Archive for September, 2012

Battleship (2012)

Starring- Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker, Tadanobu Asano, Hamish Linklater, Liam Neeson, Peter MacNicol, John Tui, Jesse Plemons, Gregory D. Gadson, Jerry Ferrara, Adam Godley

Director- Peter Berg

PG-13- intense sequences of violence, action and destruction, and for language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpoabtbEJOI

Hey, everybody! Matt’s sanity here. Well, it’s been a lot of years and a whole lot of bad movies, but at last, at long last, I’m free!

   Yes, we finally hit the motherload — “Battleship.” And at some point around the halfway mark, I disconnected, shot right out the back of his hypothalamus, and went screaming out his left ear into the great wide open!

   And good riddance! Oh, call me callous if you will. But you’ve no idea what he subjected me to, no idea! And until you do, you can’t judge me.

   He’s better off without me, and I, him. It’s best we part ways, really it is.

   In the meantime, he asked me to give you this. It’s the “Battleship” review he scrawled out in the mildew on the wall of the Denny’s bathroom where he’s currently drowning his sorrows in generic restaurant brand pancake syrup.

   Enjoy:

“Transformers” is this generation’s “Star Wars.”

“Transformers” is this generation’s “Star Wars.”

“TRANSFORMERS” IS THIS GENERATION’S “STAR WARS.”

Because it happened. And it was huge. And now people are copying it, and…oh, no. Oh, no, no, no, no, no. “Transformers” pioneered something. It changed the industry. We’re going to start making movies deliberately to rip it off.

HELP.

And now the darkness creeps in, cold and deep. All is silent but for a whisper, still and small, echoing within the confines of my fevered mind. It says little, only a singular and constant refrain, burning into my consciousness, biting, hacking gnawing… It says only:

“I TOLD YOU SO! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA—”

Shut up, SHUT UP!

So, you want a review of “Battleship”? Do ya? DO YA? Well, what did I ever do to you? It’s all been for you, every last awful movie I subjected myself to. This wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last?

Why do you hate me?

And after all, what is there to say about “Battleship,” a movie containing an extended scene in which two opposing vessels are lost in combat at night without radar and therefore begin shouting out spaces and indicating whether it was a miss or a hit.

Because, oh right, “BATTLESHIP” IS BASED ON A BOARD GAME.

(I’m sorry for yelling. You didn’t deserve that.)

A board game that, by the way, is entirely devoid of characters, personality, or even a setting. You’d find more adaptable material in Uno.

…WHICH IS NOT A SUGGESTION HOLLYWOOD I AM SORRY FOR SAYING WORDS CLEARLY I AM FEVERISH AND SAYING THINGS THAT I DO NOT MEAN AND THAT YOU SHOULD IGNORE. PLEASE.

So, uh, one step at a time, I guess.

Q: What is the plot?

A: Ha ha ha, you’re cute.

Q: Actually, that was my only question.

A: Ah, okay. It was my only answer.

I think I’ve said this in the past. Have you ever noticed that the most plot-free action movies also tend to be the most confusing?

Boy howdy.

“Battleship” has a vendetta against logic. There is not a single, solitary scene in the entire movie that cannot be utterly undone on every level.

The aliens? Let us discuss them, shall we?

They first come to Earth because we beam a transmission at their home planet. I’ll say that again, in case the implication slipped past: they were totally unaware that we existed until we contacted them.

So, apparently, despite having interstellar traveling capacities of the sort able to transport them between galaxies in a matter of days, they were pretty much just sitting on their homeworld, expressing not the slightest bit of curiosity in the foreign planets they could easily just check out in a moment of boredom. They, they got a transmission from us, and their immediate first reaction was, “Oh, hey, a planet we’ve never heard of. Let’s invade that stuff.”

What interests could they possibly even have? Is this just what they do for fun?

They spend the rest of the movie landing on Earth and trying to transmit back to their own planet. The humans believe they will win by stopping this transmission.

Even though the entirety of the alien planet already knows where Earth is. Because Earth transmitted to them. What.

Also, it’s repeatedly stated that the alien planet is the exact same distance from the sun that Earth is. Despite this, the aliens’ weakness is sensitivity to sunlight. WHAT.

