Aisle of the Damned: 9/1/16- Kent Hasn’t Seen Empire Records

Have you seen my wiener?

After his admission that he had not seen Empire Records last week, Kent lost several of his friends. But at least we’ve got a couple of animated films to review! Laika Studios (Coraline, Paranorman) has a new stop-motion flick called Kubo and the Two Strings. Meanwhile, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (This is the End, The Interview) decide to call hot dogs ‘sausages’ so they can name their movie Sausage Party, even though nobody actually does that. Are you ready for some cartoons? All that, plus some upcoming movie discussion about Spider-Man: Homecoming and Justice League Dark. Oh, and our recommendations. And we gripe about the ratings system again.

All this and less in Aisle of the Damned!

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
Soul Heirs- Hot Links

Aisle of the Damned: 8/11/16- Suicide is Aimless

Mom, my crayons melted

Bryan and Kent take on a mission with little chance of survival; they’re bringing you their thoughts on Warner Bros.’ latest DC offerings, the controversial-for-all-of-five-minutes-because-of-an-R-rating Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (The Ultimate Cut) and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.

After discussing the showy failures of Squad, they also discuss the tempered rewards of the 13th film in the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Beyond.

Plus, Kent talks about Jason Bourne and Lights Out and the fellas give their recommendations for the week, one DC related and one decidedly not.

All this and less on Aisle of the Damned!

Music:

The Aquabats– Stuck in a Movie
Death Hymn Number 9– I Reckon You Gonna Die

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: How to Train Your Dragon 2

How-To-Train-Your-Dragon-2-Quad-Poster

It’s not often that we’re lucky enough to get two extremely well-made sequels in the same weekend. In this case, we managed to get 22 Jump Street and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Both take very different approaches in successfully continuing their original films.

While 22 Jump Street takes a somewhat meta approach to deconstructing sequels in general and tweaking the formula, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the epitome of the modern franchise film. Like Kung Fu Panda 2 before it, Dragon picks up where the previous film left off with nary an ounce of fat on it. There is no regurgitation of the first film here. We don’t have to sit by as Hiccup has to train yet another dragon or retrain his pet Night Fury Toothless. Nope. Whereas previously studios worried incessantly about making films accessible to new audiences who may not have seen the first or doing the exact same thing again, the new franchise model, as seen in films like this or the Marvel movies, simply tells the next chapter in the story of these characters. The audience, most likely having seen the movie twenty times (or more, as is likely with the original Dragon, knowing how kids love that movie) is expected to keep up, get the callbacks and in general know what’s going on. Home video has effectively forever changed how sequels are made for the better. Now if there isn’t a story worth telling that can be a problem, but fortunately for Dreamworks, Dean DuBois has definitely found something worth showing us.

The direction that Dragon 2 takes is largely the expansion of its mythology, introducing new types of dragons and literally increasing the world of the first film immeasurably. This is quickly established in a rather great bit of visual exposition as Hiccup and Toothless are out exploring to find new lands and new species, unfolding a rather unwieldy looking map.

If there’s one thing that bothers me about the film it is the relationship between Hiccup and his father, Stoic the Vast, which seems to have taken huge strides forward, yet still exhibits many of the problems they had in the first film. Maybe that simply makes it more realistic since even when people change, they still have their personality, but it also makes it frustrating. Stoic wants Hiccup to become the chief of Burke, their rocky little island village because of how he changed life for everyone. Hiccup simply wants to explore and do what he enjoys. His dad refuses to listen despite how the entire reason he wants his son to take over being because people listen to him. Do interpersonal relationships take that type of paradoxical sheen to them? Sure. But it still is maddening. On the plus side, you have Hiccup’s love interest from the first film, Astrid, who is a much more interesting character here simply because her relationship with Hiccup has changed in a big but understandable and ultimately believable way. Their chemistry together is far more palpable and their romance, at this point having gone on for years, is expertly written. If there’s one thing this film does especially well, it is lay out exposition in interesting ways and we learn everything we need to know about their feelings for each other as Astrid gently mocks Hiccup and his mannerisms, spilling over with playfulness and affection. At the same time, she is seeding important information on how things have changed in the five years that have passed since the last film. (The kids are supposed to be in their 20s now.) It’s a master-class in serving multiple functions with one scene.

The basic plot revolves around a couple of major tremors in Hiccup’s life. For anyone that managed to avoid having the surprise ruined for them by the trailers, I’ll just say that one is of a deeply personal nature that effects both him and his father. The other is the discovery of a long lost foe of Stoic’s, a mysterious figure that seeks to capture and control all of the dragons he can lay his hands on, simultaneously claiming to be protecting people from dragons while using them to conquer all who lay in his path. He definitely serves as an example in my theory that you should never trust a white dude with dreds. Despite the shallowness of his character, he manages to be a pretty impressive threat.

