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Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin: Partners in Crime

Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep act like they’ve known each other for decades. They finish and interrupt each other’s thoughts, stray off-topic with funny anecdotes and in general, just give each other a hard time. It’s obvious the bond formed while making ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ is a lasting one. What follows is one of the most enjoyably random interviews I’ve had the pleasure of attempting to conduct.

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Keillor the Conquerer

It seems Garrison Keillor is set to conquer the world. The media world, that is. He’s a best-selling author, an admired public radio personality and now, an actor/screenwriter. Though unfamiliar to many in Hollywood, he’s making a major entrance, of sorts, with this weekend’s release of ‘A Prairie Home Companion.’ Recently he sat down to talk about the film, the future of public radio and romancing Meryl Streep.

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Interview with Michel Gondry

French filmmaker Michel Gondry is best known for his collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, including their Oscar-winning film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which may have made him a strange choice to create a cinematic diary known as “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” Recently, the director sat down to speak about a wide variety of topics, including the power of cinema as a positive influence in people’s lives.

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All the elements of the familiar formula are here: celebrity voice talent, witty dialogue, familiar characters, even a snappy soundtrack, but something is amiss. Ironically, the movie’s tagline, “Not your typical crime. Not your usual suspects,” almost sums up everything that’s wrong here. The crime (a random, disjointed and cheesily assembled storyline) IS typical and the suspects, (a studio looking to climb into box office success and an entertainment company looking to get its hands dirty in all aspects of the industry) ARE usual. In short, there’s nothing original here.

Pitched as the “true” story of Little Red Riding Hood, the film begins at the end of the classic tale, in which an unpleasant scene unfolds at Granny’s house. Red (Anne Hathaway) arrives at her Granny’s house to find the Wolf (Patrick Warburton) wearing a Granny mask and Granny clothes. She attempts to karate chop him when a tied-up Granny (Glenn Close), bounces out of the closet. Before anyone can do anything, the Woodsman (Jim Belushi) crashes through the living room window. Naturally, their antics cause quite a stir and the local authorities show up. Police Chief Grizzly (Xzibit) and police officer Bill Stork (Anthony Anderson) think they’ve just found prime suspects in the “Goody Bandit” case and start to take them all to jail. In walks “Bandit” detective Nicky Flippers (David Ogden Stiers), who convinces them to interrogate suspects on the spot. From here, through flashbacks from each character’s perspective, we learn why everyone ended up at Granny’s house together.

Red is a delivery girl for her Granny’s goody business, but has grown tired of her daily route and wants out. She’s distracted when a phone call with Granny ends abruptly, so she hurries to Granny’s house to check on her. The Wolf is an undercover investigative reporter who suspects shadiness in Granny’s business and follows Red in order to question her involvement. The Woodsmen is an idiot and an aspiring actor. Really. He gets mixed into the story by chance. Granny, we learn, leads a double-life. She is one part domesticated dessert queen and one part extreme sports enthusiast, who literally gets tied up in her own secretive affairs.

As the characters reveal their secrets and individual agendas, they realize they’ve all been thwarted in some way by the “Goody Bandit” and predictably, decide to stop him/her as a team.

Confusedr I was. As I mentioned earlier, the film is strangely disjointed and random. The filmmakers try, almost desperately, to trick us into enjoyment and employ all the tactics that worked in films like “Shrek” and “Ice Age,” only unsuccessfully so. The directing/writing trio (Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards and Tony Leech) had some great ideas; they just didn’t put them together very well. Too often you’re left scratching your head about a plot turn or scene change and worse, trying to remember where you’ve seen it before. This is the biggest problem with this film; it’s too much of a copycat

It should be noted, however, that “Hoodwinked” marks the feature-film debuts of both Cory Edwards and Tony Leech, and is only the second feature for Todd Edwards. Therefore I’m willing to cut them some slack. The animation is good, a few songs on the soundtrack are catchy (the original ones all written by Todd Edwards) and there are several laugh-out-loud, funny scenes – particularly with the Wolf and his sidekick Twitchy (voiced by Cory Edwards).

Anne Hathaway is fine, as Red, but we all know it’s not a stretch for her to play an opinionated, overzealous teenager. She does sing a song in the film, though. Glenn Close is unrecognizable as Granny, which, in this case, is probably good for her. She just sounds like an old lady. Equally forgettable is Jim Belushi, whose numbingly inept Woodsmen is a bad joke waiting to happen. It’s a shame because both actors could offer a lot more had their characters been written with more substance.

Xzibit, David Ogden Stiers and Anthony Anderson are decent support, with Chazz Palminteri (Woolworth, the scheming sheep) and Benjy Gaither (Japeth the Goat) making the more memorable appearances.

Patrick Warburton’s Wolf completely steals the show. Warburton’s laid-back, can’t-be-bothered delivery is perfect for his sly, sarcastic character, and his wordplay with Cory Edwards’ fast-talking, spastic squirrel is impressive. Their scenes together are the most enjoyable in the film.

So it’s not that this film is bad; it’s just not very good. As I’ve mentioned before, the filmmakers just don’t do anything new here and the storyline is all over the place. If that’s not enough, they completely cheese-out with the ending, a hopeless and blatant set-up for a sequel.

