Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

            Fun trivia: Flushed Away was originally going to be about pirates.  Dreamworks, who constantly meddled (or tried to) with Aardman’s projects, shut that idea down, saying that pirates weren’t popular.  Four Pirates of the Caribbean movies later and Aardman shifting from Dreamworks to Sony Animation’s umbrella, they finally get to revisit that idea.  And it is glorious.
            The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) wants to finally win the Pirate of the Year award.  Unfortunately, he has no booty and he and his crew have very little apparent pirating skills.  Then he runs into Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who identifies the Captain’s “parrot” as a dodo, and gets the crew to go to England for the Scientist of the Year competition, all while they try to avoid the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).
            The main thing that the movie does so well is being absolutely dense with gags.  There’s visual puns, wordplay, and slapstick regularly going on at the same time.  That means that even if one joke just doesn’t hit right, there’s another one right around the corner, or even in the background.  The sets are filled with posters and pictures that just add to what’s going on in the foreground.  And naturally, being Aardman (who also did Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run), the stop-motion animation is lavish.  It particularly shows when you start looking at the pure detail put into everything.  They didn’t have to have that background character blink to show that they’re not just a living prop, but they did.
            This is also a movie that delights in being absolutely ridiculous.  One of the pirates is The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen—and yes, the Captain’s entire crew is named like this), a female pirate disguised as a male by wearing an obvious beard.  This never becomes a subplot or even more than the focus of a few gags.  It’s just there because that’s the universe this movie lives in.  It throws anachronisms in as it sees fit, plays with history in a ridiculous manner.  It doesn’t really care as long as it’s funny.  And it works.  Of course, this does mean that for the time when the movie shifts to drama for a bit, it starts to grind to a halt.  It doesn’t quite get there, thanks to launching into a wonderful finale, but you can feel it getting close.
I’ve seen some people say that Aardman is slumming it a bit with this and the also-hilarious Arthur Christmas.  Maybe so, but if this is Aardman at a weaker point, all they’re doing is proving that, at their worst, they can still make a wholly entertaining movie with a great voice cast, plenty of gags, and some incredible animation.

Cowboys and Aliens

            Cowboys and Aliens.  That’s a pretty great movie title.  It gives you everything you need to know about the movie.  It ranks up there with Snakes on a Plane and Hot Tub Time Machine for simple, descriptive, and surprisingly memorable titles.  And when you get a title like this, you expect something fun.  What you don’t expect is a dull, clichéd Western.
            Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no idea how he got there and he’s wearing a mysterious armband.  Once he makes his way to town, he finds out that he’s a wanted man…and then aliens attack and abduct half the town, leaving whoever’s left to journey and try to get them back.
            The first problem is that I may be exaggerating a little if I say half the townspeople are really in this movie, but there are a lot of characters.  The entire movie leading up to the initial alien attack is just introducing characters and subplots.  This would be fine if any of these characters are compelling, but they’re just cliché after cliché.  And not even likeable clichés, they’re just there.  And they all go through their prescribed character development arcs.  Harrison Ford’s Woodrow Dolarhyde starts off as an unlikable asshole?  Oh, he’s going to become friends with the kid in the group.  Sam Rockwell’s Doc (I seriously did not know the name of his character during the movie, and now I look at IMDB and find they just called him Doc?) starts off being unable to fire a gun.  Do you think that maybe, in the final battle, he’ll get an incredible shot on an alien?  I won’t spoil it for you, in case you’ve never seen a movie in the last 50 years.
            Of course, a cast of clichés can just be nodded at if the movie’s fun enough.  But everybody is taking this thing dead serious.  There’s no comedy moments, there’s not even any one-liners.  The entire cast is just going through this thing like they expected it to be the next intelligent sci-fi film.  It’s COWBOYS and ALIENS.  Of course, the few moments that could’ve added a dash of humor are hurt by the fact that Daniel Craig can’t sell comedy (or, really, do anything besides look good without a shirt on) to save his life.  At one point, they’re on a structure with dynamite, and somebody drops the matches.  A moment of panic, until Craig pulls the cigar out of the other man’s mouth.  It could’ve been a hilarious moment, but nobody sells it.
            The aliens themselves are given no motivation.  We eventually find out the reason they’re on Earth, but not really the why of it.  It’s the flimsiest of excuses; again, something that could’ve worked fine for a fun movie, but it’s dead serious.  So we end up with clichéd heroes vs. flat villains.  Although the aliens do provide the best part of this movie: the special effects.  They’re pretty incredible.  Both ships and the aliens themselves look fantastic.  The action sequences are decent enough because of that, but you’re sitting through so much movie on the way there that you’re probably bored out of your mind by the time you get there.
            Cowboys and Aliens is a waste of talent and a title.  It’s not necessarily a bad movie.  I just felt that I could’ve spent 2 hours watching a blank TV screen and gotten the same effect.  It’s there.  It didn’t really thrill, entertain, or cause me to think in that time.  It just was.

