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Review: Up

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I read a discussion of Up recently — I don’t remember where — which said that the movie was ultimately about acceptance of death, which is an awfully adult theme to find in a kids’ film. (Truth be told, of course: Pixar movies are family movies, not kids’ movies, and there’s a big difference.) I think that statement’s close, but not quite accurate: it’s more fair to say Up deals with the ability or inability to accept change in all its forms and learning to let go of the past, whether that past was one or seventy years ago. Up reminds us that when someone we love passes on — or even just passes out of our lives — life doesn’t end for those of us left behind.  Up suggests we appreciate the little things in life and that those little things can be bigger than the biggest adventure.

And Up gives us these weighty messages wrapped up in the gaudy Mylar of thousands of helium-filled balloons.

As I discussed in my ranking of the ten Pixar movies to date, the “worst” (for some awfully lenient definition of “worst”) of their films don’t engage the emotions nearly as much as they engage the eyes.  That fault most certainly does not plague Up – I have to admit that I cried while watching it, and I can’t remember if I’ve ever done that before.[1] Pixar started their career by finding the humanity in inhuman characters (toys, bugs, monsters, etc.), but in Carl Frederickson they’ve created quite possibly their most human character yet.

Director Pete Docter lays out all we need to know about Carl in the first ten minutes of the movie, covering sixty-odd years of his life during the opening sequences.  His crankiness is given believability and meaning; grumpy though he may be, he doesn’t fit the simple Grumpy Old Man stereotype.  Carl is not ill-tempered by nature but by circumstance, and it’s the circumstance of meeting Russell, his young opposite, which begins to bring him out of his emotional hole.

Russell couldn’t be much more Carl’s antithesis:  young where Carl is old; optimistic and exuberant where Carl is withdrawn and cranky; brave and adventurous where Carl is shuttered.  Even visually the difference is clear:  Carl is almost a perfect square, Russell is almost a perfect egg.  What the two have in common is something of a common history, and the bond which develops because of it, each affecting the other, ultimately provides much of Up’s lift.

I must talk for a minute about the dogs which feature so prominently in Up.  To see just what an amazing feat of modeling and animation these dogs represent, what a leap in quality, please go back and watch the first Toy Story.  Even at the time, watching Buster felt like a “they’re not quite there yet” moment in the middle of an otherwise technologically mind-blowing (again, for 1995) movie: his square, awkward build and clunky animation left plenty of room for improvement.

And improve they did.  Each of the dogs here has not only a distinctive and well-rendered look, but a clear and well-animated personality as well.  Dug was especially done well:  his character model may be cartoonier than the other dogs’, but that more cartoony look allowed for more expressiveness, which the animators used to fantastic effect.  His look also visually sets him apart from the other, more realistically-modeled dogs so that we never group him in with the “bad” dogs.  Dug stands out as my favorite character in the movie:  the fact that he always remains Just A Dog and never an especially “humanized” or anthropomorphized dog (even though he could speak) was one of Docter’s nicest touches.


[1] I cried during The Iron Giant, but that’s totally different since I saw it on DVD.  Brad Bird lined up all of my emotional buttons and punched them all at once. The big meanie.

Written by Allen

June 4th, 2009 at 9:21 pm

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Review: Star Trek

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Now this is what I want out of a summer blockbuster. Star Trek delivered all of the action, all of the spectacle, all of the emotion, all of the characterization I could have asked for and then some. [1]  I found myself immersed in the world, in the stunning visual design and the engaging characters, in a way I’ve never been before with any of the previous Trek films or TV shows.  Star Trek truly managed to do something new with these characters and ideas that have been around for forty years:  make me care about them.

I truly loved the fact that, unlike other recent reboots and reimaginings which simply restarted their stories from scratch, Star Trek managed to explain its own revised continuity as part of the story itself — admittedly, the world of Trek is much more suited to such meta-shenanigans than other series. Director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were able to utterly reset our expectations of this world and these characters while still letting the previous stories stand. And wow, do they up the stakes in a big way; there’s one event in partiular in this newly-reimagined universe that would have seemed unthinkable in the original series. When they say “everything you know is wrong”…well, it’s still hyperbole, perhaps, but it’s not as far from the truth as you might think.

