If Inkheart got into a fight with Baghead, who would win?
Well, I do know that either of them could kick the ass of the Superman on display in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
I'll be back to regular blogging this week after getting to the end of this strange five-day period, which has featured a red-eye last Wednesday night, followed by four days split somewhat equally between New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, followed by a flight back to LA arriving an hour late last night at 9 p.m., followed by jury duty today. I am actually blogging from one of the PCs made available to us in the jury waiting area -- which is why I can't download a picture to appear with this post. It's almost 3 o'clock, so I'm starting to think I might be out of the woods ... but Murphy would say that's right when they drop the hammer on you, so I'm remaining cautiously optimistic for now.
And as I write this, they're letting us go.
Until later ...
Thursday, June 25, 2009
I've only known about this for the past 90 minutes, and I'm still at work, and both of my bosses are around, so they could catch me blogging at any time.
But I'm going out of town tonight, I doubt I will post while I'm gone, and gosh darnit, I must register my shock and disillusionment with what I've just heard.
There are going to be ten (10) best picture nominees for next year's Oscars.
Ten. Twice what there has been for the last, oh, 70 years.
I don't like this one bit.
The Academy Awards have been all about re-examining themselves the past few years, hence, the cabaret-style Oscars we got this year with host Hugh Jackman. I liked those changes just fine.
But start messing with my categories, and you start messing with me. Especially best picture, which is the movie lover's holy grail of awards -- regardless of how rarely it honors the actual best film of the previous year.
I know they are trying to return to the roots of Oscar. The story I read -- surely anticipating an onslaught of blogosphere complaint, like the kind I'm making now -- went into an immediate defensive stance, explaining (actually, quoting Academy president Sid Ganis) that the Oscars of 70 years ago contained the following ten nominees: Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Love Affair, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Dark Victory and Ninotchka. (Darn good year, 1939). Ganis' theory being, I suppose, that it would have been difficult to deny contention to any one of those august movies, let alone five of them.
Whether he's got a point or not -- and whether movies like The Dark Knight and Wall-E could have gotten nominations had this been introduced a year earlier -- misses my point in objecting to it.
Namely, we already have a system that nominates ten films for best picture. It's called the Golden Globes. And trying to be more like the Golden Globes is not something anyone should aspire to.
The Golden Globes spoil enough for us already. They rob the Oscars (by more than a month) of our excitement of discovering which films might be on the verge of enshrinement with the other greats that came before them. No, the Golden Globes (famously) do not always forecast Oscar's best picture winner, but I think I'm pretty safe in saying that no film has ever won best picture without first being nominated for a golden globe. (And if you find an exception, well, kindly inform me in my comments section, I don't mind).
Accepting the Golden Globes as an institution that's here to stay, the interest then becomes in determining how Oscar will deviate from the Golden Globes. After all, they've got to cut the Globes' ten (and sometimes more) choices in half.
Well, not anymore.
You could argue that half the Golden Globes' nominated pictures are musicals and comedies, and that this will leave Oscar the leeway to nominate five more dramas that would not ordinarily get recognized. But see, that's what Oscar intends to do, too: honor comedies, musicals and animated films, in part as proof that they're not stuffy, stodgy or out of touch.
So then what's the difference between the Globes and the Oscars?
It's just wrong. There's something magical about those five best picture nominees -- they've got a glow around them, and all the sudden, they demand to be seen by all serious film fans. (Those who haven't already seen them, that is). The writers, directors, producers and stars of those films can point to this as the ultimate form of validation, where being nominated truly is enough.
With an extra five nominees hanging around, however, it all just gets watered down. And feels like overload. I can just see the host at next year's Oscars: "Now, a two-minute clip from the first of our TEN nominees," and then collapsing to the floor over the enormity of it all.
Sure, there's a part of me that would have loved to see my favorite movie of last year, The Wrestler, crowned as one of Oscar's gold standards. And with another five slots open, it almost surely would have been.
Well, I want the movies I love to be good enough to make the top five. The six through ten spots ... then you're really getting into territory where reasonable people can say that those movies stink. It's hard enough to find five movies each year that are truly slam dunk nominations, let alone another five good enough to make the cut.
But this is Hollywood, and we should hardly be surprised at Hollywood demonstrating its love for itself. Implicitly, Hollywood is saying, "We are producing so much quality material these days, why would we want to deny ourselves the chance to bask in our own brilliance?" More nominees means more opportunity for self-love.
But mark my words now. Next year, on February 2nd, when those nominees come out for a March 7th telecast -- two weeks later than this year, and two weeks even less interesting as a result -- we're going to be running to our computers, getting on the internet, and cattily dismissing at least three or four of the nominations as unworthy. Yeah, we all liked The Hangover, but does that mean there should be a spot in the best picture nominees for it? Just because it may become the most profitable movie of the year?
Maybe they are trying to design the Oscars for the common man, to pat the common man on the back for liking The Hangover more than he likes Sense and Sensibility. Maybe it's all just a big ratings stunt.
But I like the idea that the Oscar nominations force the common man to see good movies, movies he might not realize he should want to see. The Oscars, at their very best, are intended to point us to the best cinema out there -- and since many of the nominees hit theaters in December, in most cases, you can actually still see them in the cinema.
If the Oscars just want to pat us on the back for liking The Hangover, how does that make them any different than the People's Choice Awards?
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
If we just watched Rachel Getting Married, it must have been a Monday night.
My wife and I have developed a tradition of saving "difficult" movies for Monday nights. We don't watch one every Monday night -- in fact, the last three Mondays prior to this one, we went to a bar and ate Korean BBQ tacos, because that's the night this bar is least crowded. (And last week when we came home, we watched Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist -- which was difficult only in the sense of being difficult to sit through).
But the point of the tradition is, we don't want to watch these movies on weekends. Weekends are for escapism, or at least movies that won't drives us into a deep depression. On Monday nights, I guess we're okay with the depression.
Some examples of other things we've watched on Monday nights? Glad you asked.
1) Control. The story of the life and eventual suicide of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the band Joy Division.
2) Down to the Bone. A bleak look at a blue collar drug addict (Vera Farmiga) trying to recover but continuing to ruin her life in predictable ways.
3) The Edge of Heaven. A multi-character story taking place in Germany and Turkey, featuring terrorism, prostitution and death.
4) The Wrestler. The character piece about a broken down wrestler (Mickey Rourke) living in a trailer park, trying to avoid a heart attack, and making futile strides toward reconciling with his daughter.