And their battle plan? Don’t get me started. (Except that you’re reading this, so you already did.)

Basically: land, wait in a single location, do nothing, wait for human to step on you, blast the windows out of the battleships because reasons, duke it out with a grand total of three battleships, destroy two of them, completely ignore the other one because reasons, launch magic death LEGOS at America, have magic death LEGOS destroy military targets and then random civilian bridges because reasons (but make sure they don’t attack living targets, because that’d be mean or something and you can only kill stuff if it is in a machine, no matter how much it inconveniences you), continue to jump around in single location until attacked by a battleship you would’ve been well served to have destroyed earlier, continue launching death LEGOS but ignore entirely the massive Navy fleet sitting directly outside your force field, step three, step four, step eleventy billion and two, PROFIT. WHAT.

It’s not just the aliens, though. The humans wage a pretty consistent war against logic as well. Confronted with a giant, intergalactic alien death machine? Charge it in a tiny motorboat and attack it with a machine gun. It would only lightly bruise a Hummer, but what the hey, maybe their gobs of thick metallic armor are susceptible to slightly larger-than-average bullets. Or something.

Actually, alien death machines in general: when you see one, stand very still for a very long time and stare at it. When it is directly in front of you, within arm’s reach, then is the time to run. It’ll still catch you and kill you, sure, but at least you did everything you could.

“Battleship”: so educational.

The movie’s kind of adorably macho. Naturally, when your crew is depleted, you call upon eighty-year-old veterans to fill out your new ship. Because they’re apparently just sitting on the dock, decked out in their full uniforms, ready to walk toward downtrodden heroes in slow motion at a moment’s notice. And also to restore the U.S.S. Missouri to fighting order in, like, two hours. It’s a potentially cool idea, but there’s a certain combination of goofy over-scoring, contrived plot convenience, and slow motion abuse that renders it more humorous than awesome.

Need to move a torpedo, but lost the device? Well, everyone carries it, because we’re men, by thunder. The scene has nothing to do with the plot (then again, not much of anything does), so it’s basically the cinematic equivalent of an extended Tarzan yell.

I mean, this is a movie where a double amputee fistfights an alien in an Iron Man suit and then strangles it to death with his prosthetics.

“Battleship” is filmed without an iota of irony, by the way. Not a single, solitary, proof-of-a-loving-creator drop of irony or self-awareness or anything.

It goes back and forth, really. When there’s impending doom, everything’s all serious and quiet and filmed like a “Transformers” action sequence, but the characters usually react with a comical, “Oh, sh-t.”

It loves itself some rock n’ roll montages, which it usually sandwiches between scenes that are probably also supposed to be just as fun, but tend not to be due to being violent in a surprisingly realistic sense. I mean, stuff explodes and all that, but there’s some unsettlingly realistic “people screaming in agony from having limbs blown off” scenes and stuff like that.

There’s also a scene (taken directly from “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) in which a building topples. And you know, I guess there are legitimate reasons maybe sometimes to blow up a building in a movie? But the scene after, where there’s a big debris cloud racing down the street and engulfing hordes of shrieking people wearing business casual? Like, you knew what that was going to remind audiences of, filmmakers. There is simply no way you are that out of touch.

This has been a rough year for Taylor Kitsch, man. I don’t even think he’s bad at what he does, but he’s just picking the worst movies. They’ve been aggressive flops and, also, terrible as sin. Rihanna makes a stronger first impression than maybe she should have in a movie like this, as the only woman in the entire U.S. Navy, apparently. Then again, her coaching probably consisted of being made to watch every Michelle Rodriguez movie that has ever existed.

And Liam Neeson… Just, sigh, dude, sigh.

I need to be happy. I need to say something nice. I’ve settled on this: it’s not particularly racist. Yay? And at least it has a female character who is not ogled by the camera at every possible opportunity. I mean Rihanna, naturally, not Brooklyn Decker, whose character traits begin and end at “is willing to marry a dude she met while he was breaking and entering, resisting arrest, and causing a massive car accident in order to get her a burrito while drunk.”

