Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

I have always loved stop motion and claymation in movies. The original King Kong still delights me with the quirky movements of Kong, and Ray Harryhausen is a genius as far as I'm concerned. I know that the modern versions of this style are largely done through computer animation but the creativity still impresses and the look is so retro that it feels like it is still a throw back to the old days of Gumby and Pokey although no clay figurines were actually involved. "Chicken Run" and "Curse of the Wererabbit" are two of the best kids animated movies of the last dozen years and the Aardman Studios has another winner with the new "Pirates, Band of Misfits". This movie comes in 3-D and it might have even more charm in that format, we saw it in a regular 2-D format because some of our group have trouble with headaches after a 3-D experience.

The look of the film is the starting point for those things that are most pleasurable about the movie. The characters are rich and quirky with details that harken back to childhood memories of pirates on the high seas. Cutlasses fly, limbs have been replaced with wooden pegs, and pirates have lush beards that you can hide just about anything in. Does it sound silly yet? OK, the first fight the pirates have is not over a damsel in distress or how to divvy up the booty, it is a brawl based on a dispute over what is best about being a pirate. When you see the answer, if you don't laugh with delight, you should leave the movie theater immediately because that is the way the rest of the film is going to go. The traditional touch points of a pirate movie are juxtaposed with a cartoon version of buccaneer lunacy. As an added bonus there is usually a silly song to go along with the crazy.

Kids films sometimes repeat patterns so obviously, that a smart child could get bored because they can figure out what is going to happen next. While the plot of this movie may have some of those drawbacks, it never the less manages to keep us hooked by the outlandish way in which those well worn paths are tread. A put upon hero, betrays his true self and his friends but later redeems his actions and reaps the rewards. This sounds familiar right? Well, in the process we get a Pirate Award Show, a Scientist Award Show, a showdown on a blimp and a Dodo thrown in for good measure.  Oh and Charles Darwin is a part of the mix as well, and he is both foil and comic relief. The path of this story is never as straight as the morality play seems to suggest it will be and along the way we are treated to completely silly visual gags that provoke laughter and surprise most of the time.

The background images in the movie are especially worth mentioning. If you pay attention to the bills posted all around London, you will get some extra laughs. Don't worry if you don't see them all the first time, there will be a recap in the credit sequence, making this another one of those movies that you want to sit through the credits for. The music is rousing and silly at the same time. There is a nice mix of  recycled pop tunes and original movie songs. The pop tunes evoke moods as the images fit with the lyrics or the sound. The Clash almost certainly did not have a movie like this in mind when they penned "London Calling". There is a wonderful lament from "Flight of the Concords", that should be the Academy Award winner for Best Song at next years Oscars. I loved the disguises that the pirates resort to in several scenes, they are completely British in their execution. The sad efforts of the Pirate Captain to plunder treasures from the ships they board are also plenty amusing. There is one unfortunate change for political correctness. If you look at the trailer above, you will see a leper drop an arm on the deck of the ship the captain boards. Apparently, lepers in Great Britain (who would have thought that was a special interest group?), objected to the visual joke. So in the film, it is referred to as a plague ship rather than a leper ship. It makes no sense but at least all the lepers out there will not be humiliated at being the butt of a cartoon joke.

All the voice work of the actors is spot on, while none of it calls attention to itself. Unlike "Rango" from last year, this is not a star vehicle for an actor looking to do animated voice work. This is a story that focuses on the characters and their efforts to solve their problems. The kick here is not listening to Hugh Grant do a pirate character, it is a pirate character that is so clearly a parody of himself that makes us laugh. There are plenty of quick jokes for the adults in the audience as well, the movie is not just for kids. It will however appeal most to kids because it takes a big pile of imagination to come up with some of the stuff here and only someone with a child's wonder could manage it.

