Friday, April 27, 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits Review

These days the animation movie genre is dominated by only two studios: Pixar and DreamWorks. It’s not to say that these movies are bad. With the exception of last year’s “Car’s 2” Pixar has made some of the greatest animated movies around. However, once in a while it’s nice to see a good quality animated movie come from an outside studio and another country.

Earlier this year there was the graceful and serene “The Secret World of Arrietty” from the famed Studio Ghibli in Japan, which brought back beautiful, hand drawn and painted animation. And now we have “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” from Aardman Entertainment in The United Kingdom, bringing back their traditional charming style of stop motion animation.

It’s a shame that this method of animation isn’t used more often. As great as the computer animated films from Pixar and DreamWorks are, they all look identical for the most part in terms of art. When it’s used (Aardman’s own movies like “Chicken Run,” or more recently, Wes Anderson’s quirky “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) it provides a completely unique looking world. We’re looking at real objects made by hand as opposed to being drawn on a computer.

Even though computer animation might look more realistic, there’s something special about seeing Claymation figurines in action. It evokes a particular sense of creativity and imagination, the kind that we had when we were young children at home playing with dolls or action figures. When these kinds of movies come around, they’re always refreshing to look at.

 Directed by Aardman regulars Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, the movie takes us into the high-risk world of classic swashbuckling piracy; rum, treasure, attacking of ships, etc. There’s a place called Blood Island, where Pirates from all over come to brag about their nautical successes. One of those pirates is The Ship Captain (Hugh Grant), although he’s not exactly bragging. For years he’s been humiliated for being a sub par pirate, and even though he has a devoted crew he can’t quite catch a break. After many failed attempts, he decides to take on the best pirates--in a competition to see who can pillage the most booty—and win the coveted Pirate of the Year Award.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, why pirates? Haven’t we seen enough of them in movies? And it’s true; a lot of the humor in the movie is the obvious pirate themed gags, wooden legs, plank walking, and the fact that one of the crewmembers is a man dressed up as a woman.

But by using a typical pirate movie set up and characters screenwriter Gideon Dafoe is able to craft an interesting and nutty story. One involving a rather petty and pathetic Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who notices that The Captain’s prized “parrot” Polly is actually a rare bird thought to be extinct and worth a lot of money, as well as a maniacal Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) who hates pirates and has an appetite for rare animals.

The best humor in the movie comes from the subtle clever jokes that take you a little while to get.  For example, early on we find out that the only award that The Captain has won was one for “The Most Interesting Story About a Squid…” and he got second place. Lord and Newitt don’t just appeal to their guaranteed young child demographic, they don’t sell out for easy childish gags but instead incorporate a lot of inside humor that adults will find funny.

On a purely technical side, the animation quality in “Pirates” is top notch. In fact since the studio’s last movie, “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit” the stop motion has gotten even better. The amount of detail that has gone into all the sets and character designs--right down to the very last ridge on the Ship Captain’s beard--is incredible. At the same time, you can still spot a distinction in the design of “Pirates!” that’s in the past movies. No matter what kind of characters or environments there are, there’s a clear style, like the wide-eyed expressions and toothy grins of the characters.

“The Pirates!” is far from perfect. In terms of story and characters, compared to Aardman’s past successes like the classic “Chicken Run” or the near masterpiece “Wallace and Grommit,” the premise of “Pirates” isn’t nearly as inspired. More so, the characters in both “Chicken” and “Wallace” are far more genuine and well developed. In the new movie, The Ship Captain is the only character who evolves while most of the supporting cast-- like the pirate crew-- are funny but not as fully realized as they should be. Even so, “Pirates” is solid animated entertainment and a nice break from Pixar and DreamWorks. On top of that it’s the best pirate themed movie to come out in a while.


Safe Review

To sum up Boaz Yakin’s “Safe” in one sentence: A trashy B action flick that caters to all of Jason Statham’s (you know, “The Transporter” and a dozen other movies that involve him as a great fighter and killer and an efficient driver) strengths as an actor.

And I have a feeling that’s exactly the kind of movie Yakin wanted to make…and did.

