At the movies
AP Movie Critic
“Shrek the Third” begins with a death, and from there the movie itself steadily dies.
The third installment in this monster of an animated franchise still subverts the fairy tales we grew up knowing and loving, but it’s smothered in a suffocating sense of been-there, done-that.
Thankfully, as the films go along, they rely less on gratuitous pop-culture references. And visually this “Shrek” is more dazzling than ever, especially in the realistic background details. The water looks watery and the sand looks sandy and the trees look so lush and leafy you could practically jump out of your seat and climb into one of them. By now it’s probably easy for all of us to take for granted how far CGI technology has come, and it’s worth stopping to appreciate for a moment.
But part three also lacks the zip of its predecessors; it feels draggy and, at the same time, rushed. (At 86 minutes, it’s also the shortest film in the series.) Except for a few moments here and there, such as Prince Charming’s gleefully corny stage productions and a Gingerbread Man flashback montage, much of the original sense of ingenious fun is gone.
It doesn’t help that so many tired “Shrek” wannabes, like “Hoodwinked” and “Happily N’Ever After,” have been trotted out in recent years, making the real thing feel just as hackneyed. Chris Miller, previously a story artist, co-directed with animator Raman Hui. About a half-dozen people are credited as having contributed to the script, including Andrew Adamson, who directed the first two “Shrek” flicks. So there is a sense of consistency – it just doesn’t feel all that fresh anymore.
This time, the lovably cranky ogre Shrek (voiced reliably as always by Mike Myers) struggles with the prospect of becoming king of Far, Far Away after the death of King Harold, the father of his bride, Fiona (Cameron Diaz). He’d rather stay home in the swamp, lazing around all day.
(Why Fiona can’t take over in a fairy-tale land where the all the other rules have been upended is never addressed. She is the more even-tempered and levelheaded of the two, after all. Perhaps if Hillary were president …)
Anyway, Shrek sets out with his chatty sidekick Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and the suave Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas, still an adorable scene-stealer) to find the only other possible heir to the throne: the nerdy, insecure Artie, Fiona’s teenage cousin, who is voiced by Justin Timberlake and looks like Corey Feldman.
Artie is always on the receiving end of Lancelot’s athletic jousts and is otherwise the butt of everyone’s jokes at his medieval high school – the irony being, of course, that Timberlake has long been the coolest kid in the class. So when Shrek and his pals show up and offer him the kingdom, he’s only to happy to take it. At first.
Meanwhile, with hubby away, Fiona is left to defend the castle from Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), the vain former suitor she once jilted who has now come back to stage a bloody coup with a posse of vanquished villains (Captain Hook, the Evil Queen, etc.).
Fiona – who’s pregnant with the baby Shrek isn’t sure he’s ready for – gets some unexpected help on her end from longtime damsels in distress Snow White (Amy Poehler), Cinderella (Amy Sedaris), Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph) and Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri), as well as her mother, Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews).
It’s a clever idea to have these characters transcend their stereotypes, but with the exception of Poehler’s demanding diva, they all feel tossed in and underused. Like “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” throws more at us – including plenty of barf and flatulence jokes for the kids – but too little of it actually sticks.
“Shrek the Third,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG for some crude humor, suggestive content and swashbuckling action. Running time: 86 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Bring together some of cinema’s most eclectic, acclaimed directors (Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuaron, the Coen brothers) and toss in some of the most intriguing actors working today (Steve Buscemi, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a series of shorts celebrating the spirit of Paris and you could either end up with an inspiring mix or a rambling mess.
Thankfully, “Paris, Je T’aime” tends more toward the former than the latter.
As with any collection such as this, the results can be hit and miss; some shorts tell a complete story and leave you feeling wowed, charmed or moved, while others barely register. With 18 pieces in all, there should be something here to tantalize everyone’s tastes, or at least prompt you to contact your travel agent to book a vacation.
Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) presents a lovely slice of life with an early entry, “Quais de Seine.” Teenage Francois (Cyril Descours) goofs off with his buddies, hassling women walking by, until he sees a beautiful Muslim girl (Leila Bekhti) take a tumble right in front of him. He helps her up, gets to know her and is smitten. The story could have been preachy or politically correct, but Chadha, as writer and director, finds just the right touch.
Probably the funniest segment, “Tuileries,” comes from Joel and Ethan Coen and stars one of their favorite players, Buscemi, as an American tourist who breaks one of his guidebook’s cardinal rules while waiting on the Metro platform (“Eye contact should be avoided!”). Just the extreme close-ups of his expressive mug are good for a laugh, but then the situation becomes hilarious as it steadily grows more violent.
Gus Van Sant’s contribution, “Le Marais,” is extremely Gus Van Sant, for better and for worse. Two men (Gaspard Ulliel and Elias McConnell) have a cosmic meeting at a printer’s shop – well, at least one of them thinks it’s cosmic – and for a long time it feels like nothing’s happening, but if you stick with it, there’s a payoff.