The voice work has only gotten stronger with the cast. Despite my misgivings about the way their relationship is portrayed, Jay Barruchel and Gerard Butler deliver outstanding performances. Butler especially delivers a kind of nuance that I don’t think I’ve experienced in his live action films. America Ferrera’s Astrid greatly improves on the original. The writing no doubt had a lot to do with it, but it would not succeed if she hadn’t stepped up her game. I’d be hard-pressed to say that the “kids” have much to do this time around with Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill pretty much doing the same things that they did last time to the same effect. The opening sequence with their characters playing a new sport that blows quidditch out of the water is an instant classic, however. If there’s one disappointment, it is that Craig Fergusen doesn’t have as much to do as Gobber, but there’s always next time.

If there’s a central theme to the first film, it almost seemed to be that sometimes tradition can be wrong and that new ideas can bring about prosperity and improvements. If there’s a theme to this film it would almost seem to be the opposite; your parents have been around and sometimes they know best based on their years of experience. It’s nice to see some balance and not just have another kids movie worshipping youth culture and declaring children are right about everything and those darned old adults are just stodgy dopes clinging to the past. There’s room for both sides to be right, sometimes even simultaneously. If it sounds like a complex idea, don’t worry. While it’s decidedly more intelligent than a lot of what purports to be family fare, it is not some preaching drag. It is full of action, lots of fun and some decidedly cool moments to go with the drama. (My friend I saw it with spent a great deal of the movie fangirling out, if that’s any indication.)

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Lego Movie and The Monuments Men

legomovieresize The-Monuments-Men-UK-Quad-Poster

Author’s Note: This review gets into the contrasting themes of these two films. Despite all attempts to the contrary, discussion of some of these themes may be looked at as spoilers, somewhat. For those that may be squeamish about such things, I would recommend seeing the films in question before reading the meat of this review. In service of this, I’ll go ahead and place my ratings at the beginning.

The Monuments Men- Three damns given out of five

The Lego Movie- Four and a half damns given out of five

Preservation vs. Creation

It’s an interesting dichotomy that arose from seeing The Monuments Men and The Lego Movie back to back.

With Monuments Men, you’ve got a (based on a true) story about a group tasked with saving art from the Third Reich in the waning days of the second world war. It is a film that asks, “What is art worth?” and answers with, “One whole heck of a lot.” Indeed, they are risking their very lives in an attempt to save landmarks and secure thousands upon thousands of pieces lifted by the Germans in their march across Europe.

Then along comes The Lego Movie which sticks its finger (or should I say clawed yellow hand?) in the very eye of the idea of preservation, even going so far as to call it a selfish and destructive concept because it can stifle the creative spirit. Granted, there is more to it than that, but the very idea that this comparison can be drawn is the Lego Movie’s own fault for actually exceeding expectations and being ABOUT something.

I suppose part of the split comes down to the medium. Paint, clay, bronze… these are traditional ways of creating works of art. Plastic bricks that are responsible for a lot of late night parental foot injuries are not. Between this and their origins, they are seen as toys. (I can hear a multitude of readers saying, “No crap.”) Of course, like clay vs. Play-Doh, crayons vs. pastels or a coloring book with a tray of hard watercolor paints, often what distinguishes an art supply from a toy boils down to what’s done with it.

In the case of the Lego movie, a lot is done with it and the movie itself is what I would consider to be art.

The Lego Movie involves a group of “master builders.” Figures in the literal sense (many of them small, yellow versions of characters from history or popular culture) that use their surroundings to create whatever comes to mind. Aside from well known characters like Batman (Will Arnett), it includes such originals as Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Unikitty (Community’s Allison Brie) and Metal Beard the Pirate (Nick effing Offerman). Most importantly, it includes Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who is helping lead the resistance against Lord Business (Will Ferrell) and his plan for perfection.

In many ways the builders look down on the “regular” members of their society that stick to the instructions. People like Emmet Brickowoski (voiced by Parks and Rec’s Chris Pratt), the everyman hero of the film. Like everyone around him, he likes to watch awful TV shows and listen to the same pop song over and over. And admittedly, I could see some of myself in the master builders. Those who know me are aware of my disdain for many of the things that are as close as we seem to get to mainstream culture these days of niche entertainment, usually skewing towards what I see as more creative, funnier and better made.

Perhaps ironically, this is exactly what drew me to The Lego Movie. When it was announced, I figured it to be a hollow merchandising tie-in; slapping the name of a children’s toy with no built-in narrative and counting on name recognition to sell it to children and the parents seeking to keep them quiet after their offspring are bombarded by ads during Spongebob. Battleship alone proves my point about how utterly insane the Hollywood machine has gotten in terms of what it will greenlight. But Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the same team that dragged me kicking and screaming into admitting that 21 Jump Street was hilarious, instead used that expectation as a springboard to create one of the most bizarre, smart, subversive and original film experiences I’ve ever seen. Not to mention funny. These guys are now the top name in turning horrible concepts on paper into well-thought out entertainment. I’d almost describe The Lego Movie as one of the most experimental mainstream films I’ve ever seen. However, a lot of it is built on not just nostalgia for Lego’s marketing or a working knowledge of the brand and its use of licensing. It is also built on a heavy base of pop-cultural riffing (the Batman jokes alone are worth seeing the film for) and functions as both a parody of these types of merchandising events and of the Joseph Campbell hero model that gets grafted onto so many stories, even ones that it is out of place for (like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.)

