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by Bill Gibron

8 Nov 2008


Has it really been 20 years? Was it really just two decades ago when a local Minnesota UHF station, desperate for some cheap weekend programming, hired a few provisional stand-ups and gave them access to a few minutes of programming and their b-grade matinee movie archives? And was it really the tale end of the Reagan era when Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, and behind the scenes studio technicians Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon, got together with some hastily cobbled together puppets and a crappy piece of schlock and made the practice of talking back to a bad movie screen cool? Indeed, the KTMA phase of Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on 24 November, 1988, and the rest is, how they say, basic pay cable channel history.

It’s definitely been an unusual and uneasy legacy: A few station switches; a cult phenomenon; a rumored acrimonious breakup between the original partners; the ascension of head writer Mike Nelson into the show’s new star, critical acclaim; the final gasp of Sci-Fi fandom; the rebirth as competing entities Riff Trax and Cinematic Titanic; a few DVD releases. Indeed, for anyone who has worshipped the efforts of what used to be known as Best Brains (or a close collective facsimile thereof), keeping track of all the continuing comedy has been a chore in and of itself. While Nelson, Murphy, and current co-conspirator Bill Corbett deconstruct every new release in their audio only format, Hodgson, Weinstein, Beaulieu have recruited Mary Jo Pehl and (TV’s) Frank Conniff to jumpstart the silhouetted satire routine.

And with its fourth independent installment, the lamentably awful Legacy of Blood, Cinematic Titanic finally finds its groove. Previously, the quintet battled between reverence to the past and placating the present. Fans wanted backstory, clear indications of what the group were doing and why they were returning to familiar territory. What was the Time Tube, and why the weird warning light “skits” in the middle of the movies. Well, all those who wondered about the internal workings of the CT situation, pay attention. Before the horrific thriller from 1971 unravels, the collective have a conversation with the crew which may fill in many of the blanks. While not 100% satisfying, it sets us up for all the underground bunker commentary to come.

As for Legacy, it’s beyond horrific, the kind of And Then There Were None rip-off that made Agatha Christie cry in her Mousetrap. When the patriarch of the rotten Dean family dies, the siblings all show up for the reading - or in this case, the listening - of his will. They are joined by their respective spouses, repressed memories, and the most unhelpful set of servants ever. Naturally, the dead man’s estate stipulates that they all must spend a week at his home, and that if any of them should die, the other’s split the money evenly. Before you can say “Miss Jane Marple”, relatives are reeling, freshly killed corpses pushing up the alcohol fueled daises. Eventually, one remaining Dean is left, and when the murderer is finally revealed, we get a strange sense of cinematic déjà vu. Or maybe it’s just gas.

Like an episode of Dynasty gone gangrenous, Legacy of Blood uses a freakish family, the standard story set up legalese, and a bountiful collection of closeted skeletons to turn something supposedly shocking and scandalous into 90 minutes of mindnumbing dullness. Director Carl Munson was clearly a fan of the Method style of acting. He lets every member of his ‘Where Are They Now’ cast crow and carry on like mourners at a New Orleans wake. And then they REALLY start to overact. As part of the onscreen interpersonal dynamic, we get a sister incestually obsessed with her practically porcine brother, a psychiatrist in-law whose constantly on the make for the clan’s over the hill matron, a cowardly couple whose ratty little dog takes a lethal swan dive into the cement pond, and a tank of piranhas just waiting for a human body part to munch on.

Instead of terror however, Legacy of Blood is all talk.  Characters here just gab and gab away, hoping that their lengthy conversations overloaded with suggestions and sordidness will make our skin crawl. Sadly, they just make our eyes droop. Naturally, this makes for perfect Cinematic Titanic fodder. The gang can’t ignore the unctuous sexual sleaze pouring out of every character, and their quips about said horniness are classic. Sure, some of the material crosses over into the more “adult” oriented element of their demographic, but it’s nice to hear some borderline blue humor from the gang. Equally funny are the fill-in bits, with Trace offering up a goofy game show were Josh must guess which item WON’T kill him, while Frank is busted for that most heinous of show etiquette violations - gum chewing!