Just to name a few.
The funny thing is, the movie that first helped us coin the phrase "Monday night movie" was something we actually saw on a Tuesday: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, referred to in shorthand as "the Romanian abortion drama." But a Tuesday is, for all intents and purposes, a Monday, right? (We watched its thematic cousin, the Romanian drama The Death of Mr. Lazerescu, on a Sunday night, but that was mostly because it was two hours and 20 minutes, and we wanted to start it earlier).
But it's a tradition I like, in part because it means we have a regular habit of challenging ourselves. It's hard to look forward to a movie where you know a drug addict shows up to ruin her sister's wedding, or a poor girl tries to get an abortion in the thick of Communist rule, or a talented musician spirals downward to the point of killing himself. But these movies have more often than not knocked our socks off, even if they haven't gone down easy.
I remember in my youth feeling somewhat frustrated when I would go to the video store with my friends. In retrospect, it shouldn't have surprised me that we always picked up a dumb action movie or a dumb comedy. After all, we were in high school, or maybe in college, and it was a Friday or Saturday night. It makes sense that we didn't want to see Schindler's List (trying to find something enriching but depressing that's approximately from that era).
Well, I'm glad I have a partner now who wants to watch the dumb comedies when I want to, the dumb action movies (or as close as you get these days) when I do, and yes, will watch the Romanian abortion dramas with me as well.
But only on Monday nights.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Being able to receive movies through the mail is a great thing -- we all agree on this. However, sometimes it results in some rather funny possibilities for human error.
Someone's got to sit there stuffing the envelopes at the local Blockbuster or Netflix shipping center. I'd like to imagine that it's done by some kind of robotic arm -- maybe one of those robotic arms that's out of work now that all the American car plants are closing -- but it's probably just some person making minimum wage. And that person is fallible.
Which is why, for example, I received the 2007 version of The Hitcher rather than the 1986 version last August. I'd already seen the 2007 version, and I wanted to see how the 1986 version compared. (Unfavorably, I decided -- I rather liked the 2007 one, and found the 1986 one disappointing by comparison).
That kind of mistake is easily understandable. But sometimes, they aren't.
Like yesterday, for example. My wife and I sat down to watch Elegy, a movie I'd heard was good but otherwise didn't know much about. I'm scheduled to review it.
However, when I opened the Blockbuster shipping envelope, this is what I got:
I've tried to figure out what Gangs of New York and Elegy could possibly have in common that would have caused this movie to get stuffed in the Elegy envelope. (The DVD jacket was for Gangs, but the outer envelope said Elegy. I've gotten DVDs in the wrong jackets before, though). They wouldn't have been filed consecutively by title. Their subject matter is not similar -- Gangs is of course about the violent coming-of-age of old New York, while Elegy is about the relationship between a professor and his student. They're both dramas, but that's about it.
Human error, I guess.
This particular switcheroo was a bit more irritating just because of how much I disliked Gangs of New York. In fact, I think it may be my least favorite Martin Scorsese movie. For a director whose work is unfailingly realistic, I found this movie to be stagy and absurd -- it reminded me of some kind of production of Oliver Twist.
But Blockbuster's pretty good about this kind of thing. You just report the error and they immediately ship the correct title. No questions asked.
I suppose if you decided you really liked a particular movie, and really hated another particular movie that you happened to own, you could just report a shipping error and send them back your copy of the crappy movie. How would they know? If Gangs of New York could be sent instead of Elegy, there's simply no logic to the potential for mistakes. Why couldn't they have shipped you Freddy Got Fingered instead of Citizen Kane?
Well, I won't abuse the honor system they've put in place. Blockbuster has always been good to me in the past. When I never got Two Can Play That Game (don't ask me how I remember this) several years ago, they just sent me another one. They never considered -- or at least didn't let on that they considered -- the possibility that I just decided I wanted to keep Two Can Play That Game. (Because really, who would?) But if I made a regular habit of it, they'd probably catch on.
As I wait for the real copy of Elegy to arrive, I figured I might as well use my useless Gangs of New York for something. So I brought it to the store and used it to pick up Rachel Getting Married. Since they're sending me another Elegy, I really shouldn't be allowed to have another movie out from the store -- that'll leave me with one more DVD than my three maximum I'm supposed to have at any given time.
Okay, maybe I'll abuse their honor system just a little.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
I can feel it.
I'm trying to deny it, but I feel it nonetheless. A desire creeping up inside of me ... a desire to potentially see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in the theater.
Why, Vance? Why?
My official position on this movie has been one of doubt at best, sneering superiority at worst. There was nothing in me that was the least bit curious about the next chapter in this story. The silly title made it all the worse. Which Transformers are considered to have "fallen," and why did they need "revenge?" I couldn't remember. Their ability to deliver revenge, for that matter, would be entirely dependent on how far they'd "fallen" -- a lot of the time, to be "fallen" means you're dead, and you can't get revenge when you're dead. (Unless you're, like, a ghost. Robot ghosts?) What's more, I couldn't imagine why we needed to see Transformers on the screen again. Didn't the first movie say all that needed to be said, do all that needed to be done, for us to get the Transformers-based nostalgia out of our system?
But then a funny thing happened. I remembered something I'd conveniently forgotten. Namely, that I sort of liked the first Transformers.
Not enough to want to see another one, apparently -- or so I'd thought. But why not? I had fun watching it. Fun enough.
And then I noticed myself lured in by the billboards featuring a Transformer (I know almost none of their names) standing by an Egyptian pyramid. (It's not the same image as this poster, but close enough).
And then I heard that sound in the ads -- that sound the Transformers make when they go from vehicle to robot. It's a satisfying sound effect. Even though it's not very similar, it reminds me fondly of that awesome noise the giant robots made in War of the Worlds right before they started shooting. You know the one I'm talking about.
And then there's, well, Megan Fox. It's almost difficult to look at her. She's like some robot of hotness herself. It's imposing.
Michael Bay is enough of a creative bottom-feeder that it gives me great shame to consider contributing to his box office take. But should it? Maybe we need to examine whether there are certain circumstances under which it's okay to like a Michael Bay movie.
And I think there are. I think it's okay to like a Michael Bay movie if he's honest about the fact that he just wants stuff to blow up. Michael Bay is at his "best" when he doesn't try to do much more than that.