The Raven (2012)

There are movies that draw you in on the basis of the premise, some on genre and some use stars. "The Raven" is a genre picture that attempts to use the serial killer taunting the authorities premise as it's hook. It features a star as the author Edgar Allen Poe, and it features gruesome images to pull the horror crowd into the theater. As I was watching this movie, I was struck by the notion that it feels less like an exploitation film and more like a real "movie". The pacing and imagery is much more in tune with a serious drama, or maybe a biopic on the famous author who basically created the horror field. There are times that the planning of the shots reveals an ambition to be taken as a true artistic enterprise. Unfortunately all of this is the weakness of this movie. Instead of horrifying us, it tries to titillate and comment on our obsession with horror. Instead of providing a full fledged story about Poe, we get a cliche based murder mystery. Finally, instead of having fun with the outlandishness of it's premise, it takes itself too seriously.

I like John Cusack as an actor. He has a laconic manner and hangdog expression that have appealed to me on screen since "The Sure Thing". The look should fit a story about Edgar Allen Poe, but Cusack is a tall guy and he makes Poe look much too healthy for a drunken, TB ridden, poverty stricken artist. The opening sequences of Poe in a bar trying to get some recognition and some credit to drink, are rushed and overdone. His lines stem from an acting exercise rather than a character. The performance settles down after that but the tone has already been set, Cusack is going to treat this pulp material as if it is meaningful. This seems like the wrong way to go, there is no chance for insight into Poe. This is a story about a serial killer, re-enacting scenes from Poe's gruesome catalog, with a race against time to save the imagined love interest. Every time there is some discussion of literary pretension in the movie, it takes us out of the horror plot we are supposed to be engaged in.

The makers of this movie are hedging their bets, they never commit to one particular point of view for the movie. I think they might come close to getting a gruesome procedural out of this, but every murder save one, is revealed so quickly and in such a perfunctory manner that the horror element fails to develop. There is no dread sustained, no vicious act to pull back from. It simply comes on screen and then is rushed off for another sequence of Poe trying to write and understand the killer. This movie is probably budgeted in a moderate range, they needed to have the budget cut to force them to use some sensationalism to make it work. The admirable shots of a nineteenth century Baltimore, can't make up for the lack of terror on the screen that a better developed scene of sick murder could bring to the story. It is not as if they did not have horrific ideas, they do. The problem is that instead of dwelling on the horror elements, there is a focus on action chases and inner turmoil. The lovestruck, writer with a creativity block is the lynchpin of the plot, but it is also the weakest element of the story.

Many things in the movie work well. After the histrionics in his first few scenes, Cusack begins to feel more real as Poe. The movie is nice to look at and there is a serviceable mystery plot to follow. There are some disturbing visual images and nice references to Poe's works, but without any anticipation of what is coming, we are mostly left with looking at what has already transpired. That seems to be one of the elements that keeps this movie from working as well as it should. There is simply something not quite right about how it fits together. In the hands of a director who specializes in this kind of material, it could work well, here it simply feels workmanlike. As I said before, I felt like I was watching a movie that the film makers wanted people to see as a real film, instead of an entertainment piece. With this sort of material, I think the audience will feel a little cheated on both sides.

There is some nice writing in the story. I liked the idea of Poe having to write himself into the plot to be able to solve and resolve the mystery. The final shot resolution turns out to be satisfying as well, although it is not very well explained. Too often the movie relies on action sequences and chases to tell a story that does not really require them. I thought it particularly odd that a brilliant serial killer would count on his ability to be slightly faster than a police inspector in running through the water works catacombs under Baltimore, in order to deliver his next clue or see the reaction to his last one. There was no reason for him to be anywhere in the vicinity,except to put a little action tension into the film. "The Raven" is not a failure as a movie, but it is not as satisfying as it ought to be. If it sounds like I did not like the movie, that is wrong. I just wanted to like it more. In order for me to do, "The Raven" needed to be less middle brow and more exploitation.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Three Stooges Movie