But it’s the back and forth between cast and celluloid that keeps the Cinematic Titanic series fresh and fun. The sequence where the chauffer character Frank is seen lounging among his collection of Nazi paraphernalia (including a lamp made of human skin - yikes!) is one of the series’ best, and nothing says ‘stupidity’ like the bad indecipherable accent attempted by Munson pal (and exploitation titan) Buck Kartalian. While most of Legacy of Blood - a retitle from the original Blood Legacy, go figure - is antiquated e- performers pitching fits of hopeless thespian histrionics, there are small moments which remind us of why films like this are just asking for a sassy dressing down.

With 20 years comes a lot of history - of missed opportunities, of unofficial classics, of times when it seemed the subject and the subjected meshed in perfect comedy clarity. Cinematic Titanic provides glimpses of such splendor. It reminds us of the reasons we fell in love with Hodgson’s homespun experiment in the first place. It’s the kind of entertainment that speaks to a specific ideal, that angers some purists while pleasing those with a much smaller motion picture axe to grind.  As they continue to create their own unique revamp of the pristine MST format, there will probably be stumbles and struggles along the way. And anytime you take on the distribution yourself, you’re bound to get lost in the self-produced melee. But fans both young and old understand that there’s nothing better than the original. With Cinematic Titanic, and Legacy of Blood, you get the closest of reproductions.

by Bill Gibron

7 Nov 2008


If you ask Guillermo Del Toro what his most personal films are, the answer seems obvious - at first. The Devil’s Backbone was a chance for the Mexican moviemaker to discuss the impact of Spanish Civil War on his ancestral homeland. It combined a Gothic ghost story with a strong political agenda. Similarly, Pan’s Labyrinth extended the meditation to the Franquist repression during the Franco regime. Again, we got a mixture of history, heritage, honor, and horror. The third choice, however, is the oddest overall. While no one expects Blade 2 or Mimic to join the others, both Cronos and the original Hellboy were close to his humble geek heart.

Yet, oddly enough, it’s the sequel to his 2004 comic book hero epic that sits closest to the man’s soul. As part of the amazing three disc DVD presentation (new from Universal) of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, we hear Del Toro, in his own self-deprecating way, explain how the larger than life flights of fancy peppered throughout the underappreciated Summer blockbuster represents an literal illustration of his own fertile imagination. It’s everything he wanted the original film to be and much, much more. Purposefully plotting out certain scenes to thematically represent his view of mankind and its uneasy coexistence with forces outside of reality, Del Toro delivers the kind of wide-eyed entertainment that will only grow in approval in the coming years.

You see, long ago, when the Earth was green, humanity and the elements of magic battled for control of the planet. Seeing the error of their ways, the two sides came to a truce before the mythic Golden Army (a goblin-made indestructible mechanical killing armada with no remorse) could be let loose. Now, centuries later, the son of King Balor, Prince Nuada, wants to pay humanity back for its crimes against his fellow creatures. He seeks the three pieces of the royal crown, the device that controls the feared robotic redeemers. Crossing over into the real world, he unleashes his otherworldly minions to help him seek the sections.  Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Along with the fire-conjuring Liz Sherman, and the aquatic empath Abe Sapian, it will be up to the heroic demon with a decent heart named Hellboy to stop Nuada and save the day…if he can.

Clearly, the connection to Mike Mignola’s comic and character is now very loose, to say the least. In fact, Del Toro reveals as part of his discussion, that when he first heard the idea for a follow-up film, Hellboy’s daddy was distraught. He didn’t like or appreciate much about the follow-up. But leave it to the likable Latino with the mind of an ADD amplified arrested adolescent to bring him around. The Golden Army is indeed great. It is two hours of monsters, myth, and moviemaking majesty. Since he no longer has to give us the title character’s origins, and can swiftly bypass any further character introduction, Del Toro goes right for the throat. From the opening stop motion animation that sets up the storyline, to the finale which pits armored automatons against our heroes, this is nothing short of pure visual bliss.

Del Toro has always been the biggest of genre mavens, an old school nerd who plies his obsessions with a fetishist’s fascination. You can sense him marveling over his own novelty over the course of the film, his camera capturing the actual awe and inferred wide-eyed wonder. Our synapses shouldn’t fire this liberally or often, and yet Hellboy 2 makes the overload feel like a familiar friend. This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy. Luckily, this is one director who makes room on his crowded canvas for moral fiber and subtext. This movie is more than just a collection of setpieces showing off the best that CGI and other F/X have to offer. Instead, it’s a deep meditation on magic, and how civilization has lost touch with its ethereal power.

