Friday, June 25, 2010

Vincere (2009, Marco Bellocchio)

It’s rare to see a movie with an emotional pitch as high as Marco Bellocchio finds in Vincere. The later scenes in There Will Be Blood were awfully fevered, but even the preternaturally confident PTA didn’t attempt to sustain it throughout an entire film, although Magnolia came awfully close. So it’s sort of awe-inspiring to witness Bellocchio maintain such this tone throughout Vincere. From the central performances of Filippo Timi as the young Mussolini and the blistering Giovanna Mezzogiorno as his obsessed first mistress on down, there’s almost nothing subtle about this movie. But then, why should there be? Vincere story is a sad saga of real-life injustice, an impassioned woman who was steamrolled by a man’s ambition and buried by a system that would do anything to reward his success. Sure, she clearly had a few issues, but it doesn’t make it right that Il Duce would lock her up and take away their son simply to protect his image in ultra-Catholic Italy.

Compared to most biopics, Vincere’s script is extremely elliptical, hitting nothing but the key points of the Ida Dasler story to the extent that non-Italians might get lost at some point. Bellocchio careens from one big scene to the next with no down time (as Krusty the Klown might say, it’s the tightest 122 minutes in showbiz), resulting in a lack of depth to the story. Similarly, even if Bellocchio’s brio doesn’t flag, the story itself does, growing repetitive in the final hour. Really, there are only so many ways to liven up Ida screaming out the truth only to be slapped down by the authorities. But while I wasn’t particularly moved or fulfilled by Vincere, I found it fascinating all the same. Asked to choose a word to describe it, I’d have to pick “operatic”- indeed, a handful of the characters break out in song during the film- and I for one would be excited to see Bellocchio (or someone just as capable) tackle this story in opera form. As is, it’s not great, but it’s pretty awesome all the same.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)

In the interest of avoiding any long dry spells like I had between the Muriels and the White Elephant this year, I recently decided to post a few thoughts on every movie I see. Which is a great idea in theory, but sometimes it’s hard to think of anything insightful to add to the conversation. I’ve found myself in this situation with two new releases, Toy Story 3 and Please Give (or as I like to call it, Please Give the Vultures What They Want So They’ll Stop Hovering Already). In the case of Please Give, etc., I think that Craig Kennedy over at Living in Cinema has said it pretty well, and all that’s left for me to add is that despite my misgivings about the movie, it did satisfy my Rebecca Hall thing, so it was worth it for that anyway. Rating: 5 out of 10.

With Toy Story 3, it’s a little trickier, since my inability to think of something insightful to write has less to do with my thoughts neatly dovetailing with those of other (better-known) critics than the fact that it more or less scratches the itches the other two Toy Story movies scratch. Even more than most successful third installments, Toy Story 3 traffics in the viewers’ nostalgia for- and familiarity with- the previous films, to the point where in the opening scene I got a smile on my face when I heard the line, “I’ve got my dog, with a built-in force field!”, knowing exactly what would happen next. Like everything Pixar does, this reaction is completely intentional, since Toy Story 3 is about re-familiarizing us with the world of Andy and his beloved toys, all the better to ponder what’s going to happen when this world falls apart. Yes folks, Toy Story 3 is about moving on- saying goodbye, accepting one’s fate, and finally starting anew.

One of the most notable elements of the third (and, it would seem, final) Toy Story adventure is how much more Andy there is in the story. In the first two films, we caught glimpses of Andy and his relationship with the toys, but for the most part the toys were defined by their actions when he was absent- they established their own personalities and had their own adventures, but aside from Woody’s brief flirtation with museum-based immortality, they never acted in a way that ran contrary to their loyalty to their owner. So it’s a little startling to discover in Toy Story 3 that Andy becomes an active character in the story. Oh sure, most of the film is about Buzz and Woody and the gang and their trials and tribulations, but it’s also about Andy and how he has to come to terms with his feelings about the toys as he stands on the cusp of adulthood. As Andy grows up, is there still room for his old best pals?

What makes Toy Story 3 so effective from an emotional standpoint is that way it contrasts the trajectory of a human life (Andy’s, to be specific) with that of the toys. Whereas Andy grows up over the course of eighteen years and must then find his way in the world, a toy is more or less born to its appointed purpose. But once it’s fulfilled this purpose, what then? Toy Story 3 presents four options- going into storage until Andy “needs them again,” being donated to a day care where they’ll be played with but never belong to anyone, getting thrown away and eventually incinerated, and finally being given to another young child to be loved similarly to the way they were before. It’s a credit to the movie that it presents all four options with a surprising amount of emotional complexity, without ever feeling like Pixar is sacrificing entertainment value.

