The Country Bears (2002)

Imagine if the infamous The Band documentary The Last Waltz was remade as a dramatic film where every actor was created by the animatronic technicians behind the Chuck E. Cheese house band. Now rework that premise into an 88 minute live action Disney comedy and you have the delightfully nightmarish flop The Country Bears from 2002. Much like other blatantly commercial misfires of pop culture past (Mac & Me, Super Mario Bros., Howard the Duck, Monster Trucks, etc.), The Country Bears‘s main draw is the disturbing novelty of its character design, the titular bears. The movie is too short and too ramshackle for the absurdity of its animatronic country musician bears to ever wear off, so every wiggle of their roboticized ears and every flicker in their dead robo-bear eyes registers as a crime against Nature. What distinguishes The Country Bears from other nightmarish misfires of shameless commercialism, however, is that its various goofs & gags can actually be genuinely funny on top of its overall surrealist novelty. Directed by Animaniacs writer (and Pinky & The Brain creator) Peter Hastings, the film is somehow successful as a straightforward kids’ comedy (for the kids who don’t wake up screaming later that evening, at least).

Our protagonist and audience surrogate is a preteen bear robot voiced by Haley Joel Osment, who opens the film asking human parents (including Steven Tobolowsky), “Am I adopted?” over the breakfast table. His human brother, a generic teen bully with early 00s frosted tips, is befuddled that his parents tell a white lie in that moment and that no one seems to care that Beary Barrington is a bear, taking it into his own hands to tell the truth. This inspires Beary to run away from home on a road trip to the concert hall where his all-time favorite band, The Country Bears, used to play regularly. Discovering that the robo-bear version of The Greatful Dead is currently broken up and the concert hall is in danger of being demolished, Beary vows To Get The Band Back Together in order to save the historic space that stands as his bear culture mecca. The plot is mostly a series of set pieces from there as he collects bear musicians voiced by Stephen Root, Toby Huss, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt (in a disturbing bear form the producers are hoping you’ll find sexually attractive), etc. for the climactic, day-saving concert. Standing in the way of success is a demolition-happy real estate developer played by an especially deranged Christopher Walken and a set of idiot cops tasked with bringing Beary home to his “family.”

Watching these hideous robo-bears play their giant guitars, banjos, and harmonicas, it’s easy to fantasize about how much better this film could be with a punk or metal soundtrack than it is with the lackluster country pop served up here. There is something subversive about dedicating something so visually bizarre to a wholesomely American artform, though, and no matter how bland the music gets, the bears never stop being fascinating to look at, whereas if this film were made in the last five years they’d be rendered in grey mush CGI. As the winking-at-the-audience cameos from unexpected celebrities like Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, and Elton John pile up, the movie’s normalized commercial sheen becomes even more bizarre in juxtaposition with its hideous character designs & zany Animaniacs humor. Sped-up bus chases, cops getting beaten senseless by automated car washes, musical arm pit farting, and old lady diner patrons pulling saxophones out of nowhere amount to the logic of a music video or a Saturday morning cartoon, which makes the VH1 Behind the Music-inspired premise all the more ridiculous. The film never pauses long enough to allow you to wonder how this human/bear society functions socially or why Beary Barrington would have a Nine Inch Nails poster on his bedroom wall. The whole thing just barrels through diners, weddings, car washes, dive bars, and music video shoots toward the inevitable, day-saving concert climax. It comes and goes so quickly and with such bizarre enthusiasm that I barely had time to notice that I was constantly smiling throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

Advertisements

Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back (1999)

I’ve always interacted with the Pokémon brand from the fringes, a casual fan at best. When Pokémon reached its fever pitch popularity as a cultural presence in the United States, I happened to be making my awkward transition into a mood teen, wary of being associated with Kids’ Stuff, and embarrassingly dedicated to making nu metal the cornerstone of my Personal Brand. Still, the appeal of the “pocket monsters” that populate the Pokébrand’s various trading card collectibles, Nintendo games, and television series was always apparent to me, even if I didn’t know the intricate minutia of its Pokélore. It’s incredible that a Japanese pop culture brand has been able to get American kids hooked on collecting & trading what’s essentially a stylized version of yokai, despite having no real connection to its cultural significance. What’s even more amazing still is the longevity of that obsession. Not only has the smart phone game Pokémon Go recently reinvigorated a lot of what BuzzFeed would call 90s Kids’ interest in the brand, but in the couple decades of its international cultural presence, its output has not really subsided for those who never left. I may not personally be able to rattle off more than a handful of pokémon types off the top of my head, but after following family & friends around to the city to “catch” the little digital bastards on their phones and seeing the hordes of like-minded players doing the same in massive clusters of dork, it’s become apparent that they do have a kind of cultural longevity that can’t be ignored. This fact is convincingly backed up by the evidence that there are twenty feature length Pokémon films to date, including five that earned theatrical distribution in the United States. That’s a whole lotta catching/battling of miniature monsters.

As immediately apparent as the appeal of hoarding & imagining the staged battles of various pokémon types (that resemble creatures as varied as space aliens, dragons, ducks, and kittens) is to kids who encounter it at an early enough age, it can be exasperating to an outsider. In his 1999 review of the first Pokémon movie, Roger Ebert is stunned in his befuddlement. He spends most of the review attempting to define what pokémon even are and struggling to find reference points to entertainment media he does understand, which is how he ends up comparing the film (unfavorably) to My Neighbor Totoro. His confusion is entirely justified, to be honest. Even the film’s title, Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back, is an intimidating warning that it is not a self-contained story that can be easily grasped by the uninitiated. Mewtwo Strikes Back wastes no time explaining the gyms, stadiums, “catching,” pokéballs, teams, trainers, or even the little monsters of its world (although it does waste time elsewhere). Instead of starting with a clean slate, it functions as a 90 minute episode of the original television show. Our human heroes (Ash, Brock, and Misty) are introduced in a brief narrative paragraph about their penchant for getting into all kinds of pokémon-related adventures, but much more attention is paid to staging a pokémon match in the middle of the opening credits (complete with a dance remix of the television series’ theme music) to set the mood. If you’re new to the Pokémon universe, I’d recommend at least watching the pilot episode for the series to get a hold of the basic narrative. Otherwise, the best you’ll be able to grasp is that The Good Guys and The Bad Guys are competing To Be The Very Best in a world of tiny monsters where the main objective is to Catch Them All and train them for battle (where victory means both establishing supremacy & collecting more pokémon).