Sometimes the world comes together in a great way and all the stars line up for you. Other times, the fates conspire to trip you up and leave you in a more desperate situation. It was the later of these two scenarios that lead me to the new Three Stooges movie. In all honesty, I am looking forward to four movies that opened wide today, and I am looking for a couple of smaller films if I can just work out some timing. But instead of watching Jason Statham hand the bad guys their asses, or relaxing with claymation pirates on the high seas, I ended up at this movie. Those of you who have read at this site before may be aware that my film enthusiasm is shared by my youngest daughter. She is currently working a job that keeps her out most nights well past 2a.m.. That means that there is not always a chance to sneak off with her and catch some piece of trash that we both enjoy, or discover a treasure in a film that we had mild expectations for. I finally talked her into letting me take my wife out to the movies without her and she even agreed that we could see one of the major releases this weekend. So we headed off to run errands, and then we dropped by the theater to see if "The Five Year Engagement" was starting any time soon. Well we had missed it by twenty minutes, but I'll be damned if I was going to walk away without seeing something.  My wife and I have been going to movies as a date since 1975. She was all set to sit down in a dark theater, share some popcorn and enjoy each others company for a while. She simply looked at the marquee for the next available show (that is the next available show that our daughter had not forbidden us to see without her) and said, let's see the Stooges movie.

If you watch the trailer above and laugh at some of the slapstick, then you will be able to get some pleasure out of the film. If you look at it in horror and see it as a sacrilege, then you better stay away because the trailer gives an accurate feel for the movie that I am talking about here. I like the Stooges well enough. I enjoyed the shorts when I was a kid and whenever I run across one while waiting for something else on the satellite to start, I will stop down and watch. I am not however a stooge aficionado, I don't know all the routines, quotes and inside references. I just like watching grown men poke each other in the eye, bash each other in the head and generally spread mayhem wherever they happen to go. From my point of few, this should be good for a few laughs.

I started to worry early on because the first part of the film does not feature grown men doing all the stupid head butting and nose gouging,  instead the Stooges are introduced as kids. These kids have the same mannerisms, looks and physical routines as the adults, but it does not work because the humor in most of the stooge material I have seen is based in large part on the fact that these are men who ought to know better but act like kids. Kids acting like kids just sort of falls flat. Once the adult versions of the stooges hit the screen the effect is a lot more promising. Instead of one out of five physical gags provoking a laugh, which was the ratio in the kids section, you get three out of five hitting the mark.

The Three actors playing the stooges actually do a remarkable impression of the original clowns. The guy who plays Moe has the right kind of bluster and aggression and the physical resemblance was very effective. Sean Hayes plays Larry, and he has always been a great comedic actor, here he disappears into the look, voice and general persona of the one non-Howard stooge really well. I was most impressed with Will Sasso, doing a great version of Curly in his footwork and pun laden comebacks. The script got the tone of his rejoinders right the great majority of the time. The script itself was no great shakes, but most of the Three Stooge's shorts were not all that well thought out either. The stuff that works the best here is not surprisingly the same stuff that worked for the the real Moe, Larry and Curly, lots of slapstick physical humor combined with some good sound effects to get a laugh.  I will say I laughed out loud several times, but they were so dispersed throughout the film that they felt less intense than they needed to to be entirely successful.

There was one long sequence that was staged like a stooge gag, but felt too much like a modern gross out comedy to really feel stooge-like. I know why it was included, and it was funny but it took me out of the fantasy a little. It does have to be a fantasy to imagine the three Stooges working again in the movies. If the Farrelly Brothers really want to revive the stooge tradition, put these guys in some shorts and find a way to attach those shorts to some other big release. I think the reaction would be more positive and the laughs would be sustained for a realistic amount of time rather than trying to make it work as a feature. I appreciated the effort, I just wish I had appreciated the movie a little more.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

This is the site my daughter Amanda is working for right now. They do some very cool things and it is all on the up and up.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lockout (2012)

There was no way this movie was going to be much good. It came out of no where, was made by nobody and had virtually no publicity around it. Hell, I did not even know it existed till I saw the trailer a month ago. So if all of that is true, why did I go and see it? Simple, Guy Pearce. I have been a fan of his since I first saw "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert". There he was the screwed up drag queen, who did not know when to shut his mouth. Here he plays the same character, except that he is not a drag queen and is fighting convicts in space rather than backwards yahoos in the Australian outback. OK, maybe there are a few other differences as well.