In short, the film is built on what came before. The movie more or less acknowledges this in that it becomes a huge part of its themes. As such, it comes back around to the types of speeches given in Monuments Men when that film espouses how without protecting our history and culture, there is nothing to build on and people are lost. If not for the preserved works of the old masters, what will the new masters learn from?

If only that film let the action do the talking instead of the multiple soliloquies that George Clooney unlooses upon the fellows in his task force (and the audience in general.) The Monuments Men has too good a subject and too great a cast to be a total wash and I actually found myself interested throughout. After all, having Bill Murray, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin (from that movie that won best picture at the Oscars and never seemingly was spoken of again) is enough to prop up a goodly amount of its running time. In fact, it starts out pleasantly enough, seeming like it may end up being a low-key type of Kelly’s Heroes or a twist on a military heist film. Instead, it finds itself being sucked down into a dour foxhole of World War II film clichÈs with moments of fun punctuating it.

Because of their personalities and their mission, it’s easy to root for the Men anyway. But after watching both of the films back-to-back, it did bring up the unasked question of who they were to decide what was worth saving. Many of them were well-known artists in their own right, but when it comes down to the critically acclaimed against the popular, what is worth saving more? The Lego Movie seems to feel nothing is worth saving per se, but (and this probably relates to the fact that the medium itself, like an Etch-a-Sketch, is viewed as a temporary one) that things exist only to be broken down and used to make new things. Perhaps it is a natural extension of the Remix Generation which often seeks to recycle others’ work into their own. (Of course as a cartoonist, I know this can be a crucial learning tool, but let’s not digress too far.) More importantly, Lego would argue that the great and the functionally mundane are of equal importance and you can’t necessarily even have one without the other. Of course in most cases the creative-types of the real world do not have to worry about preservation when they create new things. Art supplies are prevalent and the digital world offers an unlimited canvas. Not only do we not have to destroy the work of another to create, but we are lucky to be in a society where both are able to exist side-by-side at the moment. In Lego there is a bit of an artificial battle for resources, one that ultimately may not make total sense, but the metaphor is so clever and heartwarmingly delivered that I can’t possibly argue too much about it. The fact is, no matter how imaginative or dull a child may be, they need play.

In the end, The Monuments Men, despite the things that are right about it, almost feels like a dirge, carefully praising art while mourning what is lost. The Lego Movie is a joyous celebration of creation and destruction, seeing them as necessary yin and yang to each other. While my head veers towards the message of the former, my heart can’t help but applaud the latter.

Movie Diary- 8/9/13

New player enters the game!8/2/13- Watched the second part of the Evangelion “rebuild” last night. It’s too bad I have no idea what’s going on, because it’s actually pretty damn cool in places. I described Pacific Rim as Evangelion with Star Wars overtones. I also maybe should have specified, “without all the psuedo-theological hokum and a plot that a sane person can follow.” What is awesome is that while the first one was just a compressed version of the TV series, this one was pretty divergent in a lot of ways. First off, Mari is an awesome addition to the cast. When the Mark 02 goes feral, it’s pretty damn impressive and the way they use color for her (especially after giving her that weird meet cute with Shinji) is just jarring and badass. Not only that, but the existing characters are actually more likable. Shinji doesn’t come across as such a whining wimp and doesn’t sit around crying the way he had so often in the show. Asuka (who has bizarrely had her name changed so that even the European characters seem to have Japanese surnames) is even more of a sociopath, but she’s given a bit of depth along with it and goals for her future. And the ending is just a whole bunch of “WTF.” If you liked the original series, you will either hate this for not being exactly the same or love it because it’s finally telling a new story. Hopefully it won’t end with as complete a narrative f@ck you as the show and the previous “End of Evangelion” movie did.

8/5/13- I have a rant about animation coming that I wrote at work and forgot to send to myself. In the meantime, I’ve watched a couple of movies with Spence and his girlfriend Allie. Brave being the main one. Which is still great. The thing’s hilarious and I don’t get why people just decided to take a big dook on it, because I think it’s really well made.

I got into a discussion about the glut of CGI animated films with my friend Jared. It turned into a gripe session of the current state of animation in general. I feel like the “dooming of 2D” is basically a self-fulfilling prophecy that was caused by the animation industry and Hollywood itself. If you look at recent history, the last big hand-drawn hit was probably Lilo and Stitch. Home on the Range crashed and burned because nobody liked it and Princess and the Frog did reasonably well. Certainly well enough to justify continuing the practice of making hand-drawn features. What’s really frustrating is that Frozen, the next feature from Disney, started out as hand-drawn but because of the success of Tangled, a film I actually really enjoyed in part because it aped 2D so well thanks to the handiwork of Glenn Keane, was switched over to yet another 3D feature and apparently the Diz has laid off nearly all their 2D animators.