Returning to remind us of how great they were the first time around, Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), and Doug Jones (now also voicing Abe Sapian) provide the nexus for our emotional involvement, and all do splendid work. Especially impressive is our title titan, a muscled bad ass with a soul as sensitive as a little child. This version of Hellboy may not match his graphic familiar note for note, but as a conduit to how Del Toro views the world around him, this link between the various planes of existence remains a remarkable work of fiction. And thanks to how Pearlman plays him - strong yet unsure, macho yet mindful of his purpose - we grow to like him more and more as the movie progresses. Jones is also good at channeling Abe’s inner turmoil, a battle Hellboy fought semi-successfully in the first film. 

Par for his creative course, Del Toro delivers villains who moderate their evil with a sense of purpose and potential decency. Prince Nuada (beautifully underplayed by Luke Gross) doesn’t only want to destroy the human pestilence that populates his world - he wants to reset the order, to regain the respect and dignity the supernatural forces once held among the living and undead. He goes about it in nasty, underhanded ways, but the valiance in his purpose is not unnoticed. Similarly, the various creatures created for the film rely on a Brothers Grimm kind of seriousness to support their sinister purpose. They aren’t just the things that go bump in the night. These are the nightmares meant to remind man, as the movie says, of why they originally feared the dark.

All of these underlying themes and subtle subtexts are further explored in the DVDs bonus features (by the way, the final disc is just a digital copy of the film). We learn how the Troll Market reflects Del Toro’s views on good and evil. We see deleted scenes meant to strength the bonds between the characters. As part of the Director’s Notebooks, Del Toro discusses how Pan’s Labyrinth and the difficulty of said shoot allowed him to escape into the world of The Golden Army. And all throughout the added content, form and design, shape and approach are dissected and described, Del Toro’s unique idea for the film fleshed out by artisan’s able to fully realize his aims.

That’s why this movie is one of 2008’s best. Del Toro describes it best when he says that it’s the kind of film that, if he had seen it when he was an eager 11 year old, he would have obsessed on it for months. That’s because, instead of pulling back, this director unleashes the full force of his creative power - and the results are ridiculously resplendent.  It’s like a freakshow film noir where Men in Black meets Clive Barker’s Cabal (or Nightbreed, for those of you not literarily inclined). There is a telling texture to this filmic universe, a real sense of gravitas and threat.

So we really shouldn’t be surprised to see a gentle giant with Satan’s skin standing right alongside the real world characters caught between war and remembrance in Del Toro’s canon. To dismiss Hellboy II: The Golden Army as nothing more than a pleasant popcorn experience is to underestimate the power in this filmmaker’s soul. Of all the foreign voices finding a way in mainstream genre moviemaking, Guillermo Del Toro is truly one of the best. It will be interesting to see what he does when given the canvas crafted by Peter Jackson and the universe inhabited by the equally endemic characters of JRR Tolkien. If it’s anything like this amazing masterwork, the two-part Hobbit will be another item in Del Toro’s list of favorites. And what an impressive collection it is.

by Bill Gibron

6 Nov 2008


Hollywood hates poking fun at itself. While it’s handled its fair share of good natured cinematic ribbing, once we get to the seething scalding takes like The Stunt Man or The Player, amiability turns instantly to animosity. Heck, even a comedy like Tropic Thunder seems overwhelmingly mean-spirited. Ex-members of the Tinsel Town elite are notorious for burning as many drug and debauchery induced bridges as possible, with examples like the late Julia Phillips’ tell-all tome You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again arguing both in favor of and totally against personal reserve. Now comes What Just Happened? , based on Art Linson’s memoir about his (mis)adventures as one of the industry’s leading producers. With Barry Levinson behind the lens and Robert DeNiro heading an all-star ensemble, what could go wrong? The answer - EVERYTHING!

