New Releases for the Week of August 11, 2017


ANNABELLE: CREATION

(New Line) Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Talitha Bateman, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Kerry O’Malley, Philippa Coulthard, Joseph Bishara. Directed by David F. Sandberg

The universe of The Conjuring adds some backstory as the demonic doll of the first film gets a prequel. A group of orphans moves into a large home where a dollmaker lives with his wife. The couple are still grieving their daughter who died in a tragic accident but when they are sure she wants them to make a doll for her to put her soul into. However, it’s not their beloved daughter in the doll but something far more malevolent.

See the trailer and San Diego Comic Con panel footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for horror violence and terror)

The Glass Castle

(Lionsgate) Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson. Based on the bestselling memoir of Jeanette Walls, reporter and former MSNBC gossip columnist, Jeanette grew up moving from place to place at the behest of her Bohemian father who firmly believed in living by his own set of rules. The effect that had on Jeanette and her family was both negative but also strangely positive.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon, Regal Oviedo, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking)

The Nut Job: Nutty by Nature

(Open Road) Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl, Maya Rudolph, Jackie Chan. The nut-eating denizens of the Nut House suddenly find themselves homeless but manage to land on their feet in a wonderful park. When the mayor announces plans to erect an amusement park on the site, they must band together to save their new home.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for action and some rude humor)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Brave New Jersey
City of Ghosts
The Lie
Mune: Guardian of the Moon
Nenu Raju Nene Mantri
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha
VIP 2: Vellaiyilla Pattathari

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI:

Amnesia
Brigsby Bear
Catastrópico
Footnotes
From the Land of the Moon
Jaya Janaki Nayaka
Mune: Guardian of the Moon
Once Upon a Time 3D
Pilgrimage
Step
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha
The Veil
The Women’s Balcony

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA:

Jaya Janaki Nayaka
Landline
Lie
Mune: Guardian of the Moon
Nenu Raju Nene Mantri
Pilgrimage
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha
The Veil
VIP 2: Vellaiyilla Pattathari

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE:

Endless Poetry
Jaya Janaki Nayaka
Landline
Lie
The Little Hours
Maudie
Mune: Guardian of the Moon
Nenu Raju Nene Mantri
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha
VIP 2: Vellaiyilla Pattathari

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Amnesia
Annabelle: Creation
Brave New Jersey
City of Ghosts
The Glass Castle
Landline

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So I Married an Axe Murderer


Scotland has a love-hate relationship with Mike Myers.

Scotland has a love-hate relationship with Mike Myers.

(1993) Comedy (TriStar) Mike Myers, Nancy Travis, Anthony LaPaglia, Amanda Plummer, Alan Arkin, Brenda Fricker, Matt Doherty, Charles Grodin, Phil Hartman, Debi Mazar, Steven Wright, Patrick Bristow, Cintra Wilson, Luenell Campbell, Michael Richards, Michael G. Hagerty, Jessie Nelson, Bob Sarlatte, Ken Grantham, Greg Germann, Holly Lewis. Directed by Thomas Schlamme

Do we really know the person we’re closest to? After all, it’s very easy to create a facade of normalcy. We can say anything about ourselves and the person who loves us will believe us. After all, why should we lie?

Charlie McKenzie (Myers) is a San Francisco hipster who writes beat-like poetry by night and…well, we’re not quite sure what he does by day. He has been through one abortive relationship after another, each one ending with the terminally paranoid and commitment-phobic Charlie finding a reason to end things. His friend Tony Giardino (LaPaglia) urges him to loosen up but Charlie isn’t inclined to.

That is, until he meets Harriet (Travis) in a butcher shop and it’s chemistry at first sight. Things are going really well as they get to know each other and Charlie thinks at long last this might be the one. Even her little sister Rose (Plummer) is nice.

Then, Charlie is reading one of his mother’s (Fricker) Weekly World News papers (her sole source of news and information) and happens upon an article about Mrs. X, a woman whose three husbands have all disappeared under mysterious circumstances – as has she. The more Charlie reads, the more he realizes that the facts about Mrs. X happen to match up with those Harriet has let slip.