Let's take Transformers. Transformers is the ultimate example of a movie where the only thing that needs to happen is stuff blowing up. Yeah, there was a love story -- of course there was, there always is. But I don't remember it being particularly intense. And I don't remember a lot of people crying. I just remember stuff blowing up.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Armageddon, a film I hate. What movie begs for stuff to blow up more than an asteroid movie? But not that much stuff blows up in Armageddon. No, this was one of those movies where Bay indulged his Achilles' heel for American flags, jets streaking through skies, and people blubbering emotional crap at each other. I feel like that scene where Bruce Willis says goodbye to his daughter is still going on.
You can break down much of Bay's career this way. Stuff just blew up in the two Bad Boys movies, and in The Rock, though I guess, there was probably at least a small dose of emotional crap in each of those movies. But see, I don't remember it. It didn't overwhelm the movie. Those movies aren't great -- The Rock may be his best, but that's not saying much -- but they were all they needed to be: popcorn movies.
Then you've got Pearl Harbor, the go-to movie when you're trying to slam Bay. It's bombastic and maudlin, and people are crying all over the place. The attack scenes were pretty phenomenal, actually, but all everyone remembers is the ridiculous Titanic-sized love story between Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale. And because I don't like throwing my initial impressions of movies under the bus (speaking of Titanic), I will admit that when I left Pearl Harbor, I was saying things like "Oh come on, it wasn't that bad." And I wasn't the only one of the four or five of us who saw it together who felt that way. Still, this movie is considered one of Bay's biggest turkeys, and it's undoubtedly because he tried to do too much.
Then there's one movie I haven't mentioned yet, which might be his worst -- even worse than Armageddon. It's The Island, and it's kind of in a category all its own. All of Bay's movies have high concepts, but this seemed to be different -- a potentially idea-heavy movie about an apocalyptic disease outbreak, cloning, and Big Brother. Yet in this movie, it's as though he didn't try to do enough. A movie that should have been about its ideas was instead about things blowing up. Michael Bay explosions that are organic to the story -- as they almost always are -- are one thing. But an orgy of car chases, helicopters and debris falling off buildings -- in a movie that should have been cerebral -- is just insulting. I don't know where this fits into my thesis, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
There's nothing essentially wrong with movies where stuff just blows up. We try to be superior to those movies because we pretend to want intellectual meat in everything we see. But sometimes, let's admit it, we just want to see chunks of shrapnel and balls of fire. We don't have to be ashamed of it.
So stick to that, Michael Bay. Blow stuff up. Just don't try to make us feel pride in America for being able to blow up stuff better than anyone else. Don't try to get us feeling jingoistic about explosions. If we need to see flapping American flags, we'll go to the state house, or a baseball game. And for crying out loud (pun intended), don't try to direct people making tearful farewells. You just can't do it, and we don't care enough about those characters to feel their pain.
Will there be tearful farewells between Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? Or will we just get another heavy helping of robot mayhem?
I'm trying to determine if I'm going to allow myself to find out.
Friday, June 19, 2009
It's Michael Cera week, for all you Michael Cera lovers out there. This is the second straight post where his face has adorned the artwork. However, you may not love what I'm going to say about him.
Comedies have been on a roll the past few years, in my humble opinion. I guess I don't have to be humble about it, because a lot of people agree with me. Ever since Judd Apatow has become the primary driving force in comedy (a post for another time -- in fact, I may time that post for the July 31st release of Funny People), there have been a lot more hits than misses among comedies loosely defined by Apatow and his interests. Namely, shlubs dealing humorously with everyday problems -- losing your virginity, going through pregnancy, surviving a bachelor party, dealing with a breakup. It's the absurdity that's built in to the normalcy that makes us connect with these movies.
So why, pray tell, would Jack Black, Michael Cera and writer/director Harold Ramis want to go back to the high concept days of Mel Brooks?
(Oh crap. I just looked at the production credits for Year One, and Apatow is a producer. Nonetheless.)
I get why they thought it would be funny, I guess. They're going to apply the quintessentially modern comic shtick of Black and Cera to the stone age, with the certainty that just saying the lines with a contemporary inflection will make them funnier. Which I simply don't think will be the case.
It's no surprise that Year One reminds a person of Mel Brooks' A History of the World Part I. That too tried to shoehorn modern vernacular/attitudes into a variety of ancient periods of history. And yeah, I laughed when one guy's using the word "Christ" in its modern sense, as the substitute for a swear word, while the actual Jesus Christ is sitting across the room, thinking he's being addressed.
But that was 1981. We filmgoers barely even knew what a parody was back then. And even that movie was more stink than fresh.
Everything that's old is new again, so 28 years later, we're probably ready for another movie like this. But then again, the comedy world has shifted in another direction. High-concept comedies just don't have the power to lure us like they once did. We don't want to see Three Amigos updated, do we?
I'm also pretty sure it's going to be the 10,000 B.C. of comedies, where time periods are haphazardly mixed together so that "everything old" can co-exist in the same movie. Are they cavemen? Are they Romans? Are they Roman cavemen? Who knows. And this doesn't matter as much in a comedy -- we're not supposed to care. But I have a feeling this might be the kind of movie that would cause me to nitpick.
And I'm a little over these two stars as well. Many comedy stars are overexposed -- I'm looking at you, Will Ferrell, and surprisingly, you already Danny McBride. And I have the feeling Year One could make us even more tired of Jack Black, and freshly tired of Michael Cera. It's hard to speak ill of Cera, because he's so essentially sweet. But his eye-contact-avoiding, nervous shy guy is starting to seem a little played out, isn't it? What's more, I'm getting a whiff of self-satisfaction from these two. I recently happened to catch a promotional bit they did on Jimmy Kimmel, where they were both caught in an elevator for the length of their appearance on the show. It left them both to relentlessly peddle what they do -- Black being outrageous and over-the-top, and Cera being the exact opposite. I felt like I needed a middle ground.
These are scattered thoughts, in part because I started writing this post several hours ago, and am now trying to finish it on the same day I started it, before going to bed.
But let's just say I greet Year One with wariness. It's the kind of throwback I don't think we need right now.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
I've sung the praises of renting from the library before. Not only is it free, but it exposes you to movies you might not otherwise choose. It refines your selection from the thousands in the video store and the tens of thousands online, down to just a couple hundred. You never know what you might come away with.
But in the old days, getting videos from the library felt a little like going to school. You expected to have to pick up a classic, when all you wanted was a popcorn movie. If you got a movie from the last five years, you'd feel like you hit the jackpot.
Well, this is not your father's library.
I can't speak for your library, wherever you may be, but in Los Angeles, it really is a decent substitute for the video store.
