The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Walt Disney Pictures’ THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG offers solid support of at last two maxims:

  1. Never say never
  2. Disney’s still got it when it comes to traditionally animated 2D movies.

Not since 2004 has the studio produced a hand-drawn animated film: HOME ON THE RANGE, which Disney studio brass claimed would be the last traditionally animated film from their hallowed halls. Disney sited a declining interest in such animation and pointed to the disappointing box-office returns for RANGE as evidence. Apparently it didn’t strike them – at least publicly – that one of the major factors in its lackluster performance (it pulled in $50-million domestically while its budget came in at $110,000,000) was its flat plot and uninspired animation.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, on the other hand, does not lack care or inspiration. The work put into it shows – and does so quite appealingly. Its combination of soft, pastel colors and more primary tones are pleasing to the eye, as are the renderings of the draping landscapes surrounding New Orleans and the swamp lands that skirt it. And the filmmakers managed this on a budget of $5,000,000 less than RANGE – five years later down the road, no less.
All of the characters, too, are drawn with the same care and just the right amount of flair. Tiana is (as most know by now) Disney’s first black animated princess, and she is handled with as much love and attention to detail as any in the Disney portfolio. Anika Noni Rose voices her with fitting sums of strength and femininity. Bruno Campos (Prince Naveen), Keith David (the evil voodoo practitioner, Dr. Facilier), Michael-Leon Wooley (Louis, the trumpet playing, jazz loving alligator), and Jim Cummings (Ray, the scruffy but ever-romantic firefly) all bring fun and a good deal of personal style to their vocal performances.
Something else that impresses is the THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG’s approach to the character of Charlotte (voiced lively by Jennifer Cody). She could have been relegated to the simple dimension of a spoiled, jealous girl. Instead, although she is certainly spoiled, she does remain a steadfast friend and shows no embitterment in connection with Tiana’s eventual outcome, even though it’s what she wished for herself. In fact, she even wants to help. It was nice to see a true kind soul within this goofy, self-centered lass.
And this may seem an odd little notice to some, but another nicely handled aspect was the sound editing (supervised by Odin Benitez) and sound mixing (steered by David E. Fluhr, Gabriel Guy, and Dean A. Zupancic). It is subtle where called for, yet otherwise affecting at the appropriate points. It never makes an improper leap into simple or silly cartoon noise.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG also refuses to fall back on the I-just-wanna-hold-on-‘til-my-prince-charming-comes-along line of thinking. Tiana’s father works his fingers to the bone to support his family and build on a dream, and Tiana has his same attitude and work ethic. She holds down two jobs, saves every penny possible, and foregoes many of the little pleasures in life so that she can move forward toward her and her now-deceased father’s dream of owning and operating a restaurant-night club. This sends a good message to dreamy youngsters.
Things do awry, however, when a frog – who was transformed by the sinister Dr. Facilier – thinks Tiana is a princess after seeing her dressed in a tiara and an elegant gown at a costume ball. He talks her into kissing him so that he can be turned back into his princely self, but because she’s not really a princess the kiss backfires, and poor Tiana is transformed into a frog as well.
The rest of the time is spent with the two frogs trying to make their way to the good voodoo priestess Mama Odie in the hope that she can reverse Dr. Facilier’s evil spell. They meet several colorful characters along the way, including the aforementioned Louis the alligator and Ray the firefly. Incidentally, Ray and his firefly friends add a nice touch by creatively lighting up portions of the Louisiana bayou as our friends press on in their adventure.
As in all Disney fairytales, love strikes our two little frogs, so the ride’s end is a traditional one. Some “modernists” may complain about this aspect, but to them I say quit your whining. Almost all classic tales involve love on one level or another. “No man is an island,” as they say, and it’s a potent human need to seek out companionship and, yes, love. It rarely matters what one’s aspirations are in life; a desire for love always comes into play somewhere along the line. It’s a basic element in life and art, so I have no issue with it here.
No, my issue in this regard is the motivation for Tiana’s falling into love with the frog prince. He’s an amusing fellow, but the reasons for her eventual feelings for him seem relatively unmotivated. If THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG has an obvious weakness it is within the story itself and in some of its supporting characters, as in the case of the slightly underdeveloped, and thus underwhelming, Mama Odie (though still voiced affectively by Jenifer Lewis). While these flaws are certainly not glaring or destructive, the tale doesn’t quite hold up to the likes of relatively recent Disney classics such as THE LITTLE MERMAID (which kicked off the studio’s second “golden age”), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, or ALADDIN. However, it mounts a stronger rally for the position of Disney classic than POCAHONTAS, HERCULES, or TARZAN.
Though not rising fuly to the level of a Disney classic, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG was obviously inspired by the style of some of them (particularly BAMBI and LADY AND THE TRAMP), and it is a fun story. After all, it does take its cues from the famous inspirations of E. D. Baker’s novel The Frog Princess and the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale “The Frog Prince.” (By the way, Baker took his cue from the Grimm brothers too.) Ron Clements and John Musker (who previously collaborated on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN, and HERCULES) certainly wanted to do justice to these famous stories, yet fell a bit shy of greatness. But that’s okay; it’s still a nice cut above the average fare.
The same can be said for Randy Newman’s scoring and song arrangements. He’s handled at least five Pixar films and has never failed to delight. His efforts here may not quite rise to the level of some of his best memorable work, but it’s easily more than serviceable, thoughtfully mixing things up with ragtime, big band, gospel, zydeco, and jazz. He employs some wonderful horn work at the beginning, letting one know he’s going to have some fun with this movie and that audiences can too.
Inescapably, there will be those who see fit to attack THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG for its perceived black stereotyping in relation to New Orleans and its cultural history, including an interest in voodoo. However, to run from certain aspects of cultural heritage is to live in a kind of wishful denial. To show disdain for employing familiar beliefs and traidtions in a piece of popular art is to show, to some degree, a type of disdain for those beliefs and that culture as well. Isn’t it the varied beliefs and traditions within humanity that create its unique intrigue and lend themselves to exploration and expression through avenues such as art, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology?
In any case, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG makes no attempt to cast a negative light on anything, save for the evil of greedy selfishness. An open mind will see that steps were taken to implement Disney story traditions that date all the way back to its – and the – very first full-length animated film, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. And, of course, the specific story technique in question dates far back beyond that.
A few have also criticized THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG’s style of animation, but I believe that by and large these people are bringing their own cynical baggage to the picture (and perhaps they thrive on their role as “critic,” rather than reviewer). If you’re a true animation fan, you should find plenty to enjoy and even admire. And I, for one, send kudos to John Lasseter and supporters for reviving Disney’s traditional 2D, hand-drawn technique. Far from being a “step back in technology,” as I’ve heard at least one chap say, this form of animation is its own solid art form, and I’m happy to see that its death knell has been overstated by many these last several years. Disney, ya may not have done big classic great, but ya done good.

Friendly fireflies add mood lighting to Louisiana bayou as our reluctant frogs fall in love.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (Buena Vista, 2009; 95 min.) Directed by Ron Clements. Screenplay by Ron Clements, John Musker, and Rob Edwards. Based on the works of E. D. Baker and the Grimm Brothers. Produced by Peter Del Vecho. Associate Produced by Paul D. Lanum and Craig Sost. Executive Produced by John Lasseter. Technical Direction by Eric Daniels. Production Design by James Aaron Finch. Art Direction by Ian Gooding. Visual Effects Animation Supervision by Marlon West. Music by Randy Newman. Edited By Jeff Draheim. Casting by Jen Rudin. Cast: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, Jenifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, Elizabeth M. Dampier, Breanna Brooks, Ritchie Montgomery, Don Hall, Paul Briggs, Jerry Kernion, Corey Burton, Michael Colyar, Emeril Lagasse, Kevin Michael Richardson, Randy Newman, Terence Blanchard, and Danielle Moné Truitt. MPAA Rating: G.