“Loin du 16eme,” from Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, is so engaging you wish it would go on longer. Sandino Moreno, the Oscar-nominated star of “Maria Full of Grace,” plays a young immigrant who leaves her baby and her working-class neighborhood early in the morning for the long commute to a wealthier part of the city, where she’s the nanny for another woman’s baby. What she does with her eyes alone is so subtle, but it says everything.
Cuaron mesmerizes with his surprising, single-take “Parc Monceau.” A craggy middle-aged American man (Nick Nolte, who’s honed that persona to perfection) meets up with a young French woman (Ludivine Sagnier) and walks down the street with his arm around her. The two have a spirited, intimate discussion but the talk don’t go where you might initially suspect they will.
But then the next short, Olivier Assayas’ “Quartier des Enfants Rouges,” is a letdown by comparison. Gyllenhaal stars as an American actress who’s working on a film in Paris (and she speaks flawless French, by the way). Feeling bored and alone, she turns to drugs to fulfill her longings, but ends up unsatisfied. So do we.
“Pigalle” from Richard LaGravenese features strong performances from Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant as a longtime couple falling out of love, but the short itself feels like a gimmick.
Things pick up again with “Quartier Latin,” from directors Frederic Auburtin and Gerard Depardieu starring the stunning Gena Rowlands, who also wrote the script. Rowlands and Ben Gazzara play an estranged husband and wife who meet for drinks the night before they sign their divorce papers. Everything about it is classy, smart and sharp.
“Paris, Je T’aime” ends on an unexpectedly wistful note (though it could also be hopeful, depending on your perspective) with Payne’s “14eme Arrondissement.” Margo Martindale, a middle-aged American postal worker, wanders around the city alone, detailing in a voiceover what she did during her vacation in awkward, self-taught French.
It’s not sexy or stylish or glamorous or any of the things you might assume Paris would be before going there. But of all the segments that comprise the film, it comes the closest to depicting honestly what it feels like to fall in love.
“Paris, Je T’aime,” a First Look Pictures release, is rated R for language and brief drug use. In English and French with subtitles.
ONCE UPON A TIME
Forget everything you think you know about the movie musical, one of the more tried-and-true and utterly predictable genres around.
With “Once,” writer-director John Carney deconstructs it and reinvents it as something wholly new, inspired and alive.
He also breathes fresh life into the idea of screen romance with the unexpected relationship he depicts between an Irish street performer (the riveting Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Frames) and a young Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova, who’s strikingly talented). Carney follows them over the course of a week through working-class Dublin, with intimate, verite camerawork, as they meet, get to know each other and share a love of music.
Charmingly awkward in their initial small talk, they discover they bond seamlessly when they start collaborating on his album – him on the guitar, her on the piano, their harmonies soaring and sending a chill down your spine.
No one ever bursts into song in “Once” – the tunes just evolve naturally, making you feel as if you’re a part of the process, leaving you emotionally invested in these characters and not just wowed by their performances. He tinkers with a melody or finds he’s stuck writing lyrics and asks her to help; she listens to what he’s come up with and provides some suggestions. And voila – a song is born.
(OK, so maybe they fit together a bit too perfectly on their first try, but they sound so phenomenal, you may as well surrender.)
In the most clever example of this tactic, he’s lent her a CD player to listen to one of his half-finished songs. She walks to a convenience store near her cramped apartment to buy some new batteries, pulls on a set of headphones and comes up with the words on the way home, her voice piercing the darkness and the nighttime traffic.
Here’s how subtle Carney’s craftsmanship is: You don’t even realize his characters have no names until the closing credits begin rolling. Hansard, who isn’t a traditionally trained actor (though he did appear in “The Commitments”), has a warm, likable demeanor. Carney, formerly the bassist for the Frames, had asked Hansard to write the songs for the film and ended up making him the star, and it’s easy to see why. He’s comfortable in front of the camera, with whomever he comes into contact.
When he straps on a guitar and starts singing, though, he’s a powerhouse – his voice can be raw and clear, impassioned and imperfect. But it always feels like you’re listening to a true, heartfelt expression of who he is. Hansard wrote or co-wrote nearly all the songs in “Once,” except for a couple that came from Irglova and a Van Morrison tune at the beginning. In theory, the folk-rock tunes comment on what’s happening in the movie, but they never seem to do so in an obvious, literal manner. They’re both driving and melancholy; they’ll change your mood.
Irglova, meanwhile, was only 17 years old when she was chosen for “Once,” and she handles herself with the confidence of a longtime pro. This was her first film and, like Hansard, she possesses a natural way about her that makes her a joy to watch, someone to root for.
This small film is a huge surprise – brilliant simply because it doesn’t try so hard to be brilliant – and it’s one of the year’s best.
“Once,” a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, is rated R for language. Running time: 88 minutes. Four stars out of four.