Let's face it the world of Hollywood pirating — with its peglegs eyepatches shoulder parrots and bounty of other swashbuckling tropes — is pretty silly. Even a high seas adventure like Pirates of the Caribbean has the ridiculous Jack Sparrow to help it hobble along. Pushing the comedy can only work in pirate movie's favor and Aardman Animation's Pirates! A Band of Misfits goes all out seizing the absurdity with a flare only British sensibilities could conjure. The film is a treasure trove of design and technical wizardry but for those less interested in the intricacies of stop motion animation Pirates!'s simple story packs plenty of low-key laughs that viewers all ages can pick up.
The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is at wit's end. While he's enjoyed his time leading a ragtag group of wannabe pirates including Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin) Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson) Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and his number two Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman) a lifestyle of eating ham and barely making ends meet is losing its luster. When Pirate Captain shows up to the annual Pirate of the Year submission day he's once again outdone by Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) who rides in on a whale full of gold. Driven by competition Pirate Captain reassembles his crew hits the open waters and begins a new wave of pillaging. It's all for naught until the pirates cross paths with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) who identifies Pirate Captain's "parrot" as an extinct dodo bird. Suddenly the pirates have a new (and lucrative) calling: science.
There's an unexpected intelligence to Pirates!. The movie based on a children's book of the same name centers on Pirate Captain's mid-life crisis delves into the world of 18th century science and pegs Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) as the mastermind bad guy behind the elimination of the pirate occupation. That gives the accompanying adults plenty to chew (and laugh) on but director Peter Lord doesn't stray away from an ol' fashioned slapstick routine. There's a marvelous stray bathtub sequence halfway through the film a wild ride through Charles Darwin's old tudor house that's a true spectacle. But even a simple gag involving baking soda and vinegar exploding sud bubbles is expertly crafted and executed by Lord.
The stop motion technique never feels limited in Pirates! even with a great deal of walking and talking scenes. Gideon Defoe's script is elevated by the vocal performances; Grant is perfectly cast as the faux-burly Pirate Captain while Martin Freeman's perfected "timid skeptic" routine from The Office and Sherlock is once again on full display. The Aardman team continues to have a knack for gesturing their puppets uniquely natural and human. Even with all the enormous pirate ships detailed cityscapes and dazzling action Pirates! is at its best when it focuses on the sillier calmer moments.
The tangibility of Pirates! A Band of Misfits comes through in its physical stop-motion animation techniques but also its genuine heart. There's a rare reality to the storytelling even at its most fantastical. While the film doesn't hit the same emotional chords as some of Pixar or Dreamworks' best you would need an X-marked map to find a Hollywood cartoon as sweet and heartfelt. So don't walk the plank on this one — board with kids in tow immediately.
The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.
Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.
As dean of a small college Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) has made a nice life for himself--until a false accusation of racism ruins his career and he loses his wife to a brain aneurysm. Suddenly Coleman has nothing--until he embarks on an intensely sexual relationship with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) a local woman with an abusive ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) who won't leave her alone. The intensity of Coleman's love for Faunia leads him to reveal his long-held secret: He has been passing himself off as Jewish and white for most of his adult life but in reality he is a light-skinned African-American. From there a series of flashbacks to the 1940s introduce us to a younger love-struck Coleman (Wentworth Miller) and reveal the events that led him to his fateful decision. Somehow Coleman's deep dark secret isn't as shocking as it's probably meant to be but the relationship between Faunia and Coleman is--especially when it slips into the danger zone with Lester breathing down their necks.
Wentworth Miller who makes his film debut as the younger Coleman does an amazing job with his role establishing Coleman's quiet yet fierce determination to live a life free of intolerance. And as ever Hopkins is the consummate professional with flashes of intense passion and brilliance in his steely eyes. One does have to get over the fact that a Welsh actor has been cast as an elderly light-skinned African-American but if Hopkins can give nuance to a declaration of how Viagra has changed his character's life (ick) he can pull off the race thing easily enough. Kidman as the dour Faunia also has some stunning moments easily sinking to the depressive depths required of her character--not surprising considering she won the Oscar doing the same thing in The Hours. What really makes you clench your teeth though is when the two of them get together on screen--in the biblical sense. These Oscar winners are so sorely miscast as tortured lovebirds that their sexual moments make you squirm in your seat. It's not the age difference; there's simply no spark between them.
