Monday, May 22, 2017

DUELING MOVIES: Chicken Run (2000) vs. Valiant (2005)


                There have been two animated movies that were set in World War II.  And both featured birds.  “Chicken Run” premiered in 2000 and was produced by Aardman Animation in the United Kingdom.  It was directed by a co-founder (Peter Lord) and Nick Park of “Wallace and Gromit” fame.  This film is also stop motion animation.  The production included 80 animators who produced one minute of film per each week of work.  The film cost about $45 million and made $224 million.    “Valiant” was a product of Vanguard Animation which is not exactly at the top of the animation business.  It’s director Gary Chapman was debuting.  He used a small group of animators and the film took 106 weeks to finish.  It cost $35 million and made $61 million. 

                “Chicken Run” is an homage to WWII prison camp movies and has numerous references to some of the most famous ones.  In England, the Tweedy’s own a chicken farm that looks like a German stalag.  Chickens who don’t produce eggs are eliminated.  A hen named Ginger (Julia Sawalha) is constantly trying to escape and ending up in the "cooler".  The evil Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) decides to convert the business to making chicken pot pies.  Ginger realizes the chickens must escape before the pie machine is operational.  Coincidentally, an American Rhode Island Red named Rocky (Mel Gibson) arrives yelling “freedom!”  Ginger figures their mass escape can succeed if Rocky can teach the hens how to fly.  Complications ensue.

                “Valiant” is set in England in 1944.  It is an homage to the Air Ministry Pigeon Service (called the Royal Homing Pigeon Service in the movie).  Valiant (Ewan Mc Gregor) is the typical cinematic runt who is gung-ho to serve his country.  The villain is a Darth Vaderish German falcon with an eye patch named Gen. Von Talon (Tim Curry).  His goal is to locate the pigeon base.  Valiant meets a slacker pigeon named Bugsy (Ricky Gervais) and they enlist with a heterogeneous group and undergo a training montage that is supervised by a stereotypically gruff sergeant.  Valiant meets a comely nurse named Victoria (Olivia Williams) so we can have some romance.  The intrepid pigeons are sent on a mission behind enemy lines to hook up with the French Resistance.  This leads to an action-packed encounter with Von Talon and his henchbirds.
                “Chicken Run” is an excellent movie.  It did amazing box office in spite of the fact that its target audience of kids would not have been familiar with "The Great Escape" or any of the other WWII prison camp movies.  For example, the hens are in a barracks prominently numbered 17.  It is a great example of how the best animated movies are appealing to both kids and their parents.  The ones that walk that line well are special and make huge amounts of money.  What’s rarer is an animated movie that appeals to adults who are war movie fans.  In particular, it is a must-see for any “Great Escape” fan.  The movie should have been called “The Great Eggscape”.  (See below for references to TGE found in “Chicken Run”.)   If you don’t get the references, just enjoy everything else about the production.  The animation is outstanding as you would expect from Nick Parks.  The attention to detail is obsessive.  The vocal work is top notch and that is in spite of (really due to) a mostly no-name cast.  The only stars are Gibson and Richardson.  Surprisingly, Gibson is fine.  There is suspense and a slam-bang escape using a flying machine that may have brilliantly hearkened to the Colditz Cock (a homemade glider constructed in an attic in the infamous Colditz prison camp in WWII).  The sight gags are sterling and the movie is legit funny for all age groups.  Most of the hilarity comes from two scrounging rats that remind of the Muppets geezers with their wisecracks.  Some of the dialogue is aimed at the eight year old plus forty set.  For example, the elderly RAF rooster Fowler (Benjamin Whitrow) says about Rocky:  “Pushy Americans, always showing up late for every war.  Overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” The music fits the mood perfectly.  It was not the highest grossing stop motion animated film up to that time by luck.

                This is not much of a contest.  “Valiant” is vastly inferior to “Chicken Run” in every way. The animation is below average.  The voice work is blah, even though it appears to have a stronger cast.  The only standout is John Cleese as a prisoner being tortured by Von Talon.  There is no suspense and no character dies (which is not unusual for a kids movie, but “Chicken Run” went there).  The movie simplistically aims at six year-olds and misses with most of the humor.  It is certainly less adult-oriented than “Chicken Run” with few references to WWII movies.  It is very predictable in an average kids’ movie sort of way.  It is also predictable that we get pigeon fart jokes.

                The only thing I can compliment “Valiant “ for is it attempts to recognize the achievements of the messenger pigeons of WWII.  My research found that the use of homing pigeons goes all the way back to Cyrus the Great.  Julius Caesar used them to send messages.  They did great service in the two world wars.  In fact, the main character was named after the last pigeon to bring a message from the besieged defenders of Fort Vaux in Verdun during WWI.  Many historically literate Americans are familiar with the bravery of “Cher Ami” delivering a message from the Lost Battalion.  Animals played such an important in WWII that the British instituted the Dickin Medal to honor animals for gallantry.  From 1943-1949 fifty-four animals earned the award, including thirty-two pigeons.  The first three were instrumental in the rescue of a downed air crew.  Here is the commendation for one of them (“White Vision”):  “Delivered a message that led to the rescue of a ditched air crew in Oct., 1943.  She flew 9 hours in bad visibility and heavy weather with strong headwinds.”  Keep in mind, before you sneer, that the pigeons were targets for ground fire as enemy soldiers knew they were carrying important communications.  They deserved this movie, especially since their only previous recognition in cinema was the damned traitorous bird who flew off towards German lines in “The Longest Day”.

                In conclusion, you can let your kids watch “Valiant” and use it as an electronic baby-sitter.  No harm will come to them.  However, if you show them “Chicken Run”, watch it with them.  Just be aware that they will probably wonder why you are laughing at jokes they don’t get. 