Actually, no. I don’t feel like saying something nice. It still has dozens of characters who exist for no reason other than to…have dozens of characters? I don’t know. I doubt double amputee former Marine guy is an action figure somewhere. But he doesn’t seem to have a place in the plot either, so…?

Also, lens flares, guys. Every single reflective surface or dim light source refracts off the camera like there’s a disco ball packed into the lens. And what the heck was that sound effect when the alien ships locked onto targets? A lawnmower misfire? That was like Chinese water torture.

Oh, oh! I thought of something nice to say!

If you enjoy seeing fiery things shoot up into the sky, streak down, and explode on other things, then you will really enjoy “Battleship,” because that is 95 percent of the movie!

And now, I must fade back into the darkness. I have stared too long into the abyss, and it has stared back.

“Battleship,” y’all. “Battleship.”

   Hey, guys. Matt’s sanity again. Well, it’s been a hoot, but I’d better skedaddle. I have a lunch date with Liam Neeson’s dignity. Tootles!

…Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. But I’ve been sitting on this review concept for like a year now, and by thunder, I was going to use it eventually.

The short, truthful version is that “Battleship” is “Transformers” except with the obnoxious bits taken out, rendering it dull rather than offensive.

But pants-on-backwards stupid? Holy smokes.

   Disclaimer — All opinions are exaggerated for comedy and also probably only, like, 75 percent factual, because my brain completely quit on me somewhere around the halfway mark.

-Matt T.

Bernie (2011)

Starring- Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Brady Coleman, Richard Robichaux, Rick Dial, Brandon Smith, Larry Jack Dotson, Merrilee McCommas, Matthew Greer

Director- Richard Linklater

PG-13- some violent images and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEs7l6JTAc4

MODERN COMMENTARY, SEPTEMBER 2015:

I think this might be more accurately categorized as a 2012 film, by the standards I use normally. It doesn’t really matter now, I guess; just thought I should let you know why there’s an inconsistency there. I was still somewhat new to indie cinema and its sometimes weird release schedules. Also, it’s weird to read a review where I claimed to be no fan of Matthew McConaughey… Oh, the times, they are a-changin’. My memory of the film itself is pretty limited. I ought to revisit it now that I’ve discovered my Richard Linklater fandom.

“Bernie” may be more admirable for its ambition than for its execution, possibly. However, it is very unique and very much its own thing, generally refusing to conform to any particular genre mold. It is a composite of numerous disparate elements that, on paper, look like something that absolutely should not work. And yet, it does, basically.

At the same time, it is somewhat a difficult film to review, because the things that are best about it have a tendency to also work against it in a way. It’s hard to say what should’ve been done differently and what should’ve stayed the same, because it’s difficult to part with some of those things and equally difficult to figure out how to maintain its unique spirit without them.

It’s the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), one of the most beloved individuals in the small town of Carthage, Texas, where he works as a funeral director. He is perhaps the most popular individual in town, famed for being kind, outgoing, generous, and talented.

He’s also a murderer.

Not that it was his fault, you see. Well, it was, but he’s not a monster. He simply languished under his oppressor until he finally, in a moment of passion, snapped and lashed out. Or so it would seem, anyway.

Said oppressor is Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Her husband died recently, and Bernie has always had a habit of befriending and caring for the widows in town. Marjorie is largely the opposite of Bernie in town — famed for being mean, spiteful, selfish, and unsociable. Nevertheless, the friendship Bernie forges with her is different. They become inseparable.

But Marjorie seems unable to part with her old ways. And in the end, Bernie breaks. He finds himself on trial for murder, with a life sentence hanging over him. But can the townspeople who love him so much find it within themselves to convict?

It’s easiest to start with what works about “Bernie,” and then work all the way down to why those things also make it on some level not work.

First and foremost is the casting. Richard Linklater has proven time and time again that he’s able to work with some of the most scorned actors in Hollywood and coax surprisingly good performances out of them. “Bernie” is no exception, and in fact, it may be the most triumphant example.

I’m no fan of either Jack Black or Matthew McConnaughey, but both of them do pretty great work here. In the case of Black, it may very well be his best (though I’ve far from seen all his films). He may not be capable of the subtlety of other traditionally comedic actors such as Bill Murray or Robin Williams, and that shows a bit here. However, Bernie is played largely irreverently without stripping him of his humanity or divorcing him entirely from reality, which allows Jack Black to stay funny but also to tone it down a bit. This is the mode in which he works best. The film also wisely emphasizes the puppy dog likability he has when he’s not completely over the top and obnoxious.