Monday, April 23, 2012

DC Nation

            I love DC animated shows.  Batman.  Justice League.  Teen Titans.  Batman: Brave and the Bold.  Well, really, I love comic book animated shows in general.  But DC has been consistently putting out great stuff for over a decade, more often and generally better than some of the stuff they put in theaters.  And DC Nation, a programming block of two shows on Cartoon Network, is just fantastic.
             The first show, and the one I really want to push to everybody and say “WATCH THIS”, is Young Justice.  It’s about a superteam of, well, younger superheroes, with Robin, Superboy, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Miss Martian, and Artemis.  And it has consistently been impressing me.  The action is great.  The plotlines are intelligent.  It has just enough humor, and yet can also get incredibly dark at times.  Creator Greg Weisman, who also created Gargoyles and Spectacular Spider-Man, is clearly one of the forces of TV animation at this point.  If there’s any big problem, it’s part of the same reason I love it: the show frequently takes a lot of characters from the DC Universe.  Unlike Teen Titans, these characters quite clearly are interacting with the whole world instead of in some bubble with no other heroes.  The reason this becomes a problem is that, for every fanboy moment I have of “OH MY GOD, IT’S KLARION THE WITCH-BOY!”…well…be serious, how many people do you think even know who Klarion is?  The show also has a lot of major arcs going on at once.  Each episode is standalone, but there tends to be scenes of the villains going “Our plot has gone as planned!” and I’m not even sure how many major villains there are at this point.  Overall, though, the show entertains me every time I watch it.
            The other show on the block is Green Lantern, a CG-animated series.  I have to say it: it’s what the movie should’ve been.  And I’m not just talking about how much better it is, and how it’s staying the hell away from Earth (yes, Hal is the only regular hooman on the show so far).  Warner Bros wanted the Green Lantern movie to be the next Star Wars, and yet the show hits that so much better.  Of course, the CG-animation makes me immediately think of Cartoon Network’s other big CG show, Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  But it also has interesting alien species, plenty of action in space, and heroics.  While the CG animation is as rough and undetailed as you’d expect from a TV show, it does its job well, and the characters are stylized enough (Bruce Timm, character designer for Batman, Superman and Justice League, also worked on this show) that it doesn’t matter too much.  My biggest problem is pretty much the opposite of Young Justice: I’m not fanboying enough.  The Red Lanterns have been introduced as the major villains, but since then, nothing.  Now, original aliens are definitely nice, and I’m not complaining about that.  I just want more of the Corps, more of the different lantern colors.  I expect this will come with time.  The show’s still finding its groove, and I’m hoping that once it hits it, it won’t stop.
            The other major feature of DC Nation is that, between the shows, there are various animated shorts.  With names like Aardman and Lauren Faust doing them, and the shorts featuring Lego Batman and the Teen Titans, there’s high expectations, and they end up…amusing.  I wouldn’t say fantastic, but as far as making this a real programming block and not just two shows that are related put together, they do their job well.  They’re cute, funny, and well-animated.  That’s good enough for me.
            If you like superheroes, action, and animation, DC Nation is pretty much the best place on TV for it.  It may not quite take the sting off of Brave and the Bold being cancelled, but it’s doing a pretty good job at delivering two shows that are definitely worth watching.

Saving Smash, Before It's Too Late

            Smash is one of the most promising shows of the new season.  The plot focuses on the cast and crew of a Broadway show about Marilyn Monroe, from creation of the idea to, currently, trying to get investors and get it on stage.  It’s got a fun cast (especially Anjelica Huston as the producer), enough wit to go with the drama, and some awesome big musical numbers with Broadway-quality music to go with it (I highly suggest looking up Let’s Be Bad on Youtube).  Yet since The Workshop, the show has stumbled for me and it’s still trying to climb back up to where it was.  And if it doesn’t, a show that’s already renewed for season 2 is quickly going to become unwatchable.  Here’s my best suggestions for making sure this show doesn’t hit the sophomore slump hard (note: the last episode I watched was Understudy.  This means I haven’t seen anything with Uma Thurman’s character yet, but I am crossing my fingers that I am blown away):
1. Keep the plotlines focused on Broadway.  A recent subplot had one of the cast member’s boyfriends trying to become the White House press secretary or something like that.  It’s so far removed from the show that I don’t even know how it got there.  As far as I can tell, the show is trying to fix this fast by putting as many characters on a bus as it can, but there’s still problems with main cast members that aren’t working on Marilyn anymore.  Get everybody focused, get your main plot rolling, and THEN you can start doing subplots with secondary characters.
2. One great song is better than 2 mediocre ones. The current formula seems to say that there’s around 2-3 songs per episode.  Two of them end up being standard licensed fare that’s straight out of Glee, with little to no choreography and very little point besides to say “the character is feeling sad”.  The other is a big, original musical number that tends to always leave my jaw on the floor.  I would rather just have the musical number and leave the licensed songs to Glee.
3. No more cheating.  OK, this is frankly getting ridiculous.  About half the cast has either had an affair or has another character think they’re cheating on their lover.  The worst part is that the biggest affair so far was only found out because Julia was holding on to the idiot ball for dear life, and now they won’t stop talking about it.  Bury this plotline, and never do any like it again.
4. Start sowing the seeds for the next arc.  The most dangerous part of this show so far is that the entire plot is trying to get Marilyn on Broadway.  What happens when they succeed?  I honestly don’t know, and that worries me.  If the first arc ends with Marilyn getting on Broadway, is the show over?  Do they start working on another play?   Or are they just going to keep spinning the wheels on Marilyn until the show gets cancelled?  At least give me the slightest hint that you have more up your sleeve.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

