Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 11, 2006
A muzzled big bad wolf stews in police custody with the woodsman, Granny, and Red in ‘Hoodwinked.’
Voices by Anne Hathaway and Glenn Close. Directed by Cory Edwards. Written by Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards, and Mike Leech. Rated PG.

Glory Road
Starring Josh Lucas and Derek Luke. Directed by James Gartner. Written by Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. Rated PG.

Last Holiday
Starring Queen Latifah and LL Cool J. Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, based on J.B. Priestley’s screenplay. Rated PG-13.
Three for the Show

This week’s movies aren’t classics, but for January releases, they’ll do.


Whatever else has changed about the way movies work, there’s still plenty of truth to the old saw that January is a dumping ground for the crap that has sat on Hollywood studios’ shelves for months. I should know — I spent part of this past weekend taking in BloodRayne and Grandma’s Boy. It’s all for you, dear readers. For you, and the chance to get my revenge in our Film Shorts section. Thankfully, three of the four new movies out this week are much more watchable than those. (The other one, Tristan & Isolde, didn’t screen in time for our deadlines.) Here’s a roundup.

Hoodwinked is the first foray into animation by the brothers Cory and Todd Edwards. (I haven’t seen Chillicothe, their 1999 live-action indie comedy that is their lone previous movie.) They’ve teamed up with an outfit called Kanbar Animation Studios to produce this fractured take on the Little Red Riding Hood story, which is set in an enchanted land where the police — made up of woodland creatures in police uniforms — break up a domestic disturbance involving Red, Granny, the big bad wolf, and the woodsman (voiced by Anne Hathaway, Glenn Close, Patrick Warburton, and Jim Belushi, respectively). A complicated and rather clever Rashomon-style flashback structure reveals that Granny is financing a double life as a James Bond-like spy with the proceeds from her bakery business, and a mysterious thief is prowling the woods trying to drive Granny into bankruptcy by stealing the secret recipes for her crumpets and cupcakes.

Besides the fact that the Shrek movies already claimed this territory, the most obvious flaw here is the 3-D computer animation — you’ll see better work done in many PlayStation video games. The motion loses its fluidity when the action onscreen becomes too hectic, and the human characters (there aren’t many) look like they’re made out of molded plastic. Red is particularly inexpressive, not something you want in a movie’s main character, and the relationship between her and Granny is uninteresting.

Those aside, there’s a lot here that shows the Edwards brothers as talents that bear watching. The movie is littered with funny throwaway gags, like the supervillain telling an underling named Keith to change his name because it isn’t scary enough. The offbeat vocal casting works excellently, from rap star Xzibit as a law-and-order bear who’s the chief of police to Andy Dick as a cute little bunny who’s a bit of a badass. The teaming of Warburton’s cynical, jaded wolf with a hyperintense squirrel (voiced by Cory Edwards) is an inspired comic pairing. Even the musical numbers give this movie a kick; instead of the familiar Broadway-ballad vein, the original songs here by Todd Edwards go in for kid-friendly rock and hip-hop. The PG-rated stuff in the theaters right now is pretty awful, which makes this fresh and funny family movie come off even better by comparison.

Glory Road is PG-rated, too, though it’s not as much fun. It’s based on the true story of the 1965-66 basketball team at Texas Western University, which is now known as the University of Texas-El Paso. Led by a young coach named Don Haskins (whose previous job had been coaching girls’ high-school basketball in Fort Worth), the team fielded seven black players at a racially charged time when, amazing as this sounds now, many white people thought African-Americans couldn’t play basketball at the highest levels. Subscribing to this school of non-thinking was legendary University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, yet his No. 1-ranked all-white team fell to Haskins’ unheralded Texas Western team in a tense NCAA tournament final that changed the face of the sport.