Not Exactly Spoilery But Certainly Geeky Digression:  I read a comment on a well-known science fiction author’s site today from a commenter who was pissed off because, he said, the new movie threw out all of the previous continuity, rendering moot all of the stories we’ve experienced before.  I took away the exact opposite idea:  to me, the new movie said “everything you’ve already seen still happened, but now this is happening, too.”  But maybe it was a little bit easier for me to take that particular bit of continuity shuffle from all of my years of reading comic books, where this sort of thing is far from a novel idea, especially for readers of DC Comics and/or Grant Morrison.

Anyway.

One of the things I never quite understood about the original Enterprise crew was exactly why this crew was supposed to be special. Yes, Kirk and Spock in particular were compelling characters-cum-icons — there’s a reason they’re still part of the pop culture landscape after forty years — but to me the original Trek always felt like “Kirk and Spock and Those Other Guys (Oh, and the Woman, Too).”   (This isn’t a point I’m interested in arguing — it’s just my relatively uninformed opinion as someone who was never much into Trek.) But in this movie, Abrams and company show that each of these people is indeed special in his or her own way and adds his or her own special brand of brilliance and ultra-competence to the crew. Abrams gives each of the main crew a chance to show off their various skills, and it works spectacularly.  I felt like I was watching these characters for themselves and not for their (not-even-assigned-yet) Five Year Mission.

And speaking of the characters, the casting in this new movie is almost perfect, especially given the fact that none of these characters is exactly as you remember them from before incarnations. The worst possible decision would have been for Chris Pine to have attempted to ape William Shatner; except for one (I’m sure very conscious) moment toward the end of the movie, he utterly avoids any Shatnerisms. But he brings the core essence of Kirk — the complete self-conifdence, the lusty roving eye, the anti-authoritarian streak — and makes this new James T. Kirk a compelling, if different, character in his own right. Zachary Quinto‘s Spock is much more at war with his dual nature than his predecessor, though he’s certainly the actor who looks the most like his character’s previous portrayer.  I especially enjoyed Anton Yelchin‘s Chekov and Simon Pegg‘s Scotty, both of whom were primarily played for laughs.  (It worked, too — Star Trek was quite a bit funnier than I expected it to be.) 

Not Exactly Spoilery But Certainly Geeky Digression:  I found it notable that while most of the secondary characters never had their full names mentioned on the show — usually that information got revealed in after-the-show sources like movies or novels or role-playing games — every one of the main Enterprise crew gets his or her full name dropped at some point in the new movie.  Just another little touch I liked.

Yes, the science is wonky and didn’t make much sense.  I truly didn’t care — some people like science fiction for the science, but I’m more into the fiction part.  And the fiction in this movie worked fantastically for me.  I was sad when the movie ended and came out of the theater already looking forward to the inevtiable sequel.  

Grade: A

[1] This opinion was not colored by the fact that I’d just seen the craptastic Spider-Man 3 twelve hours before.

Written by Allen

May 11th, 2009 at 8:03 pm

100-Word Review: Spider-Man 3

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Welcome to the first installment of 100-Word Review, in which I — you’ll never see this coming — review a movie, TV show, book or whatever in exactly 100 words.  Most of the time, this will be used either for items which are not very current and not worth the time for a full review, or for things about which I just don’t have that much to say.  And no, these introductory words don’t count for this one.

What the holy hell?  How could the same people who made one good and one very good Spider-Man movie make such utter, irredeemable dreck the third time out?  A nonsensical script, special effects which not infrequently looked half-done, a fucking dance sequence, people…really, please can someone tell me what the hell happened here?  Characters spouted off wretched dialogue and changed motivations and attitudes on a whim, major plot points were determined by ridiculous coincidence, Tobey Maguire…I’d heard this was bad, but holy crow, it was way worse than I’d imagined.  Please, please don’t let these people make a Spider-Man 4.

