Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Ant Bully

Year 4, Day 15 - 1/15/12 - Movie #1,015

BEFORE: That was the last dog-based film, and I'm at one of those diverging paths again - with all the mad scientist stuff in "Teacher's Pet", it's tempting to switch gears and watch films like "Despicable Me" and "Igor" - but I think I'd rather stay on the talking animal path, since I'm only about half done, and make a switch from dogs to bugs. The connecting thread is that last night's film had a dog becoming a man, and tonight's film has a boy turning into an ant, or at least becoming ant-sized.

Another connection is that Nathan Lane from "Teacher's Pet" also voiced a character in "Astro Boy", and so did Nicolas Cage (last seen in "Knowing"), who also is heard in "The Ant Bully". I got lucky with that one - I suppose I should have looked at the cast lists in advance to make linking easier.

THE PLOT: After Lucas Nickle floods an ant colony with his watergun, he's magically shrunken down to insect size and sentenced to hard labor in the ruins.

AFTER: Well, I'd seen "Antz", but this is a whole different deal. This has more in common with "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids", but there's just one kid, and the shrinking is due to insect magic, not some wacko scientific ray (like THAT'S believable...). The ants call Lucas "The Destroyer" because of his penchant for torturing them with his water pistol (what, no magnifying glass?). To be fair, Lucas is being bullied by bigger kids and he takes it out on the ants - do you want to bet he learns some kind of empathy from being shrunk down to ant size?

That's right, the message here is quite predictable, do unto others and all that, and I can get behind it to a degree. We can only imagine what a person looks like to a bug, assuming they can comprehend us at all, especially when the last thing they see is a giant hand coming to squash them. There really is no equivalent for humans, unless you count the threat of a giant asteroid hitting the Earth, with no way for us to stop it.

(ASIDE: Jeez, do bugs treat microbes the same way we treat bugs? And what if our whole solar system is just a molecule of dirt in the toenail of some enormous giant that WE can't comprehend? What happens to us when he (gulp) clips his toenail? It's maddening! End of aside.)

I admit it, I'm guilty of killing bugs. I'd like to think I'd never kill a person, or any mammal, especially a cute one, unless it was him or me, or unless I was about to starve. Man, that's really non-committal, isn't it? But bugs and spiders are fair game, right? Especially ones that come into my house. Hey, everybody draws that line somewhere. I'll pulverize an ant or mosquito without a second thought - wrong place, wrong time, little guy - but with bees and wasps, I'd rather just avoid them.

But is this what it's come to? A movie telling kids not to kill bugs? Does this mean the pussy-fication of our society is now complete? Isn't it enough we've got kids recycling, and cleaning up parks, and doing fun-runs for charity? I sort of wish more focus had been put on the anti-bullying message here, because let's prioritize and get kids to be humane to each other first, then maybe we can think about the way they treat bugs. As it is, I think kids will just come away with the idea that ants are kinda cool, and exterminators are mass-murderers.

Yes, the villain of the piece is the exterminator, who really should be portrayed as an unsung hero. But here he's a giant (to the ants, that is) who takes delight in gassing wave after wave of insects - I doubt that most exterminators enjoy the killing aspect (which might be a sign of a troubled individual) - from watching "Dirty Jobs" I believe that most of them just look at it as part of the job. They really shouldn't be regarded as the Adolf Hitlers or Pol Pots of insects.

Also starring the voices of Julia Roberts (last seen in "Michael Collins"), Meryl Streep (last seen in "Sophie's Choice"), Paul Giamatti (last seen in "Duplicity"), Lily Tomlin (last seen in "9 to 5"), Bruce Campbell (last seen in "The Hudsucker Proxy"), Ricardo Montalban, Cheri Oteri, Larry Miller (last seen in "Valentine's Day"), and Alison Mack.

RATING: 5 out of 10 jelly beans

Friday, January 13, 2012

Teacher's Pet

Year 4, Day 14 - 1/14/12 - Movie #1,014

BEFORE: I never saw the animated series this movie is based on, but that didn't stop me from watching the "Jimmy Neutron" movie...from what I understand, it's about a dog who wants to be a boy and disguises himself as one, so he can attend school. Kind of like "Pinocchio", mixed with bits of "Boys Don't Cry".