Suddenly Charlie is certain that Harriet is Mrs. X and ends things with her, not wanting to end up as the fourth husband – and victim. Tony is just as certain that his friend is a wacko who is inventing yet another excuse to avoid committing to another person, albeit the most bizarre excuse yet. Then when someone confesses to being Mrs. X in Texas (all our X’s are in Texas), Charlie realizes what a fool he’s been and at the anniversary party of his mother and father (Myers again) he proposes. Nothing but smooth sailing ahead, right?

This was Myers’ first film after the lucrative Wayne’s World established him as a movie star and it was a critical and commercial flop at the time. Over the years the opinion about this gem have been revised and now it has a bit of a cult following and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

While Charlie is pretty damn quirky, this is Myers’ most “normal” role to date and quite frankly I wish he’d do more of them. He is really likable as Charlie and has a terrific chemistry for Travis who is one of the more underrated actresses of the last 20 years, although she’s getting a regular paycheck these days on the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing. Myers also does his Scottish eccentric role to perfection as Charlie’s dad. “Heed.. Newspaper. Now!” he bellows at his other son, the poor set-upon Doherty, lobbing bon mots at the oversized noggin of his son.

There are plenty of cameos ranging from Arkin as Tony’s way-too-sensitive captain and the late great Phil Hartman as a creepy park ranger at Alcatraz to Steven Wright as a laconic pilot and Charles Grodin as an uncooperative driver whose car is commandeered. The city of San Francisco is shown off as effectively as it has been in any recent movie – watch this one and you might just want to move there.

This is as charming a movie as Myers has done. He’d go on from here to the Austin Powers franchise and the Love Guru misstep but one look at this will convince you that even with the success he’s had he could have gone much farther if he’d continued on the road of movies like this. Sadly, the box office underperformance convinced him otherwise although Austin Powers fan might be happy enough that it did. This is one of those underappreciated comic gems of the 90s that may well have fallen below your radar; it’s well worth a look if you haven’t seen it (and it has a fabulous soundtrack to boot).

WHY RENT THIS: One of Myers’ best. Underrated. Terrifically quirky and cute.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit dated and relies too much on shtick.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some bad language, a bit of nudity, some sexual situations and what they called “mock terror.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Poet’s Corner Hotel scenes were filmed at the Dunsmuir estate which is actually in the Oakland hills east of San Francisco, not North of the city as depicted in the film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.6M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Haunted Honeymoon

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Good Ol’ Freda

Happy Feet Two


It still sucks to be a penguin.

It still sucks to be a penguin.

(2011) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Hank Azaria, Alicia Moore “Pink”, Sofia Vergara, Common, Hugo Weaving, Brad Pitt, Anthony LaPaglia, Matt Damon, Ava Acres, Carlos Alazraqui, Magda Szubanski, Benjamin Flores Jr., Jeff Garcia, Johnny Sanchez III, Lombardo Boyar, Meibh Campbell, Richard Carter, E.G. Daly. Directed by George Miller.

The first Happy Feet, directed by George (Mad Max and sequels) Miller held some interest despite a message shift from being yourself and overcoming obstacles to a global warming warning which led to a half billion dollar box office take and an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, one of the few non-Pixar movies to have won one. The bar was obviously set pretty high for the sequel.

The hero of the first move, Mumble (Wood) has married his sweetheart Gloria (Pink) and they’ve had a son of their own, Erik (Acres). In the land of Emperor Penguins, dance has take over from singing as the means of expression of one’s heart but there’s a lot of both. It’s like an unholy cross between March of the Penguins and Glee. Erik, who can do neither and disgraces himself by wedging himself into a hole in the ice headfirst, urinates on himself in embarrassment and winds up running away.

He makes his way to Adelie Land where his dad’s old friend Ramon (Williams) is from and is now ruled over by Sven (Azaria), a penguin whose people had been forced to leave when their fishing grounds were overfished. He had escaped only by learning to fly – but he’s not actually a penguin but a puffin, although nobody notices the difference. Sven sends Erik home with his dad but not before Erik has fallen under Sven’s spell of “if you can believe it, you can make it happen” philosophy.

