want this sort of film to end – unless you prefer Texan chainsaw massacres, of course.

Verdict: You’ll have seen it all before – but Grant and Parker’s trademark comic turns and a touch of drama keep this cheesy comedy watchable.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Castle Rock Entertainment, 103 minutes)
Directed by Marc Lawrence
Produced by Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer
Written by Marc Lawrence
Starring Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Kelly, Wilford Brimley, Jesse Liebman

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Another year, another Disney princess


Sara Veal

The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana is notable as Disney’s first African-American princess. She’s also a timely heroine, a role model for a generation of children growing up during a global financial crisis.

Hard-working, independent and carefully saving to realize an honorable dream – owning her own restaurant – she contrasts with the film’s villain, a tricky witchdoctor willing to rack up huge debts in an attempt to accrue money and power. She also teaches a charming prince – Naveen, a spoiled playboy – that the best things in life can’t be bought, a worthy if cliched message.

Since 1937, with its first full-length feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Disney company has presented a succession of “princesses”, some actual royalty such as Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora, others simply admirable such as Mulan.

These princesses remain highly popular today: Disney’s official “Princess” merchandise line which encompasses nine characters – Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana – is one of the largest girls’ franchises on the planet, raking in billions of dollars annually.

Opinion remains divided over this enduring princess mania – some see it as disturbingly anti-feminist, others appreciate the wholesome contrast to their precociously sexy counterparts like the Bratz dolls.

What is conclusive, though, is that all Disney’s leading ladies are a product of their times. Here, we take a light-hearted look at Tiana’s princess predecessors, charting their evolution from passive sleeping beauties to resourceful champions.

1937: Snow White

Like The Princess and the Frog, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted amid a worldwide economic depression – The Great Depression, in fact. For the heinous crime of being beautiful, Snow White’s jealous stepmother attempts to murder her – luckily, the exquisite 14-year-old is saved repeatedly by men: a sympathetic woodsman, the seven dwarfs, a prince with apparently smelling-salts-like breath.

Inherently maternal and fond of housework, she wins over the prince in a passive fashion, first with her singing (what would prove to be a typical Disney man-catching move) and then by sleeping so beautifully. Hardly a proto-feminist, but no doubt her tale provided romantic relief from trying reality.

1950: Cinderella

Cinderella was also a victim of a wicked stepmother, with the unhappy addition of two ugly stepsisters. She’s a slave in her own home, responsible for countless chores – something 1950s American housewives could no doubt relate to – but still finds time to construct a lovely ballgown, albeit with the assistance of her little animal friends. She’s somewhat braver than Snow White – piping up to convince her stepmother that she too deserves to go to the ball – but ultimately, she’s reliant on her Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming to make her dreams come true – and she wins love with a pretty face and tiny feet.

1959: Aurora

With her looks based on Audrey Hepburn, Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora is just as naive as some of the Hollywood legend’s most iconic characters. Raised in the woods by not one, but three fairy godmothers – who hope to prevent the dreadful fate a more malicious fairy assigned her – she longs for independence but remains obedient to her caretakers’ instructions, even fleeing the delicious Prince Phillip when she realizes he’s a stranger (and she mustn’t talk to those, nor take candy from them). Sadly their over-protection can’t prevent her from pricking her finger on a poisoned spindle; fortunately Phillip is more than willing to cut a swath through a thorny forest and give her the kiss of life. Then they instantly become engaged, fulfilling their royal parents’ long-time intentions for them to marry – it seems Aurora can’t dictate her own fate after all!

1989: Ariel

Thirty years after Sleeping Beauty awoke, Disney princesses finally became more proactive, reflecting more empowered times. Ariel, aside from being The Little Mermaid, is a typical teenager – rebellious and curious about the wider world. She’s willing to disobey her father, flirt with danger and make great sacrifices for a cute boy, in her case her singing voice for a pair of legs. Interestingly, she doesn’t succeed in winning over Prince Eric properly until she regains her voice, a sign that you need more than looks to get your man. Less interestingly, in her quest for independence, she simply trades one man for another – a father for a husband.

1991: Belle

Like Ariel, The Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle is a square peg in a round hole: a nonconformist and free thinker. She may be the most beautiful girl in the village, but she cares not one whit for looks, preferring books.

Her lack of superficiality is put to the test when she’s forced to cohabit with the Beast – to save her father – falling in love with him despite his fearsome exterior. The beauty and the Beast’s relationship is given more time to mature than in previous Disney films, with the latter having to win her over. Belle’s intelligence and willingness to fight for those she cares about make her a heroine worth emulating.

1992: Jasmine

Aladdin‘s Jasmine, a doe-eyed Arabian princess, was Disney’s first princess “of color”, and continues the free-spirited trend. She refuses to marry any of the shallow suitors on offer, running away from the palace to escape her fate and find adventure. Being unavoidably sheltered, she soon runs into problems, and is saved by the quick-thinking Aladdin, to whom she is drawn despite his poverty. In the end, she gains her longed-for volition, and naturally selects her magical-carpet-commanding “diamond in the rough”. This time, it’s the princess who whisks her lover to a better life.