From my point of view, he is the actor from L.A. Confidential who got screwed out of completing the L.A. Confidential Academy Award, Best Actor trifecta. Kevin Spacey won the next year for "American Beauty", Russell Crowe won the year after that for "Gladiator", and Pearce not only did not win for his brilliant performance in "Memento", he did not even get nominated. He did however appear in the Academy Award winning Best Pictures for the two years prior to this. That gives him some professional cred. So what is he doing in this slice of sci-fi /action mash up? Hell, Michael Caine has made a lot of crummy movies over the years as well, sometimes you just have to pay the mortgage. Plus, he does get to be the lead in an action film which let's him channel his best Kurt Russell snarl and Bruce Willis bravado and play cops and robbers in space.

The set up of the movie is made clear in the trailer. A top security prison in space is taken over by the inmates and the President's daughter is one of the hostages. Enter tough guy, rogue spy/cop to infiltrate alone and try to save the day. It's basically "Escape From Space", minus any John Carpenter competence. The story is boiler plate action spy nonsense which has a mysterious briefcase being sought after but it largely turns out that is simply an excuse to make us suspicious of everyone's motives. Plot is not really where this movie is going to leave an impression. The script also does not treat most of the characters as if they have any common sense. The one main exception is the dialog that spills out of Pearce's character Snow's mouth. He has a wisecrack for every occasion and an insult for everyone in sight. Listening to him spit out a punchline or mutter a crack under his breath is what makes this work at all. He is not some unbeatable robotic character like Arnold, he just happens to be the right kind of guy they need and he gets lucky, the script fixes most of his problems so he does not have to get by trying to out tough the scum of the Earth.

The effects on the shoot seem to be a mix of well done space backgrounds, lousy action CGI, and endless soundstage tunnels that allow the characters to get from place to place without being seen by every convict on the prison satellite. This was the first time I saw in the credits, every name of every member of the orchestra that played the score; including the instrument they played. As I looked at the credits, it was clear that most of the below the line talent came from somewhere in Eastern Europe. I never saw so many names ending in "vic" in my life. The two main bad guys in the prison, sounded like they had heavy Scottish brogues or were such drunken Irishmen that no one could understand most of what they say. Peter Stormare plays the head of the Secret Service/Security Service, and he has little to do except glower at other characters. The lead actress looked familiar but I had the cheat and look at IMDB to see she played Liam Neeson's daughter in "Taken".  So basically she is being typecast. You actually sort of hate her character anyway because she is so oblivious to the world she lives in. By the end of the movie though, she is supposed to be the smartest person in the story.

The movie was not something I could recommend to anyone except those who have a taste for dumb Saturday matinee fare. This was a low budget action film that needed to get the most out of it's main asset, the lead actor. Guy Pearce delivers but it is something that you wouldn't have ordered if he was not the deliveryman.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cabin in the Woods (2012)

I have been away from a movie theater for two weeks and was beginning to feel very uncomfortable. There never was enough time or a product that I wanted to see in the last couple weeks, even though I was on a partial break during that time. This week however intrigued me because there is a highly talked about horror film, a schlocky rip off of Escape from New York, and a Three Stooges movie of all things. I expect to see the stupid action film sometime this weekend, and I can't decide if the Stooges movie is a good idea or not, although I have heard good things about it. So I choose the horror film because it was arriving with some fanfare and I wanted the visceral experience with a chill down my back. I have to say that I was a little disappointed.

