August 26, 2008

Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins (2000)

I think you know my thoughts on Disney’s line of direct-to-DVD films. But once my 5-year-old saw the preview for Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins on our rented copy of Toy Story 2, I knew I’d be watching it sooner than later.

But guess what? It wasn’t awful.

Buzz Lightyear of Star Command follows Buzz (Tim Allen) as he tries to stop Emperor Zurg (Wayne Knight) from stealing the Unimind. I know, isn’t that just pure evil?

Oh, what’s the Unimind? It’s this large, Saturn-looking brain thing that the Little Green Men use to think as one (remember how they thought and acted in the first two Toy Story movies?).

After the supposed death of his partner Warp (Diedrich Bader) at the hands of Zurg, Buzz swears off partners until he’s forced to team up with a new rookie, Mira Nova (Nicole Sullivan). From there, we follow Buzz and his ragtag bunch of do-gooders as they attempt to stop Zurg’s plan to make the Unimind “bad” and control the thoughts of everyone in the galaxy.

With its lightweight plot and rubbery, 2-D animation, it’s hard to believe that Buzz Lightyear of Star Command is a Disney•Pixar property. In fact, I wonder how much say Pixar had in allowing a film like this to be made with one of their flagship characters.

That being said, the movie did its job of entertaining my 5-year-old son. And it pains me to say it, but I did catch myself chuckling a few times. Consider some of the Airplane!-esque captions that appeared in the corner of the screen:

[Long shot of galaxy] SPACE. DUH.
[Shot of Zurg’s hideout] ZURG’S TOWER. NOTE BIG GUN ON TOP.

And get a load of this evil command by Zurg: “Target the planet of widows and orphans!”

Buzz Lightyear of Star Command ends with a deux ex machina, just-like-that finish that allows good to triumph over evil (sorry, did I spoil the end of a Disney movie?). The film spawned a short-lived TV series on the Disney Channel – which I should’ve seen coming, since the final credit of the film actually says, “Produced by Walt Disney TV Animation.”

BONUS: The song playing over the closing credits is “To Infinity and Beyond” by William Shatner, sung in his unique spoken-word style: “To…INFINITY…andbeyond.” Much like Buzz Lightyear, the Shatmaster knows no bounds.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
  • My 5-year-old son ate this movie up, and laughed quite a bit. Not to stereotype, but I bet boys would be drawn more to this movie than girls – though there is a strong female character in the form of Mira Nova.
  • The film did have healthy doses of laser gunplay, though only once was a human character hit (he survives) – the rest were all robots of one sort or another.

Will your FilmMother like it?

Hard to say. I know my FilmMother was fine with me watching this film with our son while she was out shopping. Draw your own conclusions from there.

Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins
* Director: Tad Stones
* Writers: Mark McCorkle, Robert Schooley, Bill Motz, Bob Roth
* Stars: Tim Allen, Nicole Sullivan, Larry Miller, Stephen Furst, Wayne Knight, Adam Carolla, Diedrich Bader
* MPAA Rating: G

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August 18, 2008

Grizzly (1976)

After the success of Jaws (1975), theatres in the late ‘70s were overrun with “animals gone wild” films – quickie attempts to ride the wave of Steven Spielberg’s great white shark. Audiences were hit with forgettable fare like Food of the Gods, Day of the Animals, The Swarm, and – arguably one of the best of this crop – Grizzly (though that’s not saying much).

Grizzly is so brazen in its rip-off of Jaws that it’s almost admirable:
• A giant animal devouring people
• A law enforcement official trying to keep things under control
• An authority figure who wants to keep the area open for tourists
• An unorthodox trio who track the beast to take him down
• A haunting speech by the captain/pilot about why and how the animal kills man
• An over-the-top finale with a big explosion

Despite this small mountain of coincidences, Grizzly is fairly watchable cheese. Christopher George plays head park ranger Michael Kelly with all the grit and gusto he can muster. In scenes where he trades barbs with park supervisor Joe Dorsey, the dialogue is ‘70s TV-quality at best, B-movie at worst (“You’re a maverick!” “I want a full investigation!”)

Speaking of B-movies, Grizzly’s special effects never reach above that level. The blood is brighter than a child’s finger paint, and several scenes of dismemberment use quick cuts to avoid showing the sub-standard effects (the movie is especially gory for a PG-rated film).

