Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Surf's Up (2007)

I am a huge fan of animated movies, whether hand-drawn, CGI, or whatever the next generation turns out to be. Few and far between are the animated features I miss and if I were to list my favorite movies of all time the top 100 would have numerous entries as would the top 50, 20, 10 and even 5. On top of that I am a big fan of penguins, a fascination which goes back to the classic teen fable Mr. Poppers Penguins.

However, the previews for Surf's Up (2007) were things I found so disappointing I had low expectations for it and almost did not go see it. At last, however, an opportunity arose so the Goose and I went to view it.

It is a well-done movie. It is done like a documentary where the film crew makes occasional "inadvertent" appearances (a boom mike plays a pivotal role in one scene, Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) frequently speaks to the film, for that matter, does Chicken Joe (Jon Heder). However, it also takes advantage of the nature of animation which allows it to film impossible scenes and have the author's prerogative of showing action important to the viewer to understand scenes when simply seeing things from Cody's viewpoint might not get the storytelling accomplished as effectively.

There are numerous great visual jokes in the background, the dialogue is engaging, the characters likable...even surfing bad-boy (bad-Penguin?) Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader). His scene with his trophies is outstanding. Even the hyper intense, self-important James Woods is entertaining as Reggie Belafonte, the creator and promoter of the surfing event that is the focus of zurfing (penguin surfing).

The story follows Cody, a start-struck young penguin who idolizes Big Z (Jeff Bridges), the premiere penguin surfer who disappeared for many years. With a clever use of whale-as-ship he leaves his Antarctic home for an undisclosed beach location where he encounters a world of surfing competition. Along the way he befriends Chicken Joe, a delightful character who regularly steals scenes. Jon Heder created a voice somewhat different from his slacker persona he is perfecting in live-action movies, this one modeled more on the stoner culture without actually entering into it.

minor spoiler alert; the following paragraphs give away certain movie surprises and should not be read if you have not seen the movie and intend to

Cody proves to be not very good at surfing. Through a fun series of events he encounters his hero, Big Z who was lost several years before in a surfing competition and presumed dead (the tournament Belafonte is promoting is the "Big Z Memorial Tournament"). Big Z tries to teach Cody the MEANING of surfing but Cody wants to learn HOW to surf. For Big Z the meaning is the how, for Cody the how is the meaning. Naturally Cody learns the how and gets Big Z back in the water.

The climax is a surfing competition that boils down to Cody vs. Chicken Joe vs. Tank. In the end Cody demonstrates talent, courage, and his realization that surfing is about riding the wave, not the competition. In a clever aside to the surfing community several surfers have penguin versions of themselves and do the voices. Most of the audience will miss this but it is a nice inside touch for true surf fans.

It is interesting to note how strongly I disagree with the premise. Competition is about winning. To be sure things such as sportsmanship come into play but the bottom line is if you are in a competition you should do your utmost to perform to the best of your capabilities. There is a recent trend, particularly in animated movies, to promote teamwork and friendship at the expense of victory. Check out the finish of the climactic race in Cars (2006) and then in Surf's Up. While I do not quibble with friendship being more important than victory I do disagree with the underlying concept and build-up that Tank's love of winning is somehow morally inferior to Big Z's love of surfing for the sake of surfing. If you enjoy an activity for itself, great...but the point of competition IS to see who wins.

The bottom line is this movie is a visual feast full of laughs, good feelings, and good times. And in one of the more quotable lines, I must imitate Cody when speaking to his older brother Glen Maverick (Brian Posehn): "pppppppphhhhhhhhbbbbbbbbbbttttttttttttttttttttt"

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Prior to viewing this movie I heard critiques that the plots were confusing and hard to follow. I disagree. I found the plots fairly easy to follow. The only problem was...I just did not care. This franchise made a great departure from the "feel" of the first movie.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) there was a real sense of fun. When Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) sails into harbor on a sinking ship it started the laughter and when he flips the coin to pay for "parking" it was a moment worthy of hilarity seldom seen in a theatre. This sense of fun continued as famous scenes from the ride it was based on were worked into the movie, sometimes as an integral part (the dog carrying the cell keys) and other times just flashing past in the background (the buxom wench fleeing her lustful pursuer.)