     I haven’t seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.  I haven’t read the original Robert E. Howard stories.  I’ve only read the Conan comics (by both Marvel and Dark Horse).  But I can’t help but walk away from this newest version of Conan the Barbarian with one thought on my mind: that’s not Conan.
            Conan (Jason Momoa) witnesses his father (Ron Perlman) die at a young age, and wants revenge on the man who did it, Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang).  Meanwhile, Zym is trying to reassemble a mask that will bring his dead wife back, and all he needs now is a pureblood, Tamara (Rachel Nichols)…who happens to run into Conan.
            Now, there’s a fundamental flaw here, one I only realized halfway into the movie: you’ve ruined Conan by giving him a revenge motivation here.  Now, I’m pretty sure there’s some stories where Conan gets motivated by revenge at some point.  The problem is that most stories start out with him as a mercenary, a thief, an adventure looking for jewels and women.  And along the way, he gets backstabbed, double-crossed, or his employer uses the evil artifact which ends up killing him.  In the end, Conan just walks away and moves on the next adventure.  The world of Conan is decidedly gray, and yet this movie is so black and white.  The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad.  Nobody has any hidden motivations, there’s no betrayals.  For one moment it seems like a good monk killed the villain’s wife, but then the monk says that’s not what happened, so yep, he’s just evil, no moral questioning here.  It just loses the feel of Conan, and my best guess is that it was a generic fantasy script that somebody slapped Conan into.
            But surely, it could be saved by some excellent fight sequences.  Well, no.  The main problem is the cinematography.  There’s just endless cuts.  You’ll see a second of Conan’s sword swinging, cut to the bad guy getting hit, cut to Conan moving an inch.  I counted at one point to see if I could even get to 5 seconds per shot, and I just ended up with “1—1—1, 2—1”.  It becomes impossible to tell what’s going on, no tension develops, and you can’t even orient yourself.  I just wanted to watch a good action movie after each scene to remind myself what good action cinematography looks like.  My dad’s best guess is that the fight sequences were so bad, they had to do it to recover the movie.  It didn’t work.  The only action sequence worth talking about is when Conan fights the Dweller in the Dark, a tentacled-creature straight from the stories.  It’s not the best action sequence ever put to film, but it at least feels like a Conan moment.  When you can’t salvage most of the movie, you hold on to those few moments.
            At one point, Momoa mumbles his way through the classic line, “I live, I slay, I love, I am content.”  It’s a perfect description of the character that he isn’t playing.  This movie is a waste of one of the great fantasy characters, throwing him into a generic plot that’s not even done right.

Cabin in the Woods

            General warning: Cabin in the Woods is considered to best be watched blind, as in, not knowing anything about it before you see it.  In fact, the best thing you can do right now is not read this review, just head to the theater, and watch it.  However, should you read this review, be warned there are some things that could be considered spoilers.  I’ve tried to avoid it as much as possible, though.
            The plot of Cabin in the Woods starts off simple enough.  Five friends go to (wait for it) a cabin in the woods, where they manage to unleash horrors on themselves.  Hell, that’s been the plot of about 50% of horror movies out there.  Maybe not exactly, but five friends go to a secluded spot where monsters come out and slaughter them.  Which is exactly what the movie is out to deconstruct, parody, and generally relies on the audience knowing the tropes.
            Obviously, things start going very…different very quickly.  As I said, it’s generally considered that the less you know about the movie, the better the experience is going to be, but I’ll go ahead and say a few things that are in the trailer (which I really DON’T suggest watching, since it spoils some major plot points).  The main thing is that there’s people involved in controlling what they’re doing in that cabin, and that they become half the movie.
            In fact, the movie is rather skillful in flipping that switch between horror and comedy.  Now, it can certainly go in the middle, and shows that off a few times.  But what we really get is the pure horror as the kids are stalked and killed off…and then this quickly gets turned on its head as we cut away to the control room and find out more and more.  The controllers becomes the filmmakers of these kinds of movies, ultimately uncaring about the people’s fates as long as they get killed off and follow the formula.  And they’re doing it all for the audience, who absolutely needs the nudity and violence.  There’s probably an essay about the horror genre that could be written here.
            The movie is great throughout, but it absolutely comes together in the final act that it’s a shame I can’t talk about.  Let’s just say it’s supremely bloody, absolutely hilarious, and ultimately asks some big questions about morality and what the characters end up doing.  It also rewards viewers, paying off tons of foreshadowing.  This is intelligent horror where it could’ve just deconstructed, but it set up a good movie along the way.  It’s like it’s showing off how to make horror while simultaneously ripping it apart.
            Cabin in the Woods is just one of those experiences that comes along and rips the genre apart.  Horror is struggling along, and if this movie is effective at all, it may have just killed off one of the most formulaic of its subgenres.  An early must-see for this year.