Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Muppet Home Movies

One part Larry David, one part Jim Henson...whole lotta awesome.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

To Infinity...and Beyond: The Franchise Film Grows Up

I am not what you would call a Pixar fanatic. The Incredibles has been, and remains for me, their finest film; the one that feels "of a piece," a fully realized and internally cohesive work. While I admire and absolutely love the formally daring aspects of Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up, they never quite coalesce into a cohesive whole with the action-adventure demands of the marketplace. Finding Nemo is as close a second place as I could muster from their ouvre, but even that I never fully connected to.

Toy Story came out when I was in third grade, and I can more or less trace my growth, both as a person and as a cinephile, through Pixar's reign. When that film came out, I must have seen it four times in the theater and as often as my mom would let me when it came out on VHS. I played the video game, I had all the toys; I may have even been Buzz Lightyear for Halloween, but I can't quite recall. That movie meant as much to me as anything can mean to a nine-year-old.

From that experience, I've never quite understood how certain movies can mean so much to people simply by being an integral part of their childhood. If anything, I'm now at a place where I can only admire Toy Story. I look back at my love for it fondly, sure, but the thought of sitting down and watching it again now seems tedious, and impossible to actually connect to on a real, personal level. Even rewatching Toy Story 2, which I only saw twice in theaters in 1999, didn't bring me much closer to the characters who had meant so much to me.

And then, as they say, Toy Story 3 happened.

Simply put, it's as close to perfect as I could imagine it to be. Genuinely fun and exciting? You bet - this is the breath of fresh air digital animation has been aching for. As much as I absolutely love Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, that largely stems from it being ridiculously funny. Toy Story 3 is more like Fantastic Mr. Fox in that it's absolutely infused with the pure joy of moviemaking, and the smiles it creates are more often the result of that than jokes (and its jokes are strong - even jokes that shouldn't work, like Buzz being reset to "Spanish mode," inexplicably do).

And it has weight to boot. Whereas Wall-E and Up were frontloaded with the emotional highs, Toy Story 3 builds, and builds, and builds until it creates a couple of moments you can't believe you're witnessing in a G-rated animated film, so fraught are they with unbearable tension mixed with a really surprising, mature attitude towards mortality. In fact, that qualification isn't even necessary - it is rare to see these moments in a film of any kind, any rating, any nationality. But it's certainly been quite awhile since an ostensible piece of entertainment has stirred these feelings in me.

And these moments are exactly the kinds of things that can only happen towards the end of the third film in a series. Whereas most sequels (much less the third film in a series) are scrambling to justify their own existence, Toy Story 3 illustrates the surprising necessity of a franchise. Not one based on constant cliffhangers, nor a continuous plot, but three self-contained, thematically linked stories about, of all things, friendship, mortality, and learning to let go. This story absolutely could not be told without what has come before it, and the overarching story of these characters is better for its inclusion.

Though I've actually had a fairly enjoyable summer at the movies so far (it's already better than last year's, contrary to popular belief), and have seen some great films over the course of the year in general, my love and respect for everything that's accomplished in Toy Story 3 is so far beyond everything else the cinema has offered me in the past six months. I don't simply recommend it as a great film; it is, in every sense, the reason films have been, and will continue to be, a national sensation.

(And that's even without talking about Day & Night, the short that plays before the film and is not only the best Pixar short yet [and that's REALLY saying something], it's a stunning display of what's possible with 3-D, and should absolutely be seen by anyone who doubts its artistic possibilities)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fifty Years Ago, When Art Was Cool...

A lot has been made about this year being the fiftieth anniversary of Psycho and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, especially with the latter embarking on a cross-country tour, courtesy of a newly-struck 35mm print. But two other incredibly important, immeasurably influential films are also celebrating their golden anniversaries – Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. And what all of this has stirred in me is not a sort of wistful yearning for movies of this caliber to be made today, nor a desire to trace the many, many ways these four films changed cinema (though I won’t be considering Psycho for this), but rather a simple question – what happened to all the cool art films?

After all, art took off in the 1960s in a major way for a lot of reasons, but one of the less-discussed, far more “base” reasons, but I would argue incredibly important reasons is that even the stuff proclaiming itself as art was just flat-out cool in a way nothing coming out of art house cinema today is.