It’s a sad day indeed given when John Lassetter took over the Mouse’s animation department, including the newly integrated Pixar, it sounded like they were going to actively pursue 2D animation again, in the spirit of the studio’s long history. I have no problem with 3D animation when it makes sense for the story. Pixar has done a good job of picking projects that seem to lend themselves to the particular look of CGI, for the most part. Wreck It Ralph made absolute sense to do in 3D because it was about computer-generated characters. But why aren’t these studios making movies based upon which medium is simply going to be better for the story being told? It’s not like making a film in CG guarantees it to be a hit. I mean, criminy, look at all the movies that have either failed to make a dent at the box office, if you’re speaking generously (or bombed if you aren’t.) Turbo is only the most recent example of one of them underperforming.

I find it very sad that Hollywood has convinced itself this is meaningless and that 2D is dead for no reason. At this point only France and Japan seem to be actively involved in creating hand-drawn films and I find it sad that the country which pioneered the animated film (and perfected the animated short through Warner Bros. and MGM) simply doesn’t care anymore.

At least we still get a stop-motion film or two a year, even if they’re falling into a pattern of nearly all having to be Burtonesque macabre comedies. (This coming from someone that enjoys that kind of thing.) I will take a pure CG movie any day over a mo-cap feature though.

Most of these Zemmeckis-pioneered features are mediocre at best and the visuals rarely have wowed me. As much as I enjoyed TinTin, and I do enjoy it a lot (more each time I watch it, actually) I am continually bothered by the awful decision to do it as a mo-cap feature with what is, frankly, some pretty grotesque design. Herge’s characters are pretty universally beloved throughout Europe and much of the non-American world, so why not actually make the characters look like they do in the comics? Or even just bite the bullet and film it as a live-action feature? Because instead it is a charmless and puzzling visual mish-mash that is simply unappealing. The look of the film really pleased noone that I’ve spoken to, with the distraction of the character design hampering the things that work really well like the imaginative set-pieces, a fine script by the cream of the creative crop currently in Britain’s TV and film industry and the best chase scene Spielberg has directed since Raiders. But that’s the problem with motion capture, period. I simply don’t know who it’s supposed to appeal to. The only film I can think of that really worked with it was Monster House. (This of course is not counting the stupendous work by Andy Serkis and the artists behind Gollum and other such instances of incorporating CG characters into live-action film, but rather a self-decribed “animated film.”) But the characters in Monster House were stylized so that they were more appealing and didn’t fall into the uncanny valley trap quite as hard. And even then, the motion capture seemed worthless because a good animator can do a better job of conveying emotion than some dots glued to a person’s face. There’s really very little reason to hire an actor when an animator is already doing the job of an actor if they’re any good.

Is it neat that Speilberg tried a different medium? Absolutely. With directors like Wes Anderson, Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton jumping from live action to animation and vice versa, it’s an exciting time for creative freedom in film. These folks are taking advantage in the blurred lines of filmmaking and picking up the reigns from the likes of Frank Tashlin to try to take advantage of the best avenue for them to tell their stories. It’s just a shame that one of them is completely closed off now. I’ve loved every one of Bird’s features, for example. He managed to keep the Mission: Impossible franchise from squandering the goodwill JJ Abrams presented it with and his Pixar films, especially The Incredibles, are not just some of the best animated films of the last 20 years, but a couple of the best films of the last two decades period. But I could not see The Iron Giant being what it is were it live-action or computer animated beyond what was used initially. (Speaking of which, why isn’t that on blu ray yet? Can Warners still not figure out that it’s a hugely popular cult film that could be sold on the basis of Bird’s megahits?)

Really the main disturbing trend is that animation in its various forms, especially CG, is more in demand than ever thanks to increasing special effects and more films flooding the market then ever, yet prospects for animation seem so bleak. Effects houses have publically been failing because they are not rewarded for a job well done in many cases (even when they win an Oscar.) Animators have become the pariahs of Hollywood. While art and “geek culture” proceeds to dominate the box office and the pop culture consciousness, the actual creators of the art in cinemas are being pushed around as though the work can be done by any schmuck off the street with the right software. This isn’t the case in every instance to be certain, but as a whole it seems like outsourcing and undercutting are the rules of the day. Perhaps they always have been. Rocky and Bullwinkle were animated (if you can call it that) in Mexico to cut costs and that was in the 60s. But for some reason it just seems worse now. Maybe it always seems worse now than in the past. It is human nature to paint the most dire portrait of the present. After all, I suppose at least as an audience we’re getting more content than ever and we’re no longer in the dark ages of the late 70s and early 80s.

