Monday, June 27, 2011

Googolplex Gulag - SEQUELITIS edition - with PIRATES 4 and CARS 2

Summer time, and the living's easy... for Hollywood execs.

Just picture them right now, big fat cats in fat black suits sitting in their fat jumbo-jets (or those skinny-anorexic ones), counting their millions as slobs like the United States of the World (and sometimes myself) trudge on to the cineplex to see the latest gruel that's being served.  Sometimes the gruel is yummy, or sometimes it's Krusty Brand Imitation Gruel (nine out of ten orphans can't tell the difference ;)), but then other times it's just... meh.  Nothing to get the pitchforks up in arms about, and yet that in its own way could make it worse.

And right outta Disney (and, surprisingly, Pixar) comes two sequels this summer that have that sequel-gruel feeling to them.  There is creativity going on in both of them, but not to a fully successful extent - at least what one could expect from either franchise.

First up... He's Captain Jack Moneyrichardsparrowjet!

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a big McDonalds thing of the movies, where it comes slapped with the greasy paws of Jerry Bruckheimer and ready to sail off into matinee serial territory.  This could be fine except that as each passing film goes on (with a couple of minor exceptions to scenes I'll mention) the quality of the series lessens with each film.  It also doesn't help that this time the franchise loses one of the interesting things going for it in Gore Verbinski's visual/storytelling sensibility.  While he ended up making parts of Dead Man's Chest and At World's End cumbersome with super-sized plots not worth much (albeit parts of Dead Man are a lot of fun, and the Davy Jones Locker segment of 'World's' is a perfect slice of surrealism), Rob Marshall just doesn't really have it in him to take the series where it could go.

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow as Gizmo in Gremlins: the Next Franchisation.

This latest effort, On Stranger Tides, misleads in its title (not very strange, not even with the mermaids, which I'll get to in a moment), and is still stuffed with over-plotting with double crosses and other shenanigans and new characters.  The premise should be simple, and it is: there's word of a Fountain of Youth(TM) off on an island somewhere, but as Captain Jack (Johnny Depp, of course still around once again) is off to find it he has to contend with Blackbeard (Ian McShane) going also for it.  This could make enough for a movie, albeit lifting a bit already from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  And there's a little extra intrigue with Blackbeard's daughter, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), being Sparrow's kinda-sorta-not-really love interests of yore.  And of course the mermaids, who for at least five minutes when revealed as the blood-thirsty hybrids they are make the film full of vigor and excitement.

But then there's other stuff padded in to make it once again an over-long effort (not as long as At World's End thank goodness, but too long still), with Barbosa, Geoffrey Rush's most hammiest of ham-bone characters (whether it's also in his acting I'm not sure), also chasing after the Fountain but for more shady reasons as he appears up front as an actual "Captain" in the Royal British navy or whatever.

AND there's another goody-too-shoes along the lines of Orlando Bloom, though this time not him (thank foodness) but some other bland guy I don't remember his name at all and then he gets into some entanglement with the one mermaid they catch to take to the fountain.  Why the mermaid?  It's complicated... or, rather, not really, just a tear of a mermaid and some water and a couple of glasses and that's it... but it's more complicated than it seems, after a while.

"Man, I could really go for a Woody Allen sandwich right now..."  I don't know if that joke works, I wrote it anyway
Frankly, I saw the movie about a month ago, and memory of it is spotty.  Not because of it not trying, but because it just didn't try hard enough.  Marshall's direction doesn't really try for anything that inventive like Verbinski was able to, and directs action in the most cardboard-cut-out of styles that one could see in any Bruckheimer actioneer.  If that floats your boat, you might enjoy the movie a lot, but the action and excitement of past films (save for an escape scene early on with Sparrow through the streets of London, or some such town, and the mermaid scene mentioned earlier when they first appear and attack the pirates) is lacking here.  So, therefore, much of the movie has to rest on the appeal of its performers.  How does it fare?