This particular episode in the Pokésaga concerns the creation and the radicalization of the titular Mewtwo, The World’s Strongest Pokémon. Much like how the rarity of certain specimen in all trading card circles (Pokémon, Magic, baseball, or otherwise) increases their value, there are rare pokémon that tower over more common types in their strength & narrative significance. According to this film, the rarest of them all is a psychic pokémon named Mew, so much so that it’s considered by most trainers to be extinct. An Evil Corporation (the standard go-to villain for kids’ media) that seems tied to the series’ Team Rocket baddies employs scientists to clone this long lost creature, which resembles a hybrid between a kitten & a space alien, into a more powerful form, known as Mewtwo. Bigger, stronger, and more leopard-like than Mew, Mewtwo is essentially the nuclear bomb of pokémon, even leaving behind a mushroom cloud in his wake as he destroys the scientists who created him. He’s so psychically powerful that he can control the weather with the wave of a finger, but he struggles with questions like “But why am I here?” is his RoboCop-inspired rise to sentience. Mewtwo does eventually find meaning in his own existence: righting what he perceives to be a power imbalance between pokémon and their human trainers based in his interactions with his evil Team Rocket creators. Believing that “Humans and pokémon can never be friends” and that pokémon have disgraced themselves by serving humans as slaves, Mewtwo crafts an army of pokémon “superclones” to attack the world’s greatest trainers, hoping to level society so that it can be properly rebuilt. Ash & his travel companions, of course, became central figures in this massive battle and just barely hold their own against Mewtwo thanks to the help of other trainers and (*gasp*) the original Mew. In the heat of the battle, Ash sacrifices himself to save his closest pokémon companion, fan favorite Pikachu, and is turned to stone. The pokémon in the battle bring him back to life with their magical monster tears and, realizing he was wrong about the human exploitation of pokémon, Mewtwo calls off his revolution and flies his superclones off to Pokéheaven or somewhere pokéadjacent.

You can tell as soon as the title that Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back will have no real finality as a self-contained story and will ultimately function as Just Another Episode within the larger Pokémon brand. Given that same ongoing narrative structure’s popularity in popular media like pro wrestling, soap operas, and The MCU, that’s not necessarily a problem. The film does little to wow anyone who’s not already devoted to the Pokémon brand, but it’s entertaining enough as a kids’ fantasy animation to feel worthwhile. Its various monster battles are old-fashioned kaiju fun, Picachu & Mew are absurdly cute character designs, and the hand-drawn animation is much more complex, & visually interesting than what modern CG kids’ media has devolved into (especially considering the recent release of The Emoji Movie). I can only point to a few details where Mewtwo Strikes Back‘s novelty amounted to much more than that. Besides the absurdity of the title and climactic choices to treat both Ash and Pikachu as christ-like figures (complete with a hilariously tragic Turn the Other Cheek sequence), I can really only single out the final battle as a must-see highlight. Clones of various pokémon fight their originating doubles to the point of fatal exhaustion while a heartfelt acoustic ballad titled “Brother My Brother” overpowers the soundtrack with bleeding heart cheese. Lyrics demand “Tell me, what are we fighting for?” and the movie takes a strong, tear-filled “Fighting is meaningless & horrible” stance of pacifism, despite being a part of a universe where battling for supremacy over other trainers is everything. The narration’s ponderings about “the great mystery and the great miracle” of Life sometimes approach the over-the-top absurdity of that “Brother My Brother” scene, but the movie generally lacks that kind of energy throughout. At the very least, there are some glaring missed opportunities in Mewtwo’s abuse of pokémon cloning technology, which could have easily led to to some Cronenbergian pokémonstrosities radically different than the ones that regularly appear on the television show. Instead, we’re treated to exactly the kinds of entertainment offered by the show, just for a longer stretch of time.

I sympathize with Ebert’s desperate in-over-his-head feeling in being assigned to professionally review this movie, which he had no real business watching. Even having a longterm semi-familiarity with pokélore, I found myself frequently confused with rules of the universe established in Mewtwo Strikes Back, especially in regards to the volume & variety of particular pokémon types and the scope of the evil Team Rocket. As there are nineteen more feature films in this series (the most recent of which was released just this year), that sense of knowing the rules of the Pokéverse is either more easily grasped by those who regularly play the brand’s various video & card games or doesn’t matter at all, even to devotees. Maybe watching more of these features will better acclimate me to the rules of its lore, but I’m going to need a lot more of that “Brother My Brother” absurdity to carry me across the finish line if that’s the kind of dedication it requires. Pikachu is pretty damn cute, but not cute enough to pull all that weight on their little electric rat back alone.