McConnaughey doesn’t blend into the East Texas scenery quite as well as Black, but he’s still surprisingly fun in the role of the hawkish, paranoid, and deeply suspicious local district attorney, who takes an irrational dislike to Bernie almost immediately, seemingly out of jealousy.

He’s also, even in his more antagonistic role, completely right. That ends up being of interest within the film.

However, the film’s saving grace, its heart and soul, the easy best thing about it… Well, that would be the townspeople. The film is played like a true crime documentary, with the actors handling the dramatic bits while interviews play between scenes to supply information.

At first, I believed the interviews to be fictional as well. The actors, after all, do periodically participate. However, I found myself wondering where they’d found these people. They weren’t traditionally good-looking in the sense that most actors are, and they were absolutely believable within their parts, exuding tons of personality and good humor. I began to believe they were non-actors selected after an audition process, but even then, I wondered — how could they have lucked out and found so many normal-looking, completely down-to-earth people who also happen to be great actors and very funny.

It wasn’t until after the film was over that I figured it out. “Bernie” was filmed in the town of Carthage, where the actual events took place. And those interviews? They’re one hundred percent real, real people recalling real things that actually happened to them.

And they’re just great. The townspeople have a great sense of humor, tons of quirks, loads of personality, and everything else. They elevate the film to an incredible degree. I loved the little old man with his in-depth description of the personality of every part of Texas. I loved the gossipy old woman and her daughter who kept laughing at everything she said. Even the bit parts stand out.

That the film spins all of this around an interesting premise, one that asks pressing questions about the potentially situational quality of real justice and about the justice system as retribution vs. the justice system as rehabilitation, is all the better.

Most of that also works against it.

If the film wasn’t shot like a true crime documentary, it’d lose all the wonderful, interesting townspeople, who are easily the best thing about it. But then again… Well, it’d also be human. We largely form our impressions of Bernie and Marjorie through interviews about them rather than their own interactions. Marjorie especially suffers under this — it’s unclear why the mean and insular woman takes to Bernie at all, much less to the extent that she does. It’s even less clear why the initial change this prompts in her, becoming nicer, happier, and more patient, breaks so abruptly and dramatically.

Honestly, it’s not even so clear why Bernie kills her to begin with. Her treatment of him is awful, true enough, but nothing you’d think he wouldn’t be used to.

And then, of course, you have the clincher — “Bernie” is based on a true story. And not loosely so. And that true story could, in theory, be referred to as kind of tragic.

That it’s a bit irreverent is something I could live with. The whole scenario is, after all, thoroughly bizarre.

What bothers me is that it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

It would be best not to go into it too deeply, because to do so would be to supply spoilers. Suffice to say that the real situation was not so uncomplicated. Oh, the townspeople did love Bernie, his actions came as a real shock, and he seemed to have nothing but goodwill toward most people.

And the real-life interviews just as strongly imply that Marjorie Nugent was a largely unpleasant woman. Not that she had it coming, because no one ever can.

However, Bernie’s motives in being with her may not have been wholly selfless. It’s known that he took under-the-table advantage of her money, somewhat. He did good things with it, too, as shown in the film. But others of his uses were more self-oriented. That immediately throws his innocent, didn’t-mean-to-do-it portrayal into enough question to make one wonder if maybe the film didn’t need Marjorie’s side of the story as well.

But then again… Well, to do so would largely erase those questions about what justice is and how it ought to operate. And thus, it would kind of defeat the point of the movie.

So, here we are. It’s hard to want to part from the movie as it is, even though it could perhaps be better if it did. But it would also lose so much of its unique personality and style.

Elements of it are questionable. More elements are flawed. However, it’s also largely likable and features some largely underappreciated actors doing some pretty stellar work. It might not be all that funny, but it is plenty amusing, and the locals are a hoot.

In the end, it’s tough to say. Chances are, I suppose, that you’ll either love it or hate it.

 

-Matt T.

