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The Croods (“My Thoughts On Animated Films”)

15 Apr


Synopsis: “After their cave is destroyed, a caveman family must trek through an unfamiliar fantastical world with the help of an inventive boy.” (Rated PG; 1 hour, 38 minutes)

Pixar may be the best animation studio in town, but Dreamworks has certainly done a decent job holding its own. Kung Fu Panda starred Jack Black being funny, How To Train Your Dragon was actually exciting entertainment, and now The Croods is a an enjoyably fun and cute family film.  But will everyone like it? That depends, do you enjoy animated movies? I sure do…

I’ve previously written about how horror movies are only of interest to certain clusters of people (Adi being a prime example); and certainly many people will tell you they wouldn’t watch one with a ten foot pole. Another genre that too many of my friends are biased against seem to be animated films. I’m not even referring to Nickelodeon childish films like The Rugrats Movie, but rather big budget cartoons that try to toe the line between kids enjoying themselves while parents get to have their own laughs. Sometimes they even have rather adult themes, like The Incredibles which dealt with a midlife crisis and a suspected marital affair, or WALL-E which dealt with a destroyed world and a was a movie with a major ecological message. They were still highly entertaining movies for children but not necessarily FOR kids. Another example would be this past year’s Wreck-It-Ralph, which could certainly entertain any child, but just about every scene was made with a nod and a wink towards 80’s and 90’s video game nostalgia, exclusively geared toward people who are old enough to appreciate Q*bert references. (See image below)


But not every animated feature is as clearly defined for adults as the aforementioned examples, or exclusively for children as with Rugrats. What about the ones in-between like Despicable Me and Over The Hedge, as well as today’s movie in question, The Croods? To say that I enjoyed those movies does not give a true answer, but I will address friends who love movies and have a spectrum of attitudes when it comes to animated films. I will therefore attempt to break down what categories adult moviegoers fit into when it comes to this genre:

1. People who refuse to see them, with almost no exceptions. They are actually biased against a movie BECAUSE it’s a cartoon, regardless of how adult the content claims to be. The funny thing about these people is that the rare times they’re dragged to see an excellent Pixar film they usually rave about how it was great, but their overall negative attitude toward animated features as being “for kids” is unchanged. Whatever they just saw and loved is the exception to the rule in their minds that these movies aren’t for them. They may be forced to see WALL-E and love it, but will not see nor enjoy Shrek (My father is a prime example of this, but thankfully my mother can sometimes drag him to one.)

2. People who overall think these movies are “for kids” but will consider well reviewed movies to be the exceptions IF they are catered strongly for adults. Thus they will be happy to see The Incredibles and Wreck-It-Ralph, but not Despicable Me. (My friends Ephraim, Mike and Jared are all examples of this.)

3. People who treat animated movies no differently than any other genre. They are just as likely to want to see these movies as a drama or a comedy. If that one in particular looks good, they want to see it, if it doesn’t, they don’t. Thus if Megamind and Madagascar look like fun movies, they’ll be happy to see them. If they look bad, they simply won’t; but the decision is not impacted by the fact that it’s animated. (Adi and Seth each fit this category.)

4. People who love cartoons, and actually have a positive bias in their favor. They get excited about a new animated feature the same way I will get excited about a new Jason Statham movie: it’s fun to watch even if it’s bad, but all the better if it turns out to be good. They are as likely to see Finding Nemo as the awful Ice Age: Continental Drift. (My brother Zachary used to fit this mold, although having a wife and baby seems to have made him inexplicably pickier with his time.)

BONUS: Animated movies that fit other genres, such as straight forward action/adventure films, or Anime/Manga. These will get their own fans and their own detractors as they seem to not quite fit the mold of light, fluffy, funny cartoons. They may be exclusively catered for adults and older teens (Beowulf, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Spirited Away), or they may be a totally different genre that’s still intended for kids and adults (Rise Of The Guardians, The Owls of Ga’Hoole). When it comes to these types of cartoons, all bets are off as to whether someone who loved Pixar movies can also love a great piece of Anime, it’s much more person-specific.

I believe this can work as a general template for most audiences, and it’s important anytime you read a review about an animated movie to recognize that it depends on where the critic falls within that template, as well as where you know you fit as the audience. Personally, I’m as much of a movie-lover with cartoons as anything else. I suppose that puts me at #3, although since I love seeing every (mainstream) genre quite indiscriminately, I will be enjoying just as wide of a variety with these cartoons.

