Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fallout, Oy: While Nothing New, “Chernobyl Diaries” is Hardly the Disaster it Could Have Been

If you’re sick of shaky camera horror films then you should skip “Chernobyl Diaries.” It’s shot like it’s a “Paranormal Activity” movie or “The Blair Witch Project” but without the main character doing the filming. And thank goodness for that because there’s just no excuse why anyone would film the entire ordeal that takes place in this film. Of course the story does involves cameras – it’s about young tourists in the Ukraine who go on an “extreme tour” by hiring a local man who takes them to the abandoned city near the site of the terrible Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Of course, who wouldn’t want to see that? And if we’ve seen from countless horror movies before, what happens when you mix unsuspecting tourists and nuclear fallout? Mutant humanoids of course!

The film is being slickly marketed as from the guy who brought you “Paranormal Activity.” And that is sort of true. Oren Peli, who signed a like a 20 picture deal after his film make a gazillion dollars, is the producer and co-writer of this mishmash of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “The Blair Witch Project.” Think mutants and shaky cameras.

The film attempts to give the twenty something characters personalities, but mostly fails in that area. The story concerns a young guy Chris played by Jesse McCartney and his older brother Paul played by Jonathan Sadowski. They bring along their girlfriends, meet an Australian couple along the way, and hire a local named Uri to take them to Chernobyl. They observe from a safe distance after sneaking in. You see since it’s, ya know, Chernobyl, the area is heavily guarded and people are generally not allowed in. But Uri manages to drive his van full of naïve tourists into this deserted wasteland. They quickly observe some mutated fish. And if that’s not a sign to get the hell out of there, I don’t know what is.

In traditional horror movie fashion, when the group returns to the van to head out of there (after nearly being mauled by a stray bear) they find the engine wires have been destroyed. Like in most of these movies, no one knows they’re there, oh and they’re like thirteen miles from another human being. Or are they. They decide to wait overnight, but not before Uri steps out into the darkness with Chris and Chris returns after being attacked by an unseen assailant. Was it the bear? Was it the violent stray dogs? Was it something big enough to turn the van completely over? Most of the film revolves around our characters running away from something we can’t really see, which works in the whole “what you can’t see is scarier than what you can see” but after a while you want to see something.

And we do. And then we’re not totally surprised, but at least the film remains potently atmospheric and suspenseful for the most part. I jumped here and there at the appropriate spots that were fully planned by the filmmakers. “Chernobyl Diaries” doesn’t really add anything new to the genre, and certainly doesn’t help its constant failed attempts at freshness or originality, but like a comforting meal, it hits all the right spots and goes down easily enough.  GRADE: B-

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Smith Element: “Men in Black 3” is Fine, if Unneeded, Summer Entertainment

There is no other worse excuse for a screenplay existing than the “alternate reality” scenario in which a character has to go back in time in order to make things right again in the present. Of course, time travel has been the subject of many a great film. “Back to the Future” anyone? How about “The Terminator?” Those movies were pioneers in their genres. Time travel in those films was the basis of the founding story, for movie to introduce time travel into a series that never had it before just seems lazy. In the sequel no one really asked for, “Men in Black 3” time travel is used as an excuse. It’s used as an excuse for not only for Josh Brolin to do a kick-ass impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones, but for an excuse for the movie to even exist. At least some of the same actors and filmmakers (and composer Danny Elfman thank goodness) have returned for another go-round.

“Men in Black 3” is fun and entertaining and appropriately 90s-esque, but has an overwhelming whiff of “does this need to exist?” The short answer is no. But returning director Barry Sonnenfeld and his actors Will Smith (who hasn’t seemed to age since 2002) and Tommy Lee Jones (who has aged rather significantly) have given it their all and even if the film is a poor excuse for a studio to make a quick buck, at least I was distracted for 103 minutes. The story revolves around a pretty cool (and appropriately gross) villain, the alien Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), and him traveling back in time to the 1960s to kill Men in Black agent K (Jones) – which in turn somehow causes an alternate present in which an apocalyptic alien invasion takes place. So it’s up to K’s partner J (Smith) to back in time and stop Boris from killing K.

