Sunday, May 20, 2012

Day 130: The Pirates! Band of Misfits

"Fire all things that go BANG!"

Aardman Animation Studio made a name for itself in the 1990s with their effortlessly charming Wallace & Gromit stop-motion shorts. When they branched out into feature territory, they played it safe at first, with a W&G feature, but in 2006 they took a leap into computer animation with Flushed Away. Sadly that film is now remembered best as a financial disaster, but it's every bit as good as the rest of the work they did. The main reason for not doing stop-motion on that feature was the large amount of water involved, which did not stop them from creating this year's The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which ends up being a pretty seamless blend of stop-motion and cg animation, while also retaining all of that handmade Aardman charm.

The "band of misfits" at the heart of this picture is a wayward bunch of pirates that don't do a whole lot of pillaging or looting, but know how to make the most of a good "ham night" once a week. Lead by The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), they're a lovable bunch of rogues that aren't at the top of their pirating game, but are most certainly a family. When The Captain gets wind that they're accepting entries for this year's "Pirate of the Year" award, he sets sail for Blood Island to throw his name in the hat, yet finds himself mercilessly mocked by the more savage pirates in attendance.

Looking to make his name, The Captain and his crew take ship after ship to no avail, finally seeming to strike gold when they happen upon a scientific vessel called The Beagle, which is home to one Charles Darwin (David Tennant). When Darwin realizes that The Captain's parrot is not in fact a parrot, but a rare, extinct dodo bird, he convinces the pirates to accompany him to London for the Scientist of the Year awards to present their findings. This will unfortunately place them right under the nose of the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), but several plot twists later find The Captain becoming the toast of London.


This seems to be a recurring theme this year at the movies, but the trailers are thoroughly misleading for this film as well. It posits the film as a high seas adventure, but truth be told, not much time is spent on water at all, and the trailers show only material from about the first third of the film. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, just don't be surprised if your little ones aren't enthralled by all the time spent at science fairs and in royal courts. That's not to say it's not for kids, my five year old had a blast, she just remarked on the way out that they didn't really do a whole lot of pirate stuff in the movie.

Aardman has always been interested in circular plotting, where things get set up in act one and paid off by act three, and that's no different here. They're geniuses at laying in subtle humor for the adults, and plenty of colorful characters and action sequences for the kids, and this is much in that vein. The voice cast is fantastic, from the aforementioned cast members, to some of the crew voiced by Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson, Anton Yelchin, and a very funny cameo from Brian Blessed as The Pirate King. Grant is a stand-out as always, right in his element as a noodle-spined braggart, talking a big game and ducking out before the heat gets cranked up.

The film is directed by Peter Lord who did all of the W&G films, and he's a master at packing the frame with hilarious details, but keeping things moving so that the film almost demands repeat viewings to pick up on all its nuances. It's a very breezy 88 minutes, that only sags a bit towards the end of Act 2, but picking up again for a high seas showdown with Queen Victoria and a bunch of World Leaders that are up to no good.

The indifference with which the film was greeted here in the US speaks more to the tastes of American audiences than it does the quality of the film itself. This is the kind of film that parents complain aren't being made, yet they don't take their kids to see a good movie when it actually does come along, and that never fails to baffle me. This Spring produced at least two great family films in this and Mirror, Mirror and yet the vastly inferior and over-rated Lorax made a killing at the box office because it was all bright colors and celebrity voices, yet so hollow in its center that it would have made Dr. Seuss ill had he seen it himself. I'll just never understand how certain things become popular. 

If you're a parent, you definitely must take your kids, five and older, to see The Pirates! and even if you're not, yet you're a fan of Aardman and its ilk, I would definitely recommend it. It's certainly not the best movie out there right now, but it is better than most of what's playing. I know I'm a little late to the party with this review, as I know it's been out for a bit, but you can still catch it at most multiplexes, and it's even showing up at the discount theaters here in Illinois, so keep your eyes peeled.

