Shaun the Sheep Movie


Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

(2015) Animated Feature (Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes,  Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Stanley Unwin, Nick Park. Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

Variety asserts that Shaun the Sheep is comparable to the legendary French comedian Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and while that is a bit of a stretch, I can at least see where the reviewer is coming from. Certainly Shaun is about as loquacious as the French comedian.

Shaun the Sheep (Fletcher) made his first appearance in a Wallace and Gromit short before getting a series of 7-minute shorts of his own, more than a hundred of them most of which have been broadcast on TV. This is the first full-length feature and it follows the storyline of most of the shorts, to wit Shaun and his fellow sheep try to get out of doing any farm work, having to outwit the dog Bitzer (Sparkes) and the unnamed balding Farmer (Sparkes). The shorts are clever and cute.

This time, however, things get a little out of hand when after lulling the Farmer to sleep by jumping over a fence until he nods off, they store him in what the Brits call a caravan and we call a trailer. When Bitzer gets wind of the deception, he goes to wake up his master, only to send the Caravan on a beeline for the city – London although not specifically named. Upon arrival the farmer is bonked on the head and loses all his memories. Having no ID on him, he wanders the streets, trying to find some sort of clue as to who he is and what he does for a living. He ends up mistakenly figuring out that he’s a hairdresser and uses the clippers to sheer the heads of his celebrity clients, recreating the same sorts of styles he used to give his sheep.

Shaun knows he needs to go retrieve the Farmer so he heads out to the City, only to be followed by the rest of the flock and Bitzer. A super-zealous animal control catcher named Trumper (Djalili) is on the prowl for Shaun and his friends and eventually captures Shaun and Bitzer, imprisoning them in a dog shelter which looks much more like death row. There they meet the world’s ugliest dog who has no hope of being adopted. Their new friend helps them escape and eventually hide out, where Shaun comes up with a last-ditch plan to get their Farmer back home to the farm – and put everything to right.

I have to admit that my hopes weren’t high for this, as it is the first Aardman animation feature in awhile to arrive with little or no fanfare and quite frankly, it may very well be one of the best things the studio has ever done. One thing I’d worried about is that there is absolutely no dialogue – the animals communicate with gesture, look and an occasional bleat or woof. Humans speak in an unintelligible gibberish that puts the “WAH WAH WAH” spoken by the adults in the Peanuts cartoons to shame.

There is obviously a great deal of affection for the rustic way of life; the farmhouse is one of those beautiful old stone farmhouses that dot the English countryside, the meadow is beautiful and even the “work” that is done doesn’t seem all that taxing. The bucolic setting and the obvious affection the sheep feel for the farmer and vice versa is kind of moving. You would think that a farmer who has grown to middle age without a human partner might get unutterably lonely but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Like most of Aardman’s animations, this is clever as all get out. It certainly seems to be aimed at a very young audience, certainly toddlers on up but unlike a lot of American entertainment aimed at the very young, this is just as easily digested by adult viewers. It’s very short as you might expect (barely over an hour) and not for a moment did I ever feel bored or talked down to. The opening sequence, done as a Super 8 film of the Farmer as a young man with Shaun as a baby and Bitzer as a puppy establishes the mood; it’s a rather sweet sequence and while critics have praised it, some might find it too treacly. Those who don’t like cute movies for kids would be well-advised to move on.

The charm here is undeniable and quite frankly although it doesn’t have the lofty aspirations of Inside Out or the epic setting of Minions this certainly belongs with those two films as the very best family films of the summer. Some families might be unaware of the character or the movie, but this is one I’d highly recommend for an afternoon out at the movies with the kids.

REASONS TO GO: Super charming. Clever like all Aardman films. Good for adults and kids alike.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little over-sentimental in places. Those who don’t like kid movies that are cute will not like this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Twenty animators worked on the film, each producing about two seconds of footage per day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Holmes

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The 13th Warrior


No puss, no boots.

No puss, no boots.

