Friday, January 28, 2011
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Friday, January 7, 2011
Voices of Steve Carrell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Super Criminal Gru, seeks to become the greatest villain of all time by stealing the moon. He concocts a rather complex plan involving adopted three orphan girls in order to steal the necessary equipment from his nemesis, Vector, who has upstaged him at every turn. However, things go awry when Gru begins to bond with his new family.
Gru has a lot of Steve Carrell’s usual mannerisms his performance. While he does try to disguise it with a Hollywood foreign accent, a lot of elements he is known for come to the surface. When he talked about getting older or having to lay off some of his walking cheese puff minions, I really felt like I was watching an episode of “The Office”. This wasn’t necessary a bad thing, it was just something I found a little distracting from the actual story. I can understand that with this being Illumination Animation’s first feature film, that they tried to capitalize on as much star power as they could afford.
On the other end of the casting spectrum we have Julie Andrews as Gru’s mother who makes only a few guttural noises in her limited amount of screen time. I just couldn’t help but think what a waste of potential that was. They managed to get Mary Poppins herself to be in their children’s movie, and did absolutely nothing with her. All the while I just couldn’t help but think of how ironic it would be if instead they had cast her as the intimidating mistress who runs the orphanage. I just think it would have been fun to cast against type like that.
One of the things that are hard to understand about this movie is the setting. Our two leads, Gru and Vector are supervillains who steal landmarks Carmen Sandiego style, and are both financed by an evil bank and are part of society of bad guys. There don’t seem to be any superheroes or secret agents to oppose these threats. The people we do see react don’t really seem to do anything. This is rather unfortunate as one of the movie’s funnier moments was at the beginning when we see the nations of the world going ludicrous precautions to safeguard their landmarks. I kind of wish there had been more scenes like this.
It is a bit hard to understand this setting when there really have any “rules” laid out. There’s a bit of contrived coincidence that the plot hinges on, were Gru builds a rocketship out of scrap parts to fly to the moon, so that he can steal it with his shrink ray. It just so happens that Gru can only launch his rocket on the same day as his new daughter’s dance recital. If you can build a rocket out of spare parts and use it to fly to the moon, and zap it with a shrink ray to hold it for ransom, then I’m sure you can launch on a day when you aren’t otherwise committed. The senile Dr. Nefario, has suddenly regained lucidity to exposit this bit, delivers this plot point. I don’t understand who this guy is that he can tell Gru what to do. Isn’t it Gru’s plan after all? Besides, the good doctor didn’t speak up that we know of during any of Gru’s other failings, so why now all of the sudden? There is no reason, other than because the plot depends upon it.
The animation is excellent. I am eager to see what comes out of Illumination Animation’s following films. The plot is contrived, and the situations with the kids fairly predictable. However, it is peppered with some good comedic moments but they are rather few and far between.
3 out of 5. Commonplace.
Directed by Elizabeth Allen
Based on the books by Beverly Cleary
Starring Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith
Directed by Chuck Russell
The movie opens with a decent from space to shots of a small, empty town in Anywhere, USA. There is foreboding music in the background to help establish the dark tone.
Aside of a few details, the story is the same as the original 1958 “The Blob”, with a Blob monster falling from outer space, consuming unsuspecting victims and its up to two teenagers to try and stop it from destroying the town.
The best thing about this film is how efficiently it uses the first act to establish its characters. Each person has a little bit of dimension and development so that they all seem important to a certain degree and results in all the more surprise and shock when a character becomes a victim of the Blob. It really helps the audience to care about trying to stop the situation and really invests us in the story more so than your average monster run amok type of movie.
Instead of just being regular teenagers, our lead characters are Brian is a juvenile delinquent with authority issues and Meg, a goody-good cheerleader from a wealthy family. They have decent chemistry but nowhere near as much charisma as Steve McQueen and company in the original.
The Blob effects in this version are decent. It should really go without saying that this is a bloodier and gorier Blob, so we get to see it tear apart and digest its victims, getting redder as it eats more, colored by the blood. While this Blob has more onscreen kills than the original, the actual deaths we do see are so brief that the shock sticks to our subconscious and comes across as more terrifying in our minds.
The problem is that the menace of the Blob is undermined by the introduction of a human antagonist, the corrupt government scientist Dr. Meaddows. While it first he comes across as an eleventh hour savior to stop the monster, his wooden and exposition heavy dialogue really give him away. He brings the story to a halt as he explains that the Blob is a biological weapon that he has designed and how he’d rather let the entire town be destroyed that have his experiment be lost. He’s just relishes in what a two dimensional bad guy he is and it really upstages the motiveless Blob. He death by the creature he created is far more satisfactory to the viewer than the destruction of the Blob in the end.
Speaking of which, the climax occurs when a “Jaws”-style tank explosion. Meg suddenly starts acting like Sigourney Weaver from “Aliens” and spewing typical monster killing dialogue firing multiple shots from an assault rifle trying to hit the Liquid Nitrogen tank that will freeze the Blob.