GRADES:  Chicken Run  =  A
                   Valiant  =  D

“Chicken Run” references to “The Great Escape”:
1.       The opening theme music.
2.       Ginger is put in the “cooler” and puts notches on the wall to mark the days and bounces a tennis ball off the wall.
3.       The chicken yard looks like the prison camp.
4.       The chickens dig a tunnel which uses trolleys.
5.       Some of the chickens sneak out of their barracks after dark to hold a meeting in one of the barracks.
6.       The rats stand in for Hendley the scrounger.
7.       Rocky is based on Hilts (Steve McQueen) – the cocky American flyboy amongst the Brits
8.       Ginger wants to get all of them out at the same time.
9.       A bunk collapses because of nails being removed.
10.    Rocky travels on a scooter and jumps a fence with it.

11.    Fowler smuggles nuts and bolts in his pants’ legs.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Picture, Quote, Movie #13

"One kill. Confirmed! It's a cruel world, Herr Hauptmann. You said so yourself." 

What movie?  Although the movie is usually said to be inspired by the comic strip character, in fact the idea came from a scene cut from The Archers’ previous film (“One of Our Aircraft is Missing”). A character says “You don’t know what it’s like to be old”. Film editor and future great director David Lean suggested a movie be constructed around that line.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

CRACKER? Hyena Road (2015)

                “Hyena Road” is a Canadian movie starring, written by, and directed by Paul Gross (“Passchendaele”).  It attempts to highlight Canada’s role in Afghanistan.  It was partly filmed in Jordan.  Gross added some footage he filmed in Afghanistan.  It is based on the fact that there is a road in Taliban territory called “Hyena Road”.  Some of the incidents in the movie are based on things that happened during the construction of the road.  The movie got a very limited release in America.  It is available on Netflix Instant.

                The action takes place in Kandahar Province.  A squad led by Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland) is surveilling the road.  Their sniper kills an IED planter.  On exfil, they trip an IED via a sniper round which causes the Taliban to come boiling out like ants.  The swarming is similar to in “Lone Survivor”.  They take refuge in a Pashtun village.  An elder offers them refuge in his home.  He convinces the Taliban to allow them to leave.  Fizzle.  It turns out the elder is the famous “Ghost” who had made a reputation for battling the Soviets.  When they get back to camp, the intelligence officer Capt. Mitchell (Gross) figures out who the elder is and wants to meet him.  He’s “like a Rommel or a Patton”, he says with a straight face.  Acting!   He would make a good ally.  Meanwhile a romantic arc begins with Sanders and his girlfriend Capt. Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne).  Mitchell, Sanders, and Bowman go back to the village to find the Ghost, but end up on the run under fire.  Oh well, “you piss with the dick you got” proclaims Mitchell in a line I plan to add to my repertoire.  From here the movie gets complicated as the villain is introduced.  BDK is the local warlord who has a conflict with the Ghost.  Local politics, as Mitchell explains it.  BDK is a CIA asset so there's the rub.  Will the squad sit by and allow the asset to abuse the only good Afghani in the country?  Guess.

                 “Hyena Road” is an average war movie.  It is not bad entertainment for a movie you can watch instantly on Netflix.  I think I would have left a theater a little pissed however.  I am just imagining that since it made $1,430 in American theaters.  I sure as hell am glad I did not make a trip to Canada to see it.  The movie does have some built in good will from the involvement of Paul Gross of “Northern Exposure” fame.  It was obviously a personal project for him and he deserves credit for trying to honor Canadian soldiers.  In that respect it is similar to his effort in “Passchendaele”.  This movie is not as good as that one because its weaknesses are more pronounced. 

                Some of those weaknesses include the pulsating, pompous music.  This is matched by the ridiculously pompous narration which includes a fictional story about Alexander the Great sending some Afghan dirt to his mother.  The plot is full of clich├ęs including the current favorite of Afghan war movies -  the dilemma of choosing sides in the internecine warfare.  Also thrown in is the classic romance with the modern twist of the lovers being comrades in arms.  In this case, the relationship between Sanders and Bowman appears to exist mainly to facilitate tear-jerking.  The plot is strangely disjointed, but it does grab the low hanging fruit of Afghanistan was, is, and always will be fracked up.  Some parts of the narrative make little sense.  For instance, where did the large number of Taliban come from in the final scene?  To his credit, Gross did not make a propaganda piece justifying Canadian involvement.  However, it does appear that the Canadian military cooperated with the production.   At the least, Gross was allowed to film Canadian soldiers in action in Afghanistan.  The movie uses appropriate weaponry.

                The acting is not distracting.  Gross dominates, as is his prerogative.  He puts some effort into depicting soldier behavior.  There is a lot of soldier jargon.  The dialogue is not noteworthy, in a good way.  As I said, the movie is average in most ways.  Unfortunately, that includes the combat. The movie may be Canadian, but the action is American.  The cuts are quick and there is some POV.  Some of the violence is graphic.  There are some decent action scenes including two ambushes with the second one including some Canadian casualties.  The action balances fairly well with the Mitchell / Ghost / BDK dynamic.  The Ghost character is interesting.  The movie gives us a sympathetic Muslim to match the stereotypical jihadist.

                “Hyena Road” is a decent time waster.  It helps if you are a Paul Gross fan.  This might be the rare war movie that females might tolerate.   As far as it cracking my 100 Best War Movies list, maybe if I was limiting the list to Canadian movies.

GRADE  =  C  

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Picture, Quote, Movie #12

Holy dog shit, Texas! Only steers and queers come from Texas, private Cowboy! And you don't much look like a steer to me so that kinda narrows it down!  

What movie?  Two movies about Rommel have the same word in the title and the same actor playing Rommel. This is the one that came second and the portrayal of Rommel is less flattering due to backlash from the first.