"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

4 Posts from March 2010


Hiccup pilots Toothless, the Night Fury dragon, in Dreamworks' HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON directed by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders

How to Train Your Dragon, the latest computer animated 3D movie from Dreamworks, tries for nothing more grandiose than just pure entertainment, which is a grand enough achievement in itself.  This is a family action-comedy filled with whimsical designs, snappy animation and rollicking characterizations, and it is as enjoyable as anything Pixar has put out lately, sans Pixar’s sentiment and sometimes overreaching serious tones. 

Based on the book by Cressida Cowell, the trainer of the film’s title is Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a hapless Viking teenager who is a misfit among his friends.  They are being trained by the Viking men to slay deadly and dastardly dragons, but Hiccup is too clumsy and insecure to kill the dragons, much to the embarrassment of his Viking father, Stoick (Gerard Butler).  However, Hiccup tries his best during a ferocious battle by firing a net of ropes at a dragon, which takes does it down. The next morning, Hiccup discovers the wounded Night Fury tangled in the ropes, but he can’t bring himself to slay the dragon, so he cuts it loose.  The Night Fury attempts to fly away, but it is grounded because it lost one of its back wings in the fall.  Hiccup, feeling bad for the dragon and guilty for his actions, nurses the Night Fury - whom he christens Toothless - back to health and fashions a makeshift back wing for the dragon.     

Some of the best scenes in the movie involve Hiccup learning from Toothless where the vulnerable points are on a dragon and applying that knowledge to his slaying classes where Hiccup gently subdues the beasts instead of outright killing them.  This “power” astonishes his fellow students and his instructor, Gobber (Craig Ferguson).  Hiccup and Toothless bond like a boy and his dog.  In fact, Toothless’s character combines the loyalty of Lassie, the cunning of a cat with the look and stealth of a sleek bat (and in the thrilling climax, Toothless becomes the "X-Wing Fighter" to Hiccup’s “Luke Skywalker”).  Eventually Hiccup will have to reconcile his new found understanding for the persecuted winged beasties with his culture’s tradition of “heroic” dragon genocide.   

As I did early in the movie, you will likely predict the arc of the story, the lessons learned by the Viking community and what the outcome will be for the wimpy kid.  The screenplay by the film’s directors, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, is by rote; it is a formula hero's journey story one can learn from countless scriptwriting courses and books.  But the filmmakers overcome the all-too familiar scenario with imaginative set pieces, funny actions and dialogue, engaging characters and exciting action scenes.  The pacing is tight, so the story zips along nicely with a refreshing light touch in its message of overcoming xenophobia and living in harmony with non-human creatures that is far more succinct than James Cameron’s approach in his elephantine Avatar

The Viking designs are all wonderful caricatures and the dragon designs are imaginatively fearsomeness and cartoony all at once.  The production design is excellent and the 3D effect works fine, but it doesn't add any greater value to the movie.  The 3D glasses actually dull and darken the overall luminescence of the projected image.  The movie will look more vibrant in a traditional 2D flat format - with no special glasses required - which most cities will be playing along with the 3D version.

The voice work is first rate.  Jay Baruchel as Hiccup has a John Cusack quality; he is nerdy, sensitive and self-deprecating.  Hiccup’s widower father, the stoic Stoick, is voiced by current action heartthrob Gerard Butler and he is properly stalwart as the dean of dragon hunters, but also charmingly befuddled as he tries to understand his misfit son and not to undermine his self-esteem.  Late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson is hilarious as Gobber, Stoick’s reliable right-hand man of various primitive prosthetic right hands, having lost his own in a past dragon fight.

