Saturday, June 13, 2009

Up (2009, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

Much has been written about how Pixar has become the surest thing in Hollywood. But with this level of consistency- even Cars, which was a low point only by Pixar’s lofty standards- has come a certain level of shrugging from the critical establishment. “Ho-hum,” we joke. “Another awesome Pixar release. What a shocker.” This is, to say the least, unfair, not least because although the element of surprise has long given way to an almost ironclad reliability, the movies have actually become more diverse in the past few years. The early Pixar releases stuck to a dependable formula- two buddies save the day, usually backed by a ragtag group of wacky misfits- ever since The Incredibles, Pixar’s features have grown increasingly unique. Incredibles’ colorful animation covered for the fact that it was a superior superhero movie, Ratatouille was a French-inflected foodie drama about an unlikely genius, and WALL*E was a cross between a silent film about a single-minded robot and the outer-space epic Jacques Tati never got around to making. And Pixar’s growth continues unabated with their latest, Up, which to these eyes may be their best film yet.

If nothing else, Up would be notable as the first animated film to get me choked up in a decade, when I was similarly affected by The Iron Giant, directed by future Pixar favorite Brad Bird. Even more impressive is that this happened within the first ten minutes of the film, before the story proper has barely begun- we meet the young Carl Fredricksen as a child and see him befriend future wife Ellie through their mutual love for rip-roaring adventure. Then the film cuts to a montage of their lives together- the idealistic early years (marriage, buying the old home that once served as their clubhouse, saving for their dream vacation to South America) followed by the onset of harsher realities (digging into the vacation fund for mundane reasons, going to work, growing old), set to Michael Giacchino’s lovely musical theme. By the time Ellie passes away- leaving Carl sitting alone on the altar of the church where they were first married- Up had worked its magic on me. In retrospect, I liked that directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson weren’t sticking to the traditional rules of family movies, which normally dictate that only the bad guys are allowed to die. But in the moment, all I could do was sit back and let the movie work on me, and marveled that, for once, a montage actually worked the way it should.

When I say that Up is old fashioned, I mean that as a compliment. Make no mistake, Pixar’s wizards have spared no expense to provide cutting-edge animation, even going to far as to cave into the the market’s (and Disney’s) demands to release the film in 3D in select venues. But its most notable virtues are of the old-school variety. As with WALL*E last year, Up tells its story primarily through its visuals and sound effects rather than relying on copious spoken exposition. Of course, it should go without saying that Up is gorgeous to look at- the South American jungle is rendered in a vivid color palette, and even the interiors of the film are filled with wonders great (the cavernous dirigible Carl encounters on his journeys) and small. But the visual style of the film goes beyond simple aesthetic beauty. This is most evident in the film’s use of circles and squares, which can be seen first in the respective character designs of Carl and Ellie. Carl, with his blocky head and lantern jaw, contrasts with the more casual and easygoing Ellie, whose face is rounder and softer. And this pattern continues throughout the film- in Russell (Jordan Nagai), the pudgy Wilderness Survival Scout who becomes Carl’s inadvertent traveling buddy, in the contrast between the friendly dog Dug (the movie’s breakout supporting character) and his more ferocious canine cohorts, even in touches as small as the picture frames in Carl’s home.

Of course, none of this would matter if Up failed in the narrative sense. Thankfully, the film never lapses into the familiar formulas beloved of so many big-budget animated films. As Ebert likes to say, it doesn’t have a plot, but a story- more specifically, a fantastical adventure yarn. One of the advantages of the animation medium is that the filmmakers can apply the long-established laws of “cartoon physics,” in which the rules don’t have to be equivalent to real life just as long as they remain consistent in the film’s world. Up creates a delightful world in which houses can take flight if one uses enough helium balloons, and a young boy can be jostled and whipped around with no lasting damage done (following a particularly perilous adventure, Russell giddily proclaims, “that was cool!”). Naturally, certain rules still apply, but they’re for comic effect as much as anything else, as when Carl faces off against his childhood hero, the adventurer-gone-to-seed Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), and the fight is interrupted by both characters’ back problems. There’s plenty of action in Up, but lots of comedy too, both in between the action scenes and during them as well. The film’s priceless comedy bits are a reminder that Docter also helmed Pixar’s best comedy to date, 2001’s Monsters, Inc. But the humor is never simply silly for silly's sake, but is grounded in the film's world. For example, Dug and friends aren't furry people, but dogs who have been given the gift of human speech, and they're funny not because they talk but because of what they say.

