Lisa Marie Goes To Rio (dir. by Carlos Saldahna)

Rio is one of those films that I missed when it had it’s initial run at the theaters.  However, last week, I finally got a chance to see it at the “dollar” theater.  Now, I have to admit that I consider the dollar theater to be something like the sixth ring of Hell and, before the movie started, I posted the following to twitter: “Wow, there’s a lot of ugly and obese children in this theater.”  And indeed, that was the case.  What I forgot to mention is that a lot of them were there with equally ugly and obese parents, the types who talked loudly through the film in accents that carried the dual twang of ignorance and stagnation.  Despite the surroundings though, I found Rio to be a perfectly pleasant little animated film.

Rio is the story of Blu (voice by Jesse Eisenberg), a blue macaw who, though originally from Brazil, has grown up in Minnesota and, as a result, has never learned how to fly.  Blu returns to Brazil with his owner (Lesley Mann) so that he can mate with another macaw, Jewel (Ann Hathaway) and keep the species from dying out.  However, things don’t go exactly as planned as 1) Jewel is more interested in escaping captivity than in mating and 2) both Rio and Jewel are abducted by a psychotic Cockatoo named Nigel (Jermaine Clement).  Nigel works for a bunch of poachers and soon Jewel and the flightless Blu find themselves on the run, looking for their owner while the Rio Carnaval goes on all around them. 

As one of my old theater teachers one said about me, Rio “is not without a certain fun charm.”  The film’s storyline of neurotic animals getting lost in an exotic locale and eventually finding the strength to believe in themselves is pretty much standard animation fare but the action moves along quickly and the movie takes full advantage of the whole Rio mystique.  The film’s animators create the Rio de Janeiro that everyone hopes they’ll discover if they ever make it down to Brazil.  Perhaps most importantly, Rio is child-appropraite without ever being so childish as to inspire adults to start drinking while the little ones laugh.

The voice actors all do a pretty good job distinguishing their individual characters.  Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly neurotic as Blu while Anne Hathway’s vocals are properly headstrong as Jewel.   The real stand-out here is Jermaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords. Clement, with his deep, wonderfully dramatic voice, brings a lot of flair to the villainous Nigel and, despite being a psycho Cockatoo, quickly became an audience favorite.  Though the human bird owners don’t get much to do, Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro are so endearing that you actually wish they had more screen time.  On the other hand, if, like me, you found George Lopez to be grating before seeing Rio, this film isn’t going to do much to change your mind.  (Lopez, not surprisingly, plays the know-it-all bird who helps Blu and Jewel make their way through Rio.)

As I watched Rio, I realized just how spoiled we all got last year as far as animated films were concerned.  Last year, I got a chance to see Toy Story 3, How To Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, A Town Called Panic, The Illusionist, Megamind, and Despicable Me.  It was, in many ways, a banner year for cinematic animation.  With the exception of Rango, there haven’t been any animated films so far that can really compare with what we were given last year.  As a result, it’s easy to be dismissive of a straight-forward, relatively simple family film like Rio.  That’s unfortunate because, taken on its own terms, Rio is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes.  Just don’t go into it expecting to see Toy Story 3 and you’ll be fine.

Review: Torchwood: Miracle Day Ep. 02 “Rendition”

The first episode of the fourth season of Torchwood was a major success for the series as it moves from it’s British locale over to the United States. It was a move which gave the series (now dubbed Miracle Day) an even more epic tone which was a good thing since the series truly became an epic one throughout it’s third season, Children of Earth. The premiere episode saw the introduction of the American half of what I assume will be the newly-reconstituted Torchwood Institute. Mekhi Phifer comes in as the confidently arrogant CIA operative Rex Matheson who has a major stake in finding out the true agenda behind what the world has been calling “Miracle Day”. Taking on the role of support to Rex is the idealistic and, somewhat, naive CIA analyst Esther Drummond (played by Alexa Havins) who first introduces Rex to the term Torchwood in the first episode of the new season.

“Rendition” marks the second episode of the series and continues exactly where the premiere episode left off with Rex taking custody of the last two surviving members of the Torchwood Institute, the previously immortal Capt. Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper, and renditioning them back to the US through some vague US-UK intelligence cooperation program in the hopes that Torchwood will either shed a light into whats happening in the world or flush out the people who do know and who seem intent on killing Jack and Gwen.