I've been accustomed to getting relatively new releases at the library for some time now, but it wasn't until this week that the Los Angeles Public Library really knocked my socks off. I didn't choose to rent it, but had I, I could have walked away with My Bloody Valentine (or My Bloody Valentine 3D, as it is sometimes listed) -- a movie released in theaters on January 16th, just five months ago. It became available for sale and rental less than a month ago, on May 19th.
What I did walk away with -- as the accompanying artwork probably suggests -- was Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, almost as impressive for having been released in theaters on October 3rd, DVD on February 3rd. That was just one of three movies, of course, the others being Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (4/25/08 theatrical release), and the "old man" of the group, Shutter, which came out way back in March of 2008, and which I'm reviewing.
(To insert an otherwise irrelevant comment about Nick & Norah, which I watched last night: Meh.)
I used to think library movie collections were comprised of the donations of kindly old ladies, and therefore would consist primarily of gentle, inoffensive selections, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins. But the LAPL doesn't discriminate, at least not in any way I can see. Not only did I see the supposedly gruesome My Bloody Valentine available for rental (loaning/borrowing), but in the past I even noticed that execrable exercise in misogyny and torture porn known as Captivity.
So where do these movies come from?
Well, chalk another one up for the library. I went on the website to see if I could find an answer, but quickly decided that this information wouldn't be all that likely to be publicized. But I realized I had the option to "chat with a librarian," and promptly did so. The librarian on-call wasn't an actual Los Angeles librarian -- she's part of some national organization -- but she said that the library usually buys new releases, and fills in the gaps with donations.
Consider me even more amazed. So the library is actually paying to help rot our brains with movies, rather than encouraging us to nourish them with books? I'm being facetious, of course, because movies don't rot our brains nearly as much as TV. But you'd still think they wouldn't put actual budgetary resources into making themselves the best video store alternative they can be. I mean, even with potential discounted prices, someone still had to decide to spend $10 on a copy of My Bloody Valentine.
Well, library, you've done it. You've convinced me of your relevance. And you've made me a very happy customer.
Now, if you can just get me to read, I will be even more impressed.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
We finally saw The Hangover on Saturday night. Having written two posts about it prior to seeing it, I don't have anything particularly interesting to say after the fact. Other than that I liked it. Not every movie inspires further comment.
What I did want to talk about were a couple unusual things that preceded the movie, in increasing order of their funniness/peculiarity.
1) We sat down nearly 15 minutes before 7:35, when the show was scheduled to start. Yet I was momentarily worried that my watch had died, because the commercials were already playing. I had never seen this before, but I guess there's a certain logic to it. If they have to show commercials anyway, why not show them when people are actually getting seated? Those who got there early will have something more involved to distract them than brainlessly easy trivia questions ("What three-digit number is another way to refer to James Bond?"), and the commercials themselves would not need to further push back the start of the movie. Yet it ended up being kind of the worst of both worlds. The commercials were fairly loud, contributing to the already-stressful hubbub of a popular movie on Saturday night, and there were certainly more of them than there would have been under normal circumstances, just making it feel even more interminable until we actually got a taste of what we'd paid for. And then the movie still didn't start until around 7:51 anyway. Hmm.
2) But this was the really weird one. Another thing they wedged in there -- I think it was before the trailers, but I can't be sure -- was a totally straight-faced set of instructions about how to leave the theater in the event of an emergency. We're used to seeing (and ignoring) stuff like this on airplanes, but in movie theaters? It seems like it should be self-explanatory. Yet this terminally square announcement went painstakingly through the locations of the exits in the theater, as if the glowing disembodied word EXIT at the four corners of the room was not easy enough to see. Then it followed with the fairly obvious (though I may be giving the average American too much credit) advisement to move away from the theater once you've exited. I guess how obvious it is would depend on what kind of emergency we were having. If it were a fire, everyone would be gone, but a fight? I guess you might sneak back for a look. Still, the fact that no other theater I've visited has ever given me a minute-long demonstration on the emergency procedures tells me something.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
You know what I love about a good movie? It gives you so many different things to think about. And write about.
And so, I'm going to combine into one post the several ideas that occurred to me last night as I was revisiting Let the Right One In, the amazing Swedish vampire movie from last year. Don't worry, I'll try to keep it short.
Warning: Mild spoilers to follow.
Don't default my language for me!
One of the most dispiriting telltale signs about American movie-watching habits was the default language option that arrived with our DVD. Instead of being Swedish with English subtitles, the default option was dubbed English.
Now, it's possible that this setting was just retained from the last person who watched the DVD. I can't be 100% certain how these things work.
But if you have to have a version of Let the Right One In spoken in English, just wait until next year, when the inevitable Hollywood remake hits theaters. I was going to say "inevitably awful," but I may give this one a chance -- it's directed by Matt Reeves, whose Cloverfield was one of my favorite films of last year.
For the sake of argument, let's say this was in fact the DVD's default setting. That's kind of absurd anyway, because anyone who would seek out a Swedish vampire movie -- especially one that doesn't concentrate on being scary -- or would even be aware of its existence in the first place, would probably not want to watch it dubbed. Any serious film fan can't stand the sight of words not matching up with lips -- unless you're watching What's Up Tiger Lily?, that is. It's a sure way to take you right out of the mood of a picture, and in Let the Right One In, mood is everything.
One creepy kid I can take
The single laziest trend in horror films is the "creepy little kid with dead eyes who doesn't talk/act like a little kid should talk/act." This kid can be male, but by a consensus of Hollywood hacks, female seems to be more unsettling.
On the surface -- the very shallow surface -- it might seem like LTROI just continues this trend. The difference, of course, is that 12-year-old Lina Leandersson is actually an actor, not just a horror prop. This girl is downright scary, but by that I mean scary good. She strikes all the right chords of ferociousness tinged with melancholy, fragility bolstered by fortitude. And this story is actually about her -- not really the case in movies like The Grudge and One Missed Call, where you're supposed to be freaked out by the concept of an innocent perverted by the demonic, as part of a random cavalcade of "disturbing" images. She's this weird little stringy-haired slip of a girl, almost gothic, and it's impossible to take your eyes off her. (And I don't mean that in a weird way).
The most similar role to hers in film history is that of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, but I think Leandersson's performace is even better than Linda Blair's. It's subtle, layered, tragic, yet somehow strangely optimistic as well.
The thrill of not knowing
Minor spoilers ahead
Another thing great movies do is leave some of what happens up to your imagination. But it has to be the right things, not things that leave you cursing the filmmakers for their gaping holes.
