18 July 2009

The Final Reel: Historically Challenged

Yup, this is the last time you'll see these blog posts headed with the admittedly not-very-good pun "The Reel Deal". That ship has sailed, and it's time for a rebrand, the theme of which has already been glimpsed in my Transformers 2 review. But for now, I'm going to review two films set around about the same time period, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Year One, both of which would come under rather intense scrutiny from any Oxbridge scholar looking into their historical accuracy. But then I suppose most Oxbridge scholars know that animals don't speak English, and so films are usually exempt from such quibbles. Let's just say Ridley Scott clearly never worked on either of these films.

Reviews, as ever, shall contain minor spoilers, but not so far as to ruin your enjoyment of the films in question if you haven't seen them yet.


Who's in it?
It's a cartoon of course, so we get the returning voice talents of John Leguizamo, Ray Romano and Denis Leary from the first two and a new voice in the form of the excellent Simon Pegg.

What's it all about? Sid the sloth (Leguizamo) is getting broody as his herd moves on in life- Manny (Romano) is soon to become a father and Diego (Leary) is off to regain his self-esteem as a predator. He steals three eggs he finds embedded in the ice with the aim of mothering them, but discovers they belong to a dinosaur, who aren't as extinct as first thought.

Any good? I've been groaning for months at the mention of this film. I love the first Ice Age, but felt the second was a step too far. The only really accomplished studio when it comes to animated sequels is Pixar, and Ice Age: The Meltdown did nothing to change this. But most of all, that title. "Dawn of the Dinosaurs?!", I wailed. "Dawn of-- the Ice Age came after the dinosaurs! What's wrong with cinema today? I-- hey, where did all my friends go?" Having coaxed one of my startled companions back to the cinema, I went in with some trepidation. I expected little more than the first sequel, but this time in 3D. The continually irksome glasses aside, this film actually wasn't that bad.

It's certainly not comedic genius. The first film was really good, in my opinion- it seemed to show promising things from the then-new studio Blue Sky, and it's one of the better animated films of the last decade or so. This instalment doesn't measure up to that but it's certainly a lot better than its immediate predecessor, even if it does reprise the most annoying of the new characters from that film. For starters, they took the dinosaur thing in a direction I certainly wouldn't have thought they'd manage. Rather than just have dinosaurs wander around all this time, it emerges that they're hiding under the ice, a la Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. In aping that it's obviously not massively original, but it displays more thought than I anticipated. As far as plot goes, it's much the same as the previous two- the makeshift herd that comprises the main characters go on a trek to recover/deliver one of their friends to safety.

Nevertheless, it supersedes the second film because it's funnier, plain and simple. Yes, it's still not as clever in its humour as Ice Age, but makes up for it with copious amounts of Simon Pegg. Buck is a debonair weasel who guides our heroes through the underground world with more than an implied degree of madness, and Pegg voices him with great aplomb. The film is still a little too reliant on the continuing frustrations of Scratt, the acorn-hungry squirrel, who this time gets a female counterpart, imaginatively called Scratte. This brings nothing to the film that we haven't seen in the assorted Scrat appearances to date, but there's a genius interlude towards the end to the tune of "Alone Again Naturally" with its lyrics retooled from the acorn's point of view. I shit you not. More annoying and unfunny are the possums, Crash and Eddie, demonstrating Hollywood's continuing inability to create twin comic-relief characters that don't make me want to hurt myself and those around me.

As with several 3D animated films, the 3D doesn't really lend anything to Ice Age- Dawn of the Dinosaurs, but it's an inoffensive and mildly enjoyable addition to the series. There are too few big laughs for it to measure up to the original, but it's well-animated and Simon Pegg is the most enjoyable aspect.


Who's in it? Jack Black (Tropic Thunder), Michael Cera (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) and David Cross (Kung Fu Panda).

What's it all about? A hunter-gatherer team (Black and Cera) are expelled from their tribe right before it is invaded and enslaved by soldiers from the city of Sodom. The pair ineptly careen from biblical event to biblical event in an attempt to rescue the tribe.

Any good?
Big budget comedies don't work. Perhaps I'm being absent-minded, but besides Tropic Thunder, I can't think of a single big-budget comedy from recent years that left any lasting impression. Jack Black was in Tropic Thunder, and yet here, he's doing a film that largely flounders. I did laugh occasionally, but not enough to call this a good comedy. I should say from the outset that I can't really criticise the film for not particularly sticking to the setting of its title like other reviewers have, because I'm an atheist and this is essentially based on the Old Testament- I already think its source material was a confused mess of mumbo-jumbo. Coming soon, Mark Harrison reviews the Bible, but now we're looking at this, which apparently aims to be a modern day version of Life of Brian. I hesitate to say that this is more like Epic Movie than Life of Brian, because as mentioned, I did laugh at Year One. Sadly it is closer to the works of Aaron Friedburg and Jason Seltzer than... who directed this? Harold Ramis?!

Harold Ramis, what are you doing? You directed Groundhog Day! To a lesser extent, you directed Analyse This! You're a fucking Ghostbuster! Where did you go so wrong with this? Just to put this in perspective for those of you who are scratching your head at the mention of Sodom in the synopsis, Harold Ramis has made a film where the heroes are out to save the city of Sodom- you know, the one God struck down and which later gave its name to practises inventively explored in BrĂ¼no- from slavery. Not that I'm anti-gay, but I didn't like the confused message they were trying to get across about Sodom. Jack Black rambunctiously says he doesn't see the bad thing about Sodom- are they saying standards have slipped in the last 2000 years? It only gets more garbled with an out-of-place subplot about the existence of God, and you suddenly realise that every good comedy in the last few years (with the exception of Tropic Thunder) has remained more or less rooted in the real world. Surreal historical comedy is more or less a dead genre, until the Python crew revisit it, and that's incredibly unlikely.

As for the cast, their roles are overwhelmingly limited to separate Bits, a la last month's Night at the Museum 2. Paul Rudd has a Bit, Hank Azaria has a Bit and Ramis himself has his own little Bit. And in the centre of the film we have Jack Black and Michael Cera, and you'll never believe what they do. Jack Black is rambunctious (hence the use of the word in the last paragraph) and outrageous, while Michael Cera is awkward and shy. You know, the kind of performances those actors have never ever given before. Although I like Cera usually, both his and Black's tried-and-tested approaches are wearing thin, and you wish Azaria, Rudd and Ramis- all much more gifted comic actors- had been around more. Instead, their roles are cameos that cast little bits of light on Year One, a film that is otherwise largely disappointing and utterly forgettable.

Right, that's pretty much is for now. The next post is coming very soon and will cover one film all to itself- some little film called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. That revamp is on the way, and will definitely be in place by the time we get to the next of these two-review-blogs, but you can expect that the Harry Potter review will have some artwork from Fearn Sobers eventually, if not at the time the review is first posted.

Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch,

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