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.
How do you turn a dry setting like an insurance sales conference into a lively comedy? Fill it with A-list talent. That's exactly what director Miguel Arteta did when he recruited his ragtag cast of Cedar Rapids, mixing the straight-laced comedy of Ed Helms, the demented zingers of John C. Reilly, the reserved sensibilities of Wire co-star Isiah Whitlock Jr. and the grounded keystone of the bunch: Anne Heche.
Heche is a chameleon in Hollywood, bouncing from comedies to dramas and never losing her footing. Finding realism in unlikely scenarios is her approach and listening to her experiences from the set of Cedar Rapids, it wasn't too difficult to embody the simple world of the American Midwest:
How is working with this group of guys? With a movie that relies on its group dynamic there must have been some serious bonding off screen.
So much fun. It really is. John [C. Reilly], I’m obviously a huge fan of it. Ed [Helms] I didn’t know so much - but it was a real joyous atmosphere. John really keeps you cracking up as much as you can imagine. The dirtier and nastier he got, the dirtier and nastier his character got. But when you’re doing a character like that you tend to fill the room that kind of energy because you have to have it to give to the character. He was a riot.
It was fun. We joked about that shot and Miguel to his credit, one of the things people love is how real it is. This could happen. These are 4 people that could meet. It does look like an insurance convention.
The dialogue in Cedar Rapids rolls off the tongue. Funny, but also realisitic. Did you find there was wiggle room to play and deliver off the cuff dialogue?
Very much so, but everybody said the script was written so beautifully. These characters are very clearly drawn, the jokes were very funny. Everyone was so thrilled to do the script because it was so hilarious on the page. Of course it comes alive in different ways and that camaraderie became something very comfortable that we felt like exploring. i think we really did feel like four buddies.
The film also captures an unexplainable essence to the Midwest through its visuals and characters. Did you have experience living in place like the small town your character comes from?
I was born in Ohio, I grew up in this little town called Aurora. As Miguel [Arteta] said, he wanted to honor it. I think most of us were from the midwest, including Alexander Payne [director of Sideways], the producer. I think we wanted to honor it and respect the boundaries that Midwesterners seem to live with. This movie didn’t go to the extremely outrageous.
It wasn’t a caricature.
Exactly, it wasn’t. And it's all due to Miguel, and he was very much a supporter of keeping these people in the world they are in.
You don’t want to make fun of any of it. You want to love them. I think that’s where it came from for all of us, we were all playing really true people that we liked who were in their own way complex. My woman is a mom and a wife and she takes off and its her wild weekend, shes still a mom and a wife, shes not a wildcat. When i first read it, she was the oak box, she was drawn very wild. But her party is a step away from her mom. its not a wild and crazy and i think that served it well. but i think everyone worked a steps away from themselves
Were there things on set that helped you realize that simplicity, the nature of your character?
The costume designer and I worked together. We designed the first outfit where i come into the bar and see my old friends and for the first time connecting, and for the first time you see her as an “old fox.” The moment of who is this woman and 'is she wild and redheaded?'
We had on this outfit that had a flouncy skirt, not too much but a little kick to the hemline. And it was absolutely...not. Pencil skirt, button up sweater. And it was my first clue. Miguel wasn’t in the same city, he was prepping and i got a phone call from him and they sent him a digital picture, what do you think of this, and he said, 'Wait, wait, wait, let's keep her in a plain grey business suit.'
Was the film actually shot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?
No, it was in Anne Arbor, Michigan. Did you hear the story about how they were supposed to film in Cedar Rapids?
Yeah, there was a scandal with the film commission. And the film commissioner took off and bought these SUVs with the money that people had given for the film so the whole office shut down. And they were in pre-production. Like a lot of SUVs and he was discovered. They had to move someplace else. They shot all the exteriors in Cedar Rapids.
So not many films will be shooting in Cedar Rapids.
Well that was a year ago, they might have straightened everything out!
Out of Time certainly isn't going to win any screenplay awards with its formulaic premise. Matt Lee Whitlock (Denzel Washington) is the highly respected police chief of a small Florida key near Miami in one of those lazy seaside towns just itching for something exciting to happen. For Matt excitement comes in the form of the sexy Ann Merai (Sanaa Lathan) his former high school sweetheart who is now stuck in an abusive marriage. Even though the affair they start is torrid Matt doesn't really love Ann Merai; he's still hung up on his estranged wife Alex (Eva Mendes) a Miami-Dade detective. But when Matt finds out Ann Merai is dying of cancer he stupidly decides to give her $80K confiscated in a drug bust so she can get treatment at a Swiss clinic. I did say stupid right? Almost as soon as the money leaves Matt's possession he finds himself neck-deep in hot water as Ann turns up burned to a crisp in an arson fire all the money gone and all the evidence pointing to our friendly police chief as the prime suspect. Egad! He's been framed! He's been taken! What ever will he do? True it sounds very much like every other film noir you've ever seen with chain-smoking gumshoes and femmes fatales. Luckily the tactics Matt uses to keep one step ahead of the investigators one of which is his beloved Alex keep the story somewhat interesting.
OK none of this would have even been remotely appealing if Out of Time didn't star Oscar winner Washington. The talented actor sells it to audiences hook line and sinker. Matt is the kind of guy ripe for the taking--he still pines for his wife who for reasons he doesn't understand leaves him but lets his libido do the talking when his hot ex shows up. Typical guy stuff. The things that help Matt move beyond this patterned male behavior however are his street smarts which Washington can play with his eyes closed. Once Matt finds himself in a prickly predicament he jumps into action and so does the movie. As the women Lathan (Brown Sugar) and Mendes (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) are capable actresses but Time doesn't do them especially Mendes any justice. She knows what it's like being Washington's girl having done so much more effectively in Training Day. Here there's not a lot for her to do besides trying to act like a tough authority figure. The only real standout next to Washington is John Billingsley (High Crimes) as the quirky medical examiner Chae who becomes Matt's only true ally. With Albert Einstein's hair and Homer Simpson's personal hygiene habits Billingsley infuses the film with a little comic relief.
Credit also goes to director Carl Franklin (One False Move for Out of Time's finer moments. Once the film kicks into high gear Franklin keeps the pace racing as Matt runs around on borrowed time searching for clues. The simple scene where Matt tries to keep Alex and the others from finding his cell phone number on Ann's telephone records is surprisingly edge-of-your-seat effective. Franklin also uses Florida's steamy lush surroundings to his advantage painting a sultry backdrop where the characters quite literally sweat it out. There is definitely something about Florida that adds a sexual quality to a film noir. Take for example one of the genre's classics the 1981 Body Heat which was filmed in South Florida. Yep sweat works. But unlike the tautly erotic Body Heat Out of Time ultimately isn't able to rise above the mediocre script despite the efforts put out by its star director and its fatale locale.