Comedy and horror can go together and often do, heck see my previous post on Army of Darkness. The Cabin in the Woods has a self aware sensibility that suggests a "Scream" like twist on the horror genre. We are going to get our story deconstructed for us at the same time that all the thrills are happening. The main problem with this movie is that the backstory framing of the traditional "Cabin in the Woods" type story, undermines the horror effect in the traditional movie. I know we are supposed to be taken out of the film and look at it from the modernist perspective, but there needs to be a solid movie there to begin with, and everything feels off. There are some shreds of information dropped in on the first cast which lead to a little bit of suspicion, but by the time any of that is beginning to get percolated, more than half of our characters are dead and the ones remaining are viewed in a very diffident manner. I am trying to write my opinion without giving away too much, and that is exactly what the film makers did wrong. They gave up the twist before the traditional story gets going and the mundane approach that gives the second story it's humor, sucks the energy out of the horror version of the movie.

I will say there are a lot of laughs in the second story development and payoff. The subversion of the horror genre plays like an over the top episode of "Supernatural". Without Sam and Dean around to root for, there is not the kind of tension you need to make the jokes work as well. I liked many of the concepts. There is an extended joke with a speaker phone, and the elevator tour of the backstage horror factory was visually amusing most of the time. The mash-up of film horror genres was fun to watch for the twenty minutes or so that it was on, but the justification was tipped early and it simply seems silly rather than profound. If the characters in the main horror plot had been treated a little more creatively, then the second story resolution might seem more appropriate. As it was, there was not enough humor to compensate for a lack of horror. The creativity that comes with the inventive visual play on all other horror genres, get played for laughs in an ejaculation of visual jokes that leaves you wishing the experience had not been over so quickly.

The movie does have three secret weapons at it's disposal. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are front and center the whole movie. They come across like a more normal version of Jules and Vincent from "Pulp Fiction". They have mundane verbal sparring and gossip, interspersed with flashes of dramatic action. As good as the actors are, they can't overcome the script that makes them nothing more than sad cases of arrested development doing a serious job. The self assured manner of their decision making reflects the hubris that comes from self delusional self confidence. They have this in spades and it works for the first part of the movie, but during the climax, it makes everything happening seem as if it is just a joke and the story undercuts the drama that it was trying to produce. I don't want to say anything about the third actor in the movie that adds a touch of "special" to the face of this project. Almost like the Bill Murray cameo in another horror flick a couple of years ago, this appearance generates a chuckle and some satisfaction in part because it was not expected.

Clearly there was a lot of creative energy put into the film. The idea is a good one but it needs to come off perfectly to work. It only came off adequately, so instead of the drop your jaw kind of awesomeness I was hoping for, I got the mildly amused chortle that comes with a good but not great joke. I wanted to be frightened but I was not, I wanted to laugh but I only giggled. I wanted to shout the praises of this movie to all my friends and readers, but I can only say it was OK. If you never see this movie, it will not be a huge loss in your movie life. If you do see the movie, you will be mildly amused for a couple of hours and then wonder what it was that just did not work. You at least now know what my theory on that is.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Army of Darkness - Dino De Laurentis Tribute

There was not a bigger, more flamboyant movie producer in the last fifty years than Dino De Laurentis. He was an international Academy award winning producer from the 1950s up until he died at the age of 91 in 2010. His list of American produced films is lengthy, and includes such quality productions as The Shootist, Ragtime, Serpico, Blue Velvet. He owned and lost more movie studios than you can shake a stick at and I remember fondly seeing the title card for DEG (De Laurentis Entertainment Group) at the start of many treasures from the 1980s. I will personally be forever grateful for his willingness to back the David Lynch version of Dune, which was produced by his daughter, it is one of my favorite films despite it's flaws. The USC Cinema school hosted a tribute last week that included a number of films. It is not listed in the program because it was not part of the official weekend, but Dune screened on Thursday night and I kicked myself for having to teach at night and missing this on the big screen. However, Saturday night I did have a chance to take in one of the many odd films his studios produced over the years, and I had the added pleasure of being accompanied by my oldest daughter. Allison ditched her husband last Saturday so she could spend a couple of hours with her old man taking in the genius that is "Army of Darkness".

