Archive for January, 2014

Walking With Dinosaurs review

January 14, 2014

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: Walking With Dinosaurs may have been based on the 1999 BBC documentary series of the same title, but otherwise the two Mesozoic media have little in common. The miniseries succeeded at exploring an era ending 65 million years ago as realistically as the Discovery Channel explores the lives of existing species; the film is so insultingly oversimplified towards what it believes would entertain its target audience that each and every time the scientific name of a dinosaur appears onscreen, one is shocked that they didn’t substitute “longneck” or “sharptooth” for “Apatosaurus” or “Tyrannosaurus.” Released only four years as Toy Story and the same year as Toy Story 2, the miniseries ambitiously utilized the novelty of CGI to heighten the believability; the film only utilizes (rather unimpressive) CGI because, in a time when even Disney has shut down their traditional animation department after the failure of their last animated feature The Princess in the Frog, CGI is simply “what kids’ movies are doing these days.”

As Pixar animator Brad Bird stated, “If you talk down to a kid or aim specifically at a kid, most kids aren’t [going to] like it…because most kids can feel when you are being patronizing.” Unfortunately, Walking With Dinosaurs employs nearly every cliché of mediocre children’s programming, never missing an opportunity for scatological humor to “enhance” its ridiculously formulaic and shabby plot. And what a plot! In the tradition of such apparent children’s animated classics as Osmosis Jones, Dinosaurs begins in the live action world of the present day with a young boy named Ricky (Charlie Rowe) whose parents are forcing him to attend an archaelogical dig with them. A spoiled brat, Ricky complains that he doesn’t “want to dig up dead things.” Then a Spanish-accented bird named Alex (voiced by John Leguizamo) tells the boy that his ancestors (at least the BBC assumed that kids know birds evolved from dinosaurs, right?) were more interesting than he thinks, finding it necessary to add that Ricky’s own Australopithecine ancestors were “pretty ugly!” In a hasty matter of seconds, Alex transforms from a parrot into an Archaeopteryx while turning Ricky into a dinosaur and transports the two of them into the dinosaur kingdom.

In all honesty, the three story arcs which follow the world’s worst exposition might actually not be so unspeakably abysmal had they been void of dialogue. Though the film’s distributor BBC Earth American believes American children would only enjoy dinosaurs if they were constantly saying things like “This [dinosaur] is huge, which means I should probably steer clear of its butt” and “You kicked his butt all the way to the Stone Age,” most parents would disapprove of such rude language, only further alienating the target audience in the film’s expectations. I have seen my fair share of children’s dinosaur films, from The Land Before Time and every sequel up to the point where even the filmmakers, clearly a far cry from Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Don Bluth, lost count of their hour-long direct-to-video creations, to the grammatically incorrect cult classic We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story (Barney is a dinosaur in name only, or DINO, and therefore exempt), and none of them are as degrading to the human mind, regardless of the age, as Walking With Dinosaurs.

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Monkeys in Space

January 6, 2014

When the Soviet Union launched a supple supply of rhesus monkeys throughout the 1980s
We Americans grew paranoid and envious and felt we had to compete
Which is why anytime we turn on the TV to certain news stations we’d rather not mention by name
We are greeted but not welcomed by a giggling gaggle of gibbons in orbit
Who fling anything they can at the globe beneath them
While insisting that we wear nothing but banana slippers on their feet like they do
Walking in any other shoes is strictly prohibited and subjects one to 50 years of being flung at somewhere in the Caribbean
Which may seem silly, but animal behavior is ritualistic and predictable
Warlike apes tend to hit certain targets more frequently than others
What can we do about them? you ask
Well, I guess we can wait until the next one takes a flight down to Earth
Where it plays a long few rounds of golf before a bubble bath in Davy Jones’ locker
Which is further polluted by 57 varieties of gas from the rocket as it ascends back to outer space
While believing that this is all for some greater cause and that some higher power is steering the spaceship
Whitewashed clouds with golden streaks can be seen by only them in the jet black sky.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty review