Director William Girdler employs the same tactics Spielberg did in Jaws – not showing his killer beast too soon, filming from the animal’s point of view, shooting the creature with tags instead of barrels – and they do add an element of suspense to earlier scenes. There is also some breathtaking aerial cinematography by William L. Asman. But everything Girdler mimics from Jaws is executed in Grizzly on a much less successful level. (Girdler would only direct three more films, including the aforementioned Day of the Animals, before dying in a helicopter crash in 1978.)

If you’re looking for a “good” Jaws rip-off, watch Alligator (1980). It’s got a solid script, better special effects, and, unlike Grizzly, deliberate humor. (It was recently released on a special edition DVD, featuring an interview with screenwriter John Sayles and commentary by star Robert Forster.)

Did you know?
Grizzly’s theft of Jaws elements went right down to the casting and guest screenwriting:
• Susan Backlinie, the doomed swimmer at the beginning of Jaws, was a victim of Grizzly’s bear (her scenes were cut).
• Andrew Prine (as helicopter pilot Don and knock-off of Robert Shaw’s Quint from Jaws) wrote his own dialogue for the “Indian story” of how a grizzly in the 1800s ate native Americans (Shaw wrote his own dialogue for Quint’s famous U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue).

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
Your kids have probably never even heard of this film. But if your have curious pre-teens, I would keep it away from them.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Highly unlikely, unless you want to tag-team on shouting insults at the screen a la Mystery Science Theater 3000.

* Director: William Girdler
* Screenwriter: Harvey Flaxman & David Sheldon
* Stars: Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Richard Jaeckel, Joan McCall, Joe Dorsey
* MPAA Rating: PG (graphic violence, adult language and situations)

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August 13, 2008

The Wild (2006)

For anyone who knows the difference between Disney•Pixar movies and “just Disney” movies, it’s no secret that the Disney•Pixar films are far superior. It’s like this: Disney•Pixar films (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL•E) are made by Pixar; Disney only distributes them to theaters. “Just Disney” films (Chicken Little, Meet The Robinsons) are actually made by Walt Disney Pictures.

In Disney’s third CGI-animated film The Wild, Ryan (Greg Cipes) is a zoo lion who wants to go to the wild, where his dad Samson (Kiefer Sutherland) once ruled. When he gets himself shipped to Africa, Samson and his zoo friends work together to bring him back. In Africa, they encounter all kinds of danger, including an active volcano and a herd of wildebeests whose leader is determined to reverse the roles of lions and wildebeests on the food chain.

The Wild does nothing to help Disney get closer to the Pixar pedigree. It’s a lightweight, pop-culture-injected experience that feels like a subpar mash-up of Nemo, Madagascar, and The Lion King. It’s not great, it’s not horrible…it’s just forgettable. There’s a near-zero attempt at character development, and barely a moment without lots of talking or an overbearing musical score. In short, Disney needs to step up to the Disney•Pixar level of filmmaking, and fast. (This fall’s Bolt will be Disney's next attempt to do so.)

And to support my claim that this film is “forgettable,” I offer this closing argument: At my day job, I mentioned to a coworker – a hardcore Disney and Pixar fan who goes to every opening weekend – that I watched The Wild with my son.

She had no idea what I was talking about.

I rest my case.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
When I asked my 5-year-old what he thought of The Wild, he said it was “good” and that he ”liked it.” And I can see how it could be entertaining to a child who doesn’t discriminate the way a cynical adult would. For me, I spent most of The Wild mentally naming all the other, better Pixar and Disney films we could have watched.

Will your FilmMother like it?
I would think she would tolerate it for the sake of your children, though if she loves Pixar and classic Disney the way most adults do, she would probably agree there’s better stuff out there.

The Wild
* Director: Steve "Spaz" Williams
* Screenwriters: Mark Gibson, Philip Halprin
* Stars: Kiefer Sutherland, Eddie Izzard, James Belushi, Janeane Garofalo, William Shatner
* MPAA Rating: G

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August 10, 2008

Juno (2007)

Okay dads, before you skip this movie because it looks like “chick flick with hipster dialogue,” take a deep breath and give it a chance – I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) finds herself pregnant after sex with her boyfriend (Superbad’s Michael Cera). After an unsettling experience in the waiting room of an abortion clinic, she decides to keep the baby and give it up for adoption. When she chooses a yuppie couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), she forms a bond with them that plays out individually with each parent-to-be.