That would be the end of it, but right before the end we see a demented priest go on and on about how the Blob is a sign of the end of the world in a manner that’s beyond cliché.
A very well written script up until the third act, were we are sidelined by clichés. The Blob effects are good, but are starting to show their age. It is well made, but nowhere near as fun or as memorable as the original.
3 out of 5. Effective Horror.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Voices of Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy
Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
The road to “Tangled” has had just about as many twists and split ends as seventy feet of hair would. But for me, it is the end of a long, yet inevitable journey. The first time I heard about this movie was four years ago when I was studying for my degree in art history. While researching Eighteenth Century French Rococo paintings, I discovered an interview with Disney animator Glen Keane who was attracted to the lush romantic tone of this particular style of art and wanted to use computer animation to create the look of a moving painting.
I’ve always admired Disney Animation’s appreciation for art by referencing classic works in their movies. Whether it be Ariel admiring “Magdalene with the Smoking Flame” in “The Little Mermaid”, or homage to N.C. Wyeth’s paintings in “Treasure Planet”, or even the bizarre appearance of “American Gothic” in “Mulan”. So I made a mental note to follow the development of this feature, and it certainly took some interesting turns. After Glen Keane suffered heart conditions that forced him to distance himself from the project, it was handed off to quite a number of other people who all wanted to do something different from it. There was a phase in which is was called “Unbraided”, and tried to capitalize on the success of “Shrek”’s style of fractured fairy tales before changing hands again and again each bringing creative changes, which is usually the kiss of death for a movie. The process became a mess, but eventually, after nine years in production (three times the length of an animated feature takes to make) it was released in November as Disney’s 50th Animated Feature Film.
The story adapts the classic fairy tale of Rapunzel. The wicked Mother Gothel kidnaps and confines Princess Rapunzel to a hidden tower, using Rapunzel’s magic hair to stay eternally young. When a criminal on the run, Flynn Rider, stumbles across Rapunzel and her tower. She begs him to take her out to see the mystetious floating lights that appear in the night sky on her birthday each year. He reluctantly agrees and from there we have the “Romantic Road Trip” story, immortalized by the movie “It Happened One Night” but probably more familiar to younger audiences as the plot for “The Princess and The Frog”.
This movie has lot more snappy physical slapstick humor mixed with a number of quick reaction cuts and pokes fun at some of the trappings of a typical Disney film such as destiny and true love. This seems more in keeping with a Dreamworks or Warner Brothers film than a Disney animated feature, though there is still a classic Disney influence. The reveal of Rapunzel’s tower reminisenct of the reveal of the castle in “Beauty and the Beast”. Rapunzel also runs through a clearing in the forest, animals attracted to sound of her voice a la “Sleeping Beauty”. Then the camera swings over head before spinning around her during the course which has been done in too many Disney movies to get an accurate count. The musical numbers are also written by Alan Menken, who songs for “Aladdin”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “Beauty and the Beast”. The film's Academy-Awarded Nominated song "I See the Light", is very reminiscent of "Aladdin"'s "A Whole New World", with our two leads on a form of transportation (a boat, a la "Kiss the Girl" from "The Little Mermaid), admiring the beautiful scenery, falling in love while performing a duet.
The visuals are strong with hearty laughs and quality moments for good family entertainment. The formula may seem a bit familiar, but it is still interesting to watch. If they had pushed certain elements of the story I think it could have been a perfect 5. But after so much time and money were invested into this project, its likely the executives pushed it into a familiar direction. With that in mind, its probably a miracle we got something as good as we did.
4 out of 5. Enjoyable.
Monday, January 3, 2011
Starring Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Will Poulter, Simon Pegg
Directed by Michael Apted
Based on the book by C.S. Lewis
The Chronicles of Narnia were a very influential series in my childhood and I have enjoyed seeing these books adapted to the big screen. However, when I heard that Walden Media was having trouble coming up with the money for the third installment of the series, I knew that was the least of their problems. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is probably the densest and most symbolism heavy book in the seven and doesn’t have so much a plot so much as it is a series of short stories threaded together by a common goal. I honestly thought that perhaps a five episode television miniseries would be better at conveying this particular story than a compact two-hour movie.
Disney jettisoned the Narnia series after “Prince Caspian” didn’t make the kind of money that the studio wanted. Twentieth Century Fox was quick to get there hands on the property, as they have been looking to create a lucrative fantasy franchise to par with “Harry Potter”, as seen with their failures in “Eragon”, “City of Ember”, and “Percy Jackson”. So Fox can claim to have both saved this series as well as having condemned it.
The film begins with Edmund and Lucy having to stay with their unpleasant cousin Eustace, before the three children are suddenly plunged into Narnia once again. Given the dense material it only makes sense that we start off into things without any delay.
King Caspian exposits to the children that Narnia is at peace now, and that he is on a quest to find the missing seven lords who were briefly mentioned in the last film. I’m not sure why it’s necessary that the king himself go on this voyage, and makes him seem like a bit of micro manager. While Edmund and Lucy are all to happy to be back in Narnia, while Eustace is easily irritated by this strange new fantasy world. But the purpose of their quest soon switches gears as our heroes discover a green mist that swallows up innocent sailors. We are told it is a force of nature that is subtle and seeks to corrupt and influence those we go near it.