Breathless, for all its innovation and artfulness, is a jazzy riff on Hollywood gangster films that’s a load of fun to watch, and I’m so glad Rialto is focusing on this aspect for their ad campaign. Featuring the coolest of the cool, Jean-Paul Belmondo (who defines in his own special way the “men want to be him, women want to be with him” paradigm), Breathless is set amongst a community of semi-employed intellectuals, the kind of crowd us hipsters ache to be and who must have even made its contemporary beat generation jealous.

Meanwhile, Antonioni meditated on alienation and loneliness, but he did so with the stunningly beautiful Monica Vitti, the Italian countryside, and black-and-white photography that is still so far beyond anything that came before or since. And Fellini? His image of Rome is still the one in the cultural consciousness, and his own meditation on isolation was done against the backdrop of Roman nightlife – whereas Claudia’s environment matched her emotional state, Marcello stands in stark opposition to his. A journalist specializing in gossip, Marcello’s natural habitat is wherever the party is, or sometimes, in quiet moments, just down the street.

Is there any wonder people were drawn to these films? One need only see a few frames from any of them to be hypnotized. The imagery they crafted was meant to stand the test of time; to be instantly alluring and, it seems, consciously iconic. You couldn't dispose of these pictures if you tried. They work by drawing us in with a simple image of someone you would want to be – the aloof gangster, the disaffected society girl, the man about town – then subtly undermining and eventually exposing it bare.

It’s also a tradition that died with its era. Fashion magazines and travel agencies have adopted many of the modes these films birthed, but there’s no question that foreign films have just become a lot less cool over time, not just in how they're received but in how they're made. Those that received the highest praise over the last few years include 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and Two Days, and intense drama about abortion, and Cache, a meditative thriller about a man coming to terms with his violent past. Naturally, there should be room for these sorts of films, but on thinking about where art house cinema was fifty years ago, it’s not hard to see why the audiences just aren't there anymore.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Splice (dir. Vincenzo Natali)

There are two kinds of horror. Well...arguably more. There are two major kinds of horror. There's the kind this movie was advertised as being, evidenced here (warning: trailer has no bearing on the tone of the film, and only briefly its themes):

And then there's what it really is, which isn't even really a horror film at all. After all, when your sympathies are more in line with the monster than the human protagonists...that's a very different kind of terror. Co-writer/director Vincenzo Natali is obviously reworking the Frankenstein story with the story of two bio-engineers, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), who manage to make this weird sort of almost-human creature by splicing human DNA into a compound involving DNA from something like seven or eight other animals.

And then things really get wild.

Now, when someone says a movie was "weird," they typically mean one of two things. Either it's an Alain Resnais film and they're saying that things seem to happen for no real reason, or they're saying that the film has some stuff that you don't typically see in a film. Now, yes...Splice has quite a bit of stuff you don't typically see in a film. Stuff that will certainly push a great many people past their comfort zone. The fact is, the mistakes Clive and Elsa make are not in any way limited to the actual creation of Dren, the thing that emerges from their experiment. In fact, though the film introduces the idea that doing so could be considered immoral, this basic idea is presented fairly innocently I'd say.

So, yeah, when the film starts out by positing that, eh, maybe making a creature that's partially human isn't such a bad thing, and then has its characters do horrible, horrible know these are people who don't fit into the often-mandated definition of "relateable." That said, there are character- and thematically-motivated reasons for everything Clive and Elsa do, and as dark, disturbing, awkward, uncomfortable, and unconventional as the movie is, I never felt it straining to reach those points. At one point or another Clive and Elsa have to separately deal with the dual idea of Dren as a person, which they treat it as, and as what she really is - a science experiment. The moments when they decide what she is - and they flip-flop on this often - are telling and fascinating, and have just as much to say about science and ethics as they do the responsibility of parenthood.

Thankfully, most of the heavy lifting in the character department is left to Polley (as my girlfriend will tell you, I greatly dislike Adrien Brody's performance in almost every film). Polley is one of those actresses capable of almost anything, frequently turning mundane lines into divine revelations, and big moments into game-changers. I don't think I've ever seen anyone express surprise and amazement as genuinely as Polley does in a scene here, and when the film gets a little more cliched towards the end, she expresses fear as nakedly as the screen has ever displayed.

