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Gavin Grades The Movies



Puss In Boots

The last time I enjoyed a Shrek movie was in 2004 when the second one came out.  Ever since then it was Shrek overload and the franchise was toast in my opinion.  When I saw that they were making a Puss in Boots spinoff from the series, I groaned out loud in the theater and literally screamed out, “Dear Lord, let it go!  Stop trying to squeeze blood from this stone!”  And that’s from a cat lover too!  Although Dreamworks has made some very quality animated movies in the past, I had rock-bottom expectations for this movie and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed it as much as I did.

Yes, it’s true that Antonio Banderas is back voicing the titular character, but aside from that, there is nothing that links this film to the Shrek movies.  That might be a good thing.  It was almost as if the makers of Puss in Boots know full-well that the Shrek movies have run their course and making those characters show up again would be a mistake.  So what we’re left with is a totally separate movie about the origin of Puss in Boots.

Joining him in this new adventure is a fellow feline named Kitty Soft Paws and Humpty Dumpty; voiced by Selma Hayek (Dogma, From Dusk Till Dawn) and Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover films).  The three of them are on a mission to redeem their reputations among the citizens of their hometown by stealing the Golden Goose from the Giant at the top of the beanstalk.  We have all the makings of a fun (albeit familiar) adventure story though storybook land, but the action is quite lopsided with very few and disappointing sequences rounding out the ending.

Luckily, the film is funny enough to have that error keep you from being bored.  The same writing team are back with the same style of adult innuendo that made the first two Shrek films so enjoyable.  Unfortunately, there aren’t any characters that are as likable as Donkey and Shrek, but the cuteness of Puss and Kitty are adorable enough to offer a pass.

The animation in the film is also well done enough to keep you from glancing down at your watch.  It might be some of the best animation that Dreamworks has put out since How To Train Your Dragon.  The colors are vibrant and human characters look more realistic than ever.  (I can’t comment on the 3D aspect of it since it wasn’t offered when I saw it.)

There were some pleasant surprises in Puss in Boots that I didn’t expect.  First was that it was produced by director/writer Guellermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone) and he voiced one of the minor characters too.  It seems as if Del Toro is getting involved in more and more family animation entertainment, which is quite a departure from his fantastical horror that he does so well.  Another hidden enjoyment was the soundtrack.  The Shrek films also feature great songs by talented artists that you’d normally not pick for a children’s movie and Puss in Boots is no exception.  The end credits feature a great song by Lady Gaga and the movie features several selections by the very talented Rodrigo y Gabriella.

Director Chris Miller should be pleased with himself for what he created in Puss in Boots.  Sure he may be the guy that directed the Shrek films into the ground and over the shark, and Puss in Boots isn’t good enough to forgive him for that; but it’s enjoyable enough that I would consider it a good start…as long as I don’t see a Puss in Boots 2 coming soon.
Puss in Boots  (Rated PG )
Gavin Grade: B