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Monsters University

My letter jacket is buried in my closet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, the curse of the Pixar sequel. Except that of the four sequels they’ve done, two of them were better than the original. Only Cars 2 was a drop from the original film. In my opinion a rather large drop as I am a big fan of the first one and found the second to only be enjoyable. I don’t think I ever put it up on this website, but I ended up giving it two and a half stars (now changed colloquially to “damns given” because I’m incorrigible) and noted that it really was only a disappointment by Pixar standards. I believe I said something akin to “being the worst Pixar movie is like being the least attractive Playmate of the Year.” Regardless, it caused a critical backlash and a seeming sequel fatigue that is setting in, even with myself, despite Lassater and crew being much more picky about producing them than the Dreamworks factory that announced they were going to make six “How to Train Your Dragon” films.

“But wait”, you say, “that’s only three sequels!” Of course it is, my observant friend, because I’m leading up to their latest, Monsters University. Or, as I like to call it, When Harry Met Sully. Zing! It is their first prequel-style sequel, detailing the beginnings of friendship for our favorite scarers of Monsters Inc., a personal favorite of Pixar’s films. Unfortunately it is not as good as the original, though the improvement in computer animation in the intervening dozen years is certainly easy to see.

The other good news is that it is a bounce back for the house that lamp built over Cars 2 and, while not as brilliant as Toy Story 2 or bittersweet as Toy Story 3, it manages to never feel extraneous. Unnecessary, maybe. But it doesn’t ever settle into being a lazy cash grab and as a broad college comedy it manages to be a movie unlike any other that Pixar has produced, despite its sequel status. It certainly features callbacks and a few gags that require viewing of the original film to truly appreciate, but it largely works on its own as a story, never falling back on the ancient framing device of having the characters reminiscing, “Hey, remember when we met?” Pixar seems conscious of their chance to do some further world building in this reality where Monsters as wide and varied as ocean life all live together. Not only that, but it leads somewhere. There are messages to the film before it ends. Messages that I never expected to see in a so-called children’s’ film.

Personally, I’ve always hated that label for the Pixar films, because with one glaring exception they seem to be the very definition of the oft-vaunted and usually awful “family film.” That rare movie that manages to entertain everyone from the three year old clutching his Mike Wazowski plush doll to grandpa. In that regard they are often more successful than even their vaunted parent company has been when you average things out. One of my fondest memories was picking up my grandma from the nursing home and taking her to see Up before she largely stopped going out and eventually passed away.

But I’m rambling. There are some unusual things being taught in this film. Sure there are messages of holding onto your dreams and never giving up, but there are a metric ton of movies that throw that “Secret” style naiveté at us. The ultimate message seems to be ‘what can you do when your dreams are shattered, yet life goes on.’ And I never thought I’d see a college movie that actually indicates college isn’t for everyone, given the way higher education has become a sacred cow, necessary for everyone from doctors to hamburger chefs.

In the middle of this is one of the best pure comedies that Pixar has done with quite a few laughs, many of them laugh out loud. They are very successful in wringing out the remaining chemistry between Billy Crystal and John Goodman (who manages to actually seem to make himself sound younger despite adding a decade) while adding some new faces to the cast and a few familiar ones. Thankfully few of the latter since it is the lazy origin story that simply plugs all the original players into major roles. Among the new standouts are the frightening Dean Hardscrabble, portrayed with the ridged gusto one would expect for what amounts to a remake of Revenge of the Nerds. Or any other “snobs vs. slobs” campus comedy ever to hit the screen. At least it’s the best one to ever be rated G. Given the movies it’s riffing on, of course there is also the worst frat on campus, in this case Oozma Kappa. Voice talent like Charlie Day and Bugs Life-alum Dave Foley do a good job of making them the usual likable losers. And of course there has to be the rival frat of jerks, led by all-around scamp Nathan Fillion with an extra ladle of smarm.

Most of the film plays out just as all films of this type do (is it really even a spoiler to say the frat ends up involved in a set of fraternity games?), but with a fresh perspective brought by the gags involving the monster society and students. Just as a factory floor became a place of unbridled imagination, so does a campus, crammed full of sight gags, parody and background yucks. The simple skin-graft makes all the difference, turning what would otherwise be a rather cliche affair into something that, were it not for the first film, would feel pretty darn original. But because we do have that first film and we do have all the hijinx of every Animal House imitator, it never really manages to completely rise above and become something more, even with a very satisfying final act. I suppose what I’m saying is, it may not be one of Pixar’s all-time best, but it’s a solid triple.

(Three and a half damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Frankenweenie

Black and white and 3D!

I really wish I could say I enjoyed Frankenweenie more than I did. Oh sure, I enjoyed parts of it. Some of them a lot. But the film, a retelling of Frankenstein, this time with a boy that brings his dog back from the dead, felt flat in terms of design and storytelling. In preparing this review, it definitely felt jumbled and a bit hard to edit, maybe because the film itself is such a mixed bag.