Let's take the man who lives with little Eli, the blood-thirsty "12-year-old," in a suburb of Stockholm, doing her ghastly bidding for her. He's got to be in his late 50s, but that's all we know about him for sure. When he's in the hospital, Eli tells the admitting nurse that he's her father, but we're not sure if we're really meant to believe that. It seems more likely she says that to adhere to the relationship society expects them to have.
So who exactly is this man? It's open to debate. It could be her father, and I must admit I spent most of my first viewing thinking that. Upon second viewing, I now think that seems like the least likely option. More likely is that it's the grown incarnation of a boy she once seduced when he was "her age," devoted to her and either unable or unwilling to leave her, even after more than 40 years as her "assistant." Making it seem like this is the same thing that could happen to Oskar, her next-door neighbor in the apartment complex. Or, if 40 years of that life would be too intense for anyone to withstand, maybe this man is the latest in a string of pedophiles she's lured in and then used for her own purposes. You don't know. And that's the brilliance of it. You could debate it for years.
Score one for the score
I'm trying to be better about noticing music in movies, and I couldn't help but fall in love with the simple piano score composed by Johan Sodergvist. It's plaintive without being maudlin, though I should say, the guy who reviewed the movie for my site did use the word "maudlin" to describe it, so there's clearly a difference of opinion on this. (Though I should say, that was also the guy's only real complaint about the movie.)
Just say "no" to digital cats
What's interesting about LTROI is that many have suggested it's what a vampire movie made by Ingmar Bergman would look like. Sure, that's because Bergman is the most famous Swedish director of all time, and this is a Swedish film, but it's true that the style really is similar. Plus, the film is washed over with a gauzy filter that makes it look at times like it was filmed in the 1970s.
Both of which make it all the more unlikely that the film would be capable of some really interesting digital tricks, and a couple truly mind-blowing shots it would be a shame to spoil here. I'll just leave it at this: It takes you a bit by surprise how effective these shots are, especially since the rest of the movie doesn't feel "modern" -- in the worst sense of that word -- in any respect. (The action appears to take place in the 1980s as well, though that's not certain).
There's one notable exception: The digital cats. There's one scene that (I think) is supposed to be funny, where a bitten woman undergoing a transformation is attacked by a bunch of cats who see the vampire within her. First they just hiss and howl and go erect into attack mode, but then they're actually all over. It's hard to tell whether it's intentionally or uninentionally funny, but let's just say that was the only moment when I was almost taken out of the film and transplanted into Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties.
If you haven't seen Let the Right One In, I don't know why you're tying up the top of your Netflix queue with something else.
Friday, June 12, 2009
I first became aware of Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in my senior year in high school, when I was enrolled in my first-ever film class, called Art of the Film. My beloved teacher with the bald head and walrus mustache, Mr. Brown, didn't schedule the film for screening, but he may have made mention of it, and it definitely appeared in whatever textbook we were using. It held a special significance to me, in fact, because I myself was a long distance runner, a member of the cross country team in my second season.
Last night, something like 18.5 years later, I finally saw it. I haven't run in a race of any kind since the mid-1990s, though I could probably take most people I know in a sprint. It's the stamina that would be a problem now.
I write about this today not because I have very much profound to say about this 1962 black-and-white film, part of the so-called "Angry Young Man" movement in British filmmaking, which featured working class heroes and left-wing themes. More than anything, I now regret having put a picture of Miley Cyrus on the front of my blog, and just want to clear it off.
But for those of us who have studied film, I do think it's interesting -- and probably rare -- to go back to those films that were part of every standard viewing syllabus back in high school and college. (Most people were not lucky enough to get a film theory class in high school; I got one there, then three in college). Or, in this case, ones that weren't, but were on the periphery of your awareness just by studying film. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner has been just out of my reach, as it were, for many years now, and a couple weeks ago I finally decided to force the issue, pushing it to the top of my queue.
I'm glad I did, and not only because it's clearly an important film that contained some pretty revolutionary storytelling techniques for 1962. But also because it does a darn good job approximating the cacophony of thoughts and melodies that drum repetitiously through a runner's head, especially during a very difficult race. I still remember a race I ran my freshman year in college, my final year as a competitive runner, when I was going up a hill and had the mercilessly catchy final refrains of "I'd Like to Live in a Wigwam" by Cat Stevens pounding rhythmically through my brain. If you know the song you'll know what I'm talking about.
But also, I think it's important, as we age, and as it becomes a lot easier to digest romantic comedies and action movies than the classics, to keep digesting those classics. We should take steps to never let our film education end. I myself get a little cranky when I notice I haven't seen a movie from before 2000 in about two months. It's then that I go refresh myself with the best picture winner from 1938. These movies can be difficult for our modern brains to sit through, but never let us forget their importance to being fans of film.
So go rent 8 1/2. Go rent The Magnificent Ambersons. Go rent The Battleship Potemkin.
Just don't start watching it too late at night and you'll be fine.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
When people come up with stage names, it's usually for something more memorable, not less. When Gordon Sumner didn't think people would remember him with that name, he came up with the moniker Sting. After all, how many famous people do you know named Gordon?
But it doesn't always work that way. As I was sitting waiting for The Girlfriend Experience to begin on Sunday, I was watching those single-panel trivia slides playing on the screen at the theater. And discovered that Miley Cyrus was born as Destiny Cyrus. (Actually, Destiny Hope Cyrus). After all, she had a famous dad (Billy Ray) who was trying to steer her toward fame even as a zygote.
So why didn't she keep Destiny? Did she think it made her sound like a stripper?
Well, I've since learned that Miley was a nickname for her, because she was "smiley" as a baby/young child. And you do have the rhyming "i" sounds in "Miley" and "Cyrus" to stick in people's memories.
But I just thought it was interesting to go from a grandiose/stagey given name to the fairly ordinary Miley.
Then again, I guess it supports pretty well the idea that Hannah Montana's alter ego would be a little more down-to-earth.
And that's all I have to say about that.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
The Hangover did excellent business this weekend, raking in an impressive $43.3 million -- which is frankly phenomenal for an R-rated comedy. What's more impressive is it more than doubled the box office for the opening weekend of Land of the Lost, in what must be a huge disappointment for Will Ferrell, whose appeal as a leading man appears to have flat-lined.
But I have to wonder if many of those in the Hangover audience watched it with some amount of melancholy.
