A brief but self-indulgent post to notify that "Bunga," the latest episode of my (poorly) animated side-project "The Monster Show", recently went up on YouTube--in 1080p!--if you feel like checking it out. You can also catch up with previous instalments here.
*/**** Image C+ Sound A Extras B+ screenplay by Sadayuki Murai and Katsuhiro Otomo directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
by Walter Chaw Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira is both the best and the worst thing ever to happen to anime in the United States. For the believer, its Blade Runner cyberpunk ultra-cool was an eye-opener, but to hold the film up as the standard for the medium means that a lot of people looking to it as their introduction believe that anime is a little excitement cordoned off by long stretches of confused, gravid exposition. It tries to condense hundreds of pages of metaphysical text into scientist characters delivering what seem like endless exchanges in high-minded gobbledygook. Akira's popularity obscures the finest examples of the medium, films that manage to balance serious metaphysical musing with actual forward momentum (the two Ghost in the Shell films, for instance); to tell adult tales in affecting ways (Grave of the Fireflies); to redefine genre thriller (Perfect Blue), action (Ninja Scroll), and fantasy (Princess Mononoke); and to present children's fables as artifacts that are as useful for adults as they are for kids (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro). Akira isn't the greatest anime film, just the most well-known, and it's worth speculating how its notoriety may have retarded the maturation of American animation.
**½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras C+ screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Emmet is the platonic Everyman who becomes embroiled in adventure and intrigue after stumbling on a fabled MacGuffin called the Piece of Resistance. It's Hitchcock with a dash of Star Wars or The Matrix, or maybe vice-versa, as Emmet is designated "the Special" (a.k.a., the Chosen One), the saviour who will lead a band of rebel misfits to victory against the nefarious Lord Business. Oh, and Emmet's a little Lego dude with the voice of Chris Pratt. His predicament takes him on a globe-trotting journey through Legoland (not the theme park but a realm where Lego characters bloom to life à la Toy Story), not quite north by northwest but with a pit stop in the Wild West, where he picks up a wizardly black mentor named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman--one wants to type "natch"). Lacking obvious talent and vision, Emmet is doubted and doubts himself but eventually rallies the troops and, when Lord Business finally unleashes his liquid freeze-ray known as the Kragle, voluntarily sacrifices himself for the greater good. It helps that he's desperate to impress the sultry, resourceful Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who considers Emmet hopelessly uncool--especially compared to her boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnett).
**½/**** screenplay by Don Rhymer and Ash Brannon & Chris Buck & Chris Jenkins directed by Ash Brannon & Chris Buck
by Walter Chaw I guess it's fair to say that Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck's mockumentary Surf's Up is a successful send-up of the Endless Summer-style documentary recently revived by Stacy Peralta's Riding Giants--but its triumph as such is relegated to so microscopic a genre that its usefulness as satire is negligible. It might delight a few guys who revere Bruce Brown's waterlogged hagiographies or, closer to the vein, the handful of folks who'll actually recognize that surf legends Kelly Slater and Rob Machado make cameos--but we're a long way here from a roomful of toys coming to life when their owner is gone, and while it's tempting to laud Surf's Up for being ambitious, it's frustrating that the picture has to dedicate a tedious amount of time to the usual slapstick gags just to apologize for its obscure premise. Far from condemning it as the next Shrek, though, I'd say the worst thing about Surf's Up is that it's clever enough to leave you expecting more--and inoffensive enough (unless scenes of a primitive tribe of cannibal penguins can somehow be traced back to Native-fear flicks or intolerance towards Polynesians) to leave you wishing some of the "nuggets" its anachronistic Chicken Joe (Jon Heder, in the first performance of his career that didn't leave me wanting to punch his mother) mentions were in more obvious display in the filmmakers.