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Real Steel

If you were to tell me that the generations-old children's game Rock 'Em Sock 'M Robots would be turned into a movie one day and that that movie would actually be fun to watch, I wouldn't believe you.  But here we are in 2011 and Hugh Jackman has teamed up with director Shawn Levy to create a fun, family movie about giant robots that beat on each other till they piss oil and it's very effective as entertainment...but there might be a sinister reason why. Shawn Levy is the director behind some truly awful films that make lots of money.  He directed Date Night, Cheaper by the Dozen and Just Married.  But he's also the guy that made the Night at the Museum movies which were shockingly funny and awesome!  So does a higher budget and bigger FX make Levy a better director?  Apparently so. It probably didn't hurt that he has two coaches in his corner named Steven Speilberg and Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future series) as two out of the WHOPPING 12 Producers on Real Steel.  Seeing their names in the opening credits gave me hope that this wouldn't be rusty crap and I was right.  The film is brightly colored and slickly put together.  It's also edgy enough that it won't lose older teens but innocent enough that tweens will dig it too.  The CGI FX are top notch and although they may not be as plentiful and bloated as Transformers, it's the subtlety  that makes them seem so much more impressive.  I also appreciate that not all the robots in the film are the work of Hollywood computers.  Yes, they went old school in some scenes and actually used giant puppets. One of the other biggest surprises of the film was in its childhood lead, the 12-year-old Dakota Goyo (Thor), who blew me away with his performance.  Not only does he have the energetic smart-ass down cold, but taps into his inner daddy issues convincingly well too.  Oh yeah, this isn't just a popcorn-chomping action movie; there's a chance you may shed a tear or two.  It depends on whether or not you buy into Jackman's completely unlikable lowlife father character deserving any of your sympathy by the end. But not so fast... There's one thing about Real Steel that needs to be said and that's because it might be downright illegal.  The script, which was penned by John Gatins (Coach Carter, Hardballs), was highway robbery.  You may feel yourself enjoying Real Steel to the fullest but get a vague sense that you've seen this before.  That's because you have.  It was called Rocky and it won Best Picture in 1976.  I know you're thinking that it's easy to compare every boxing movie to Rocky.  That's not what I'm talking about.  Real Steel is SO MUCH like Rocky that I'm shocked it's legal.  Aside from the family drama, Real Steel is about a small, junkie robot that no one believes in getting a shot at the title because of a publicity stunt.  And that's not all.  The champion that he has to fight is a big, black, strong robot named Zeus.  In case you forgot, in Rocky the small, junkie boxer gets a shot at the title against a big, black, strong champion named...wait for it...Apollo.  Same story just switching the character's name from Roman to Greek.  I won't spoil the ending for you, but let's just say that that's not where the stealing...er....I mean similarities run out. So what am I trying to say?  How about this - if you've never seen Rocky, you may think that Real Steel is a great, emotional, well-made family boxing movie that will win your heart.  If you have seen Rocky, you'll still feel that way but you will have trouble getting past the blatant ripoff.  That's why I have to give this film two grades.  One, overlooking the copyright infringement, which many people (sadly) won't care about; and Two, taking that into consideration.  Either way it's a fun, entertaining movie...because you've probably already seen it. Real Steel  (Rated PG-13) Gavin Grade: B+ and D+
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Lion King 3D

What really needs to be said about this?  It's The Lion King!  It's the best Disney movie ever made (if you don't count Pixar films).  I know that's an arguable point but when you ask most lovers of cinema what their favorite Disney film of all time is, it's usually The Lion King.  And now you can enjoy it all over again. It came out in 1994 and was part of the rebirth of the Walt Disney film company.  Sure the amusement parks were always making money, but most people don't realize how close the film company was to being sold off.  The Lion King was the most ambitious and emotional films they've made.  And now it's back on the big screen and this time it's in 3D.  What's so amazing is that Disney took a print of a movie that's 17-years-old and put it through a 3D conversion that didn't look like garbage. See, 3D is a controversial thing among film lovers.  Some love it and some think it's the devil come to destroy cinema as we know it today.  I'm somewhere in the middle.  I don't mind it as long as it's not gratuitous and done well.  Hollywood was losing money hand over fist and needed something to come along that pumped some life back into it and 3D technology was that thing.  Now studios could charge people a premium cost for a ticket and make profit back tens times faster.  However, if you're gonna charge me almost twice as much for a movie ticket, you damn well better give me almost twice-as-nice value. 3D Conversions is a four-letter word among us movie maniacs.  It means you put a print of a movie through a 3D conversion AFTER it was shot in 2D.  The two examples of this blowing up in its face and the high-water mark of 3D gauging was 2010's Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland.  These looked terrible, caused migraines and had theater-goers screaming for refunds.  However The Lion King's 3D conversion looks incredible.  It makes the movie look like it was just illustrated and was made to jump off the screen. Not to mention the fact that The Lion King is a film worthy of enjoying on the big screen again.  There's a reason why it resonates so well with children and adults.  That reason is that it's based on one of the most famous stories ever told...Hamlet.  Sure there's no "To Be or Not To Be" scene in which young Simba contemplates the pros and cons of committing suicide, but it's the Cliff's Notes version as told to children.  That's brilliant and it always will be.  The young prince.  The mighty king for a father.  The jealous uncle.  The murder of brother against brother.  It's all there in gorgeous color! Plus how can you forget the music?  The Lion King has one of the most impressive musical scores of all the Disney movies, which is no easy task.  How can you avoid getting goosebumps at the final thunderous THUMP at the end of "The Circle of Life" opening sequence or not bop your head to "Hakuna Matata?"  I would hope that seeing it again on the big screen would inspire you to sing out loud with your favorite song, shed tears at the stampede scene, and introduce a whole new generation to the film that literally makes you celebrate being alive. The Lion King 3D  (Rated PG) Gavin Grade: A+
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The Smurfs