A Christmas Carol (2009)

christmascarolposter3It’s Christmas Eve, all, so we here at CinefantastiqueOnline.com want to wish you the very best of Christmas holidays and a most pleasant 2010! And in keeping with the jovial spirit of the season, we submit the following question: Does the world need another version of Charles Dickens’ 1843 perennial classic, A CHRISTMAS CAROL?
Yep, there be yet another celluloid (and digital, too) incarnation of the beloved tale, entitled DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL (or A CHRISTMAS CAROL: AN IMAX 3D EXPERIENCE, depending on where you see it). The addition of IMAX and 3D may strike a note of fear in the heart of purists though: Has Dickens’ delicate tale been steam-rollered beneath a barage of Hollywood high technology? Read on for the answer…
Just in case you’ve been living on another world or in another dimension, the whole story kinda goes like this:
Seven years hence Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner (and probably only friend) Jacob Marley died and Scrooge has been greedily carrying on by his lonesome ever since. But this Christmas Eve Marley’s pained spirit pays Scrooge a visit to warn him that if he doesn’t change his ways he will suffer Marley’s fate and be forced to wonder eternity in misery and regret. Then Marley informs Scrooge that in order to aid his reclamation, three spirits will be sent to show him. You know them, right? The Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come? In the end, does Mr. Scrooge become the penitent man he needs to? Ehhhhhh, could be.
But because you probably know the story as well as you know your own name you may be asking why yet another version? Just how many do we need, anyway? After all, it’s always the same story involving the same characters, right? It’s pretty much engrained in everyone’s head, isn’t it?
Well, I suppose one could argue that those are all valid questions. But then again, couldn’t a fan of the season retort with a simple Why not? And would that person really need logical force behind his or her defense? I mean, isn’t it rather like listening to a singer you like singing their version of a half-a-dozen loved Christmas carols?
In the case of the latter, one might simply say, “Let the folks who want it have it. ‘Tis the season, you know.” But in regard to the former one could point out that this rendition of A CHRISTMAS CAROL offers us the wild & wacky Jim Carrey (HORTON HEARS A WHO, LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS), a new animated take (in ‘state-of-the-art’ CGI, no less)…and 3-D!
In fact, Disney’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL does attempt to make its mark on each of those levels, and perhaps because I’m in the Christmas spirit – and because there is hardly another decent Christmas-themed movie out there right now – I’m going to tell you that it’s a pleasant effort, and you should go ahead and take the family to see it so that all of you may enjoy a relatively nice Christmas event in the theater. Allow me to explain why:
Several of the versions I’ve seen over the years tend to get lost in the classicness of Dickens’ tale; they take themselves a bit too seriously, becoming bogged down in their own form of stodginess, with Ebenezer Scrooge devolved into a heavy-feeling caricature rather than a flesh and blood character. Not all have been so – there is the notable exception of George C. Scott’s 1984 portrayal, and let’s not forget Alastair Sim’s famous 1951 incarnation – but enough have taken this approach to leave an indelible imprint on my mind. For example, one of the relatively recent incarnations stars Patrick Stewart (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION), a solid thespian, yet the piece felt a tad stilted and heavy; it lacked a sense of holiday spirit, holiday fantasy fun.
Not so with new version directed by Robert Zemeckis’ (POLAR EXPRESS). Jim Carrey’s Scrooge fits in nicely with Mr. Dickens’ description of the character: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and he spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice ….” The new animated rendition of the old coot – achieved with motion-peformance capture technology – brings this description to life on screen.

christmascarol3
Marley's ghost may be a bit too scary for the kiddies in this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

Granted, this is another interpretation that descends to the level of caricature here and there, but it does so in the vein of fun. It’s an animated story; therefore, I allow it to indulge a bit more in playful qualities that will keep you generaly entertained (frankly, at a cost of about $200 million you’d better be). However, I should also like ready you in relation to a scene in which Jacob Marley’s ghost falls too much into the horror film category for a Christmas fantasy, to my way of thinking at any rate. There are also times where the film seems a shade more interested in taking us on roller coaster rides at the expensive of a building of character or a deepening of story or generating its own sense of reality, animated or not.
Still, at its heart, this A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a genial telling, which manages to be light and uplifting. Neither is the animation as eerie feeling as it is in POLAR EXPRESS. And its technique – which I was not anticipating with any great gusto – offers an intriguing vision of the story. The color scheme is appealing, as is the lighting design that illuminates Dickens’ Victorian world and places parts of it in shadow. And Alan Silvestri (who is to Zemeckis what John Williams is to Spielberg) delivers a score that adds to the jolly, joyful spirit of the fantasy. In other words, it is not miserly in design or execution.
So in the end, minor reservations aside, I can say to thee, put on thine ole Christmas cap, tuck away thine cynicism, and enjoy yet another version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. And God bless ye, every one.

DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Buena Vista; 2009; 96 min.) Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis. Based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Produced by Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, and Robert Zemeckis. Executive produced by Mark L. Rosen. Cinematography by Robert Presley. Production Design by Doug Chiang. Art Direction by Marc Gabbana, Norman Newberry, and Mike Stassi. Special Effects Supervision by Michael Lantieri. Visual Effects Supervision by George Murphy. Music by Alan Silvestri. Edited By Jeremiah O’Driscoll. Casting by Scot Boland, Victoria Burrows, and Nina Gold. Cast: Jim Carrey (in eight parts, no less), Steve Valentine, Daryl Sabara, Sage Ryan, Amber Gainey Meade, Ryan Ochoa, Bobbi Page, Ron Bottitta, Sammi Hanratty, Julian Holloway, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins, and Jacquie Barnbrook. MPAA Rating: PG for scary sequences and images.
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Planet 51 – Film Review

“Something strange is coming to their planet…Us!”