Ben has big problems. The test screening of the film he produced starring Sean Penn was a disaster, and his latest movie won’t start shooting because its lead, Bruce Willis, has arrived on the set overweight, angry, and covered in a mountain man level of facial hair. While his boss, the no nonsense Lou Tarnow, wants these issues resolved pronto, Ben hasn’t the backbone to figure out how to fix them. Instead, he obsesses on his second wife, the beautiful if insecure Kelly, and worries about Zoe, his teenage daughter from his first marriage. In between, there are battles with hot tempered directors, egomaniacal actors, ineffectual agents like Dick Bell, and a friend/screenwriter who, when not pitching scripts to Ben, is possibly pitching woo to Kelly. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, or death. Ben, however, is barely driven to distraction.

What Just Happened? commits so many cardinal motion picture sins that it should be excommunicated from the entertainment arena on principle alone. It wastes the talents of several sensational performers, leaving actors like Willis, John Tuturro, and Stanley Tucci looking absolutely lost. It takes what should be a potent insider skewering and turns it into a pseudo-sudser where the character’s melodramatic meandering substitutes for La-La Land insights. It proves that, where once he was a mighty maverick of individual filmography, Barry Levinson is now back in tattered Toys mode - self-indulgent, lazy, and utterly lacking in artistic, creative, or commercial merit. And this after the one two bombardier-ing of Envy and Man of the Year. But perhaps the greatest abomination created by this 104 minute affront is that it is never, ever funny. Not when DeNiro does his sheepish schlep routine. Not when Willis goes bug-butt over his beard. Not when a Tarantino like filmmaker argues for the aesthetic integrity of a scene where criminals kill a dog in a full blown head shot.

It goes without saying that What Just Happened? is stiflingly bad. It has one redeeming element, and she - Catherine Keener as a no bullshit studio executive - is on and off screen so rapidly she barely has time to register. The rest of the time we are left with characters we care little about, problems that have no basis in the real world, and plot contrivances that push the very boundaries of the “based on a true story” paradigm. Linson may indeed be taking liberties here, going far too fictional to protect the innocent (or the regularly litigious). In the book, Alec Baldwin was the prima donna celeb, and Fight Club was one of the incredibly troubled productions. On screen, such authentic intrigue would have been a welcome internal connection. Let’s face it - viewers love gossip. But when turned make believe, the already larger than life facets go rogue. As a result, they reinvent the narrative into something like a fetid Aesop’s Fable, sans moral.

The cast, of course, is no help. They see this as their chance to bite the fiscally beneficial hand that constantly overfeeds them, and when they’re not chewing up the scenery, they’re mentally checking the zeroes on the end of their paycheck. Willis is especially weird, ranting and cursing during his hackneyed hissy fits like he forgot the cameras were rolling. He’s constantly threatening to break out into a ‘wink at the audience’ smirk. Similarly, Tuturro milks his cowardly yutz agent for less than 10% of his narrative worth. This is perhaps the worst performance he’s ever given - and no, we aren’t forgetting Transformers. Only Keener and Robin Wright Penn (as the iconic Kelly) save face, and it’s no thanks to Levinson. Directing in a manner that uncovers no pacing or comic timing, What Just Happened? winds up looking like a badly dubbed foreign film.

And then there’s big Bob. DeNiro has never been an easy fit within the comedic genre. Unless he’s playing with his own tripwire type (Meet the Parents), he comes off as a Shakespearean snob doing dinner theater. Here, he’s actually not bad, affecting a neurotic nebbish persona that could best be described as Woody Allen via Hell’s Kitchen. There are times when he is just a Paul Rudd impression away from being a total cliché, but he imbues Ben with enough dimension that we don’t instantly dislike him. No, it takes nearly an hour and one bathroom pick-up later to find our lead to be loathsome. Once Ben goes overboard into stalker mode, everything about What Just Happened? fizzles and flops. The ending seems anticlimactic and unimportant, the resolution offering the standard middle finger salute to audience attentiveness and consideration.