(1999) Adventure (Touchstone) Antonio Banderas, Diane Venora, Omar Sharif, Vladimir Kulich, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, Dennis Storhoi, Daniel Southern, Neil Maffin, John Desantis, Mischa Hausserman, Asbjorn Riis, Tony Curran, Albie Woodington, Erick Avari, Sven Wolter, Anders T. Andersen, Bjorn Ole Pedersen, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Maria Bonnevie, Kaaren de Zilva, Layla Alizada. Directed by John McTiernan

The late Michael Crichton’s books have had an uneven history on the screen, ranging from the classic (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) to the mediocre (Sphere, The Terminal Man) to the downright awful (Congo).

The 13th Warrior, directed by John McTiernan and based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, isn’t a classic. But the movie, which tanked at the box office when it was released in 1999, is a surprisingly good adventure flick and well worth some viewing time.

Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Banderas) is a poet living in 12th Century Baghdad who runs afoul of the local caliph when he has an eye-to-eye dalliance with another man’s wife. For his indiscretion, the impetuous Ahmed is sentenced to be ambassador to the barbarous Norsemen. Accompanied by his old friend Melchisidek (Sharif), he arrives in the encampment of the Norse king – just in time to witness the old king’s funeral.

The brooding new king Buliwyf (Kulich) accepts the new emissary into his camp albeit begrudgingly. However, all is upset by the arrival of a courier who brings a call for help from a neighboring king whose people are being slaughtered by mysterious, seemingly demonic killers. Buliwyf consults a seer, who tells him that only 13 warriors must go. Quickly, 13 strapping warriors, led by their king, volunteer for the quest; but the seer admonishes that the 13th warrior must not be from the Northlands.

So, Ahmed is volunteered. Along the way to the embattled kingdom, Ahmed goes from being the butt of the band’s jokes to being a respected member of the cadre; he even manages to learn their language by a means that is delivered to the screen in a particularly imaginative way.

Once they arrive at the beset city, they are confronted by seemingly bear-like creatures who turn out to be a tribe of men – bear cultists. The heroic band of fighters bond amongst themselves, fight their implacable foes and the political intrigue of the kingdom they have traveled to, and sow courage, sacrifice and honor – qualities rarely seen in the movies these days.

The scenery here is gorgeous; the mists and shadows of the North make for compelling cinematography. The acting is solid; the Vikings are hearty and likable much in the way they are stereotyped in our culture. Banderas’ Ahmed is cultured and debonair, but is also brave and lethal. He is referred to by his mates as “little brother” and he is indeed brother to the honest and open Norse. His strength isn’t just in his muscles but in his heart, which his commander recognizes is the place where strength counts the most.

Banderas, post-Zorro, was looking to settle into an action hero role but the movie’s box office failure scuttled that career for him essentially – while he has continued to do action roles off and on since then, he’s tended to do more dramas and romantic comedies than anything else which was a bit of a shame – I thought he had great potential to help revitalize the moribund action hero role. Sharif made a rare but welcome appearance in the film – it’s a crime that Hollywood never really utilized this marvelous and charismatic actor more often after the 60s.

The 13th Warrior is a throwback film in many ways. It honors virtues that moviegoers since the antihero days of the 1970s have tended to disdain. We look for our heroes to be flawed so we can relate to them, rather than role models who inspire us to be something better. Ahmed is the kind of hero worth aspiring to – not to mention a rare portrayal of an Arabic character that is positive and strong. Now that’s something I’m all for.

WHY RENT THIS: Throwback adventure film. Nice sets and costumes. Omar Sharif.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat muddled in places. Sluggish and slow-paced.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of battle scene carnage, and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During test screenings of the film, the scores were so low that the film was deemed unwatchable; Crichton took over directing reshoots which nearly doubled the budget and delayed the movie by more than a year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.7M on a $160M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Planes

Sightseers


What girlfriend wouldn't make her boyfriend feel inferior with one of those?

What girlfriend wouldn’t make her boyfriend feel inferior with one of those?

(2012) Horror Comedy (IFC) Steve Oram, Alice Lowe, Roger Michael, Tony Way, Monica Dolan, Jonathan Aris, Eileen Davies, Aymen Hamdouchi, Tom Meetan, Kali Peacock, Kenneth Hadley, Stephanie Jacob, Christine Talbot, Richard Lumsden, Dominic Applewhite, Sara Stewart. Directed by Ben Wheatley

Florida Film Festival 2013

Everyone’s idea of a vacation is different. Some choose to travel, see different cultures and different places. Others want to go out and experience the gusto – get out there and go hang gliding, rock climbing or snorkeling. You know, the Type A personality stuff.