Oh, and Malcolm Macdowell from "Bolt" was in "I Spy" with Famke Janssen, who was in "X-Men: The Last Stand" with Kelsey Grammer, who voices a character tonight. Hah, I still got it!

THE PLOT: Spot wants nothing more than to be a real boy, and sees a way to do this when a scientist appears on TV, claiming he can turn animals into humans.

AFTER: There's a bit of the now-expected long-distance quest here, since the scientist in question lives in Florida, and the dog must travel there, disguised as a boy named Scott, in hopes of becoming a real boy. It seems like Spot masquerades as Scott, and the teacher doesn't recognize him, even though he's her son's dog.

Putting aside the fact that the dog can talk, which I should be fairly used to by now - it's even more of a stretch to think that a dog could just dress up like a boy and pass. That would be one ugly kid - or perhaps one very cute dog. Credit the power of animation, since the dog is drawn in such a way that some glasses and clothing complete the illusion. Oh, and also credit the gullibility of the teacher, and the very nature of the premise.

Remember that part of "Back to the Future" when Marty McFly goes out on a date with his own mom? Well, here Spot gets turned into a man, and goes on a date with his owner's mother (again, she's also his teacher, and kind of like his own mom, too) - so after some species re-assignment, we've got hints of incest AND bestiality! Not really, it is a Disney film after all.

But the confusion leads to (what else) a musical number, with 7 or so characters chiming in, for a song that rivals "Blame Canada" in its complexity. There are some interesting ideas here about the nature of dogness, but it doesn't add up to much more than folly. Nice songs though.

Starring the voices of Nathan Lane (last heard in "Stuart Little 2"), Kelsey Grammer (last seen in "Fame"), Debra Jo Rupp (last heard in "Garfield"), Jerry Stiller (last seen in "Zoolander"), David Ogden Stiers (last seen in "The Man with One Red Shoe"), Paul Reubens (last seen in "Blow"), Megan Mullally (last seen in "Stealing Harvard"), Estelle Harris, and Jay Thomas (as a very Jerry Springer-like talk-show host named Barry Anger). Wallace Shawn (last heard in "All Dogs Go to Heaven 2" turns up again - who knew he did so much work in animation?

RATING: 4 out of 10 motor homes (Winnewagos - ooh, so close to trademark infringement!)

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Year 4, Day 13 - 1/13/12 - Movie #1,013

BEFORE: By now, it's become pretty standard for these animated talking-animal films - some form of long distance quest. Of 13 films watched so far in this chain, nearly all feature some kind of trek or distance-oriented goal, except for "Marmaduke" and "Marley & Me". It's like these screenwriters don't know what to do with the characters except get them lost and make them find their way home - or send them off looking for some unobtainable object. Seems like a bit of a crutch, actually.

Still, you do hear from time to time about a cat or dog that gets separated from its owners, and makes its way across the country, hundreds of miles to reunite with them. I'm not sure exactly how it happens - look-alike pets, help from humans - but I suspect there's more to the story than we realize. I doubt that little Fido hops on a Trailways bus and navigates his way back to Denver. It's like a magic trick that I haven't quite figured out yet.

Linking from last night, Bebe Neuwirth from "All Dogs 2" was also in "Green Card" with Andie MacDowell, who was also in "Michael" with John Travolta.

THE PLOT: The canine star of a fictional sci-fi/action show that believes his powers are real embarks on a cross country trek to save his co-star from a threat he believes is just as real.

AFTER: OK, so Bolt gets lost (duh...) but there is a twist - the dog believes he's an action hero, because he plays one on TV. That would seem to make sense, since he's got a little doggie brain, and he's been kept inside the wonderland of Hollywood, so he's been in his own little "Truman Show" or "Matrix" reality. It leads one to wonder just how much Lassie or Rin Tin Tin understood about acting - were they conscious they were playing heroic figures, or were they just reacting to their environments, according to how they were trained?