-Brandon Ledet

Ray Bradbury’s Return to Tormenting Suburban Children in The Halloween Tree (1993)

There’s something instantly familiar about the spooky, vintage Midwest suburbs of the Ray Bradbury-penned feature Something Wicked This Way Comes, our current Movie of the Month. Even watching the film for the first time in my 30s, I felt as if it had already been in my life forever, despite my familiarity with Bradbury’s work typically falling solidly under sci-fi, not horror. The spooky bygone suburbs of the film felt very much akin to horror movies I had grown up with as a kid, titles like Jumanji & The Monster Squads, a setting that’s been evoked & praised in so many Ebert reviews I don’t even know where to start citing them. Apparently, it’s a setting Bradbury had mentally returned to often himself, a spacial & temporal locale he had framed many of his children-targeted short stories & novels in, despite only one being adapted to a major motion picture release. Something Wicked This Way Comes does have some Bradbury-penned company in its nature as a feature length adaptation, though, just not anything with the financial backing of a live action Walt Disney production. Instead, its closest spiritual relative in nostalgic suburb horror would be a made-for-TV animated feature, a much cheaper mode of entertainment all around.

The Halloween Tree looks like an animated recreation of Something Wicked This Way Comes’s exact tone & setting, though it feels slightly behind that work in every way. Its fantasy novel source material was written in 1972, ten years behind Something Wicked’s 1962 publication date. It was produced as a late Hanna-Barbera animation, while Something Wicked was working with Disney dollars, which go a long way. Even in its central themes, which more or less amount to a history lesson on The True Meaning of Halloween, it pales in comparison to the much more complex subject matter of its predecessor, which explores intangible subjects like fear & desire. It’s difficult, then, to think of The Halloween Tree as anything but a minor work by comparison, but that doesn’t mean it’s charmless or worth excluding from the Something Wicked legacy. Bradbury himself was at least invested in the work’s value, providing a storybook-style narration for its framing device. The hand-drawn animation is much more complex than most Hanna-Barbera productions are afforded. Speaking from a personal standpoint, I’d also say it was nice to see a plot structure usually reserved for The True Meaning of Christmas applied to a holiday I actually give a shit about. The Halloween Tree feels somewhat like a scrappy echo of Something Wicked (which was something of a bomb itself), but it’s got enough of its own charm & personality to justify its existence outside that superior work’s shadow.

The spooky Midwest suburb setting The Halloween Tree shares with Something Wicked really only serves as a framing device. A group of kids preparing to trick ‘r treat on Halloween night see their sick friend’s ghost running through the woods just outside their suburb. Following his specter, they bump into a creepy old ghoul (voiced by an unrecognizable Leonard Nimoy) who seems to be threatening to claim the boy’s soul as he succumbs to appendicitis complications. In the process of bartering for their sick friend’s existence, the children are mocked for not understanding the meaning behind their various Halloween costumes: a mummy, a witch, a skeleton, etc. Chiding them, “All dressed up for Halloween and you don’t know why,” the old ghoul takes them on a temporal road trip through historical Halloween-type cultural traditions that relate to their costumes. Vignettes touching on Egyptian mummification, Stonehenge, witch trials, Día de Muertos, and so on provide meaning to the children’s various costume choices as they inch closer to saving their friend’s life through bleeding heart negotiation tactics. Much like with Something Wicked, the resolution to the threat of death is much more saccharine than the stakes appear during the conflict but the film could still potentially haunt an audience who catches it at a young enough age. The two movies’ real connection, though, is the way Bradbury makes a small crew of suburban scamps feel as if they’re the only kids in the world, saddling them with the responsibility of waging a metaphysical Good Vs. Evil battle.

To be honest, if I weren’t watching this film on Alli’s recommendation during our Movie of the Month conversation or I wasn’t aware of Bradbury’s involvement, I’m not sure The Halloween Tree would have immediately reminded me of Something Wicked This Way Comes. My mind likely would have gone more readily to Over the Garden Wall, a recent animated story that shares The Halloween Tree’s religious reverence for Jack-o-Lanterns & Halloween costuming. The similarities shared with Something Wicked are not at all difficult to reach for, however. By the time the gang of suburban tykes reach an abandoned circus where the attractions are haunted by an evil magic, Bradbury’s wicked fingerprints are detectable all over it. The most immediately noticeable difference in this version of his aesthetic is that one of the kids is a girl, which feels out of line with Something Wicked’s distinctive boyhood POV. That detail was apparently added in its adaptation from book to screen, a smart choice that helps broaden its appeal. For anyone looking to introduce children to horror as a genre, you could probably do no better than a double feature of these two Bradbury-penned works after a long night of trick ‘r treating under suburban streetlights. He’s got a welcoming touch to his spooky children’s fare that should prove to be invitingly universal, even if the settings are so consistently specific it’s difficult to tell them apart from work to work.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor, The Watcher in the Woods (1980).

-Brandon Ledet

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I think the burning question about this recent string of live action Disney remakes is: why do this at all? Is this really necessary? Why instead of coming up with new stories are they remaking “the classics”? After this rendition of Beauty and the Beast, I have fewer answers than before, and I didn’t have many then.

The main draw to this version is the all-star cast: Emma Watson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson. All the performances were fine, some even great; it’s just a shame many of them were hiding behind less than good CGI for what was basically the whole movie. That being said, Emma Watson played the role of Belle with an honest earnestness even when the rest of the cast was computerized. She’s actually made for this role, since the Disney version of Belle is as close to Princess Hermione as you’re ever going to get.

One of the ways this remake tried to freshen things up was by giving more explanation and backstory for the characters. Sadly, most of that felt like a forced afterthought. For instance, we get to hear about the Beast’s mean, old dad, but we never catch the Beast’s (the Prince of the fairy tale’s) name, nor any details of how exactly his dad was bad. Belle’s new, fleshed out history was in a few ways worse, in that it made the whole timeline of things nonsense. She quotes Romeo and Juliet, but has escaped Paris because of the plague. If you know anything about the history of the Black Plague & Shakespeare, or have access to Google, then you probably know that those two things are about 200 years apart. Sure, it’s nice to find out why exactly she’s stuck in this awful town and why she has a dead Disney mom, but I feel like it’s a little bit unnecessary. Which I guess brings us to the other character change-up, the elephant in the room: the gay stuff.