When I saw that tagline in the first trailer for PLANET 51, I thought folks could look forward to a nice little family-friendly animated film (and maybe I could get a clever Sci-Fi fix). It looked lively and I was rooting for it to be so.
Okay, so it isn’t all that. The concept is good, but nothing really materializes.
However, as I’ve said on behalf of a few other films, neither is it as bad as some critics have suggested. Then again, maybe I’m just an old softy…. Naw, that can’t be it. I’d say it’s more that I was willing to recognize the positives within it (I’m such a swell, open guy that way). That’s what I’m stickin’ to anyway.
For instance, the animation is more crisp and vibrant in spirit than many efforts from other smaller entities – although the movie was released in the U.S. by Sony’s TriStar Pictures division, its behind-the-scenes creative talent is comprised mainly of Spanish artisans. In fact, PLANET 51 was produced by Ilion Animation Studios and HandMade Films, both based in Spain’s capital (and largest) city of Madrid. This was a mighty interesting aspect of the production to me, and I was looking forward to watching work out of another country from which I don’t see a lot.
I did very much like the way the film moved. It had a blithe, well-paced click to it, and it was all quite colorful with plenty of potential to be entertaining. The concept itself is a likable aspect, too – it’s E.T.: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL in reverse. Because it’s an animated film, however, it’s sillier – sometimes for good and sometimes not. Without giving away plot specifics, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell, folks: it’s a simple alien-out-of-element concept with a light-hearted twist. In addition, a respected lineup of voiceover talent was employed, most of whom delivered pleasant performances.
With each of these important elements coming together, all of the stars should be aligned, right? Um, not quite. All of the ingredients are there; they’re just not cooked quite right, because no one ever bothered to write a clever “recipe” that would blend them together properly: you know, a script. That all-too-important, pesky little aspect that many filmmakers try to pepper over with big talent, showy visuals and, yes, money. Either that or they don’t know from the outset that they’ve got a weak scenario. I dunno which one of those two was the case with the producers of PLANET 51, but the trouble basically began at the opening of act two and haunted the piece to varying degrees throughout.
I could easily picture PLANET 51’s writer Joe Stillman (SHRECK, SHREK 2, KING OF THE HILL, and even BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD) sitting around and saying to a drinking buddy or two, “Hey, what about doing something like E.T., but we’re the aliens?” Then everybody goes, “Yeah, that’s a great idea! Where do we start?” Then Joe says, “Well, we’ve got this quaint ‘alien’ world where everybody pretty much lives and acts like we would, see? And then this ship lands and this ‘weird’ looking thing – you know, a human – comes out and…well, we’ll figure the rest out as we go.”
Unfortunately, they never did figure out the rest. The film begins just fine as we’re introduced to the world of Planet 51 and its inhabitants. It’s an entertaining and colorful opening resembling our 1950’s white-picket-fence era, and I thought to myself, “Yep, I’m gonna have a lot of fun with this one.” I mean, what’s not to love about teenage ‘aliens’ watching a drive-in movie with a giant “Humaniac” wreaking havoc on their poor little planet?
Then something goes wrong. It occurs not long after the creature from another planet lands and sets out to explore this ‘new world.’ The script runs out of true creative steam, and most of the rest of PLANET 51 feels as though its makers are just trying to fill time before wrapping things up.
One of the elements that struck this big kid most in this little area was the approach to Captain Charles “Chuck” Baker (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) from planet Earth. He’s a kind of a cocky, self-loving sort, which could have been fun, but because of a lack of development this aspect of his character feels a bit simple and forced, never really genuine. The filmmakers don’t strive for their own unique take on astronaut Captain Baker, and it hurts the overall tale. If this main character – the alien with whom the folks from Planet 51 must interact – isn’t well developed or at least more interesting than he turned out to be, there can be quite a bit of stumbling along the way. And so there was with the development of a few other characters and portions of story, too.
Still, I’d say PLANET 51 is worth seeing because its production design and general execution are snappy and fun to watch, and it’s one of the most ambitious animated films to come out of Spain (at a price tag of nearly $70 million, it’s certainly the most expensive). There are also plenty of references and homages that someone of (ahem) my age can generally enjoy. In the end I did admire what the filmmakers were trying to achieve. I just wish their mission had been fully accomplished.

PLANET 51 (Ilion Animation Studios, HandMade Films, TriStar Pictures, 2009; 91 min.) Directed by Jorge Blanco, Marcos Martinez and Javier Abad. Screenplay by Joe Stillman. Produced by Ignacio Pérez Dolset and Guy Collens. Lighting Supervision by Barbara Meyers. Production Design by Julian Muñoz Romero. Art Direction by Fernando Juárez. Visual Effects Supervision by Javier Romero Rodriguez. Music by James Seymour Brett. Edited By Alex Rodriguez. Casting By Ruth Lambert, Karen Lindsay-Stewart, and Robert McGee. Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Gary Oldman, Sean William Scott, John Cleese, Freddie Benedict, Alan Marriott, Mathew Horne, James Corden, Lewis, Macleod, Rupert Degas, Rebecca Front, Vincent Marzello, Emma Tate, Pete Atkin, Laurence Bouvard, and Brian Bowles. MPAA Rating: PG for mild sci-fi action and some suggestive humor.

Astro Boy (2009)

Astroboy (2009)ASTRO BOY – the brainchild of respected artist and animator Osamu Tezuka – first appeared in Japanese manga (comic books) way back in 1951. Later, he found his way onto the television screens of at least forty different countries, in both black & white and color incarnations. It was these cartoons that helped lead the way for what would become world famous as “anime.”
Now, in 2009, the franchise has finally been brought to the big screen. And woe to the uncreative, unclever version that’s finally surfaced. It wasn’t ASTRO BOY’S childish (or even child-like, if you prefer), simple-minded, one-dimensional views on politics, social structures, and religion that betrayed the filmmakers’ insipid mentality as much as it was simply the bad, formulaic script and its painfully clichéd characters. I wanted my damn money back and, more importantly, my precious, limited time!
Look, I’ve always been a huge animation fan, but unless you’re about five years old avoid this mess as if it were H1N1. Watch anything done by Japan’s famed Hayao Miyazaki instead.
The infamous fictional French archaeologist Dr. Rene Belloq once said of Marion Ravenwood in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, “If she fails to please me, I shall waste no more time with her.” Brother, are his words ringing in my head now! So with that practical thought in mind, I’m done here.
ASTRO BOY (Imagi Animation Studios, Tezuka Production Company, Ltd., and Summit Entertainment, 2009; 94 min.) Directed by David Bowers. Screenplay by Timothy Harris. Based on Osamu Tezuka’s comic book series. Produced by Pilar Flynn, Maryann Garger, and Mark Tarbox. Executive produced by Francis Koa, Cecil Kramer, Ken Tsumura, Paul Wang, and Yoshihiro Shimizu. Cinematography by Pepe Valencia. Art Direction by Jake Rowell. Animation supervision by Jakob Hjort Jensen. Visual effects supervised by Yan Chen. Edited By Robert Anich Cole. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Freddie Highmore, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane, Madeline Carroll, Sterling Beaumon, Moises Arias, Ryan Stiles, Matt Lucas, Victor Bonavida, Tony Matthews, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Erich Kunzel – A Fond Good-bye

Erich Kunzel conductingIt is with sorrow that we note the passing of Erich Kunzel at the age seventy-four. On September 1, 2009 the celebrated conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra for well over thirty years was struck down by “cancer of the pancreas, liver and colon,” according to Chris Pinelo, a spokesman for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which encompasses the Pops. Kunzel is survived by his wife of 33 years, Brunhilde.
He was diagnosed in late April, yet as advanced as the illness was by the end of May he still led the National Symphony in a Memorial Day concert on the Capitol Building lawn in Washington, and did so again on July 4. Both were televised by the Public Broadcasting Service. It was exactly one month prior to his death that he made his final public appearance, on August 1, conducting the second half of a Pops concert in Cincinnati.
Last year I wrote a light-hearted article of apology for not being able to attend a scheduled appearance he made in Denver, CO, where he conducted  “Trek: The Concert” –  a collection of music from the universe of Star Trek. The point was that I’d always wanted to see him live; he was a mere one hour away, and I still couldn’t arrange to get there. It seemed almost hypocritical because I’m always observing that we don’t get enough of the likes of him—or enough film music displayed—in the Colorado Springs/Denver area. Now I feel the regret of that missed concert more poignantly than ever, and I am sorry for it.
Mr. Kunzel was born to German-American immigrant parents in New York City. He began arranging music at an early age while at Greenwich High School in Connecticut and also played the piano, string bass, and timpani. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in music (thought he started out as a chemistry major), then studied at Harvard and Brown universities. He conducted for the Santa Fe Opera early in his career and studied at the Pierre Monteux School. From 1960 to 1965, he conducted the Rhode Island Philharmonic. Then from 1965 to 1977, he served as resident conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It was also in 1977 that he helped found the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and became its conductor. In addition to his duties associated with this he lead the 8 o’clock popular concert series and made jazz recordings with Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington.
Under Maestro Kunzel’s leadership the Pops became internationally known with half a dozen best-selling recordings a year and almost weekly subscription concerts. Once a major contender to succeed Arthur Fiedler at the Boston Pops, his popular recordings of classical music, Broadway musicals, and film scores topped worldwide crossover charts more than any other conductor or orchestra in the world.
Mr. Kunzel was on a continuous mission to make orchestral music more accessible to those who might not normally be drawn to what they considered long-hair music. For example, at Halloween he and the Pops musicians would don costumes and pumpkins would explode onstage. His recordings include numerous film music projects, many of them devoted to fantasy, science fiction, and horror: The Great Fantasy Adventure Album (with tracks from Jurassic Park, The Terminator, and Hook); Great Film Fantasies (music from Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter); Chiller (creepy clasiscal music and horror movies cues); and Symphonic Star Trek (self explanatory).  Science fiction and fantasy themes and suites were also laced through his other movie music albums, with cues from Independence Day, Batman Forever, JumanjiDragonheart, The X-Files A Clockwork Orange, King Kong, Star Trek, E.T., and Somewhere in Time, showing up on The Big Picture, Mega Movies, Simply the Best Movie Themes, Vintage Movies, and The Ultimate Movie Collection .
“He was able to take highbrow and in his inimitable way make it somehow lowbrow,” said his protégé, Steven Reineke, the associate conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, who was recently named music director of the New York Pops. “And I mean that in the best way possible.”
He conducted professionally for just over fifty years and in that time tucked approximately 85 high-quality albums under his belt and sold ten million recordings. Like John Williams with the Boston Pops, he enjoyed adoration from nearly all those who admire orchestral film music. Over fifty-five of the eighty-five or so albums he made with the Cincinnati Pops have landed on Billboard’s top ten charts. He won several Grammy Awards, the Grand Prix Du Disque, and the Sony Tiffany Walkman Award for “visionary recording activities.” He even made historic trips to China and was presented with the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists and arts patrons by the United States Government.
Mr. Kunzel was a one of kind soul within his art form, but that soul managed to connect to people all around the world. He will be much missed.
For more information on Erich Kunzel and his work, visit http://www.erichkunzel.com/.