So how was The Croods? Very light, comical, enjoyable, and had high energy. It was a fun movie certainly catered toward kids but with a ton for adults to enjoy. The humor was cute, the characters were amusing, the voice-over actors were perfect, the animation was superb, the colors were exquisite, the music was pleasant, and the story was sweet, even if predictable. Too condensed of an explanation? I’ll expand a bit…

Nicolas Cage has one of those voices that people love to do impersonate, because he’s so distinctive and ridiculously over-the-top. (Other easy targets include Christopher Walken and Al Pacino.) Having him play the father and leader of the caveman clan was perfect, because he took the role as seriously as ever, and the silliness you feel when you see him on screen nowadays translates well into a children’s animated comedy. Almost as easily identifiable was Emma Stone as his daughter who wanted to rebel and see what more was out there in life (just like Ariel from The Little Mermaid, but with the muscles and amusing brutal strength of a cave-woman. As someone who prides himself on recognizing actors extremely well, I always challenge myself during animated movies to figure out who each voice belongs to. In The Croods I recognized the previously mentioned two, as well as Ryan Reynolds and Catherine Keener in their roles, but will admit I thought Cloris Leachman was actually Betty White!

It really was a visually stunning movie, although there was one scene that was taken straight out of Avatar. Just as their family arrived in some sort of forest, they were walking  along tree barks while floating dandelions surrounded their heads. It seemed to me like a pretty deliberate nod towards the James Cameron blockbuster. The entire movie was creative enough to come up with an endless amalgamation of creatures: a land whale with legs, a dog reptile, a turtle bird, it was very entertaining meeting each piece of their wacky prehistoric universe.

There was one scene toward the end that was surprisingly and effectively poignant. I will just say that it involved cave painting, and leave it at that. But Adi and I were both quite moved by the scene, which wasn’t something I expected from the otherwise manic, fun energy that the movie exuded.

Two men were responsible for writing and directing the film, and their pedigrees somewhat surprised me. Chris Sanders had directed only two previous movies, and both were good in their own ways. The first was Lilo & Stitch back in 2002. That movie had such a crazy energy to it that I believe carried over here quite well. I was also amused to note that he was the famous voice of Stitch, the little nutty alien from the movie. And sure enough he was the voice of a funny little creature in The Croods which every now and then had this hilarious “Dum dum dummmm” line that was meant to imply something ominous but instead came across as both funny and adorable. What was his one other movie in-between these two? How To Train Your Dragon, a movie I had already mentioned earlier as being really exciting and well made. The other writer/director has a less impressive past in my opinion. Kirk De Micco directed one previous film, and it was Space Chimps, a rare animated movie that was a big flop at the box office, and much worse than most. Thankfully, his collaboration with Chris Sanders seemed to pay off here. Oh, not to be outdone, I did notice that John Cleese of Monty Python fame contributed for the story, so I would like to believe that everything funny that happened in the movie was helped by one of the funniest people in the world having a hand in the movie!

Alan Silvestri composed a fun soundtrack, and it would be wise to note that most of his recent films have been exciting movies (Captain America, The A Team, G.I. Joe), and you could feel his talent in that genre during the many action sequences in this film. What should you recognize that he has written? Oh, just a couple of little movies called The Avengers and Forrest Gump, two of the biggest box office hits of all time.

Clearly I enjoyed the movie, but it was by no means brilliant or thought-provoking; it was just a good time watching an enjoyable animated feature. So now you have to go back to that template I drew up and decide if it would be a good fit for YOU.

The movie was better than Space Chimps, the weak first (animated) film by Kirk De Micco. It is however not as impressive as How To Train Your Dragon, the previous (animated) feature by Chris Sanders.

Quality Rating: B+

Boaz Rating: B+ (Although I did clearly enjoy it, there was still a divide between this and many of the previously mentioned animated features which are actually great, or certainly even more fun)

From Up On Poppy Hill / Kokuriko-Zaka Kara

8 Apr


Synopsis: “A group of Yokohama teens look to save their school’s clubhouse from the wrecking ball in preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.” (Rated PG; 1 hour, 31 minutes)

Yes, even an obsessed movie fanatic like myself makes mistakes. Last night I went with two different friends to see From Up On Poppy Hill after explaining it was from master film-maker Miyazaki, who made Spirited Away and other amazing Japanese Anime (animated movies). His track record was the main selling point, and I knew little else about the movie other than it being more of a drama and less of a supernatural fantasy like his other films. Well, it turned out to be that different genre for a reason: it was made by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. And although it wasn’t filled with magic and fantasy like his father’s work, it was actually a very impressive final product.