Oh, Le Fou, you poor thing. As the controversy around this movie mounted around the idea of him being gay, I already thought it was too good to be true. In my heart, I knew that there was no way Disney was going to make a fully formed human being of a gay character. At least I had no hopes to crush. He is a lovesick fool who occasionally gives catty advice to equally swooning gals. He’s the same old sniveling sidekick as he is in the original, just this time with more innuendo and a catty attitude. Having it cranked up a couple notches isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but given Disney’s track record on gay characters (Oh hey that one character in Frozen for 5 seconds and Ursula) it’s a bit tasteless. Though Le Fou is coded as a stereotypical sassy gay friend, I’m not going to lie, the dynamic between Gaston and him was what kept me sane throughout. In any other setting, their give and take would have made for a humorous cabaret type act: Gaston the slimy hypermasculine villain, Le Fou his emotional support. The musical duet between the two of them is one of the highlights of the movie.

In fact, Beauty and the Beast shines brightest when it comes to the musical numbers executed by real people. In the opening sequence the choreography is fun and mesmerizing. Belle’s iconic opening number is full of wonderfully synchronized moves. It’s fun, until it gets to the castle. It’s fun until you have to witness a bunch of 3D animated flatware execute a Busby-Berkeley style number in a movie that’s supposed to be a live action remake. It just feels like such great irony.

The real saving factor here, though, is that no matter how bombastic the tunes, over dramatic the themes, or mediocre the animation, this movie has a light hearted laugh at itself every now and then. It’s a pleasant reminder than in the midst of everything else this is still just a family film. Still, it’s hard not to watch it and think of the beloved animated classic longingly, especially as it just keeps dragging on and getting bogged down with new superfluous details, unmemorable added songs, and an aesthetic that could have sorely benefited from practical effects.

-Alli Hobbs

Monster Trucks (2017)

fourstar

campstamp

Wanted: Creature Seeking Male Companion – Me: Loves dogs & horses, comforts friends when sad, never says “no” to a spontaneous adventure, always says “yes” to night swimming in moonlight, has tentacles & drinks gasoline. You: A late-20s high school student with a shitty attitude, crippling daddy issues, and a receding hairline. Only selfish, low-energy badboy bores need apply. Serious offers only, please.

God, I love January so much. In what’s often referred to as the cinematic “dumping season,” it’s these first few weeks of the year when studios roll out their wounded animals, a parade of misfit misfires they have no idea how to market. It’s also in these first few weeks when high profile prestige films from the last year’s awards season slowly roll out from their New York & Los Angeles hidey-holes to finally reach The South, which is how I wound up watching both Silence & Monster Trucks at the theater on the same day. It was a glorious day. Not only was I treated to one of the most haunting technical achievements of Marin Scorsese’s career, I also got to see one of Hollywood’s most visually bizarre blunders since the likes of Howard the Duck, Jack Frost, Garbage Pail Kids, and Mac & Me. Monster Trucks is the rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context (recalling last year’s similarly out of place, but more reasonably priced talking cat comedy Nine Lives). It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; Monster Trucks is a gift to be cherished, a precious early January diamond for those digging for treasure in the trash. There’s no scenario where this film would catch on enough to earn back its ludicrous budget, but we’re not the ones losing money on it, so I say kick back and enjoy the show.

The lore behind Monster Trucks‘s creation & eventual financial blunder is just as fascinating as the movie itself. In 2013, then-president of Paramount Pictures, the since-fired Adam Goodman, conceived the pun-centric elevator pitch for this children’s film (“What if monster trucks were literal monster-operated trucks?”) while watching his toddler play with toy vehicles by smashing them together. The story goes that, after two years of development, a 2015 test screening of the film sent children screaming in fear due to the creature design of its main monster, known simply as Creech. I would kill to see that original “director’s cut” with the initial Creech design. Unfortunately, it’s lost to history, as the studio completely overhauled the monster’s CG-animated form and recut the film to soften the terror of its visage. That’s largely how we arrived at our obnoxious $125 million price tag, but that doesn’t explain exactly why Monster Trucks is such an entertaining mess of a final product. I’m sure somewhere among the film’s legitimately talented actors (Rob Lowe, Thomas Lennon, Danny Glover, Amy Ryan) there’s someone who’s super embarrassed to be involved with this dud of an intended franchise-starter/merchandise-generator. Surely, all of Paramount would love to have the whole fiasco wiped from the record completely. I think the embarrassment is entirely unwarranted, though. Monster Trucks might be an epic financial disaster on the production end, but as an audience member I find its delirious stupidity & grotesque creature design an endless delight. I just can’t honestly say it was worth every penny.

In true 90s relic fashion, Monster Trucks begins with evil oil drilling business men disrupting the order of things with their horrific money-grubbing ways. While fracking for more! more! more! oil in nowhere North Dakota, the Evil Corporation (helmed by a diabolical Rob Lowe) accidentally unearths an ancient population of subterranean, tentacled sea monsters who drink oil for sustenance in their own underground Ferngully utopia. Two of the creatures are detained, but one escapes by hiding in the frame of an out-of-commission truck, eventually winding up in the safe haven of a junkyard, just like in Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. Without the structural support of a metal truck frame, this poor beast, known simply as Creech, is a useless slob, a pile of soft, melty flesh. Truck frames work as a sort of wheelchair for the unadapted sea creature and it at first operates them like a Flintstones car before getting the hang of properly working the gears. Also like in The Iron Giant, this monster is adopted as a pet by a curious, emotionally stunted little boy struggling with the absence of a father figure. In Monster Trucks, however, the little boy in question is a high school student played by a hilariously miscast Lucas Till, who is well into his 20s and looks it. In an interesting reversal of the lonely outcast trope, everyone who knows our protagonist desperately wants to hang out with him, but he’s too much of a selfish, self-absorbed jerk to give them the time of day. It’s not that he’s too cool for them either, unless you think a near-30 high school student who lives at home, rides the bus, plays racecar when no one’s looking, and whose mom is boinking the sheriff sounds cool. Creech doesn’t teach this bozo a life lesson or improve his shitty attitude in any way. When they have to part ways at the film’s teary-eyed conclusion, all he can muster is, “I’m going to miss you, Creech. You were a good truck.” Selfish prick. He’s almost awful enough to make me root for the oil company’s hired killer goon to succeed in snapping his overgrown-kid neck, but the loss would make Creech too unbearably sad and that’s the last thing I’d want.