However, the climate change issue is being felt most here in the Antarctic as Emperor Land calves away and becomes a gigantic bowl with no way in and no way out. Mumble and the boys are unable to return home and their family and friends are facing starvation. They do all they can to feed them but it will take a lot more than the four of them can provide to save the Emperors.

The plot is actually much more convoluted than that, with a side plot of a pair of krill named Will (Pitt) and Bill (Damon) who have ambitions of being more than a snack for whales and break away from their swarm, as well as one involving Bryan the Beachmaster (Carter), a seal whom Mumble saves.

Certainly the ecological message of climate change and its consequences remains here although the original message of self-reliance and being your own person seems to have fallen by the wayside to be replaced by a “we’re all in this together” theme with a side of “when we work together we can do anything.”

The animation, as with the first film, is nifty and colorful; your kids will love it, as well as the cuddly penguins who are as in the first movie, adorable. However if you are setting this up on the Blu-Ray player, you might want to leave the room; as I said the story is pretty confusing and frustrating. There really isn’t anything here that will persuade you that your time with the kids kind of out of the way won’t be better spent taking care of things around the house or better yet, having a bit of me time.

Sadly, this is unoriginal and uninspiring, a combination that non-discerning kids might be able to get past but most adults are going to wind up fidgeting like a four-year-old at a Merchant-Ivory screening. With the abundance of really quality kid-friendly animated features that appeals to adults as well, there isn’t a good reason to put this on your list unless you either love listening to Robin Williams do his thing (and admittedly he does it very well) or if you just like the pretty pictures.

WHY RENT THIS: Nicely animated. Very kid-friendly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A jumbled mess. Lacks originality and adults will be squirming throughout.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rude humor and a bit of peril which might upset the really young but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pink, who sang a song (“Tell Me Something Good”) during the opening credits of the first film, replaces the late Brittany Murphy who voiced Gloria in the first movie. The film is dedicated to Murphy and to Steve Irwin, both of whom voiced characters in Happy Feet but had since passed away.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Includes the Looney Toons short I Tawt I Saw a Puddy Tat which preceded the theatrical showings of Happy Feet Two. There are also four (count ’em) music videos including Pink’s latest single (at the time), as well as three sing-a-long tunes from the film. Finally there is an app which you can download on your iPad Touch or iPad which allows you to view additional content while the film is playing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $150.4M on a $135M production budget; the box office performance was disappointing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Last Holiday

Django Unchained


Smoking the competition.

Smoking the competition.

(2012) Western (Weinstein) Jamie Foxx, Leonardo di Caprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayoutte, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, RZA, Anthony LaPaglia, James Remar, Jonah Hill, James Russo, Walton Goggins, David Steen, Nichole Galicia, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most iconic film directors of our time. When all is said and done I truly believe he’ll occupy a spot in the pantheon among the best ever. He has a love and respect for genre films that places him squarely in fanboy territory, yet he understands what’s great about them and how to turn them into something more than just basic entertainment. He elevates them – which is why I sit waiting with baited breath for his first horror/sci-fi film.

Until that day, you get to deal with his latest which takes on the spaghetti western, although this is set in the antebellum South so you might join Tarantino in referring to this as a “Southern.” In it a German dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) liberates a slave named Django (Foxx) from a group of slave traders delivering their property to the market. It seems that Django once worked on a plantation where a trio of wanted men – the Brittle Brothers – had worked as overseers. Dr. Schultz has paper on them but doesn’t know what they look like. Django does. A partnership is born.

They travel to the plantation of Big Daddy (Johnson) where Django spots the brothers, two of whom are getting ready to whip a slave. Oh, no you didn’t. Django shoots ’em dead, and then guns down the third as he tries to ride away. Big Daddy doesn’t take kindly to it  so he organizes a posse of bag-wearing rednecks (including Hill in a cameo role) which is among the movie’s funniest scenes – the riders can’t see very well in the improperly cut bags. However Dr. Schultz devises a plan that outfoxes the rednecks, which Django implements.