The establishment and exposition on this green meanie comes a little late into the game. Our heroes our told by on old wizard that to defeat the green mist, they must reunite seven swords on an island in the east. Everyone just responds, “Sure, why not?” So that it what they do.
For all the complaints I’m about to unleash, one the things I really did like about the movie was its lighthearted tone. Other recent fantasy movies like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” have gotten gradually darker, whereas “Dawn Treader” keeps things fun and has some good humor to it. While the story may have been changed to suit the big screen, I’m grateful they didn’t follow the trend of making the series darker in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience.
One of the most obvious changes in this movie, (besides the plot) is Simon Pegg replacing Eddie Izzard as the voice of the warrior mouse, Reepicheep. His performance in this role easily steals the show. While the effects are impressive in this movie, it’s easy to see were most of the money went and I think it was pretty well spent.
Eustace’s naivety with his newfound surroundings is used primarily for comic relief. Thankfully he is used sparingly and effectively, as his incorrigible tendencies and cowardice could have easily made him intolerable if he were overused. During one of their many island encounters, a magic spell turns Eustace into a CG dragon. This results in a lot of his character development arc happening off camera, as the dragon isn’t as capable of showing emotions as his human actor, no matter how pig faced that actor might be. I imagine this change was a bigger part of the movie than it was in the book so that Dragon Eustace and Reepicheep could have more scenes together since both creatures were created by the computer, and the animators wouldn’t have to worry about mixing live action with animation when those two were together. During this time, Reepicheep gives Eustace the “You are meant for a great destiny” speech. It’s the kind you only get from movies and inept guidance counselors who don’t have any form of helpful advice. It is a trope that I hate so much.
There was no central antagonist in the original book, so the green mist was an invention for the film, and it makes sense that they would want to try and tie things together in a bit more familiar action movie-fight to the save the world plot. Also, after having the last two films with big bads that had to be beaten in a “Lord of the Rings” style battle charges, the idea of a subtle and intangible evil that seeks to tempt and influence our heroes seems like a cool idea. The only problem is there was nothing subtle about the green mist. Every time our heroes were tempted to do something wrong, the green mist would appear in the background just in case we were too dumb to figure out on ourselves.
Because the purpose of their voyage spends time switching gears there really isn’t a sense of anticipation, or anything that makes us excited about reaching the end goal. It really does feel as if our characters are making it up as they go along. Also since the book is so dense and the film is rather short, a lot of development and vices of the characters feel very compressed. It makes a lot of the various island adventures and magical creatures they encounter seem superficial. For example, after agreeing to defeat the green mist, Lucy gets herself a groupie, a little girl whose mother was taken by the mist. She has nothing to do with the plot, its just pathos, serving as a reminder that they are out here to actually do something. Edmund has a subplot about wanting power and Lucy has a subplot about wanting to be beautiful like her sister (which really could just be solved by applying “Whore Red” lipstick), but both subplots are resolved about as quickly as they are introduced.
The final conflict, is a bit weird. Not because it was scary, but because it was a touch inconsistent. After sailing into the dark island, we learn that the dark island has the power to manifest as the fears whatever you are thinking of. Edmund reacts by saying “Oh, no, I couldn’t help but think of it!” The others ask “What?” At least three people within earshot of me in the theater whispered to their neighbor “The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!” Sadly, this is not the case. I thought that since the Green Mist appeared to Edmund twice in this movie in the form of the White Witch from the first movie, and tempted him with power, saying that she “can make him a man”, that she might have manifest as a psychical evil to defeat for the final fight. But no, instead Edmund’s greatest fear is a sea serpent.
The ending feels a bit tacked on. After defeating the big evil, they spot an island on the horizon and decide to check it out. Edmund even says, “Might as well”, and I have to agree, they’ve come this far without any sort of plan or purpose, they might as well check that looks remotely interesting. In the book, reaching “the end of the world”, was one of the primary goals of their voyage, but now it’s nothing more than a rushed conclusion without any weight given to it. When given the choice of sailing to “the end of the world”, Caspian says he wants to go but cannot because he feels responsibility he left behind that we have never seen and have never been mentioned before this time. Aslan the lion shows up to remind us that he in fact still in the movie despite having made one other very brief appearance earlier. Also to remind that, just in case we forgot, he is supposed to be Jesus. There is some foreshadowing for the next movie in the series, but in all honestly I don’t think it’s going to happen. I am thankful that we got to the third movie, and that seems like a decent place to stop.
There is decent action, acting and effects, but no real anticipation or sense of build up. Instead we just have compressed character studies. There is a sense of risk, just not a whole lot. This is easily the weakest of the series, which is a shame is it is one of the stronger books of the series. It’s not boring at all, its just not very engaging either.
3 out of 5. Their heart is in the right place, just not in the pace.