Thursday, June 27, 2013

Babe

I have begun and restarted this review of Babe (1995) twice now. In the first attempt, I opened with a personal anecdote, and the second included some snark on my part. I ditched both attempts because even though they were well written and funny, they weren't fair to the film. A movie like this deserves a straightforward, honest write-up from the reviewer. To put it bluntly, if you're capable of feeling any human emotion, you'll be moved by Babe.

Babe tells the story of Babe (voice of Christine Cavanugh), a small but good-hearted pig who is won in a contest by Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell, who was nominated for an Oscar here) and taken back to his Australian farm, where Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) looks forward to fattening the pig up for Christmas dinner. Babe, missing his mother, is adopted by the sheep dog Fly (voice of Miriam Margolyes), who raises him alongside her pups, even letting the pig call her Mom. Farmer Hoggett notices something special about this pig, and eventually, Babe is training to be a sheep dog, much to the dismay of Rex (voice of Hugo Weaving), a dog who prefers keeping things the way they are with all the animals in their proper roles.

There's just something about a story that presents animals talking amongst themselves with humans oblivious to the fact. It's almost like a game with a secret we as the audience are privy to, even though, if we were in the story, the joke would be on us. The world presented in Babe is recognizable: farms, cars, TVs, real-world animals, etc., but there is the sense of magic just beneath its surface. It's not like Star Wars or Harry Potter in that regard, but there a whimsical fantasy for those who know where to look.

The animals not only speak and interact with other, they showcase distinctive personalities and foibles. The narrative is divided into little segments with chapter titles introduced by a chorus of singing mice; the sheep, led by the elderly ewe Maa (Mariam Flynn), resent being bitten and insulted by the sheep dogs and inform Babe they will listen to him if he asks nicely; Ferdinand the duck (Danny Mann) pretends he's a rooster to keep from being eaten; and Rex, the aggressive alpha dog, is revealed as a mostly deaf canine whose chance at stardom was destroyed when he tried to save a group of panicky sheep from a flood.

Fortunately, the human characters aren't shortchanged by the emphasis on the animals. The Hoggetts are an eccentric couple, to the say the least. Farmer Hoggett doesn't have much dialogue, but his mannerisms, poise, and actions convince us there's a thoughtful, perhaps wily streak beneath his gruff, silent exterior; he knows others think him a fool, but he doesn't care. Mrs. Hoggett is the busy-body type, and she loves her husband but thinks he's only embarrassing himself with some of his ideas.

But the real joy of Babe is seeing this little pig, an innocent creature who doesn't have a mean bone or prejudice, interact with all the other animal on the farm and win them over on the strength of sincerity. On a farm in which all creatures stick to their own kind and distrust the other species, Babe crosses those barriers and is the one to bring everyone together. Babe doesn't do it by making pedantic speeches or performing contrived stunts; he does it by being himself, to the growing admiration and respect of those around him who had previously discarded, misused, or ignored him.

Babe the movie is live action with the animal performers brought to life by a combination of real critters, animatronics by Jim Henson's workshop, and animation, and the effect is seamless and convincing throughout; sub-par effects could have brought the whole enterprise down. Credit must also be given to the human actors, especially Cromwell. The animals only talk among themselves, never with the humans, and it's up to Cromwell, when he's with Babe, to convince us there's something special to this little. Because Farmer Hoggett believes it, the audience can believe it.

The premise of Babe, in the wrong hands, could have been so cloying or false on the level of a mindless children's program, but the filmmakers, which include co-writer and producer George Miller of the Mad Max movies and director Chris Noonan, know the line between enchanting and phony. When I sat down to watch it, based on a recommendation from a co-worker, I was afraid that since I hadn't seen it as a kid, I had missed out. Instead, Babe appeals to adults and children.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Comedy is subjective, but to generate laughs, a story, I think, needs to have something recognizable to it. Sure the characters and situations can be bizarre, exaggerated, or wacky, but there has to be something to relate to. Otherwise, it's just weird behavior.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), directed by Wes Anderson, is one of the oddest movies I've ever seen. Sure, the plot strands are familiar and easy to describe: the son looking to connect with his father, the reporter seeking her story, the sea dog pursuing a shark, the tension between a husband and wife, a boat crew staging a mutiny, pirates. However, while those might describe what happens in the movie, they don't begin to capture just how weird everything is. The characters cannot be mistaken for real human beings, and the tone is an alliance between deadpan and cartoon surreal. Yet, despite what I said in the first paragraph about comedy needing some grounding in the familiar to work, I found myself quite enjoying The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Following the premiere of his most recent documentary, on-the-decline oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) resolves to return to sea to hunt the creature that killed his best friend and partner Esteban: the Jaguar Shark, which might not even exist. Before he sets out, Zissou is joined by Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a pilot with Kentucky Airlines who may or may not be Zissou's son. Also joining the expedition is Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), probably the last reporter interested in doing a story about Zissou. Complications arise when Zissou and Ned both develop a thing for Jane, even as Ned tries to connect with his (possible) father.