Tina (Lowe) and Chris (Oram) are far from the latter. Chris is an aspiring writer who is taking a trip in his caravan (RV to us yanks) to England’s Lake District to write a book on his travels there. Tina, his girlfriend, is a dog lover of epic proportions although she is mourning the accidental death of a beloved pet – a death her hypochondriac overbearing mother (Davies) blames her for and never fails to take the opportunity to remind her of it.

Mum is also trying to talk Tina out of taking the trip with Chris. Not because she’s got any real concern for her daughter, but that it might be inconvenient for her not to have Tina waiting on her hand and foot. If Leona Helmsley ever sponsored a motherhood award, Tina’s mom would win hands down.

So away they go in their RV to see the sights – a tram museum, a pencil museum, ruins of an abbey and the English equivalent of a state park. At first it’s the ideal trip. Tina feels as close to Chris as she’s felt to anyone – this might be The One. But there are some troubling qualities beginning to surface. He hates to be questioned, for one thing. He has a pretty explosive temper, for another. For a third, he’s a serial killer.

But he’s not just your average, ordinary run-of-the-mill psycho. He has rules. He only offs those who deserve it. Of course, his idea of those who deserve it might be a wee bit…stringent. For example, a lout who drops an ice cream wrapper on an antique trolley – he’s GOT to go, son. Uppity upper crust sorts who treat Tina condescendingly? So long, senor.

However far from being repulsed by this behavior, Tina attempts to join in and messes it all up. She goes after a bride who gives Chris a drunken smooch. Hasta la vista, baby.

Wheatley is an up-and-coming director who has a couple of pretty cool films already on his resume (Down Terrace and Kill List) and has been announced to be directing a couple of highly anticipated films coming down the pipeline (A Field in England and Freakshift as well as the HBO miniseries Silk Road). I agree with the praise being lumped on him – the man knows how to make a movie full of subtleties as well as being over-the-top – in the same movie.

Chris and Tina are so bloody ordinary that you can’t help wonder why they didn’t become serial killers earlier. Both of them have a different sort of ordinariness. Chris is a bit of a lummox from the surface but he’s actually quite clever and meticulous. Tina, who seems to be much more organized at first glance is rather more chaotic. One of the joys of the film is watching Tina and Chris switch places as the film progresses.

Lowe and Oram have some real chemistry and it goes a long way – right up until the final twist which is so organic, so unexpected that it’s a thing of beauty. I’d walk a hundred miles for an ending like that – they are quite infrequent in movies these days. The hardest thing for a writer to do is write a good ending.

The humor is a bit irreverent and some scenes will make you squirm while you laugh. It’s not that the gore is excessive – it isn’t but there’s enough there to be effective – but the situation might just make you go “am I really laughing at that?”

Chris and Tina do some rather unspeakable things. When you look at the acts themselves you might just recoil in horror but overall the two of them are lovable losers, enough so that you root for them in spite of yourself even though Chris has anger issues and Tina can be a shrill little harpy when she wants to be.

To top it all off there’s some beautiful cinematography of bucolic  landscapes, RV parks and quaint towns. I’m not sure I’d want to go to the pencil museum but I might just to buy the Big Pencil – a.k.a. Big Scribbler – in the picture above. But what can I say? The allure of oddball tourist attractions is like catnip to me.

This is the kind of movie that comes at you from every direction and you never know what they’re going to do next. Lowe and Oram deliver enough likability that when their characters go off the rails, you’re still invested enough in the that you don’t give up on them. Maybe you even get the vicarious thrill of giving a few sorts what you wish they’d get and might even deserve. I love hearing Chris rationalize that murdering these undesirables reduces the carbon footprint – so in fact serial killing is green. Which is what I hope this film sees plenty of.

REASONS TO GO: Offbeat and funny. A black comedy taken to extremes.