BUT (and you just knew there would be a "BUT", right?) it seems like the director of this TV shows goes to great lengths to make the dog THINK all the action and espionage is real, because he then gets a more genuine performance out of the dog. Umm, he realizes it's a dog, right? He's spending millions of the network's dollars to fool a dog. Seems like a stretch, even for Hollywood.

So they do extravagant action sequences in long takes, with multiple cameras, and no reshoots. Again, to fool a dog. I don't even have to be in the business to know that's not how movies and TV shows get made. Everyone knows action sequences are made of lots of little shots, dozens of retakes, and half the effects get added later in post-production anyway. Come ON!

That said, some of the action scenes are the best I've seen in a long while, in any film, live-action or animated. So clearly someone spent a lot of money to fool me, and the rest of the audience.

And there are some bits here about the downside of fame, especially for child actors (and, by extension, animals) which is a point I was trying to make the other night with regards to the little girl from "All Dogs Go to Heaven". So, regular people want to be famous, and famous people just want to be regular folks (or regular dogs). That sounds about right.

Starring the voices of John Travolta (last seen in "The Taking of Pelham 123"), Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman (last seen in "Cop Out"), Malcolm McDowell (last seen in "I Spy"), Greg Germann (last seen in "Down to Earth"), James Lipton (!), with cameos from Diedrich Bader (last heard in "Surf's Up") and Randy Savage.

RATING: 6 out of 10 trailer parks

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

All Dogs Go to Heaven 2

Year 4, Day 12 - 1/12/12 - Movie #1,012

BEFORE: No Burt Reynolds, no Don Bluth affiliated with this sequel.

Lingering nitpick points from last night's film, though - like if heaven is so perfect, how come a couple of dogs are able to game the system? Why have such an obvious device (a ticking watch) that a dog can wind so easily to gain more time? For that matter, how do obviously malicious dogs get into heaven, anyway? Just 'cause they're dogs? Then why have any kind of merit-based system to reward good behavior? Doggie hell clearly exists, but then what purpose does it serve?

THE PLOT: Charlie and Itchy return to Earth to find Gabriel's Horn, but along the way meet up with a young boy named David, who ran away from home.

AFTER: OK, so heaven's not perfect, or maybe it's too perfect, since it's portrayed as boring. Makes some sense, since sinning is what makes life so interesting, right? I guess they can't portray heaven as the best possible place, or all the kids in the audience will want to go there.

So Charlie volunteers to go back to earth after the lost horn, but what he really wants is some doggie action. Eternity turns out to be a bit too long for him, I guess. (However, in the last film we learned that once you leave doggie heaven, you can't come back - so, which is it?)

Yes, the rules are just a bit unclear. Just like with all religion. But Charlie means well, even if he does get seduced by the (very feline) devil. Something the writers of "Spider-Man" comics forgot - making a deal with the devil is a very bad thing to do, and should have dire consequences. Still waiting, Mr. Quesada.

As a result, the end sequence of this film is quite surreal, with the cat-like devil sucking souls out of doggie heaven to populate doggie hell. (See, this is why you don't make a deal with him...) But of course there's always a way to turn his magic against him.

I'm giving this film a slight edge over the original because the quest was a little better defined, and the songs were better - some even had a Steinman-like irony too them, like "It's Too Heavenly Here" and "It Feels So Good to Be Bad". Still, it was a little weird to hear the voice of Charlie Sheen (last seen in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps") talking about concepts of sin and redemption, given the events of the past year.

Also starring the voices of Dom Deluise (carrying over from last night), Sheena Easton, Ernest Borgnine (last seen in "The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission"), George Hearn (last seen in "The Devil's Own") and Wallace Shawn again (last heard in "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore").

RATING: 4 out of 10 chicken bones

All Dogs Go to Heaven

Year 4, Day 11 - 1/11/12 - Movie #1,011

BEFORE: This animated film came out in 1989, at the time I was busy trying to graduate from college, and I didn't have much time for watching movies. I missed a year or two of TV for the same reason. And while I studied a bit of animation in school, I didn't know at the time I'd end up working in that field - so I wasn't really paying attention to the kiddie films being released at the time.

