3 items from 2003
Friday, Nov. 7
Having successfully demonstrated his big-screen comic chops with "Old School", Will Ferrell again proves there is indeed life after "SNL", playing an elf-reared naif who sets off from the North Pole for New York to seek out the biological dad he never met.
While the words "instant holiday classic" might be pushing it, "Elf" is at the very least a breezily entertaining, perfectly cast family treat. Actor-director Jon Favreau, working from a colorful script by David Berenbaum, has delivered just the right combination of naughty and nice, or, as the MPAA calls it, "mild rude humor and language."
That crowd-pleasing blend and Ferrell's irresistible performance will not only ensure that the halls of New Line will be decked out in plenty of green (as if the upcoming final "Lord of the Rings" installment hasn't already all but guaranteed that), but it's also likely to give a certain cat in a certain hat a run for his money this holiday season.
What it basically comes down to is this: How bad can a movie be that begins with a sullen-looking Bob Newhart clad in full elf regalia?
Newhart's Papa Elf provides the narration for this pleasantly fractured fairy tale about a little baby in an orphanage, who happened to find his way into Santa's sack of toys one Christmas Eve. The stowaway wasn't discovered until after the man in the red suit (played by gruff old Lou Grant himself, Ed Asner) returned to the North Pole and was subsequently raised by Papa Elf as his own son.
It soon became quite apparent that the child he named Buddy (Ferrell) was going to have trouble fitting in, given that he was growing at a rate that was roughly three times that of his workshop colleagues.
Ultimately Buddy is told the truth about his being an elf-made man and that his real biological father is alive and well and living in Manhattan.
A Scrooge-like workaholic children's book publisher, papa Walter Hobbs (James Caan) also happens to be a permanent fixture on Santa's naughty list. But that doesn't thwart Buddy, who travels to New York to introduce himself to Dad.
As babe-in-the-woods Buddy -- a vision in green, yellow tights and pointy shoes -- soon discovers, not only does Hobbs not exactly welcome his long-lost son with open arms, but Manhattan is in serious need of an injection of Christmas spirit.
It's jingling formula all the way, but Favreau (who makes good on "Made", his 2001 directorial debut) and screenwriter Berenbaum (who also penned the Walt Disney Co.'s upcoming "The Haunted Mansion"), lend the story plenty of comic smarts. There's sweetness, but it's seldom cloying.
There's also the terrific supporting cast, which includes Mary Steenburgen as Caan's resilient wife and Zooey Deschanel as the jaded Jovie, who works with Buddy at the thoughtfully resurrected Gimbel's department store
But there would be no "Elf" without Ferrell, and whether he's trying to hopscotch his way across Broadway or attempting to navigate his first escalator, he always manages to work a rousing subversive element into his character's core innocence.
Visually, the picture celebrates the best of the genre. The North Pole sequences incorporate animated elements that pay direct tribute to those vintage Rankin-Bass specials, while cinematographer Greg Gardiner and production designer Rusty Smith favor old-fashioned, forced perspective techniques over CGI to create those size disparities between Buddy and the elves.
Aurally, John Debney's appropriately festive score has been supplemented with a generous selection of swingin' Yuletide tunes by Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Leon Redbone, while Deschanel, who joins Ferrell in an impromptu rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", reveals a singing voice that's a study in Keely Smith cool.
New Line Cinema
Guy Walks Into a Bar Prods.
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: David Berenbaum
Producers: Jon Berg
Todd Komarnicki, Shauna Robertson
Executive producers: Jimmy Miller
Julie Wixson Darmody
Director of photography: Greg Gardiner
Production designer: Rusty Smith
Editor: Dan Lebental
Costume designer: Laura Jean Shannon
Music: John Debney
Visual effects supervisor: Joe Bauer
Casting: Susie Farris
Buddy: Will Ferrell
Walter: James Caan
Jovie: Zooey Deschanel
Emily: Mary Steenburgen
Santa Claus: Edward Asner
Papa Elf: Bob Newhart
Michael: Daniel Tay
Manager: Faizon Love
Running time -- 90 minutes
MPAA rating: PG »
Former Cheers star Ted Danson had his wedding anniversary saved by comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, after he ran out of ideas on how to celebrate it. The actor and his wife Mary Steenburgen celebrated their eighth anniversary Tuesday, but their traditional way of marking the occasion was hampered by their heavy workloads. During an appearance on DeGeneres' chat show, Danson explained, "I'm in a jam. We fell in love on a river, so every year on our anniversary we try to get on a river. We've been on Colorado, San Juan, and this year I don't know what to do. We're both working so I'm desperately trying to figure out how to celebrate our anniversary." DeGeneres stepped in to save the day by handing him a bundle of items related to bodies of water: a pair of tickets to go and see Mystic River, Justin Timberlake's Cry Me A River Cd, DVDs of The River Wild and A River Runs Through It, a picture of Melissa Rivers, and a picture of Gene Hackman "just for the hell of it". »
Venice & Toronto International Film Festivals
In "Casa de los Babys", writer-director John Sayles once more burrows into the emotional terrain of a community, probing his characters' lives for their strengths and weaknesses and surveying the social landscape in which that community exists.