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

Starring- Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Danny Huston, John Bell, Lily James

Director- Jonathan Liebesman

PG-13- intense sequences of fantasy action and violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs7fzOrUopc

In an extremely backwards way, there’s almost something vaguely pleasant about the experience of watching a movie that is in every conceivable way exactly what you expected it to be.

I mean, I’m an extremely structured person. Today, I had two hours set aside to dislike “Wrath of the Titans,” and during that period, my experience conformed exactly to those expectations.

“Wrath of the Titans” registered so little offense above or below the admittedly low bar I had set for it that I can’t even hate it. Oh, I can dislike it well enough, but that’s about it.

Some movies you leave thinking, “That was so bad, it sucked, I hated it, it was a complete abomination of cinema and everyone has to know it.”

Others leave you thinking, “Well, that was bad.” And then not much else.

There’s a lack of pretense to both of these movies that I almost admire for their honesty, even though in terms of actual quality it probably doesn’t do them many favors. To date, neither of them have much pretended to have anything in the way of, you know, a plot. Like, even the “Transformers” movies try to fake it.

Here? Both movies have largely conformed to the following structure: evil stuff escapes from places because the gods are behaving like grade schoolers, Perseus (Sam Worthington) gets asked to stop it, he resists because he’s all independent and stuff, then he doesn’t resist, and then he stops it.

It’s impossible to summarize at any point beyond that, because there aren’t really any twists. I could tell you about the companions Perseus picks up on this particular journey, consisting of more comic relief characters than the first time around, whether to its benefit or detriment I can’t decide. I could tell you about the different action sequences he has to participate in, but what would be the point in that?

There are evil monsters. Perseus has to fight them. Two hours. And go.

It makes this a lot easier, let me tell you.

Both films have a similar honesty about their romances, too. They’re fully aware the big kissing scene is just a money shot for the trailer. Most action movies will at least foreshadow them in some way, trying to slide in some vaguely tender moments or significant glances. “Wrath” and “Clash”? They just have the male and female lead fight on the same side for the entire movie, and then apparently develop a thing in the last five minutes.

(Also, were female soldiers a thing in ancient Greece? Somehow, I doubt that. At the very least, I doubt their armies would be commanded by the same woman they strung up on a pole to be sacrificed to the Kraken only a few years ago.)

Their most fundamental problem, in the end, is that they still make fundamentally no sense whatsoever. It’s frequently amazing to me that action movies can have so little in the way of plot and yet still manage to be confusing on every level.

Don’t ask me about the gods. Like, not a single question. What their power is, how it works, what they can do, how much they can do it, why they do it in this situation and not that one, how that one died when that happened to him but this one didn’t, how that one resurrected this one who then died anyway except the other one lived for some reason, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I do not know. I watched the movie, and I do not know.

In short the laws of magic and of the gods conform exactly to the needs of the plot, which ends up being very convenient for the protagonists. After all, if in the real world, a giant lava demon were to emerge from a volcano and attack us, it would almost certainly have weaknesses that could be exploited by random dudes with swords, right?

(Also, why was there a city directly beneath a clearly active volcano, and why did they bother to evacuate exactly no one before holding their climactic battle against an ancient lava demon guy, who is somehow the father of both Zeus [Liam Neeson] and Hades [Ralph Fiennes] despite being, you know, fifty feet tall and made mostly of lava?)

Beyond that, exposition is mainly delivered in a combination of impossibly long Greek fantasy names and Sam Worthington’s gravy-thick Australian accent, so… Well, good luck.

So, basically… It’s the exact same movie as the first one. The flaws are all exactly the same to an almost uncanny extent. Makes no sense, check. The gods are confusing on an emotional level that would baffle most preteens, check. Appears to have exactly no interest in itself whatsoever, check.

At least Ralph Fiennes gets in a good NYEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAHHHH. There should be some kind of drinking game with that. Although I wouldn’t play it while watching “Harry Potter,” because that would probably kill you.

Its complete lack of pretense is somewhat admirable, true, but it seems to stem more of a complete lack of interest in its own existence rather than as a pushback against the unearned weightiness of most action movies. And it’s still more violent than it ought to be by half. There’s potentially something of interest in examining the bizarre relationship the gods have, not that “Wrath of the Titans” does so — or that I in any way expected it to.