THE PLOT: A dog returns from the dead looking for revenge on his killer using an orphan girl who can talk to animals.

AFTER: This was directed by Don Bluth, who used to be a Disney animator, but got frustrated with the House of Mouse in the early 80's (didn't we all?) so he struck out on his own. While I admire the intent, he might have peaked with "An American Tail" in 1986 - though some would say he peaked with "Anastasia" in 1997, and still others would say he peaked with the "Dragon's Lair" video game. Discuss.

I wasn't really overwhelmed by this one, it rambles a little bit with its depictions of the stray dog underworld, complete with rat races and meat slot machines. It's an attempt to make the stray lifestyle seem appealing, in a "Lady and the Tramp" kind of way, but doesn't really pay off. Mix in bits of "Heaven Can Wait" with a dash of "The Sting", and...well, it still doesn't help that much.

Charlie is a dog con man, which is a great idea for a character - and he's got a soft side, helping out orphaned pups when he has the time. But he's still motivated by money (a bit odd for a dog...) and by revenge. I'm sort of wondering whether this was a screenplay for human characters that got shoehorned into a kiddie film.

Charlie rescues a little orphaned girl who can speak to animals, who was being used by a dog to handicap rat races (I guess cats can't speak to mice?). I read the biography of the young actress who voiced the little girl, and wow, it's pretty depressing. She was a cute kid who had TV roles on shows like "The Fall Guy" and "Trapper John, M.D.", but had an abusive father and, well, it didn't end well for her. Let's hope all child actors go to heaven.

I'm not going to use this space to debate the existence of heaven or the merits of religion, that's a topic for another day. It's used here as a story device, so it serves a purpose. Again, the buy-in is high tonight, you've got to believe that dogs can talk, gamble, and sing - and can con their way into (and back out of) heaven. Make of that what you will.

Oh, and Jennifer Aniston from "Marley & Me" was in "Rock Star" with Mark Wahlberg, who was in "Boogie Nights" with Burt Reynolds.

Starring the voices of Burt Reynolds (last seen in "City Heat"), Dom Deluise (last heard in "The Secret of NIMH 2", also directed by Bluth), Charles Nelson Reilly (last heard in "Tom & Jerry in Shiver Me Whiskers) and Loni Anderson (last seen in "A Night at the Roxbury").

RATING: 3 out of 10 junkyard cars

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Marley & Me

Year 4, Day 10 - 1/10/12 - Movie #1,010

BEFORE: My wife read the book, and I read enough reviews of the books to know about Marley's story, but that still didn't stop me from yelling at a woman on the subway about a year ago, after she discussed the end of the film out loud. I mean, who DOES that? The subway, an elevator, plane trips - these are supposed to be spoiler free zones. It made me want to follow this woman around and find out what movies she hadn't seen yet, and ruin the endings of those films for her.

THE PLOT: A family learns important life lessons from their adorable but naughty and neurotic dog.

AFTER: An endearing film, yes, but also quite subversive in its own way. There's no 6-act Hollywood structure, and the plot point are similar to those we all might encounter in everyday life. Getting married, getting a pet, going on job interviews, having children - well, that last one I tend to leave to other people, but you get the idea.

Really, it's a film about a guy who lands a newspaper column, and chooses to write about his everyday experiences on a daily basis. I can get behind that. And owning a pet is mostly universal, but owning an untrainable pet turned out to be something really entertaining. For the reading public, probably not for Marley's owners.

We happen to have an untrainable cat - she races through the house at top speed, then howls at the top of her lungs. She hisses at cats in the yard and "talks" to birds (probably about how much she wants to eat them). She protests whenever my wife gets into "her" bed, and has been known to attack my wife's foot when she's sleeping. And if you touch her belly or hold her upside-down, well, then I can't be held responsible. It was nice knowing you, really.

But of course I was thinking of Merlin during the last half-hour of this film, and I was crying like a baby, I'm not ashamed to admit it. I think a lot of pet owners know this pain, and if you don't feel something while watching this, then you must be dead inside.