Grade:  D

Written by Allen

May 8th, 2009 at 11:54 pm

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Review: The Dark Knight

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If Batman Begins represented a step or several forward from the superhero movies that came before, so does The Dark Knight represent another leap. The Dark Knight retains all that I loved about its predecessor – note-perfect acting[1], solid writing, gorgeous cinematography and art direction – and adds several new flavors to its casserole of excellence, most notably a deepening complexity and thoughtfulness. The Dark Knight isn’t a superhero action movie. It’s an ethical treatise with punching.

(Perhaps very mild spoilers to follow, but likely spoilers only to those who’ve never paid any attention whatsoever to Batman and his rogues gallery.)

Heath Ledger as The Joker

Heath Ledger as The Joker

What does it mean to say someone is a “hero?” How far would you go to save the ones you love from danger? How about people you don’t even know? How far can you be pushed without losing yourself to madness? The Dark Knight asks these questions and turns them over and over, examining them from numerous points of view, presenting several ideas but never providing answers – The Dark Knight is an action movie that wants to engage your brain as much as, if not more than, your adrenal glands. Most of the major characters faces down at least one of these ethical quandaries (except for the force-of-nature Joker, who clearly gave himself over to madness long before this story starts) and each makes choices true to character. That a movie about a man dressed as a flying rodent and a psychotic clown dares ask these questions at all is astonishing; that The Dark Knight does so with such force, daring and reflection is almost beyond belief.

Director Christoper Nolan and his co-screenwriter/brother Jonathan Nolan get what makes these characters so fascinating and so iconic. They understand what those of us who read comics have understood for decades: that there are depths to be plumbed there, that the easy identification of Batman as silly spandex hero[2] isn’t the true measure of the character. The Nolans understand the deep-seated near-schizophrenic split between Bruce Wayne and Batman, and they understand that while the Joker will always be Batman’s most notable enemy, his truest mirror is Two-Face.

While I still have trouble imagining any superhero movie ever receiving a Best Picture nomination, I’ve never seen one that deserves it more than The Dark Knight – this movie’s not so different thematically from 2006 Best Picture winner The Departed, which considered similar ethical questions. And those predictions that Heath Ledger will receive a posthumous Best Supporting Actor nomination could well likely prove to be spot on: Ledger really was that creepy, that riveting, that good as the Joker. Ledger’s Joker should wipe all memories of Jack Nicholson’s wacky clown from the cultural consciousness – his Joker now surely must be considered definitive. Ledger even manages to find the humor in this most decidedly unfunny clown. His gait, his voice, his manner all contribute to create one of the most engrossing and engaging movie villains in a long, long time. I never before considered myself a fan of Heath Ledger; I am now, and I wish I had more of his work to look forward to.

Most of the other actors have much more grounded, less showy parts to play (of course), but they do so with as much skill and grace as Ledger. Christian Bale one again proves to be an excellent Bruce Wayne; while these movies don’t play up Batman’s supposed role as “World’s Greatest Detective,” we certainly do get a sense that Bale’s Wayne/Batman (much like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in Iron Man) thinks about what he’s doing and the weight he’s chosen to carry on his shoulders. Gary Oldman’s James Gordon, one of the only honest cops in Gotham, gets far more screen time than he did in Batman Begins, and Oldman nails Gordon’s solid nobility in the face of chaos and madness. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are, well, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman; neither’s role is large, and more screen time for either would have been welcome. Maggie Gyllenhaal brings sass, charm and intelligence (three qualities which Katie Holmes entirely failed to bring to the same character in Batman Begins) to her Rachel Dawes, the only significant female character in the movie; more screen time for her also would have been a good thing. But The Dark Knight runs two-and-a-half-hours as is, and the movie devotes so much of its energies to dissecting the characters of its three leads that some of the minor characters had to stay pretty minor.