You see, the part of the TV commercial that made me laugh out loud was when Mike Tyson is drumming and singing along to Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," and punches out Zack Galifianakis on the final beat of percussion. (My guess is that's how it's cut in the trailer, not how it actually happens in the movie).
This was, of course, before Tyson's four-year-old daughter strangled herself on the wiring of a treadmill at their house.
From a purely business standpoint, Warner Brothers, the film's distributors, must have panicked when they found out about the death of little Exodus Tyson. How can you keep showing an ad in which a joke about Tyson is the tag (is that the right term? DGB will tell me), when the real-world Tyson is engulfed in tragedy?
I didn't notice them pulling the ad. Nor did I notice, obviously, any effect on the film's box office. But when I see it myself -- probably sometime this week -- I expect to feel a bit melancholy during Tyson's scenes.
It's really interesting how something like this humanizes a guy we all love to feel superior toward. They cast Tyson in this movie, I'm sure, because of how absurd he is, and it shows the guy is a better sport than we thought that he decided to be in on the joke. Well, now the joke's on us for making Tyson our clown. He's a pretty sad clown right about now.
It's been a prominent year for Tyson -- James Toback also released a documentary about him called Tyson a couple months ago. I heard mixed things about it -- some said it was brilliant, some said Toback, his good buddy, made a puff piece and failed to ask the probing questions. Either way I expect to be seeing it as soon as it comes out on video.
Here's hoping the big box office for The Hangover at least helped the former ear-biter feel a little bit better after the bitter pill he's had to swallow. After all, a lot of that was people coming to see him, people who laughed out loud at his appearance in the commercial, like I did. For a guy who loves the spotlight, Tyson may need a little personal validation to help get through this.
Monday, June 8, 2009
With apologies in advance to Lord Vader ...
Yesterday I wrote about religion in movies, and how religious characters in Hollywood films usually get a bum rap. I wasn't getting all pious on you -- I'm still the same non-affiliated guy I've always been, and don't relate particularly well to people whose faith dominates their lives. But that doesn't mean I'm blind to cinematic injustices perpetrated against people who believe in God.
And so the timing couldn't have been better for me to have rented The Mist, or Stephen King's The Mist as the title is more regularly listed, yesterday. My wife and I were babysitting for people who have a BluRay player (we haven't made that leap yet ourselves), so we wanted to rent something that might take advantage of that format. We were on our second time through the BluRay section at the local Blockbuster when we noticed this 2007 release that had intrigued both of us. I'd read Stephen King's -- novella? short story? -- back in my King days (the late 80s and early 90s), so I might even have seen this one in the theater if it hadn't gotten lost in the holiday shuffle (it was released just before Thanksgiving). Knowing there would be a bunch of CG creepie crawlies emerging from the aforementioned mist, which trap a bunch of locals in a small Maine town in the grocery store, I figured this would be a perfect choice. Plus, it was directed by Frank Darabont, whose other King adapations -- The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile -- were both highly praised. I haven't seen The Green Mile, but I frequently describe Shawshank as a movie I will watch until the end if I come across it on cable.
Boy were we wrong.
I really didn't like anything about this film, but even if I had, the ending would have totally ruined it for me. I'll do you the honor of not spoiling that ending, but I'll also urge you not to see it if you haven't yet. (And warn you that there is a spoiler or two in this post, but nothing serious). The creature effects are terrible, and the acting ... well, let's just say I can't believe this is the same director who coaxed such subtle performances in Shawshank. But then Darabont actually does us one worse by also being responsible for the terrible script.
But what I want to focus on today is the weird application of liberal values in this film, first and foremost with regards to the film's resident religious nutjob, played by Marcia Gay Harden. She's not the only example, but she's a good place to start.
Simply put, Gay Harden is the personification of all the worst things about Christianity in one grating character. But she doesn't get killed off right away. In fact, she sticks around for most of the movie, whipping others around her into the same blind fervor, basically eradicating the idea that faith in God could be anything but a crutch of the weak-willed and weak-minded.
As soon as the mist rolls in, she starts quietly quoting chapter and verse, only loud enough for the people around her to hear a few distracted mumblings. But as things grow a little more confusing, long before they grow dire, she's accusing various others around her of being sinners, even when they aren't doing anything particularly sinful, and suggesting this is God's vengeance against them. Then she rejects an overture of friendship from a nice woman, telling her that if she needed a friend like her, she'd squat and shit one out. Huh? See, that's what really tells me this film hates this woman -- a truly godly person would accept offerings of love and friendship from another person. Harden's character thinks the woman is making fun of her, but there's nothing that would suggest that other than Harden's paranoia.
I won't tell you how her character ends up playing out, but let's just say that everything she does for the rest of the movie can be considered a misapplication of religious teachings. Often, an egregious misapplication.
I'll give the movie this -- it's perfectly believable, in a scenario where the world seems to be enveloped in a fog containing giant tentacled bugs, that the most religious people would interpret it as some sort of coming of the end of days. But if this movie wanted to make us believe in it, it would have shown a flicker of this woman's charity or goodness. Instead, she is one-dimensionally hateful.
As I mentioned earlier, The Mist's liberal agenda goes awry in other ways as well. The second least charitable character in this film is a hayseed played by William Sadler, who first comes to prominence when he threatens the college-educated protagonist (the eternally bland Thomas Jane) for trying to fool them with talk of monsters in the mist. He gets all tough and bullying and threatens to knock out Jane's teeth. Well, what follows is a string of indignities for this character, basically intended to indicate that such people are all bluster and no action. First he stands back in horror as a young stock boy is dragged out the loading dock by a giant octopus leg. Then he screams like a little girl when confronted with an over-sized bug at the pharmacy next door. Finally, he falls in with the religious wacko's flock and starts mindlessly chanting her God-fearing hocus pocus.
More evidence? The three military men stuck in the grocery store are passive and ineffectual. Instead of helping barricade the store against the intrusion, they huddle in a group in the middle of one of the aisles, looking glum. This after they complained at the beginning that they were just moments from going on leave when the leave was canceled due to this crisis. And oh yeah, two of them later hang themselves. (Sorry for the spoiler).