REASONS TO STAY: The foul deeds of the leads may be too much for some to generate any sympathy for.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some gore. There’s also quite a bit of sex and some nudity. There’s a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Tim Macy also wrote the short story that the movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100; critics clearly didn’t like this film a whole lot.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Natural Born Killers

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Place Beyond the Pines

Fish Tank


Fish Tank

Kierston Wareing has unquiet slumbers.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Harry Treadaway, Sarah Bayes, Rebecca Griffiths, Sydney Mary Nash, Joanna Horton, Grant Wild. Directed by Andrea Arnold

One of the more interesting debates in modern society is nature vs. nurture. How much impact does our environment play in our personality? Is it all genetically ingrained from the beginning without a whole lot of input from our surroundings – or does our personality completely depend on the where and when of our lives?

Mia Williams (Jarvis) lives in a really tough part of Essex, in government housing – an apartment complex with large full windows along the front wall, resembling a fish tank. She’s feisty, temperamental and doesn’t take crap from anybody. There are few things in her life that bring her any sort of satisfaction – hip hop dancing (which she does kind of badly and artlessly), her younger sister Tyler (Griffiths) and whatever small amounts of alcohol she can pilfer.

Her mother Joanne (Wareing) is a boozer and a bit of a slut and as unfit a mother as it is possible to be. She has brought into their home Connor (Fassbender), a handsome man who treats Mia with unexpected kindness, despite her initial misgivings and outright hostility.

He takes the family to the country and teaches Mia to fish without a pole. She begins to develop a little bit of closeness – maybe too much. She also becomes attached to a dying horse in the camp of a group of travelers – and to Billy (Treadaway), a younger member of the group who has become sweet on her.

In the meantime all her dreams, large and small, are slowly dying – and sometimes not so slowly. She seems caught in a web of frozen inertia, one from which her young life may never be extricated from.

Director Arnold caught the imagination of the British movie press with this movie, who have fallen all over themselves in praising it – not to mention the awards the movie has garnered. I have not warmed to it as much as others, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a quality piece of filmmaking.

Part of what makes this film worth seeing is the performance by Jarvis. She had no previous acting experience and was cast after a member of the production team (some say it was Arnold herself) observed her having an argument with her boyfriend in a train station (the one that’s used in the movie in fact). Her untrained status helps make the performance. It’s raw, emotional and without guile or artifice. Mia isn’t always the most lovable or makes the best decisions, but the portrayal is absolutely realistic. She isn’t perfect which is kind of what is attractive about her.

I will have to admit that the relationship between Connor and Mia made me a little bit uncomfortable. I realize that this type of thing goes on all the time and given the personalities involved even makes a certain amount of sense. Still, it’s a bit difficult to watch.

Wareing also does an excellent job as the mom, even though she looks far too young to be the mother of a teenager. There’s a very nice scene at the very end of the movie between her and her daughters that is quite natural and if I described it to you, it would smack of old Hollywood but it feels authentic here.

This is a very well-made movie. I appreciated the performances and the craft behind the camera. While the heavy English accents made it difficult for these Yank ears to always understand what was being said, nevertheless this is a worthwhile movie to check out. It isn’t pretty – and Mia can be frustrating in her behavior, just like any teen. Still in all, for those who want to see the grittier side of the UK this makes a very good starting point.

WHY RENT THIS: Jarvis gives a raw, unvarnished performance and the movie pulls no punches looking at the working poor of England.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The accents make the dialogue difficult to follow at times. The relationship between Connor and Mia is creepy.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the film was released without a rating, there is a severe amount of foul language, some sexuality including teen sex, alcohol and drug use, and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot chronologically, and the actors not given complete scripts so they were largely unaware of what was going to happen to their characters until the week of shooting.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This is available in a Criterion Edition which includes three short films by Andrea Arnold (including the 2003 Oscar winner Wasp) and audition footage of juvenile actresses auditioning for the role of Mia.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on a $3M production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Priest

Hanna


Hanna

Soairse Ronan should get away from this movie as fast as she can.

(2011) Avant Action (Focus) Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Jason Flemyng, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jessica Barden, Martin Wuttke, Michelle Dockery, Tim Beckmann, Vicky Krieps, Mohamed Majd, Christian Malcolm. Directed by Joe Wright

Nature versus nurture, an age-old debate about the power of parenting. In some cases, a little bit of both can go a long way.