This is far from a flawless film - the plot machinations to get from one point to the next can be a tad strained, the timeline is a little questionable, and the films asks to go along for some fairly major leaps in logic. But that all falls under the category of "stuff you complain about when you don't like the movie anyway." Because everything that actually matters in the movie is spot on. The questions it asks, not just about morality in science but of the concept of "family," are things that are really worthwhile. The occasional sloppiness of the storytelling pales in comparison to the relative success of its considerable ambition.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Review: The A-Team (dir. Joe Carnahan)

"One year ago, an elite commando unit was sent to prison for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security facility. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers for hire. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire...The A-Team."

So goes the updated introduction featured in advertising materials for the film. It's a great introduction. Really. It tweaks the original in just the right ways, updating some of the language and omitting the right things (like the term "the Los Angeles underground"). So my question do you screw it up this badly? Let's find out after the jump...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Review: The Square (dir. Nash Edgerton)

Probably not now, but you know...someday when it's easier to see, I'm gonna pimp the hell out of this movie to everyone I talk to. It's an easy recommendation - incredibly entertaining, but very smart in how it goes about it. Full review is up at Shadowlocked.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Five Directors Who Definitely Won't Direct The Hobbit

Man the Internet was a big bag of suck this week. In the wake of the best news I’ve heard all month – that Guillermo Del Toro is leaving Peter Jackson’s wheelhouse to do his own stuff – we were greeted with page after page of the exact same list of directors on every website you can think of (oh really, they might approach every director who has worked with CGI in some significant way in the last five years?).

So, to keep things fresh, which is to say, a different way of trolling for hits, here are Five Directors Who Definitely Won’t Direct The Hobbit.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Better known as “Joe” worldwide (don’t worry, legions of people ready to be offended on behalf of others, he's cool with it), Weerasethakul is fresh off winning the Palme D’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and generally, directors who win the Palme don’t go onto big Hollywood blockbusters (well...not right away anyway). Also, his films are damn near incomprehensible, and if there’s one thing the public needs, it’s comprehension, dammit!

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne – Yeah, and you thought The Dark Knight was a depressing blockbuster. Whooooo buddy…

Judd Apatow – A group of men setting out for treasure? I smell a bro-mance!

Terrence Malick – Okay, look, they’re going to design the living hell out of the world of The Hobbit, and all you’ll hear on the press tour was how important it was for the audience to “feel like this was a real, lived-in environment.” And nobody shoots environment like Terrence Malick! Alas, they do not care about their creation to make a movie half-composed of shots of that world with Bilbo wondering about the nature of…dragons. The Hobbit IS about dragons, right?

Wes Anderson – Imagine how cool Bill Murray would be as Gandalf! Instead of “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” we’d get something more like “yeah buddy, just try me.” But if you’re going to go through the bother of making a 3-D film, there’s little sense in hiring the man currently responsible for the flattest cinema around.

Whatever ends up happening, this image probably will not show up in the final film.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What I've Been Watching on TCM - UPDATED

God I'm really loving having this. I may start doing a bi-monthly "What I've Been Watching" thing so it's not so much a huge ad for TCM, but for now I'm really just trying to get out the word about some really fantastic films, some of which are also available on DVD. And if nothing else, one more to watch for if they come through your local rep house.

Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955) - I'm not a melodrama man by trade, but when it works for me, it really works for me. And Picnic really worked for me. Even though some of the actors can't handle the genre's bigger scenes (most unfortunately William Holden, a very fine actor in all other respects), there's a heart and a strangely hypnotic pace that sets in with this film. If any of the creative force had taken a more subtle route with the big conflict section, this could easily be one of my favorite films of all time; as it is, it's fine as my favorite classic melodrama (Minnelli, Ray, and Sirk fans are gonna come at me with pitchforks if they catch wind of this). A tremendous portrait of the disappointment in the unrealized promises of the postwar years, Picnic is unfortunately only available in 1.33:1 on DVD, robbing you of its most immediate virtue - its undeniable, frequently breathtaking, beauty. UPDATE: Picnic will be released in a Kim Novak DVD box set, allegedly in its proper aspect ratio, in August.

More after the jump...