I have another post up at Generation Bubble, about consumption deskilling.
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Pity the poor independent or foreign film company that wants to break into America’s CG animation marketplace. Just from a commercial standpoint alone, you have to battle Disney and its flawless filmmaking minion, Pixar, Dreamworks and their jaded joke-a-thons, Fox and their equally failed pop culture rifftrax, and numerous studio sponsored brandings that have fits of artistic flourish, but very little to offer in the source/story department. Only the brave, the strong, or the inherently stupid even try, and when they do, the results are almost always awful. Sure, there are the rare rays of sunshine (Dragon Hunters) within the darkness, but for the most part, what works outside the confines of the U.S suffers from the same kind of culture shock that other imported titles have to deal with.
Take Donkey X (or Donkey Xote, as it was labeled in its native Spain). This supposedly spirited retelling of the classic Cervantes adventure Don Quixote offers up Sancho Panza’s mule Rucio and his desire to be taken seriously…as a horse. He does this by accompanying his master, his master’s famous friend, the heroic (if slightly over the hill) steed Rocinante, and a rather irritating rooster as they all travel to Barcelona for a big knight’s festival. There, Quixote will once again battle the many flowing figments of his imagination, as well as his notions of duty, honor, and chivalry to win the hand of the elusive damsel Dulcinea. In between, we have to deal with the conspiring head of Quixote’s home town, a weird evil wizard (?), a visit to a desperate Duke and Duchess, and one of the oddest cases of equine gender identity ever.
If you haven’t already guessed by now, Donkey X doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Perhaps in its native tongue, with the Spanish cast giving the proper vocal flair to every line, we’d appreciate this cloying, confusing effort. Even if the subtitles ended up being as disconnected and mystifying as the new English dialogue utilized here, at least we could defend the film’s heritage. But laboring under a new no-name cast and a script that literally throws plot logic out the window, this shoddy Shrek rip-off barely deserves a mention. Indeed, without Eddie Murphy’s lightning fast quips to keep things buoyant, this clear copycat of the worldwide phenomenon simply drowns.
It all starts with the smarmy premise. Cervantes story has already happened, Quixote has become an icon, and everyone is Spain wishes to mimic him. Panza, on the other hand, is just pissed that he didn’t get a royalty check from actually living the now best-selling tale. He only agrees to a new journey under the guise of getting p-a-i-d! In the meanwhile, Rocinante has spent his retirement training chickens to walk in militarily precise order while Rucio fights off the anti-mule sentiments of the local horse population. When a chance to finally find Dulcinea comes along (a plot by the aforementioned bureaucrat to get Quixote and his celebrity out of his life once and for all), our crew gathers back together and goes wandering - endlessly wandering.
Try as he might, director Jose Pozo just can’t hold his second animated movie together. He shows some spark in one single scene - Quixote dreams that Dulcinea is lost in a dangerous thicket, only to have the briars turn into ogres and other beasties - but for the most part, The Veggie Tales show more cartoon imagination. The blocky, basic computer generated imagery offers none of the current creative visionary pizzazz, and the character design is so Shrek-like, the studio should sue. There are some moments of decent action and Pozo does mix it up in the framing and composition department. But the reliance of oddball covers of antique rock songs (“True Colors”, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”) and the bland, unrecognizable names behind the characters is truly depressing (original rumors had Alfred Molina and Jeff Daniels as Quixote and Panza, respectively. What happened?).
Yet none of this would matter if we could simply understand just what in the windmill is going on. Conservations contain both expositional and interpersonal non-sequitors. One moment a potential Dulcinea is a bitchy, bosomy gold digger - the next, she’s a whiny over 30 brat. Quixote’s quest is never full fleshed out, though we do get to hear how noble he is ad nauseum. Panza finally gets a payout, and then turns it all down to admit some sordid secret to his friend? And then Quixote’s horse falls head over heals for a stallion in filly drag??? By the time we get to the knight competition, complete with the clichéd stand-off between good and evil, the various loose threads come completely unraveled. We are stuck with a silly twist, a lame comeuppance, and an ending that makes even less sense than the rest of the film.