PopGO Rating: 3/5

[All pictures via Box Office Mojo]

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Day 129: The Dictator

"Tell me, are you having a boy or are you having an abortion?"
Sacha Baron Cohen has carved out a niche for himself in his marriage of social taboos with uncomfortable comedy. It worked like gangbusters on his brilliant television show Da Ali G Show, and has worked to varying degrees in his four feature films, Ali G Indahouse, Borat, Bruno and now, The Dictator. Where his first feature failed by taking one of the characters from his show and putting him in a fictional narrative, he stuck to what he does best with his next two features, putting real people in uncomfortable situations, having to talk to someone they normally wouldn't associate with. When it was first announced, The Dictator was said to be an adaptation of Saddam Hussein's novel Zabibah and the King, but Baron Cohen and frequent collaborator/director Larry Charles have jettisoned most of that material and gone for something a little more comfortable...
Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, the ruler of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya. The film opens with a Frontline-style news brief about Aladeen's history and how his leadership has now pushed the country to the brink of enriching weapon's grade uranium. When The United Nations threatens Aladeen with sanctions and inspections, he must go to America and present his case to the UN, but a funny thing happens on the way to the UN.
Aladeen's closest adviser and jealous Uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) plots to have Aladeen replaced with a double (an uneducated goat farmer, also played hysterically by Baron Cohen), who will deliver a speech to the UN proclaiming that democracy will come to Wadiya. This will allow Tamir to sell off the nation's oil reserves to various foreign interests which will give him a lot of money. Aladeen is to be tortured and killed, but in a series of mishaps, he escapes, albeit without his trademark beard, and is forced to fight his way back to power and expose his uncle.
Aladeen takes up with an old ally living in New York, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) as well as falling in with a vegan feminist Zoe (Anna Faris) who gives Aladeen a job working in her organic co-op market in Brooklyn. The plot is almost an afterthought, as it is mainly a series of funny bits strung together, only returning to the main plot when they fear the audience may have forgotten about it. Of course, Aladeen finds himself falling for a woman who stands for basically everything he's against, and that will give him the change of heart he needs to make his third act conversion complete.
The film is full of hilarious bit players, some of whom are woefully underused. Among the great supporting cast are John C. Reilly, Garry Shandling, Fred Armisen, J.B. Smoove, Kevin Corrigan, Chris Elliott, Bobby Lee, Kathryn Hahn, & two hilarious cameos I won't spoil. The problem is that most of them, with the possible exception of Reilly & Lee, are given very little to do, and outtakes during the credits hint at some of the larger bits they were involved in that wound up being cut.
Charles keeps the film moving, and it breezes by in only about 80 minutes, just enough time to hit all the major beats and not overstay its welcome. Thankfully, the trailers and commercials have only shown bits that reside in the first half of the film, so there is a lot of material that they've kept under wraps, but I guess my biggest issue was that so many of the film's targets are pretty low-hanging fruit. Granted, a comedian of Baron Cohen's stature has never tackled taboos about terrorism & Middle Eastern Xenophobia in a major motion picture, but it's relatively easy stuff. It played great to the crowd full of (mostly) white teenagers and twenty-somethings in my Suburban Illinois theater this evening, but I doubt any of them really laughed because they were challenged by their own prejudices in the way Borat & Bruno did.
I could nitpick, but at the end of the day, it's still a damn funny movie. The helicopter scene from the trailer is expanded and works gloriously well, as does a bit set in a funeral home, but some bits overstay their welcome like the child birthing scene and the seemingly endless gag of him making up fake names based on the signs he sees around him. The supporting cast is great, but Mantzoukas is the stand-out here. Anyone familiar with his work from The League or the awesome podcast "How Did This Get Made" will have a level of familiarity with him, but hopefully this will open him up to the larger audience he deserves. Baron Cohen is solid, but it's funny, I thought he actually excelled in the role of Aladeen's double more than he did as Aladeen himself. Maybe because it was something different, which I always love, but he really infused that character with a ton of pathos.
At the end of the day, you'll know whether or not you'll want to see the film and, most likely, whether or not you'll enjoy it, based on your love (or lack thereof) for what Baron Cohen and Charles do as a team. I enjoyed this about as much as I did Borat, which I thought was brilliant, but I am an unabashed admirer of Bruno, and I think that's his best work. Bruno held a mirror up to a homophobic society at its most homophobic, and really made people confront what they were willing to tolerate, and it's a great litmus test for how "tolerant" people claim to be. Watch it with someone who says that they're "fine" with gays and see how quickly they're willing to squash it.
But I digress... The Dictator is very funny, and has lots of laugh out loud moments that you'll be laughing about long after the film is over. Just don't be surprised if you find yourself wishing there had been just a little more to it. Baron Cohen is a brilliant social satirist, and I wish he had bared his fangs slightly more, and really let some groups have it that truly deserve it. But I guess I'll have to settle for a baby step in the right direction.