Inglourious Basterds – Fairy Tale Film Review

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is Quentin Tarantino’s grim and gruesome fairy tale version of WWII.

“Once upon a time.”
inglourious-basterds_pic2_mFour fun little words that are intended to let us know that we’re being led into a tale of fakery and many times sheer magical fantasy. You know, with talking animals or mystical creatures or such. Yet I’ve seen many a-film in which we’re supposed to get ready for a tale of the fantastic only to find that the tale never reaches passed commonality. Well, I’m pleased to say that as the summer is winding down I’ve seen a fairy tale fantasy that’s all wound up. It starts out like this: “Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France…”
Yep, I’m talkin’ about a little thing called INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (spelled that way simply as a signature of its author, Quentin Tarantino) and a wild & wooly tale it is. You want talking animals? You got ‘em…of a sort. We’ve got a mean & nasty commando unit that’s been sent behind enemy lines to brutally instill terror within Nazi hearts and souls; we’ve got a mean and nasty “Jew hunter” of a Nazi military detective assigned to hunt down hiding Jews and either round them up or kill them, and we’ve got a mean and nasty (well, almost, anyway) French-Jew who’s reached the point where the only apparent reason for living anymore is to seek vengeance against anyone connected to the Nazis who slaughtered her family. Woven within all this is a subtext surrounding a love of cinema – and the magical and moving journeys on which it can take us all. Even the nasty German Nazis have admiration and appreciation for the powerful art form.
Does any of this sound like a fairy tale to you yet? Probably not, but oh, dear reader, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS be just that. Sure, it may sound like an ominous period drama, yet though it’s set in the WWII era it most certainly is not any traditional period piece. There ain’t anything in this universe that’s meant to be taken as any sort of history lesson. Aside from a few well known true characters, this tale is all tale. And just to make sure no youngsters reading this out there get their historical facts confused, the madcap ending is one ginormous fantasy, just like the rest of it.
Yes, Jews of that time were tragically rounded up, persecuted, tortured and killed and WWII did occur, and Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) did try to preside over the “master race” and a big chunk of the world, and Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) was the Nazi minister of propaganda, but most of the rest is certainly a—sometimes gruesome—fairy tale. So Quentin Tarantino ain’t kiddin’ when he leads the story in with “Once upon a time…”
And there’s something else INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is – fun! I almost feel ashamed to say this, given the film’s subject matter and the lack of any type of morality buried beneath it. Fortunately, Tarantino weaves his characters so charmingly (and sometimes eerily) together that you can’t help smiling and admiring the effort. Do not take the kiddies, however!
The cast is excellent and when Brad Pitt starts speechifyin’ as Lieutenant Aldo Raine it’s nearly priceless. The way he gravels out the word ‘Nazi’ makes you want to mimic him. I mean the guy’s such an animal he practically grunts when he talks. And Christoph Waltz (a German TV actor, though perhaps no longer after this) gives an amazing performance as Colonel Hans Landa. He’s gotta be a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination. It’s almost worth the price of admission merely to watch his skillful, slimy performance, in three-and-a-quarter languages, no less—with the quarter being Italian. Mr. Waltz beautifully understands what Tarantino wants to do with Hans Landa; his cadence is spot on, and his oratory practically flows like music. The entire cast is a joy to watch, in fact. Even one of my old favs, Rod Taylor, makes a teeny-tiny cameo as Winston Churchill.
I may not be one of Tarantino’s largest followers—he sometimes delves too much into graphic excesses for my taste—but one can’t help recognizing that he has a very keen sense when it comes to important concerns such as casting, dialogue, setting and even music. Some of his plotting can be a bit shaky at times, but he understands his chosen art form well and it always shows – as does his love for it and knowledge of its history. He may never be viewed as a Rembrandt or a David Lean; however, he’s a grand pop artist in several respects and I’m sure he’s quite comfortable with that.
He’s also quite the exhibitionist and exploiter. One knows he knows exactly what he’s offering and that he’s not trying to shadow it, exploitation or otherwise, and this somehow makes much of it more palatable in some fashion. He seems wise enough to understand that what he may choose to do here or there may not be the most artistically appropriate decision, so I think It’s more a matter of whether he cares or not. At times he’s simply more interested in toying with his material, as well as his audience. And yes, admittedly, it can be kind of fun.
In fact, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS may be one of my favorite Tarantino films. I know there are those who’d say that as a whole piece it can’t quite measure up to the likes of PULP FICTION or JACKIE BROWN (mainly because their plotting was solid and rarely wavered), yet I personally had more fun with BASTERDS than some of his other works. I’m a sucker for a period film too, so that’s surely part of it.
BASTERDS is also leavened buoyantly with that which came before it. There are definite ingredients from films like KELLY’S HEROES and THE DIRTY DOZEN. Tarantino even uses Lalo Schifrin’s great Tiger Tank theme from HEROES at one point. And even though the movie was of a dark nature and set during a very dark period in history, Tarantino quite skillfully dances around it all and even manages to inject it with a very clever sense of humor. The whole movie is actually rather lyrical. It’s a joy to just listen to what everyone has to say.
Indeed, Tarantino dances around the darkness so well that at times one forgets to fully question the utter amorality or flat out immorality of it all. There’s scarcely a truly decent human being in the entire picture. After all, isn’t it a little disconcerting that the allies (who are naturally supposed to be the good guys) would sanction a special terror squad to create fear in the enemy by brutally—and gleefully—torturing and viciously killing any and all Nazis they come across? Even the female lead isn’t much warmer than ice. Yet, this is all a deliberate decision on Tarantino’s part. He says he doesn’t “impose” a sense of morality on his characters – though frankly, I wish he would. A bit of it would make his work a little more humane and perhaps help it reach another level.

Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus

While we’re looking at this angle of things, what about that subplot involving Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent)? Though it starts out as intriguing, it ultimately feels less satisfying than the rest of the film. Her character never interfaces with the other main characters (save for colonel Landa); she should have more of a supporting cast to play off of, or at least a bit more of an arc to her own character. Because her entire family has been killed by the Nazis she is essentially dead inside and when an opportunity seems to present itself for vengeance it becomes the only thing for which she seemingly wishes to live. And if those who die were not directly involved in her family’s murder, indeed, even if some are completely innocent of anything, so be it. This is bothersome. In addition, we never get any sense that she has to make any important choices in regard to what she’s contemplating. She simply proceeds forward almost like a robot, devoid of any human elements. There’s nothing (left) in her to pity or empathize with.
There is a brilliant scene involving Shosanna in which Colonel Landa sits in a restaurant with her and toys with her as they eat some pie. (By the way, few can stretch a scene like Tarantino does and get away with it. His writing can be that lilting.) This leads us to believe he suspects what her true Jewish background is. She wills herself to maintain composure until he leaves, but then breaks down once he’s gone. It’s a strong scene that makes us think her story is going to escalate in interesting and perhaps frightening ways, yet once the scene’s over all of that storyline is apparently deemed not interesting enough for Tarantino or his audience to pursue in any true way. Though perhaps more than anything else it’s what would have allowed her to be truly human. That scene is almost the only time any real emotion comes from her.
What say we toy a little ourselves now? Might it not have been a more interesting conclusion to a very impressive opening sequence to have colonel Landa use his serpent’s tongue to woo those he finds hiding, telling them how all is going to be just fine and dandy, that he merely wants to assist in their relocation and that he’ll personally oversee their well being, etc., etc., with the audience all the while knowing exactly what’s going to happen to them? With Tarantino’s very clever style of writing that could have been a most unique way to wrap up that scene. I think he could’ve made the hair on my arms rise. Instead we got the visceral punch we’d expect from the lad. Now, I’m not really complaining, mind you. But a friend of mine and I were just wondering, what if? ‘Course, if you loved the movie you’ll no doubt think I’m going off half cocked, but there it is.
Those aspects notwithstanding, it was still one of the very best rides of the summer for me. Tarantino—with some excellent writing—had me from the opening scene and I was along for the rest of the trip. Yeah, he turned history into a grisly fantasy, but he and his cast and crew completely understood what they were doing and why (unlike certain others who take on period projects). For a film set within a war backdrop, Tarantino was more reserved on the graphic end of things than I expected. He sent his boys and girls on a wild and even wacky mission and they completed it quite a bit better than most would.
At one point Aldo Raine looks at his, um, handy work and exclaims something like, “You know, I think this may be my masterpiece.” INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS may not quite be Tarantino’s masterpiece, but I noticed a very nice growth in his writing, and the whole thing made for a mighty witty, dark fairy tale and that’s sure close enough for me.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Weinstein Company/Universal Pictures 2009; 152 min.) Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Produced by Lawrence Bender. Co-Produced by Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter, and Charlie Woebcken. Executive produced by Lloyd Phillips, Erica Steinberg, Bob Weinstein, and Harvey Weinstein. Cinematography by Robert Richardson. Production Design by David Wasco. Art Supervision by Sebastian T. Krawinkel. Costumes by Anna B. Sheppard. Special Effects Supervision by Gerd Feuchter and Uli Nefzer. Visual Effects Supervision by Joe Henke, Gregory D. Liegey, Viktor Muller, and Chris Ryan. Music Supervision by Mary Ramos (with heavy input from Tarantino). Edited By Sally Menke. Cast: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, Daniel Bruhl, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Samm Levine, BJ Novak, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Paul Rust, Michael Bacall, Omar Doom, Sylvester Groth, Julie Dreyfus, Jacky Ido, August Diehl, Martin Wuttke, Richard Sammel, Christian Berkel, Sonke Mohring, Mike Myers, Rod Taylor, and Denis Menochet. MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence, strong language and brief sexuality.

Ponyo – Animation Film Review

Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, PONYO (“Gake no ue no Ponyo” or “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”), could be nicely summed up as charmingly innocent. I wasn’t even sure they still made films like it. It’s just a simple slice of pleasant storytelling. And you know what – audiences very much enjoy it. You might think the younger set so jaded and – and, yes, cynical – that they couldn’t or wouldn’t sit still for an animated story of PONYO’s nature. However, one of the greatest pleasures in watching PONYO was to experience the joyful sounds of laughter and “aaaahhhs” coming from both old and young alike. It restores one’s faith in the universal sensitivity within the hearts of that which we call humankind.
I’ve enjoyed—and written about—the laughter of children before while watching “children’s” films, but this felt different. There were no wisecracking donkeys or hip jungle animals constantly reminding us through timely (and one day dated) jokes about our modern society. The characters in PONYO were likeable and refreshing partially because there were really no pretensions involved. In a loud, posturing summer (anyone see the mess that was TRANSFORMERS 2?) this little film is a welcome reprieve. It might make for nice comedown to take in after watching INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS over the August 21st weekend.
I wouldn’t say PONYO is one of Miyazaki’s masterpieces—it’s not quite up there with PRNCESS MONONOKE, SPIRITED AWAY or HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE—but it is so very nice to relax with as to make one wish one could share it with others. As I say, it’s not a complicated story: a five-year-old boy (Frankie Jonas – English version) finds a “goldfish” trapped in a bottle along the shoreline, near where he lives. He’s captivated by the unique little “fish” and decides to keep her, naming her PONYO (Noah Lindsey Cyrus – English version). Ah, but PONYO is not what you’d call a normal “fish.” She is, in fact, the offspring of a powerful water wizard (Liam Neeson – English version) and sea goddess (Cate Blanchett – English version).
As Miyazaki would have it, PONYO is every bit as captivated by the young boy. She winds up falling in (puppy) love with him and so desires to become human that she uses some of her father’s sorcery to make the leap…literally, as we come to see. But the use of this powerful magic upsets the balance of nature and all must be set right one way or another if the world is to be saved from the effects of an ever-approaching moon.
Ponyo (2009)The delicate balance of nature is a recurring theme within PONYO. The imbalance created by Ponyo’s use of a powerful magic needs to be acted upon, but proper care of nature is also brought up several times by the wizard, Fujimoto, in relation to the manner in which man treats the world that surrounds him. So one could say that little Ponyo’s predicament may be a metaphor for mankind’s current state and what we should all be mindful of in our own environment. These points are made in a subtle, friendly fashion. There is no bludgeoning like, oh, say, Oliver Stone might do (I’m sure no one out there thinks Stone’s probable sequel to WALL STREET is going to lightly dance among the tulips).
No, this is a buoyant, happy tale. And the animation holds true to that sense in a lovely way. Some of it is bold, magical & colorful, and some of it is soft, wispy and painterly, even to the point of showing us what look like the master’s brush strokes. It is all truly a restful treat for the eyes. And in Miyazaki’s animated world everything has life to it.
It’s all well supported by Joe Hisaishi’s music score too. Though it stands out just a tad too much at a couple of junctures, it’s a lush work, as inspired by more traditional classical music. It very much fits the lyrical pace and artistry of the film.
Hayao Miyazaki is one the greatest and best loved animators & storytellers that Japan has ever produced, and his country knows it well. He’ll most likely go down in film history as the Akira Kurosawa of animation. In 2002 the Japanese (film) Academy honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. He has essentially become a national treasure, and his films do tremendous box-office business in the Land of the Rising Sun, not to mention elsewhere. Over here he won the coveted Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2003 (hint: it was for one of the three I mentioned earlier), and he has won and been nominated for numerous other film related awards.
What this all boils down to is that Mr. Miyazaki’s work is worth taking note of. One will always find something creative, sincere and of merit within it. And though PONYO isn’t his grandest work, it is a sweet breath of fresh air, as soft and caressing as a gentle ocean breeze.
PONYO(Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney Pictures/Buena Vista, 2008/2009; 103 min.) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Steve Alpert (English version), Kathleen Kennedy (English version), Frank Marshall (English version), and Toshio Suzuki. Executive produced by Koji Hoshino, John Lasseter (English version), and Hayao Miyazaki. Co-Executive Produced by Naoya Fujimaki, Ryoichi Fukuyama, and Seiji Okuda. Cinematography by Atsushi Hisaishi. Art Direction by Noboru Yoshida. Chief Animation by Katsuya Kondo. Music by Joe Hisaishi. Edited By Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Seyama. Cast (English version): Cate Blanchett, Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Kurt Knutsson, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neeson, Jennessa Rose, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White. Cast (Japanese version): Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi, Joji Tokoro, Tomoko Yamaguchi, Yuki Amami, Kazushige Nagashima, Akiko Yano, Shinichi Hatori, Tokie Hidari, Eimi Hiragi, Tomoko Naraoka, Nozomi Ohashi, and Kazuko Yoshiyuki. MPAA Rating: G – for the whole planet.
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District 9 – Science Fiction Film Review