Strangely, Batman himself is almost a supporting character in The Dark Knight – perhaps one reason why the word “Batman” isn’t in the title. There’s even some ambiguity as to whom, exactly, the title of “dark knight” could be referring – Batman or the film’s true protagonist, Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent. (Yes, Batman is the “dark knight” as countered by Dent’s “white knight,” but Dent ultimately goes to some pretty dark places.) The Dark Knight is Dent’s story, the telling of his evolution from moral crusader in pursuit of justice to agent of chaos in pursuit of fairness, most certainly not the same thing. Eckhart’s Harvey Dent exudes a fire and passion for his crusade, and the distorted reflection in the mirror he holds up to Batman provides the most gripping character exploration ever seen in a summer blockbuster superhero movie[3].

The Dark Knight is dark and disturbing and one of the tensest movies I’ve seen in a long while; it’s also fantastically smart and daring and complex, and it ultimately suggests a fundamental belief in human nature’s capacity for goodness. That dichotomy, as much as anything else in Christoper Nolan’s masterpiece, represents the core appeal of Batman himself, and that appeal is why these characters endure. Nolan has just assured that his vision of them will endure a lot longer. Grade: A.


[1] The major exception to that “note-perfect” acting was from the mannequin-like Katie Holmes; her replacement by actual actress Maggie Gyllenhaal was a significant upgrade.

[2] Please note that I have plenty of love for silly spandex heroes, too, but that interpretation has long since proven not to work out so well in movie form (ref. Batman and Robin, 1997).

[3] I don’t mean to damn with faint praise; I do realize that “gripping character exploration” isn’t normally a hallmark of big-budget summer action flicks.

Written by Allen

July 19th, 2008 at 9:57 am

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Review: WALL-E

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Wall-EFor all of the usual Pixar brand of amazing technical virtuosity on display in WALL-E (and believe me, there’s plenty of it), it’s the wonderful characterization which makes the movie such a joy to watch. That director Andrew Stanton and his wizards at Pixar were able to draw such well-developed characters with such little dialogue is testament to the skill of their animation and story departments. I have trouble imagining a more human movie about robots.

If you’ve seen director Stanton’s previous masterpiece, Finding Nemo — and really, if you haven’t by now, you really should — that depth of character won’t surprise you in the least. WALL-E himself shows himself to be one of the more appealing leads of any of the Pixar films; on retrospect, this big-hearted, curious, noble, romantic little waste-collection robot is probably the most likable lead Pixar’s ever created. All of the film’s robot characters have distinct, well-crafted personalities, and almost none of them have much dialogue to speak of (pun intended). I think WALL-E and Eve spoke ten different words between them, yet there was never any problem communicating with each other or with the audience.

During the early parts of the movie, the audience is expected to piece together for themselves what happened to Earth, but once the setting changes, the Kid Gloves of Subtlety come off in favor of the Brass Knuckles of In Your Face. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; the less-subtle bits also provided a good deal of the movie’s comic relief. WALL-E might be a love story between two robots, but it also falls cleanly in the Science Fiction Film With a Message mold. The same segments of the population which allowed themselves to get lathered up about the environmental message in Happy Feet will be thoroughly pissed off by WALL-E, which amplifies the green message and throws in several helpings of condemnation of our consumerist society to boot. The two other main themes I took from the movie — Open Your Eyes to the World Around You and Follow Your Own Directive — likely won’t go over any better with the crowd who’d be upset with the Take Care of the Planet one. But I think all of these points are valid ones to teach our kids (and adults). More than valid, really. Essential.

Anyway , it’s nice to see that Pixar has next year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar wrapped up early. One critic mentioned that he thought WALL-E could be up for Best Picture, but now that the Academy Awards have a separate animation category, I’m not sure any animated flick will ever get a Best Picture nomination again. I’ll be curious to see if it gets a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Andrew Stanton, especially given the paucity of dialogue; my suspicion is not, though my hope is yes. I guess we’ll find out in February.

Grade: A.

(Related side note: the short feature before the movie is one of the best they’ve done yet. Hysterical, and also dialogue-free, as most of their shorts are. Do not arrive to the movie late.)

Written by Allen

June 30th, 2008 at 1:07 pm

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