Django has earned his freedom and $75 in his share of the bounty and is eager to track down his wife, who was sold separately from him to a different plantation.

She has in fact been sold to Candyland, the fourth-largest cotton plantation in Mississippi and the home of young Calvin Candie, whose hobby is Mandingo wrestling – pitting slaves from different owners in battles to the death. Candie who isn’t above having his dogs tear slaves to pieces, is a seemingly diffident yet genteel sort on the surface but he has all sorts of bad seething below that surface. He is supported by his house slave Stephen (Jackson), a crotchety sort who jealously hordes his position and authority in the house; Leonide Moguy (Christopher), an oily lawyer and Mr. Pootch (Remar), a debonair but deadly bodyguard.

Django first must hone his  skills as a bounty hunter before taking on that bunch, and when he is finally ready in the spring he is quite the killer but he is up against some of the most ruthless, sadistic men in the South. Is Django more than a man?

Of course he is. This is a Quentin Tarantino mash-up and he is not only targeting Spaghetti Westerns but also Blaxploitation and B-movie revenge flicks from the 80s. Django harkens back to classic heroes from all of those genres (but particularly John Shaft whom Tarantino has said is his descendent; in fact, his wife’s slave name is Broomhilda von Schaft).

Foxx imbues Django with a quiet dignity, which is about what you’d expect. Django isn’t worldly but he’s bright; he learns quickly and while his voice rarely gets raised he carries himself with such self-assurance that it’s easy for him to convince white folks that he’s a free man. It’s not a flashy performance, but it’s a confident one and illustrates the growth that Foxx has made as an actor in just a few short years. In many ways this is an even better performance than his Oscar-winning turn in Ray but might not attract the attention in that regard not only because it’s so low-key but because the competition for Best Actor this year is so bloody fierce.

He has plenty of support though. Waltz, who achieved his breakout role in Inglourious Basterds for Tarantino, switches gears and is a good guy this time out, although he’s got a bit of a dark side. Here as Dr. Schultz, he is urbane, witty and erudite. He uses a lot of five dollar words that most of the people he deals with have not a clue what they mean. He smiles a lot, is a bit of a charmer and a flirt but is at his core a decent fellow who is repulsed from slavery and the vicious things that are done to the slaves.

Di Caprio is a serviceable villain; he doesn’t play villains often but when he does he can be as over-the-top as any and that’s what the role calls for; at one point in the movie Candie pounds a table in emphasis. Di Caprio hit the table so hard he cut his hand open. Tarantino refused to yell cut and the scene proceeded with Di Caprio’s hand bleeding and that’s the take that’s used in the movie. The intensity, as it always is with Di Caprio, is there.

Jackson also plays villains less often than heroes and like Di Caprio, is no stranger to over the top. This is a part tailor made for Jackson and he inhabits it. It’s not the part you’d think he’d play – Yessuh Massuh isn’t exactly his style – but when you think about it, who else would you cast in the role? As good as the talent is among African-American actors right now, none spring to mind when you think “who could play Steven properly?” Just SLJ and like the trooper that he is, he does it note-perfect. Of course, I’m not sure that Jackson would have taken a part like this for anybody other than Quentin Tarantino.

One of the plot elements is that the story of the movie is supposed to parallel that of the legend of Siegfried which it kind of does. Like the legend, the movie’s story is told really in three parts. Each part has certain parallels with the legend – and no, I’m not going to explain it to you here. Just be reassured that Waltz tells you what the story is at the beginning and by the end you think back and say to yourself “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yeah!” Far be it for me to remove the thrill of connecting the dots from you.

Now, the elephant in the room when it comes to this picture is the use of what has come to be called the “N” word. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that and I can understand it – it’s a word I don’t personally use and normally I don’t encourage its use. However, in this instance, Tarantino’s intent is to portray not only the physical degradation of the slaves but the mental and spiritual humiliation as well. The word was in wide use at the time for one thing and it wouldn’t be realistic to ignore it. I found that the first couple of times I heard it that it was kind of a shock, but after that I grew numb to it. Maybe that’s a point Tarantino is trying to make, but be warned that the word is used a lot and if it offends you, you might want to take that into consideration.