I’m sure diehard “Men in Black” fans will eat this up. There are actually some pretty fun and neat things here. Like I mentioned earlier, the younger version of K is played by Josh Brolin, and he does a disturbingly uncanny impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones’ character. Although I don’t buy him as being 29 (Brolin is actually 44 for the record). The move into the 60s and seeing the early days of the Men in Black agency is sort of fun. There’s a quick trip to Shea Stadium (may it rest in peace) and even the launching of the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Unfortunately the villain which I said was really cool, sort of disappears for a large chunk of the story which deals with K dealing with the 1960s and convincing the young Agent K who he is. Rick Baker, who won an Oscar for the first film, returns and does an incredible job. And there are some great visual effects worked in as well. And even though it’s been fifteen years since the first film, this third outing feels as if it could have come just a few years after the second movie. Which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point-of-view.

It’s difficult for me to recommend “Men in Black 3” to anyone but über-fans who must devour ever morsel of MiB pop culture. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Etan Cohen’s script – it’s just its reason for existing seems unnecessary in a summer that is filled with sequels and franchise films that people are actually excited for (i.e. “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-man,” and “Step Up Revolution,” gotcha). Having said that, this third outing could have been a lot worse. It’s certainly serviceable summer entertainment. It has cool effects, some laughs, fun action, good performances, and Bill Hader playing Andy Warhol. You can certainly do a lot worse.  GRADE: B-

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Anna and the King: Funnyman Sacha Baron Cohen Puts the Dick in “The Dictator”

If you found the films “Borat” and “Brüno” to be offensive, then you’ll probably find “The Dictator” to be offensive as well. What else do all three of these films have in common? They’re all hilariously funny. “The Dictator” stars the brilliant British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen whose work always lends toward the outlandish. Just a tad. He creates purposely stereotyped and offensive characters to make not only a political statement but to make people laugh. They laugh as they realize their own prejudices and out of sheer hilarity. In his previous films he relied on interactions with real people whose ignorance lead some rather disturbing confrontations. In his latest film, he takes a more regular approach, as with his popularity it’s pretty much impossible for Cohen to not be recognized on the street. The film follows a similar formula that has been established with his other films in which an eccentric foreign character makes his way to America and the absurdist culture clash that follows.

Cohen is playing Admiral General Aladeen who is the tyrannical dictator of the fictional Republic of Wadiya. He’s racist, anti-Semitic, hates America, disrespectful of women, has his own staff executed. You know the usual evil dictator stuff. He travels to the US to talk to the UN regarding the whole nuclear weapons thing. There he’s kidnapped in a plot set up by his own uncle (Ben Kingsley) who wants to replace him with a double so that he can sign a treaty that would make Wadiya a democracy. Shaven, tortured and alone, Aladeen stumbles upon some protesters and makes friends with a the liberal owner of a vegan co-op named Zoey (Anna Faris). He soon learns what it’s like to go from having all the power in the world to being a lowly lower class American citizen.

I’m not quite sure I buy the relationship established by Zoey and “Allison” as Aladeen ends up calling himself, but that’s not what’s important here. It’s amazing how many laughs can he had at making terrorist jokes and even laughing at American fears of foreigners after the events of 9/11. September 11th is itself not a laughing matter, but the state of fear we found ourselves living in after it is. Director Larry Charles, Cohen, and his fellow screenwriters know this and milk it for all they’ve got. And Cohen is such a natural comedic talent he makes it seem effortless. You always believe the characters he’s playing as ridiculous as they may be.

Can “The Dictator” be all that surprising, funny, and shocking after having sat through “Borat” and “Brüno?” Well, yes and no. sure the pure shock value is pretty much gone if you’ve seen the other films, but there’s plenty of shocking things to see here. In one scene, Aladeen helps deliver a baby in the co-op and you will see shots you’ve never quite seen before. There’s nothing Cohen and his cohorts wont do for a laugh whether it’s making potentially un-PC jokes or having random celebrity cameos who are just as game as he is.

When you know Sacha Baron Cohen is playing a crazy character you know exactly what you’re in for. “The Dictator,” like his previous efforts, is crude and vulgar and outrageous and just downright funny. It’s good to see he hasn’t tried to soften his comedy whatsoever. This is a scathing satire that leaves no stereotype or terrorism joke unturned. And to think it’s all dedicated to the late Kim Jong-Il. Now THAT guy was a character.  GRADE: B+

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Descendants: Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” is Retro, Campy Entertainment

Any big fan who is obsessed with Tim Burton is going to love the heck out of the fun retro vibe he imbues in his new take on “Dark Shadows.” Based on the cult soap opera that aired in the late 60s and early 70s the story concerns the relatives of one Barnabas Collins. He's British man who settled with his family as a boy in New England in the 1700s and established a well-run fishing company. He was cursed by a witch and became a vampire and was buried “alive” for centuries. And now he’s been released in the 1970s. he meets up with his descendants, who think he’s a strange (which he is since he’s played by Johnny Depp) relative who’s just come over from England on a boat. Think “Hocus Pocus” meets “The Addams Family.” The film is part fish-out-of-water tale, part gothic horror, and part melodrama. I have no idea whether it bares any resemblance to the original series (I’m going to assume it doesn’t really) but fans of Burton’s trademark gothic and quirky style are sure to eat this up.

