March movie madness, 2014 edition

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen more movies than I usually see in months. I enjoyed Mr. Peabody & Sherman, 300:Rise of an Empire, and Veronica Mars, but I wouldn’t recommend them to everyone.

On Saturday, 8 March 2014, Janice and I went to the Apple Cinemas in Cambridge, Mass., for Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which is based on cartoon shorts by Jay Ward, who’s best known for the subversive Rocky and Bullwinkle. The computer-animated movie retains some of the original’s cleverness and expands on the character relationships.

If you’ve seen the trailers or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you know what to expect. Genius dog Mr. Peabody (voiced by Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell) and his adoptive son Sherman adventure through time with difficult Penny Peterson. This Dreamworks film is aimed at younger audiences, with a PG rating, but its script includes a few adult gags. I’d rate Mr. Peabody & Sherman an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+. It’s not as witty as The Lego Movie, but it was still fun.

By contrast, I advise lowering one’s expectations for the sword-and-sandals 300: Rise of an Empire, a sequel to Frank Miller and Zach Snyder’s 2007 ahistorical epic. On Friday, March 14, I met fellow Game Master Jason E.R. for dinner and Rise of an Empire at the Reading 3-D IMAX.

Loosely parallel to the events of the previous 300 flick, in which elite Spartan troops tried to hold back hordes of Persians at Thermopylae, Rise of an Empire depicts Athenian general Themistocles leading the Greeks in naval battles against Persian despot Xerxes and his right-hand dominatrix, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus. Miller and company clearly subscribe to the “great men” and “clash of civilizations” ideas, despite the fact that the Greeks weren’t yet enlightened democrats, nor were the Persians mindless, monolithic barbarians.

The first third of 300: Rise of an Empire is arguably the most accurate, showing some of Themistocles’ tactics and the daunting odds faced by the Greek hoplites. The middle of the movie would be a decent sword-and-sorcery film, with Xerxes ascending to weird demigodhood and Eva Green a better Belit from Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories than Artemisia.

The last third of the movie features huge set-piece battles and lots of repetitive speechifying. It also manages to have the Spartan navy get credit for an Athenian victory, well-oiled bodies in slow motion, and yet more gratuitous beheadings. Jason and I were surprised to see young children in the audience, and at a hard “R,” that’s not a good idea.

I would recommend 300: Rise of an Empire to those who enjoy swordfights but aren’t too worried about actual history (which is interesting enough in its own right). I’d give it a 6 out of 10, 2.5 to three out of five stars, or C+/B-.

As a contributor to the Kickstarter campaign for a cinematic follow-on to the Veronica Mars television series, I was predisposed toward this sleuthing sequel. In the noir TV show, Kristen Bell played a precocious adolescent who solved crimes around Neptune High School in southern California. I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for lunch and saw this film at the AMC Loews Boston Common.

"We used to be friends"
The cast of “Veronica Mars,” then and now

The Veronica Mars movie picks up about a decade later. Veronica is interviewing for a high-powered lawyer job in New York City when murder and intrigues draw her back home. It was great to see the TV show’s entire supporting cast, as well as a few celebrity cameos, and the darkly comic tone was pleasingly familiar, not unlike Joss Whedon’s “Buffyverse.”

The Veronica Mars movie is definitely a gift to fans; like Firefly/Serenity, newcomers won’t understand most of the jokes or appreciate why some of us liked the original so much. The first season of the TV show was its best, but we should be glad that, with Bell and others busy, we still got a fond reminder and wrap-up. I’d give Veronica Mars, which is rated R, an 8.5 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-.

In the coming weeks, there’s Muppets Most Wanted and Captain America: the Winter Soldier, and I’m also looking forward to Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the latest incarnation of Godzilla. I know it has been a while since I’ve blogged about non-gaming topics, but I’ll keep trying to find the time!

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Getting our bearings and animation roundup

The Secret World of Arrietty
Image from The Secret World of Arrietty

Janice and I were busy last week with work and more unpacking in our new apartment. We did take some breaks, checking out the Wilson Farm, the Outer Limits, and other shops and restaurants in our area.

On Saturday, 10 March 2012, we screened The Secret World of Arrietty, which is loosely based on the children’s book The Borrowers. The latest Studio Ghibli movie featured the animation style and gentle pace familiar to fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, decent voice acting, and a plot that was somewhat more faithful than other adaptations, such as Howl’s Moving Castle or Tales of Earthsea.

The Secret World of Arrietty follows a 14-year-old girl who is a member of a diminutive family of “Borrowers” living beneath the country home of modern humans. Arrietty’s adventures are both charming and perilous, as she has bittersweet interactions with a human boy named Sean.