District 9 (2009)Something new and unexpected has landed in theaters this summer – a film dealing with apartheid, internment camps, abortion, cruel experimentation, and empathy for those completely different from us. It’s called DISTRICT 9. But none of that’s so new, you say? Well, that’s true as far as it goes, but here’s the kicker: the party being segregated or interned isn’t just from another race; it’s from another world. Those in question are so different from humans, in fact, that they’ve been saddled with the rather unflattering nickname of “Prawns,” because in some ways they resemble those little bottom-feeding crustaceans.
Even this concept ultimately isn’t all that new. It’s been tackled in well-loved science fiction storytelling within the likes of TWILIGHT ZONE, STAR TREK and PLANET OF THE APES. However, DISTRICT 9 approaches the subject matter a lot more bluntly – and grossly & more verbosely, I might add. I’ve never been a huge champion of the lesser attributes of the human race, but DISTRICT 9 seems even less of a fan. It pulls no punches and even makes us out to be quite unfeeling and horrid. One begins to wonder what value there is to us at all.
DISTRICT 9 is handled in a most intriguing manner. Most of it is shot documentary and cinema vérité style (and no, not in some gimmicky fashion, as I’ll go to my grave claiming CLOVERFIELD was), and its look is gritty, heavy. This is all done quite well and those interviewed on camera really do appear as though they were literally plucked off streets or out of villages and are answering legitimate questions and posing true points of view. I admired its raw, wound-opening aspect.
Peter Jackson (he’s connected to some movies involving a ring and one about a giant guerilla, I think) was the producer of this inventive and very modestly budgeted $30,000,000 tale and its director was an unknown South African by the name of Neill Blomkamp, expanded from his earlier short subject. Young Mr. Blomkamp has had a longer career in visual effects as a 3D animator than he has as a director. He also co-wrote the screenplay for DISTRICT 9, along with Terri Tatchell (whose only film credit is this one).
*Spoiler Alert*
It’s a clever premise—well executed—concerning an alien interplanetary vessel that somehow becomes marooned on our planet. The ship hovers over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. At first no one knows what to make of it. Is it going to attack us? Has it come in peace? But after waiting three years with no activity whatsoever, it’s decide that we should attempt to cut our way in to see just what may be going on in there. We do get in, and we find the ship full of aliens that are by this time extremely malnourished and slowly dying off due to disease and unsanitary living conditions. It’s decided that we should take action to help in some way, so a district is set up to accommodate the beings from another world.
As viewers, we come on to the scene 20 + years after this. Earth is still—as always—struggling with its own important issues and in the midst of all this living conditions in District 9 have become deplorable. The “Prawns” are essentially living in junk piles, with huts manufactured out of whatever they can find lying around. And as things get worse for both them and us, many humans are beginning to resent the visitors from another world and are starting to get quite verbal about it.

Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) serves an eviction notice.

Eventually, it’s decided that a private company called Multi-National United (MNU), will be given the authority to at least temporarily deal with the aliens while the world’s governments try to figure out what should be done in the long term. So a new district (10) is set up, and it becomes the task of one Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, who is better known as a South African producer, rather than an actor) to evict large numbers of the aliens from District 9 and prepare them to be moved to District 10. But the unwitting man winds up getting infected by some alien “juice” and finds that his DNA is being altered; he’s becoming one of the aliens!
Well, his own people are in a panic over his possible infectious state, while MNU decides that he may be an invaluable link between our species and that of the “Prawns.” For one thing, we’ve managed to confiscate a slew of alien weaponry, but we cannot test or use it because it requires an alien DNA match in order to work. So now Wikus is a hunted man by lots of folks and he eventually seeks refuge within District 9 while he tries to figure a way to reverse his current state and return to his beloved wife. Of course, he also begins to empathize a bit with life on the other side of the fence surrounding District 9.
The story is handled in a refreshing manner and has many merits. However, I did walk away with the sense that it felt a bit long and a tad tedious at times. I found it more interesting earlier on, when it was asking questions and wanted to explore its situation. As the film progressed it transformed into more of a man-on-the-run tale with the f-word and bodily fluids constantly being thrown all over the place. (I know what you’re thinking, and no, I’m not a prude.)
However, what I personally wound up questioning were the courses that the story and certain characters wound up taking. I had trouble with the logic of various actions pursued. I couldn’t see why the humans and (advanced) aliens couldn’t—or wouldn’t—attempt to work together more in order to try to solve some of everyone’s current dilemmas. Part of this was explained away as the aliens in question merely being worker bee types and not of huge scientific acumen. Yet, with what I saw some of the aliens doing, this didn’t fully gel with me.
One of the reasons we were given that the aliens didn’t rebel in full was the fact that they had no weapons. Nonetheless, they built at least one sturdy robot of sorts that wound up being able to utilize several forms of built-in weaponry. But the only thing they did with it was trade it to some nasty Nigerian gangsters for cat food (their food of choice) within a black market type of setup. A couple aliens even spent twenty years cultivating the “juice” that would allow them to return to their home world.
By the way, we eventually get to see some of the alien weapons in action, but I couldn’t help asking myself why a race as advanced from us as these creatures obviously were would design such a messy, gory way of disposing of one’s enemy in the midst of close combat. I would think they’d come up with a way to disintegrate, rather than, well, splatter. It’s fun to watch and makes us go “eeeewww!” – but a practical for a highly advanced species?
I also had questions concerning several choices our lead human made (just what did he think he was going to be able to do with that ship he hijacks anyway?). I don’t want to mention any more of what he or anyone else does, however, because I do not wish to spoil things more than I already have. You’ll probably spot the moments I’m referring to once you see the film anyway.
The cruelty with which various tests were being perpetrated by humans disturbed me as well. Seeing no reason behind some of it is what troubled me. For instance, preparing to cut open an individual while he was fully awake and not even attempting to sedate him in any way, shape, or form made me think more of SAW than science fiction. Things like this and splatter guns seemed more fitting for exploitation than cerebral filmmaking, which is what I was hoping to see a little bit more of here.
I’m sorry if I’m spoiling most everybody’s happiness with DISTRICT 9. But these are some of the thoughts I couldn’t keep from flitting through my head. Still, with reservations illuminated, it’s a very interesting and unique approach to the science fiction genre and is certainly one of the better films of the year. I was actually quite intrigued with the alien named Christopher and his son. It would have been absorbing to see the story engage them more, rather than Wikus. But then again, that’s not particularly what the film was meant to be about. Regardless, there was plenty to keep one quite compelled.
Heck, it was worth the artists making the film just so we could have access to its various wicked movie posters. And one thing’s for sure – the next time I go to eat a prawn I’m going to look at it in a whole new light.