This time the community is a temporary one. We are in the midst of six American women holed up in a comfortable hotel in an unnamed Latin American country, waiting out the bureaucratic paper-shuffling that will allow each to adopt a baby. The situation allows Sayles to explore not only their different personalities but the pros and cons of foreign adoptions, cultural differences between these women and their host country and the motivations that drive people to adopt children.
That Sayles has a keen eye for details and the savvy to create intriguing character studies on a broad canvas have been amply demonstrated by films such as "Sunshine State" and "Lone Star". But "Casa" feels like a miss. The digging into each of these women's lives stays shallow and seldom uncovers anything unexpected. Costing slightly more than $1 million, "Casa" should enjoy modest success in specialty venues for IFC Films.
Originally a short story writer and novelist, Sayles is unique among American filmmakers in that he approaches movie writing, directing and editing -- the three jobs he performs on all his films -- novelistically. He craves a wide canvas with multiple characters and subplots. Ideas trump images as he tackles complex stories and themes that force audiences to think. The milieu of his story is important to him, and he feels no need to bring every subplot to a neat and tidy conclusion.
But he also fails to acknowledge cinema's need for economy of expression and focus. "Casa" all too often meanders from his main story. Scenes feel written rather than lived. What may have looked and sounded good on the page comes off as stilted, even a little pretentious, when played by actors.
The guests in the Casa de los Babys include Nan Marcia Gay Harden), an opinionated and demanding woman with issues involving her own childhood that make her an unlikely mother. She is wary of the others, especially Skipper (Daryl Hannah), a health and fitness fanatic who is always exercising. Leslie (Lili Taylor), who has given up on men, gives as good as she gets from Nan but loves to dish with Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhall), a wealthy woman apparently going through a difficult patch in her marriage.
Eileen (Susan Lynch), of Irish-Boston heritage, counts her money and skips meals to stay within a meager budget, while Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) tries to keep her emotional footing as a recovered alcoholic and born-again Christian. The hotel is run by pragmatic Senora Munoz (Rita Moreno), whose son is on probation due to his anarchistic tendencies.
Sayles juggles these women's stories with those of several locals: A pregnant teen meekly submits to her mother's choice to go to Miami for an abortion, a homeless street kid scrounges for money, an unemployed man scrounges for work, and a maid wonders what became of her own adopted child. While these flimsy passages suit Sayles' thematic needs, they sabotage his dramatic ones. Mostly, they distract from his main stories and never really pay off except in contrast to the lives and desires of the Yankee women.
Revelations about the women, when they arrive, feel pat and perfunctory. Characters burst into monologues at preordained moments that come off as contrived. Sayles' cinematic style is somewhat perfunctory too as he fails to exploit the exotic setting -- the film was shot in Acapulco -- and its natural beauty. At 95 minutes, "Casa" is actually one of Sayles' shorter films, but it feels long because the editing is much too leisurely. The soundtrack is nicely understated and contains a number of fine Latin songs.
CASA DE LOS BABYS
A Syvan/Springall production
Writer-director-editor: John Sayles
Producers: Lemore Syvan, Alejandro Springall
Executive producers: Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan
Director of photography: Mauricio Rubinstein
Production designer: Filipe Fernandez del Paso
Music: Mason Daring
Costume designer: Mayes C. Rubeo
Leslie: Lili Taylor
Gayle: Mary Steenburgen
Nan: Marcia Gay Harden
Jennifer: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Skipper: Daryl Hannah
Eileen: Susan Lynch
Senora Munoz: Rita Moreno
Running time -- 95 minutes
MPAA rating: R »
3 items from 2003
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