January 4, 2014

One of Roger Ebert’s most respected philosophies as a film critic was judging each film by its own merits. In some cases, this proved especially difficult, and if Ebert were alive today, he might well agree that Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is such a case. Adapted from James Thurber’s groundbreaking 1939 short story of the same name, which was previously made into a 1947 Danny Kaye feature, Mitty ultimately succeeds in little more than breaking away entirely from its source material. Indeed, the film is so creatively unfocused and indecisive (as one might expect from a picture billed as a “fantasy-adventure comedy-drama”) that utilizing Thurber may very well have redeemed Stiller’s film.

It is somewhat shocking to realize that the days when Ben Stiller was an inescapable name in comedies are nearly a decade behind us, with his recent vehicles few, far between, and overall mediocre at best (see Greenberg or Little Fockers … wait a minute, don’t). Mitty is similarly no return to form, with Stiller playing the titular role in a fatigued, expressionless manner unfit for a character that undergoes such fantastic adventures through both daydreams and reality. In addition to the character’s trademark “zoning out,” Mitty is barely a functioning human, rarely speaking comprehensively, entering a near-catatonic state in the middle of a crowded street, and ignoring every little word uttered at him in what is either a misinterpretation of the concept of Walter Mitty or a cruelly exaggerated mockery of those with attention deficit disorder.

Even more jarring is the lack of development regarding the supporting cast (i.e. everyone but Stiller). Originally, Mitty was plagued with a domineering wife and his melodramatic, sometimes fatal fantasies were escape mechanisms. Perhaps because the idea of a henpecked husband as a lead character could be viewed as non-PC today, Stiller’s loopiness can be more easily interpreted as boredom with his personal alienation and lack of experience. His acquaintances consist of a doting but senile widowed mother (Shirley MacLaine), a sister (Kathryn Hawn) who does little more here than portray Rizzo in an off-Broadway and off-screen production of Grease, and his colleagues at Life magazine, managed by the arrogant Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), whose goals as a detestable antagonist fall short; his frustrations with the incompetence of Mitty, whom he naturally dismisses as a spacey “Major Tom” in tribute to David Bowie, are nearly sympathetic and more believable than the fact that such a prestigious magazine would hire someone as unprofessional as Mitty in the first place. The two largest vacancies in Mitty’s life—his lack of a father figure and significant other—form the apex of his pathetic life. The premature death of Mitty’s father led him to seek refuge in, of all places, the symbolically titled Papa John’s pizzeria (Stiller’s conjuring of Freud could use some work). Similarly, his infatuation with fellow Life employee Cheryl Melhoff (Kristin Wiig) is disturbingly obsessive. Like a thirty-something Little Red Haired Girl, she barely knows he exists, and his (and the audience’s) knowledge of her is limited to the few facts she shares to the world on her eHarmony account. Is she aloof or a so-called “manic pixie dream girl” waiting to happen? Don’t expect to find an answer here.

During one of his countless daydreams, Mitty envisions himself as suffering from “Benjamin Button’s disease” and Wiig’s character taking care of him during his winter years as an wrinkled infant who acts like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Though the inane humor of this moment made me cringe, Stiller could have also benefitted from adapting Thurber’s story in a similar fashion to how F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was put on screen: Expanding its scope instead of digressing abruptly. Halfway through the film, Stiller almost entirely abandons Mitty’s fantasies, placing him on a real-world trek through multiple countries including Greenland (essentially depicted as Solvang with ice), Iceland (Solvang without ice), and the Himalayas, all while dodging a shark attack and an airport arrest reminiscent of his “bomb” incident from Meet the Parents. While this is intended to make Mitty’s once mundane life even more eventful than his overactive imagination, it is almost less engaging than Mitty’s most mundane fantasy (making a snide remark at his boss’ beard in an elevator)—a shaggy dog story that left this viewer sighing in disappointment, much like Mitty himself each time he flew back from his personal Mars to find himself living in a world every bit as empty as it was when he left it.