Luckily, Monster Trucks isn’t about ugly high school students stuck in an eternal rut learning valuable life lessons or about how greedy oil companies were the true monster (truck) all along. It’s about two much simpler, more universally lovable concepts: monsters & trucks. In the film’s purest, most deliriously idiotic moments Creech drives his truck-shaped mech suit up walls, over lesser vehicles, down mountainsides, and (in my personal favorite bit) through open fields in unison with galloping horses to a country pop soundtrack. This is truck porn about goin’ muddin’ lazily disguised as a kid-friendly creature feature. None of that gear head idiocy would mean a thing without Creech, though, who is paradoxically the cutest & most grotesque CG creation since last year’s realization of Krang in TMNT: Out of the Shadows. Creech is initially played to be scary and is nearly crushed in a hydraulic press before its not made-for-this-world adorability saves its tentacled ass. Your affection for Creech’s design (along with similarly ugly/cute creations in titles like Howard the Duck, Gooby, and Mac & Me) will largely determine how much fun you have with Monster Trucks. It’ll make or break the cuteness of scenes where Creech gargles oil or poses for selfies. It’ll dictate whether you empathize with the Black Fish levels of cruelty in early scenes where its separated from its scrotum-esque parents as well as their inevitable reunion, a endearing Kodak moment that recalls the shunting scene from Society. No matter how much you love trucks on their own (you sick freak), you really have to love Creech’s ugly-cute visage to appreciate Monster Trucks in all of its ill-considered glory.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to capture Creech’s very specific brand of aquatic monstrosity in words. It’s a horror you have to see to believe. Monster Trucks makes several efforts to construct a memorable plot around its visually striking (to put it kindly) truck-creature, but not much sticks. A genuinely creepy villain who legitimately attempts to murder “children”, a few possible goons’ lives lost in the two bigger action set pieces, a Disney Channel love interest (Don’t Breathe‘s Jane Levy, oddly enough) who calls out the selfish prick protagonist for assuming Creech’s gender as male by default, my beloved horse-galloping/truck-muddin’ scene: there are plenty of amusing details that help pad out the film’s unwieldy 105 minute runtime. None of this can surpass the basic joys of gazing at Creech, though. Every minute of Creech content is a blessing, a gift from the trash cinema gods. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can. And I guess the life lesson learned for the next Monster Trucks-type misfire to come down the line would be to try to pull off its low-key chams for $100 million less on the production end. Who knows? They might even accidentally make a profit.

monster-trucks monstertrucks_main screen-shot-2016-06-07-at-4-37-48-pm

-Brandon Ledet

A Monster Calls (2016)

fourstar

It’s difficult to say objectively if A Monster Calls is likely to resonate with most audiences the way it did with me at the exact moment I happened to catch it in theaters. The very same week the fantasy-leaning cancer drama reached New Orleans I had lost my grandmother to an aggressive form of cancer and, at the time I’m writing this review, she still has not yet been memorialized with a funeral. The wounds are still fresh in a lot of ways, so I don’t have enough critical distance to say if this dark children’s fantasy about “a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man” struggling with the gradual loss of his young mother to failed chemotherapy treatments is truly the emotionally impactful, thematically complex filmgoing experience I found it to be. I can only say for sure that A Monster Calls is admirable in the brave ways it tackles issues of frustration, resentment, and self-conflict that wreak havoc on families who are hit with this kind of loss through prolonged illness. The film’s multi-faceted, sugarcoat-free discussion of how grief can be destructive long before it’s cathartic is not the thematic territory typically expected of a kids’ movie featuring a talking tree, but A Monster Calls fearlessly dives head first into those troubled waters and emerges as a hauntingly beautiful experience for taking that leap, one that arrived at the exact moment I needed it.

Liam Neeson voices the titular monster in this dark fantasy drama, a talking tree that visits a young boy each time he wakes from the recurring nightmare of physically letting his mother go while holding her hand at the edge of a cliff. The mother (Felicity Jones, who in all honesty gets just as little character development here as she does in Rogue One) is losing her battle with a rapidly progressing cancer; the boy is being physically bullied at school by the one kid who bothers to notice him; and the rest of the family struggles to figure out what to do with him now that his only attentive parent is at the verge of death. The tree monster solves none of these problems. He only awakes to tell the boy three seemingly unrelated stories (illustrated in beautiful watercolor-style animation) about dragons, kings, suicide, magic . . . pretty much nothing to do with his current predicament. Instead of smiting the boy’s enemies and bringing his mother back from the brink of death, the tree monster merely teaches him a few harsh life lessons: that sometimes life is a cheat, that sometimes good people do horrifically bad things, that sometimes “bad” people can do good, that terrible things often happen for no reason at all. The monster coaches the child through a tough moral gray area and, in the process, allows him to admit & accept some less-than-honorable feelings he’d been repressing about his mother’s impending death before it’s too late.

