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Catching Up On Reviews (Ironclad, Vampires & a Zookeeper)
by Erik Childress

This week Kevin James talks to the animals. Unfortunately it's not in the bloody siege film or the documentary about vampires.

Every once in a while certain genres need a time out and invariably they get them when the box office goes down or the quality reaches new levels of unimaginable awfulness. That is when many of them end up getting produced on the cheap and going straight to video or a quick stopover at the SyFy channel. This is the kind of attitude one can have going into a film like Jonathan English's Ironclad, a limited release historical siege picture, albeit one with a better-than-average cast. After all, how many new directions can a film about gathering a rag-tag group of fighters to take on the treacherous king take an audience? Truth is with Ironclad, not very many at all. But that doesn't keep it from having a certain bloody matinee charm to it, if your idea of charm is brutally graphic combat scenes and well-known faces hamming it up in the downtime between. Sure, that is what we have come to expect from your average Uwe Boll film, but this is a far more handsome production and good enough if you're just in it for the carnage.

In the 13th century, King John (Paul Giamatti) was forced into signing the Magna Carta. Here it is with the words from Baron Albany (Brian Cox) who says "Make it count!" Soon after, the King changes his mind and begins the process of getting the free men of England to be under his rule again. This doesn't sit well with Albany and members of the Knights Templar, including the stoic Marshall (James Purefoy) who begin roaming the land to pick up willing fighters. They include a young squire (Aneurin Barnard), a couple of hulking Little John dudes, that Jason Flemyng guy and an expert archer (MacKenzie Crook). They gather to take cover at the keep of Castle Rochester where the wishy-washy Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) and his lovely Lady Isabel (Kate Mara) become hosts and reluctant participants in the forthcoming battle with King John and his armies led by a Richard Moll wannabe with Lucius Malfoy locks. Hey, if the film can play fast and loose with history, we can have some fun too can't we?

Director and co-scripter English may want an audience to take away more than just a few goofs and some bloody spectacle, but fortunately or unfortunately for him that is where the entertainment lies in Ironclad. Every other face in the cast has some cache to it, but few of them make for memorable heroes, especially Purefoy's leaden top dog. One could create a drinking game out of how many close-ups there are of Crook tugging back on his bow with purpose (and its cool to see the original Dwight Shrute of The Office and buffoon of the Pirates of the Caribbean play a bad-ass for a change) but he's still little more than a number to this Seven Templars gang. Giamatti gets to have the most fun, straggling a tightrope between sincere villainy and just letting loose like Pig Vomit with a crown.

One's enjoyment of Ironclad will come down to how well you respond to the 4-5 action set pieces in the film, staged competently enough but notable more for their commitment to the violence than anything else. Every once in a while the cinematographer seems unsure which fighter they should be following, going back-to-back to capture something during an early confrontation. The sheer level of squirting blood and mortal wounds is enough to trigger that seven year-old inside seeing Conan the Barbarian for the first time. At least it did mine. Ironclad is nowhere near what we just saw on ten episodes of HBO's masterful Game of Thrones nor up to the levels of Braveheart's scripting or the non-stop onslaught of 13 Assassins' second half but it is a step above more recent lackluster efforts like Neil Marshall's Centurion and the Bruce McDonald's latest cinematic pill, The Eagle (both which tackled the same subject matter to varying degrees of failure.) Ironclad may believe its delivering a history lesson, but we're smarter than that even if we're unfamiliar with this particular period not covered in our repetitive classrooms. It is best to tackle Ironclad with the cinematic ignorance of a medieval potboiler. Bad king. Collection of heroes. Lots of fighting. Ending like Young Guns. Go out and enjoy the rest of your day.

As the Twilight films have practically taken over the mainstream's view of vampiric storytelling (a term to use minimally), it seems as if others have tried to step up their game in order to quash this travesty bestowed upon horror's most infamous creation. Television's True Blood, while spotty at times, has made for an effective balance with The Vampire Diaries and Being Human helping to tip the scale. Not enough people saw the brilliant Let the Right One In (or its practically scene-for-scene American remake, Let Me In) nor the quite good Stake Land or even Daybreakers with their end-of-days scenarios with the vamps as the dominant species. All of these films brought fresh takes on the rabid old dogs (no offense to werewolves) while Twilight was still trying to find new ways to make its heroine the biggest drama queen in literature since Vida Pierce. Just as Vincent Lannoo has attempted to do without putting his name above the title in Vampires. However, an idea is just a project's awakening. It's how it gets to the execution that matters and that is where Vampires comes up cold.

A documentary crew has been invited into the home of actual vampires. When they wind up dead, another is invited. And another, until we finally have a family willing to be filmed that can control their urges. The patriarch, Georges (Carlo Ferrante), opens up more than Anne Rice's Louie during his interview. With help from the local law enforcement, the family is able to clean up immigration by capturing and feeding off them. Georges wife (Vera van Dooren) is a bit loopy. Their son, Samson (Pierre Lognay), has been acting out of late and so has their daughter, Grace (Fleur Lise Hevet), who would like to die - the way a human can. Also living in their basement are a pair of "neighbors" that are not allowed the same living space due to not having children - more than their propensity to actually eat children.

