Next week summer blockbuster season officially kicks off with the release of The Avengers, so this weekend is packed with the final glut of spring movies before popcorn n’ explosions take over the multiplex. In theory that should mean that we’re getting stuck with a dump truck full of twaddle getting little more than a cursory run on screens before disappearing into Netflix obscurity, but truthfully it’s not a bad week at the movies.
First up the latest Aardman Animation project The Pirates! A Band Of Misfits has been released, which is always a cause for celebration (especially if you’re tired of taking your children to disposable family film trash). Then there’s the latest Judd Apatow-produced joint The Five-Year Engagement and the pulpy Edgar Allan Poe thriller The Raven, both of which offer exactly what you’d expect from the trailers and are only mildly disappointing at worst.
All three are surprisingly strong films, so I suppose that worst case scenario, at least you’ve got three solid back-up choices if The Avengers is sold out during your pilgrimage to the multiplex next week.
The Good: The Pirates! A Band Of Misfits
Along with Studio Ghibli and Pixar, the lovable chaps at Aardman can be consistently counted on to deliver animated entertainment boasting the finest possible technical quality and wonderfully clever writing geared to all ages. Through features like Chicken Run and their multi-Oscar winging Wallace And Gromit shorts, Aardman has developed a charming house visual style and a distinctly British sense of humor guaranteed to please the most cynical of adults as much as the most ADD-addled of children and The Pirates! A Band Of Misfits is no exception. Five years in the making, it’s one of the most ambitious stop motion films ever attempted, filled with action spectacle, countless eccentric characters, and more jokes crammed in per minute than should legally be allowed to pummel an audience.
Based on a popular series of UK YA novels by Gideon Dafoe, the film is about the amusingly Hugh Grant-voiced Captain Pirate who sails the seas with a crew of lovable morons. They are probably the least successful pirates around, but the captain’s ego knows no bounds and he decides to run for the “Pirate Of The Year Award” despite being unqualified to do so.
An adventure then kicks off involving Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria, as well as a feuding Jane Austin and The Elephant Man. As those references suggest, there’s plenty of humor in the film geared for the grownups in the crowd, but the jokes and plot twists comes so fast and furiously that kids will never be scratching their heads for too long.
Aardman founder Peter Lord directs, shooting the movie like a blockbuster swashbuckler, with massive sequences that must have taken months to shoot in stop motion and yet never brushing aside the simple pleasures of plot and characterization. A voice cast led by Grant, Martin Freeman, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, and Brian Blessed provide consistently hilarious performances perfectly matched by the goofily designed puppets and silky-smooth animation.
It might not be a film offering insight into the human condition, but it does offer unrelenting entertainment that will have any viewer giggling with delight until the credits role. Like all of Aardman’s stop-motion output, this is pure movie pleasure. Oh and it’s also in 3D, but the plastic glasses add very little, so don’t feel like you have to seek out that expensive and useless format to get the full enjoyment of the flick.
The Overlong: The Five-Year Engagement
This summer’s first product from the unstoppable Judd Apatow comedy factory is The Five-Year Engagement. It’s the latest film by Jason Segal and his writer/directing buddy Nicholas Stoller who previously cranked out Forgetting Sarah Marshall together and co-wrote The Muppets. As you’d expect based on Marshall, it’s a romantic comedy that wears heartbreak and embarrassment on its sleeve.
This time Segal’s character is a little more lucky in love, but no less troubled. He plays a San Francisco sous chef on the rise recently engaged to a beautiful British export (the absurdly adorable Emily Blunt) who is attempting to complete her doctorate in behavioral psychology. Their engagement is awkwardly charming, but the wedding is endlessly delayed.
First it’s pushed back so that Blunt’s recently preggers sister (Alison Brie) can have a romantic shotgun wedding with Segal’s dude’s dude best friend (Chris Pratt). Then it’s delayed so that Blunt can move to Michigan to complete her education. Then it’s delayed because Segal becomes a bearded and depressed mess when forced to make sandwiches in Michigan (not exactly the culinary capital of the world). Additional delays pile on, countless comedians steal scenes in small roles, and eventually it rushes towards an inevitable rom-com climax.
Now, all Apatow supervised comedies are fairly slow and ambling to allow the cast to expand the laughs through improvisation, but The Five-Year Engagement really pushes that quality past the breaking point. Perhaps comic actors know now that a good scene-stealing turn in an Apatow-joint can jump start a career and really draw their scenes out. The film is consistently funny with guys like Brian Posehn and Chris Parnell getting big laughs in supporting roles, but as a result the whole thing drags on for far too long, way past the point of being enjoyably ambling.
Part of the problem is the over-stuffed cast of scene-stealers, part of it is the fact that the movie is about endless delays that are deliberately annoying, and part of it is a result of the Segal/Stoller comedy style that extends every scene for the sake of awkward comedy. All the factors combine for a comedy that feels like a marathon viewing session at only two hours. It’s still sweetly heartfelt and funny, it just becomes a bit tough to sit through by the time the third act couple-separation sets in.
I can’t help but feel that the movie would have been immeasurably improved by one last trip to the editing room to sheer out 15-20 minutes, even if laughs and cameos were lost in the process. Part of the Apatow comedy brand is a rambling, shaggy-dog structure and The Five-Year Engagement pushes that too far, testing audiences’ patience. I’m sure it will still be a date movie success, but it won’t be the Bridesmaids-style smash that everyone involved was clearly hoping for.
There’s a long history between Edgar Allan Poe and the movies, from arty adaptations to exploitative schlock. The Raven falls more into the latter category, which isn’t necessarily a problem. While Poe may have been a poet and a literary genius, he did also produce some of the most lurid pulp stories of his time.
Based on a graphic novel (and very much feeling like it with all the silly pulp excess), The Raven is set during the final weeks of Poe’s life. However, contrary to historical records, he apparently spent that time tracking down a serial killer who was offing his victims in ways ripped out of Poe’s writing. Yeah, it’s completely daffy, but you know what? It’s also a great deal of fun if you can turn your brain off long enough to enjoy it.
V For Vendetta’s James McTeigue directs with the same glossy, shadowy style he picked up from his mentors The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix). No gory set piece passes without a gloriously over-the-top camera move lingering on the violence, which is entirely appropriate for this sort of thing.
A cast of vaguely embarrassed British character actors all play their roles with their tongues appropriately in their cheek as does Cusack well, for the most part. The main issue with The Raven is that the filmmakers clearly weren’t comfortable in completely embracing the inherent silliness of the project and that’s most evident in Cusack’s performance. At times he’s vamping it up with an almost Nic Cage abandon, while in other scenes he plays things curiously straight, digging for emotion and insight into Poe’s life that just isn’t there.
In the end, Cusack’s performance and the film as whole are perfectly adequate, but only because the mishmash movie ultimately favors pop excess over misplaced earnestness. Had the entire project been played to the rafters for goofy laughs with Cusack wearing ridiculous prosthetics to make him look more like Poe (or better yet had Nic Cage taken the role) this could have been a hell of a lot of fun. Instead, the whole thing is kind of a mess, but still a fun mess at least.
It’s very reminiscent of that ol’ Jack The Ripper graphic novel adaptation From Hell. The visual design is dead on and the cast is right, it’s just all marred by a tonally inconsistent script that never quite comes together. Still worth seeing if the subject matter interests you and you don’t mind a little excessive bloodshed. But the lower your expectations are when you enter the theater, the better.