On the flip side of the coin, the guy who takes the leadership role is Jane's character, a graphic artist seen at the start painting some kind of book cover or movie poster. Traditionally, he'd be the passive intellectual, not the man of action. But he jumps in as the only courageous person in numerous scenarios where he's surrounded by trained professionals or rugged country types. And oh yeah, the only guy in the store who knows how to shoot a gun (including the military guys) is the jowly, balding, bespectacled cashier played by Toby Jones, whose most famous previous role (pun sort of intended) was in Infamous, where he played Truman Capote. As far as I can tell from my searchings on the internet, Jones is not actually gay -- and in fact, he played quite the opposite as Karl Rove in W. -- but let's just say they wouldn't have picked him to play Capote if he reminded anyone of Dirty Harry.
One of the things I value about myself as a thinking person -- which I hope I indicated in yesterday's post -- is that I can recognize when my enemies are right, and when my guys are wrong. I know it's pretty facile to take two films (Fireproof and The Mist) and force them to represent their core political philosophies. After all, each is only one movie. And The Mist may not have even intended to peddle an overtly liberal agenda -- it could have just been Darabont's massive failure to check himself, which resulted in him writing a bunch of unbelievable caricatures. But the film he made ended up being just the kind of fodder the church crowd needs, if it wants to say that Hollywood is out of touch with this country's many Christians. I don't want to see a bunch of Christians become the heroes of summer blockbusters, but making Christians as unsympathetic as pedophiles and pet stranglers doesn't do anybody any good either.
Maybe if Darabont gets back to basics -- I don't see another directing job slated on his schedule, but I can't imagine he's done -- his next movie can function as "the Darabont redemption."
Sunday, June 7, 2009
It's possible to make a movie about religion without it being religious.
But not if that movie is a Kirk Cameron movie.
For those of you who don't know, the erstwhile Growing Pains star has Given Himself Over to God. This actually happened while Growing Pains was still filming, but it hasn't become the sole focus of Cameron's career until about the last decade. It was in 2000 that Cameron made the first of three Left Behind movies, which dealt not so subtly with The Rapture, and giving yourself over to Christ. Because I love reviewing movies that no one else sees (no one else I know, anyway), I reviewed the first two, and have just put the third on my next list of requests. They are not good movies, but they are not as bad as they could have been, either. They do, however, explicitly use the language of fundamentalist Christianity throughout.
Because most of us are accustomed to watching the portrayal of religion in some liberal Hollywood context, such as the DaVinci Code movies, it's downright weird to watch a movie that is clearly peddling a different agenda. You just don't see it in mainstream movies, unless you're talking about Tyler Perry movies, which may do good box office, but are not exactly mainstream in the sense that Hollywood usually defines it. It's like you've stumbled in on something fringe, something that wasn't intended for your demographic. When the words "God" and "Christ" are mentioned in Hollywood movies, it's not meant to convert, but to inspire skepticism. There's always something a little off about those characters, and you the viewer are usually invited to align with those who oppose them.
That's not the case in Kirk Cameron movies, and it's not the case in Fireproof, which I've now watched over parts of the last three days, finishing this morning. Despite its name, Fireproof doesn't take the fire-and-brimstone approach of the Left Behind movies -- Cameron's character is a Georgia firefighter on the brink of dissolving his marriage. But Fireproof does on occasion ask us viewers if we have accepted Christ as our personal lord and savior.
But does this mean I hated it? Does this mean I adopted a liberal, Bush-hating, 360-degrees-in-the-other-direction condescension toward it?
Heck no. In fact, I got a little emotional at the end -- twice.
What's interesting about Fireproof is that it shows that Cameron is maturing. No longer does he feel it's necessary to scare religion into us by suggesting that we non-believers will be stranded on a planet scarred by war and sinners, while everyone who went to church on Sunday has ascended to the heavens. Though there are those telltale lines of dialogue that immediately put you on guard -- "Okay, here's what this movie is really about" -- Fireproof seems at least as interested in trying to help people salvage failing marriages, even if it is God's love that's supposed to help you do it. Never is there any doubt that this movie is prostletyzing, but Cameron and his team of collaborators are smart enough to keep the percentage relatively low. We're not meant to think that Christianity is the only lesson to take here. The things that Christianity endorses -- patience in the face of repeated disappointment, love, etc. -- are more the focus than Christianity itself as an institution.
An interesting thing that Cameron does in both this and the Left Behind films is that he puts the character he plays in the role of the skeptic. Of course, since it's Cameron and since you know what his agenda is, you know he will see the light. But Cameron allows himself to speak a number of lines of dialogue doubting the power of religion. Although you can imagine it was quite difficult for him, he makes himself the surrogate of the skeptical viewer, the guy who doesn't believe in all this God-and-Jesus hocus pocus. It may be a devious trick on some level, but it also works. Coming at the viewer head on with a bunch of devout characters whose faith in God is never in question won't cut it. Cameron et al understand that there must be dramatic tension, at least, and that something isn't really a movie at all if everyone's on the same page to begin with. Christianity's many parables relate to turning non-believers into believers, and I guess this is no different, but let's just say these people are not blinded into narrative incompetence by the strength of their beliefs. They still realize that this is a movie, whose goals must involve some level of entertainment and escapism.
And it also has a sense of humor. As part of a firehouse game of one-upsmanship, two firefighters chug a hot sauce called "Wrath of God." There's also a running joke about how Cameron's neighbor always catches him taking his frustration out on some helpless inanimate object in his backyard. Their wry exchange always occurs with a nod of the head, and then, Cameron acknowledging him by saying, "Mr. Rudolph." And the neighbor answering back, "Caleb."
It's probably clear to you that I liked this film, and you're probably wondering how I feel about that. After all, I'm about the most ungodly guy you could find. Not that I'm some rampant sinner, just that I don't choose to characterize my values -- which I'm pretty proud of -- in terms of a church or religion. Nor do I ever expect to.
I should feel sullied by being "taken in" by this movie. After all, I do pride myself on my liberal outlook, which is supposed to greet any attempt at organized religion with downright disdain. I do believe that religion is responsible for the greatest share of the world's problems. But I do also acknowledge that some people use it correctly.
But one other thing I've discovered is that film critics must, to the extent that they can, set aside preexisting opinions when watching a movie like this. You aren't just reviewing this movie for likeminded liberals, but for any person that might be out there, looking for something to see on a Saturday night. (Or maybe a Sunday night in this case, if the Lord allows it.) In fact, reviewing it for liberals would miss the point entirely, since so few of them are likely to consider themselves candidates to see it in the first place.
It's funny, because I know I did request this movie to review because of a preexisting opinion I had about its pernicious agenda. I wanted an opportunity to deliver some subtle slams about Christianity -- nothing so overt that I'd seem like a hater, but just enough that I'd leave people walking away with a clear sense of my perspective. And maybe contribute to one fewer person accepting Jesus Christ as their lord and savior without first enganging in honest, intellectual introspection, to decide if it's really the right thing for them.