PopGO Rating: 3.5/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Saturday, May 12, 2012

day 128: Dark Shadows

"Our family has always had the biggest and most wonderful balls."

If that line makes you giggle, you'll enjoy about 15% of Tim Burton's latest film, an adaptation of the classic gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. The other 85% of the film is a self-serious, maudlin bore, mired by unnecessary subplots and so many last-minute plot developments, it looks as if they cancelled a sequel halfway through shooting and tried to cram as much as possible into this film. Tim Burton lost his mojo a long time ago, and I'm sad to report, he's not regained it yet...

When the trailers first began showing up for this film a few months ago, I wondered who, exactly, the target audience for this film was. If the audience at my local theater today was any indication, it's middle aged couples who remember the 1966 television program, and a smattering of teenage girls who are there either to fawn over Johnny Depp or looking for confirmation that vampires sparkle in the sunlight (they didn't get the latter, if that's what they were there for).
The film opens with an entire film's worth of exposition and backstory crammed into a ten minute prologue that tells of how a young man named Barnabas Collins (Depp, as an adult) traveled with his family from Liverpool to America in 1752 to make their fortune in the fishing industry. A daughter of one of the family's servants, Angelique (Eva Green, as an adult) is smitten with the young Barnabas, and is appalled when her feelings are not mutual. Roundabout 1776, Barnabas falls in love with Josette (Bella Heathcote), which sends Angelique, who is also a witch, into a fury that finds her casting a spell on Josette which causes her to take her own life, and turning Barnabas into a vampire. When the townsfolk learn that Barnabas is a vampire, they bury him in the middle of the woods, where he lays in wait for the better part of two centuries.
Cut to 1972, the Collins family is in decline, having sold their fishing interests to a company called Angel Baby, run by the immortal Angelique, and a construction crew unearths the coffin Barnabas was buried in, awakening him and sending him into a murderous frenzy. Returning to his family's mansion to survey the state of the family, Barnabas is introduced to his heirs Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), and Roger's son David (Gulliver McGrath). Roger's wife died in a tragic accident three years earlier, and David has been unable to let go of his mother, claiming she's still alive, forcing the family to take on both a live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and a governess, Victoria (also played by Bella Heathcote).

