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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Shrek Forever After, Looking for Eric and Father of My Children …

Shrek Forever After (Three Stars)
U.S.; Mike Mitchell, 2010

Shrek Forever After is supposedly “The Final Chapter.” But that title may be making false promises.I’d go to another Shrek after seeing this one, and I suspect many moviegoers will concur. The mega-grossing DreamWorks feature cartoon series, which began with a bang in 2001 — a Cannes Film Festival Official Selection, and a best animated feature Oscar — has had is ups and downs in the two sequels since (2004‘s business-as-usual Shrek 2 and 2007‘s so-so Shrek the Third). But this Chapter Four in the hip fairytale of the enchanted Princess and her surly green Ogre love, won’t spell bankruptcy in anybody’s books — certainly not financially, and, despite cries of aesthetic impoverishment spewing from some critics, not artistically either.

It’s a funny movie, it’s well-executed and well-acted, and it’s also, as the first Shrek was, and the next two weren‘t, a good story.

That can’t have been easy. The problem with making a follow-up to the 2001 Shrek is that, in narrative terms, it was perfect in itself. After Shrek the Ogre (Mike Myers), completed his quest with his ever-rapping Donkey pal (Eddie Murphy), and kissed the beautiful, but fitfully monstrous Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and she became not all-Princess but all-Ogre, and the two went off to live happily ever after in a world that didn’t have the Looks-Uber-Alles hiring policies of the average American TV show, the story really had nowhere else to go.

But like all automatic sequels to big hits, it went there anyway. Fast. Luckily, in those next two Shreks, Shrek and Donkey picked up some interesting travel companions — most notably the swashbuckling little pussycat Puss in Boots, voiced to a fine turn by Pedro Almodovar’s old pal Antonio Banderas. And the movies were entertaining enough, if not exactly the sassy, dreamy, wise-acre, Cannes-smashing triumph the first one was.

Shrek Forever After though (did anyone try to make it “Shrek 4Ever After?) has a nifty premise, thanks, one supposes to writers Josh Clausner and Darren Lemke. (Clausner wrote the Steve Carell-Tina Fey fish-out-of water mom-pop rom-com Date Night.) There’s a new villain in the kingdom of Far Far Away — well-actually an old villain, recycled from the Grimm Brothers: a smarmy, duplicitous, wicked little bad-chappie named Rumpelstiltskin, drawn as if he were a midget Jim Carrey or ‘50s comic Orson Bean, played like Billy Crystal as the devil, and voiced very amusingly not by a star actor but by a cartoon factory working stiff: DreamWorks’ head of story Walt Dohrn.

Rumpel, you’ll remember from Grimm, was always hoaxing and misleading people and robbing them blind on contracts, which suggests he had a future not in fairyland but on Wall Street. Inexplicably though, the movie’s Rump chose Far Far Away as his arena. And he was actually within a hair of getting the whole kingdom signed over to him by Princess Fiona’s distraught Mom-Queen (Julie Andrews) and Pop-King (John Cleese), when Shrek pulled down his castle walls by un-enchanting Fiona.

Now, the nasty little cartoon bastard is back, with his big strange Mother of a Goose and lots of awful schemes. He hates Shrek, hates Fiona, hates little birds and bunnies, hates everything good and decent, hates all of us. And he’s as sneaky and devious and destructive as a political campaign manager with a huge TV budget. Capitalizing on Shrek’s middle age malaise, a discontent that hits him at his Shrek triplets‘ hectic birthday party — and cognizant of the Green Guy’s yearning for the old days when he could just roar and everyone would run away — Rumpel offers him a contact. Shrek will get one day as the old horrific monster of the first movie Shrek. And all he has to give up is one insignificant day from sometime in his childhood.

Such a deal! And such a soundtrack! (Everything from I’m a Believer to the Carpenters’ Top of the World.) Unfortunately, Rump‘s contract has a Catch-22, an “It‘s a Wonderful Life” clause that wrecks Shrek‘s world and turns Far Far Away into someplace from which any Ogre would stay far, far away if we could: the shadowy, dark side Rump of Fairyland. The insignificant day Rumpelstiltskin chooses for foreclosure is the day Shrek was born, meaning that — in the new alternative-world Phil-dickian Far Far Away, run by Rump, the Goose, the Pied Piper, and lots of “Wizard of Oz-y” witches looking for Totos to stomp, and Shreks to shred — Shrek, like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, was never born and never existed.