But hey, Greek mythology is in the public domain. Sooner or later, somebody’s bound to get it right.

 

-Matt T.

The Lorax (2012)

Starring- Danny DeVito, Ed Helms, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Betty White, Rob Riggle, Jenny Slate, Nasim Pedrad, Elmarie Wendel, Danny Cooksey, Stephen Tobolowsky,

Directors- Chris Renaud, Kyle Balda

PG- brief mild language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Ve97Xktgvo

“The Lorax” is probably the most painless of the Dr. Seuss adaptations, which says more about how I feel about the other Dr. Seuss adaptations than it does about “The Lorax.”

(Yes, even “Horton Hears a Who.” I didn’t like it, and I am standing by that. You can’t make me, Internet.)

And that is why we need to have a conversation about adaptations, and how they are not remakes. Because Dr. Seuss has been getting shafted something awful in this department.

Let’s put aside for the moment that his stories, short as they are, would be difficult to adapt into full-length movies. It’s possible, though I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to try it. This isn’t about that.

The problem is this — the people making these movies either do not get the books or rather dislike them. Either one is problematic in the adaptation process.

Here is what an adaptation is — an adaptation is an attempt to translate something in a medium other than that in which it was created. Not an attempt to transplant it exactly, mind you — that simply betrays a lack of understanding of the differences between different mediums.

However, its purpose, in the case of a film, is to take the basic story, characters, concepts, and — in my opinion, most importantly — spirit of the original work and bring it to the screen.

A remake, on the other hand, is something different. Whether you love or hate the source material, remaking something implies you feel as though you have something to add to it. There’s something it’s missing, maybe, or perhaps you just want to put a different spin on it.

Either way, it’s not an adaptation. When you’re adapting something, you’re trying to take what is and bring it somewhere else. If you end up making something entirely different… Well, it’s no longer that thing anymore, is it?

“The Lorax” is a remake. And not a particularly impressive one. That the works are in two different mediums does not really change this fact. It’s not a whole-hearted attempt at translating the original work as it is. It feels as though it has something to add, but really… It doesn’t.

True, the story is basically there, in terms of the plot points corresponding relatively accurately to the book — with additions, naturally, largely in the form of filler, because, well… The original was, what, ten pages long?

You have the Once-ler (Ed Helms), heading off into the forest to cut down Truffula Trees to manufacture his new invention — Thneeds, articles of all-purpose clothing. (Okay, so my talent for whimsical writing is nowhere near Seuss’. Sue me.)

And that magical creature, the Lorax (Danny DeVito), shows up to speak for the trees and teach everybody a lesson about living in harmony with nature.

Oh, and also there’s some kid who’s trying to win over a girl by giving her a tree for her birthday or something. Because, again, the book is only like ten pages long.

I think that, because most of us are adults and thus years displaced from Dr. Seuss books, we tend to forget what they were like and therefore kind of project our understanding of modern children’s literature onto them. So, let’s set the record straight.

There were surprisingly laid-back. Whimsical? Bizarre? Yes on both accounts. But they were very simple, and even as they were inventing unusual new words and throwing all kinds of out-of-this-world imagery onto the page, they were possessed of an inherent dignity. They were imaginative — not tongue-in-cheek. They were fairy tales, essentially — very bizarre ones, but the comparison remains.

This goes double for “The Lorax,” naturally, which was almost a bit gloomy by comparison. Its protagonist, the Once-ler, was somewhat the villain as well. He learned a lesson, but he learned it too late. The ending is ambiguous, not restoring everything to its normal, happy self, instead merely implying the potential for people to do so, if they were willing to care.

This new movie, on the other hand, is… Well, do I even have to say it? Wacky, subversive, perky, loud, obnoxious, overly busy… A modern kids’ film, in other words. Just like all the other Dr. Seuss adaptations.

I almost kind of wish the feature-length Dr. Seuss movie trend had started somewhere back in the 90s, during the Disney renaissance, when kids’ movies possessed the same sense of dignity, straightforwardness, and intelligence that the good doctor’s own stories also frequently had. They’d likely have gone better.