One thing I'll interject here is that the introduction of characters and plot is done with great alacrity. It's not as overwhelming as it seems reading about it (or writing about it for that matter). Barnabas sets out to restore his family and their industry to its former glory, revamping Collinwood Manor, and re-starting the fishing industry, putting him in direct competition with his mortal enemy Angelique. Of course, he becomes smitten with Victoria, who is the spitting image of his old love, and spends a good deal of time trying to woo her, in his antiquated way. Much of this portion of the film is very funny, with Depp excelling at playing the "fish out of water" trope for all it's worth. He casts a spell on the family's housekeeper Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) taking him as his own personal Renfield, and their interactions are quite funny.
Right around the one hour mark, the film starts to put the laughs on the back burner, and while the film doesn't drop its lightheartedness, it certainly wants the audience to think it's got more going on than some cheap laughs. Unfortunately it doesn't. Tonally, the film is all over the map, and even Depp becomes dour and joyless once he seems to have fully adjusted to the 1970s. One of Tim Burton's great gifts as a filmmaker has always been his ability to shine a spotlight on outsiders and imbue them with an empathy that endears them to the audience. Sadly, his attempt to do this with the character of Victoria feels cheap and shameful when we begin to get pieces of her backstory.
There are a lot of filmmakers who suffered a decline with the advent of certain technological advancements in cinema. One could argue that Chaplin's best days were behind him once sound came into play, or that Frank Capra never really entered the era of "color pictures." With the advent of cgi, Tim Burton's films have taken a precipitous drop in quality. His imagination knows no bounds anymore, and he can do anything he wants to. Gone are the days when films like Beetlejuice, Batman & Ed Wood left him confined to the realm of stop-motion animation and matte paintings. Gone too is the heart and soul of an auteur, who can simply click a button on a computer and have whatever he wants. By the time this film gets to its cgi-heavy climax, which features homages to no less than Hitchcock's Rebecca, Murnau's Nosferatu & even Zemeckis' Death Becomes Her, all the air has been let out of the balloon, and it feels like we're just going through the motions before the credits roll.

As I mentioned earlier, Depp is fantastic, and what little good I have to say about this film at all is mostly due to his presence. Much of the supporting cast is either wasted (Pfeiffer, Haley, & Moretz) or woefully miscast (Miller), leading to a dearth of characters worth caring about. Green makes a suitable villain, but when her evil deeds start piling on top of one another, and we find out about all the nefarious doings she's had a hand in (including turning a character into a werewolf as a baby for no good reason), it's just out of control. We should hate her because she stands in the way of the protagonist, not because she's done, literally, dozens of horrible things to everyone in his family. It's just bad plotting, and I hate to say it, but screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith doesn't trust his audience enough to dislike the antagonist, so he adds in all kinds of nasty tidbits about her just to make sure we're happy when she gets her comeuppance.
The last thing I want to bring up is the awful, awful, awful use of music in the film. The soundtrack is populated with songs that almost force you to dwell on the lyrics while watching them. From the opening credits set to The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin," to Carolyn's playing Donovan's "Season of the Witch," during a dinner scene, to Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly" playing while Barnabas walks around downtown Collinsport for the first time in two centuries, it was just plain annoying. The one inspired use of music was The Carpenters' "Top of the World" during a montage, but I think that had more to do with it conjuring up memories of Todd Haynes' Superstar than it did my enjoyment of the scenes it played over.  By the time Alice Cooper shows up for his cameo and lip-syncs two of his own songs, I was pretty much fed up with the soundtrack altogether.
I'm sure there are people out there who will enjoy the film, I just don't know who those people are. Even after surmising who the film's target audience was, I don't see any of them enjoying the film. The only reason I'm scoring the film as high as I am is because of Depp. He's endlessly watchable, no matter how bad the film around him is, and he always brings something new to the table, I just think maybe, just maybe, he and Burton need to take some time apart... try new things... see new people. It couldn't hurt.

PopGO Rating: 1.5/5

[All picture via Box Office Mojo]

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Day 127: The Avengers

"You and me, we stay on the ground, keep the fighting here, and Hulk... smash."

Joss Whedon's The Avengers has all the makings of a great movie, independent of its status as a comic book movie, but for my money, it fails to transcend both of these things, and is only a pretty good movie and not the masterpiece we were all hoping it would be. Please extinguish your torches and put down the pitchforks, I'm not about to commit heresy here, but if you would like to listen to a reasoned argument about why The Avengers is merely another in a long line of very good Marvel comic book movies, then I encourage you to read on.