In 1981, Saturday morning cartoons were introduced to a 1958 comic strip called The Smurfs.  It was quirky, weird, innocent and from Belgium.  Despite all the people saying it would never work, it still did.  In fact, The Smurfs ran as a cartoon on Saturday mornings for 8 more years and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandise.  So is it that crazy to think that a feature length, live-action movie based on the same characters would still work 22 years after the show was canceled?  The people at Columbia Pictures didn't think so, but good God were they wrong. Yes it's true that director Michael Bay took another '80s Saturday morning cartoon, Transformers, and created a juggernaut franchise.  That does not mean that it will work every time.  Especially when you ignore what made Transformers so successful and that was to make it appeal to the adults that loved it as kids.  The Smurfs is a PG-rated piece of dribble that insults the intelligence of adults who see it for nostalgia and bores the children that don't know it at all. Even talented performers like Hank Azaria (The Simpsons, The Birdcage) and Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) can't pump life into this.  In fact, I was embarrassed for them while watching it.  Especially for Azaria who is one of the greatest comedic character actors out there right now.  He gave his performance as the villainous wizard Gargamel the best he possibly could but it overshoots campy and just comes across desperate. The biggest problem comes from hiring Raja Gosnell to direct it.  This man hasn't made a good movie yet and seems to have the bargain bin DVD movie at Walmart down pretty good.  He's the disaster that's given us films like Scooby Doo, Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Big Momma's House.  Congrats Mr. Gosnell, because you've added another travesty to your catalog of crap cinema. The Smurfs is a rotten script with bad voice acting from some very talented people.  Even people like the legendary Jonathan Winters (It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), Alan Cumming (X-Men 2), Fred Armisen (NBC's SNL, Anchorman) and Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Fright Night) couldn't help it.  It almost seems like an insult too that they had to perform besides George Lopez and Katy Perry...and yes, they both suck as much as you think they would. The jokes in the film are awful and too on-the-nose even for the 7-year-old I brought with me.  I suppose the writers thought it was edgy and funny to replace a swear word with the word "smurf" but after you hear it every 5 minutes or so, it just makes you think the movie is smurfing horrible.  The best thing The Smurfs has going for it is the infectious theme song they sing over and over and over again.  At least hearing that brought back to the surface some pleasant childhood memories...just too bad they were then sullied by this movie. The Smurfs (Rated PG) Gavin Grade: F
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Cars 2

There is only one movie studio out there that is pitching a perfect game and that's Pixar.  All of their films have been huge financial hits and several have won Oscars.  All of them have over a 90% on RottenTomatoes.com...all of them except one - Cars.  So why would they select that one for a sequel?  The reason is simple, it's Disney's bread and butter for selling merchandise to boys.  So much so that Disneyland is building an entire land dedicated to Cars that opens next year.  So, I get it.  But the geniuses at Pixar know that in order to not sully their sterling reputation, they can't just make a sequel for the sake of marketing; they need to reinvent it.  They did not accomplish that with Cars 2 though. My issues with the Cars series really kind of shows my colors as a movie snob.  I enjoy ALL of the Pixar movies, but Cars is certainly my least favorite.  The reason why is because I consider it to be the least imaginative and original of their pedigree.  Every single one of the Pixar movies involve these fantastical characters that have crazy adventures.  But you buy into all of them as an audience member because even when they involve monsters, talking toys or talking fish, they still show how those fantasy characters exist in a real world.  They show how they interact with humans and make it believable.  Cars doesn't do that.  It's our world, but with zero humans and cars just exist without us.  It's weird and also kept me from really enjoying them.  That, and I hate NASCAR. But Cars 2, just like Toy Story 3, isn't simply a repackaging of the original in a crapfest-of-a-sequel.  They did a decent job of making it its own film with a totally new story.  In Cars 2, that story is a "spy thriller."  Clever, especially when you employee the magnificent Michael Caine (The Dark Knight, Inception) as one of the new characters - a super spy named Finn McMissile.  The action is great and thrilling at times no matter what your age is.  There's racing, but very little, which is totally fine with me.  The animation in the film is also one of the highlights.  It's worth the extra dough for 3D and the colors and clarity is better than any computer animated film I've ever seen. The problems started when I realized that Lightening McQueen, who's voiced by Owen Wilson, is not the star of this one.  Sadly, it's his dim-witted counter part, Tow Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy and the only funny thing he's ever done.  I enjoyed Larry the Cable Guy in Cars but he's like Russell Brand; he's great as a supporting character but annoying and trying as a lead. Cars 2 is not a bad movie.  It's good.  There are vast sequences that made me laugh out loud, mostly brought on by another new Italian character voiced by the awesome John Turturro (Big Lebowski, Transformers) in one of the best performances he's had in years.  It also has a heartwarming montage set to Weezer (my favorite band) doing a cover of The Cars...again with the cleverness!  I think the victim here is Pixar itself.  They have raised the bar so high with their films that we don't expect another animated movie for kids; we expect art.  Toy Story 3 was the best movie of 2010 and made adults weep buckets.  The first 10 minutes of Up was more of a sweeping romance than anything that came out in the last decade.  The final scene of Monsters Inc. is still one of the best, most emotional endings I've ever seen.  Cars 2, though, is just slightly above another animated movie for kids.  And that's kind of upsetting. Cars 2  (Rated PG) Gavin Grade: B
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Kung Fu Panda 2