That started to fall by the wayside in Pirates of the Caribbean; The Legend of Jack Sparrow (2006). There were moments in Legend that hearkened back to the first movie, but overall it was darker and "more mature". By the time we arrive at the World's End the fun has also largely ended in favor of the darker, more mature elements. Gone are the inspired moments of Jack hilarity, replaced by bizarre psychotic scenes involving rocks becoming crabs and "sailing" his ship over the desert for no apparent reason.

Even worse, the likability of virtually every character has disappeared almost completely. The villains no longer have charm, the heroes...well, are there any heroes?

The logic falls by the wayside also as, when she appears, Calypso (Naomie Harris) forgets all her threats and becomes an impotent side plot. Numerous story threads do this. One wonders if perhaps some phenomenal scene that draws together (and, frankly, rescues) these various threads and provides some semblance of resolution for them is laying on the cutting room floor, awaiting release as an extra when the DVD comes forth or if they simply never bothered to reread their script.

Motivations come and go. Plans become ever more grandiose. Elliott & Rosso tried to provide a complicated, intricate tale but instead provided a visual feast that carried no emotional attachment.

Amazingly, by the time I got to a theatre to see World's End my expectations were pretty low...yet it failed to meet even them. I found myself bored by it and that is a sad thing.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Knocked Up (2007)

Knocked Up (2007) is an attempt to find humor in a baby resulting from a one night stand and how the participants deal with it.

There are a lot of laughs throughout the movie. In fact, there are entire scenes that are so laugh-laden you are hard-pressed to catch all the dialogue. Those scenes are brilliant.

However, it also attempts to have somewhat of a "real-life" feel with scenes people might recognize. Some of them are incredibly intense. Perhaps the premiere example is where Alison (Katherine Heigl) is talking to her mother about what to do. Her mother coldly, dispassionately explains it is not even worth debating. She would be ruining her career and life so just go have an abortion. Then, she explains, later she could follow her sister's example and "have a real baby". This cold-blooded, cruel statement is only accentuated by its placement, directly following the first sonogram where they see the babies' hearbeat. The juxtaposition of a fresh, vulnerable life in the first scene with the uncaring "Your career is more important than a baby" of the mother makes a powerful pro-life statement that seems oddly misplaced in this movie.

The movie is enjoyable because of the strong story line and abundant laughs. Heigl is extremely easy on the eyes and receives plenty of screen time to enjoy her in. There is, however, one area in which the movie falls dreadfully short; likable characters.

Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and his slacker loser pals hang out by a scum-covered swimming pool doing pretty much nothing of consequence. Their lives revolve around searching for nudity in non-pornographic movies, playing games that all seem to revolve around landing the opponent in the scum-covered pool, and getting stoned. Being stoned is the joke and it returns over and over and over and over until not only are you sick of it but you start to feel a bit stoned yourself just from the repetitiveness.

His friends spend their time mocking each other and watching movies where female breasts or buttocks are displayed. It is never clear from whence they garner the money they spend relatively lavishly.

Meanwhile, Alison lives in a guest house behind the large, well-appointed house of her sister and brother-in law....a couple who are constantly bickering. The sister is controlling, complaining, obnoxious, and one point she explains to Alison that men need to be trained...the clear allusion is that no man is acceptable as he is and the role of the woman is to teach him how to follow orders and do as commanded in order to be, at best, acceptable. And that is her MOST likable moment...

The first meeting makes sense. Ben purchases beers for the girls at a crowded bar which leads to dancing. While drunk they have sex and, in their drunken state, miscommunication leads to a lack of condoms which of course allows the story to develop. The next morning they have breakfast while sober. This does not go well for Ben who manages to get off numerous sexist blasts among his welter of other boorish comments. As she grows ever more shocked and revolted he grows progressively more sexist and profane until she departs in disgust. Even he realizes it did not go well, though it is unclear if he thinks he was at fault.

This trend continues throughout the movie. However, instead of Ben cleaning up his act when they "try to make it work", Alison largely descends to his level. It is sad to see the once-clever dialogue of the film descend into a series of F-bombs and insults as she hangs out with him. But perhaps that is the point of the film.

Overall, despite the unlikable characters and heavy reliance on marijuana as a baseline for laughs it is an enjoyable comedy that has something to say about relationships, babies, friendships, and growing up.