Taking out of account whoever that bland-priest-kid was, and the mermaid girl equivalent (aka Bloom/Knightley 2.0), we got a couple of the regulars with Depp and Rush, and they both have their moments for sure - Depp especially has to carry a lot of scenes (arguably, even, the whole movie overall) on his shoulders, and for what it's worth in the fourth go at it he can still hold attention and get some chuckles... not laughs, mind you, just chuckles at this point.  Honestly why they keep Sparrow's father, Captain Teague (the almost inimitable Keith Richards) as such a walk-on player on these films is beyond me as he could save portions if it was bumped up to a small role.  Rush, meanwhile, is often relegated to exposition even when things should get interesting once he gets to the island and Barbosa's true intentions are revealed to his flabbergasted British crew.

Warning: Bad-Ass Meter is bigger here than it actually appears

But curiouser still is McShane and Cruz.  McShane could have made this a really memorable villain, but he seems to be tired through a lot of the performance, sometimes getting a little energy to yell during a scene, and not enough to make one feel that this is such a "Bad Man" as he calls himself.  Cruz does better as a firebrand tough-girl sort who can kick ass and take names when need be, but isn't given much of a character either except near the end when there's some wicked double-crossing going on between her and Sparrow on a beach.  It's a fine scene that the two actors have - and it's even a moment that shows why they're such *great* actors in other performances - and yet a little too little too late.  By then the plot has turned its gears, Hans Zimmer's surprisingly generic score has gone through its motions, and mermaid tail (pun intended) is sorely lacking.

One small note to Marshall's credit, he gets ONE really fantastic WTF cameo during the city-chase scene with Sparrow when he lands in one of the carriages crossing town.  I won't say who it is, but it's a self-conscious regal-joke that had me laughing harder than almost anything else in the movie.  This with Depp still doing his best, and still having fun in a movie where the plot just keeps chugging along only taking minimal time to have fun.  A scene like when Sparrow argues over a big-giant-scary jump off a cliff into a river should have been the tone of much of the movie... and it isn't.  It's not too terrible to hate (sorry House Next Door guy, this probably makes me a half or quarter of a cunt then), but to recommend it as anything other than at best a rental or a lazy summer afternoon nothing to do cable TV view would be false. 


And yet that in its own way was somewhat expected - a middling sequel as the fourth film in the series.  But from Pixar?  A trip to dullsville?  Goodness gracious!

Cars 2 has as its plot one of those goofy oh-gosh-I'm-a-this-or-that elements that has been done repeatedly. So was the fish-out-of-water element of the first film Cars where Lightning McQueen comes accidentally to the town of Radiator Springs and learns life lessons and yada-yada.  But I kept on thinking back to Cars- nay, all of the Pixar films- and what they had that Cars 2 was sorely, awfully lacking in.  Heart, sophistication in its humor (or as has been coined now, "Kidult" humor or as the layman might say a 'family' film), and some three-dimensions to its storytelling.  That's what Pixar has aside from the usual breathtaking animation.  This film might have had some of the latter part, but just some, which is staggering enough.  That it's so busy with its stupid plot and just not funny where it counts drags it down so much than any other film from the studio.

It sucks to be in this position of wagging a finger at a movie company that's done so much good, but it's the kind of wagging like a family member who loves someone so and just gets so upset seeing it screw up the way it does.  If it were by any other animation studio, even Dreamworks, maybe the story could be cut some slack: McQueen and the ever-(NOT)-lovable Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, let's call him 'Guy' as he earned nothing more than it) go off to an international race being held in Japan, Italy and London, England, with two plotlines converging and/or crowding in for space: first is a spy plotline headed up by Michael Caine's Finn McMissile and Emily Mortimer's Holly Shiftwell (an odd way to pair up the two again after Harry Brown, but I'll go with it) who are tracking an evil German car (Thomas Kreutschmann, and you know he's evil as he has a monocle), and second a new kind of "environmentally friendly" oil for cars to race with created by Eddie Izzards', uh, other car (forgetting his name it's one of those).