"We leave a stain a trail and imprint " Philip Roth writes in his novel the third in a trilogy on postwar America. "It's the only way to be here." The author goes on to explore myriad themes around this main premise including how we leave our marks how our decisions have consequences and how people can find one another under the direst circumstances. Unfortunately these big ideas get lost in translation on the big screen and the film suffers from adaptation blues. Director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer gives Roth's ideas voice only through Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) the reclusive author Coleman asks to write his life story and even that artistic character talks more about how sex is clouding Coleman's judgment than about his own life or ideology. Ultimately Meyer focuses his script too heavily on the guarded Coleman leaving the other characters too little developed. Why has Nathan secluded himself away from the world? What haunts him? Sinise does what he can with the character but there's too little background. The same goes for Faunia. Although she describes in one monologue after another the horrors of her life--she was abused as a girl and lost her two children in a terrible fire--Faunia's hardships seem distant and it's hard to connect with her character. Only the wounded Lester a Vietnam veteran seems made of real emotions and desires--he's filled with hatred and passion--and if he makes only a brief appearance in the film he certainly leaves a mark.
The vampire Lestat de Lioncourt (Stuart Townsend) wakes from a hundred-year sleep to the rock 'n' roll present day and likes what he sees and hears. Tired of the vampire's solitary life he becomes the frontman for an unknown rock band and transforms it into the latest greatest thing gaining the adulation of millions. He also decides to disregard the unspoken rule that vampires must hide away from the rest of world and writes songs encoded with specifics of the secret life of vampires. As expected Lestat's lyrics draw the attention of both the bloodsuckers who want to destroy him and the human vampire scholars (called the Talamasca) who want to study him. One young Talamascan student Jesse Reeves (Marguerite Moreau) becomes obsessed with Lestat after reading his journal from the 1800s. She learns that Lestat had a brief encounter with Queen Akasha (Aaliyah) the most ancient and dangerous vampire to ever exist and the mother of all who walk the Earth in search of blood. He gets his chance to meet Akasha again when his music awakens her from an ancient slumber. She rises and seeks out Lestat to become her king and join her in ruling the world.
The film truly belongs to Townsend and fans of the Anne Rice's novels will be happy to know he completely embodies the charismatic vampire Lestat. The little-known Irish actor who starred in last year's indie About Adam with Kate Hudson rules the screen whenever he is on it and luckily he's on it quite a lot. He's especially powerful when he is in rock star mode. Although Moreau's Jesse is fairly one dimensional she comes alive in her scenes with Townsend. Let's hope they keep asking him to play Lestat (when and if they make any more films from Rice's vampire novels) and next time give him an actress he can have some real chemistry with. The late R&B singer Aaliyah made her second film appearance in Damned as the queen. Even though she is only in the film a short time she possesses a certain charm as the ancient and evil Queen Akasha and makes a great first impression by destroying a vampire coven. Yet her acting skills are just not up to par with the rest of the cast including the charismatic Vincent Perez as the vampire Marius and Lena Olin as the kind-hearted vampire Maharet.
Damned was set to be released in the fall of last year but word of mouth had the film destined for the video shelf before it even made it to the big screen. Then tragedy struck and as the news of Aaliyah's untimely death echoed throughout the world of entertainment Warner Bros. wisely decided to hold onto it and release it in theaters at a more favorable time knowing there would be an audience who'd want to see the singer's last film. Yet for all the bad press surrounding it Damned actually pleasantly surprises you due largely in part to Townsend's mesmerizing performance. Michael Rymer's direction is not a masterpiece of filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination but it has a certain MTV quality about it which makes it appealing. That same quality however also makes it too slick glossing over the meatier parts of Rice's novel making the dialogue and action trite and sometimes downright silly. Come to think of it the 1994 Interview With the Vampire also suffered from the same thing. Maybe translating Rice's words is harder than it looks.