What a mess! People may be scared of him, but nobody knows Shrek. Donkey, now a beast of burden for the local witch brigade, doesn’t know him. Puss, now a lazy fat cat who can barely buckle his swash, doesn’t know him. The Gingerbread Man doesn’t know him. Fiona, now the leader of the local Ogre rebellion against the tyranny of Rumpelstiltskin, doesn’t know him, and won’t kiss him. And a true-love kiss is the only thing that will wipe out the bad contract, foil Rumpel’s plot and restore the Shrekian order. Shrek has only one day and night to get that smacker from the new two-fisted Fiona, while eluding the wicked witches, enduring 1001 wisecracks from Donkey and trying to keep Puss off the Fancyfeast.

I know you’ve heard it all before, especially Top of the World. But I’ll bet you still want to see what happens next (even though you pretty much know). That’s the innovation of the fourth Shrek. It has funny, well-articulated characters — they all do — but it also has an engaging story.

The movie’s new director Mike Mitchell, doesn’t exactly have the most intimidating credentials. Both Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo and that sequel of sequels, Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo are on his resume. But he does a good job here, not only getting snappy performances from everybody (probably not that big a trick, considering this cast, which also boasts Larry King and Regis Philbin as Doris and Mabel), but deftly modulating the pace and mood from frenetic to somber, and the dramatic-comic hues from bouncy-light to horrific-dark.

In fact, the last part of the picture, the last act of Shrek, Donkey and Puss’s Long Day’s Journey into Rumpelstiltskin Land, is probably a bit too dark, or at least not noirishly various enough. Except for the character animation, and the castle details, I wouldn’t call Shrek Forever After a visual knockout. (Though it is, compared to the average non-Pixar animation of say, a decade ago, before the first Shrek wowed Cannes.) There’s also little need for the 3D here; the only times I remembered my glasses were on were when a witch or a dragon would occasionally fly by, or when Puss got a cutesy attack of Martha/Walter Keane big, sad eyes. You may as well see it flat.

Director Mitchell also plays four parts in the movie well, notably his show-stopping gig as Butter Pants, the little boy whose father (Ryan Seacrest) prods Shrek, at the birthday party, to deliver a good old-fashioned Shrekian roar. It’s a great bit: This squashed, dour-looking little toddler, repeatedly insists, in a phlegmatic, deep bass voice, “Do the roar” — the biggest laugh line in the entire movie. (In fact, Mitchell’s Butter Pants may get more laughs with fewer words than any character in movie history.) Has the spirit of ‘50s child actor George “Foghorn” Winslow, the grumbling, foghorn-voiced tot superstar of Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darnedest Things and Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (where the 7-year-old Foghorn flirted with Marilyn Monroe) been revived? Maybe. And maybe a new career as an offscreen cartoon child star awaits Mitchell

A new career also awaits Walt Dohrn, the DreamWorks head of story turned cartoon voice actor who not only earns plaudits for the story here (he must have had something to do with it), but who also definitively puts the Rumpel into Rumpelstiltskin. Overall, the character animation in Shrek is terrific, especially for Puss in Boots (great cat moves) and Shrek (what a kisser). But actors like Dohrn, Banderas and Myers (the guy who puts the Shrek in Shrek) — not to mention Murphy and Diaz — are a large part of what makes the movie click.

For his amazing ability to act the ass, Murphy deserves a standing donkey ovation. For her Joan of Arc-ish inspiration — with her evergreen beauty, and a heart, as the DreamWorks advertising department might say, Somewhere Ogre the Rainbow — Diaz deserves a Princess salute. And for his incredible penetration, as Puss, into the heart of feline cunning and cat bravado, Banderas deserves all the fancy-feasting, all the executive purring (and the promised spin-off movie) DreamWorks can provide. What an Ass! What an Ogress! What a Puss!

As for Myers, what can we say? What a Shrek! Do the roar.

There is life after The Love Guru.

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Looking for Eric (Three and a Half Stars)
U.K.-France-Italy-Belgium-Spain; Ken Loach, 2009

Ken Loach, the director of Looking for Eric, may be England’s greatest living film director — at least he’s in a tie with Mike Leigh — but it’s a shame how few people really see his movies. How many moviegoers are aware of what a masterpiece 1971’s Kes (Loach’s classic about a boy and his falcon) is? Or Riff Raff? Or Raining Stones? Or My Name is Joe? Or The Wind that Shakes the Barley?

By the same token, most Americans not into sports may be unfamiliar with Looking for Eric costar Eric Cantona, though he’s one of the greatest, most famous and most controversial soccer (aka football) stars in British sports history. Cantona, a dark-haired, photogenic guy who retired at 30, after the 1996-97 season (after winning six titles with various teams in France and England, including both Leeds United and Manchester United) is a superstar among British soccer fans. But he’s been primarily a film actor in recent years, including a small part as the French Ambassador in Cate Blanchett’s 1998 Elizabeth and this lead role as himself, tailor-made for him by Loach.