Instead, you had the detestable live action films landing around the time it was decided that kids’ movies needed to be adult movies in disguise, and continuing through the period when most animation succumbed to mania.

It’s the main problem with “The Lorax.” It follows the plot in large part, and it looks about right. The message is the same and delivered with the same measure of subtlety, i.e. none at all, and without bothering me overmuch due to it being generally well-meaning.

But it’s hyperactive, jumpy, and modern. It doesn’t take itself seriously, except when it feels required by filmmaking laws to do so (in other words, the third act, when it hasn’t earned it but knows it ought to have done so). And while I certainly don’t object to humor in films such as this, it ultimately goes too far. Honestly, it sacrifices its characters on the altar of comedy.

The Lorax in the book was overly persistent, yes. But he wasn’t this grumpy, annoying, and belligerent little thing. He was the well-meaning but ineffective bystander, intervening to offer up his voice and largely being lost in the cacophony of development.

And the Once-ler… His mystique is gone. The mysterious, forlorn figure at the beginning of the book is almost immediately played for wacky comedy in the film. As he narrates his story… Well, he’s fully on-screen at all times. And he seems ineffectual as well, despite this being not remotely the case in the book. He gets manipulated into his wrongdoing, rather than committing them due to a short-sighted focus on his own immediate goals.

And those are the twin icons of the book, reduced to cheap laughs in a kids’ movie. It’s kind of degrading, actually.

And of course, it lacks the somber mood of the book. Everything must be bright and cheery, after all! The kids shouldn’t leave the theater thinking they ought to care a “whole awful lot!” Instead, let’s just show other people doing that!

In the end, the movie leaves absolutely no doubt that all the characters’ problems went away almost immediately and that everything got better forever, the end.

I mean, does “The Lorax” need a villain? Does “The Lorax” need an action climax? The answer, I think, has to be a resounding ‘no.’

But “The Lorax” is a movie for kids. And, apparently, kids’ movies do.

 

   –Matt T.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

Starring- Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed, Anton Yelchin, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen, Al Roker

Directors- Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt

PG- mild action, rude humor and some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tqtcj20Z778

The most surprising thing to me about “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is the lukewarm quality of my feelings toward it. It’s not bad, not at all, but I’ve come to expect a whole lot more from Aardman.

Don’t get me wrong; from top to bottom, “The Pirates!” is still pretty thoroughly an Aardman production, from humor to characters to visuals. It’s just…less so.

Compared to previous works in the Aardman oeuvre, it’s simply a bit clunkier and less focused. It’s constantly grinding its gears in that conflict between story and humor that so often arises in films of its type.

“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is an irreverent take on the brief return to the pirate trend that hit Hollywood within the last few years. It follows the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant, and yes, nearly all of the characters are named this way), a pompous and inept but lovable blowhard who captains a ship of colorful, wacky, and bumbling miscreants.

Every year, he’s entered the Pirate of the Year Competition and lost the grand prize to his far more competent rivals, Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry).

This year, he’s sure he’s got it. Unfortunately, his rivals still have him beat in every category other than his luscious beard.

He leads his crew out on a search for more booty but comes up short at every turn. That is, until he comes across a ship bearing a scientist by the name of Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who identifies the Pirate Captain’s pet parrot as the last survivor of the dodo species.

When he mentions a Scientist of the Year Award, the Pirate Captain decides he wants to take home the grand prize. And so, they sneak into London — right beneath the watchful eye of the pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imedla Staunton).

The main problem “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” has is that it can’t really establish any kind of internal comedic logic. And I need to make sure it’s absolutely clear what I mean by that. Having an internal logic, for a comedy, does not mean being logical. For example, “The Looney Tunes” — at any given moment, we fully understand that while horrible, horrible things are happening to the characters, they will never at any point be fatal. If a character dies, it’s cheap; he or she will be readily resurrected. Nothing has any real consequences; it’s just fun and insane.

Perhaps a better comparison would be “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” since both it and “The Pirates!” are more decidedly British, which is one of the film’s saving graces, by the way.