            During the coolly retro-feeling opening title sequence, a young woman named Victoria (Bella Heathcote) travels on a train to Collinswood, where she intends to respond to a newspaper ad for a governess. There she meets the strange Collins family. There is matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her sarcastic teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz). Then there’s Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) and his young son David (Gulliver McGrath). Elizabeth has hired a live-in psychiatrist named Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) to look after David’s supposed mental health – he supposedly sees ghosts. Willie Loomis is the manor’s strange caretaker, played by Jackie Earle Haley. There’s also an old cleaning lady who’s “as useful as a bucket with a hold in the bottom.” There are a lot of characters, and if there’s any criticism I have, it’s that we don’t quite get enough time to know them all very well. In fact, Roger and his son’s storylines are practically non-existent and could have been excised altogether.

            The real story here is between Barnabas’s adjustment to living in the 1970s as a vampire and his rivalry with the witch who cursed him Angelique Bouchard – played by the scene-stealing Eva Green. Angelique and Barnabas had a fling back in the 18th century, but he feel in love with Josette. In a jealous rage, Angelique murdered Barnabas’ parents, made Josette kill herself, and turned Barnabas into a vampire. Angelique now works as the head of a rival fishing company who has practically pushed the Collins’ family business into the ground. Angelique, learning of Barnabas’ escape from his eternal grave, plots to get revenge and win him back.

The story (with a screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith) feels appropriately melodramatic at parts, which makes sense since this is based on a daily soap opera. There are even - what I assume are - fun little hints at the TV series fans are sure to pick up on. Some might find the tone slightly off, but I found it the film mixed comedy and drama rather successfully. Most of the humor comes from Barnabas’ attempts to fit into this modern society. And some well-placed product placements serve some rather large laughs. Depp and Green play extremely well off each other, but Green really steals it as the plotting and overly campy Angelique – which culminates in an exciting and wonderfully over-the-top ending sequence. Though the detractors will find the film just collapses under its own weight  - like most of Burton's films.

“Dark Shadows” has everything a Tim Burton fan could want. It’s weird and creepy and funny. It features top notch set design and costumes and makeup. Another good, but subtle Danny Elfman score helps the proceedings. I’m not sure how diehard “Dark Shadows” fans will feel about it, but it’s certainly a really fun and enjoyable experience for newbies like me.  GRADE: A-

Burton Call: Ranking Tim Burton’s Films in Anticipation of Dark Shadows

1) Edward Scissorhands (1990)  It’s a clichéd choice I realize, but is there a film any more Tim Burton-like than this story of an artificial man (is he a robot or what?) who is inexplicably placed into the pastel-riddled world of suburbia? The man, unfinished, has sharp blades where his hands and fingers should be, but he still has a heart. Johnny Depp’s first (of many) collaboration with Burton remains his best as he embodies the character so well, it’s hard to think Burton didn’t just hire some socially awkward outcast instead of the teen heartthrob he was at the time. If you see just one Tim Burton film (and if you haven’t seen any you might as well plummet off a covered bridge) this is the one to see. It features all the Burton trademarks: the social outcast, exquisite set design, a wonderful Danny Elfman score, and the perfect amount of strangeness. GRADE: A

2) Beetle Juice (1988) If there’s any other Tim Burton film that completely defines the aueter it is certainly Beetle Juice, everyone’s favorite cinematic bio-exorcist. Burton created such a bizarre film it’s amazing to think he didn’t write or produce it, yet it feels so very much Tim Burton-like. He obviously had free reign to do whatever he wanted after the success of Pee Wee. A wonderful tale of a dead couple dealing with not only the afterlife but the annoying yuppies who move into their suburban Connecticut home, it’s filled with deliciously macabre humor and some jaw-dropping (and Oscar winning) makeup work; all highlighted with a delightfully comedic performance from Michael Keaton, not to mention a scene-stealing Catherine O’Hara. A


3) Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) I’m almost tempted to say that Pee Wee Herrmann is one of Tim Burton’s most bizarre characters he’s ever directed. Paul Ruebans created such a wonderfully strange personality. The “manchild” would never be the same. In fact, I don’t even think it’s a character that could even remotely be attempted today. This guy lives in a house full of toys and strange inventions (Tim Burton trademark alert!) sort of a precursor to Burton’s version of Willy Wonka. Absurdist humor abounds as Pee Wee embarks on a wild adventure to find his stolen bicycle. And the greatest life lesson learned here: remember, there is no basement in the Alamo. A


4) Batman Returns (1992) I go back and forth trying to decide which Tim Burton Batman movie is better. Batman started the whole thing and was the bigger hit, but “Batman Returns” is way more Tim Burton-like (he had a producer credit on this one) and therefore to real Batman fans this flick didn’t really live up to their expectations. But you know what? This movie is so freaking awesome with two of the greatest comic book villains – Penguin and Catwoman – you can’t deny the wacky awesomeness of it all. Burton’s trademark Gothic imagery is in full force here and even continues with the snowy theme established in “Edward Scissorhands.” Who cares if this movie is hardly even about Batman? It’s all about the Burton if you ask me. A


5) Batman (1989) Tim Burton delivered a surprise phenomenon back in 1989 which helped relaunch the “summer movie franchise” with studios making big budget movies in hopes of raking in lots of dough. People turned out in droves (much like they did with “The Dark Knight”) to see everybody’s favorite comic book villain: The Joker. Jack Nicholson did such an awesome job you kind of forget that he’s practically playing himself in clown makeup. There are great action set pieces – one set in an art museum no less – and so many great moments you can practically recall yourself watching with glee as a kid. Michael Keaton, while not necessarily the most obvious choice to play the Caped Crusader – makes a great Batman and plays well off of Nicholson’s maniacal performance and Kim Basinger’s sultry photojournalist Vicki Vale. A


6) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) And here we have yet another remake done by Burton – although I still consider this to be just another adaptation of the source material. Sure no one can replace Gene Wilder, and why should anyone want to? But Johnny Depp certainly holds his own as the super weird and quirky Willy Wonka – the creepy manchild who has serious daddy issues this time. Burton’s candy factory is a wonder to behold, full of colors that almost overwhelm the senses. The best part is the film is also funny and features terrific performances from its entire cast. Danny Elfman’s theme is one of my favorites and Burton presents us with another wonderful trademark opening title sequence that is as scrumdiddlyumptious as the movie itself. The movie is certainly weird; I’m sure Roald Dahl would be happy with it. A


7) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) Burton’s first foray into live-action music (after getting his toe wet with “Corpse Bride” and producing “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) is one of his most accomplished works. Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham Carter have great chemistry as the revenge seeking barber and the pie maker respectively. Steven Sondheim’s macabre musical gets the appropriate Burton touch with dark humor, a dark look and appropriately pale characters. Yet it’s all so much fun. The staging of the musical numbers are really well done and the story flows rather nicely, as does the blood. The film features more Oscar-winning art direction and it certainly deserved it. This is one Burton’s overall best made films. A


8) Sleepy Hollow (1999) Sleepy Hollow is sort of the non-musical version of Sweeney Todd. It’s a lavish period piece with violent, absurd murders and Burton’s trademark quirky humor. Burton opens up Washington Irvin’s short tale of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and turns Ichabod Crane into a forensic scientist who is summoned to the tiny hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of gristly murders. The entire film has a wonderful Gothic, yet campy feel that can only be the product of Tim Burton. Even if it has some rather odd flashback sequences (Tim Burton trademark alert!) it feels so much like something he’s wanted to do for years but never did for some reason. A-


9) Big Fish (2003) Ahh, the Tim Burton movie for people who don’t really like Tim Burton movies aka Tim Burton’s Oscar Bait. This is really only half a Tim Burton movie as it features some very normal characters. Mainly a guy who has a strained relationship with his father because of all the tall tales he used to tell him as a child. But now his father is dying and he wants to try and make amends but he can’t quite take his dad seriously. These tall tales are recounted by Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor plays his younger self. Here is where the movie really shines in its Tim Burton-ness. Super quirky and weird characters abound and it’s all wrapped up in a wonderfully tearjerker way. It’s “Terms of Endearment” Tim Burton style. B+