Frankenweenie is the second animated feature directed by Tim Burton after Corpse Bride. (Nightmare Before Christmas was produced by Burton, but directed by the highly talented Henry Selick; a fact I was yelling at the TV during a poorly fact-checked episode of the short-lived Trivial Pursuit game show a few years back.) It is also a remake of a live-action short he directed very early in his career and as an expansion of the short it isn’t unsuccessful. The new material definitely takes advantage of the animated medium that it has transitioned to. I’m a little curious why Sparky, the dog of the title, is a sculpted recreation of Burton’s work on Brad Bird’s Family Dog from Amazing Stories instead of a dachshund, like the title would imply. But let’s chalk that up to artistic lisence. It also relies heavily in design on nostalgia for his early stop-motion efforts like Vincent that have been included on issuances of Nightmare Before Christmas DVDs as bonus features. Unfortunately I’ve never found that particular phase of his design work to be as interesting as many of his fans and because of the drawbacks of that style, the figures used in the stop motion are sometimes a bit too simplified and stiff to really be expressive. Sometimes they come across like better animated Rankin-Bass puppets.

The voice cast also reflects this longing for his early career as much of it is made up of people from those films. Martin Short (Mars Attacks) in multiple roles, Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice), Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands) and the standout of the piece, Martin Landau (Ed Wood), who puts on his best bad Eastern European accent while telling parents at a PTA meeting that his teaching method for their children involves wanting to “crack their heads open to get at their brains.”

Part of the problem of Frankenweenie is that the new material starts out with a theme, science as a positive force in the world that should be looked at with fascination instead of fear, and that theme is completely lost in a science-run-amok finale that seems to negate it. Burton seems so eager to throw together his influences that he doesn’t really come up with a clear idea what story he’s telling, except for that familiar Disney chestnut, “love is good.” There is definitely some fun stuff here; obvious homage to the James Whale Franenstein films, a rather direct reference to everyone’s favorite turtle, Gamera, and some footage of Christopher Lee as Dracula from one of his Hammer films (I guess Burton is determined to get him into every one of his films in one way or another) but as we’ve seen in a lot of today’s media, simple homage does not make classic entertainment. If all Tarantino had were his riffs on his favorite films, there wouldn’t be much to him. This film is particularly strange because it almost seems like the bulk of what constitutes original material is made up of references to his own early work; the suburbs being the focal point of a sparse hell of ignorant and stupid people in which sports equals death and wow, why didn’t all these people understand my tortured, artistic childhood psyche?

One way Frankenweenie surprised me was just how dark and gross some of the gags were. I hesitate to reveal what they are, but for a PG-rated movie, a few of them had me squirming. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I suppose I would have to leave to the individual, but personally while some of them made me guffaw, some of them just made me kind of queasy. I suppose it’s all about the context of stop-motion’s inherent creepy factor since several of them wouldn’t have been out of place in Ren and Stimpy and wouldn’t have raised my eyebrows as much. Granted, I’m the last person that needs to comment about content given my rants about how much children’s entertainment and ‘family movies’ have been watered down.

It’s been a rough year for Burton in my eyes. Dark Shadows was one of the weakest films I saw in 2012. (Though it’s true I have mostly gone to things that I knew I was predisposed to. It’s the one advantage of not being paid to do what I do; to quote James Mason in Journey to the Center of the Earth, “That’s my consolation, Madame. I don’t have to look at it.”) While Frankenweenie was not a great film in my eyes, I do hope it marks a return of Burton to the projects of a more personal nature which I have enjoyed from him. While he’s always run hot and cold, I’ve liked several of his films over the years. His output over the last decade has undoubtedly been disappointing for a lot of us. Alice in Wonderland was a bloated mess. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was uninspired. If this project helps Burton return to his roots and reexplore what brought him to prominence as a filmmaker in the first place, maybe it’s worth it.

(Two and a half Damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Hotel Transylvania

hotel-transylvania-uk-quad-poster

Mayhap it comes from the wellspring of low expectations I had for it, but I was flabbergasted to find that Hotel Transylvania is actually a pretty darn fun movie.

I had some hopes for it due to the fact that Genndy Tartakovsky, the Cartoon Network mastermind behind such favorites as Samurai Jack and Dexter’s Lab, was the director. But then I looked at the cast list.

Adam Sandler as Count Dracula? Kevin James? David Spade? Andy Samberg? Vibrations of such fare as “Grown-Ups” came to mind and caused shudders. Even going back farther, let’s not forget that Adam Sandler’s prior animated fare was the abysmal Eight Crazy Nights. I happen to like Cee-Lo Green as a singer (Gnarls Barkley, anyone?) but he hasn’t exactly done a ton of acting that I can think of off hand. And Selena Gomez is only known by name to me, being far outside her target demographic. I think you can understand my trepidations. Except for Steve Buscemi as a harried Wolfman, because, c’mon. It’s Steve Buscemi. You know he’s knocking that out of the park.