Besides the obvious reasons why I would connect with this kind of a cancer-themed familial drama at this time in my life, A Monster Calls also appeals to me directly by evoking the same brutal honesty & melancholy tone I found solace in with the similar dark children’s fantasies Paperhouse & MirrorMask. In all three films, young British children process real world emotional grief in a harsh dream space of their own artistic design. A Monster Calls joins this tradition, which unfortunately has a bad critical & financial track record, with a morally ambiguous tale of how there are no easy answers to the ways we process loss and how you’re not always going to be proud of the things you do, say, or feel in your worst moments of grief. It’s the exact kind of thoughtful, morally complex narratives I look for in my children’s media combined with a distinct visual palette (complete with a muscular tree butt for some reason) and impeccable timing, arriving just when I needed to wrestle with my own conflicted modes of grief. I may not be able to discuss A Monster Calls objectively due to my own recent familial loss, but I can say that it’s a deeply relevant & revelatory experience when you’re in that very particular, very fragile state of grief & mourning. There’s just some things about life that you need to hear from Liam Neeson dressed up like a talking tree to fully grasp, I suppose. It worked for me, anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fivestar

Ever since 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 left theaters and was release on DVD, Potter fans all over the world were overcome with a deep sadness as the film signified the end of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling created an entire wizarding world through her best selling novels, which would eventually become blockbuster hits, and as each film was released, the universe she created kept growing and growing.  When the news of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was released, all was good in the world. I wasn’t too surprised to find out that Rowling would choose to gift fans with more of the fantastic world she created by writing the Fantastic Beasts screenplay. I mean, how on earth could she just stop writing about the Potter universe and all of its glory?

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one of the better-known books the students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry use in their studies. The textbook was written by Newt Scamander, a famous Magizoologist (an individual who studies magical creatures). The textbook contains information that Scamander gathered from studying a vast amount of magical creatures from all over the world. The film follows Scamander on his journey to the United States in 1926, as he is performing research for what will soon become an invaluable vault of information for all witches and wizards. Scamander is perhaps the most compassionate individual in the wizarding world, as he has dedicated his life to trying to understand all magical creatures during a time when they were outlawed and unappreciated. Scamander arrives in the United States by way of New York City with a briefcase filled with magical creatures. His goal with visiting the US is to release a Thunderbird name Frank to his home in Arizona. Of course, a briefcase full of magical creatures would become quite difficult to maintain for Scamander and majority of them eventually escape and run the busy streets of NYC.

The first beast to slither its way out of the briefcase is a Niffler, a small platypus-like creature that is drawn to any and all things shiny. As Scamander is attempting to catch the escaped Niffler in a large city bank (full of shiny coins), he meets a “No-Maj” (non-magic folk, aka “Muggle”) named Jacob Kowalkski. Kowalski is at the bank attempting to get a loan to open up his dream bakery. It doesn’t take long for Kowalski to get mixed up in the wizarding world, which is pretty much unknown to all No-Majs. The two become a duo comparable to Batman and Robin, and it’s one of the best bromances in cinema history.

As Scamander attempts to locate all of his escaped beasts, he runs into trouble with The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MCUSA), and everything becomes a total shit show. The film’s female lead, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, works for the MCUSA. She comes off as a total pain in the ass at the film’s beginning because she rats out Scamander to the MCUSA, but she quickly becomes an extremely likeable character. Tina has achieved role model status with me. She’s a powerful, intelligent witch who is out to do the right thing. It just takes her a little bit to find out what the right thing really is. Tina’s sister, Queenie Goldstein, is quite the opposite of Tina. Queenie is full of giggles and smiles, has sunny blonde hair, and sports a bright pink coat for most of the movie, while Tina is more on the serious side. I remember cringing a little bit when Queenie first makes her appearance because I assumed she was going to be the ditzy-blonde-girl type of character, but that’s not the case at all. Queenie is simply sweet and optimistic, and she is responsible for saving the day just as much as the rest of the crew. All in all, the leading ladies in Fantastic Beasts are totally impressive, but of course, I would expect nothing less from the mind of Rowling.

There are a lot of things to pay attention to in Fantastic Beasts because everything is a piece of a giant puzzle that will reach completion once the 5th film in the series is released. That’s right, there will be five Fantastic Beast films! And I’m here for that. The cast of Fantastic Beasts reminds me a lot of the cast of the Harry Potter films. Their camaraderie really comes across in their acting, and there’s just good vibes all around. The film’s director, David Yates, also directed the last four Harry Potter films, and he’s known for being a pleasure to work with. This is cinema that’s made with so much passion and love, and I cannot wait to see the next four!

-Britnee Lombas

The Iron Giant (1999)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

I was a little surprised last year when Brad Bird’s live action Disney sci-fi epic Tomorrowland failed to find an audience, but I probably shouldn’t have been. For some reason, atomic age sci-fi throwbacks have an iffy history among moviegoing audiences, which has played to the detriment of films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and The Rocketeer, despite (in my mind) the genre’s easy likability. Given this track record, I guess what should more surprising than Tomorrowland’s lackluster response would be Brad Bird’s past success with making an actually popular atomic age throwback in the late 90s. The problem is that success was entirely critical & the movie financially flopped.