The movie takes place in the early 1960’s, and follows Umi, a girl who has never stopped hoping her father would return home in spite of the knowledge that he died on a ship in the Korean War. She is an extremely responsible girl who helps take care of her family while going to school, where an extremely unconventional romance begins. To say more about that would spoil the heart of the movie, but it’s not what you expect.

What made Poppy Hill so impressive was that it felt like watching an animated indie film. It was a love story wrapped inside the cute premise of saving their school’s clubhouse, but really it was about two other underlying things:

1) Caring about the past. These were teenagers living at a time when Japan was trying to make everything new and special for their upcoming Olympics, but the children (and NOT the adults) were learning the significance of remembering and respecting what had come before. That along with Umi’s endless longing for her father to come home weren’t exactly the themes of what you’re used to seeing in animated features.

2) Intricate details about life. I saw this movie with both Abe and Liba, and each of them left marveling at the care that was taken into slowly showing the little things that make life beautiful. When Umi made dinner for her family, you would see her life the lid, look inside the pot, take out the rice, carefully pour each measured cup of rice into the bowl, and so on. Liba pointed out that it reminded her culturally of a documentary called Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. I never actually got around to seeing that movie, but I read that it was a fantastic look at an elderly sushi chef in Japan for whom every last detail of the process is crucial, from the purchasing of the ingredients, to the chopping of the fish. There is a respect and patience for the process that is likely ingrained within the Japanese culture, that the rest of us aren’t used to seeing. This reverence for detail and TLC is shown beautifully throughout the film.

I must mention one of the most unusual elements of the movie: its music. In a movie that was Japanese down to its very core, the music, by Satoshi Takebe, was noticeably not. There were a few different styles but all were extremely cute and felt somewhat out of place. There was a very French style, an old-fashioned American style, and even when there were Japanese words being sung, they still had a very French influence. The latter can be heard in a YouTube clip I’ll provide here, where at the start of the clip and at the 5.30 minute mark you can hear two songs start with a decidedly non-Japanese influence. I actually loved the music itself (most of which was instrumental) but I’m not sure it belonged in a movie that was all about adhering and respecting the Japanese past and culture. Rather than function as good background music for the story that helped to set the mood, it was somewhat incongruous and took you out of the moment; in fact numerous times I talked with Abe or Liba about it as the movie was progressing.  Though on the flip-side, I do admit I LIKED listening to it, I just don’t think it fit here…

As with all of his fathers’ movies, a laundry list of American actors did the voice-over to dub the movie into English; though admittedly the only one I could recognize throughout was Anton Yelchin (Alpha Dog, Fright Night, Star Trek), whose soft, sweet voice is somewhat unmistakable at this point. And lest I ignore one key fact: Miyazaki DID employ his famous father as one of the writers of the story, all the more fitting considering its theme of respect and honor for your parents and past.

The movie was better than most American non-Pixar cartoons, and isn’t even really comparable to them. Since I have only seen a few assorted classic Japanese Anime, I don’t have one specific one I can say this is better than. However, it isn’t as good as Hayao Miyazaki’s classics, including Spirited Away and Ponyo. (Though one thing this improved upon was that Ponyo had a theme song that paled in comparison to my descriptions of the music in From Up On Poppy Hill. It was like a song made for Barney (the dinosaur), and I will take the opportunity to provide a link to hear it right here!)

Quality Rating: A-

Boaz Rating: B+ (Its slow pacing made me a LITTLE bit impatient at times, but I always enjoyed taking it all in)

Oz The Great And Powerful (“My Take On Eagerly Anticipated Movies”)

31 Mar


Synopsis: “A small-time magician is swept away to an enchanted land and is forced into a power struggle between three witches.” (Rated PG; 2 hours, 7 minutes)

Everything about this movie screams that I would love it:
1. Sequel/Prequel – Yes, I’m a sucker for these. I know, I know…they usually disappoint. So rare that they are as good as their predecessors, and many people leave wishing “the filmmakers had just left it alone and perfect without an unnecessary add-on just to make more money”. Or some rant like that. But I’m of the greedy, “I want more” mentality.  This means that when I see a good movie, I’m ecstatic to hear there will be sequels. Yes, there are many things that shouldn’t make a movie better – and often make it worse – but still give me a built-in-excitement before I’ve even walked into the movie theater. Oz being a prequel to the 1939 classic certainly qualifies.

2. 215 Million Dollar Budget – It also means if I find out the budget is even bigger, I’m excited by how visually stunning it might be (hoping for another Titanic, knowing I might instead be getting the next Alexander).