While the film certainly isn’t perfect and contains some stuff that feels like it was included upon insistence by executive committee (a tacked-on ending musical sequence involving a rapping Dracula, for example, is pretty much a nadir) the majority of its running time is a cartoony romp through Famous Monsters magazine. Visually, most of the designs are well done, though for some reason Frankenstein left me cold. No wonder the folks I know in animation were singing their praises for the film. It looks like it was a hundred times more fun to animate than your typical CGI feature. Character models are stretched to their limits, doing what can at times be classified as wild takes. Extremely rare for a CG cartoon, that. Certainly to the extent that they’re displayed here. It’s kinetic and manages to alternate well between high energy sequences and a few more emotional scenes.

Our story begins with a strangely benevolent Dracula building the eponymous hotel for his monster ilk, looking to keep them (and his newborn daughter) safe from the terror of humans. Like most children that are not allowed to grow and explore, said daughter, Mavis Dracula, wants nothing more than to escape to the bigger world and see what’s really out there. With her permanent eye-shadow and Chuck Jones-ian sneakers, she’s as cute a ball of goth sunshine as you could ever wish to see. Dracula’s attempts to keep her within the smothering confines of the hotel work until the arrival of a human. Johnny is… well, he’s somewhat annoying. And kind of an idiot. Let’s just get that out there. If this were not a PG feature, he would most likely be having drug-fueled conversations about how there’s a universe within a universe in the fingernail of his pinky. But since this does happen to be a family movie, instead we get stories of his backpacking around the world. No word on how much his parents are shelling out for that.

Anyway, as he stumbles in, Dracula ends up disguising him as a monster, “Johnnystein,” to keep him from scaring the guests away. What a twist! Mavis falls for Johnny. Johnny falls for Mavis. Wacky hijinx ensue.

The fun comes in the cartoony animation and in the gags, with the script being at least partially written by Late Night with Conan O’Brien fixture Robert Smigel. AKA: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. When the two are put together, it sometimes feels like a strange, old MGM cartoon. The kind in which the funniest jokes aren’t necessarily adult, but go well over the heads of the kids in the audience.

I don’t know if everyone will respond to it the way I did, but I feel it’s a solid triple for Tartakovsky and I eagerly look forward to whatever comes next from him.

(Three out of five stars)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Wreck-It Ralph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the original run of films through Walt Disney’s life from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves through 101 Dalmations or so was the company’s golden age and the silver age was the late 80s (most would say beginning with The Little Mermaid or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though I would argue The Great Mouse Detective was the first big sign of progress) and running through around Lilo and Stitch, then one would have to say the Mouse House is entering their bronze age.

Beginning with the deeply flawed but sometimes brilliant Meet the Robinsons (a movie that cried out desperately to be traditionally animated in a flat, stylized UPA manner) and continuing through films like Princess and the Frog and Bolt, John Lasseter’s term in charge of the Disney Animation department has seen a steady uptick in the quality of it’s films over time, culminating in the release of Tangled, a film that somehow managed to capture the magic of the oldest of old school fairy-tale Diz, while managing to somehow be modern without ever crossing over into the snarky pop culture tripe that Shrek kept mining until the vein petered out (sadly, long before the series was over.)

Wreck-It Ralph may not surpass Tangled, but it is in every way its equal while also being completely different. There are definitely a lot more pop culture gags here, nearly all of them video game related, but they are so fluidly integrated into the story that it never feels out of place. The director here is a Futurama alum, and the feeling and pace of the jokes really reflects that. The current generation of parents will get the jokes about Ralph taking the cherries from a game of Pac-man. The kids will find it funny for different reasons. The only real worry is whether kids today, practically born with a console controller in their hands, will understand just what an arcade is. (If the film causes a resurgence in them, it can only be a good thing.)

The story, in a nutshell, is that Ralph is the baddy in a classic arcade game, Fix-It Felix, Jr. Over 30 years, he has become dissatisfied with his lot in life, with the other characters in the game treating him like he really is a bad guy when he’s just doing his job. Thinking that if he can prove himself to be more than an engine of destruction he will be more accepted, he begins hopping to other games in the arcade, looking for a medal to prove his valor.

At a glance it would seem like Wreck-It Ralph, with its look into the “secret life of video games” is more of a traditional Pixar film than a Disney film and that description would not be inaccurate.

For one thing, it is a film that feels like 3D computer animation is truly the best medium for it, and it’s not just because it has become the industry standard thanks to the declining fortunes of the more mediocre hand-drawn films of recent years. It makes absolute sense that a movie filled with computer generated characters would be generated by a computer.