Seeing the movie a second time recently, I realized that many of Up’s effects are achieved through means which usually come off as cheap and manipulative- not only montages and the death of an elderly character, but also such tropes as daddy issues and a child put in danger. The difference here is that they actually work. Perhaps it’s because Docter and Peterson don’t linger on them too long, or maybe it’s because they’re able to tweak them in interesting ways. Either way, the movie works like a charm. Up isn’t a pandering kids’ movie but an honest-to-goodness “family movie” in the classic sense, the kind of full-blooded entertainment that appeals to parents and children alike, similar to such sentimental favorites as Back to the Future. But Up is its own animal, and like ever-loyal Dug, it’s an animal that one looks forward to keeping around for years to come.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

Nearly every discussion of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom begins with its content. On the one hand, this is only natural. After all, when a movie is as notorious as Salo is, you don’t bury the lead. Yet on the other hand, doing so creates something of a mistaken impression among those who read reviews of the film. When the first thing someone hears about a movie is how “extreme” and “controversial” it is, too often one jumps to the conclusion that it’s some sort of geek show, something to be avoided by all but the most thrill-seeking of moviegoers. I know that the impression of Salo that I’d harbored for years was that it was some kind of high-toned exploitation classic. But now that I’ve seen the film, I realize how far off base my impression was. Make no mistake- Salo’s characters engage in some of the most terrible acts of brutality and degradation I’ve ever seen onscreen. But exploitation this isn’t.

One of the most surprising thing about Salo is how little Pasolini depends on visceral shock- no mean feat for a film that subjects its characters to rape, torture, coprophagy, and many other sorts of humiliation. But then, “characters” doesn’t seem to be the right word for Salo’s young victims. For the most part, Pasolini has no desire to make us care about, let alone identify with, the teenagers who are kidnapped and enslaved by the quartet of bluebloods known as the President, the Duke, the Bishop, and the Magistrate. Occasionally, some humanity will shine through- for example Eve, the girl whose mother was murdered- but these tiny glimpses of personality merely tease the audience to feel for the people onscreen before being stomped out of them.

The preceding paragraph might sound like I’m criticizing the film, but I’m not. Pasolini’s lack of character investment doesn’t make Salo a bad film, but rather a fascinating one. By not rubbing our faces in the brutality onscreen, Pasolini instead asks us to ponder the ideas behind the story. Many of these ideas deal with Pasolini’s depiction of social class. Pasolini was an avowed Marxist who throughout his career demonstrated contempt for Italy’s bourgeoisie, and Salo isn’t remotely subtle in the way it shows its upper-crust characters exploiting their social to their own ends. Pasolini has no love for this outmoded system which places a few above all others and more or less grants the privileged carte blanche to trample the others as they please. In a strange way, Salo feels like a Marxist corrective to films that depict the noble aristocracy with warmth and nostalgia.

But Salo is actually more complicated than that. On one level, Pasolini is depicting the perversity of the aristocracy, as when The Duke says, “the only true anarchy is that of power.” Yet the film also invites us to consider the pathology behind the powerful. Consider two central scenes of the film’s infamous “Circle of Shit” set piece. The first comes when The Duke berates the aforementioned Eve for crying for her murdered mother then forces her to eat his feces. It’s clear in this scene that The Duke relishes the power he has over his victim, especially when he says, “that whining’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard.”

But what to make of a later scene in which the entire group- both captors and captives- sits down in the dining room to eat the shit they’ve collected especially for the occasion, with the captors clearly enjoying the meal? And how about the ecstasy on the Duke’s face when another girl pisses on his face, or the storytelling sessions in which aging prostitutes regale the group with tales of their own youthful humiliations? From the time The Bishop states his philosophy that “all’s good if it’s excessive,” there’s more going on in with these characters than a straightforward power trip. It’s as if by sexually abusing the teenagers, the bourgeois are saying not “you’ll take your punishment and enjoy it,” but rather, “you’ll take your punishment and enjoy it as we do.”

In researching this review, I discovered that Salo is a town in Italy that served as a puppet republic for the Nazis near the end of World War II. Because of this, it’s not hard to read Salo as a condemnation of Italy’s collaboration with the Hitler, even if the events we see on the film were inspired not by real life but a novel by the Marquis de Sade. In the first few minutes of the film, we see young men being taken away by the aristocrats not to be prisoners but guards, and from that point they much of their retainers’ more menial tasks. One of the men even calmly explains, “we’re only following orders,” just before he leads four of the captors’ daughters to be married to their fathers. In the film’s final scene, while one of the captors watches his colleagues torture the teenagers through opera glasses, we see two of the soldiers sitting off to the side, bored. They strike up a conversation about on of the soldiers’ girlfriends before getting up and lazily dancing to a tune on the radio.

It’s not the subtlest depiction of the way people become desensitized to brutality that isn’t happening to them, but then, Salo isn’t a subtle film, nor does it mean to be. Nonetheless, it’s typical of Pasolini’s strategy throughout the film- to provoke the audience in a way that incites them to think once they get past the so-called “gag reflex.” Is it any wonder the film is a favorite of both Michael Haneke and Catherine Breillat? Far from the gross-out cult object its reputation would suggest, Salo a movie that demands to be taken seriously, full of ideas so potent that it remains as controversial and shocking now as it was three decades ago.

Incidentally, I wasn’t able to find a good place to mention this in the review, but this is my first exposure to Pasolini. As always, I’d be happy to hear any recommendations of which of his other films are especially worth seeing.

Also, for another take on the film, check out my bud Andrew Bemis’ review.