Again, this could all be a matter of translation. Ever input a foreign website into one of those online language converters? Donkey X plays a lot like one of those results, or better yet, a badly dubbed martial arts movies that loses all its dignity when recast into problematic pigeon English. Then again, when the storyline is stitched together and then deciphered, it’s hard to see any reverse back to a romance language helping this muddled mess. Kids will clearly think its all pretty colors and confusing ideas while adults will hit themselves over the head for introducing this dullness into their standard electronic babysitting cycle. Granted, when you go up against Wall-E, or Kung Fu Panda, or any of the Ice Age films, you’re bound to look second-tier. Donkey X is so lame, however, it shouldn’t be considered. It should be shot.
Gallows humor, with its dark and often subversive nature, remains a hard sell in modern cinema. Not only does it take a certain droll oddball proclivity to truly appreciate, but the subject matter involved can often be an equally hard sell. That’s why we critics end up seeing so many hapless horror comedies. Filmmakers, convinced that macabre and merriment go hand in hand, try to balance out fear and funny business. Few succeed.
Now imagine Sam Raimi circa Army of Darkness taking on a delirious version of a Merchant/Ivory period piece, complete with cockney criminals, corrupt priests, and enough crown Victorian flavor to turn a standard motion picture meal into steak and eel pie. That’s the beauty (and the bedevilment) of writer/director Glenn McQuaid’s goofy I Sell the Dead. Part slapstick shocker, part uneven horror romp, this tale of a grave-robber’s apprentice and his frequently supernatural travails offers some intriguing ideas. They don’t always work, but when they do, the film finds a groovy, ghoulish eccentricity.
Just hours before his execution, accused fiend Arthur Blake is visited by a kindly priest. The purpose? To record this notorious criminal’s last thoughts before the guillotine. Along with former colleague (and already disposed of) grave robber Willie Grimes, Arthur is indeed guilty of several gruesome acts. As he discusses his introduction into the body part trade (and his work for the horrific hack medico Dr. Quint) we learn very quickly of blackmail, mortuaries, missed opportunities, and a band of equally terrifying rivals known as the Murphy Clan. Made up of cutthroats, killers, and one demonically domineering father, Willie and Arthur soon find themselves battling the heinous forces of this determined family - as well as the occasional zombie. Indeed, as their business turns from the recently deceased to the “undead”, our duo discovers how profitable, and problematic, a career as a body snatcher can be.
There are times when you just want I Sell the Dead to settle down. This is perhaps the most “inertly hyperactive” movie ever made. Such a contradictory statement needs a bit of an explanation. McQuaid is clearly a fright film fan. He’s got the references and implied homages down pat. But he’s also like the 13 year old scary movie buff who is full to bursting with his own opinions and ideas about cinema - and you can see that scattered, ADD like attention span right up there on the screen. Instead of letting moments play out organically, building tension and laughs from within some exceedingly sinister material, he gets the basics down and then jumps right to the next set-up. This works during the initial scenes when Arthur explains his beginnings. But once we get to the more “monster” oriented material, the approach does some damage.
Take Arthur and Willie’s run-in with a vampire. She’s fetching. She’s voluptuous. She’s a corpse. Everything is set for a ripe bit of Hammer-era bodice ripping. Instead, the aforementioned maker of The Evil Dead is channeled, the bloodsucker appearing and disappearing in a series of silly Loony Tunes like false shocks. Indeed, the Murphys with their various superhero/graphic novel style backstorys are far more terrifying than any creature we see here. But at least McQuaid is borrowing from the best. The Raimi touches are everywhere, from weapon POVs to sly bits of Abbot and Costello like humor. As always, casting is crucial to making this work, and filmmaker Larry Fessenden and eternally Lost hobbit Dominic Monaghan are fine as the intrepid tomb raiders. Their personalities don’t dive below the fundamentals - cowardly/cautious - but they have their own brand of onscreen charisma to help them along.