Considering how well thought out all four of these options happen to be, it’s almost disappointing that Unkrich and his team feel the need to introduce a villain into the story in the form of Lots ‘o’ Huggin’ Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty). Part of me wondered whether it might have been possible to follow the characters through these different potential fates without throwing a bad guy into the mix. However, these thoughts didn’t occur until well after the film was over. As I sat in that darkened theatre, all I could think of was how well I’d gotten to know- and like- these characters over the years. Most of all, I was grateful at getting the chance to spend a little more time with them. And in the end, it seems that Andy himself was grateful too.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Final thought: What’s the deal with Ken? Unless the story requires it, the Toy Story movies have generally kept mum on the origins of the toys. But I can’t help but wonder how Ken got to the point at which we meet him. After all, here’s a Ken doll who, by his own admission, has never met a Barbie before. And while that’s certainly not impossible, it doesn’t seem likely. For one thing, the Sunnyside day care seems to depend on donations for its supply of toys. Which makes me wonder what kind of kid would have a Ken doll with a dream house and a full closet full of clothes but no Barbie. Ken can protest all he wants that he’s “not a girls’ toy,” but let’s face it- have you ever known someone to have a Ken independently of Barbie? What is Ken if not Barbie’s ultimate accessory, a hunky himbo to be dressed up while providing Barbie a male companion, all the better to reinforce the marriage fantasy that’s drummed into little girls’ heads from the cradle?

… Sorry about that. But it does make you think a bit, I suppose. I mean, it’s not like Ken has forgotten. He’s not a Buzz Lightyear, whose memory can be wiped clear with the touch of a cleverly hidden button. A much more likely scenario is that Ken came into the world at Sunnyside. For most characters in the Toy Story universe, life begins when their boxes are opened. Look at the way Buzz sprang to life in the first film only after Andy has ripped the package open and stood him on the bed. Similarly, in TS2 New Buzz comes “out of hypersleep” once the original Buzz opened up his box in an attempt to steal his tool belt. So while Ken has no doubt been on a shelf next to Barbie at some point, he wouldn’t have been aware of it until the box was actually opened. Which leads me to believe that rather than being bought and taken home and played with as part of the Barbie world, he was given directly to Sunnyside, clothes and dream house and all, probably due to a toy store having to get rid of excess Ken stuff.

Of course, the Prospector complicates matters. If the story of Stinky Pete’s box never having been opened (at least, not from the outside) is true, then that shoots a hole in the box-opening theory right there and it’s back to the drawing board for me. Still, it’s possible that his box was opened at some point for some reason or other, especially if he’s been around and harboring seething resentments for space toys for nearly half a century. And besides, aside from The Velveteen Rabbit’s concept of Nursery Magic, can you think of a better explanation?

I know, I know- I’ve thought entirely too much about this issue. And normally, I’d say that I’ve done more thinking about it than the filmmakers have. But this is Pixar, where everything is planned and thought through, and somebody along the line must have thrown out the question of how exactly Ken could have gone through several decades (according to IMDb he’s a mid-eighties model) without having encountered a Barbie. Even if they don’t come out and explain it in the movie, I’m sure they didn’t throw the idea out there without thinking it through. And isn’t it a testament to how much fun the film is, and how well thought out the Toy Story world has been so far, that I’m entertaining these thoughts at all?

Now, to figure out what’s up with the Potato Heads. I mean, their parts can operate independently, and Mr. Potato Head is about to walk around by using, at various point, a flour tortilla and a cucumber for a body. Are they Voltron-esque beings who are able to combine autonomous components to create a greater whole? And what happens when their parts get mixed up, as they’re bound to be at some point, with Mr.’s arms and/or eyes ending up on Mrs., and vice versa? Hey, there’s a gag for Toy Story 4

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010, Harald Zwart)

Am I strange for thinking this works better than the original? I watched John G. Avildsen’s 1984 take on this story not too long ago, and aside from the character of Mr. Miyagi, I found it pretty creaky. But its formula was pretty solid- new kid in town gets beaten up by martial-arts-practicing bullies, gets training from a mysterious master/handyman, and gets back at them in the ring. Granted, it’s not exactly a sophisticated story arc, which is part of the reason it’s more effective when the hero and his nemeses are in their early teens rather than nearing their high school graduation. Likewise, it’s more believable that these villains could be manipulated by their instructor, considering how hormone-addled and insecure boys tend to be at this age, grasping at anything that makes them feel tough and in control.

Of course, a drawback to the change in age is that it can be a little difficult to watch little Jaden Smith get the tar kicked out of him early in the movie, but Smith, small of build but full of attitude, is more believable as someone who would run afoul of bullies than affable goofball Ralph Macchio. It’s too soon to tell whether Smith is more than a talented child actor, but he’s definitely got presence to burn, not to mention his father’s natural charm and ease in front of the camera. His teacher, Mr. Han, lacks the self-aware eccentricities of Pat Morita’s Miyagi, but Jackie Chan’s uncharacteristically low-key performance is good nonetheless, and Chan and the filmmakers deserve credit for not simply trying to make him another Miyagi. And Taraji P. Henson doesn’t get much to do as Smith’s single mom, but she makes the character work.