In 2008, there was a scene at the end of Iron Man that pretty perfectly set up The Avengers, and over the course of four years and four more films, we've finally arrived at the end game. Iron Man 2, which I still love in spite of all its faults, spent more time setting up The Avengers than it did continuing Tony Stark's journey to becoming a hero, and most of the seeds for what we saw this past weekend were sown in that film. I also write this review assuming that you've seen the film, so pardon my lack of plot breakdown.

The Avengers is about as good as it could have been, and I guess I'm just disappointed that for all it gave us, it just wasn't a thoroughly satisfying film. It's a perfectly realized comic book on film, and for that, I have to give it due credit, but I realized about an hour or so in that perfectly realizing a comic book on film doesn't necessarily make a film good. It's packed with quippy dialogue, dense backstory, chaotic action, and all the things that comic book lovers such as myself have grown up loving about comics, but as a film, it's pretty hollow.

The villain (not Loki, but the guys he's working for) is a throwaway race of aliens that haven't factored into anything before now, and only pose a threat because we're told about fifty times that they pose a threat. It's a classic case of telling and not showing, and that sort of thing will sink a film instantly. We're given scenes that show the destruction the alien race can cause, but they rely on exposition to do the heavy lifting, so by the time the alien race shows up and starts destroying Manhattan, it's such a foregone conclusion that they will be defeated that the destruction they wreak is almost an unnecessary plot development instead of an actual threat. I never felt in suspense for a moment because it was just a series of mindless, faceless, nameless drones being destroyed by the heroes that we're rooting for by default.

In the midst of all this, however, there was a lot of good stuff. Whedon is the filmmaker that The Hulk has always needed and deserved on film, and thank goodness he used Hulk properly. Mark Ruffalo was an inspired casting choice, and it pays off like gangbusters. The action sequences with Hulk were the best thing about the film, and honestly, are the only reason I'd recommend the film to anyone that's not a diehard fan of The Avengers. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was treated like an afterthought, and that truly bothered me. He was the only one that could help them get inside the head of Loki, and it seemed like they only kept him around because he could sling his hammer around and cause some destruction. For as great as Whedon handled Hulk, he thoroughly and completely botched Thor.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) were used well, but held no surprises. They played right into the things we've come to expect from them, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, it was just slightly disappointing that they didn't do anything unexpected. I don't care how hot Scarlett Johannson is, she's absolutely terrible as Black Widow. The role was supposed to be played by Emily Blunt, and I wish that had happened. At least she would have been interesting instead of relying on her tits to do all the work for her. Jeremy Renner was fine as Hawkeye, but the story treated him as a plot device rather than a character. He only exists to give Black Widow something to fight for. Sam Jackson is perfectly acceptable as Nick Fury, but again, he does nothing unexpected and holds no ace up his sleeve now that his dream team is assembled.

My biggest gripe, by far, was killing off poor Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). His death as rallying point for the team was a cheap, shameless device that made me genuinely angry. The guy had been given short shrift throughout the entire Marvel series, and wasn't really even given the dignity of dying a hero's death. He dies to further the plot, and that's just a lousy reason to kill him off. Lastly, Tom Hiddleston as Loki is great. He's an actor that truly relishes playing a deceptive villain who can't rely on brute strength, so he's forced to rely on his brains, and that makes him truly dangerous. The fact that he was just a pawn of this stupid alien race made me upset that he wasn't more of a self-starter, considering what a great villain he actually is.

The set-up of the sequel midway through the credits gave me nerd-bumps, but it also made me roll my eyes a bit as the entire alien race seemed to be there only to set up the sequel. It's a comic book thing, to be sure, but it doesn't make it a good film decision, and I can only judge it as a film. All in all, The Avengers is just fine, it's about as good as Thor and Captain America and Iron Man 2, but no better in all honesty. If the fan boys dig deep and think about what they really liked about the film, it's nothing they haven't seen before, and just putting all the heroes together in the same frame does not a great film make. I liked The Avengers, but I really wanted to love it…

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