Remember the Titans did everything this movie does to better effect five years ago, but Glory Road still moves along fairly well as it runs through the checklist of elements from the period sports-movie template: city kids adjusting to life in west Texas, teammates bonding, coach preaching the value of teamwork and fundamentals, racist malcontents stirring up trouble, sidelong references to the civil rights movement, Motown music on the soundtrack. First-time director James Gartner manages this smoothly enough that you don’t notice until late how little the characters register, even the coach (Josh Lucas) and star player Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke). There’s a bit that Texas moviegoers will find particularly funny, when Coach Haskins reassures a mother who’s leery of sending her son down South: “El Paso isn’t like the rest of Texas, ma’am. It’s more ... cosmopolitan.”

I can pinpoint, though, exactly when the movie falls apart. It’s when Texas Western sustains its one regular-season loss, which the filmmakers ascribe to racial tension and mistrust among the players — it couldn’t have been poor shooting or rebounding? As the team inches closer to the championship, screenwriters Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois make similarly bogus attempts at significance, like when they have the coach tell his team he’s going to play only his black players against Kentucky as a racial statement. (In reality, Coach Haskins’ decision to do this was tactical. His white players were slow afoot, as opposed to Kentucky’s fleet-footed ballers, and Haskins felt he needed to fight speed with speed.)

The final game falls into the trap that has ensnared so many other sports movies. The actors don’t have enough basketball skills to pass as their real-life counterparts, so Gartner has to hide this with overcutting and other tricks that won’t fool sports fans. He doesn’t have any feel for the game’s flow and changes of momentum. If he had, he might have been able to make this slim material into a reasonably inspirational sports movie. There’s the other problem, though — a tremendous story like this should make for better material. The fact that it doesn’t goes down to the filmmakers’ lack of imagination.

Speaking of which, remakes don’t necessarily indicate lack of imagination. It’s generally better to remake a bad movie than a good one, but it may be better yet to remake a good movie that’s obscure. Last Holiday is based on a jaunty 1950 British film starring Alec Guinness that got buried because it wasn’t as good as Guinness’ classics (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit). The remake’s story hews pretty closely to the original’s, though it changes the ending, which is the right move. Queen Latifah stars as Georgia Byrd, a New Orleans retail saleswoman who’s diagnosed with a rare disease that will kill her in three weeks. The timid and thrifty Georgia responds by quitting her job, cashing in her life savings, jetting to the Czech Republic, and checking into the poshest hotel in Karlovy Vary, determined to spend her last days indulging in all the pleasures that she denied herself while planning for the future. Georgia’s final fling leads to a run of incredible good fortune, as she falls ass-backwards into more money and creates a big impression on the hotel’s other guests, including a U.S. senator from her home state (Giancarlo Esposito) and the billionaire owner of the retail chain that used to employ her (Timothy Hutton), who are willing to listen to her because they think she’s super-rich.

Director Wayne Wang worked in a similar atmosphere three years ago in Maid in Manhattan, but he handles it much better here. This film runs almost a full two hours, yet it wears the length lightly despite some totally predictable bits, like the one that sticks Georgia on an out-of-control snowboard. The glossy Hollywood treatment he gives is a bit much — the movie’s supposed to be about the importance of taking risks and enjoying life, and it winds up as a paean to reckless consumer spending as a path to enlightenment. Oh, well. At least Daniel Orlandi’s costumes for Queen Latifah help sell the idea; plus-sized women will be coveting some of the outfits that she wears.

Queen Latifah is, alas, too well-established for this part; she goes around dispensing life-altering wisdom to her fellow guests with Oprah-style self-assurance. She would have done better playing Georgia as someone who’s not used to having her opinions taken seriously, as Guinness did. She shows an unexpectedly delicate touch with some of the slapstick here, like when she uses her shoe to smash her boss’ cell phone. The supporting actors (including LL Cool J as a guy from work who follows Georgia to the Czech Republic) don’t add much, though in their defense, they don’t take anything away from the movie, either. You’d expect a bit more, though, from Gérard Depardieu than he delivers as the hotel’s French chef. Regardless, it’s up to the leading lady to carry this movie through its stickier spots, and her breezy charm does the job.

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