Army of Darkness is the third film in the Evil Dead series of horror films. These movies became more competent and humorous with each new edition. There may not be a more blissful 81 minutes of  comedy and horror ever committed to film. This movie came out in 1993 and was very anticipated by myself and the Yenny family. John and Anne are friends of ours that share a taste for Bruce Campbell and Zombies. I was reminded by Anne on my Facebook update on Saturday, that she and John went with us and that they brought their newborn Nate with them. They are still trying to see every Zombie movie ever made. Technically this may not be a Zombie movie since most of the reanimated dead in the story are skeletons which have no craving for human flesh but do desire the souls of the living.   This movie is choc-a-block with great throw away movie lines, many of which are responses to the attacks by the dead or those possessed by the dead. It is so quotible, that it should have it's own AFI special to commemorated it. I don't know that in Hollywood would be proud to list it on their filmography, but De Laurentis understood the cult nature of the Evil Dead films, and although he was not going to give them a budget to make a Heaven's Gate version of a horror film, he did pony up for extras when the movie needed it. I remember reading about the delays in release and how they were connected to the need for some more effects work that the studio finally gave some money for.
I read a story in the Rolling Stone Magazine decades ago, about an actor who came in to talk to Dino De Laurentis about a movie that he might be cast for. The story was that the meeting took place in De Laurentis large corner office, in which there was a pool sized desk with only a telephone on it. The actor, taking note of the producer's diminutive size (he was just over five feet tall), asked why such a little man needed such a big desk? You would think that would be the end of that actor's career, instead it was just the beginning and De Laurentis consented to his casting in a Sword and Sorcery flick he was producing. For better or worse the wise guy actor went on to a huge movie career and later became governor of the sate of California.

"Army of Darkness" is a perfect example of a movie that today would be ruined by special effects done in the computer. It has so much charm because you can see how the creators put every trick in the book to use in making the visuals work. There is rear projection, time lapse make-up effects, stop-go animation a-la Ray Harryhausen, and puppet work. These days, you would get motion capture and CGI, and while it might look better, it would lose the cheesy charm of this throwback to the old days of science fiction, horror. It is almost like those geeks from Michigan went out in the back yard one more time to make one of their super eight movies. The acting is not great, the effects, not perfect, the lighting is a little inconsistent, but the effect is exactly right. It is over the top funny, with a hero who has significant flaws but we love him anyway. The creativity in story and script are the things that make young kids want to be film makers. "I've got a cool idea of something I want to see. How do we do it?"

Bruce Campbell is the epitome of geek hero worship. There is a classic hero image that he puts forth but it is subverted by his sardonic voice and blustery bravado. I try to see all the things he does, and I continue to be a fan of the TV series Burn Notice because he is a part of it, but he will go to his grave as "Ash" the character he plays in this series of films. The sequence where he is attacked by miniature versions of himself and then has one grow out of his body, is hysterically creepy and ridiculous  at the same time. All the quotable lines from the movie are so quotable because of his delivery, and when you try to throw one out be sure to add his tone to it or it will fall flat. He transforms from shlub to hero in a instant on multiple occasions in the movie, and each time it is a delight.

The screening had a goodly portion of geeks who knew the movie by heart. They anticipated laughs and responded with enthusiasm. I would have to count Allison and myself in that group. We have seen this movie dozens if not a hundred times but it was her first time to see it on the big screen. The print was not perfect and that made it all the more appropriate since the film making was done on the cheap. She noticed the signals and cuts when they changed reels, not something you get these days with digital delivery of movies. She was also quick to point out that there were only three reels, so clearly the movie does not run long. My only answer to that is that it runs the perfect amount of time to completely satisfy me in my quest for the ultimate experience in Medieval Horror.  Sam Rami has certainly gone on to bigger things, but to me he is forever the king of the horror/comedy genre. "Hail to the King Baby."