In it, we get to see Statham beating up and/or killing an awful lot of bad guys, sometimes very creatively. In one instance he tosses multiple plates like Frisbees. In his script Yakin (it’s hard to believe this is the guy who directed “Remember the Titians”) throws in just about everything you can think of that would belong in an action film. There’s Russian gangsters, Chinese gangsters, corrupt cops, lots of double crosses and betrayals, and of course money. And there’s the element of innocence in the form of a young Chinese math prodigy named Mei (Catherine Chen).

All I have to say about her is: poor thing. The poor girl has been taken from her homeland by her own people, kidnapped by the Russians, targeted by the cops, and all the while has had to witness endless killings and violence. The Chinese gangsters have given her a long code to a safe that contains thirty million dollars and both the cops and the Russian gangsters want it.

By luck (practically) Statham’s character Luke (he could have just been left unnamed) runs into the girl. As it turns out he’s not having such a good time either. The same Russian gangsters that are pursuing Mei kill his wife (who we don’t see) because he wouldn’t intentionally lose in a cage fight. And not to mention he’s an ex cop and those corrupt cops aren’t too happy with him either. So what does Luke do? He protects Mei, while shooting and beating up assorted bad guys left and right. Yeah!

“Safe” pretty much throws logic out the window. This is clear the moment Luke takes on a group of the Russians on a crowded subway, shoots one, and then casually gets off and moves on. The picture isn’t really clever or inconspicuous about anything. If the Chinese gangsters want to get Luke and Mei who are staying at a fancy hotel, they will hold up the place and have a massive shoot out with the cops, only to smoothly drive off. The movie’s environment is just a playground for Statham and others to have ridiculous action set pieces.

Now, within those absurd boundaries, the movie is mildly entertaining. Yakin is basically saying: “Yeah, I’m not going to try and make sense. Take it or leave it.” The movie embraces the silliness it creates while at the same time playing it straight. If you can get used to those bounds then you shouldn’t have a problem enjoying the movie.

I’m not going to tell you “Safe” is great, or even that good. The movie moves so fast, that there are a number of abrupt and awkward cuts, like Yakin is so impatient to get through each scene. The music is slightly over the top and most of the actors are reduced to saying corny action movie lines. But as far as trash flicks go, it’s simple, short and there are some giddily enjoyable action sequences. Yakin knows what kind movie he’s making, whether that’s something you are willing to spend your time and money on is solely up to you.


The Raven Review

At the beginning of “The Raven” we are informed that the famed horror writer Edgar Allan Poe was found on October 3,, 1849, on the streets of Baltimore in “great distress and in need of assistance” and died four days later at a hospital. And that the last days of his life “remain a mystery.” Well, according to James McTeigue’s latest movie those last days of Poe’s life were very eventful to say the least.

Of course “The Raven” (aptly titled after one of Poe’s most famous poems) is fiction. The script by actor Ben Livingston and television writer Hannah Shakespeare is an original screenplay. It’s a gothic thriller stylishly directed by McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”) and is essentially an Edgar Allan Poe themed mystery story with the late author himself as the central hero.

McTeigue, along with cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann and production designer Roger Ford, create a gloomy, eerie looking Baltimore. Mostly shown at night with CGI fog and glowing moonlight. And shot within dark rooms, with little candlelight. It’s an ideal atmosphere for a mysterious killer to work in. A young girl is found strangled in her home (which is seemingly sealed off), along with her mother who’s head is nearly decapitated. A man is found tied to a table, and sliced open due to a giant pendulum hanging above. These murders are both from stories written by Edgar Allen Poe. And the unknown killer--a die-hard fan, no pun intended-- is going to do it again. So the detective on the case, Fields (Luke Evans) has no choice but to find Poe to help catch the killer.

However, Poe (John Cusack)—who was 40 when he died—is in a downward spiral at this point. Like many great authors he’s become an alcoholic, who spends his nights at pubs spouting eloquently worded insults (“gun toting philistine”) to local ruffians who don’t know who he is and also writes criticism for the daily paper. This murder case is just the thing to get him back in to shape. As more murders happen, Poe is told in taunting notes to write detailed accounts of them that combine both fact and fiction to get clues and when his love interest Emily (Alice Eve) is kidnapped it gives him drive.

I give “The Raven” some credit; it isn’t based on any source material. It’s hard to find a rather well-written original script that producers actually want to produce. It’s well paced, stylish but not over the top. The movie can be fairly dark and serious when it wants to be. It doesn’t shy away from showing gore or terror. At the same time it can be nutty and poke fun, especially in the verbal sparring between characters.