Having transported the story to China, Karate Kid 2010’s titular martial art has been replaced by kung fu. And while the climactic fights are just as effective as those in the original- they’d be even better if not for the use of a distracting Jumbotron- Mr. Han’s unconventional teaching method of “hang up the jacket” just doesn’t have the same magic as “wax on, wax off” and “paint the fence.” But for the most part, the new Kid doesn’t screw up what worked in the original, while finding ways to change the formula mostly for the better. It’s not great art, but it’s solid entertainment, especially if you’ve got an age-appropriate kid who’ll respond to what the movie is selling. I’m surprised to find myself not so much dreading the inevitable sequel so much as wondering where they’ll take the franchise from here. Jaden Smith meets Tony Jaa in The Muay Thai Kid, anyone?

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Get Him to the Greek (2010, Nicholas Stoller)

Russell Brand’s dissolute rock god Aldous Snow was one of the highlights of 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and now with an expanded role he’s still pretty damned hilarious. But with the increased screen time has come a need to provide Aldous with a more rounded character, which means that instead of showing up now and then to make humping motions and glower lasciviously, he’s now grappling with daddy issues, relationship woes, and a relapse into drug addiction. Now, the scenes involving Snow’s issues aren’t bad per se. Trouble is, they don’t mesh particularly well with the funny stuff. When Stoller follows an hour or so of binge-drinking and late-night partying with scenes about Aldous learning to face up to his addiction and growing the hell up, it feels like someone laced my candy with vitamins so I wouldn’t feel so bad about gorging on empty calories. I know that we’re all supposed to have positive messages in our Hollywood movies, but when it comes to comedy, everything is forgivable just as long as it’s funny.

That said, Get Him to the Greek does mostly deliver the laughs. It’s not as consistently funny as Forgetting Sarah Marshall was, but the highs are much higher this time out. As the hapless studio flunky assigned to accompany Snow to a special concert, Jonah Hill takes what in other hands could have been a straight-man stick in the mud and makes him just as funny as Snow, albeit in a fussier sort of way. And while I wasn’t quite as taken with Sean Combs’ work as Hill’s vulgar, manipulative boss, I enjoyed the performance all the same, along with the rest of the supporting cast. And few can touch the Apatow team when it comes to great, out-of-nowhere cameos (there are two here, neither of which I’ll spoil for you). But the movie’s success rests primarily in Brand’s shoulders, and he delivers not only in the comedic set pieces but also in the straight scenes and even in the concert sequences. If nothing else, Brand’s performance is even more committed here than in Marshall, and while I’m not sure there’s much more to be done with Aldous, it’s a testament to Brand’s talent that he’s made it this far.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009, Juan Jose Campanella)

Not hard to see how this ended up winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, considering that its primary competition was the behind-bars brutality of The Prophet and the didactic scolding of Michael Haneke’s man’s-inhumanity-to-man illustration The White Ribbon. Compared to those two, The Secret in Their Eyes is pretty standard awards-bait, a gussied-up big-screen version of Law and Order in which the melancholy undertone doesn’t get in the way of the Very Bad Guy getting more or less what’s coming to him. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, then how else would you describe a serviceable murder mystery with relatively standard characterizations and bolstered by a handful of memorable scenes?

Of course, the word “memorable” doesn’t necessarily imply “awesome”, and there are few better recent examples of this than Secret’s much-ballyhooed centerpiece sequence, in which the hero and his hard-drinking sidekick (guess what happens to him?) finally track down the baddie at a football match. For some reason, Campanella felt it wise to shoot the entire scene in one extended “impossible” take, beginning with a helicopter shot into the stadium, then following the hero through the crowded bleachers, followed by an extended foot chase, after which the culprit jumps down onto the field and is eventually apprehended. Granted, it’s all very technically impressive how Campanella and his visual effects team put it together. The problem is that it’s so attention-grabbing that it took me right out of the movie.

Now, I’m a fan of long takes- seeing as how I’m a DePalma fanboy, this should go without saying. But in order for them to work, one of two things has to be true: either the camera movement looks and feels like something a camera could actually do, or the movie that surrounds the shot isn’t aspiring to realism. However, this shot failed both of these tests. It would be one thing if Campanella was making a frenzied movie-movie kind of thriller (a la DePalma), but most of The Secret in Their Eyes is relatively sedate stylistically. Therefore, as soon as the camera descended into the crowd of football fans, I became absorbed less in what was happening in the story than I was in how impressive the shot was. So, a lesson to all filmmakers with any sort of budget for special effects- just because you can create something snazzy doesn’t make it the right choice. As far as I’m concerned, that single shot brought my grade down one point by itself. And when the movie’s only pretty good to begin with, that makes a world of difference.

Rating: 5 out of 10.