*½/**** screenplay by Andrew Adamson and Joe Stillman and J. David Stem & David N. Weiss directed by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon
by Walter Chaw Neither better nor worse than its predecessor, think of Shrek 2 as a step sideways--it doesn't so much earn an audience as inherit one. A DreamWorks/PDI production, Shrek 2 transplants the first picture's bitterness towards Disney, though the characters it skewers are in the public domain (Sleeping Beauty, the three little pigs, Hansel & Gretel, Pinocchio, and so on) and happen to be among the icons that Disney, by and large, never dishonoured. Without a viable target, then, the film is the kind of satire-less satire that mistakes being a self-congratulatory trivia game designed for beginning players for being a post-modern commentary on fairytales and, more specifically, the traditional Disney animated feature. There's no sharpness inherent in making reference to Spider-Man or Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings saga (just as there was no sharpness in referencing The Matrix in the original), and imitation has no point of view, just a brief rush of pride and bemusement for folks generally unused to catching the allusions. To say the picture functions best for the lowest common denominator (note a trio of flatulence gags) isn't entirely fair--but it's accurate.
Taking up where the first leaves off, ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers), his bride Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and sidekick Donkey (Eddie Murphy) enjoy a bunch of artificially-sweetened musical montages, some broad slapstick, and the same shop-worn, vaguely hypocritical message of beauty's skin depth while skimming over more disturbing material such as how Fiona's parents (John Cleese and Julie Andrews (playing a queen professionally now)) appear to be horribly abusive and conniving. The Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) and her son Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) provide the antagonism, while the picture is stolen by Antonio Banderas' underused and brilliantly conceived Puss-in-Boots. Lacking surprises otherwise, Shrek 2 is a populist, facile entertainment that rolls over you and away into forgetfulness like a lackadaisical breeze. It's full of dead spots, speaking to a lack of spark in its writing and direction as well as to a certain gracelessness in its editing and pacing that results in the picture running long at around eighty-five minutes.
That musical numbers, including new versions of Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero," dwarf too-brief performances by Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Joseph Arthur speaks to the artistic bankruptcy at the heart of the exercise: DreamWorks indicates that they have the wit to discern the dangerous and the brilliant, just not the courage to hang their most profitable franchise on something potentially brave and transgressive. The very definition of a critic-proof picture, Shrek 2 seems to know it and so treads the same tepid water in the same tepid fashion. It's the kind of event film that people are afraid to admit they dislike, but with Pixar setting the example for smart animation in the United States (and Japan setting the example in the world), there's really no reason to settle for these vacuous lightshows. The only real satirical irony embedded in the film is the fact that DreamWorks, the supposed anti-Disney, is producing product the unfortunate equal of their archenemy--I wonder what they'd see if they turned that snarky Mirror, Mirror on themselves. Originally published: May 19, 2004.
½*/**** screenplay by Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman and Chris Miller & Aron Warner directed by Chris Miller
by Walter Chaw A bad franchise reaches its nadir as DreamWorks Animation's flat-awful Shrek the Third (hereafter Shrek 3) tackles the King Arthur mythos in eighty unwatchable minutes of thunderously boring and occasionally moralizing shit, puke, and hitting gags. The only thing mildly entertaining in the whole mess is a prolonged death scene for a frog followed by a chorus of the things singing a Wings song--entertaining, though not in any way inspired or satirical. As calling the movie dumb would constitute a recommendation for people actually interested in seeing it, better to call it the kind of life-suck where you can feel the irretrievable minutes siphoning out your eyes. To say that children would enjoy it is a smokescreen for the mentally-underdeveloped and emotionally immature to indulge in lowest-common-denominator slapstick and the type of hollow banter that passes for wit in great swaths of greater primate societies. All else fails and toss in a cover of Heart's "Barracuda" by that champion of women's rights and humps Fergie--paired in facile shorthand with a throwaway gag featuring one of the pantheon of fairy tale princesses burning her bra. (Describing it is already more funny and clever than the action itself is in the film.) Prescribing medieval Ever After revisionist feminism to something as essentially useless and inert as Shrek 3 is jarring to the point of total incoherence. If anything, this film is the prime example of what happens when the aim of crafting something for the express purpose of entertaining dullards, mental defectives, and toddlers results in something so middlebrow that it tends toward a vacuum. In its "defense," it's more likely to cause naps than to cause hyperactivity.