And, as these stupid plots go, Mater gets mistaken as a spy (cause, um, I guess why not?) and it turns out the environmentally friendly oil is actually making cars explode... sorta, depending on if a couple other evil cars point a ray at it.  And then there's a whole other Evil Plot revealed about it all being about a giant oil field that's up for grabs.  By this point you just want Daniel Plainviewmobile to come in and smack a couple of the cars with a bowling ball.  There is a logical question here that will probably slip some kids by completely - why go through the over-elaborate Dr. Evil plot when the oil is right there - but this is just one of the film's problems.  The big problem, the one swinging like a pair of gnarly fuzzy dice over one's head, is that it's just... dull.

That really is the key to the film's problem: it throws so much at the viewer, in terms of visual jokes (not many that are funny, maybe a few worth a few chuckles), and in terms of plot and exposition, and in rather mundane action sequences of the spy variety that don't feel fresh and exciting like in other Pixar movies (most recently Up and Toy Story 3 come to mind but the list goes on, Incredibles especially), and it all just falls so flat.  Maybe a big part of that was not connecting with the characters; McQueen's role is diminished to the point of being just a "I'm embarrassed" or "I'm ashamed" role opposite the *real* star here with is Guy's Mater; the new spy characters are bland archetypes that aren't imbued with any kind of pathos or, again, heart really like in Cars with Paul Newman's character; the villains are uninteresting and underdeveloped by the time their plots are revealed.

Oh, and did I mention John Tuturro's Big-Fat-Italian-Sportscar-Stereotype?  Well... I just did, and he was amusing, but could have been great - why not a movie where he was a main character or villain?

There's also the issue of the 'Guy's acting appeal here, which I found pretty grating after a while.  Opinions on this may vary, since, apparently, the research was done and it appeared that he was the most likable enough galut to warrant him being bumped up to main character for this movie, where he does probably have more dimension than anyone else, but it's so one-note until the movie demands it to be something else un-organically.  Maybe he is a funny character and I just didn't see it.

And maybe kids were just clamoring for a Mater movie, I dunno (as straight-to-video it could have been passable or fun).  As a comic foil Mater can work decently, but in smaller spurts.  When it becomes about him and his "you're an idiot! but... it's okay, you're not really an idiot... no you are, it's awesome", it sours during it and in retrospect.  Lasseter even has a small montage at the third turning point where Mater (in dream-state I guess) looks back at all the instances so far in the movie of him messing up against a black background.  That's the kind of crap you see in Rock-A-Doodle, a lessor Don Bluth film from the 90's, NOT PIXAR!

And who knows, maybe I'm just being grumpy.  And, as I mentioned, if it were by any other movie company I might let such material slide.  But it's akin to looking back at, for example, the career of Steven Spielberg, who is a director we all mostly love and coming up against 1941, a movie that is dumb and loud and too busy and too full of its own grandeur, with (I'll admit) intermittent spots of entertainment that sticks.  In this case it comes with a montage of McQueen and Mater coming to Japan and being inundated with what Japan is awesome at: cute-crazy shit that is adorable and/or frightening.

::Car on the right expresses animator's disdain at John Lasseter's sudden dearth of storytelling ability:::
All I knew leaving the theater was that the movie, for all of its flash and pizazz and bright colors and (occasional) thrilling sequences, left me cold with its characters, lacked any depth or nuance with its storytelling, couldn't be a strong enough parody of spy movies (the way Toy Story 3 so brilliantly did a send up of prison/break-out movies) so it became just a mundane-weak one, and mostly played to the lowest common denominator (i.e. Middle America) with its messages and comedy.

And for Pixar it's more than disappointing, it's like getting a punch in the gut.  And being bored by it.



PS: Pixar's Brave looks like a step in the right direction, as does
PPS: Tim Burton's Dark Shadows with Johnny Depp, albeit no stills or trailer yet.

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