Butler’s and Ferguson’s characterizations are winning and funny, but I was a little perplexed as to why these Nordic Vikings spoke in a Scottish accent.  That is just one of a few incongruities in the movie, along with the modern vernacular and hip ironic tone spoken by the teenage Vikings.  I may be wrong, but I kind of doubt that young Vikings actually said words like, “cool”, “buddy”, and “whoa!”  But How to Train Your Dragon is not trying to be a historically accurate epic.  It is meant to be a soaring goodtime at the movies.  It’s no classic, but it is well directed, cheerful, and unpretentious.  In the end what we learn is that there is nothing to gain in killing dragons, except for the killing Dreamworks will make in selling really cool dragon toys at Wal-mart.


Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart are THE RUNAWAYS

THE RUNAWAYS - written and directed by Floria Sigismondi

The first shot of this movie is an extreme close-up of menstrual blood dripping onto a Los Angeles sidewalk and it’s as good a visual metaphor for this estrogen-fueled story about the seminal 1970s all-girl rock band called The Runaways.  It’s too bad the film The Runaways devolves into an anemic musical biopic that can’t sustain its bloody good, girl-power kick-start.

In the mid-1970s, The Runaways was a novel idea for a band: five teenage girls making down-and-dirty straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll that could go as balls-to-the-walls as any male rock group.  The film tells the story of how Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), a raven-haired punk inspired rhythm guitarist, suggests the idea of an all-girl rock band to the outrageous rock producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve).  As other musicians are added to the group, Fowley realizes the band needs a blonde-haired, sexpot lead singer and she is found by Fowley and Jett in the form of 15-year-old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), who is styled as a cross between David Bowie and Brigitte Bardot.  The film follows the band as it finds its raw, provocative identity and rise to a sort of mild fame with all the usual drugs and sex trappings (in this case a lot of girl-on-riot girrrl action) of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.  The film primarily focuses on Cherie Currie (the movie was based on her memoirs, “Neon Angel”) and her inability to handle the pressures of a rock band as she descends into drug addiction. 

The Runaways is the feature film directorial debut of Floria Sigismondi, an Italian born/Toronto-based multi-media artist and music video director of high regard.  Sigismondi’s direction in The Runaways is surprisingly conventional, other than the odd stylistic touch thrown into the music and drug sequences.  The cinematography is awfully murky and dark, and the film’s vitality comes in fits and starts.  The Runaways jolts to life when the band’s Svengali-like manager, Kim Fowley, cajoles, threatens, and insults the girls – especially Currie – into performing the music with all the bad-ass, crotch-grinding attitude of male rock stars.  And the film’s energy dials up to 11 during the musical numbers when the actresses –singing in their own voices – tear into Runaways songs like their ode to jailbait sluttishness, “Cherry Bomb”.  The film loses it throbbing pulse in all the domestic scenes between Currie and her highly dysfunctional family.  These scenes are shockingly lifeless.  After a terrific third act sequence showing the band’s extraordinarily successful Japanese tour, the film just withers away due to dramatic atrophy; any lifeblood the film occasionally pumped is drained away and it just flatlines before the end credits.

Kristen Stewart – hot off her vampire fixation in the Twilight movies – looks reasonably like Joan Jett, evoking her tough stance and portraying her serious passion for power chords.  Dakota Fanning’s slight, ephemeral quality works at first for the nervous and inexperienced Cherie Currie as she is learning the rock ‘n’ roll ropes, but Fanning is too lightweight for her character’s descent into darker psychology and destructive behaivour.  Michael Shannon as the band’s mad manager and mentor deftly steals the picture away from the girls.  Shannon’s performance is wildly electric and eccentric; he’s like a mash-up of P.T. Barnum, Phil Spector and Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols.  The movie shakes, rattles and rolls whenever Shannon is on the screen.

I was so looking forward to The Runaways because I love the history of 20th Century popular music and I am a fan of Joan Jett and her post-Runaways band, The Blackhearts.  The Runaways is somewhat of a forgotten band (at least to the general iPod generation) and they deserve their historical due.  I was hoping this film would build upon the birthing pains of the band and the personal dramas of Currie and Jett to expound on how unusual The Runaways was in the male dominated rock scene of the mid- to late-1970s and how the band influenced other females to pick up an electric guitar and rock-out, like The Go-Gos, The Donnas and Courtney Love.  But what we get is the cliché rise and fall of a rock band and how they crumble from infighting and drug abuse.  We have seen this musical road-to-ruin story many times before and done with greater swaggering style in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), and with more punk rock guts in Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy (1986).