Sadly, McQuaid utilizes several other quality cult stars in underwritten or little seen turns. Phantasm‘s Tall Man, Angus Scrimm himself, has a blink and you’ll miss it turn as the evil doctor demanding corpses from our heroes, and Ron Pearlman channels his Name of the Rose past playing the cockiest clergyman in the history of the Holy Sea. Yet both men feel like fanboy additions, ways for McQuaid to make good with nerd nation and the majority of movie fans who will read about this movie and want to check it out. The rest of the cast is competent, but clearly molded out of journeyman level of career. As for the main man himself, McQuaid has an interesting filmic frame of reference. Inspired by EC Comics, Stephen King, Charles Band and almost the entire ‘80 direct-to-video catalog, this Irish maverick wants to be both rebel and realist. I Sell the Dead does have a subtle satiric edge. When it goes a bit bonkers, however, things get way out of hand rather quickly.
Indeed, for its short running time and rapid fire vignette like approach, this is a movie that can feel a bit bogged down at times. While McQuaid keeps up the atmosphere and the kitschy CG backdrop dynamics, his narrative occasionally lets him down. Once we see that things are going from gruesome to Ghostbusters, the gimmick gets in the way. Certainly I Sell the Dead is never dull or disposable, offering every bit of its low budget invention up on the screen for everyone to see, and it’s clear that McQuaid, properly funded and flush with available talent, could turn in something really super. As it stands, this delightful bit of gallows humor has its high points. It also suffers from occasional stumbles. Still, in a genre that sees more misfires than masterworks, I Sell the Dead is an excellent minor example of the latter. While it could have possibly been better, fans know it could be a whole helluva lot worse.
It’s definitely not the biggest flop of Summer 2009. That honor is still reserved for Transformer: Revenge of the Fallen (artistically) and either Year One or Land of the Lost (financially). And there really was no reason to avoid screening the film for the press. Sure, a few long time curmudgeons would and still will hate on this title, but it clearly wasn’t made for them. Besides, the intended audience, who doesn’t read such cinematic snobbery in the first place, won’t be clamoring for their thoughts any time soon. No, if G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra becomes any kind of hit for studio parent Paramount, it won’t be because of some specialized publicity, a pick-and-choose concept of criticism, or geek nation rebelling against the mainstream media. It will be because, like it or not, Stephen Sommers has made a pretty decent popcorn film - flawed, but fun.
Jarhead grunt Duke and his army buddy Ripcord are put in charge of delivering some sensitive nanotech warheads for the U.S. government. While on route, their convoy is ambushed by a group of elite fighting drones led by the lethal Baroness. They destroy most of Duke’s men before another secret squadron, known as the G.I. Joes, saves the day. Under the directive of General Hawk, this collective of specialized forces has the latest in scientific and high tech weaponry advances. Unfortunately, the Baroness’ efforts are bankrolled by aggressive arms dealer McCullem, who along with a mad scientist known as “The Doctor” are creating a race of super soldiers. The nanotech warheads will be used to blackmail the rest of the world into falling in line with the evildoers’ demands. It will be up to the Joes to find the foe’s hidden hideout, retrieve the bombs, and once again make the world a safe for freedom and justice.
If all you care about is action, G.I. Joe delivers. It offers up some of the best eye candy stunt set-pieces of the summer, easily besting the Bay bombast of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. While he’s just as crazed and over the top as his brother in non-believability, director Sommers at least stages his chaos with a normal attention span in mind. During a terrific chase scene in Paris, the camera leaps and bounds around the F/X, allowing us to both feel the experience and follow it, logistically. Similarly, a last act dogfight underwater (don’t ask) provides enough big screen scope and CG pyrotechnics to keep many a 14 year old’s bubbling brain pan good and stimulated. Even the hand-to-hand combat between our two franchise ninjas - Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes - is a crackerjack karate kick.