Also at the beginning there’s a funny continuing joke about criticism writing. The fact that Poe, a bitter washed up author, has gone into writing reviews. Or, the pendulum victim for example was an editor for a local paper who mostly wrote criticism (“you know the easy stuff”).

And yet, when I walked out of the press screening I couldn’t help but ask myself: Is that all there is? The Edgar Allan Poe aspect of the movie is appealing but it’s simply just a device and only people who know his work can appreciate the references. Most of the movie consists of Poe and Fields running around from place to place like action heroes, finding clues and reciting lines from Poe poems (mostly to announce plot points for the audience’s sake). When Emily gets captured it turns into a dull “find the hostage before it’s too late” movie.

After a while the gimmick becomes a little stale and you wish there was more substance to story. Stuff like the criticism joke or the fact that someone is using Poe’s work for a sick game. The movie doesn’t have much depth and its visual style is too generic looking to make up for it.

Cusack brings witty, intellectual sass to his role and you can tell he has some fun with it. Although it’s not in his zone of acting, that’s for sure. The verbal sparring between him and the other actors doesn’t come as natural compared to someone like Robert Downey Jr. who brought a similar sense of smart aleck to the part of Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes Cusack looks uneasy (like he’s trying with all his might), in reciting some of the lines. Though at least he’s trying something new. The other acting is fine for the most part, Evans is intense and serious the entire time and Eve does what she can with the bland damsel in distress role.

Over all “The Raven” works as slight entertainment. It’s dark, and exciting on a scene-by-scene basis, and given what we know about Poe when he was found on the streets on that October day, the movie presents an intriguing fantasy. But there’s not enough to it. Fans of Poe would be better off just reading his stories and people curious about him would also be better off just reading his stories.


The Five Year Engagement Review

 Nicholas Stoller’s “The Five Year Engagement” is a relationship comedy about a couple’s long and turbulent journey, from engagement to marriage, that spans a period of five years. That’s a long time frame for a romantic comedy. A long time of numerous stops and starts. A long time of having to make sacrifices for one another. The couple is Tom Solomon (Jason Segel, the tall oaf with a big heart) and Violet Barnes (the sweet, charming Emily Blunt) and quite frankly they don’t know what they want in their relationship.

They both want to be successful; Violet wants to go work at the University of Michigan and become a professor of psychology, while Tom would like to run his own restaurant someday, but that doesn’t make for a healthy relationship. They want to get married but they also want to be selfish (particularly Violet) and as anyone would know, marriage is about compromise.

Their engagement gets off to a rocky start when Violet spoils Tom’s special proposal plan that involves him pretending to forget some receipts and having to go back to the restaurant they were at. Wherein he has a table set up on the roof looking at the glamorously lit up Golden Gate Bridge. It’s still successful; she says yes and is delighted by Tom’s effort any way.

 We move on to the engagement party where we get to meet a slew of standard romantic comedy characters, most notably Tom and Violet’s goofy parents and assorted relatives. Then those relatives give semi-embarrassing and silly speeches, or in the case of Tom’s immature friend Alex (Chris Pratt), a slide show featuring all of Tom’s ex-lovers. But the two are still happy, and still on track, planning their wedding.

Shortly after however, Violet gets the news that she’s been accepted to the University of Michigan where she can work on a variety of psychology projects. This means that they have to move there, which means they have to put the wedding on hold. But oh! Violet has been working so hard to get this opportunity.  So Tom, being generous, decides to be supportive and so they pack up and move.

Michigan is like a completely different world (not as glamorous as San Francisco, but in terms of a typical romantic comedy setting, it’s still pretty magical looking), a place where the only movie people seem to talk about is “Ratatouille” and wear ugly, yarn knitted sweaters. Violet adjusts just fine, getting to conduct social experiments involving donuts and “The Notebook,” while Tom is miserable, reduced to working at a crummy sandwich shop and scraping ice off the windshield of his car.

Two years go by and Violet is given an offer to stay at the university longer, and the wedding gets put off again. Emily continues fulfilling her dreams, while Tom (living in this strange place for so long) becomes a bit of a freak. Sporting a handle bar mustache, wearing those ugly yarn sweaters, and becoming a hunting nut. There’s an amusing dinner scene where we see cups that have been lined with dear skin, and plates and bowls made out of deer bones. When will this wedding ever happen?