HEAVY TRAFFIC (1973) - written and directed by Ralph Bakshi

Ralph Bakshi metaphorically said, “Screw you and the mouse you rode in on,” to the legacy of Walt Disney with the release of Fritz the Cat in 1971. He wasn’t meaning disrespect to the achievements of Walt Disney, the patriarch of cartoon fantasy; instead, Ralph Bakshi, animation’s rebellious son, fought against the conventional wisdom that insisted feature cartoons had to mean family-friendly fare. Bakshi’s vision was really a natural—albeit, a down ‘n’ dirty one—extension of Disney’s vision: animation has no boundaries, and like a bat-out-of-hell, he exploded Disney decorum with adult cartoons like his 1973 street fantasia, Heavy Traffic.

New York City; The early 1970s. 22-year-old Michael, living with his adulterous Italian father and his knife-wielding Jewish mother, dreams of becoming an underground cartoonist. Michael’s ambitions remain locked in fantasy, as he’s easily distracted by his sordid street adventures. Michael’s attraction to Carole, an African-American bartender, will lead him into depravity and crime. Along the way we meet Snowflake, a sweet transvestite; an amputee named Shorty who’s obsessed with Carole; a trio of happy hookers who’d just as soon mug you than earn their income the “old-fashioned way”; and The Godfather, who doesn’t let a few hundred bullets shot in his head stop him from enjoying a good plate of spaghetti. Mickey, we’re not in Disneyland anymore.

Ralph Bakshi’s first animated feature, Fritz the Cat (Robert Crumb, creator of Fritz, denounced Bakshi’s interpretation of his underground comic) was the first cartoon to receive an X rating; it was shocking and liberating to watch cartoon animals engaged in extremely adult behaviour. Heavy Traffic is even more gross, graphic, and profane than Fritz, but it’s a better movie—a very personal statement about fringe urban dwellers, hypocrisy, violence, and sexual and moral debasement. There’s no comparison to Disney, but there can be found a cinematic correlation in Bakshi’s vision of damaged and corrupted souls to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, released the same year as Heavy Traffic

The scenes of sexuality in Heavy Traffic have the power to shock today, because in the medium of animation it's still outrageous to see full-frontal nudity of both sexes and graphic scenes like the main character receiving oral sex just barely off screen. The violence is just as outrageous as the sexuality. The full-contact clashes between Michael’s mother and father are as disturbing as they are wickedly funny.

Heavy Traffic’s look is a cavalcade of garish aesthetics that works well within the context of Bakshi’s world of urban debauchery: live-action film and still photographic elements are combined with an animation style that isn’t lush, subtle and sophisticated like Disney’s, but loose, jangly and spontaneous, which is astonishing given that animation is controlled and fixed to the very frame. 

Heavy Traffic is obviously not a cartoon for families and it will not appeal to overly sensitive adults. However, it is a fascinating, surreal trip into dark, adult themes through animation, which can bring a heightened intensity and bold expedience to story and character that few live-action films ever achieve.



If you live in the Greater Vancouver area, you can rent the DVD of HEAVY TRAFFIC and FRITZ THE CAT from the greatest video store in Canada, Videomatica - located at 1855 West 4th Avenue (phone: 604-734- 0411) in fabulous Kitsilano.  Website: www.videomatica.ca