But if all you care about is character, narrative logic, emotional depth - Heck, even something you’ll remember an hour after you’ve seen it - G.I. Joe completely fails. This is a film that simply tosses personalities at the screen, unexplained and completely without context, coming back later for a few flaccid flashbacks in order to rebuild their already meaningless backstory. We know very little about Duke, even less about Ripcord, and the rest of the “Joes” are jerryrigged out of central casting conceits, multicultural needs, and a clear eye toward the budgetary bottom line. Don’t come looking for A-list stars here. Dennis Quiad aside (he’s our real American heroes aging father figure), the rest of the company is crap.
Indeed, the actor choices here are laughably bad. Sienna Miller does a decent job mimicking a Matrix-like female bad-ass (complete with a Trinity-lite line of tight black leather outfits), but she’s hormone fodder, nothing more. Marlon Wayans might have been added for marketing diversity’s sake, but his comic asides are just awful. As for our villains, there’s not much to discuss. Both Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon-Levitt may seem like unusual choices to play Cobra’s kings, but they spend so much time doing little except explaining themselves that we grow weary of the endless exposition. But the worst marquee offender here is Channing Tatum. Totally talentless, without a lick of onscreen magnetism or presence, he represents the most low rent hero in the history of action films since the days of Steven Seagal. Had Sommers picked a better group of cinematic recruits, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra would be much, much better. With the current crop, he needs all the supercomputing power the production can muster.
And then there is the script, a slop jar collection of cartoon call-backs, contemporary tech buzzwords, jingoistic clichés, and every emotionless bon mot in the thriller love interest primer. We don’t expect to buy or believe everything here - this is a property based on a kid’s show fashioned out of some updated toys, after all - but it would be nice to have something resembling human interaction and warmth between the characters. Everything is declarative and assertive, from military directives to feelings of affection. Perhaps the problem goes back once again to casting, but it seems pretty clear that not even a director with a better grip on people than Sommers could elicit feelings out of the fake, pedantic dialogue offered as conversations here.
With a plethora of whiz bang pop rock and roll to provide the demo with some entertainment rules of engagement and just enough story to keep things from straying too far off course, G. I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra will be seen as the one time the studio rolled the dice and more or less came up a winner. Even if the movie doesn’t make back all it’s money, Paramount successfully avoided the predicted piling-on of an out of touch media in favor of finding publicity accomplices within the Internet’s new specialized salesmen. Whether it will really mean anything in the end remains to be seen. After all, it’s not all about the press. It’s also about the presentation - and this escapist claptrap is goofy and cheesy, but mostly mediocre. And if a group of racists robots can monopolize this Summer’s money pit with their overlong trip into tedium, these celebrated soldiers should easily recapture some of final fiscal glory. They’re not heroes, or zeroes. Instead, these G.I.s are just so-so.
Popular cultural mediums are usually a few years behind youth sub-cultural movements. When those who work in such mediums do get around to addressing such groups, it’s usually in a way that only makes sense to those bound by Hollywood stereotypes or the embarrassing misinterpretations of New York literary magazines. For the most part, however, Marvel Comics addressed punk well.
They played it tongue in cheek in The Mighty Thor panel from 1984 in which some young punks give Thor fashion advice. As he walks into the Avengers Mansion, the kids tell him, “Listen, man, haven’t you heard? Long hair is definitely out. Why not come over to our place for a Mohawk?” To which Thor responds, “I thank thee. But were I to cut my hair, my helmet would fall off.”
To some extent, Marvel also addressed punk seriously. Though many people think back on Chris Claremont and John Romita Jr.‘s Uncanny X-Men story of Storm becoming punk as a silly sub-plot that couldn’t see past the time, the transition to the Wendy-O-Williams aesthetic was a good way to signify Storm’s identity crisis. After renouncing her faith in herself as a goddess and finding herself without a pre-set system of beliefs, Storm externalized her crisis in a new look. In this panel from Uncanny X-Men #180, Storm is explaining the meaning of her new aesthetic to Professor Xavier, who also sports a strange ensemble.