***½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A screenplay by Katsuhiro Ôtomo, based on the comic book by Osamu Tezuka directed by Rintaro
by Walter Chaw There is a sense of wonder inherent in the exploration of new mediums. A young Maxim Gorky's 1896 review of one of the first Lumiére Cinématographe shows in Russia begins, "Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows." As I began exploring the anime medium (not a "genre," I am assured, and I have come to concur) a scant couple of years ago, I felt similarly the interloper in a dreamscape conjured by a culture steeped in tradition, mythology, and the sort of artistic sensibility that could only evolve from the only people victimized by the most terrible weapon of mass destruction humans have devised. Anime is--perhaps predictably, then--often-post-apocalyptic (its themes exploring the existential by way of William Gibson's cyberpunk and Philip K. Dick's identity crisis) finding elements of the rapture in such rapturous fantasies as the lyrical Princess Mononoke, the viscerally charged Ninja Scroll, and the ferocious yet delicate Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind.
Ernest et Célestine **½/**** screenplay by Daniel Pennac, based on books by Gabrielle Vincent directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner
JODOROWSKY'S DUNE **½/**** directed by Frank Pavich
by Walter Chaw Broad, earnest, unassuming animation from France, Ernest & Celestine is the tale of a little girl mouse, Celestine (voice of Pauline Brunner), and gruff bear Ernest (Lambert Wilson), who overcome their cultural prejudices to become fast friends. Celestine is outcast because she'd like to be an artist instead of a dentist; Ernest is outcast because he's a busker struggling to eke out a subsistence living. Over a series of misadventures, the two end up doing the Badlands in Ernest's ramshackle hideaway, awaiting their fate and trying to enjoy their borrowed time. It's all leading to a grim ending, but it's not that kind of movie.
*½/**** screenplay by Maya Forbes & Wallace Wolodarsky and Rob Letterman and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger directed by Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon
by Walter Chaw As a joke, a pal and I once described the ideal movie as an epic, feature-length battle between robots and dinosaurs. DreamWorks, as a kind of joke, too, I think, have now released the animated Monsters Vs Aliens in a vaunted 3-D technique that enhanced a few scenes in Coraline last month but feels more the gimmicky affectation here. It feels, in fact, like the entire reason behind making a film that's content to trot out those old kid-flick stand-bys of accepting differences and learning to love who you are as the entire backbone for grand, city-destroying slapstick. The most interesting thing about it might be that a sequence buried in the middle of the closing credits posits a world-ending nuclear holocaust initiated in a war room set borrowed directly from Dr. Strangelove. It's a weird thing to have in a children's movie (odd, too, appearing so soon after Alex Proyas's own apocalyptic Knowing), and the zeitgeist sweepstakes are up and running in 2009 with the possibility that we're at the end of days infecting even this most optimistic, empty, popular of films. The rest is your run-of-the-mill kid's flick: noisy, senseless, and, save a couple of moments where Seth Rogen's voice made me giggle, not terribly entertaining. It has an ugly bad guy, Gallaxhar (voiced by Rainn Wilson), who clones himself, setting up the tension between individuation and the politics of mass hysteria, the unsubtle suggestion being that while good guys Bob (Rogan) and Link (Will Arnett) are stupid, they're not anywhere near as stupid as the enemy.