Lannoo's film is clearly going for satire here and has a wonderful setup to boot, leading into coffin salesmen, bizarre rituals and the restlessness of the teenagers. But with the film being more on the Maysles than Errol Morris side of documentaries without ever really achieving the levels of Christopher Guest's "mockumentaries," Vampires suffers thanks to a film crew (both real & fake) that never get to the real gritty of this family and their survival. Little is made of the live-in "meat," a former prostitute who now acts as a frequent meal for the family. Grace gets some early play thanks to her Groundhog Day-like antics of finding new ways to kill herself, but her later pursuit of becoming human (despite an amusing appearance by a vampire therapist) feels like something more out of a psychological fantasy film than a satire.

In that respect, Vampires certainly is lacking in consistently. There is the occasional dark, droll observation, but when they try to wring an actual plot out of the material in the form of crossing infidelity boundaries we are thrust into a long, final stretch that feels like an extended "what are they doing now" epilogue from Guest's movies. It is here where Samson's rebirth as a cheerful street busker provides a welcome relief from a rather slow build-up with very few genuine laughs. The observations are interesting enough but come at us like a checklist from the vampire code textbook. It's all leading to a thoroughly unsatisfying anti-climax where the film's one big conflict is wrapped up in a line of dialogue and there's no trace of the ghastly end we were led to believe by the setup that has established so many other found-footage excursions into horror. Vampires (the film) ultimately becomes more a curiosity than a real social statement on the genre. After all, it was humans responsible for the documentary and the film, leading to more error than everlasting divinity.

Kevin James seems to be a very likable chap. Not sure what to base this on considering I have never seen a full episode of his television show nor laughed at any of his on-screen antics. That latter part tends to happen when one hitches their wagon to Adam Sandler and Happy Madison, the company that has produced more worse comedies over the ears than the efforts of Friedman & Seltzer. The worst of which was James' first pairing with Sandler in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. His solo hit, Paul Blart: Mall Cop actually worked better as an action film than a comedy. And James' best film to date, The Dilemma, was actually a rather underrated drama that took flack when it tried to work in slapstick, surprisingly none of which involved James tumbling his portly self into something hard. The latest mistake is called Zookeeper, though this one may be questioned by its target audience if it is really meant for them.

James plays Griffin Keyes, the titular zookeeper, whose girlfriend (Leslie Bibb) turns down his proposal of marriage. How this guy has maintained a relationship with someone so superficial for so long is a mystery. Instead of taking his brother up on a sales job at his luxury car dealership, Griffin returns to the zoo where is about to get some new advice from an unlikely source. He discovers that animals can actually talk and as a reward for the good treatment over the years, they are breaking the code to help him win back his lady. There's a lion (voiced by Sylvester Stallone) and a couple of bears (Jon Favreau & Faizon Love), but no tigers. Oh my are there more though, voiced by no less than Adam Sandler, Cher and Nick Nolte as the sullen, isolated gorilla who dreams of nothing else but going to T.G.I. Friday's.

As this is supposed to be a kids movie, it may have been a better idea to cast a child protagonist to interact with the creatures. There is something far less ridiculous in trying to get a kid to adopt the ways of animal courtship to woo perhaps a schoolground crush than a grown man taking attack positions and growling at people. This is all just grounds for a fat guy to do funny fat guy things like split his pants and crashing his way through a fancy party. Kids this summer have already been subjected to lessons about alternative fuels while trying to enjoy their little talking cars movie. Are they really going to be interested in Kevin James' love life? The core audience is still going through their cooties phase and will not even be able to fully appreciate the comely presence of Rosario Dawson as the friendly co-worker destined to be making a last-minute trip to the airport.

Audiences of all ages may actually be shocked when they discover that only about 40% of Zookeeper's running time involves scenes of talking animals. It took five writers (including James) to completely forget this was a picture for children. Not teenagers, Adam Sandler fans or middle-aged white guys who get a kick out of animals with wacky human voices. CHILDREN! Eddie Murphy's Doctor Dolittle films understood at least that much and managed to work in some OK laughs along the way. That 60% of PG-rated adult material in Zookeeper does not qualify under the mold of "a little something for the entire family." Just mold itself. The only life lesson parents will be preparing their children for by taking them to see this is what the future of comedy holds for them as long as Happy Madison productions continue to flourish. It has been a bad summer for family fare this year between the disappointment of Kung Fu Panda 2, the whatever of Mr. Popper's Penguins, the crass low of Pixar in Cars 2, and the one-word-too-many title of Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer. Zookeeper may not sink to the morally bankrupt and depressing nature of tween fantasy Monte Carlo, but that is the only compliment worthy of the film.

(NOTE: Hopefully Academy voters will not look upon this as Nolte's Norbit when they are considering him later this year for his stellar supporting work in the MMA family drama, Warrior.)

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originally posted: 07/08/11 12:42:21
last updated: 07/08/11 13:13:17
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