DISTRICT 9 (TriStar Pictures, 2009; 113 min.) Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Screenplay by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Produced by Peter Jackson. Executive produced by Bill Block and Ken Kamins, Cinematography by Trent Opalcoch. Production Design by Philip Ivey. Special Effects Supervision by Steve Ingram. Visual Effects Supervision by Matt Aitken, Keegan Douglas and Dan Kaufman. Music by Clinton Shorter. Edited By Julian Clarke. Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike, Elizabeth Mkandawie, John Summer, William Allen Young, Greg Melvill-Smith, Nick Blake, Vanessa Haywood, Marian Hooman, Johan van Schoor Vittorio Leonardi and Mandla Gaduka. MPAA Rating: R for bloody violence and pervasive language.
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G-Force – Animation Film Review

G-Force (2009)All right, G-FORCE is getting crucified by critics, but let’s try to look at it with a bit more objectivity, if we can. It’s true that it’s not a good film, but neither is it quite as tragic as you may have heard. Still, it should be pointed out that its releasing studio, Walt Disney Studios, knew it’d be in for a prerelease whippin’ if it let critics get a look at it before it actually hit theaters. That speaks volumes about the faith the studio execs had in their product. And product is the operative word here because it sure looks like Jerry Bruckheimer & team had one main concern on their minds: lure kids in by selling them a bill of goods involving cute, talking, action-seeking fur balls. And pull them in they did; Friday’s first day release figures show a strong haul of nearly $11.5 million. Its Saturday & Sunday takes should be about the same, putting the film on track for a $32 million+ opening weekend and a box-office win over HARRY POTTER.
A portion of what’s so disappointing about G-FORCE is that it’s a good concept that wasn’t given the legs to scamper along as it should have been allowed to. I liked the idea behind it when I first saw ads for it and I still hold to that view. I thought—I hoped—it could be another happy surprise in the same vein BOLT was last year. But I quickly learned that wasn’t gonna be the case. It was easy to see that adults were doomed when the theater remained nearly silent of any laughter until we were hit with our first flatulence joke. At that point all the little kiddies erupted. Where’s Pixar when you need ‘em?
The tale runs thusly: G-Force is an elite group of…well, rodents (guinea pigs to be precise). Darwin (Sam Rockwell) is leader, Juarez (Penélope Cruz) is the martial arts expert, and Blaster (Tracy Morgan) is the action junkie. Things are rounded out with one computer whiz mole named Speckles (Nicolas Cage) and a fly named Mooch (Dee Bradley Baker), who’s equipped with a surveillance camera. These little tykes have been engaged, as it were, by the U.S. government to save us all from an evil plot to take over the world. And, of course, the whole rodent special project is in danger of being shut down by its self-interested project leader. Will our furry friends succeed in thwarting the evil-doers and save their project and themselves? Your guess is as good as mine, and I’ve seen it so I can make a pretty darn accurate assertion. In other words, it’s pretty easy digs here.
G-Force (2009)The germ of the piece is a nice, high-concept and there are some entertaining moments embedded within G-FORCE. It’s simply that things went off-road in the wrong manner. One could see a wild, clever and wacky MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE-type of adventure just itching to break out. Unfortunately, those involved didn’t seem interested in working hard enough to expand on that line of thinking and entertain viewers of all ages; they appeared content with the three to ten-year-old set. And that’s a shame, because it could have been a raucous LOONEY TUNES style ride.
On the plus side, G-FORCE has quite solid production values and the critters are well animated and cute enough in their rendered form, but they just aren’t engaging enough and the flimsy plot doesn’t help matters any. The jackass FBI project leader was clichéd; the impetus  behind the continued chasing of the special agent rodents (the fact that he didn’t want to be embarrassed back in Washington over what he saw as a botched mission was weak and, frankly speaking, boring. Will Arnett (RATATOUILLE, the upcoming JEFF THE DEMON) was effective enough in the roll; it’s simply that he wasn’t given interesting material with which to work.
The good guy inventor who made the G-Force team possible was written and directed with even less intrigue or spunk. Now, I’m not too familiar with actor Zach Galifianakis’ work (THE HANGOVER, INTO THE WILD) and I’ve no wish to slam anyone in particular, yet in G-FORCE he was about as interesting and entertaining as a dead carp. Yes, there’s enough blame to spread to the writers and director, but much of it lay on his own shoulders. (The situation reminded me of the casting blunder of another Disney-released-film called THE BLACK HOLE. Anyone old enough to remember should know what a gaff it was to engage Joseph Bottoms for the part of Lieutenant Charles Pizer.)
Kelli Garner (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, TAKING WOODSTOCK) was kind of spunky cute, but she too was given little worth doing. The same can even be said for Bill Nighy (the upcoming ASTRO BOY, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END)…well, except for the cute part. I was looking forward to his performance, but there just wasn’t much there. The critters got all the real attention, yet they didn’t get the right type, so G-FORCE never gelled as it could have.
This brings me back to the writers themselves. With no less than five involved—Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and Tim Firth—it’s safe to bet that there were too many cooks in the G-FORCE kitchen. Add to that the fact that the Wibberleys gave us the screenplays to the likes of THE SHAGGY DOG, I SPY and CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE—they were nominated for a Razzie Award on the latter—and you can start to smell some spoiled soup.
Writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio have worked on some noteworthy projects, such as ALADIN, SHREK, PIRATES OF THE CARABBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL and TREASURE PLANET (which I seem to have liked more than most). The too-many-cooks issue must’ve diluted their ingredients, however, because they didn’t come up with the goods here.
Director Hoyt Yeatman thought up the story idea (kudos there) and makes his debut as a feature director with it. His previous background lies mainly in the field of visual effects and his resume as a supervisor, etc., is an impressive one in that arena; he even worked on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE back in the day. As far as the technical aspects of his direction were concerned, he handled them fine. It’s in the areas of solid storytelling and character development that he needs more development of his own.
Even Trevor Rabin’s music score seemed off the mark on G-FORCE. It was too sincere, actually, draining the movie of some of the wacky, creative flavor it needed. I kept imagining what the likes of Michael Giacchino (THE INCREDIBLES, STAR TREK, UP) might have done with it.
In the end, what G-FORCE really needed was a deft hand like John Lasseter’s to guide it in. It did have the potential to be a sharp, cleaver, fun, family-friendly offering (yes, that means for mom & dad too), but it was difficult for an adult to stick with the thing much of the time. The character of Hurly (Jon Favreau – IRON MAN’s director) seemed to sum things up in tidy fashion—while Darwin was rambling on about something—when he said: “Sorry, I just tuned out there. What were you saying?”

g-force-copy
Darwin, Juarez, and Blaster on a Mission

G-FORCE (Jerry Bruckheimer Films/Walt Disney Pictures/Buena Vista, 2009; 90 min.) Directed by Hoyt Yeatman. Screenplay by Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and Tim Firth. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Todd Arnow. Executive produced by Duncan Henderson, David P.I. James, Chad Oman and Mike Stenson. Cinematography by Bojan Bazelli. Production Design by Deborah Evans. Costumes by Ellen Mirojnick. Visual Effects Supervision by Mitchell S. Drain and Scott Stokdyk. Music by Trevor Rabin. Edited By Mark Goldblatt, Jason Hellmann, Bud S. Smith and M. Scott Smith. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Penelope Cruz, Sam Rockwell, Tracy Morgan, Jon Favreau, Steve Buscemi, Bill Nighy, Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Kelli Garner, Tyler Patrick Jones, Piper Mackenzie Harris, Gabriel Casseus, Jack Conley, Niecy Nash, Justin Mentell and Loudon Wainwright. MPAA Rating: PG for some mild action and rude humor.