As I said before, it’s a long journey, but leave it to Judd Apatow (he wrote and directed “Knocked Up” and “Funny People,” and produced Stoller’s last two directorial outings “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek”) to produce a mature and immensely satisfying romantic comedy of sorts. We know that the ending is inevitable but it feels earned. Stoller directs the movie (for the most part) with great ease; the middle section involving the Michigan humor is particularity entertaining and swift.

The script by Stoller and Segel is intelligent, funny and heartfelt. This being an Apatow production, most of its humor is raunchy (with some peculiar curveball moments thrown in, like when Violet and her sister Suzie talk in the voices of Elmo and Cookie Monster) but at the same time the picture makes time for serious and intimate scenes involving Tom and Violet. They’re still partly funny but endearingly so.

And then there’s Blunt and Segel. As with all romantic comedies most of the strength is in the two leads, and both of them play wonderfully off one another. Of recent Segel has proven that he can be funny but also authentic. You believe in him and his struggles. And Blunt has proven that she can pretty much have bubbly chemistry with any male lead.

The movie does run a little long, a problem with all Apatow movies. They have large, character driven stories to tell and they want to be told thoroughly.  You definitely feel that length in “Five Year,” especially towards the end

 Nevertheless the movie still works overall. At its core (and as in all of the best romantic comedies) it wants to be funny but also serious and sincere, and it accomplishes that big time.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Chimpanzee Review

In “Chimpanzee,” the latest animal documentary to come from the independent film label of the Disney Company, Disneynature, we get to see…that’s right, chimpanzees. This is the sixth film from Disneynature, past movies have include, “Oceans” in 2009 and “African Cats” in 2010 and just like in all of those movies you get what you pay for. If you absolutely hate “Chimpanzee” then you’ve obviously gone to the wrong movie.

In it we get mommy chimps, baby chimps, old man chimps, mean chimps, lots and lots of chimps. In terms of quality the directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield deliver immensely, getting up close and personal, capturing all kinds of moments in chimpanzees’ day to day life, from finding food to just lying around. In addition, they’ve mixed in some cool looking stop action camera footage, focusing on things like plants growing and raindrops falling on top of some kind of weird brown plant that sprays out some kind of greenish smoke.

And believe it or not there is a main storyline, to make all this chimp-ery worthwhile and a charming one at that. “Chimpanzee” focuses on the tough but also gratifying childhood of baby Oscar. At first everything is just sunshine and roses for Oscar, he gets to ride around on his mom’s back while she goes out and gets food. Sometimes he observes what his mom and other chimps are doing (for example, how to crack open a nut) so he can fend for himself when it’s time to leave the nest, but for the most part it’s all fun and games.

Then, uh oh! A rival gang of chimp thugs led by one called Scar (who conveniently has a scar) attack Oscar’s clan and after a brief scuffle, he gets separated from his mom. Stuff gets real all of a sudden. Oscar is now an orphan living in a cruel chimp world having to take care of himself. But then, something miraculous happens, Freddie, the old and wise alpha male of the clan decides to adopt him. An unlikely duo: A lonely old man and a desperate orphan baby. Fothergill and Linfield have some how managed to find a Hollywood movie out in the wild…with chimps.

My only major qualm with the movie is the annoying narration by Tim Allen. Seriously it’s bad. I know that narration seems to be mandatory in nature docs, whether it’s some British guy on National Geographic or Morgan Freeman in “March of the Penguins,” and I usually don’t have an issue with it but in “Chimpanzee” Allen (or rather the people who wrote the awful narration) simply does too much. Instead of just giving us simple facts he feels the need to throw in jokes and make up dialogue between the chimps (like when Bob Saget hosted “America’s Funniest Home Videos”).  Let the fricken chimps speak for themselves.

 But look at me, I’m getting into a fight with a kid’s nature movie. “Chimpanzee” is a perfectly pleasant movie that families (the target audience) will fall in love with. I’m sure you could say that about any of the Disneynature docs but there’s something far more close and personal with chimpanzees, since they’re more closely related to us as opposed to whales.

It’s the kind of movie where a mom can whisper into her young child’s ear things like: “Look Billy! Look at the baby chimpanzee cuddle with the mommy chimpanzee.”