1995: Pocahontas

Another ethnic leading lady, Pocahontas is the first American princess, based on the historical figure. More mature than previous heroines, Pocahontas is highly independent and attuned to nature, educating the initially arrogant John Smith about its value. If forced to engage in a fight with her fellow Disney leading ladies, she’d no doubt win hands down, displaying immense athleticism and magical, shamanic powers. Echoing Ariel and Belle, she saves her prince, at risk to herself. And in a break with tradition, there’s no happily ever after for Pocahontas and John Smith; instead of leaving with him to experience a whole new world (like Ariel would), she stays in her own, placing her people before her heart.

1998: Mulan

Pocahontas’ fiercest physical competition would be Mulan, who proves herself as a warrior, ultimately saving the whole of China through bravery and ingenuity, although she does have to resort to cross-dressing in the process. Disney’s first Asian princess promotes self-reliance, determination and is uninterested in marriage or romance.

Her attractiveness is almost a non-factor – refreshingly – and she is highly relatable for adolescent girls in her initial awkwardness and self-doubt. While she demonstrates considerable chemistry with the hunky Captain Li Shang, the film ends on her saving her country, rather than a romantic resolution.

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Disney recaptures its Renaissance magic


Sara Veal

The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s first 2D animated film since 2004’s Home on the Range, is an all-American fairytale that successfully balances nostalgic magic and modern attitudes, and is likely to usher in a new generation of Disney princess lovers.

Loosely based on E. D. Baker’s 2002 novel The Frog Princess, it pays tribute to Disney’s Renaissance era (1989-1999), a time when the new Disney film was the event of the year, while also serving as a fable for the current financial crisis.

In early 20th century New Orleans, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a waitress, is diligently saving up to realize hers – and her late father’s (Terrence Howard) – dream of owning a restaurant.

When her privileged friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) asks her to cater a masquerade ball she is throwing in honor of the visiting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), Tia happily accepts.

Meanwhile, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a witchdoctor known as “The Shadow Man”, is cooking up a dastardly scheme that will throw Tia and Naveen together, leading them on a hopping adventure through the Louisiana bayou, gathering unusual allies along the way.

Thankfully, they haven’t resorted to starry stunts for the vocals – Tyra Banks and Alicia Keys apparently lobbied for the lead – which allows the viewer to properly absorb the characters.

Tia – Disney’s first African-American princess – is a likeable, if overly earnest protagonist (a characteristic key to the film’s themes) and a role model for aspiring princesses everywhere.

Competently if not distinctively voiced by Dreamgirls’ Rose, she’s self-sufficient, quick-thinking and hard-working – no Snow White nor Sleeping Beauty waiting to be awakened by a prince.

TV stalwart Campos (Jesse, Nip/Tuck) steals the show with his rich Brazilian tones, adding flavor to what could have otherwise been clich* dialogue. Visually reminiscent of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid’s Prince Eric (when not a frog), Naveen is loveable and deliciously arrogant – both comic relief and a romantic hero you can root for. He and Tia have an interesting dynamic, and their relationship feels more equal and realistic than in past Disney romances.

Dr. Facilier, silkily voiced by David, with his sinister magic and Faustian promises echoes Aladdin‘s Jafar and The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, but falls short of their menace.

The tricky villain and his shadowy henchmen are the film’s only dark spots; the rest of the characters increase the humor and heart.

Charlotte, the daughter of the richest man in New Orleans, is especially endearing. She could so have easily been a cliche – at several points the film acts as if she may fall into ugly stepsister mode, but she remains goodhearted and genuine throughout.

Lewis, a trumpet-playing alligator – like the sweet younger brother of Peter Pan‘s watch glutton – is amusingly high-strung and maniacal. He joins our heroine’s quartet to seek out voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), in the hopes of detangling a mystical mix-up.

The fourth member, Raymond, a lovesick Cajun-accented firefly, helps to move the narrative along, providing solutions, support and poignancy.

The vocal talents suit the Randy Newman-scored musical numbers, most of which have a jazz-and-blues tinge befitting the era. None is as catchy as “Under the Sea”, “I’m Going to be a Mighty King” or even the recent Enchanted songs, but are easy on the ears and create the right atmosphere.

The same goes for the visuals, which splendidly mine jazz-age New Orleans and the swamp environment. A standout scene involves Raymond’s firefly pals lighting up the bayou, mirroring the starry sky.

Rather than attempting to break new ground, the animators have embraced the fluidity and whimsy of the form, which adds up to a good old-fashioned feast for the eyes.

There are also several Disney cameos, such as the dolls and books on Charlotte’s shelves and the costumed guests at her ball. The animation and tunes perfectly set off the story, which is equally heartfelt and comic, promoting values like honesty, frugality, wonder and love.

