Friday, April 29, 2011


Two opening in the Valley this weekend:

The Henry in Henry’s Crime, played by Keanu Reeves, is a passive, soft-spoken third-shift tollbooth worker in Buffalo. One morning after he gets home from work, he’s gulled into participating in a bank robbery. He’s the only one who gets caught, & he refuses to give up his fellow robbers. Soon after he enters prison, his wife (Judy Greer) leaves him for another man.

Henry bonds with his cellmate, Max (James Caan), a con man so comfortable in prison that he deliberately throws his parole hearings so that he can stay in. But when Henry is released—he’s a model prisoner, of course—this crisply-paced noir comedy, directed by Malcolm Venville from a script by Sacha Gervasi, David White & Stephen Hamel, turns into one of the oddest caper movies I’ve ever seen.

Having been incarcerated for a crime of which he was innocent, Henry decides, for some reason, that he now ought to commit it for real. He talks Max into playing along with the parole board & getting out of the joint to help him.

Their preposterously contrived scheme involves—& I’m not going to explain exactly how—Henry insinuating his way into the theatre across the alley from the bank, at which an intense Eastern European director (Peter Stormare) is mounting The Cherry Orchard. Henry begins an affair with the actress (Vera Farmiga) playing Madame Ranevskaya, & eventually ends up playing opposite her in the role of Lopakhin, while his accomplices are raiding the vault next door!

I mean, I understand the suspension of disbelief, but …Keanu Reeves landing Lopakhin in a regional-theatre production of The Cherry Orchard? Come on.

Keanu Reeves is one of the all-time greatest demonstrations of star power—he’s indisputably been a movie star for more than twenty years now, on the basis of some mysterious charisma unconnected to any significant acting ability, or even, really, to charm. He’s been charming in some movies—Speed, most notably—but at least as often he’s been sullen & off-putting. However he comes across, though, come across he does. He holds the camera, & the audience. He’s a star.

In Henry’s Crime, he just seems pleasantly dense, & for the first half of the film, this works fine. But when he starts reading Lopakhin’s lines, & everybody is supposed to be struck by what a fine natural actor he is, the movie unintentionally veers into a kind of surrealism that even Buñuel never attempted.

It’s compounded because Reeves is surrounded here by a lot of really top-notch acting—by James Caan as the good-natured hustler Max, by Fisher Stevens as the jerk bank robber, by Danny Hoch as a nitwit accomplice, & by Bill Duke, who, as an observant bank guard, quietly whacks his one good scene out of the park. Our glimpses of The Cherry Orchard cast are good, too; good enough that I really wished they’d forget the ridiculous bank-robbery plot & just let us watch the play.

The best element of Henry’s Crime, however, is Vera Farmiga’s devastatingly dead-on portrait of a frustrated small-potatoes regional-stage diva. The performance is an instant classic, justifying this strange movie’s existence all by itself. Anyone who’s spent any time in the theatre will likely recognize this nervy, neurotic, narcissistic woman at once, with a simultaneous shudder & smile.

Made in a less-expensive, not-so-lush form of computer-generated animation, 2005’s Hoodwinked! was a spoofy retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood myth. It was filled with wacky references to other fairy tales, something like Shrek but without the same effortless wit. The voice cast was good & the film certainly had its moments, but on the whole it felt second-tier.

Due in part to its modest budget, however, Hoodwinked! was nicely profitable, so sure enough, this weekend a sequel arrives, about a year belated by Hollywood legal wrangling. In Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, the plucky young Red (voiced by Hayden Panettiere, replacing the original’s Anne Hathaway) must team up with the deadpan Big Bad Wolf (Patrick Warburton) in order to rescue Granny (Glenn Close), who’s been kidnapped by a masked, cackling witch (Joan Cusack).

Lots of other bizarre characters voiced by celebrities are woven into the complicated storyline, including Bill Hader & Amy Poehler as Hansel & Gretel, Brad Garrett as a Scorcese-style Giant, Wayne Newton as an anthropomorphic harp, Cheech & Chong as two of the Three Little Pigs, & Andy Dick as a Hannibal Lecter-ish Bunny. Martin Short, David Ogden Stiers, Heidi Klum & David Alan Grier all talked into microphones for this film, & co-writer Cory Edwards returned as the Wolf’s chattering squirrel sidekick.

With actors like that riffing away diligently at their skewed lines, it’s inevitable that Hoodwinked Too! would have some funny moments. I liked Grier’s trash-talking, four-armed bridge troll, & Warburton, with his slow, sardonic line readings, is always good for a few laughs. Despite the cut-rate animation, the film isn’t without visual amusement, either, as in the Charles Addams-like look of Hansel and Gretel.

The trouble is that while the film tries hard, you can feel it trying hard. Too hard. It’s by no means awful, but it just doesn’t build up enough zany momentum, especially in its homestretch.

The director, Mike Disa, wrote this column for the Huffington Post in which he described how proud he was, after spending a decade working for Disney Feature Animation, to make a movie for little girls in which the heroine isn’t a Princess looking for Her Prince. I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments, & I think, on the whole, that little girls (& boys) will enjoy Hoodwinked Too! reasonably well. But positive gender roles do not, by themselves, a classic make.

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