Inkheart – Fantasy Film DVD Review

INKHEART is a film you may not have heard much about because it was rather unceremoniously released into theaters in January, 2009.  Even if you’ve heard about it, the odds are mighty high that you missed its brief theatrical engagement—which managed to eke out only $17,303,424 at the domestic box-office.  Well, you wouldn’t be alone; we originally missed it too.  But we did take the opportunity of its DVD release on June 22, 2009 to catch up with it.

 

INKHEART, based on Cornelia Funke’s New York Times bestselling children’s book by the same name, is in a similar category as films like BEDTIME STORIES and IMAGINE THAT; however, though it is certainly flawed, it has more going for it in terms of ambition and imagination.  It is a film I wanted to like more as I watched it, yet I simply could not, due to its weaknesses in the telling of its tale and some of its rather uninspired characterizations.

 

INKHEART involves a father named Mo (Brendan Fraser) and his young daughter Meggie (newcomer, Eliza Bennett) who are gifted with “Silvertongues,” meaning that when they read aloud, the characters they read about come alive within the real world.  The main catch is that when one comes over from the world of the written page someone from our world is automatically transported to the other.  This is what happens to Mo’s beloved wife (Sienna Guillory).  Now, this is a big issue and I couldn’t help wondering how Mo didn’t learn of his ability and its consequences before reaching the age of adulthood—though I suspect we’re supposed to believe that he never read out loud until he fathered a child.

 

Unfortunately, the novel that Mo read is purloined by a baddie named Capricorn (Andy Serkis, the man behind the movements of Gollum and King Kong), whom Mo read into our world. Copies of the book quickly become very rare because Capricorn likes the new world in which he finds himself and sees it as ripe for the picking.  The task at hand for Mo is to get his hands on a copy of the book, so he can attempt to read his wife out and those who don’t belong here back in.  But Capricorn has reading plans of his own for Mo.  He wants him to read out a dark creature known as the Shadow to help him in his plans for conquest.  This, of course, creates a bit of a sticky wicket for our hero and his daughter, not to mention the whole of the known world.

 

It is a bit of a sad experience viewing INKHEART on one hand, because one can sense the lost possibilities in it. As filmed, the screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire (ROBOTS, the upcoming SPIDER-MAN 4) lacks any true spicy punch and is generally too lackluster, given the subject matter.

 

Then there are the characters.  Andy Serkis had the potential to shine as the villain, but he was saddled with what chiefly amounted to underdevelopment and throw-away lines.  Unfortunately, the same can generally be said for Helen Mirren (NATIONAL TREASURE 2, THE QUEEN) as Maggie’s aunt.  She is a very stalwart actress and should have been given more than she received.

 

And there are several flaws in logic, such as Mo (who is a well-known ‘book doctor’) seeming to have never thought about seeking out the author—or the Internet, for that matter—in order to acquire a copy of the elusive book until Meggie suggests it to him.

 

Then we have the author, who lives in a beautifully quaint section of Italy and happens to be baking a cake when we meet him, essentially claiming that the worlds he creates are more beautiful and less vicious than reality.  Really?  That’s an interesting observation, given terribly dark characters like Capricorn, his evil henchmen, and the Shadow, who seem bent on complete control of their world, which is to say, the author’s world.  We’re all searching for something better than what is, but we shouldn’t try to deceive ourselves, or others.  There are plenty of little things like these to grate on one’s sense of believability.

 

Yet at the same time there are positive elements that one is able to enjoy.  For instance, Eliza Bennett is a new, young talent who grasped her part and delivered on it.  Like little Yara Shahidi in IMAGINE THAT, her character traits are pleasant and her relationship with her father is a loving, positive one.

 

Brendan Fraser, whom I don’t usually take to, was more subdued and in control than I am accustomed to seeing him (GODS AND MONSTER’S not withstanding).  So, though I wondered what someone like Johnny Depp (with a better script) would have done with the part, I wasn’t really irritated by what Frasier spun into the piece.  Still, he really blew a couple of important moments in my opinion.

 

Fortunately, Paul Bettany (the upcoming IRON MAN 2, A BEAUTIFUL MIND and the magnificent MASTER AND COMMANDER) is always a grounded performer, and he delivers with what he has to work with here as well.  Jim Broadbent (HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, INDIANA JONES AND THE KNGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL) does satisfactory work as the author who is absorbed in his own little world.

 

However, what I may have been drawn to most was the fact that the film was largely shot in older sections of Europe, and this treated us to some very interesting and picturesque locations.  Roger Pratt’s (HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, SHADOWLANDS) cinematography, in another big plus, was lush and quite effective in flushing out the historic quality of the locations—he illuminated them as if they were each aching to tell of their own colorful pasts.  He also captured affectively the fantasy element of the film.  The visuals and set design were handled nicely too.  It all led to a sense that the film should have been grander.

 

Having said that, it still needs to be pointed out that Director Iain Softley (K-PAX, THE SKELETON KEY) didn’t project a sense of having a solid handle on the story, the adventure within it, or an appropriate pace and mood for it.  In the end I was left wondering what might have been, given a better script, another lead actor and a director more along the lines of David Fincher.  One thing’s for sure – it would have been less a simplistic, normal children’s film and more like a Grimm’s fairy tale.  And thus, preferable, to my way of thinking.

 

DVD AND BLU-RAY FEATURES

 

The single-disc DVD has only one special feature: Young Eliza Bennett reading her favorite passage from Cornelia Funke’s book.

 

The film is also available as a two-disc combo pack: Disc One offers the film on Blu-ray; Disc Two provides a DVD copy and a down-loadable digital copy. The Blu-ray disc is BD Live-enabled, with the following features:

The Story with the Cast & Crew is  a short HD video that has those involved with the film riffing on a fairy tale, everyone contributing a line to the story.

  • From Imagination to the Pageis an HD featurette on Cornelia Funke, author of the book on which the film is based.
  • Eliza Reads to Us (HD) features actress Eliza Hope Bennett (who plays Maggie in the film) reading an excerpt from the source novel.
  • 9 Deleted Scenes offers 14 minutes of footage in Standard Definition.

INKHEART (New Line Cinema, 2009; 103 min.) Directed by Iain Softley.  Screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire’s.  Based on the book by Cornelia Funke.  Produced by Iain Softley, Diana Pokorny, and Cornelia Funke.  Executive Produced by Toby Emmerich, Mark Ordesky, Ileen Maisel, and Andy Licht.  Cinematography by Roger Pratt.  Production Design by John Beard.  Costumes by Verity Hawkes.  Special Effects Supervision by Paul Corbould.  Visual Effects Supervision by Angus Bickerton, Ryan Cook, John Paul DochertyAdam Gascoyne, and Richard Higham.  Edited By Martin Walsh.  Music by Javier Navarrete.  Cast: Brendan Fraser, Paul Bettany, Eliza Hope Bennett, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, Sienna Guillory, Matt King, Steve Spears, Rafi Gavron, Jim Broadbent, Jamie Foreman, Stephen Graham, John Thomson, Lesley Sharp, Jennifer Connelly (in a cameo), and Roger Allam (the Narrator).  MPAA Rating: PG for fantasy adventure action, some scary moments and brief language.
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