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A leave of absence.

As if it wasn't obvious already, I've taken a rather lengthy hiatus from posting reviews.  Circumstances permitting, I'm hoping to get back into the swing of things this year.  (I would love to go back and write that thesis-long praise-fest analysis of Cloud Atlas, for instance!)

Puss in Boots

PUSS IN BOOTS   (10/30/2011)
As a spin-off, Puss in Boots effectively manages to avoid most everything associated with the fledgling Shrek series.  Untethered by that particular universe and all its trappings, we're given a movie that is Puss's through and through -- and by the time it wraps, we've been treated to a compelling origin story, a grand, swashbuckling adventure, and a firmer understanding of the feisty feline's titular character.

The story tackles some pretty substantial themes --- brotherhood, treachery, revenge, redemption -- and in this quasi Johnston McCulley world of pulp action heroes and double crossing bandits, it works really well.  Voice acting is just about perfect; Banderas is in top form, providing the roguish quality and gravitas required to bring Puss and his backstory to life.  Salma Hayek makes terrific chemistry as co-conspirator and potential love interest Kitty Softpaws, and the 'Desperado' vibe between the two stars is delectably transparent.  Zach Galifianakis's Humpty Dumpty is easily one of the most interesting characters in the series to date.  To quote Drew McWeeny: "He's both repellent and hypnotic.  There is something profoundly wrong about him in general, but the performance by Galifianakis is so human and grounded and sincere that he comes across as one of the most genuinely alive animated characters in recent memory."  One thing you can say about DreamWorks these days: they aren't afraid to make some bold choices about where to take their animated characters.  Just take a look at Hiccup from How To Train Your Dragon and Po from Kung Fu Panda 2.  Humpty joins their ranks.

And then there's the action.  From spirited dance fights to edgy swordplay to gun-toting wagon chases, the movie makes no bones about its swashbuckling roots, and instead fully embraces them.  Added icing are the fairytale fantastical elements, including both an ascent and descent down a massive beanstalk, the infiltration of a magic castle, and a final showdown with "The Great Terror."

Visuals are excellent for the most part.  Both vistas and action choreography are top notch, and the anthropomorphic characters look and animate great.  (Cat lovers should especially take note; the felines steal the show.)  The only downside, as usual, are DreamWorks' generic looking human designs.  Music-wise, Henry Jackman offers up his best work of the year, a lively blend of traditional Latin, folk, and orchestra.  The Rodrigo y Gabriela musical contributions are at least heard in the film, unlike On Stranger Tides, and the sole featured licensed pop song is a pleasant addition indeed.

The great irony of Puss in Boots is that it was directed by Chris Miller.  Miller, who was responsible for what is arguably the worst Shrek (Shrek the Third), comes around by bringing us one of the best films in the DreamWorks Animation catalog.  The movie is shockingly well crafted in just about every regard -- and if Puss doesn't end up with his own franchise, I'd be perfectly happy knowing that they put all their effort into creating this one, singularly excellent film.

Real Steel

REAL STEEL   (10/16/2011)
So after being wooed by its trailer, I felt an obligation to see if Real Steel was the real deal.  Director Shawn Levy has been hit and miss for me over the years.  I liked the first Night at the Museum well enough, but couldn't stand its sequel.  His last project Date Night was something of a misfire, but here, he's created a commercial product that hits every intended mark with sure-handed confidence.

Real Steel's biggest strength is its accessibility.  There's plenty of differing genres that make up this cinematic stew -- sci-fi robots, character bonding road trip, and spectacle sports fighting being the key ingredients -- and they're all marinated in an easy to digest, made-for-families style broth.  If my audience serves as any sort of barometer, then I'd say the movie makers are gonna be successful in capturing large demographics; there were movie-goers of all sorts and ages, and their reactions to the film were the very definition of the phrase "crowd pleaser."  It's easy to see why: the fights are rousing, the comedic bantering between Jackman and Dakota Goye is actually funny, and the genuinely touching moments are exactly that.

Jackman wears his patented "asshole" role here proudly, but it's made doubly effective because he's being touted as such in a family film.  His Charlie Kenton pretty much treats newfound son Max like dirt, but Goyo plays well against Jackman, standing toe to toe as the reciprocating half of this prickly father/son relationship.  There's a few moments of clunky dialogue here and there, and while the sentimentality is unabashedly heavy-handed toward the end, the emotional pay-off works well enough in spite of what comes before it.

Did I mention how beautifully shot the film is?  From the warm tones of heartland America (my favorite is the state fair at the beginning), to a precariously littered scrapyard during a thunderstorm at night, and the spacious, kinetically-charged arena for the final fight, Real Steel boasts some of the best principle photography I've seen in a live-action movie this year.  The robots are well conceived, a great blend of practical animatronic props and motion-capture CG.  Backed by the consultancy of Sugar Ray Leonard, the boxin' bots all look good doing their thing in the ring.

Danny Elfman's score is a progressive blend of acoustics, electronics, and orchestra.  Some of the acoustic
stuff sounds highly derivative of his past works (I swear there was one part lifted straight out of the "The Kingdom"), and while they're contextually pleasant sounding, these parts are ultimately forgettable.  On the other hand, there's a heroically memorable main theme designated for sparring bot Atom (best exemplified in the trio of Charlie Trains Atom, People's Champion, and Final Round), and the Hollywood Studio Symphony gives this feel-good piece enough drive to leave a lasting impression.

Make no mistake, you're not going to see a whole lot in Real Steel that you haven't seen before.  Whether it's paying loving homage to an entire genre of underdog, redemption-based boxing films like Rocky, The Champ, and Cinderella Man or shamelessly ripping them off is up to you to decide, but what it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in execution.



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