Actually, Cantona doesn’t so much play himself as play a dream of himself, like the fantasy Humphrey Bogart, played by Jerry Lacy who pops up in Woody Allen‘s head in Play It Again, Sam. The hapless Stretford End resident who calls Cantona up is yet another Eric: postman and fanatic soccer fan Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), a wordy, but beleaguered guy who badly needs some advice to straighten out his messed up life: his problems with two live-in stepsons plagued by the local gangs, and his torment over a long lost love, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), with whom he desperately wants to re-connect. Through all this, the fantasy Cantona gives him sage counsel and support, even though he’s not there when other people look at Bishop having a conversation with his idol, and even though the real-life Cantona was a famous hot-tempered brawler and rebel, who occasionally needed sage counsel himself.

Loach‘s specialty lies in creating ultra-realistic fictional film portraits of British working class life (and even, in one case, American life, which he showed trenchantly in 2001’s Bread and Roses, a solid labor-organizing film with Adrien Brody, Elpidia Carrillo and George Lopez). And that’s what he gives us in the first half of Looking for Eric, with its marvelous presentation of scrappy homes, bars, and street life, in which postman Eric and his mates (including a spot-on job by John Henshaw as Meatballs), share their passion for soccer, beer and ragging each other.

That’s all typical Loach, cannily written and sharply photographed by his usual writer, Paul Laverty, and his usual cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd — and acted with great spontaneity and verve by a wholly convincing cast. (Loach often uses improvisation with his actors, as does Leigh.)

But the fantasy scenes with Cantona are unusual for him, though he shoots them in the same watchful, realistic style he uses on “reality.“ And so is the really offbeat ending, a comic rebellion against the local thugs, with Bishop and his entire crew wearing Eric Cantona masks and armed with red paint sprayers. This is fantasy and comedy of a kind Loach usually doesn’t tap, but the crystalline realism of the early sections push it into the net.

Loach is an old-fashioned leftie, of the kind regularly trashed by McCarthyite clowns like flag-waving, blackboard-obsessed Glenn Beck and football-throwing fatso Sean Hannity on Fox News, and his viewpoint permeates Looking for Eric. It’s a viewpoint that has grown, but hasn’t suffered any serious compromise ever since Loach delivered in, 1966’s classic TV drama Cathy Come Home, a body-blow that wound up helping change Britain’s housing laws. (Unhappily, the housing situation there may be worse today.) Looking for Eric is in a more antic mood. But it’s just as fiercely idealistic, just as proudly British, just as tough and humane and compassionate. And it’s nice to know the guy loves football too.

One critical note: Loach usually has his casts speak with authentic regional accents in his films, and those hardcore everyday accents are sometimes hard to penetrate. Some of his movies have been subtitled for that reason, and I think this one should have been too — though most people won’t have any problem with it. There’s a tendency for some art film and indie distributors to be leery of too many subtitles, and it’s abetted by critics who think their spontaneous experiences are being somehow compromised. But understanding is always preferable to opacity, and if the titles are put in a black area under the image, they’re not really bothersome to subtitle-haters or to people from the North of England.

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Father of My Children (Three and a Half Stars)
French; Mia Hansen-Love, 2009

The French actor Louis-Do de Lenquesaing does a great job in Father of My Children, playing a brilliant but reckless French independent film producer named Gregoire Canvel — a seductive, high-energy character entangled in a modern movie world of shaky finances, temperamental artists and constant cell-phone calls.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

Lenquesaing’s performance is so strong that it actually leaves a hole in the movie when he vanishes halfway through, committing suicide to avoid an impending financial collapse. The movie however, gets even better: becoming a marvelous, moving family drama of love and remembrance, as Gregoire’s widow Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) tries to pull his company together, bravely facing problems that may be insoluble.

Gregoire is based on a real producer, Humbert Balsan, who really did commit suicide in the midst of financial turmoil, and who also worked with Father’s brilliant young writer director Mia Hansen-Love. (Hansen-Love also has her counterpart in Gregoire’s young protégé here.)

END OF SPOILER

The Hungarian experimental film genius Bela Tarr (Satantango) was the inspiration for this film‘s troublesome, perfectionistic Swedish cinema genius Stig Janson (Magne Brekke). And Lenquesaing’s daughter Alice, Manelle Driss and Alice Gautier, wonderfully play Gregoire’s children, Clemence, Billie and Valentine.

Despite a dubious use of Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera at the end, this is one of the best backstage portrayals of making movies I’ve ever seen, almost as good in details as Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night. Mia Hansen-Love, only 27, must be some kind of genius herself. It takes one to know one. (In French, with English subtitles.)

– Michael Wilmington
May 20, 2010

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