Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

Jesse Hassenger

During the story's awkward romantic interludes, children and their parents can squirm in boredom together, as a family.

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas

Director: Tim Johnson
Display Artist: Patrick Gilmore and Tim Johnson
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: DreamWorks
Cast: Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-07-02

Animated action-adventure movies have been appearing with greater frequency over the last few years, despite the conventional wisdom that they are a tough sell for U.S. audiences. Still, this wisdom may be correct, as not even a Disney-brand version has crossed the coveted $100 million mark. Usually set in space (Titan AE), the ocean (Atlantis: The Lost Empire), or possibly both (the misbegottenTreasure Planet), the movies have been more good than bad, although many of them wind up in the "nice try" category. Most efforts, even the better ones, are too timid to alienate the family audience, but too populated with adult characters to win over many kids.

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, a high-seas compression of several myths and legends from DreamWorks, won't change this. It opened over the long holiday weekend with a weak $10 million, and will likely be swallowed up this week by Disney's live-action Pirates of the Caribbean.

Give the disappointment associated with movies like Treasure Planet, Sinbad may seem like a foolhardy project. But DreamWorks animation deserves credit for keeping it real with 2D animation, which is close to joining black-and-white photography on the list of most underappreciated movie formats. Indeed, the animation is quite good; the DreamWorks team is matched only by Disney when it comes to quality cel animation. The colors of Sinbad's islands, costumes, and skies are rich, and the characters move gracefully. Larger creatures and ships even involve some well-blended computer work. I think fondly of a sequence where Marina (voiced by Catherine Zeta-Jones), the only woman on Sinbad's (Brad Pitt) ship, must navigate roiling waters inhabited by Sirens who have bewitched the rest of the crew. The excitement is almost entirely due to the fluidity and quickness of animation itself; this is a fun movie to look at.

Still, conventional wisdom rears its ugly head: audiences are no longer interested in looking at traditional animation, no matter the quality. It's a hard point to argue when a movie as mediocre as Ice Age outgrosses the wonderful Lilo & Stitch. The apparently blind devotion to computer-animated family films is disturbing (if not yet as carved in stone as some analysts believe). Yet it's also hard to get worked into a rousing defense of Sinbad. Apart from its visuals, it's the blandest cartoon DreamWorks has released.

One problem may be the requisite celebrity voices. DreamWorks loves them, no matter how little they bring to the medium. Disney and Pixar, despite the occasional Tom Hanks or Robin Williams, have become more interested in smaller but distinctive actors, drawing excellent performances from John Goodman, Willem Dafoe, Emma Thompson, Ellen DeGeneres, and John Ratzenberger.

Dreamworks, wistfully recalling its big score on Shrek, chases stars. This worked on a film like The Road to El Dorado, which was enlivened by the energetic teamwork of Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh. Here, Pitt and Zeta-Jones are less than inspired. Odd, because both actors are at their live-action best doing comedy, but they cannot breathe any life into the listless sparring of their dialogue. Sinbad and Marina are also the least interesting characters to look at, and so the two leads have no chemistry, visual or aural. During the story's awkward romantic interludes, children and their parents can squirm in boredom together, as a family.

Michelle Pfeiffer's Eris, Goddess of Chaos, fares better. She swirls around like a playful ghost, and, recalling as she does her stint as Catwoman, a fun listen, too. But Sinbad's script, by John Logan (Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis) doesn't show any interest in the flukiness of the gods and fate, or even much appetite for adventure. As Sinbad and his shipmates navigate from one challenge to another, it's hard to feel involved. Sinbad himself seems kind of bored by his adventures; does he enjoy fighting, stealing, or even being noble?

For all of its freedom of movement, the film lacks real personality, and in parts, it's oddly serious-minded. I appreciate the effort to offer a little more variation on what was, a few years ago, the standard animated movie plot: bland hero plus feisty girl plus wacky sidekick plus songs. But Sinbad only subtracts the songs (Sinbad -- a pirate, remember -- has an inexplicable pet dog, though it doesn't speak) without adding anything to the dull hero-girl pairing.

I realize Disney and DreamWorks are in the business of producing family-oriented entertainment, not hard-edged anime (though it would be great to see another studio give that a try). But U.S. animation has untapped potential. Look at Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), a terrific cartoon that both kids and adults can enjoy, more or less without compromise. Then again, that too died at the box office. Perhaps studios and audiences need to better trust each other: audiences in the possibility that an adult sensibility can thrive in 2-D animation, and studios in the possibility that audiences would be interested. Until then, a film like Sinbad can't help but seem like a placeholder. It's a chance for animators to show off their artistry, and, apparently, for studios to keep the characters and story muzzled.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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