All of these things are fine by me but there are a few things that I do have to say that aren’t as positive. The movie is nearly three hours long; I’m guessing that about 20-30 minutes of it could have been cut without ruining the flow or continuity of the movie or disrupting the story. For example, there’s a scene near the end where Django is being transported to a brutal mine where he will be worked to death. How he escapes takes a good five to ten minutes; it’s a scene that under a more economical director could have been easily accomplished in under a minute. Of course, Tarantino is not known for his frugality (being kind of a gregarious sort of guy, that figures) but that kind of thing happens several times during the course of the film.

More unforgivably, the movie drags in places. Few if any write better dialogue than Tarantino but there are times when things just…drag. Too much talking. Not enough action. The directors of those movies Tarantino loves so much could let 15 minutes go by without so much as a word being spoken. Actions do speak louder than words and rarely is that so apparent as at the movies.

I was hoping that this would be one of the year’s ten best but it won’t make that list sadly. This isn’t one of Tarantino’s best. Plainly. And I’m sure that disappointment has probably brought down his rating a tad; if anyone else had directed this, I might well have given it more stars. At the end of the day though, it doesn’t measure up to his best works and that is part of your moviegoing experience – are your expectations being met. It’s not terribly fair that my expectations of a Tarantino film are so high but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. It’s a very good film. It’s just not a great one.

REASONS TO GO: Foxx, Waltz, di Caprio and Jackson are all at the top of their games. If you love Tarantino you’ll love this!

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Those who don’t like Tarantino will hate this. Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Extremely graphic violence (i.e. when people get shot they get shredded with blood going everywhere), plenty of bad language and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foxx rides his own horse, Cheetah, in the film during the bareback sequence.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch

SHOT IN THE NUTS LOVERS: Hopefully there aren’t a lot of you out there but if there are, there’s a whole lot of it going on in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Young @ Heart

Happy Feet


Happy Feet

Mumble (the big penguin, center) and friends get a glimpse of a whole new world, except that phrase is owned by Disney so they can't use it. They can't use "circle of life" for the same reason. Damn that mouse!

(2006) (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving, Magda Szubanski, Miriam Margolyes, Anthony LaPaglia, Chrissie Hynde, Steve Irwin, E.G. Daily.  Directed by George Miller

If there’s anything I learned from the documentary March of the Penguins is that it sucks to be a penguin. I’m not sure after seeing this that director George Miller didn’t get the same impression that I did.

It is said that emperor penguins have a heartsong, something that comes from so deep inside them that it conveys the essence of who they are. They use their heartsong to find a mate whose heartsong resonates with their own, creating a brand new harmony that is timeless and eternal.

Norma Jean (Kidman) is searching for the penguin with the right heartsong. While there are plenty of suitors for the gorgeous young female, only one – the somewhat unique Memphis (Jackman) catches her ear. Together they make a baby. Well, they lay an egg anyway.

The cardinal rule of antarctic egg-siting is “don’t drop the egg.” While Norma Jean is off gathering fish for her husband and unhatched child, Memphis does just that. It’s just a quick little thing and immediately picked up and set back where it belongs, but Memphis is worried that he has killed the life inside the egg with his own clumsiness.

Hatching day comes and eggs all over the ice floe are releasing cute, fuzzy little chicks, but not the egg of Memphis and Norma Jean. Memphis is just about to give up when there is some movement. First one foot pokes out, then the other. At last, a cute little ball of fluff emerges, but to the horror of Memphis, he does this shaky-foot dance. “Stop that son,” he says in his best Elvis drawl, “that’s not penguin!”

However, as his son, named Mumble (Daily) grows up and goes to chick school, the happy feet dance continues. And, to the horror of everyone in his class, Mumble can’t sing a note. All he can do is shriek. His affronted teacher, Miss Viola (Szubanski) sends him to the best vocal teacher in Antarctica, the matronly Mrs. Astrakhan (Margolyes). She has never failed to develop a chick’s voice yet, but Mumble’s proves to be the first. He becomes an object of ridicule and scorn, although his kind heart and generous spirit catches the notice of Gloria (Murphy) and as he grows up into a young man (Wood), her beauty and song (she’s the best singer in the great white South) catches his notice as well.

