May 7th, 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

On May 1, we went out to see "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," the new stop-motion (mostly) animation film from Aardman Animations, creators of "Wallace and Gromit."

The film is done in a refined version of Aardman's classic style, with sight gags piled one upon the other, such that we're planning to go back a second time just to try to catch more. (The credits are worth sitting through because they give you close ups of the many posters, portraits, and other graphics that decorate the "sets".) The seamless subtlety of the stop-motion, particularly in the character faces and expressions, makes you forget it's done with "clay" and meshes completely with CGI generated backgrounds.

The movie begins with Queen Victoria (voice by Imelda Staunton) getting a briefing from her Admiral on Britain's rulership of the seas, which is complete except for the nagging, minor, pirate problem. This sets Victoria off into a rant against pirates, whom she hates because, among other reasons, they are anachronistic. (Which is quite true for her time, and a satirical swipe at "Pirates of the Carribean"--.)

Cut to somewhere at sea, where The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is planning his campaign to win Pirate of the Year after many failures. In real life, any pirate who managed to keep himself, his crew, and his ship alive for twenty years would have been a great success. However, Pirate of the Year is based largely on how much booty you can bring to the judging, and he is far outclassed by rivals "Peg Leg Hastings," " Cutlass Liz," and reigning champion, "Black Bartleby."

Frustrated, he scours the seas for more treasure, coming up empty until he overtakes Charles Darwin's survey ship, "The Beagle". Darwin (David Tennant) beguiles the Pirate Captain by telling him that he already has something that may be of "incalulable worth." However, Darwin's plan involves sailing to London and into the teeth of Queen Victoria's emnity.

Lots of slapstick swashbuckling ensues. It turns out that not only does Darwin have a hidden agenda, so does Victoria, who turns out to be a formidable foe.

The ultimate result is very funny, and thouroughly enjoyable. Suitable for all ages old enough to follow the plot.

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The Raven

On Sunday the 6th, we went to see "The Raven," the movie which pits author Edgar Allen Poe against a serial killer who is reenacting the grisly murders from Poe's stories.

The always-interesting John Cusack does a good job of playing Poe as an arrogant and angry character, railing against his literary rivals, and against both his poverty and the mercenary motives of his current publisher, newspaperman Maddux (Kevin McNally). When two women are found dead in a situation mimicking Poe's mystery story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe is dragged into the investigation by Detective Emmet Fields (Luke Evans). Detective Fields, although not a fan of Poe, has read his stories, and seems to be trying to apply the techniques set out by Poe's detective, Auguste Dupin; at any rate, he is a highly rational and thoughtful policeman for the 1840's.

The situation gets worse when the killer, prefiguring "Jack the Ripper", starts corresponding with the newspaper, and demands that Poe himself chronicle both the murders and Poe's part in the investigation.

In proper Poe-esque fashion, the story goes to some very dark places and is unsparing in the horror (with one scene that is VERY gory and graphic--be warned!)and winds to a grim, but satisfying, conclusion. Cusack and Evans are well supported by Alice Eve as Poe's love interest, and a strong cast of veteran character actors. The setting is very nice (one doubts that 1849 Baltimore looked as good as the East European locations that stood in for it) and costuming ranging from very handsome to gorgeous in the Masked Ball scene.

My one criticism would be that Cusack looks too healthy to be the alcoholic Poe in the last year of his life. Other than that, the script treats Poe well, pointing out real items from his past including that he attended West Point. The plot is a good whodunnit, which kept us guessing almost up to the final reveal. There are some plot holes and required suspensions of disbelief, but not so large as to derail being drawn in to the story.

Recommended for fans of Poe, of period crime stories, and of horror films that still have some class.

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