This episode brings in a couple three new players into the new series whose agenda range from ambiguous to outright hostile in regards to the event of “Miracle Day” and the Torchwood survivors. There’s Rex’s fellow CIA operative Lyn (played by Dollhouse alum Dichen Lachmann) who has been sent to “assist” Rex in bringing stateside Jack and Gwen on a chartered jumbo jet. We find out soon enough Lyn’s agenda in accompanying Rex on this rendition flight as she secretly communicates with CIA deputy director Brian Friedkin (Wayne Knight) who seems to want Capt. Jack out of the way before the plane lands on Dulles International. The interaction between Lyn, Rex and the rest of Torchwood and flight crew really sets her up as the clear antagonist for this episode though it’s not yet established whether she will stay beyond this episode. Wayne Knight as the duplicitious CIA director Friedkin was a hit-and-miss addition for me. His character was written quite well, but I think the casting director for the show really dropped the ball in putting such a recognizable face in a role that needed someone who could get lost in the role. I’m sure I wasn’t the only viewer of this episode who either vocally or mentally shouted “Newman!” when he first appeared in the episode.

The third new character to make their appearance in this episode was the PR consultant Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose) who seemed really gung-ho in trying to represent the suddenly famous (instead of infamous) pedophile-murderer Oswald Danes whose blubbering breakdown during a news interview has begun to earn him shouts of forgiveness from the faceless masses. Lauren Ambrose as Kitzinger looked to be too peppy at first glance, but as the show progressed and she began appearing in places where one would wonder why she was there at all it planted seeds of just exactly who Jilly Kitzinger really is. This character is definitely one whose agenda may just swing back and forth as the series goes on.

This was the first episode of the new series to not be written by showrunner Russell T. Davies and one written by a newcomer to the Torchwood series in Doris Egan. The fact that Egan is new to the series didn’t really hamper the tone of this episode. It felt and sounded like a Torchwood episode. She even got a good handle on the Gwen Cooper character who bordered on organized panic during the flight to the US as Capt. Jack suffered through an attempt on his suddenly mortal life. I still get a kick at how quickly Gwen’s speech patterns get the more stressed out she gets. I was told by a hardcore fan over on Twitter that it was due to her being Welsh that she speaks so fast in such situation. That may or may not be true, but it made for some very amusing segments during an episode which continued to explore the dark side of the world population’s sudden bout with immortality.

It’s this exploration of whether “Miracle Day” actually is a miracle or a curse which gave the episode it’s serious weight throughout the episode. We see through Dr. Suarez (Arlene Tur) interacting with every expert trying to find out just exactly what has happened that “Miracle Day” looks to be a miracle by name only. The episode points out that people may night be dying but they’re still succumbing to injuries, diseases and plain old age. This dilemma brings about talks of a need to change how triage now operate and how “Miracle Day” looks to be the perfect breeding ground for super-germs and viruses. And while these were being discussed the series still hasn’t determined or given any clue as to the cause of this event whether it be natural, supernatural or extraterrestrial.

Overall, “Rendition” was a very good follow-up to an excellent premiere episode. We learn more about the new characters (all of them American) and see the old Torchwood faces back to doing what they do best and that’s solving a grave problem by the skin of their teeth. The new series has so far kept this Torchwood neophyte’s attention and actually has sold him on revisiting the past episodes and looking at them with eyes opened up by Miracle Day.

Up next week is the episode, “Dead of Night”.

1st episode: “The New World”

The Daily Grindhouse: The Devils (dir. by Ken Russell)

With Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General having found some notoriety for it’s graphic depictions of the witchfinding and inquisition of suspected witches and sorcerers in ravaged England during it’s English Civil War during the 17th-century the world of film, especially the grindhouse and exploitation cinema of the day, founded a new subgenre of horror (folk horror) and also one in the niche world of exploitation. Nunsploitation would be ushered in during the late 60’s and right through the 1970’s of grindhouse cinema with films like Reeves and another which many thought was influenced heavily by the Vincent Price-starred production.

Ken Russell’s The Devils has had a recent rethinking as a film that was less exploitation and more of an arthouse film of the early 70’s which many called one of the more influential films of it’s era. No matter what recent thought on the film might have labeled Russell’s film I always thought it was one of the finer examples of nunsploitation cinema which has of late become more in tune with fetishic pornography than straight-out exploitation horror.