Another positive about the film is, despite a lack of straight up voice actors in the cast, this isn’t a film cast with “stars” to cash in on a name. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman obviously aren’t slouches, but one could hardly call them box-office draws. Instead they seem to have grabbed people with fantastic voices, perfect for the parts they are playing. Reilly puts layers of fed-up subtext into his performance, while 30 Rock’s Jack McBreyer is so spot-on as the voice of Felix that one would hardly know who else could possibly fill the part. Throw in Alan Tudyk doing what is an oddly original version of what could easily slip into being merely an impression of Ed Wynn’s classic Mad Hatter from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland in his role as King Candy from a sweets-based racing game, and you end up with a cast of character actors that creates the feeling of the era when Disney used to cast strong radio personalities. (One of the reasons their early films have endured, in my humble opinion.)

All this would be moot if the story were awful, but it’s big, bold and emotional. The only downside of the film is that it could absolutely be described as predictable and a bit paint-by-numbers as well, but most folks should be having such a good time watching it unfold, that only the worst cynics should whine about it.

With Wreck-It Ralph, Disney can put another feather in its cap. If they continue to put out entertainment on this scale, they may find themselves considered the equal of their stablemates Pixar again.

(Four out of five stars)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Brave

Think I'll listen to some Flogging Molly.

In a lot of ways this year has been a bit predictable at the cinema, but one of the biggest surprises has come from the house of mouse. While the trailer for the main Disney Animation department’s Wreck-It Ralph makes it look like something of a cross between Toy Story (with its combination of familiar ‘playthings’ mixed with original characters) and Monsters Inc. (a “video game world,” much like the world of monsters, or Cars for that matter), the Pixar arm has made a classic fairy tale. So basically, Disney has made a Pixar movie and Pixar has made a Disney film. I can’t speak to the quality of Ralph yet (though I am very encouraged by the trailer and can’t wait to see it), but as far as Pixar goes, they have been highly successful in taking on the creation of an original tale that, like Tangled (the film that looks like it may be the “Little Mermaid” of the next Diz renaissance), manages to create a fable that is charming, full of personality and often very funny while avoiding the kind of full-blown post-modernism that made the first Shrek film a quirky diversion… and the rest of the Shrek films ham-fisted and terrible.

Actually, if there’s one adjective I would use to describe Brave, it would absolutely be “charming.” The design is a great mix of old-world and cartoony, with the character design standing out as varied, but never seeming out of place with one another. The story seems like something that could have been updated from a Grimm tale, with a decidedly old-school Walt feel to the proceedings. With the exception of not having any musical numbers, it features the same kind of economic, straight-forward storytelling that surrounded films like Sleeping Beauty; albeit with a decidedly new-school resolution to the proceedings..

Merida, the story’s ginger-locked heroine, is seeking to avoid betrothal at all costs and in doing so, sets out on a course that could send her father’s fragile new kingdom into war. Along the way, lessons are learned (communication is the key to understanding seems to be the moral of the day) and eventually she figures out that using brains and diplomacy is the best option to get her way. On the route to that truth, she ends up doing more than just putting the kingdom in danger, however. Her family also ends up in the crosshairs of her efforts. Without trying to spoil the plot of the second half of the film that Disney’s marketing department has tried to hide, let’s just say that the fairy tale label is accurate indeed.

(As an aside, I’ve read some commentaries about the film in which some people seem to miss the point of the story because they’re too busy trying to demand completely modern political philosophies in a fairy tale about a royal family a long, long time ago in a Scotland far, far away. Unless you totally miss the points of historical setting and metaphor, you should be fine.)

Another way Brave is reminiscent of old-school Disney fairy tales is that there feel like there are stakes. Like with Toy Story 3, it feels like there is risk in the story; like things may not end up happily ever after and that the animators are playing for keeps. There is danger, violence and, yes, death. Fortunately, there is also a lot of comedy. Often just a smidge ruder than one usually sees in a Pixar film as well, which I would imagine partly led to the PG rating that was bestowed on it, but never to the point that it feels like fart jokes inserted merely to satiate the demands of studio execs. The moment in the middle of the film that seems to fully transform the story into a tale of the supernatural is full of whimsical touches that never feel overdone. A lot of the humor is also character based. The various clans are artfully rendered in their oddball natures. The voice acting of Billy Connolly especially seems to be made for Pixar to use as he makes Merida’s father into what one would imagine King Robert from Game of Thrones would be like if he were actually a half-decent monarch. He brings a lot of laughs to the table by himself, but the triplet younger brothers of the family are instant classic comedic characters.

When Cars 2 came out last year, I defended it as a good film that, despite having an oddball charm of it’s own in reversing the message of the first film, managed to be the least of Pixar’s efforts. Brave does not suffer that same damning with faint praise. While certainly not one of their absolute best films, Brave is a more-than-solid entry in their ledger that probably would be around the same place as Ratatouille and the first Toy Story in my personal rankings. Which is to say, a film I will revisit and enjoy many times in the years to come.

(Four out of five stars)