Hanna (Ronan) is a young girl who lives in Finland above the Arctic Circle with her father Erik (Bana), a former CIA operative who has a beard and talks with a German accent. He has taught her how to survive in nearly any situation – and how to kill in nearly every situation. She is an efficient little killing machine, whether out hunting for dinner or being hunted, which in fact is happening.

She needs to be efficient because there are some really bad, bad people after her. Chief among them is Marissa Viegler (Blanchett), a CIA operative slash ice queen who has a past with Erik. She is canny and paranoid – after capturing Hanna she sends in a look-alike (Dockery) whom Hanna proceeds to dispatch with almost comical ease. Once that’s done, Hanna goes on the run in Morocco and Europe.

She is also being chased by some outside contractors that Viegler has hired, led by the effeminate Isaacs (Hollander) who likes to whistle while he works. She also runs into a family of British hippies, whose father (Flemyng) is a bit of a curmudgeon and whose mother (Williams) has a case of terminal political correctness. The daughter Sophie (Barden) becomes Hanna’s friend, perhaps the first she’s ever had who didn’t have a beard and talk with a German accent. Not realizing Viegler isn’t dead, she heads for a rendezvous in Germany with her dad, unaware that those who want her dead are closing in on her.

There is a really good story in here. It’s a shame that the director, whose resume includes Atonement which netted Ronan an Oscar nomination, chose to do it like Baz Luhrmann might have. While it looks great visually, endless music video-style conceits constantly remind us that this is a movie being directed rather than a story being told. When that happens, it’s hard to get too involved in the story and the movie just becomes a collection of images. There are some nicely done sequences, such as a chase scene in a shipyard; however the climactic scenes, set in an abandoned Grimm’s Fairy Tales theme park, seems rubbing our faces in the allegory a little bit.

Ronan is actually very strong in the title role; she has to be very physical here and she looks quite lethal which is difficult enough for an adult actor to do let alone a teenage one. She can spout off facts memorized from her father about all kinds of esoterica but she has trouble negotiating even a basic conversation with ordinary people. It’s a winning performance, one that is sympathetic and kicks ass at once.

Blanchett is one of the best actresses of her generation, an Oscar winner who can be forceful and who can also be subtle. Here she plays Viegler wound so tight you half expect for her eyes to pop out of her head and her breasts to shoot out like missiles to detonate on target at the slightest touch of her red hair. There’s not a lot of humanity in the role – she’s ambitious and paranoid, someone well versed in both the high tension of field work as well as the politics of the agency bureaucracy. I’m still debating internally whether this was the right approach to the role and due to Miss Blanchett’s credentials, electing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Bana is a leading man who is on the verge of being “A” list material. He has the charm and charisma to do it; what’s keeping him out of that rarefied air is the right role. He needs a blockbuster to cement his reputation and this is just frankly not it – and in any case his role is a supporting one to Ronan.

Something has to be said about the score by the British trip-hop band the Chemical Brothers. It’s intrusive, it’s abrasive and at the end of the day it detracts from the movie rather than enhance it. I’m fairly open-minded about alternative types of scores but I’m a bit old-fashioned in this regard – if you’re noticing the score to the point where you’re taken out of the movie by it, then it’s not a good score. This happens time and time again throughout the movie.

Critics have been falling all over themselves to praise this movie, including several that I respect a great deal. This is a case where the public actually gets one more correct than the critics; the box office has been tepid at best and quite frankly, deservedly so. I really wanted to like this movie too – the trailers were compelling and the story idea solid. Sadly, this is the type of film that belongs more projected on the wall of a European disco than on the screen of a multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: A fresh take on the cold war-style action espionage thriller.

REASONS TO STAY: Wright takes viewers out of the film far too often by reminding them he’s there. Worst. Score. Ever.

FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of sometimes intense violence, not to mention a bit of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seth Lockhead wrote the original script on spec back in 2006. It appeared on the Black List (the annual list of bet unproduced Hollywood screenplays) that year and again in 2009.

HOME OR THEATER: You won’t lose anything by seeing this at home.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Conspirator