While reflecting the current economic crisis – the villain is rather like an unscrupulous investment banker, taking wild gambles in his pursuit of wealth – The Princess and the Frog also works as a postmodern fairytale, with the characters showing skeptical awareness of the principles, such as wishing on stars and breaking spells with kisses.

Although Charlotte is willing to kiss as many frogs as necessary to find her prince, Tia disdains such frivolous notions, and her enchanted journey is enlightening for her and the viewer – a call to believe once more in the magic that seemed lost years ago, when Disney’s sparkle was tarnished by critical and financial failures such as Treasure Planet.

It’s just unfortunate for The Princess and the Frog that it follows Shrek and Enchanted, which shifted Disney conventions so hilariously out of context. That The Princess and the Frog retains some of these parodied conventions makes it feel a little outdated.

But it’s a throwback that prompted spontaneous applause from scores of children at the cinema, proving there’s still a place in this day and age for wholesome musical 2D animations – the sort of thing Disney has always done best.

The Princess and the Frog (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 97 minutes)
Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker
Starring Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jim Cummings, Jenifer Lewis, John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Cody, Peter Bartlett, Terrence Howard


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Sherlock Holmes and the mystery of the $80 million movie


Sara Veal

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is a shambles – badly directed, nonsensical and far too long.

It’s made tolerable by the reliably charismatic Robert Downey Jr., decent support from Jude Law and Rachel McAdams, gorgeous set design and a smattering of incongruently polished sequences.

I wanted to love Sherlock Holmes, I really did. Downey Jr. seemed spot-on casting for the offbeat detective, Law looked debonair as a not-so-bumbling Watson, and the trailers were packed with hilarity and action.

It looked set to be a reinvigorating adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved series, delivering the concept to a new audience while satisfying the old faithful, akin to Batman Begins.

Sadly, this is one of those unfortunate (and deceitful) cases where all the film’s best moments are in the trailer, depriving the audience of fresh laughs. Besides these comic snippets, it’s not a humorous film, as the marketing would suggest.

In fact, Ritchie’s re-envisioning seems highly confused as to what kind of film it is, muddling around in various genres – mystery, horror, period drama, action and even bromance – without much success. Sometimes it seems an adult version of Harry Potter, at others an olden times Snatch.

This re-envisioning opens suspensefully enough with Holmes and Watson taking down the nefarious Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) who is attempting to sacrifice a damsel in a Satanic ritual.

They hand him over to Scotland Yard, and then find themselves at a loose end for months, with Holmes succumbing to his obsessive compulsive disorder and Watson trying to muster the courage to propose to his sweetheart Mary (Kelly Reilly).

Luckily, Blackwood finds a way to occupy our boys, and they embark on a mission to discover the truth behind the supernatural happenings around London.

Downey Jr. is usually the best part of any film he’s in, no matter how terrible it is, and this is no exception. As Holmes, he gets to do his troubled genius thing, as only he can. He nails this edition of the great detective’s various tics – playing the violin, zoning in on the little details – mixing these believably with martial arts skills.

However, his performance is let down by his voice. His English accent is reasonable but he has a tendency to mumble – a real problem when he is the one elaborating key plot points and twists. This adds to the film’s incoherence.

Holmes and Watson’s relationship is a highlight, with Downey Jr. and Law generating chemistry, providing one of the rare threads of consistency with their banter and brotherly love. Law is a good fit for a dashing Watson, and looks comfortable in the Victorian setting.

McAdams as Irene Adler was not as successful as Holmes’ ostensible love interest, but remained enjoyable as the world-class criminal from New Jersey – the only woman to ever outwit Holmes – balancing ruthlessness with dimpled charm.

Strong, who teeters ever close to typecasting (he played a similar role in Stardust), is a largely forgettable villain, failing to evoke any real menace or sense of ingenuity. One wonders why it takes our hero 139 minutes to untangle his plotting.

At least the tedious case-solving has an attractive backdrop. Nineteenth-century London looks fantastic, winningly blending stylized Gothic design with realistic grime. Pentonville Prison looks suitably ominous and the half-finished Tower Bridge is spectacular, while also helping to ground the often postmodern action in the past.

Action is something you’d expect Ritchie to do well, given his previous films. There are certainly a number of standout sequences that are wonderfully choreographed and realized: Holmes running through London in pursuit of Adler and going through several costume changes, a balletic wrestling match.

These flashes of brilliance suggest Ritchie’s potential as a director, but also emphasize his inconsistency and therefore unsuitability for this particular project. Tim Burton or Stardust‘s Matthew Vaughn would have been better choices, having proved their abilities respectively to handle mystery and action comedy in gothic settings.

Sherlock Holmes’ biggest problem is the lack of firm direction and judicious editing, which fails to exploit the rich resources at hand – excellent cast, well-established series and US$80 million budget. Even worse, it arrogantly ends without proper closure, setting itself up for a sequel it hasn’t earned.

Now, the only mystery is, do you think it’s worth your time and money?

Sherlock Holmes (Studio Village Roadshow, 139 minutes)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan

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