There were no flashy special effects, no dance numbers, no international intrigue, but sometimes you can gain great insight into life by examining little on-screen moments, and that's what I think happened here. Just a dog and a family? How can that be "just" anything? Some might say there's no point here, but I disagree, even if I can't verbalize it just now.

Owen Wilson carries over from being the voice of Marmaduke, which reminds me that I've fallen behind on linking between the films, I've just been linking with the cats and dogs. Maybe I'll get back to that, maybe not.

Also starring Jennifer Aniston (last seen in "The Break-Up"), Alan Arkin (last seen in "Sunshine Cleaning"), Eric Dane (last seen in "Valentine's Day"), with a cameo from Kathleen Turner (last seen in "The War of the Roses").

RATING: 7 out of 10 thunderstorms

UPDATE: I was home today with a cold - for once I decided not to share it with co-workers. While napping I had a dream where we were moving to a new house, packing up all of our stuff, unpacking, figuring out where furniture was going to go. You know, a nightmare. I blame this film.

Upon further reflection, and your mileage may vary, the film works as both a re-confirmation of my life choices, and a sad commentary on the American Dream. Here's how I see it - guy works as a freelance newspaper columnist, gets married, gets a dog, and life is good for these 2 DINKS (double income, no kids). OK, so maybe they have to spend a few bucks on replacement furniture that the dog chews up, but so what? Who has time to train a dog, when their careers are both going so well?

Then baby #1 comes along, and things take a turn. Now Mom's got to quit and stay home with the baby, which means less money, or they've got to hire help, which means less money. See, you can't win that way. Another kid comes along, and Dad's got to keep asking for bigger jobs or more work, to keep buying bigger houses that they can't afford. Wasn't this what caused the U.S. economy to crash a couple years ago? Plus, they're fighting all the time.

Remember when it was just the two of you and the dog, in that little seaside condo? You were HAPPY, and you blew it, because society says you've got to procreate. You got unconditional love from your dog with a minimum of effort, you could go on vacation, buy nice jewelry, but all that's over now.

Kids, dogs, cats - you go ahead and do what you want, but I'm just sayin'.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Year 4, Day 9 - 1/9/12 - Movie #1,009

BEFORE: So, I'm done with the cat-based films, except for ones about lions, and I'll get to those in a bit. Transitioning to dog-centric films for the next week. There are a lot more animated animals to come, so if you're not digging the blog, please check back in February.

In other news, we were able to feed and bond with the stray kitty in the backyard yesterday. She looks a little plump so she might be pregnant, which means we should probably try and catch her to deal with this situation, before we're awash in kittens. Also, I got the TCM channel back somehow, which is good news for my movie-watching experience, but bad news for the size of my list.

We also watched part of the Giants game while we were out at brunch, and I played that game where I figure out which actor (Jon Hamm, Robert Downey Jr.) is narrating each car commercial. I play the same game with these animated films, to see how many actors' voices I can identify before checking the IMDB. I only got 3 tonight. Maybe I missed my calling, and I should have become a casting agent for voiceover work.

THE PLOT: A suburban family moves to a new neighborhood with their large yet lovable Great Dane, who has a tendency to wreak havoc in his own oblivious way.

AFTER: This is good and simple - no spies, no pirates, no magic rings. Just a dog moving with his family to California, and trying to fit in. Oh, cats and dogs still talk and understand each other, but at least tonight the humans can't hear the dogs talk - because that would not make any sense.

I liked the attempts to get inside a dog's brain, to explain what he might be thinking when he acts up, or barks at someone, or interacts with other dogs at the park. But of course, the movie falls back on human terms to explain these things. And Marmaduke breaks the fourth wall during the first segment, to bring us all up to speed on the family. Furthermore, all of Marmaduke's misbehavior is usually attributed to something else, like a bee on his nose. So he's NEVER a bad dog, because you can't have a bad dog as the central character. Even when his family thinks he trashed the house, it's really because he had his doggie friends over for a wild party. Yeah, none of the other 47 dog owners noticed that their dogs were missing during the night...

