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At The Movies

Shrek Forever After

Directed by Mike Mitchell
“Shrek Forever After” is the fourth Shrek episode, and its placement in the series is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it needs to breathe new life into the franchise but, on the other hand, it has the benefit of following the least-liked third installment. Where “Shrek” and “Shrek 2” earned 90% and 88% positive ratings on the Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” (a movie review aggregating service), “Shrek the Third” plummeted to 41%.

In this outing, we find Shrek (Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) living in the swamp, in a seemingly idyllic life, with three kids and surrounded by their good friends, including Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss (Antonio Banderas). But all is not perfect from Shrek’s perspective, as his daily schedule becomes altogether too predictable and repetitive.  

It’s interesting to watch kids’ movies and gauge the extent to which stories and jokes are geared to pander to the parents and other adults in the audience. “Shrek Forever After” goes beyond the normal double meanings and veiled adult content by relying on a uniquely adult storyline: The mid-life crisis.  

It also uses a time honored tradition in the rebooting of narrative series, with an alternate timeline. It’s not quite as schmaltzy as “It’s a Wonderful Life” or as complicated as last year’s “Star Trek” – but it’s light years ahead of Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower.  The result is very funny at times and consistently appealing, as Shrek re-encounters his friends and loved ones who, in this timeline, don’t know him at all. Especially amusing is the Puss in Boots character, who has had a somewhat more sedentary existence and is twice the cat he used to be.

I skipped “Shrek the Third” three years ago and the critical response (to the movie, not to my absence) makes me feel that was a good choice. Coming back for “Shrek Forever After” seems like an equally good choice. (Opens May 21)

Just Wright

Directed by Sanaa Hamri
There’s something remarkably, but also quite pleasantly, bland about “Just Wright” – a movie that never surprises or excites, but which moderately amuses for most of its running time. Queen Latifah plays Leslie Wright, a 35-year-old woman who has one of those movie love-life dynamics, in which a date is so noteworthy that family members, friends, and work colleagues all know it’s happening.

Leslie is a physical therapist. Apparently a very good one, or at least one with a very good memory. In one scene, she strolls through the clinic and throws out a comment or a word of advice to every patient in the facility without ever checking a chart. She’s also a lifelong New Jersey Nets fan. Those two facts put together are obviously the key components in a story about a player who gets injured and needs somebody to rehabilitate him in time for the playoffs.

The secondary characters here are even more limited in scope than the leads, including a gold-digging friend and a father who has never met a home repair job he couldn’t screw up (“It just needs a tweak!”). While it’s nice to see both Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”) and Pam Grier (“Jackie Brown”) on the big screen, it would be even nicer to see them in a project that asked more of them.

But it all comes together in a package that works well enough to compliment an equally ordinary meal somewhere like Applebees or IHOP.  And sometimes that’s all it takes to make an evening…OK, I’ll say it…just right.

Babies

Directed by Thomas Balmes
This is one of the most effective, simple movie ideas I’ve seen in a while: Film four babies in four diverse countries and document the highlights of their first year. The four babies are Bayar (Mongolia), Hattie (USA), Mari (Japan), and Ponijao (Namibia). All live in communities that, while distinctly different, seem to have sufficient resources for us to appreciate the cultural differences without having a child or two that we feel sorry for.

It’s fascinating to watch the “developed” country babies, surrounded by toys and exposed to mommy/baby classes, while the other two play with whatever falls to hand and seem equally amused and well-developed. In one pair of juxtaposed scenes, Hattie lies on an already-clean looking rug as it is vacuumed, as Panijao rolls around in the dirt and sucks on objects Hattie would probably never be allowed to encounter. Similarly, Mari is frustrated in a room full of toys in Tokyo, as Bayar happily unravels and partially consumes a roll of toilet paper in a Mongolian yurt.

It’s also a tribute to the resiliency and patience of family pets the world over as they get stepped on, poked, dragged, and exchange mutual licks. In this time of debate over healthcare costs and universal coverage, it’s interesting to watch the arrival of a nurse (or doctor) making house-calls in the middle of rural Mongolia, and the varied, but equally effective approaches to infant hygiene. “Babies” is both cute and an interesting conversation starter.


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