10) Mars Attacks! (1996) The summer of 1996 saw two alien invasion movies. The other one was a little movie called “Independence Day.” This was however an Irwin Allen style campy disaster flick with purposely shoddy effects. After all, one of Tim Burton’s greatest inspirations was the horrible director Ed Wood who was the subject of the film before this one. There is an unbelievably impressive all star cast, most of whom end up as green skeletons. The Martians are hilariously weird and there are some rather shocking moments of gruesome violence. But it’s all done in trademarked Tim Burton fun. Don’t take this one too seriously. Love that Danny Elfman score! B


11) Ed Wood (1994) “Ed Wood” probably remains Tim Burton’s best critically received film. It won two Oscars (including one for supporting actor Martin Landau) but it didn’t receive a warm welcome at the box office. It’s possible the black and white photography had something to do with it – but it remains one of Burton’s most well-made films. It’s one that’s sort of eluded me over the years, as it’s one I’m probably least familiar with. And there’s no Danny Elfman score, for shame! It’s a great film but not one of my favorites. B


12) Corpse Bride (2005) I was originally disappointed with Burton’s second foray into stop-motion animation (his first time directing) as nothing could ever top the wonderful brilliance of “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The songs didn’t seem that particularly memorable as did the characters, but a second viewing changed all that. It’s undoubtedly Tim Burton through and through and remains an enjoyable if not overly memorable blip on Tim Burton’s filmography. B


13) Alice in Wonderland (2010) Most people hate Tim Burton’s sometimes garish treatment of the Alice in Wonderland story. Rightfully so, it does rely a little too much on gaudy visual effects and its story is actually a sequel rather than a remake. If you dig deep enough there’s enough things for a Tim Burton fan to like here. There’s plenty of eccentric characters and humor. And let’s just face it the world Lewis Carol created was meant to be seen through the eyes of Tim Burton. It’s not one of his best, but even die hard fans can find something to enjoy here. B-


14) Planet of the Apes (2001) And last, and kind of certainly least, we have Tim’s notorious version of “Planet of the Apes.” This is one of his films that eluded me for many years, and I only caught up with it a couple years ago. And I have to say it’s not horrible by any means. It’s only last on this list because it’s the film I’m least familiar with and overall doesn’t quite feel much like a Tim Burton movie to me. Even Danny Elfman’s score seems rather different, although it’s really grown on me and now I like it. Mark Wahlberg, like most people say, seems out of place. This is also the movie where Tim met his love and muse Helena Bonham Carter, which was no small feat seeing as though she was in ape makeup most of the time. The makeup effects, costumes, and set design are all top notch. Heck even Paul Giamatti, who I’m not a big fan of is pretty good here. There’s nothing really that wrong with the film, it just doesn’t quite click, and like many a Tim Burton character it just sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s the outcast film in a film director’s repertoire that’s filled with outcasts.  B-

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Fast & the Fury: “The Avengers” is Comic Book Fun at Its (Almost) Best

If you want a dark and brooding serious superhero film, you’ll have to wait a couple more months for that new Batman movie. Until then, we have to settle for a bright, colorful and totally awesome and fun superhero movie that is a terrific start to the summer Blockbuster season. “The Avengers” (maybe you’ve heard of it) brings together a handful of popular Marvel superheroes who have appeared in previous films. Those films always had a link: one Samuel L. Jackson as the eye-patched Nick Fury who was assembling a team of super humans to fight the forces of darkness. Sure we had to sit through nearly a half dozen other films to get here, but here we are with Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, and Hawkeye who join forces against Thor’s evil (adopted) brother Loki.

The weakest element of “The Avengers”, and let’s just get this out of the way, is it’s basic comic book plot. To put it simply, Loki (Tim Hiddleston) wants to get his hands on a powerful CGI cube that has the power to wipe out humanity. (Wasn’t this the plot of Transformers or something?) But you know what? It’s just a MacGuffin. Cause I didn’t care and neither will you or the other millions of nerdy comic fans. What you will care about is these wonderful characters finally getting to interact with each other as they attempt to save humanity from annihilation.