In 2008, when Kung Fu Panda came out, I remember saying that it looked like one of the worst children's movies I ever saw.  It looked insulting to Asians, a mere merchandising vehicle, and annoy since it was just as we started to get over-saturated with Jack Black.  Despite many people telling me that it's good and that I would enjoy it, I have yet to sit down and watch it.  So I brought my co-host Katie's 7-year-old daughter with me to the screening so that she could fill me in on what I needed to know from the first one.  Since 7-year-olds can't really do a great job of recounting something like a movie from three years ago with great detail, I didn't learn too much; however that had no effect on the fact that I enjoyed its sequel immensely! Since I never saw the first one I can't tell you if this picks up where the last one left off.  What I can tell you is that it gets off to a relatively slow beginning.  There isn't anything particularly funny or action-packed until you're almost a third of the way into the film, which is about the original Kung Fu crew going to a far-off city to stop an evil peacock from destroying all of Asia.  But once the plot picks up and the adventure begins it's nothing but a fun, exciting ball that keeps building in size and speed. I know that the tradition for animated movies is to pad them with a ton of celebrity voices since doing voice work is easy, quick and it's a way to get big names to endorse your silly kid movie but this is an impressive pedigree!  Returning from the first besides Black is Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman and the always funny David Cross (Men in Black II, HBO's Mr. Show).  The list gets even better with new characters for the sequel voiced by Gary Oldman (JFK, the Harry Potter series), Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD, Bloodsport) and Michelle Yeoh (Sunshine, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon).  These are all small, backseat performances compared to Black's but that's totally fine when you look at the subtly of the whole picture.  The only standout show-stealer is Gary Oldman who plays the villainous peacock named Lord Shen.  He rarely gives a bad performance, even when he's bad movies like Red Riding Hood, and has a never ending rolodex of character voices he can do to make you go "That was Gary Oldman?!?" when the credits roll. To me, the most impressive thing about this movie was how the action gave me goosebumps and the ending gave me tears.  This is probably the best animated film since Toy Story 3 and certainly the one with the most heart.  There are scenes in the movie where the action is so well executed and directed by comic book nerd Jennifer Yuh (Kung Fu Panda, Spawn) that you're delivered the same emotion you get from watching a great action sequence from an adult, live-action film.  Her use of slow motion as a homage to other kung fu films is not on-the-nose or pandering, it actually makes the scenes better.  In addition to that, it builds to an emotional climax that impressed me to the point where I hid a tear or two behind my 3D glasses. Kung Fu Panda 2 is so good that it makes me feel foolish that I ever said those things about the original.  I plan on watching the first one as soon as I can, but if I had to guess, Kung Fu Panda 2 has done what few movies, whether they're for kids or adults, can pull off...it's better than the original!  Plus it did it with the uphill battle of having Jack Black in it. Kung Fu Panda 2 (Rated PG) Gavin Grade: A-
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