Frankly, something like this works better on the page, the brain free to recreate the scene where studio execs literally dodge some of the directorial choices made by David Fincher in Fight Club. We can do a much better job of watching the prose Linson lumbered across the Ethan Hawke version of Great Expectations than watching a English dope fiend argue why a dog has to get shot in the noggin. One might argue that What Just Happened? is too inside to connect with everyone. Only those who truly understand the business called show will snicker at Levinson’s labored satire. Everyone else should steer clear. Movies about the movies and those who make them usually don’t deliver in the way a typical mainstream effort would. What Just Happened? proves this point over and over again.

by Bill Gibron

5 Nov 2008


Michael Crichton was a big man, and not just in stature. At 6’ 9”, he definitely did tower above his peers - at Harvard where he graduated summa cum laude, at the prestigious university’s medical school where he earned his doctorate; among his fellow science fiction writers; and on the set of his hit TV series ER. But he was also a man of big ideas, big successes, and toward the end of his life, big controversies. His accomplishments play like a greatest hits compilation in the main mediums - literature, film, television - he worked within. But upon his passing from cancer at age 66 on 4 November, 2008 one fears he will be remembered for his more contentious nature than his artistic accomplishments.

Crichton was born in Chicago on 23 October, 1942. A prodigy of sorts, he was interested in history and the humanities from a very early age. His mother would take the family to museums and other cultural experiences in and around New York City (the Crichton’s had relocated to Roslyn, Long Island, when Michael was still small) and the strapping student would often offer extra papers to his teachers. Growing faster than the other children, he survived the occasional razzing by losing himself in writing and books. He even wrote a play at age nine. By the time he reached Harvard, he was a bit of a wunderkind. He started writing novels, and publishing them under the pseudonym John Lange. Eventually, he penned The Andromeda Strain, and in 1969, it became a bestseller. Using his given name, it established Crichton as a genre author of formidable note.

And the hits just kept on coming. Among the over 100 million books he was responsible for selling, he crafted The Terminal Man (1972), The Great Train Robbery (1975), Congo (1980), Sphere (1987), Rising Son (1992), Disclosure (1994), and Prey (2003). But his biggest success came when a chance conversation with Stephen Spielberg revealed the plot for Crichton’s upcoming dinosaur-oriented thriller. Mr. Blockbuster snapped up the rights before it was even published, and with that, Jurassic Park became a literal monster. Not only did it bring CGI to the otherwise ordinary giant b-movie creature feature, but it turning Crichton and his catalog into the go-to oeuvre for future book to film adaptations.

Of course, many forget that, in addition to writing, the gentile giant was also a decent director of big screen fare. With the amazing success of Andromeda (which was made into a wonderful film by Robert Wise in 1971), Crichton was given a chance behind the lens. When the TV movie Pursuit (based on his political assassination tome Binary) was well received, he made the leap to the theater, delivering one of 1973’s most provocative and profitable films. Westworld told the tale of a theme park where robots fulfilled the fantasies of its patrons. When a gunslinger android goes rogue, it’s up to a group of visitors to avoid his preprogrammed wrath. Successful enough to mandate a sequel (1976’s Futureworld), it provided the creative carte blanche that Crichton needed.

His next film would be an adaptation of Robin Cook’s organ bank fright fest, 1978’s Coma. It representing a weird kind of aesthetic synchronicity, as both men were medical doctors turned successful novelists. With Michael Douglas in the lead, it turned into a sizeable smash, and this allowed Crichton to pursue more personal projects. In 1979, he adapted his own Great Train Robbery as a vehicle for Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. Unfortunately, the follow-up, 1981’s Looker, was a plastic surgery disaster. While staying well within Crichton’s signature themes of science gone astray and technology trumping common sense, it was not the cautionary tale triumph of previous efforts.

Prior to hitting paydirt again with Park (which he merely scripted with help from David Koepp), he offered up the unexceptional sci-fi slop Runaway, perhaps best known for its casting of Kiss’s recently unmasked Gene Simmons as the main villain. After taking on the turgid Physical Evidence (1989) as a director for hire, Crichton seemed uninterested in continuing in film. While he contributed to the script of the Jan de Bont disaster smash Twister, Crichton seemed content to sell his stories to the studios, and then watch as adaptation after adaption failed to live up to his words. But when Park became a worldwide phenomenon, Critchon recalled the first project he and Spielberg discussed. A proposed novel about a doctor’s life in a bustling hospital emergency room, the TV take known as ER bowed in 1994. This year, 2008, marks its 14th and final season on NBC.