He is prevented from graduating with the rest of his class by the elder of the tribe, Noah (Weaving) but he goes out fishing with them anyway. After all, fish is becoming more and more scarce and with all the predators out there – bull seals, killer whales and such – it’s awfully tough for a penguin to find a good meal. Still, Mumble proves to be a good fishcatcher, despite the best efforts of slovenly skua (a seabird) Boss (LaPaglia) to steal Mumble’s fish away. However, seeing that Gloria didn’t catch one, he gives her his. 

However, more and more he is finding it easier to communicate with his feet rather than with his song, and as his moves begin to catch on, the elders – fearing that his blasphemy has caused the Great Provider from giving them fish – cast him out. He hooks up with Ramon (Williams), a homeboy of the adelie penguins and leader of the Adelie Amigos, who admires his moves. For the first time, Mumble has found someone who thinks he’s cool. 

Mumble decides to seek the advice of the great oracle Lovelace, who has a plastic six-pack ring around his neck, to discover why the fish are growing more scarce, but Lovelace has no answer. Eventually, it turns out that Lovelace is slowly choking to death because of the plastic ring. Mumble determines to go to the Forbidden Coast to find the answers and save Lovelace as well as the rest of the penguins. 

With CGI animated features becoming more and more commonplace, it requires much more than spectacular animation to get me to recommend one, and frankly, while this is as well-animated as the Pixar movies, it just doesn’t have the heart, the soul or the story to compete with the creme de la creme of CGI filmmakers. This is very standard stuff about an outcast who finds his own individuality and through his/her courage gains acceptance from the rest of his/her community. While there are certainly ecologically sound subtexts to be found here, that is not the main focus of the story, and perhaps it should have been. 

I have no quibble with the voice acting jobs – there is a stellar cast here, and they wisely lean on genre veteran Williams for three seperate roles, all of which are entertaining and completely different from one another. However, the characters are essentially bland types who don’t really add any freshness to the genre. Let’s face it – we’ve seen about all of the outcasts I can handle in CGI movies, from Boog and Elliott in Open Season to D.J. and Chowder in Monster House.

We’ve seen the traditional animation go the way of the silent movie and watched as CGI movies take over. One of the things that killed traditional animation (along with the prohibitive cost and time-intensive labor and creating them) is that the studios – particularly Disney – stopped paying attention to story and became more concerned with creating characters that were marketable for their theme parks and merchandise. Pixar, on the other hand, gets it – to create timeless classic animation, you must first start with a timeless, classic story. Once they find a good story to tell, the animation comes afterwards. Audiences respond to this and that’s why they create hit after hit.

Yes, Happy Feet did great box office, but honestly, who will remember it five years from now, or even two hours after you leave the theater. There is more to animated movies than this and while there are enough good features to give this a mild recommendation, quite frankly I’m beginning to get a bit burned out on the genre.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent vocal cast and some standout animation, nearly as good as Pixar’s best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A standard animated feature plotline about outsiders banding together to make good. *yawn*

FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rude humor and a bit of peril but nothing too difficult except for the littlest of kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Naturalist Steve Irwin provided the voice of an elephant seal shortly before his untimely death. He had also provided the voice of an albatross for a scene that was cut from the film before it was animated; the scene was animated afterwards for the DVD release as a tribute to Irwin.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: In addition to the aforementioned Irwin scene, there is also a classic Warner Brothrs animated short whose plot is alarmingly similar to this movie and a couple of music videos. There is also a featurette showing Savion Glover’s tap dance routine being recorded on motion capture for use in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384.3M on a $100 production budget; the film was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Miracle Match

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole


Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Half the way there.

(Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Jim Sturgess, Emily Barclay, David Wenham, Anthony LaPaglia, Miriam Margolyes, Helen Mirren, Joel Edgerton, Geoffrey Rush, Ryan Kwanten, Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Barry Otto, Leigh Whannell, Sam Neill, Adrienne DeFaria, Abbie Cornish. Directed by Zack Snyder

As CGI animated features have become more sophisticated, they have begun to attract big-name live action directors. Snyder, who arguably has plenty of CGI experience with his previous two features 300 and Watchmen goes all the way with this adaptation of the first three of Kathryn Lasky’s series of novels for young adults, The Guardians of Ga’Hoole.

Young Soren (Sturgess) is entranced by the stories of the mythic Guardians of Ga’Hoole told by his dad Noctus (Weaving); the Guardians are a group of owls who live far, far away who come when owlkind is threatened – did I mention Soren is a barn owl? – and aid the weak against the strong. Soren even has his own hero, Lyze of Kiel, who defeated the evil leader of the Pure Ones in the Battle of the Ice Claw and disfigured him, forcing him to wear a metal helmet to hide his disfigurements.

His sister Eglantine (DeFaria) shares in his rapt adoration of the Guardians stories but his brother Kludd (Kwanten) is less impressed. He is in fact quite jealous of the attention Soren gets from his father, and is constantly falling short of Soren’s accomplishments.

The two go out to practice branching, a practice in which young owls glide from branch to branch in the large tree that they live in as a preface to learning how to fly for real. However, an angry Kludd knocks over Soren when he is attempting to leap off a branch, causing Kludd to lose his balance as well and the two brothers wind up on the ground, not the place they want to be.

It isn’t long before the two find out why their father warned them about the ground; they are attacked by a large rodent-like creature and it looks like one or both of them are destined to be rodent dinner until they are saved by a pair of strange owls who take them far away, to St. Aegolius, an aerie inhabited by the Pure Ones. Nyra (Mirren), the mate of Metalbeak (Whannell) who still lives, informs them that they’ve been abandoned by their families and are now part of the Tyto family – their word for Pure Ones. The strong will be Tyto warriors; the weak will be Pickers. When Soren speaks up to defend Gylfie (Barclay), an elf owl that Soren befriended on the journey to St. Aegolius, he and Gylfie are relegated with most of the others to being Pickers. Soren calls out to Kludd but Kludd denies him, and joins the Tytos.

The rest are led outside and made to sleep under the glare of the full moon, which Gylfie informs Soren will lead to a zombie-like state in which they’ll become pliable and docile. Soren means to resist the effect by staying awake the night, which he and Gylfie do. They discover the next morning that their work will involve sifting through owl pellets, the regurgitated remains of the mice and other animals that owls eat, to find a small metallic bit called a fleck, which the Pure Ones are using to create a weapon that creates a magnetic field that disorients owls. They use bats to actually handle the flecks as bats are immune to the effect.

Soren and Gylfie make plans to escape but before they do they are taken aside by Grimble (also Weaving), the Pure One who had kidnapped Gylfie. Once safe in his library, he tells them he’s been waiting for someone who would stand up to the other Pure Ones and avoid being moon-blinked; he would have left long ago if his family wasn’t being held hostage. He tries to teach them how to fly so they can escape and warn the Guardians, but they are interrupted by the arrival of Nyra, Kludd and a group of Tyto warriors. Grimble tries to hold them off to buy the two some time to escape; Soren hesitates and calls again to Kludd but it is clear that Kludd has become one of the Tytos and he again denies Soren. The two, forced to flee, barely manage to escape but Grimble dies defending them.

Exhausted, they look for a place to rest and meet Digger (Wenham), a somewhat eccentric burrowing owl and his friend Twilight (LaPaglia), a great grey owl who fancies himself a warrior bard, although his poetry leaves something to be desired. Hearing that Soren and Gylfie are off to find the Guardians, they offer to go with them on the adventure, Twilight knowing where the Sea of Hoolemere is, which is where the Island of Ga’Hoole resides. Twilight has also captured Mrs. Plithever (Margolyes), the snake that acted as nanny to Soren, Kludd and Eglantine, ostensibly as dinner but now they have a fifth companion.