COPS: 20TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION Image B Sound B+ Extras B- "Cops: 20th Season," "Pilot," "Las Vegas Heat," "First Ten Seasons," "Second Ten Seasons"
THE SMURFS: SEASON ONE, VOLUME ONE Image B+ Sound B- Extras D "The Smurf's Apprentice/The Smurfette/Vanity Fare," "King Smurf/The Astrosmurf/Jokey's Medicine," "St. Smurf and the Dragon/Sorcerer Smurf," "The Smurfs and the Howlibird," "The Magical Meanie/Bewitched, Bothered and Besmurfed," "Smurf-Colored Glasses/Dreamy's Nightmare," "Fuzzle Trouble/Soup a la Smurf," "The Hundredth Smurf/Smurphony in 'C'"
by Ian Pugh Kevin Rubio's "COPS"-Star Wars mashup Troops is painfully predictable, but there's a little nugget of profundity in its twist on "COPS"' familiar narration: "Suspects are guilty, period--otherwise, they wouldn't be suspects, would they?" It's the most concise description and criticism of "COPS" one could muster, almost impossible to build on because it so handily defines the tacit agreement the show's producers have with its audience. I mentioned in my review of the parodic "Reno 911!" that Fox's long-running reality show is useless in any political debate about police conduct, and it is--but upon watching several hours' worth of the series in a new "20th Anniversary Edition" DVD set, I became more perturbed by how it attempts to forge an uncrossable distance between you and the suspect. "COPS" always poses itself as something completely external to the viewer: in the interests of entertainment, the vast, vast majority of scenarios involve idiots caught in the act or resisting arrest. You're therefore not only a rubbernecker looking for a visceral thrill--you also come to consider yourself exempt from police scrutiny because you don't break the law and certainly wouldn't do so as blatantly and stupidly as these criminals. It's the equivalent of the moron who has no problem with the government wiretapping his phone because he doesn't believe he does anything to warrant their attention.
½/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras B- screenplay by Tab Murphy and Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton and Steve Bencich & Ron J. Friedman directed by Aaron Blaise & Bob Walker
by Walter Chaw Deeply unentertaining and, at its heart of hearts, a quintessential example of a dishonest picture, Disney's Brother Bear is rock-bottom entertainment destined to be Pixar's best bargaining chip. It plugs bears and moose into a formula already plumbed Disney-style with lions and meerkats (and once before again with Earth Children stereotypes of Native Americans), boiling an entire culture and mythology down to an insultingly reductive pastiche and taking swipes at women along the way to telling one of the most inapplicable codas in the history of fable: "The story of a boy who became a man by becoming a bear."
**/**** Image A- Sound B Extras A- screenplay by Heath Corson, based on the graphic novel Justice League: Origins by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee directed by Jay Oliva
by Jefferson Robbins The red underwear is gone, and with it, all humility. Justice League: War marks the first true animated appearance of Superman and the rest of the DC Universe heroes since the comics publisher's New 52 gambit launched in 2011, resetting at least twenty-five years of pulp history.¹ What that means for viewers is a militaristically-clothed Superman (vocal chameleon Alan Tudyk) who threatens to choke people to death and a dangerously naive Wonder Woman (Michelle Monaghan) who's definitely going to have sex with him after the credits. This, effectively, is the characters' debut. Set aside all those past versions you know, toss out even the previous direct-to-video titles you may have collected (including four "Justice League" movies) since the DCU animated line officially launched in 2007. This is where the Justice League meets--and where we meet them--for the first time. And, boy, are they a bunch of pricks.
***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B- screenplay by George Miller, John Collee, Judy Morris, Warren Coleman directed by George Miller
by Walter Chaw For no other purpose, really, than that I loved its unabashed perversity and darkness, I used to make an annual ritual of watching George Miller's Babe: Pig in the City. The image of Mickey Rooney in full clown regalia, sopping at an ice cream cone, is the stuff of nightmares, as well as a marvellous example of how much Aussie director George Miller got away with halfway around the world from his financiers. As a kid's show, Babe II's success has a lot to do with it recognizing how familiar is fear and isolation in the life of a youngster, and providing solutions to things that alarm instead of denying their existence. Watching the director's latest, Happy Feet, the moment Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood, danced by Savion Glover) woke up in a zoo after an odyssey in pursuit of a commercial fishing vessel and was told by his inmate, a HAL-voiced fellow penguin, "Try the water, Dave. The water's real, Dave," I realized that we were down the same rabbit hole with Miller, seeing zoo animals as insane at best, made so by the drudgery of routine and the inability to communicate with their jailers. It's a fertile image amidst Happy Feet's most fertile passage (and its connection to the Starchild sequence in 2001 is the second such allusion in a film this month (see also: The Fountain)), one that ends with Mumble tying the secret of interspecies understanding to that old minstrel trick of tap-dancing for a very particular audience of otherwise disinterested aliens.
