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BIG FISH We've seen this before: A wildly imaginative filmmaker who has spent his career making entertaining flicks that don't win major awards (but should) suddenly gets bitten with the desire to do something more profound, precisely in order to start collecting those elusive Oscars, Golden Globes and anything else considered more reputable than a People's Choice Award. Now it's Tim Burton's turn. The man who gave us marvelous flights of fancy like Batman, Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Ed Wood goes for the gold with this colorful fable that attempts to tackle hefty issues using the same mixture of melodrama and mirth that worked for Forrest Gump. But forced whimsy isn't really whimsy at all, and what Burton ends up with is a likable yet hardly awe-inspiring film that simply tries too hard to convince audiences that they're witnessing An Important Motion Picture. Ironically, for all its surface eccentricities, this turns out to be one of Burton's most conventional works, relating the story of a journalist (Billy Crudup) who'd like to get to know his dying dad (Albert Finney) before it's too late. But that's easier said than done, since Pop is incapable of relating anything but outlandish tall tales involving his exploits as a young man (played in flashback by Ewan McGregor). Yet as more whoppers are spun involving giants, werewolves and witches, it begins to look like there might be some validity to these stories after all. A stellar cast (which also includes Jessica Lange and Helena Bonham Carter) does what it can with this meandering picture that only accumulates any emotional steam during its closing quarter-hour. 1/2


BAD SANTA Bad Santa may be rude, disgusting and offensive, but I laughed plenty of times, which is something I can't say I did during those sucky Santa Clause flicks. A perfectly cast Billy Bob Thornton stars as a lifelong loser who dons the red suit annually to play a department store Santa, simply so he can rob the mall vaults with ease. But this year's scheme threatens to become more complicated than usual, thanks to the unexpected presence of a pudgy little boy (Brett Kelly) who follows him around like a pet. A sentimental moment or two enters the picture late in the game (and they're surprisingly effective), but for the most part, this movie carries the power of its non-PC implications right through to the very end. Rarely letting up on the raunch and ridicule, it's enough to make Will Ferrell's Elf blush.

CALENDAR GIRLS Based on a true story, this likable yarn chronicles the events that transpire when a group of middle-aged English women decide that the best way to raise money for charity is by posing nude for their annual calendar, a radical idea that rapidly threatens to turn into a global phenomenon. What sounds like an overly calculated endeavor -- The Full Monty... with women! -- actually gains some genuine mileage out of its inspirational premise, leading ladies (Helen Mirren and Julie Walters), and no shortage of humorous moments.

THE CAT IN THE HAT Scouring the original Dr. Seuss text, I simply could not find the moment when the title feline, standing next to a garden tool, yells, "You dirty ho!" then proceeds to insist he's only kidding while flicking his tongue in a lascivious manner. Dramatic license? More like rampant necrophilia. In short, this is a catastrophe of the first degree, anchored (and sunk) by Mike Myers' unctuous performance as the Cat. Myers' schtick is all one-note self-adulation, a feeble channeling of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion by way of Jerry Lewis, Paul Lynde and Myers' own Austin Powers. But he isn't the only problem: Needless subplots constantly interfere, while all the cute characters from the original story are simply creepy on film. In fact, there isn't much in this crass movie that doesn't inspire feelings of revulsion.

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN I haven't seen the 1950 aoriginal, yet something inside me -- call it my sixth sense for cinematic sacrilege -- tells me that it didn't feel compelled to include a sequence in which a kid slips in the puddle of puke that his brother produced moments earlier. Sure, it's a gut-buster for the under-12 set, and had the movie limited its idiocy to merely including yuck-o moments like this one to appease the crusty-snot-noses in the audience, it might have been mildly tolerable. But this half-baked Dozen is incompetent at every turn and shameless on every level, with its heartwarming moments more likely to cause heartburn and its comedic bits about as funny as a mad hornet in the mouth. As the dad forced to baby-sit a houseful of kids, Steve Martin continues to fritter away a once-vibrant career.

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