Brad Bird’s directorial debut, The Iron Giant, has earned a glowing reputation in the years since its release, but it bombed hard in the theaters, losing more than half of its production budget. I don’t know what it is about atomic age sci-fi that lends itself to slow-building goodwill instead of immediate success. Perhaps the era’s clean-cut suburban earnestness suggests a hokey aesthetic people associate with microwave popcorn on the couch VHS rentals instead of large group family outings to theater. Whatever the cause, Bird’s two stabs at the genre have both proven to be gambled-and-lost endeavors financially for major studios who’ve backed him. The difference between them is that The Iron Giant has had a consistently strong critical reception since its release, one that’s only grown as the children who did happen to catch it in the VHS rental era of their lifespan have grown up remembering it fondly. No word yet on if Tomorrowland will enjoy a similar kind of longevity in the public imagination, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The Iron Giant is an animated tearjerker about two out-of-place misfits who form an all-too brief friendship in the face of a world hellbent on tearing them down. One friend is a loner nerd middle school student who fills his days with adopting strange pets & his nights with watching 50s sci-fi schlock on television broadcasts. The other is a seamless combination of those two interests: a physically damaged space alien robot with the mind of a child. The unlikely pair form a sort of dual coming of age story while hanging out in a beatnik’s junkyard & evading persistent inquiries from the NSA. The human boy learns to take on responsibility & to adopt a “Who cares what those creeps think?” attitude towards his bullies. The gigantic robot learns to hate the very thing he’s designed to be (war & weaponry) & to exercise free will in a way that allows him to overcome his nature. Their greatest enemy is a warmongering G-Man just drooling to see the alien “invader” destroyed & their story plays out against a Cold War suburbia backdrop that contrasts the innocence of carefree youth with details like a duck-and-cover nuclear bomb scare film titled ATOMIC HOLOCAUST. Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is how it provides a satisfying arc for both the boy and the robot, as well as an emotionally taxing climax, all while feeling like a relaxed hangout film about two buds being buds.

There’s a lot of interesting technical aspects to The Iron Giant that suggest Brad Bird came out of the gate as a strong directorial talent. First of all, the film knows the source material it’s evoking quite well, cobbling together plots from other sci-fi fare like Superman comics, giant robot stories, and alien invasion features into a single, The Day the Earth Stood Still-style parable that makes great use of its various influences. The film also looks like a feature-length adaptation of a toy raygun, perhaps the most accurate evocation of the era’s style since Joe Dante’s Matinee. I’m not a huge fan of CG animation, but the way The Iron Giant‘s computer graphics mix with its hand drawn style actually serves the mechanical nature of its subject matter quite well. Even the sound design is on point, pulling great period setting authenticity from The Coasters song “Searching” & utilizing a rusted metal vocal performance from a Groot-mode Vin Diesel as the titular robot without overworking the gimmick. Bird’s first feature is an amazingly balanced work that impresses both in its narrative & technical proficiency as well as its ability to inspire a genuine emotional response. It’s downright bizarre that it didn’t immediately strike gold at the box office, but it’s also no wonder that it eventually found an enthusiastic audience once it hit home release.

Having only seen The Iron Giant & Tomorrowland once a piece, I can confirm that the former is the better work & totally deserving of its reputation as such. I’d like to think that there’s enough room in the world’s heart for both atomic age children’s epics to earn long-term success, though, and I hope Tomorrowland eventually joins The Iron Giant’s ranks as an initially-overlooked crowd favorite. If nothing else I’d just like to see its esteem grow so Brad Bird could maybe, just maybe, find funding for a third product within the genre, despite its reputation as box office poison. He’s damn good at making these things & I honestly believe his two entries in the genre are his best, most personally distinct work to date (no offense to the diehard Pixar crowd who’d likely stand up for The Incredibles or Ratatouille in that regard). We don’t have many directors working who still understand the appeal of the genre as Brad Bird & it’d be a shame to let something as pedestrian as money stop him from making more.

-Brandon Ledet

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

fourstar

I’ll admit up front that I’m a little more positive on Tim Burton’s post-Sleepy Hollow career than most, finding at least one enjoyable film from the director’s late-career releases (Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Big Eyes, Sweeney Todd, Frankenweenie) for every insufferable, uninspired one (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, Planet of the Apes). Burton was on an incredible hot streak in his 80s & 90s run, delivering one incredible work after another, so there’s a lot of pressure on his 00s & 2010s output that makes it suffer under scrutiny. However, divorced from the context of his earlier work, this second phase of his career is at least at a 50/50 average for me, which isn’t so bad considering the careers of other big budget Hollywood directors on his name recognition level. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t likely to win over anyone who’s chosen to write off Burton’s post-90s work completely (his recent, aggressively tone deaf comments on racial representation in Hollywood casting aren’t likely to help either), but it is a damn good spooky children’s movie, joining the likes of Goosebumps & ParaNorman as great starter packs for kids who need an intro to a lifelong horror fandom. It’s a genuinely macabre affair that might be better accomplished in terms of visual craft than it is with emotional deft, but still stands as Burton’s best work since at least Sweeney Todd. Of course, I’m a little more forgiving than some on the current Burton aesthetic, so mileage may vary there, but if any other director’s name were attached to this film I suspect it would’ve been praised with far less scrutiny. The expectations resonating from Burton’s early work simply have way too much impact on the reception of his more current releases.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children & its YA source material are, essentially, goth X-Men for kids. Instead of mutant abilities, the kids have “peculiarities,” also contained in their genes, which more or less give them . . . mutant abilities. I guess the main difference there is that their peculiarities all have a sort of horrific sideshow quality to them: reanimating corpses, hidden jaws packed with sharp teeth, bodies full of bees, etc. It’s easy to see how Burton could want to merely luxuriate in this mansion full of little weirdos instead of chasing a plot, but Peculiar Children actually has a lot going on in its story structure. Cyclical time travel, intergenerational romance, mental disorder, alternative Holocaust narratives, and secret societies of shapeshifting demons who want to eat peculiar children’s eyeballs all swirl together to create one overwhelming kids-against-the-world conflict that admittedly trades in emotional resonance for large, complex ideas & haunted house imagery. Like with last year’s Crimson Peak, however, I was more than okay with swapping out emotional deft for visual craft here, especially since the visuals were so distinctly . . . peculiar. Samuel L. Jackson’s villain looks like a hybrid version of Don King & Nosferatu. A pair of masked twins recall antique photographs of 1900s Halloween costumes. A Harryhausen skeleton army wreaks havoc on a dayglow carnival funhouse. Stop motion monsters cobbled together out of babydoll parts & preserved animal corpses engage in a tabletop knife fight. A coven of dapper adults & long-limbed reptilian monsters devour piles upon piles of children’s eyeballs. Tim Burton may not be interested in self-reinvention with the imagery he delivers in Peculiar Children; he still delights in clashing a clean cut, sunlit suburbia with haunted house goth monstrosities. However, this film proves he’s still got the goods in terms of the strength & potency of the imagery he can deliver and any other shortcomings there might be in Peculiar Children comfortably rest on those laurels.