The success of other Bill Murray movies usually relied on his deadpan, his being slightly outside of the material and hurling snark at it. As Sigourey Weaver put it in Ghostbusters, he doesn't act like a scientist, more like a "game show host." There's also Stripes, in which he heckles basic training as he goes through it, and there's Groundhog Day, literally a man outside of time free to observe those stuck in the same roles. In Life Aquatic, Murray is just as blank and deadpan as he's ever been; the difference is that the world around him and the other characters are just as detached and deadpan as he is. Understatement and under-reaction are the name of the game.

Zissou's crew is a cross between a filmmaking crew, a hippy compound, and a cult. Everyone in it is a little nutty. When they join, members receive matching blue uniforms, red beanies (which they wear at all times, whether on deck, on a rescue mission, or at a movie screening), and speedos and apparently are required to live on the island Zissou and his wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) own. Among the people who turn up in Zissou's life are Klaus (Willem Dafoe), the German second-in-command who resents Ned's presence; Bill (Bud Cort), the "bond company stooge;" producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon); Pelé dos Santos (Seu Jorge), who plays Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs on his acoustic guitar; Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), Steve's "part-gay" rival and Eleanor's ex-husband; and a group of unpaid interns who work for course credit (when they mutiny, Zissou says he has to give them incompletes).

Like I said above, this is a weird movie, and I suppose there's something of a learning curve to it. It takes a little while to get going and acclimated to the oddness of everyone on screen, but once you get absorbed by it, it becomes funny. I guess once you come to understand Zissou and company, their little quirks become familiar instead of baffling. The movie, in its own way, is charming in the way it depicts how all these assorted individuals interact with each other.

The movie is also at times rather beautiful and stunning in its own way. Henry Selick (the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas) contributes some colorful animation of the different sea life Zissou's crew encounters. While not photo-realistic in any sense, the style fits with the film and is enjoyable simply to behold. There's one sequence near the end, when Zissou and his fellows venture out in a sub to seek the Jaguar Shark, that achieves a sense of awe and joy.

Anderson direction is much like his characters: quirky. Even if you were to subtract Selick's animation, the movie has the feel of a surreal cartoon. It incorporates everything from pseudo-documentary footage to animation, the entire spectrum from realism to artificiality, and yet the film has an identity of its own. Storylines and subplots flow from one to the other without any sense of urgency or narrative, and Anderson likes to hover amusing asides and details. I can't say this is a movie for everyone, but if you can appreciate the bizarre, you might get something out of it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Dracula, Bram Stoker's hugely influential novel first published in 1897, could be considered the Hamlet of the horror genre; it's been adapted and remade for both the stage and the silver screen so many times - the Internet Movie Database has at least 200 entries with the word somewhere in a title -  that any adaptation by design, if it is to be successful, must focus less on the story and more on its presentation and style.

The first recognized motion picture of Stoker's novel is Nosferatu (1922), the masterpiece of German Expressionism directed by the great F.W. Murneau. The plot was fairly faithful with some elements stripped down, altered, or removed entirely, but the most notable change came with  the changing of the character names, Dracula now known an Orlock (The result of a lawsuit by Stoker's widow). Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), directed by the mad German director Werner Herzog, is a remake of this earlier version. In this version, because the copyright had expired, Herzog was able to use the original character names from the novel.

Real estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) of Wismar, Germany is sent by his boss Renfield (Roland Toper) to Transylvania to complete a transaction for Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). Harker meets the count, a ghastly pale and hideous being, and soon finds himself his prisoner. Even more horrifying, Dracula is a vampire, and he feeds on his guest. At the same time, Dracula, because of a portrait in locket, becomes obsessed with Harker's wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) and sets off for Wismar, bringing with him his coffins and plague-carrying rats.

Character's in Herzog movies often find themselves alone in the extremes of nature where a combined sense of awe and despair threatens to envelop and destroy them. Considered the doomed conquistadores searching for the mythical El Dorado in the rainforests of Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Timothy Treadwell, the bear enthusiast of the documentary Grizzly Man who himself was killed by what he loved. Against the power and indifference of nature, what is the strength of man? Herzog's films often display a worldview in which there is no greater nobility or meaning in existence, only chaos and death.

Nosferatu carries a similar philosophy. The vampire here, while definitely a supernatural being who has lived hundreds if not thousands of years, is revealed as a lonely, pitiful creature who longs for companionship and love. Yes, he is a dangerous and powerful predator, but unlike other silver screen bloodsuckers, he is not a dashing, glamorous romantic figure. Much like the rats he brings with him, Dracula is an ugly creature, hidden from the light (figuratively and literally) of civilization until he became a monster. "Time is an abyss, profound as a thousand nights," he tells Lucy. "Centuries come and go. To be unable to grow old is terrible. Death is not the worst. Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities?" He may be immortal and a being superior to humans in a lot of ways, but in his undying existence, Dracula has not found peace, happiness, glory, or power, only darkness.