On the way there, they discover an Echidna (Otto), a mystic who knows more about their journey than they let on. While flying through a raging ice storm, they are discovered by two guardians – one of whom happens to be King Boron (Roxburgh) – and escorted back to Ga’Hoole. There their story is heard, disbelieved by Allomere (Neill), one of their trusted advisors, but believed by Ezylryb (Rush), who is very eccentric but also an advisor. Boron decides to send Allomere to scout out the situation.

Eventually he returns, having barely returned alive but with two young owlets that have been moon-blinked, one of whom is Eglantine, who was led to it by her own brother. As the guardians gird for war, they have no way of knowing that they will be betrayed by someone close to them and that a hero will rise from the least likely among them. But will it be enough to overcome the numerical superiority of the Pure Ones, or evade the trap that is being laid for them?

The first thing you need to know about this movie is that the animation is absolutely superb. The owls look real, and the backgrounds are spectacular. An owl civilization is created that looks not unlike the elf civilization of Lord of the Rings. The owls are given human characteristics and each one is easily distinguishable from the others. Considering that in the past all owls looked pretty much alike to me, that’s no mean feat. Kudos must be given to Animal Logic, the Aussie firm that did most of the animation. Work like this will put them in the league of Pixar before too very long, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this winds up nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar come February.

This is certainly a work of fantasy, and it borrows heavily from all sorts of genres, from the high fantasy of the aforementioned Lord of the Rings to the Star Wars saga and even bits of the Indiana Jones adventures. The Pure Ones have been compared to the Nazis and while in some ways that comparison is dead on, I would also liken them to the Kali cult of India as depicted in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

While the Aussie accents are occasionally thick enough that some of the small tykes around me were repeatedly asking their parents what was just said, the voice acting is top notch here, particularly Sturgess (whose star is rising these days) as the heroic Soren, Wenham as the loopy Digger, LaPaglia as the unctuous Twilight and Mirren as the imperious Nyra.

The main complaint I have about the movie is that it seemed to be cramming a whole lot of story into the 90 minute runtime. At times the pacing seems a little rushed, which gave short shrift to some of the characters and story points. However, that’s a fairly minor sin when compared with all the positives the movie had going for it.

Another aside; the music here is wonderful, and they made effective use of Dead Can Dance’s “The Host of Seraphim” during the climactic battle scene. That happens to be one of my favorite songs, and it is so cinematic in tone that I have often wondered why it hadn’t been used in a movie until now. Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard’s voice is used on two occasions in the movie (once from one of her solo albums) and it enhances the movie’s mythic quality.

In fact, that is one of the things I liked the most about the movie, and the word “mythic” sums it up well. Lasky created a credible owl mythology, as credible as any of the fantasy worlds you would find in adult fantasy (I’m talking George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, Piers Anthony’s Xanth and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time so get your mind out of the gutter, it’s crowding me) and it translates nicely to the screen. I found it easy enough to follow, and it gives the movie an epic scope.

Perhaps because the movie is something of a hybrid, or perhaps people just aren’t plain interested in seeing owls as lead characters, the movie has underperformed at the box office thus far, although good word of mouth may eventually wind up saving it. I hope so, because it is clearly one of the class of the field of this year’s animated movies, clearly as good as How to Train a Dragon or Despicable Me, both of which did far better at the box office than this one has thus far. Even if you don’t have kids who want to see it, I urge you to go anyway; there’s plenty there to delight adults and if you like some of the aforementioned influences, you will love this as much as I did.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is phenomenal, up there with Pixar’s best work. The storyline is easy to follow, and along the lines of great fantasy works as Lord of the Rings.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the pace seems a bit too hurried, as if the filmmakers were trying to cram too much in to the time kids would be likely to sit still for.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of brutality that might be too much for the very young, but otherwise okay for most family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Zack Snyder not to be rated R. This is also the first film Snyder directed not to debut in the number one position in the box office rankings.

HOME OR THEATER: Absolutely this should be seen in a theater; the breathtaking animation is worth it, and I would also recommend that you shell out the extra few bucks for 3D as well.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: City of God