Catching up — sheep and pirates

I’m still catching up on work, unpacking, and game notes after the fun reunion with friends from high school and college a few weeks ago. I’ve started writing blog posts about the Boston Comic Con, the current season of genre television, and more, but in the meantime, here’s a quick report on this past weekend.

On Saturday, 28 April 2012, Janice and I went to Gore Place in Waltham, Massachusetts, for the 25th annual Sheepshearing Festival. I was impressed by the size of the event and the number of attendees. We enjoyed the herding dog demonstration, fair food, craft tents, and bluegrass music. Janice and I also took a brief tour of the early 19th century home of one of Massachusetts’ governors.

The next day, we met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for lunch on Waltham’s Moody Street. We ate at Kabab & Tandoor, which is downstairs from an Indian grocer and part of an appetizing food court. We enjoyed the buffet of savory, spicy, and sweet items before going to the Landmark Embassy Cinemas nearby.

We caught a matinee of The Pirates! A Band of Misfits, the latest comedy from Aardman Animation, the studio responsible for Wallace & Gromit, among other things. We enjoyed the movie, which follows a hapless pirate captain (named “Pirate Captain” and voiced by Hugh Grant) in his quest to win the “Pirate of the Year Award.”

Aardman Animation's latest comedy
The Pirates!

Along the way, Pirate Captain and his eccentric crew — even for pirates — meet Charles Darwin (voiced by Martin Freeman, also known as Arthur Dent, Dr. Watson, and Bilbo Baggins) and an entirely unamused Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). Also important to the plot are a dodo, a dirigible, and Darwin’s monkey butler.

If this sounds delightfully chaotic, it is. The Pirates! has a lively Anglo-American voice cast, sight gags too numerous to catch in a single viewing, and good use of modern music (the Clash’s “London Calling” is most memorable). The movie, which combines stop-motion and computer animation, also alludes to real-world literature and science of the 19th century.

I enjoyed The Pirates! more than the past few Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, and I recommend the movie to anyone who likes animation, comedy, or swashbuckling and steampunk. The Pirates! is rated PG for some crude humor and slapstick violence, but most of the adult jokes will sail right over children’s heads. I’d give The Pirates! A Band of Misfits an 8.5 out of 10, a B+/A-, or four stars. This coming weekend is the opening of the much-anticipated Avengers live-action movie….

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!