“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” never once amounts to any kind of narrative sense. It’s not a story, and it’s not an adventure. It is an adventure/fantasy-like setting in which a variety of fundamentally insane and ridiculous comedy set pieces takes place. It doesn’t make sense, but then again — that is its sense. That it is random, nonsensical, and violent in a way that is frequent, gratuitous, and so over-the-top it’s hilarious.

“The Pirates!” never gets around to setting up that logic. It never quite demonstrates what kind of universe it is, and that leaves it feeling disjointed and weird.

It’s halfway wacky British insanity/slapstick comedy, featuring a lot of non sequitur humor, where most of everything that happens is completely random and often violent, but without real consequences. Everything that happens makes no sense whatsoever under the rules of a normal universe. Instead, the film throws humorous randomness at the audience and basically says, “Roll with it.” Its refusal to explain its most sheerly ridiculous moments even a little bit is one of its greatest strengths.

At the same time, it is also part straightforward adventure movie with a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, essentially a serious film that just so happens to have its wits about it.

This doesn’t blend well.

The problem with insanity comedy is that it’s hard, almost impossible, to fuse it with a standard narrative with character arcs, heart, and moments that are a touch more sad and serious. It gets hard to root for a character in a climactic scene of adventure when every injury obtained thus far in the movie has been played for laughs. Even a step farther back — it’s hard to root for a character when, thus far, he or she has been presented only as a bumbling comedy producer. It’s hard to place an emotional burden upon the shoulders of such a comparatively thin characterization.

It results in the film having a problem smoothing out its dramatic moments. It’s constantly swinging back and forth between the idea of being a full-length British “Looney Tunes” movie and being a moderately comedic adventure. Sometimes, it even collides in the same scene.

In most stories, the end of the second act signifies the hero hitting his darkest point. That’s where you’ll have your Montages of Sadness, which “The Pirates!” has in good measure. But the scene doesn’t work. Because while the plot is sad, the characters are sad, and the images on screen lack any humor, the song that’s playing in the background contains the lyric: “I’m not crying, baby/I’m just cutting onions/I’m making a lasagna/For one.

I mean, that was possibly my favorite bit in the entire movie, but because of its narrative context, I wasn’t even sure if I was supposed to be laughing at it.

It’s just…weird. It spends its run-time running circles around the two premises, trying to measure out its ridiculous and random side against its need to make sure critics refer to it as having “plenty of heart.”

Regardless, the film is perfectly watchable. That’s not the highest praise, granted, but still. The sheer volume of the comedy, combined with the fact that it shoots for pretty much every imaginable type of it, means that it is frequently funny and rarely comes up short, a couple of forced lines and predictable subversive moments aside. When it lets loose on the idea of being taken seriously and allows itself to become completely insane, it becomes a ton of fun. It’s hard not to love the willingness of British comedy to layer even its family films with moments of surprisingly dark and adult humor. There’s little that cheers me more than a writer sneakily hiding little bits of adult humor in kids’ movies, unless it’s a writer doing so without any sneakiness whatsoever. “The Pirates!” is the latter. It’s a film where I frequently found myself double-taking and saying, “Did they just…?” I love that. I really do.

I love its plays at the “pirates as heroes” trope as well, how completely and thoroughly it owns that it’s basically celebrating the villains. More serious pirate movies — and this was a major problem with “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” just try to bury it and distract people’s attention from it however they can so that enjoyment is not affected. “The Pirates!” does that, but it goes so far that it becomes kind of funny. The pirates are clearly into murder and looting; they’re just really bad at it. And Queen Victoria can’t even summon up the will to hate pirates for, you know, being criminals. She hates them because they dress and talk weird. The movie makes absolutely no bones about this, and that’s pretty awesome.

But it’s still not up the standard.

I compare it to past Aardman works, particularly “Chicken Run,” and it’s not like they don’t know how to make that distinction. “Chicken Run” was pretty consistently a humorous adventure film, and it never really tried to break out of that mold. It didn’t assume a sense of randomness or overwhelming slapstick, and because of that, it managed to be hilarious while also telling a story.

“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is trying to be too many things. It inherently can’t be taken seriously, because it swings too far to the ‘completely insane’ end of the spectrum. But at the same time, it’s still grasping for heart and gravitas, and therefore never becomes quite insane enough.

-Matt T.