Director Robert Zemeckis, whose 2004 The Polar Express felt like an animated feature that had been embalmed, again employs the “performance capture” technique (or “digitally enhanced live-action,” per the press notes) with far greater success, overlaying real actors with a cartoon sheen and placing them in the middle of a CGI landscape. In 2D, which is how the film is being shown in most theaters nationally, this runs the risk of looking as soulless as many other CGI works, but in 3D (presented only at select venues), it results in a positively astonishing experience. Tossed coins roll directly toward the camera, spears poke directly out at audience members, and even an animated Angelina Jolie’s, umm, assets seem more pronounced than usual. Based on the ancient poem, a staple of most school curriculums, the script by fantasy author Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary doesn’t always match the movie’s visual splendor (burp and piss scenes show that the makers are clearly hoping to attract the fanboy crowd), but their modifications to the ancient text are more often than not respectful. After the gruesome monster Grendel (voiced, or, more accurately, snarled by Crispin Glover) wreaks havoc on the castle of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his followers, the heroic (and boastful) Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives to save the day. Yet he finds himself not only having to confront Grendel but also the misshapen creature’s mother (Jolie), envisioned here as a seductress with the power to lead any noble warrior astray. The biggest criticism has nothing to do with the movie itself but with the morons on the MPAA board. With its flashes of nudity and abundance of gore (for starters, one character gets ripped in two), this clearly deserves an R rating, but perhaps only equating animation with Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone, the moral watchdogs handed this a PG-13.
It’s a nice touch having Julie Andrews serve as (unseen) narrator for the bookend sequences in Walt Disney’s Enchanted. Andrews, of course, played the title nanny in the studio’s Mary Poppins, which contains the famous phrase “practically perfect in every way.” And I can’t think of any better way to describe Amy Adams’ performance as Giselle, the animated damsel who doesn’t long to be a real girl but becomes one anyway. Enchanted begins in the style of the classic Disney toon flicks of yore, with the beautiful Giselle, at one with nature and its furry inhabitants, longing for “true love’s kiss” from the lips of a handsome prince. She gets her wish when she meets Prince Edward, but his scheming stepmother Queen Narissa, not wanting to relinquish the throne, banishes Giselle to a faraway land, which, it turns out, is our own New York City. Now flesh and blood, Giselle turns to a stranger, a buttoned-up divorce lawyer (Patrick Dempsey), to help her survive in this bewildering city; meanwhile, others arrive in the Big Apple in pursuit of Giselle, including Edward (James Marsden) and the evil Queen (Susan Sarandon). Entrusting such a rich premise to the writer of Sandra Bullock’s dreadful thriller Premonition is a dubious tactic, and, indeed, Bill Kelly doesn’t come to exploiting this subject for all it’s worth. But that’s not to say there aren’t moments of genuine inspiration, such as when Giselle calls out to the creatures of NYC for help and instead of the expected rabbits, deer and chipmunks gets rats, roaches and pigeons instead. But what pushes the film over the top is the terrific turn by Adams, who really seems like a Disney heroine come to life (as the preening prince, Marsden also displays fine comic chops). Her performance is every bit as enchanting as one dreams it would be.
The sound of music comes alive in August Rush, a charming family film that pushes the always-welcome message that the arts -- in this case, music -- can inform and enhance our lives, leading us to places we’ve never been and allowing us to establish meaningful contacts with other like-minded people. There’s no denying that the movie, which often plays like Oliver Twist as conceived by the dance troupe Stomp, is sweet and heartfelt and full of passion. But there’s also no denying that it’s clunky, haphazard and not especially well-written or efficiently directed. If you’ve seen the trailer, which seems to go out of its way to reveal every important scene (even the climax), then you already know that August Rush is the story of Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore), an orphan whose parents -- a cellist (Keri Russell) and a guitarist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) -- don’t even know he exists (Mom was told by her controlling father that he died during childbirth). But young Evan is determined to find his parents, and he believes that through music they can be reunited; i.e. that they’ll be able to magically hear him and locate him. Thus, he escapes from the orphanage, making his way to New York City and falling in with a band of street kids working for a Fagin-like musician-promoter (Robin Williams). That Williams’ character turns out to be a controlling bully is one of the picture’s few surprises; everything else falls neatly into place, thanks to a script that needs about 128 coincidences to retain its forward momentum. The best way to enjoy August Rush, then, is to accept it completely as a fantasy; applying any sense of realism to any of its scenes might cause one’s head to explode.
If I’m still around at the age of 83, I doubt I’ll even be able to successfully navigate the remote control. Yet here’s the great veteran director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and on and on and on), who, just two years after winning a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy, has made an impressive picture that’s earning him his best reviews in ages. And for at least three-quarters of the way, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead deserves those stellar notices, as it shapes up to emerge as one of the best films of the year. But like a long-distance runner who miscalculates his own endurance level, it falters at the very end, with a two-pronged wrap-up that disappoints with both barrels. \Philip Seymour Hoffman heads the powerhouse cast as Andy, who, sensing that money might be the way to save his faltering marriage (to Marisa Tomei’s Gina), talks his weak-willed younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke, never better) into taking part in the the robbery of a jewelry store -- the one owned by their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). Andy envisions it as one of those victimless crimes -- use a toy gun, rob the place when there are no customers, the owners recoup their losses via insurance, etc. -- but we all know what happens to the best-laid plans. At first glance, Before the Devil is one of those post-Memento neo-noirs that believes it’s necessary to tell its story in a fragmented style that skips between past and present. But as played out, this technique isn’t merely for show but as an immediate way to pinpoint how each dire consequence is the result of several major and minor decisions.