Herzog's pessimism extends to civilization. In the novel and other adaptations, the character of Professor Van Helsing is portrayed a keen man of science, a rational, modern man capable of analyzing the unknown and developing ways to confront it, a man who makes you feel safe at night. Here, as played by Walter Ladengast, Van Helsing is a befuddled old fool who refuses to consider anything outside the realm of science; instead of confronting the problem, he tries to explain it away. He does not accept the possibility of the supernatural until it is too late. Nor is he alone. When the plague sweeps through Wismar (covering Dracula's reign of terror), law and order all but collapse, and the few survivors descend into partying and merrymaking as they await their deaths, dancing among rats, coffins, and dead horses and ignoring Lucy who tries to get help to fight the vampire.

Vampires have been showcased in just about every genre and style imaginable, from horror to action to comedy to parody to comic book to porn to serious to funny to campy. Herzog's film is unique in that the tone is serious, but it's not a horror movie. Sure, it's unsettling, eerie, and creepy, but Herzog does not film it like a scary movie with things going bump in the night, claws and fangs whooshing in from just out of frame, and Dracula stalking his victims. The pace of the film is slow and dream-like. It's a story told through images of death - the ruins of a castle, mummified bodies, lines and lines of coffins - and foreboding atmosphere - Harker's solitary ride through the mountainous countryside, the ship bearing Dracula's coffins across the sea. Sure, it's easy to get an audience or to gross out a viewer, but to truly haunt them is something all together different.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Piñata: Survival Island

Like The Mangler, Piñata: Survival Island (2002) offers a premise so ludicrous, you'd think the filmmakers would have realized just how silly the whole enterprise was and tried to have fun with the idea. Sadly, like The Mangler, Piñata: Survival Island tries and fails to be scary, resulting in a rather slapdash and tedious picture. I'd like to say it's so bad it's good, but it's not even entertaining on that level, the whole thing becoming tiresome and repetitious fairly quickly.

Following a prologue in which some ancient tribe casts all of their evil into one of two clay (?) piñatas, the movie begins with a group of college students (i.e. actors in their 30s at least) arriving on some tropical island for Cinco de Mayo to take part in some fraternity-sorority competition that involves having the men and women pairing off and being handcuffed together so they can search the island collecting the most pairs of underwear (yes, I just wrote that sentence). One pair stumbles upon a certain piñata. They try to crack it open but only end up awakening the evil within it, causing it to go on a murderous rampage, slaughtering the students and stealing their souls.

My big problem with the movie is how little faith in their own concept the filmmakers demonstrate. Maybe it's just me, but when I think of a piñata, I think of a paper-mache creation, probably shaped liked a horse and covered with bright colors. When I heard of this movie, I thought for sure this was the kind of piñata they were talking about. Can you imagine this type of piñata going on a supernatural, evil rampage in a movie? Hot damn, that's sounds ridiculously awesome. Sure, it wouldn't have been the least bit terrifying, but it could have been hilarious and might have demonstrated the movie was willing to have fun at its own expense and maybe even send up other monster movies. But instead of poking fun at the conventions of the genre, Piñata: Survival Island languishes in them, and the result is dead on arrival.

But we don't really get a piñata. The title says piñata, and the characters refer to it as a piñata, but the monster in this movie is not a piñata, at least not any piñata I've ever seen. For the most part, this thing looks like a life-size version of the Tiki doll that cursed Greg, Peter, and Bobby when the Brady Bunch went to Hawaii. Other times, it looks like a cross between a demon creature from Doom and the Garthok from The Coneheads movie and sometimes flying like Slimer from Ghostbusters It's realized by a combination of guy in a rubber suit and computer animation and isn't particularly convincing. The movie never takes advantage of the fact it has a killer piñata on the prowl. You could have replaced it with just about any monster or wild animal, and it wouldn't have changed anything.

The cast includes a couple of moderately well known actors, mainly Nicholas Brendon and Jaime Pressley, but the acting is mostly poor, and nor is it helped by an uninteresting, lethargic script and poor special effects. The attacks by the piñata, in particular, are ineptly staged, dominated by choppy editing, poor framing, and shaky cam. Many monster movies have monster vision to show us the monster's point of view, and while some are cool (the heat vision in Predator) or basic but effective (the black and white in Dog Soldiers), Piñata: Survival Island has the worst I've ever seen: an ugly red filter with a triangle that makes it impossible to see anything.

Any upsides? Well, most of the female cast members appear in tank tops, bikinis, and short shorts; I guess that counts for something for some people. But if all you want to do is ogle scantily-clad women, there are more efficient ways of accomplishing that goal than watching this waste of time.