The U.S. English voice cast includes Amy Pohler and Carol Burnett, but the celebrity casting isn’t distracting. The movie may not be as action-packed or high-concept as other Miyazaki films, but it’s still entertaining and a nice antidote to the recent overload of loud, computer-animated flicks. Overall, I’d give The Secret World of Arrietty, which is rated G, 7.5 or 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, and a B+/A-.

In other animation, Janice and I recently watched our DVD of Azur and Asmar: the Princes’ Quest, which follows two boys from their childhood in medieval France to the deserts in search of a fairy princess. Like Sita Sings the Blues, my first impression of the flat computer animation was that it was crude, but the detail and style grew on me as the characters and story developed.

I thought the movie did a nice job of depicting the conflict and synergy of European, North African, Arabian, and Persian styles and folklore. I’d give Azur and Asmar an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, and an A-.

I have yet to watch Justice League: Doom, and Cartoon Network’s “DC Nationblock has just started on Saturday mornings, with a mix of Young Justice, Green Lantern, and humorous shorts aimed at younger audiences. It’s a little disjointed so far, but I like the shorts. Disney XD will be starting its own Marvel Universe programming on Sunday mornings, including The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Ultimate Spider-Man.

And that’s not even including upcoming animation such as Star Wars: Clone Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Avatar: the Legend of Korra, How to Train Your Dragon: the Series, and Pixar’s Brave! I’ve given up for now on trying to keep up with the latest TV iterations of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Kung-Fu Panda, although they all seem decent. In comedy, I find myself more interested in The Looney Tunes Show, Metalocalypse, or Archer than in The Simpsons or Fox’s Sunday night animation block.

One final item (for now) of news: Sadly, Jean Giraud, also known as Moebius — borrowed from the mathematician — died last week. I discovered his art years ago in Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal magazine. As with the recently deceased Robert McCall and Ralph McQuarrie, Moebius shaped generations of science fiction and fantasy creators and fans. Examples of Moebius’ influence include the distinctive looks of Alien, Blade Runner, Dune, The Fifth Element, Heavy Metal, Tron, and Willow. All of these artists will be missed, but their visions live on!

Swashbuckling cinema

The late Bob Anderson
Sword master Bob Anderson

Over the holidays, I caught up a bit on movies on DVD, in theaters, and on cable television. While spending Christmas with my in-laws, I saw the 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel and 2011’s Cars 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean [4]: On Stranger Tides.

I’ve seen other adaptations of the Orczy stories, but the black-and-white Scarlet Pimpernel is noteworthy because of its reflection of Anglo-American concerns about dictatorship and war in Europe and as a forerunner to characters such as Zorro and Batman. Speaking of swashbuckling, fellow fans of everything from Errol Flynn’s films to Star Wars, Highlander, The Princess Bride, and The Lord of the Rings should note the passing of sword master Bob Anderson.

Cars 2 was reasonably entertaining, with nicely rendered international backgrounds (not unlike Kung-Fu Panda 2) and an espionage-flavored plot. The character development and pathos weren’t at Pixar’s usual level, but I’d still give the computer-animated flick a B+, three stars, or a 7.5 out of 10. My favorite animated movies of the past year or so include The Illusionist, Rango, and Winnie the Pooh, and I look forward to The Secret World of Arrietty, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Pixar’s next, Brave, in 2012.

Pirates 4 was better than its muddled predecessor At World’s End, with a more linear plot involving the Fountain of Youth, less pointless backstabbing and visual effects, and somewhat less mugging by star Johnny Depp. The romantic subplots were still extraneous but less annoying, and Penelope Cruz as pirate Angelica and Ian McShane as the notorious Blackbeard were worthy foils to Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush’s Capt. Barbossa. Not surprisingly, Disney’s On Stranger Tides leaves the door open for yet more sequels. I’d give it a B, 7 out of 10, or three stars.

I have yet to watch other recent swashbucklers, including Sinbad: the Fifth Voyage, the reboot of Conan the Barbarian, and the latest Three Musketeers. On TV, I enjoyed the latest Star Wars marathon and rewatching David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune for the umpteenth time. As David I.S. and I have noted, it’s OK for fans to turn to the visual equivalent of “comfort food” from time to time.

As previously mentioned, Janice and I also screened The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn at the Showcase Cinemas de Lux at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, and we met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Beruk A. for The Artist at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.

I’m somewhat familiar with the young hero of Belgian artist Herge’s comic books, and Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s adaptation is fairly faithful. I liked Tintin‘s globe-trotting, 1930s adventures (similar to those of Indiana Jones), and the “uncanny valley” of realistically animated humans didn’t bother me as it does with Zemeckis’ works, partly because they were slightly caricaturized. I’d give Secret of the Unicorn a solid B, three stars, or 7.5 out of 10.