If you’re hard up for mindless entertainment, you’ll undoubtedly be able to lose yourself in “Hoodwinked.” If you’re an animation geek, you’ll probably appreciate some of the action sequences. If you’re a Patrick Warburton fan, it’s almost worth the price of admission for his performance, but you won’t miss anything if you wait for the DVD.

Rating: C-

King Kong (KaraWarner)

Forget the cheesy trailers, the huge budget, and the hype. This is a film for those looking to escape reality and who enjoy movies for what they are: entertainment, pure and simple.

The story is set in New York City in the 1930’s, where we meet struggling Vaudeville performer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), starving for her first big break. She finds it with sleazily charismatic movie producer, Carl Denham (Jack Black) who, having just lost his star and the financial backing to finish his project, offers her the lead in his film if she can leave to shoot on-location immediately. She hesitantly agrees and through several shady maneuvers and a serious lack of financial support, Carl somehow avoids getting arrested and sets sail to his unknown, exotic film location. Other players are his pushover of an assistant Preston (Colin Hanks), narcissistic film star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and the real intelligence behind the operation, playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), whom Carl tricks into staying on-board. Thus begins the journey to the dreaded Skull Island.

The trip is a long one, the longest part of the movie actually, and veers off on several subplots. One of course, is a budding romance between Ann and Jack, and the other follows the secrets of the crew members – namely a stowaway Jimmy (Jamie Bell) and the Captain himself (Thomas Kretschmann) whom we suspect, know more about this Skull Island then they admit. Regardless, we all know they have to get to the island to find Kong, so Jackson’s decision to prolong their arrival is really a waste of time and film.

Fast-forward through a few “moments” with Jack and Ann, arguments among the crew, and an unnecessarily long boat-landing sequence, and we get to (finally) the arrival on Skull Island and the discovery of the island’s native people. They are a creepy and violently deranged group, who kidnap Ann for a disturbing, cult-like sacrificial ritual. Enter the mighty Kong (voiced by the creature-master himself, Andy Serkis), who carries Ann off into the jungle. Jack soon discovers Ann’s absence and organizes a rescue mission while Carl, the only member of the crew who sees Kong carry Ann away, packs his camera.

From here on out, the movie kicks into high-gear. And I’m talking edge of your seat, neck-cramp-inducing, high-gear. The next two hours contain the most elaborate and intense action sequences I’ve seen in a long time. Now of course, not all of them make sense. Amazingly, lost parties are twice recovered by rescuers who, if really stranded on an unknown island, would have no way of knowing where to find them. Also, Ann is somehow able to run full speed through the jungle without once injuring her shoeless feet. One lengthy battle between Kong and not one, but three T-Rex’s, borders so close to ridiculous, both length-wise and logistics-wise, you start wondering if it will ever end. That being said, you can’t help but be pulled into Jackson’s fantastically fictitious realm. There is simply too much great here, to focus on the mediocre. And speaking of great, there are several heart-stopping sequences after which, you have to unclench your neck muscles and remember to breathe. Talk about engaging.

Another great aspect of this film is the performances. Watts is wonderful as Ann. Particularly impressive is the fact that most of her work was against a green screen and with huge, lifeless props. Yet her scenes with Kong are the entire heart of the film. Unlike the character in the original movie who screams the whole time, Watts’ Ann grows to understand and appreciate Kong which, along with a little help from Serkis’ performance, humanizes his character. Brody is perfect as the unlikely hero. His character has a spirited intelligence and provides a steady and primary support for Ann. He is wonderful to watch onscreen, there is something just inexplicably attractive about him. Black is definitely a stand-out. His conniving, soulless and comical Carl casts an even darker shadow on the already ominous profession of movie producers, but brilliantly so. (Except for that super-cheesy last line of the film, but I won’t spoil it here.) Kyle Chandler is also surprisingly good as the arrogant coward, Bruce Baxter. Who would’ve thought there would be life after that 90’s TV Show, ‘Early Editionr’

One more item worth mentioning briefly is the film’s score. James Newton Howard blends just the right amount of alarm and suspense (sounds like a distant, pulsating heartbeat) leading into the action sequences, as he does with the softer sound that enhances Ann and Kong‘s charming, heartfelt connection. That connection, thanks to Jackson’s script, Serkis’ performance and the brilliance of WETA’s effects teams, just melts your heart. It gives Kong such a humanistic, lovable personality; you can’t help but fall in love with him. It is a major success of the film.

So take what you will from the hype, the big budget and all the computer generated effects. I’ve already admitted there are some cheesy and unbelievably over-the-top moments, but in knowing even the smallest detail about the story, the only expectation to go in with is to be entertained. That’s why we like this medium in the first place, isn’t itr That said, I suppose it depends on one’s individual definition of entertainment. If you’re into small, quiet, meaningful films, “King Kong” is not for you.

Personally, I went in thinking I was not going to enjoy myself. I was ready for three hours of rolling my eyes. I was wrong. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten so much out of a trip to the theater. If you like a little something of everything: action, drama, romance, even comedy, you will like this film. Look for it to break some records. It just has the all-around appeal to draw repeat customers and serious box-office cash. And all you film snobs out there should go see this movie too. But try to leave your analytical, judgmental alter-egos at home and enjoy yourself, just this once. I did. I think Peter Jackson did too.

Rating: A