3. 127 Minutes – It means if it’s a movie I’m already excited to see, I’m even happier to find out it’s 140 minutes instead of the usual 90 (the Harry Potter movies are a perfect example of this).

4. Exciting Previews – It even ties into my wanting to watch previews for the movies, knowing that those very previews will undoubtedly give away too much information about the movies (as detailed in my recent rant about them here). I still watch those previews and turn to whoever’s next to me and say, “I can’t wait to see that one!”

5. Sam Raimi – This isn’t a guilty pleasure of mine, but simply a pleasure. Sam Raimi is a director I love to watch. He created a name for himself making the fun-as-hell Evil Dead movies. In fact let me explain just how much this man loves making movies. He made The Evil Dead on a shoestring budget. It looked low-budget, and was a totally absurd movie, but it was boatloads of fun watching this hilarious horror flick. Thanks to its popularity, Raimi went on to make a sequel, but basically wanted to make the movie that he never was able to do in the first place; and thus Evil Dead II was basically a semi-remake of the original, but looked better, was made better, and was now more of a comedy and less of a horror movie (comparable to the awesome The Cabin In The Woods). Finally he made a third one called Army Of Darkness, which was absolutely ridiculous and hysterical, and added such a huge glob of comedy that you could hardly even call it a horror movie anymore. If you like the idea of a horror comedy and you haven’t seen those movies – run, don’t walk. And although it may be sacrilegious to say, you can start with the second one. Raimi went on to make a very good dark indie (A Simple Plan), an exciting, record-breaking blockbuster superhero franchise (Spider-Man), and another fantastic horror comedy (Drag Me To Hell). Yes, knowing Sam Raimi was behind the helm absolutely excited me most of all.

How was the movie after all of this build-up? Cute. Enjoyable. A really good climax. But overall you wish it was better, and a great – not just cute movie. It begins with a really nice homage to the original in black & white, and I really enjoyed the way they tried to mimic the magic of going from the doldrums of Kansas to the exciting and colorful world of Oz. I need to clarify something at this point: Adi and I saw this movie in 2D, and not the intended 3D experience. From what I hear the opening was quite cool in 3D, and I’m sure we missed out at least a little bit of that. (As for my attitude towards 3D movies in general, I’ll get into that rant another time.)

There were nice winks to the original throughout the film, with characters and moments that you realized would eventually lead to the creation of the tin man, the scarecrow and the cowardly lion; and I appreciated all of those elements. And I’ll readily admit that it was great fun seeing the Munchkins make their big entrance back on the big screen. But there was just something I can’t quite put my finger on that made this movie that was all about magic a less than magical experience. For anyone who saw the Tim Burton version of Alice In Wonderland, it felt a lot like that. It was cool to see with a big budget on the big screen, but it never quite clicked as a great movie even if elements of it were visually impressive.  It was certainly enjoyable enough, just a matter of my high expectations hoping for something…better.

The casting of James Franco as (The Wizard Of) Oz was in large part to blame. I do realize that he was meant to be a charlatan, a trickster, all smoke and mirrors and thus a bit of a weasel; but it’s just no fun watching the protagonist as such a sniveling, whiny brat of a character. I wasn’t particularly rooting for him, and you kind of just wanted to slap all of the rest of the characters for treating him with such adoration and reverence. James Franco played Oz basically the same way he pretended to be an Oscar host in 2011: as a lazy, laid back, uninteresting character who mailed in his performance. It was bad enough that he did it as a host in a live ceremony, but for Sam Raimi to have months to film him, and somehow still think his performance was adequate as a character that kids should be watching and rooting for? It just didn’t make sense to me. (Editor’s note: Ironically, the movie we ended up seeing next was Spring Breakers, a film where I felt that the best thing about it WAS James Franco’s insane performance, as reviewed here.)

That was all on top of another fact that my friend Mark – who works for the Museum of Tolerance – pointed out to me. Franco’s character Oz encounters all of these powerful and truly magical witches in the movie. They had the power of true magic, while Oz was a faker, but yet these powerful witches reverted to their old-fashioned roles of needing a man to save the day. The more I thought about this fact the more it rang true and made me laugh. Even when these witches realized that he was all smoke & mirrors, they still wanted him to rule because of what his image could represent and do to inspire the people in the Emerald City. Really? So these witches who could basically do anything with the snap of their fingers needed a man just to be there and pretend to do things so that people could be safe again? Talk about  going back in time with gender roles!

Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis are three pretty actresses who played their melodramatic roles of good and evil well enough. Zach Braff from the TV show Scrubs, was his usual cute and adorable self, as the voice of Oz’s monkey friend (and animated very well to boot). And Joey King was heartbreakingly cute as an animated China Doll. In fact her first two scenes as both a human and a China Doll (that strongly paralleled one another) were some of the most touching moments of the movie.

For all of the disappointment that James Franco brought to the role, the movie was saved by not only its visual splendor and respectful winks to the original classic, but by Danny Elfman’s fantastic score. His music created such an effortless whimsy to the movie, that it’s impossible to know just how much better the movie was as a direct result. All of that plus the fantastic final act, which pulled everything together in a very satisfying way, really gives me hope that the inevitable sequel may actually improve on this prequel. It allowed me to leave the movie on a high note, and although I won’t go so far as to call it a great movie, it certainly should provide a few nice hours in your local theater.

The movie was better than Return To Oz, a disappointing, infrequently-seen sequel to The Wizard Of Oz from 1985. Naturally, it wasn’t even close to the beauty and perfection that was the original The Wizard Of Oz.

Quality Rating: B (The visuals, creative opening and climax made for a solid but not great grade)

Boaz Rating: B+

Parental Guidance

5 Jan

Parental Guidance

Synopsis: “Artie and Diane agree to look after their three grand-kids when their type-A helicopter parents need to leave town for work. Problems arise when the kids’ 21st-century behaviors collide with Artie and Diane’s old-school methods.” (Rated PG; 1 hour 44 minutes)

Aaah, awards season. Excellent movies like the French film Amour are out, Zero Dark Thirty which I’m sure will be one of the best of the year, a new Gus Van Sant film with Matt Damon that re-teams director and actor in a way that will undoubtedly make everyone sad that they’re not watching Good Will Hunting II. So many choices to catch a good movie on a Saturday night with friends, what to see…how about the wacky comedy where you’ll know everything that happens before the screenwriters put their pen to page, and irritating kid actors who you want to punch? That’s what I want to see tonight!

Well, here’s the ironic part that should surprise NOBODY who knows me. I enjoyed it. Yep. A completely unoriginal, predictable, “family comedy”, but it had two things going for it:

1) I was watching it, and I’m a damn easy audience

2) Billy Crystal. The guy could be narrating a movie about detergent and I’d be at least somewhat entertained, if only for nostalgia purposes.

The guy starred in some of everyone’s favorite movies: The Princess Bride (best comedy/fantasy ever?), When Harry Met Sally (best rom-com ever – YES) , City Slickers (best, umm, movie about cowboys who aren’t sleeping with each other ever?)

It’s hard for me to watch him and NOT enjoy his silly, old-school humor on the screen, especially since he rarely acts anymore. Last year when he hosted the Oscars the jokes were as cheesy as ever, but since it was coming from him it was my favorite ceremony in many years.

So, the movie itself? What it looks like, they’ll take over, the kids will be annoying and have problems. The parents will disagree with their parenting, and they’ll each learn from each other. And the kids will be less annoying by the end. Should I have written SPOILER ALERT first? Sorry, try to forget what I just said so the movie itself can be more fresh and exciting when you see it.

As Adi said afterwards, it was a cute movie she’d watch at home on TBS while flipping channels.

By the way, I will say one thing that was annoying the crap out of me during the movie: One of the “issues” of the movie was one of the kids had a stutter, a sad little speech impediment that should make your heart melt, especially as he’s bullied at school. The problem? Unless you’re from outer space and have NEVER met someone or even seen someone on TV who has a real stutter, this was the worst depiction of a stutter of all time, or to put it like the kid did, “Th-this wa-was the wo-worst de-depiction…” yeah, it was literally like that. Naomi and my speech therapist friends are welcome to see the movie and tell me I’m wrong.

I will admit though, it had its amusing or even funny scenes, and Billy Crystal even with mediocre material is fun to watch.

One thing I promised Abe and Farnaz I’d repeat from tonight: Before the movie started I gave my already used water cups to the Century City concessions stand guy to pour some more ice into. He takes it and scoops my used cup into the ice. Umm, NOT okay?!

The movie was better than The Tooth Fairy, another family comedy where Billy Crystal was the ONLY decent part, it was worse than Mr. Saturday Night, a depressing and amusing dramedy where he was in terrible makeup that aged him to where he basically is today.

Quality Rating: C

Boaz Rating: B (Can’t deny I enjoy seeing Billy Crystal in just about anything)