Over the course of his three and a half decades in the spotlight, Crichton never shied from his scientific background or his own interests. He wrote four non-fiction books - Five Patients (about his experiences in Massachusetts General), Jasper Johns (about his personal friend and renowned artist), Electronic Life (an introduction to the home computer) and Travels. He also did extensive programming for both the Applesoft and Basica PC languages. But as the new millennium approached, Crichton stopped sitting on his simmering beliefs and began spewing what many thought to be misguided and mean spirited attacks on environmentalism, the media, and what he considered to be the ‘contestable’ theory of global warming. He even went so far as to offer up a band of mass murdering eco-terrorists as the main plot point for his 2004 work State of Fear.

As each new novel was met with a decreasing level of excitement, Crichton appeared to turn inward. In his last published work, the 2006 “missing link” genetic research shocker Next, the author introduced a minor character named Michael Crowley. Described as a pedophilic Yale Graduate with a small penis, it was seen by some as a petty retort to the real life Crowley, himself a Yale grad and writer for the New Republic. Apparently, he penned a column highly critical of Crichton, and the resulting literary reference was a rather obvious if crude attempt at payback. When he learned he had cancer, Crichton asked that his soon to be published book be held until after his death. The still untitled effort should be released sometime later this year or early next.

Whatever the subject - and speculation among the messageboard faithful is fierce - it is clear that the standard Crichton commercial craftsmanship will be there. Issues that don’t ring true to him will be challenged and chopped up, fed like fodder to a mainstream audience who may not even understand the expressed nuances. Much more than just the man responsible for bring dinosaurs back into the pop culture conversation, Crichton was like Arthur C. Clarke without the knack of precognitive tech accuracy. He took on the growing influence of Asia with Rising Sun, and argued about sexual discrimination - in reverse - with his controversial Disclosure. He often bristled at criticism, complaining that many made their condemnations without actually thinking through their arguments. Up until the end, he remained a contentious contemporary thinker.

But one shouldn’t forget his pre-politics persona. As one of the few science fiction writers with an actual commercial following, Crichton proved that the speculative genre could be as compelling and profitable as Stephen King’s horror or the seedy soap operatics of someone like Jacqueline Susan. Indeed, long before he gave us the return of the T-Rex, Crichton was commenting on the frequent future shock society experienced with the endless march of progress. It’s no surprise then that many of his books take on and deconstruct the big picture painted of the world around us. After all, with someone like Michael Crichton, everything was and still is big - even his legacy.

 

by Bill Gibron

4 Nov 2008


It’s safe to say that Hollywood has finally figured out the family film. Not in a good way, mind you, but in an instantly profitable paradigm which guarantees coffers of cash either before or after the mandatory DVD release. While some might question the callousness of such a statement, the truth is that more of the major studios are sinking their dwindling production pot into films that fill up the G to PG-13 arena. While live action fare can’t really compete (only High School Musical and Hannah Montana have proven that humans can put butts into stadium seats), animation remains king. And not just any cartoon concept, but the sparkling techno geekiness of computer generated imagery.

Over the last year, the town of Tinsel has released several 3D titles. There was Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, Fly Me to the Moon, Space Chimps, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Igor, and Horton Hears a Who. While few passed the patented quality assurance, there were those - Panda, Wall-E, Horton - that rose above the creative din to avoid the genre’s curse. Indeed, ever since Pixar proved the viability of motherboard made entertainment, a motion picture blight has risen up inside the world of animation. Another example of it arrives this Friday, 7 November with the release of the unnecessary, uninspired sequel Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.

Many know it as the Fox/Dreamworks design, and it goes a little something like this: hire yourself a group of recognizable voice actors, preferably from mediums (TV, music) that provide some conceptual crossover appeal; take your spec screenplay and strip it of anything remotely resembling complicated characterization or narrative; insert multiple examples of lame pop culture quipping, everything from tempered Top 40 hits to fame whore in-joking; offer up a few mindless musical montages; and don’t forget the borderline offensive toilet humor and bodily fluid/noises jokes. Wrap it all up in a ribbon of riot act ridiculousness, a level of ADD inspired attention spanning that will leave the underaged spent and the adult feeling they got their Cineplex-inflated money’s worth, and you’ve got a F/D derivative. And a big fat hit, probably.