First-time screenwriter (and Oscar winner) Diablo Cody take the somber topic of teen pregnancy and injects enough levity, smart dialogue, and occasional moments of hilarity to keep Juno from becoming a Lifetime movie or extended after-school special. And 20-year-old Page is a star in the making, if this film is any indication. She does what any great actress does with a role: She makes us forget she’s acting.

Veteran character actors J.K. Simmons (the Spider-Man films, HBO’s “Oz”) and Allison Jenney (Private Parts, NBC’s “The West Wing”) do a great job as Juno’s dad and stepmom; Jenney has an especially juicy scene where she chews out the lab tech performing Juno’s ultrasound.

A good chunk of the film’s personality also lies with its soundtrack, a series of folksy alternative songs – especially the catchy opener, “All I Want Is You” by Barry Louis Polisar.

Juno did receive some backlash for its aforementioned hipster-speak and using the ever-growing crisis of pregnant teens as comic fodder. But forget all that; Juno is a solid above-average film in a growing wasteland of painfully-below-average dreck.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).
Will your kids want to watch it?
If you have tweens or teens, I’d say yes. And while Juno is rated PG-13 for mature themes and language, I doubt it’s anything they haven’t seen or heard before. As far as younger children, they wouldn’t appreciate the humor, and the subject matter might need some explaining.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Most definitely. It features a cast of strong yet flawed women, an engaging story and dialogue, and nobody gets blown up or gutted. Oh, did I also mention it revolves around a baby being born?

* Director: Jason Reitman
* Screenwriter: Diablo Cody
* Stars: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby

August 5, 2008

This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006)

Who rates the movies you watch? The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), of course. But who are the actual people that decide a film’s rating? The answer is, nobody knows.

So filmmaker Kirby Dick hired private investigators to uncover the identities of the members who make up the MPAA’s ratings board. The result is This Film is Not Yet Rated, an engrossing documentary about how movie ratings are assigned, how directors battle with the MPAA over the content of their film (and usually lose), and why we may be letting a small panel of people commit censorship on a daily basis.

Dick interviews many well-known directors whose films have been rated NC-17 by the MPAA, including Kevin Smith (Clerks, Jersey Girl), Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry), and John Waters (Pink Flamingos, A Dirty Shame). Most major movie studios will not release an NC-17 film, let alone promote it. So if a director wants their NC-17 film to reach a mainstream audience, he or she needs to make cuts to their film for it to receive an R rating. And if they decide not to cut their film and appeal their rating, they’re not allowed to cite other films as examples or precedents.

The NC-17 material in nearly all the examples Dick shows is of a sexual nature, and often it’s the portrayal of gay sex in films that cause them to be rated NC-17. Dick even uses a split screen to compare gay sex scenes to straight ones. In each instance, the sex act or position is identical, but each “gay” film received an NC-17, while each “straight” film received only an R.

At the end of This Film is Not Yet Rated, life imitates art as Dick submits his film to the MPAA; of course, it’s rated NC-17. He then appeals his rating to a different set of MPAA board members (including two members of the clergy!), while his PIs do some snooping about the identity of this “shadow board” as well.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to see it?
This documentary about movie ratings, sex vs. violence, and creative freedom should be kept away from young eyes and ears. For Dick to make his point, he shows A LOT of graphic sex scenes. High-school teenagers could probably cope, and they’ve probably seen much worse on the Internet (a point made by both Smith and Waters).

Will your FilmMother want to see it?
If you’re comfortable watching sex scenes with your FilmMother and hearing frank talk about sexual acts, I recommend you watch This Film Is Not Yet Rated together. Every adult should see how the MPAA may have other interests in mind than helping parents (the connection between the MPAA, film studios, and theater owners is stupefying).

This Film is Not Yet Rated
* Director: Kirby Dick
* Screenwriter: Eddie Schmidt, Kirby Dick
* Stars: Allison Anders, David Ansen, Darren Aronofsky, Jamie Babbit, Maria Bello, Atom Egoyan, Stephen Farber, Mary Harron, Kimberly Peirce, Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, John Waters
* MPAA Rating: Unrated (includes adult language, nudity, and strong sexual content)

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