The apparent theme of many of the movies I’ve mentioned here is that retro films, especially swashbucklers, never truly go out of style. The Artist is no exception, both following and paying homage to the tropes of the silent era. The French film is set in Hollywood of the late 1920s and early 1930s and follows the charismatic George Valentin (Jean Dujardin as an analogue for Rudoph Valentino) and young actress Peppy Miller (played by Berenice Bejo) as their industry deals with changing technology and audience tastes. Valentin’s dog steals the show. I definitely recommend The Artist, which I’d give an A-, or four out of five stars, or 8.5 out of 10.

What were your favorite movies of the past year? I didn’t get to theaters quite as often as in previous years. In addition to those mentioned above, I liked The Mighty Thor, Captain America: the First Avenger, The Muppets, and Sherlock Holmes [2]: A Game of Shadows. In the next few months, I hope to catch Hugo (another retro film that Janice saw), the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the actioner Haywire.

Looking further ahead, there’s planetary romance John Carter, superheroes Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, dueling fairy tales Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, James Bond in Skyfall, and of course, The Hobbit [1]: An Unexpected Journey!

Autumn 2011 genre TV, Part 3

Cartoon Network's Young Justice
DC/Cartoon Network's Young Justice

In the first two parts of my look at the new television season, I looked at the mysteries and thrillers that fill many weeknights. Fridays are different, however, with more speculative fiction than any other night. Cartoons, conspiracies, and fantasy worlds abound!

Cartoon Network has been burning off the final episodes of the fun and retro Batman and the Brave and the Bold, followed by the darker Young Justice, lone space opera Star Wars: Clone Wars, and the cool reboot of Thundercats. There have been decent reboots of G.I. Joe (Renegades) and Transformers, but I haven’t had time for them.

I’ve been less impressed with G4’s late-night Wolverine and Iron Man — they have many of the worst weaknesses of both Marvel and anime, such as static scenery, long internal monologues, stereotypical (and worse, bland) villains, and improbable action scenes punctuated by shouting. I’ll give the latest incarnations of the X-Men and Blade a try, however.

I lost Marvel’s Iron Man: Armored Adventures and Fantastic Four in the scheduling shuffle, and I still miss the canceled Spectacular Spider-Man and Sym-Bionic Titan. Cartoon Network/Boomerang has been rebroadcasting Samurai Jack, and the Hub has been showing the superlative Batman: the Animated Series.

In yet more animation, I’m looking forward to Nickelodeon’s fantasy Avatar: the Legend of Korra and the computer-animated Green Lantern and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as well as to the recently announced Beware the Batman. The computer-animated Tron: Uprising, How to Train Your Dragon, and Kung-Fu Panda movie tie-ins should also be coming soon.

As I’ve noted before, Disney/Marvel may have the lead in print comics and live-action movies (see The Avengers trailer), but Warner Bros./DC is holding on with TV series and direct-to-video releases such as the upcoming Batman: Year One and Justice League: Doom. To be fair, Marvel‘s Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Super Hero Squad have been renewed, and Ultimate Spider-Man (and a live-action Hulk, Cloak & Dagger, and A.k.a. Jessica Jones) is in the works.

Speaking of live action, spy spoof Chuck, cryptozoological Sanctuary, and alternate reality drama Fringe have all moved to what used to be called “SciFridays.” My DVR will be working hard from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m.! As with Smallville, I’ll enjoy the cameos on NBC’s Chuck to the show’s approaching end. SyFy’s Sanctuary has been uneven in tone, but Fox’s Fringe is still going strong, in my opinion.

Torchwood is over for now, and I haven’t yet caught A Gifted Man. I’ll try to see Grimm, which combines the modern supernatural aspects of Once Upon a Time with the procedural spoof elements of Dylan Dog (which I recently rented and enjoyed). Less fantastical but more gruesome is Spartacus: Vengeance, which lost its original star Andy Whitfield and whose third season I plan to watch.

On Saturdays, other than the annual Christmas special, Whovians will have a long wait for new Doctor Who episodes — until late 2012. I’m also looking forward to the eventual return of BBC America’s Being Human, if not the Americanized SyFy remake.

A few updates: After my previous posts on the current TV season, I saw that laid-back Southern crime drama Memphis Beat has been canceled, as well as the latest Charlie’s Angels, which I had already dropped. David I.S. has picked up Terra Nova and American Horror Story just as I’ve dropped them from my busy schedule, but there are only so many hours in the week!