The film starred Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave and was set in 17th-century France during the reign of King Louis XIII and the rise of his Catholic advisor in Cardinal Richelieu. Just like Reeves’ film, The Devils was based on the true historical account of the French priest Urbain Grandier of Loudon who was accused of witchcraft and subsequently executed because of these accusations.

Russell, who has mentioned that he got nothing from Reeves’ film as inspiration and actually hated the Witchfinder General, would take the graphic scenes of torture and sadism of Reeves’ film and ramp it up to the next level. He wouldn’t just include even more graphic scenes of sadistic violence in his own film, but add scenes of sex and perversion (even for the type of film it was The Devils pushed the boundaries of decency of the era) which would see Russell’s film banned from many areas in the UK. The film even split the critics of the day with some calling the film awful and debased while some would nominate the film and it’s director for prestigious film circle and festival awards.

The Devils would be heavily censored in its native UK and even in the US upon it’s release. As time went by the film began to garner new accolades as more open-minded critics began to look at Russell’s film under a new light. While more and more critics of todaycontinue to heap artistic and creative accolades upon this film that it’s begun to shed it’s exploitation roots I still believe that at it’s heart The Devils was and is still nunsploitation at it’s best.


Quickie Review: Witchfinder General (dir. by Michael Reeves)

The late 1960’s saw a major shift in horror films. There have always been horror films which had an inordinate amount of gore and violence, but were always relegated to the niche cinemas which catered to horror exploitation films. In 1968 it all changed with the release of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Not only did this film graphically show gore and violence on the screen it also paired it with a well-told story. Another film which became infamous the very same year for it’s portrayal of torture, rape and sadism on the screen was British filmmaker Michael Reeves’ horror film, Witchfinder General.

Witchfinder General starred horror icon Vincent Price in the title role as Matthew Hopkins who was tasked as the Witchfinder General by the Cromwell government during the English Civil War of the 17th-century. His Hopkins would travel the region of East Anglia (Cromwell-controlled territory) rooting out witchcraft and sorcery wherever they might be found. Assisting him in this task is the thuggish, brute Stearne (played by Robert Russell) who relished in torturing suspected witches in towns the two visit. It’s during one such visit to the town of Brandeston, Suffolk that Hopkins and Stearne begin a sequence of events which would pit them against the soldier Richard Marshall (who also happens to fight on the same side as Hopkins and Stearne) whose fiancee and her uncle became the latest victims of the Witchfinder General’s sadistic methods of rooting out confessions.

The film as a horror has less to do with the supernatural, but more of the hypocritical horror which begets a political environment where powerful men contest for more power and uses fear and the superstitious ignorance of a populace to cement their power. In this amoral vacuum comes in the opportunistic Matthew Hopkins who uses the power given to him by his government to not just do his duty to eradicate witchcraft but also abuse it for his own personal (and as seen in the film a way to sate his own personal lusts) gain. It’s this hypocritical nature of who was suppose to be a Puritanical and righteous agent of God which emphasizes the true historical horror of religion and politics becoming one and the same.

Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins was at the top of his game in Witchfinder General. He gives his role not just an air of superiority over everyone he meets and deals with, but he also makes Hopkins’ truly an amoral character who sees nothing wrong in taking advantage of his position and actually feels like he deserves the desperate attentions of those willing to do anything to save their loved ones from his machinations. Robert Russell as his licentious and sadistic assistant Stearne also does a great job in portraying an individual who might seem brutish and thuggish, but who was also more honest with is situation than his master. It makes for an interesting pair despite their roles being the film’s prime antagonists.

The film more than truly earned the outcry it received upon it’s release in 1968 as scenes of torture and sadism was extreme for a British horror film industry so used to the Gothic sensibilities of the Hammer Films of the era. Graphic depictions of burnings, torture and drowning were done not to seem gratuitious or to cater to the burgeoning gorehound crowd of the era, but done so matter-of-factly that they seem even more horrific.

The Witchfinder General really helped usher in the death of gothic horror which dominated the genre with the Hammer Films in the UK and the Edgar Allan Poe films of Roger Corman in the US. The film continues to impress new generations of horror fans and is still considered by older fans of the genre as one of the best horror films ever made. For some the film might look dated due to the acting (most of the actors of the era were stage actors first and film ones second) and the effects work, but they also fail to look at the film in context of the era and how even by today’s standard it would still shock those not well-versed in the genre of horror. They definitely don’t make horror films like this anymore and that’s a shame on many levels.