The more the scope of Tim Burton’s career becomes clear to me the more apparent it is that he’s almost exclusively a children’s filmmaker. Titles like Ed Wood & Sleepy Hollow are the outliers. Peculiar Children fits right in with Burton’s typical, imaginative creepshow for children aesthetic and I could very easily see a child growing up loving this movie the way I grew up loving Beetlejuice or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Kids have an easy time mentally luxuriating in fantasy spaces in a way adults don’t. Returning to Beetlejuice as an adult, the pace feels a lot more rapid than it did to me in the 90s and the movie flies by  in a whir, whereas in my childhood it felt like an eternity. Peculiar Children will likely have the same effect on younger viewers. It delivers enough striking imagery & memorable set design that kids could mentally return to & stretch out its individual scenes in a way its two hour runtime couldn’t afford. A better, more deliberately paced version of this story might have stretched out over a franchise or a television series, but limiting it to a single film was a smart choice, one that will have implications on how children interact with it both onscreen & in their imaginations in the years to come. Even in its limited time span and overstuffed plot, Burton still finds the time to work in the doomed wartime narrative of The Devil’s Backbone and the places-as-ghosts concepts of a Toni Morrison novel, all while somehow maintaining the film’s firm footing as children’s media. If any other director had delivered Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it’s likely it’d be held in a much higher regard as an ambitious work of high-concept time travel sci-fi horror for children. However, only Burton could balance all of that overreaching narrative with such specific, effective imagery & maintain its for-kids tone. This film stands as yet another reminder that its director may to be delivering at 100% at this point in his career, but he’s still capable of making some truly great films in-between the duds. 

-Brandon Ledet

A Town Called Panic: Double Fun (2016)

threehalfstar

Double Fun isn’t exactly a sequel in a traditional sense, although it is the latest theatrical release in its franchise since the 2009 feature A Town Called Panic. Rather than standing as a feature length follow-up to its madcap stop motion comedy predecessor, Double Fun is a “one day only” (it actually screened over two days at Prytania Theatre) theatrical event that cobbled together several short films from the A Town Called Panic catalog to reach a very slight feature length as a loose anthology. As a trip to the cinema Double Fun was an amusing novelty, not quite living up to the manic brilliance of the original A Town Called Panic movie, but still functioning fairly well as a crash course in the Belgian cult television show’s surreal, maddening mode of crude stop motion animation & slapstick comedy. It was great to see something so aggressively trivial play out on the prestige platform of the oldest running cinema in New Orleans, but I wouldn’t necessarily call the experience essential (like I would have with Prytania’s 100 year anniversary screening of Cinema Paradiso last year).

The main bulk of Double Fun were two mid-length shorts, titled “Christmas Panic” & “Back to School Panic.” I usually detest watching Christmas-themed media out of season, especially when it’s sacrilegious to the still-approaching holy day of Halloween, but I’ll make an exception when it means watching the KaBlam!-style antics of Horse, Cowboy, and Indian on the big screen. Of the two 2016 shorts, “Christmas Panic” was noticeably inferior to the high concept insanity of “Back to School Panic,” but it was still amusing to watch the Panic gang rob both the kindly Santa Claus & the abusive jerk neighbor Steven in the name of the true Christmas spirit: greed. “Back to School Panic” was the true attraction of Double Fun, starting with a very simple plot of Cowboy & Indian trying to avoid having to return to the classroom and somehow winding up playing with a Being John Malkovich situation inside a farm pig’s mind. “Christmas Panic” was cute & the mini-shorts that buffered the two featured segments of Double Fun were a great glimpse into the humble beginnings of the franchise, with the de-evolution monsters of “Cow Hulk” especially standing out as a treat. However, if A Town Called Panic fans are to seek out just one segment of this theatrical event, “Back to School Panic” is the one that most stands out as exemplary of what makes this manic stop motion franchise so weirdly endearing.

Double Fun works best as a crash course in Panic if you have already seen the feature film, which is likely a much better starting point. The way the anthology is curated answered a few lingering questions I had after watching the absurdist feature film. My main ambiguity about whether the franchise was intended for children or stoned adults was somewhat resoundingly answered by the rowdy groups of young tyke attendees at the screening who met the series of shorts with transfixed silence & wholesome giggling. In a way it seems like the series is moving in a more kid-friendly direction in general, especially in making Horse more of a father figure to the increasingly childlike Cowboy & Indian and in softening the music cues. There’s still the requisite partying, alcohol, theft, violence, and manic tension that makes A Town Called Panic distinct as dangerous-feeling children’s media, but the shift was noticeable. Watching the 2016 shorts mix in with the shoddier quality of the series’ humble beginnings was also illuminating as a recent convert, as was hearing the English-language voice actors in the dubs, which took some getting used to, but felt like insight into how the show is typically packaged outside of Belgium.

If you’ve never seen A Town Called Panic before, I urge you to start with the 2009 feature, as it’s a great reminder of the wonders of stop motion as a medium, even when crudely executed. Double Fun is great supplementary material for the already converted, especially in the unreal sci-fi absurdity of “Back to School Panic,” but it’s not necessarily something you need to kick yourself for missing in its very brief theatrical run. If either of those storylines had been used as a launching point for a proper feature length sequel, however, I might be singing a different tune.

-Brandon Ledet