Whenever a band splits up, especially if it's a particularly nasty break-up, usually the remaining members may try to soldier on without that one thorn in their side. There are some that are successful: Pink Floyd made two very good albums after Roger Waters left the band. There are times though that the end result is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.
Van Halen - Van Halen III
After burning through two lead singers, the band went with former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone. It didn't help that the album's cover featured a man getting hit in the stomach with a cannonball - that was how fans probably felt after the group had reunited with David Lee Roth and then dropped him to the side like one of their groupies in the '80s. Worst of all, Cherone tried to make the band more political, which is something that Sammy Hagar OR David Lee Roth ever could have been accused of doing. Just a bad album all around.
Genesis - Calling All Stations
After Peter Gabriel left, people lamented that Genesis would never be the same. Phil Collins, who had already been an integral part of the band on the drum kit, came and led the band into a whole new direction, one that led to huge stadium tours. After Collins left, Michael Rutherford and Tony Banks hand-picked a new lead singer, Ray Wilson. The problem is. that while the music was decent in some parts, it never felt like a Genesis album, since Collins' drum sound was as important as his voice. It was one-and-done for Wilson.
Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy
This time it was the lead singer who stayed with the band and the other members left. Axl Rose pretty much kicked all the members of the band to the curb and brought in a new group. Gone was master guitar player Slash and in came Buckethead. The only similarity between those two was their predilection for wearing giant hatwear. Predictably, the album was rather poorly received.
Velvet Underground - Squeeze
Lou Reed was long gone from the band, having quit before Loaded came out, and Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker were also MIA. Since there were so many band changes, this shouldn't have even been called a Velvet Underground album. Bassist/guitarist Doug Yule (who himself had replaced John Cale, meaning that no original VU members were on the album) should have just put it out as a solo LP. Also, there's just something weird about a giant hand holding the Empire State Building like a tube of toothpaste. (Fun fact: the British band Squeeze, whose debut album was produced by Cale, named themselves after this album.)
INXS - Switch
This album came out after lead singer Michael Hutchence died of an apparent suicide in 1997. The band decided to soldier on and had a reality show where they auditioned for a new singer and they settled on J.D. Fortune. He was chosen partly because he sounded like Hutchence. That was both good and bad, since fans who had grown up listening to INXS had a cognitive disconnect and while it sold well, it just didn't feel like an INXS album. They released one more album that was more of a tribute album and have faded away.
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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.
In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
Based on the popular children’s book by Jeanne DuPrau City of Ember is really a cautionary tale: Don’t build an underground city as a refuge for humanity against the threat of a world gone mad and forget to tell its denizens that their city will fall apart after 200 years. To be fair the original “Builders” of Ember tried to set up an exit strategy but didn’t account for the possibility of human error. Thus when the deadline comes the current Ember-ites have no idea why their giant generator powering the whole city is failing. Although he is supposed to know The Mayor (Bill Murray) has no clue--and frankly doesn’t care that much since he has his own exit strategy. The only ones extremely concerned are teens Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan) who discover an ancient document and end up racing against the clock following the clues they hope will lead them--and the rest of the people of Ember--to safety beyond their doomed city. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan best known for her amazingly sophisticated Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement has a face the camera loves. With wide expressive eyes and deep concentration she makes City of Ember that much more compelling simply by the way her face registers a moment. You can tell what she’s thinking without her ever saying a word. She’s quite something. Treadaway (Control) isn’t nearly as effective but he fits the action-hero shoes well. Murray seems to be up to his I-hate-kids tricks (shades of W.C. Fields) but has fun with his vain Mayor. But most of the other adults are somewhat wasted including Toby Jones as the Mayor’s henchman; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Lina’s ally; Martin Landau as an old laborer who works in the city’s pipes; and finally Tim Robbins as Doon’s inventor dad. They all have the makings to be interesting characters but there’s just not enough about them on screen. I suppose reading the book would help. Director Gil Kenan is a still a kid at heart it’s easy to see. Having made his directorial debut with the visually stunning Monster House he moves into familiar territory with City of Ember tackling the live-action milieu this time around. The city itself is fantastic to look at from the millions of overhead street lights illuminating Ember to Lina’s yarn-filled apartment where she lives to even the smallest details such as a door knob. Kenan takes you down deep into this underground mecca to the point you almost feel claustrophobic. City of Ember certainly isn’t a flick for the younger audiences either with dark scary things lurking in the Pipeworks of the city. Kenan however isn’t quite savvy enough yet to elicit good performances from his actors which is where City of Ember falters a bit--save for Ronan; Kenan just lucked out with her. No matter this adaptation is about the visuals and the thrill of escaping from City of Ember and it delivers the goods on all accounts.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
Set in 1818 something evil is going on in the Bell’s family house. The trouble begins after a land deal John Bell (Donald Sutherland) and his neighbor Kate Batts (Gaye Brown) are involved in goes awry. She blames John for her misfortunes and curses his whole family. Townsfolk think Batts practices witchcraft and when it turns out she has kept pieces of their clothing suspicion rises even more. A religious leader (Matthew Marsh) and the local schoolteacher (James D'Arcy) set out to figure out the truth but have very different ideas about what is causing the nightmares and possession of young Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood). But when Betsy's nightmares get more intense and violent--when Bible pages fly out of the book and Betsy gets dragged hair-first up the stairs in front of them all--the family matriarch Lucy (Sissy Spacek) sternly asks "Now are we all just having nightmares Professor?" Veteran talents Sutherland and Spacek have some of the scariest movies ever on their resumes. Sutherland was plenty creepy in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake while Spacek got her first Oscar nomination as Carrie. Even if there isn't much to say these two easily convey a lot of emotion fear and empathy with just a side glance or a raised eyebrow. The movie however wouldn't work without a beautiful innocent girl. Hurd-Wood is as magical in this gritty role as she was as Wendy Darling in the recent live-action Peter Pan. Her looks of horror and violation seem as real as if they were actually happening. The few people who saw the Exorcist prequel may recognize D'Arcy as the priest in it and his role is just as aloof and emotionless. He's a fine British actor and accomplishes a decent Southern accent but he comes across like a Brit who is stuck in a Southern town and frankly he is. Writer/director Courtney Solomon certainly knows how to weave a nice yarn. He's taken an old legend that was apparently witnessed by Andrew Jackson (before he became president) and tells it as if he was sitting around a campfire and spinning a great spooky story. A previous version of the film made it through the festival circuits about a year ago but had a very different ending. It’s the version playing in England right now actually. But with the American release Solomon took some advice and made some adjustments. Framed within a modern-day family living in the Bell house which flashes back to the period story its a gothic ghost story that doesn't jump out at you but instead seeps into your bones and chills you from within. And there’s nothing gross or offensive about it.