THE RICHES: SEASON 1 Image A- Sound B+ Extras C "Pilot," "Believe the Lie," "Operation Education," "Been There, Done That," "The Big Floss," "Reckless Gardening," "Virgin Territory," "X Spots the Mark," "Cinderella," "This is Your Brain on Drugs," "Anything Hugh Can Do, I Can Do Better," "It's a Wonderful Lie," "Waiting for Dogot"
SQUIDBILLIES: VOLUME ONE Image A- Sound B+ Extras D+ "This is a Show Called Squidbillies," "Take This Job and Love It," "School Days, Fool Days," "Chalky Trouble," "Family Trouble," "Government Brain Voodoo Trouble," "Butt Trouble," "Double Truckin' the Tricky Two," "Swayze Crazy," "Giant Foam Dickhat Trouble," "The Tiniest Princess," "Meth OD to My Madness," "Bubba Trubba," "Asses to Ashes, Sluts to Dust," "Burned and Reburned Again," "Terminus Trouble," "Survival of the Dumbest," "A Sober Sunday," "Rebel with a Claus"
by Ian Pugh You didn't need anyone to tell you that hypocrisy transcends social class, but this doesn't stop "The Riches" from preaching that liars and thieves can be found in virtually any tier of society. What finally emerges is a belaboured cry of "fuck rich people" about as subtle and original as the show's title. Start from the bottom and work your way up to the top: with his wife, Dahlia (Minnie Driver), newly-released from a two-year stretch in the slammer, Wayne Malloy (Eddie Izzard) shuttles his family of con artists--including children Cael (Noel Fisher), Di Di (Jewel Staite look-alike Shannon Woodward), and Sam (Aidan Mitchell)--back to the safety of their Irish travelers' campout, only to find that the clan is less than thrilled at the way Wayne's been running his branch of the family tree. Shortly after making off with all the money from the compound, the Malloys are thrown into a wild RV chase that results in the death of one Doug Rich, a scumbag lawyer who was on his way to a freshly-purchased home in the high-class gated community of Edenfalls. With no other witnesses to the crash and the nomadic nature of their grifts quickly losing its novelty, Wayne concocts a plan to assume the Riches' identities and, ultimately, "steal the American Dream."
*½/**** Image A Sound A Extras D written by Jill E. Blotevogel, Tom Rogers, Jule Selbo directed by John Kafka
by Walter Chaw Split into three parts, aptly like the anthology horror films The Monsters Club and Trilogy of Terror, Disney's own direct-to-video horrorshow Cinderella II: Dreams Come True reeks of corners cut and the kind of flaccid inspiration fuelled by the urge towards filthy lucre. The animation is an embarrassment to the Disney imprint, a half-step above the cut-and-paste style of Cartoon Network's "Space Ghost", and the writing is so lifeless, so feckless, it does nothing to forgive the paucity of attractive, liquid images. The backgrounds are static at all times, the characters move in stiff fits and starts (jittering and freezing just prior to edits), and the colours are lustreless. I would forgive a ballroom dance sequence, recycled no fewer than ten times over the course of the film (and serving as the DVD release's menu motif), not to mention the multiple rancid "remixes" of "Bibbidy, Bobbidy, Boo," if there were one moment in the enterprise that didn't make me want to lie down in a dark room with something cool to my brow.