There's some message-based material in the film, like about standing up to bullies, and not pretending to be someone who you're not. Oh, and not forgetting your friends when you become famous. And all that's just from Marmaduke's experiences. Meanwhile his owner is learning how to stand up to his boss, how to deal with a "misbehaving" pet, and how to listen to what his children are saying. Geez, there are probably too many messages in the film. Maybe they should have picked just one or two and focused a little.

Still, it's all relatively enjoyable and non-offensive, unless you can't stand dogs farting. Or if you've watched a bunch of talking animal films in a row and you can't help but wonder what it's doing to your brain. By the end of this chain I'll probably think it's weird when the dogs and cats in the real world don't talk to me.

Starring Lee Pace (last seen in "The Good Shepherd"), William H. Macy (last heard in "The Tale of Despereaux"), and the voices of Owen Wilson (last seen in "Behind Enemy Lines"), Keifer Sutherland (last heard in "Phone Booth"), Emma Stone (last seen in "The House Bunny"), Fergie (last seen in "Nine"), George Lopez (last seen in "Valentine's Day"), Steve Coogan, Marlon Wayans and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (last heard in "How to Train Your Dragon"). Oh, and I spotted Jack McGee as the voice of the Dalmatian (inside joke, since he played a fire captain on "Rescue Me") so make that 4.

RATING: 6 out of 10 surfboards

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Year 4, Day 8 - 1/8/12 - Movie #1,008

BEFORE: The cable guy came today, and was able to install a new piece of cable to replace the one that was going out through the back door (which was a fix for a part of cable damaged by a snowstorm 2 years ago) but was unable to fix my missing channels, IFC and TCM. Turns out the whole neighborhood is missing those channels, and they haven't been able to find where the problem is. This puts my viewing of the "31 Days of Oscar" programming in jeopardy.

Hmmm, they waited 9 years to make a sequel to "Cats & Dogs", which is an eternity in Hollywood years. If your audience is kids, those kids will be teenagers if you wait too long to put out a sequel. That's not really an encouraging sign.

THE PLOT: The ongoing war between the canine and feline species is put on hold when they join forces to thwart a rogue cat spy with her own sinister plans for conquest.

AFTER: They may have replaced some of the voice actors from the original (Tobey Maguire and Alec Baldwin are out), but they managed to keep some of the same characters - that's the advantage of working with beagles, you can just get another one that looks almost identical.

I enjoyed this one a little more than the first film, mostly because they took a definite turn towards parodying the James Bond films - not just in the watered-down title, but also by casting Roger Moore as the voice of the lead cat spy (with the name "Lazenby", nice touch) and adding an opening credits sequence that's very reminiscent of films like "Goldfinger" and "For Your Eyes Only", with silhouettes of cats and dogs (instead of hot babes), floating dog biscuits, and a very Shirley Bassey-like singer covering a Black Eyed Peas song. Wait, according to IMDB, that actually WAS Shirley Bassey. Wow.

The plot is still ridiculous, though - a cat has a plan to broadcast a high-pitched signal that will drive all dogs mad, so humans will be forced to cage them, and cats can take their place as human's main pets. And the idea that the cats would team up with the dogs to stop this plan is more than a little tenuous.

But it works as a parody of all spy films and action films in general, with tropes like the grizzled rookie teaming up with the hot-headed rookie, with pigeons (stool pigeons?) as informants and all this impossible high-tech gear. But making cats and dogs fly with jet-packs? Well, just because you CAN doesn't mean that you SHOULD.

Starring Chris O'Donnell (last seen in "Kinsey"), and the voices of James Marsden (last seen in "Superman Returns"), Nick Nolte (last seen in "Mother Night"), Christina Applegate (last heard in "Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel"), Bette Midler (last seen in "The First Wives Club"), Neil Patrick Harris (last seen in "Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay"), Wallace Shawn (last heard in "Tom & Jerry: Shiver Me Whiskers"), Sean Hayes (carrying over from "Cats & Dogs"), Joe Pantoliano (ditto), Michael Clarke Duncan (ditto), and live cameos from Jack McBrayer (last seen in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") and Fred Armisen (last seen in "Cop Out").

RATING: 5 out of 10 grappling hooks