Emilie de Ravin and Robert Pattinson brood lovingly in REMEMBER ME

REMEMBER ME - directed by Allen Coulter

The romantic drama Remember Me stars actor Robert Pattinson not as a beautiful brooding vampire from his insanely popular Twilight franchise, but as a beautiful brooding regular human being named Tyler who lives and broods in New York City.  Tyler is troubled and rebellious, having not fully recovered from the suicide of his brother.  He has a close relationship with his divorced mother, Diane (Lena Olin), and with his younger sister, Caroline (Ruby Jerins), but his relationship with his business executive father, Charles (Pierce Brosnan), is fraught with tension and resentment. Charles’s work life constantly undermines his relationship with his daughter who is dreadfully disappointed by her father’s cold detachment.  This fuels Tyler’s simmering anger for his father.  Tyler’s angst-filled life is temporarily relived by Ally (Emilie de Ravin), a smart, beautiful young woman whose mother was murdered before her eyes ten years earlier.  Ally lives with her police officer father (Chris Cooper) who arrested Tyler for a minor disturbance before the lovers met.  As her feelings for Tyler deepen, her relationship with her father begins to crumble as he, of course, mightily disapproves of his daughter’s behaivour.  Ally’s love affair with Tyler is eventually threatened when she learns the truth of why Tyler initiated their relationship and Tyler’s wrath for his father reaches a raging boiling point when Charles ignores a promise to his daughter.

Because of the Twilight movies, Robert Pattinson is the current “It Boy”; the dreamy, bedroom-eyed heartthrob of swooning teenage girls.  But Remember Me is a not a lovey-dovey romantic comedy.  This film is permeated with tragedy.  It deals with serious themes of how personal tragic events can either damage lives when individuals wallow in the pain or galvanize individuals into stronger, more loving relationships when they work though their personal calamities. 

All the major characters must confront their relationships with horrible past events and a running theme in the story is Tyler’s belief of living in the moment and that seemingly inconsequential, banal actions can result in something grand.  It is a sincere and important idea to not ignore the little moments in life, to appreciate and embrace all of one's daily activities, no matter how routine they may seem, for the outcome may lead to something more profound than one thinks.  Unfortunately Remember Me falls flat on its good intentions.  The screenplay by Will Fetters is lacklustre and the film's direction by Allen Coulter is strained and bland.    

Robert Pattinson is low-key, sensitive and generally believable as Tyler, but when he displays anguish and torment, especially when he confronts his father in the middle of a boardroom meeting, he is awfully weak.  Physically, Pattinson evokes James Dean and his explosive scene with Brosnan suggests one of Dean’s great films, East of Eden (1955), directed by Elia Kazan.  However, Pattinson possesses none of Dean’s searing intensity and guttural power, so he comes off as a petulant little boy throwing a hissy fit.

Pierce Brosnan and Chris Cooper are solid, wonderful actors, but they deliver perfunctory performances as the two father figures in the film .  You sense apathy from Brosnan and Cooper as if they realized how little depth was written into their characters after they signed their contracts to appear in the film, so why bother to fully engage?

Emilie de Ravin as the love struck Ally has a nice, relaxed and sprightly manner about her, but her brightness is eventually dulled as she has zero chemistry with Pattinson.  In the big flirtation scene that leads to their first sexual encounter, he has her over to his dingy apartment for dinner and, while cleaning dishes, they playfully douse each other with water at the sink which culminates in a fully clothed soaking in the shower.  It’s a scene that is painfully forced, unfunny, and sorely lacking in sexual heat.  It made me long for the sweet and funny kitchen scene in Annie Hall (1977) when Diane Keaton playfully tortures Woody Allen with live lobsters.

The one actor who stands out is Ruby Jerins as Tyler’s artistic little sister.  Jerins exudes a naturalness, intelligence and sweet pathos that enlivens the dour mood of Remember Me. 

What should have been emotionally transforming and cathartic in Remember Me is underinflated and uninspiring - that is until the final minutes of the film when we are momentarily startled and moved by the emergence of the film's final tragedy, which is not fictional, but sadly real and part of our recent collective history.  This epic ending doesn't feel tacked on - it makes story sense; but no matter the surprise, the sorrow and the empathy the twist ending elicits, and how it brilliantly justifies the film's central theme, it doesn't save Remember Me from superficiality and from being merely forgettable.