Year-End Movie Reviews Pt. 2: True Grit, Yogi Bear, Gulliver's Travels


TRUE GRIT (****)

This remake of the John Wayne-starring film is a refreshingly old-fashioned, straight-up Western.  Though it comes from the Coen Brothers, apart from some typically clever verbal sparring among the characters, you’d be hard pressed to recognize it as such.  This is probably the Coens’ most vanilla, crowd-pleasing effort yet, and it’s sure to meet with more commercial success than the brothers are used to.  If that’s read as a knock against the movie, fine – I was hoping for something a little more unique but most are going to appreciate this effort.  Not unlike the original, this True Grit is a basic revenge tale – 13 year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hallie Steinfeld) hires a one-eyed, vengeful lawman named Rooster Cogburn to hunt down the man who killed her father.  Jeff Bridges fully inhabits the role of Rooster.  Working with the Coens for the first time since ’98’s The Big Lebowski, Bridges seems to relish the opportunity to dig in to every single one of Rooster’s quirks.  Rooster is a great character – Wayne previously won his only Oscar playing him – and Bridges gives an equally great performance.  Between this and his dual roles in TRON: Legacy, as well as the Best Actor Oscar he won for Crazy Heart back in March, 2010 is truly the year of Bridges.  I also enjoyed Matt Damon, giving a terrific supporting performance as the Texas ranger LaBoeuf (not to be confused with Shia LaBeouf), who accompanies Mattie and Rooster on their journey.  As Mattie, Steinfeld more than holds her own on screen against her more accomplished co-stars, but the character quickly annoys because the Coens have overwritten her – making her world-weary and whip-smart way beyond her years.  I didn’t buy the Mattie character for a second.  No matter – True Grit, though not spectacular, is a solid film.  Easily enjoyable and well worth a trip to the theater this holiday season.

Absent kids younger than 5, there is no reason why anyone in their right mind would want to go see this CGI-heavy film adaptation of the Yogi Bear cartoon.  Clearly intended for Alvin & the Chipmunks-style success, Yogi Bear is as bad as the previews make it out to be – no better, no worse.  The story is trite – Ranger Smith (Ed’s Tom Cavanaugh) has one week to put Jellystone Park in the financial black and save it from closing, if he can manage the pic-a-nic basket-stealing mischief that Yogi (voiced by Dan Aykroyd) and Boo-Boo (Justin Timberlake) constantly cause.  The movie is dumb and unfunny, but mostly harmless.  Watching it, I found myself getting distracted by two things: (1) the terrible CGI – seriously, the animators really didn’t even try here; and (2) the even worse blending of CGI and live action – most of the actors aren’t even looking in the right direction, and certainly not in Yogi’s line of sight.  Gifted comedienne Anna Faris pops up as a documentary filmmaker and seems embarrassed to be in the movie – I would be too if I were her – who’s her agent?  Isn’t she above this kind of material?  I hope the paycheck was good.  And JT – probably not a good idea to follow-up your stellar work in The Social Network with this.  Better to just skip the movie, and check out the ingenious fake alternate ending that hit the web a few weeks ago.
Sometimes there are stars who, no matter how bad the movie, invest themselves fully in the project and manage to make an unwatchable movie . . . well, watchable.  That’s Gulliver’s Travels for you.  I’m not sure who was asking for yet another take on Jonathan Swift’s classic story, but here it is.  Thankfully, it’s got Jack Black in the lead role of Lemuel Gulliver, mail room slacker and videogame aficionado who takes on a travel assignment to Bermuda and ends up on the island of Liliput, where he’s a giant among the island’s tiny people.  Black may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I certainly enjoy him, and if there’s one thing you can say about the man, it’s this: he commits.  Even when he’s stuck pissing on a fire to put it out (urine! ha!) or helping little buddy Horatio (a wasted Jason Segel) try to woo Princess Mary (the waaaay-above this Emily Blunt) using lyrics from Prince, Black takes real joy in performing and that enthusiasm can be contagious.  An unfortunate song-and-dance number set to Edwin Starr’s “War” that ends the movie really tests my theory, but Black still (kind of) sells it.  Gulliver’s Travels fares better when the Liliputians stage theatrical re-enactments of Star Wars and Titanic, or when Gulliver approximates his image on all kinds of pop culture posters in a mock-up of Times Square.  Quick – at approx. 80 minutes – and mostly painless family entertainment.

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