It’s a talent pool temperament that’s tainted everything from the shrill Shrek (and his two and counting sequels), the rusty Robots, the icky Ice Age efforts and the mindless Madagascar. Of course, such criticism hardly matters when said group accounts for several hundred MILLION dollars in box office returns. Yet to argue that money equals quality is a lot like stating that volume equals pitch. Just because a film rakes in an unconscionable cavalcade of currency doesn’t mean it’s a categorical classic. In the case of these CG slurries, the exact opposite seems to be true. The more money they bring in, the more mediocre and strident they seem to be. Malcolm McLaren had it right - cash from chaos.

Take Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. As franchise fodder goes, it’s a brainless combination of everything that made the first film so stiff with an amplified idea of how to repeat said achievement. This isn’t art, it’s pure commerce draped in an undeniable coating of focus group faith-based marketing. The pre-planned pleasures in the story are so obvious they shimmer. As the four main animals from the first outing discover the pros and cons of returning to their native land, the audience it treated to dim satire, punch lines that bang into each others like tweeners at a Jonas Brothers concert, and a gorgeous amount of visual splendor spoiled by obvious overacting from a cast who seem to base their performance level on the number of zeroes in their residual checks.

Clearly, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was made with the intent of keeping children’s tiny synapses engaged so as not to allow for any questioning or concern. Yet the film goes so far as to offer up two additional ideals that seem to have no place in such family-oriented entertainment. The first is fairly obvious - violence. This is a very vicious film. Alex is seen as a helpless lion cub, then when kidnapped, his heroic father chases the poachers until a huge gun barrel dislodges a round right into daddy’s…earlobe. While no blood is shown, the character carries the missing piece/scar around the rest of the film. Equally concerning are the sequences with Mort the Mouse Lemur. He is seen trying to enter an airplane, mid-air, and then after he survives the eventual crash, he is chased by a shark that can apparently live outside the water for inordinately long periods of time.

And it goes on. There is a battle between Alex and a muscle-bound lion, another time for the critters to take on a band of desperate (and hungry) tourists. All of which brings us to Nana, the “feisty” old lady from the first film. A short slapstick sequence originally, she is fleshed out here, given to fits of Jason Voorhees like punishment and a Lord of the Flies mentality that just doesn’t mesh with the movie’s lighter tone. It’s hard to support such outright hostility, especially when it’s really not delivered for comic effect. Imagine, if you will, that Yosemite Sam finally managed to get his stubbed up paws on that “rascally varmint” Bugs Bunny…and then spent 45 seconds beating the ever lovin’ stuffin’ out of him. No wit. No physical comedy shtick. Just an endless beat down. Nana gets two chances at this throughout the course of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. How nice.

But perhaps the most disconcerting element here is the weird sexualization of the animals. Gloria, the feisty female hippo, spends the majority of her journey through the veldt pining away for a partner. Not a soul mate, or a friend, but a big time booty call. She eventually gets the big eye from a new character called Moto Moto. During a late night rendezvous which sounds suspiciously like a hook up in a Chubby Chasers chat room, the two give new meaning to the concept of disturbing double entendres. From the glamour shots of our hefty heroine poising provocatively to Moto making like Fabio and flexing his flab, it’s the grade schooler equivalent of watching the foreplay in a particularly disturbing animated porno. Even a strange shot of our lothario’s butt managed to draw audible gasps from the standard screening audience.

All of which begs the question - how, exactly, is this family fare? Are we to assume that Walt Disney, the man who started the entire feature length animation craze, would approve of putting such content into his films? Sure, Bambi’s mother died, and Pinocchio was threatened by the biggest whale his pen and ink posse could create. But would the man behind the House of Mouse condone random acts of senseless brutality? Or maybe Dumbo’s mom should have received a last minute conjugal visit before she was carted off to her mad elephant cage. Certainly it’s an exaggeration to see these sequences as anything more than minor reflections of their more mature counterparts, but they also suggest something desperate about the continual cannibalization of the CG genre. Hollywood usually gets the family film right - at least when it comes to the preprogrammed manner in which they make these movies and money. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is either a fluke, or something to be wary of in the future. Perhaps, it’s a little of both. 

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Cage the Elephant Ignite Central Park with Kickoff for Summerstage Season

// Notes from the Road

"Cage the Elephant rocked two sold-out nights at Summerstage and return to NYC for a free show May 29th. Info on that and a preview of the full Summerstage schedule is here.

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