The film actually does a lot of things right. The main thing is giving each character enough screen time and showing how these characters even have conflicts within their own team. It obviously takes a little while before this “team” is assembled, but the journey to get there is worth it. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) remains as funny and sarcastic as ever and he really plays off the others as well. Chris Evans is Captain America, and we last recall that he’s been unfrozen in the present day (his film took place during World War II). He’s still reeling from losing the woman he loved, which gives him just enough emotional depth without being overly dramatic. The equally buff Chris Hemsworth makes a great  Thor, and fits in with the rest of the group even if he sounds like him and his evil brother are performing Shakespeare in the park (according to Mr. Stark).  Mark Ruffalo makes a great new addition to the cast as Bruce Banner who turns into the gigantic green Hulk when he gets angry. The Hulk definitely steals scenes and provides some of the biggest laughs. Scarlet Johannson kicks some serious butt as Black Widow and Jeremey Renner is great as the arrow-slinging Hawkeye, who actually spends a majority of the film under the spell of Loki.

Let’s face it if you’re a diehard comic fan there’s no way you’re not going to enjoy this movie. Even non-nerds like myself will find something to really like here. I loved Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts,  I loved the great single take scene during the film’s finale as it followed each character kicking bad guy ass, and I loved how the film found a way to incorporate so many characters into a 140 minute movie without it ever feeling either rushed or overlong. The final battle was a rather impressive spectacle. It felt and looked expensive and was all handled very well by director Joss Whedon – who fans are used to seeing work with much lower budgets on television. The effects were rather impressive and I never felt my senses were being over bombarded – even in impressive 3D.

I can’t really recommend “The Avengers” enough. It’s going to be an awesome summer for big budget Hollywood movies. If you think Hollywood doesn’t make ‘em like they used to, they obviously haven’t seen this movie yet. It’s action-packed fun nearly at its best (I’m still holding out for The Amazing Spider-Man).  GRADE: A-

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Rated Arrrrr: “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is a Decent Swashbuckling Adventure

It’s been common knowledge that up until the release of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” films that pirate movies were usually unsuccessful. Do I really have to mention flops like “Cuthroat Island” and “Hook?” It kind of surprised me that Aardman Animation the company that brought us the Wallace & Gromit shorts and the wonderful “Chicken Run” would opt to make a full-length comedic pirate adventure. The end result gets a sort of lukewarm reception from me as I still believe that animated films featuring humans are sometimes just dull and boring. Is it any wonder that “The Incredibles” is my least favorite Pixar film? That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to enjoy about “The Pirates!” it’s just that even at 88 minutes it feels like a film that was meant to be a short film.

I have to give credit to screenwriter Gideon Defoe, who adapted his own book, because the film does involve a rather original and fun story. Our main character simply known as “The Pirate Captain” (voiced by Hugh Grant) has a dream of being voted Pirate of the Year. And just a simple goal like this sets him off on a grand adventure to claim the title while dodging British Royalty - namely Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) who hates pirates – and other rival pirates like Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek). The Pirate Captain’s crew is like the island of misfit toys on a ship. They’re a bunch of oddball characters that become rather likeable by the film’s end. Especially that albino pirate (even his clothes are white) who is voiced by Fright Night’s Anton Yelchin. His Fright Night co-star David Tennant voices famed naturalist Charles Darwin who has a large role here who wants to get his hands on The Pirate Captain’s pet “parrot” Polly who is actually a supposedly extinct dodo bird. This leads to a wacky adventure that involves the likes of famous people like Jane Austen and even the “Elephant Man.”

I guess my biggest complaint here is the fact that the film almost doesn’t feel like it needs to be animated. Sure if this story were done with people it would just be silly, but for some reason having so many human characters just didn’t sit right with me. I was thrilled with Mr. Bobo, a trained chimp, who would comically hold up typed cards with whatever he wanted to say written on them. Even the dodo bird was pretty funny even if she didn’t have any lines. I also think, that while the plot was original, it was a little too, dare I say, dense for an animated movie. It wasn’t confusing so much as it felt like almost half the movie was set up for the rest of film. And then the ending sort of goes on forever – although the film’s ultimate reveal involving Queen Victoria was pretty hilarious and well-done.

I’m pretty sure my love of Chicken Run was just sort of a fluke, because I find myself strangely detached to a lot of Aardman’s work. While the claymation itself is as innovative and clever as ever, maybe I just don’t get some of the British humour. Or maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for a swashbuckling pirate adventure? It’s just further proof that pirate movies don’t get made that often because more often than not they’re just kind of uninteresting. Fans of Wallace & Gromit and stop-motion animation will certainly be entertained by “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” but I still think it’s a movie that’s not quite for everyone; you could certainly do a lot worse.  GRADE: B-