But you have to take every film on its own terms, and if a movie actually succeeds, like Fireproof does, I'm not going to let my liberal ideals take it down a peg. The filming is competent, the acting is more than competent (you can't tear up at the end of the movie if the actors are bad), and the dialogue is not even as on-the-nose as I was expecting. Plus, there were two pretty dynamite set pieces involving firefighters engaging in heroic rescues.
So what is my role as a critic in this scenario? An unbiased, disinterested commentator who must meet this film on its own terms? I'll let everyone know that this is a Christian movie -- how could you not. I'll let everyone know that there's some clunky dialogue. And I'll also let everyone know that this movie is darn successful in doing what it set out to do, and that even liberal-minded viewers might walk away from it with their self-respect intact.
It's not my business whether viewers come to adopt the tenets of Christianity as a result of watching. It's only my business to allow Fireproof the opportunity to try, based in part on my own recommendation, given with reservations of course, but not artificial reservations trumped up for the purposes of my own personal agenda.
As much as I would have hated to acknowledge this going in, Fireproof has earned the right.
Thursday, June 4, 2009
What's wrong with me?
What's wrong with my inner child?
When I left the theater after Up last night, I felt ... well, not underwhelmed, but let's just say, less whelmed than I wanted to be. And this is the third straight Pixar film I've left feeling that way: generally impressed with its storytelling, certainly impressed with its animation, and recognizing I'd seen a quality film, but without that sense of wonder a Pixar film is supposed to instill in me. Which Pixar films used to instill in me without fail.
For most people, the triumvirate of Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up represents Pixar at its absolute finest, which is why my current Pixar funk is all the more troubling. I don't usually mind being out of synch with popular opinion, but it does make me wonder why I'm out of synch -- are they wrong, or am I? Am I just getting older? Does it take transcendence across the board to really transport me?
Like I said, it's not that these aren't very good movies, movies worth praising sturdily. But the breathless rhapsodizing about these three films has been out of scale with what I believe they deserve. It's as though a certain segment of the filmgoing population has decided that Pixar is a lifeboat in a sea of animation mediocrity, and therefore, everything that Pixar produces must be heaped with adulation in order to demonstrate the distance between Pixar and its competitors. Well, I'm going to deliver my first (second? third?) of many controversial statements in this post -- I actually liked Dreamworks' middlingly reviewed Monsters vs. Aliens better than Up. (Even if, on some levels, Monsters vs. Aliens probably rips off Pixar's Monsters Inc.) There, cast me out, and never trust my opinion again.
The problem with Pixar is that its films are all basically excellent. This sets the bar way too high, and makes some films suffer when compared to each other, or when compared to the expectations you have for them. I admit it's very possible I liked Monsters vs. Aliens more than Up because I was not really expecting to love Monsters vs. Aliens, but was expecting to love Up. When the former exceeded expectations and the latter came up short, it blurred the strengths of these movies relative to each other, in my mind at least. (Another factor: I found the 3-D extraordinarily vivid in Monsters vs. Aliens, and somewhat subdued in Up).
Then again, why be apologetic about it? The essence of being a movie fan -- any kind of movie fan -- is that you like what you like, and you don't what you don't. Trying to "pretend" you like something more than you do only does yourself a disservice.
So I thought the tenth release by Pixar was the perfect opportunity to post my first list in a long time -- my personal rankings of Pixar films from 1 to 10. I know you don't usually comment, but if you're reading this and you care about this topic, I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section. Plus your own rankings, though I don't expect you do to go into the same detail I do.
Without further ado ...
1. Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter). The most amazing thing to me about Pixar is that it arrived on the scene as a fully developed entity, totally sophisticated in the animation department and the story department right out of the gates. Pixar's first film will probably always be my favorite -- I can't think of another time when I felt such awe sitting in a movie theater. So much so that I saw Toy Story again ... the very next day. Not only is the concept delicious -- what do your toys do when you're not looking? -- but the characters are wonderfully rendered, with Woody's insecure sarcasm and jealousy providing the perfect counterpoint to Buzz's obliviously optimistic machismo. Sure, the human characters looked a little clunky, but who cares? The moment I saw those little green army men come to life, I knew I'd never seen anything like this, and probably wouldn't again.
2. Toy Story 2 (1999, John Lasseter). Until four years later, that is, when Toy Story 2 nearly did the impossible: outshine Toy Story. Over time I've decided that the original is the superior effort, but the margin is razor thin. The old characters are back, some good new ones are added, and the adventure of saving Woody from an evil toy collector is almost as good as saving Buzz from a sadistic neighborhood brat. Plus the video game opening is just awesome.
3. Finding Nemo (2003, Andrew Stanton). Pixar's best non-Toy Story movie is another epic quest, this time a neurotic clown fish trying to find his sole surviving offspring in a vast ocean full of diverse creatures. What I love so much about this film is that two sets of characters and two parallel stories -- Nemo also must figure out how to escape from domesticated life in a fish tank -- are carried off with equal panache and poignancy. Plus, Ellen Degeneres' performance as the absent-minded Dory is absolutely wonderful -- I say this as a person who's not particularly an Ellen fan.
4. Cars (2006, Joe Ranft). This will undoubtedly be my most controversial ranking on the list, but see my previous comment about surpassing expectations. Cars looked like Pixar's dreaded slumming into total Saturday morning cartoon baby-ishness, its "screw you" to Disney as the final film in the initial agreement between the two companies. But it ended up having huge amounts of soul and cleverness, at least in my humble opinion, and the colors really pop off the screen. The desert looks great, and I loved the affection for cars and for the American southwest on display here. And even though the cars have googly eyes, it doesn't come across as stupid. A pleasant surprise that shot it all the way up to #4. Let the disagreements begin.
5. Monsters, Inc. (2001, Pete Docter). The world of monsters was another wonderful way for Pixar to flex its imaginaton and animation capabilities, and Billy Crystal and John Goodman are terrific as the lead scare-mongers who are anything but ferocious. I loved the giant (albeit Men in Black-style) headquarters where they worked, and I remember being really tickled by the kid who voiced the baby, known as Boo. There are some slow patches here, but this is a winner.
6. The Incredibles (2004, Brad Bird). The Incredibles is much beloved -- even by me in a sense, as I ranked it #9 out of 59 movie I saw that year. But compared to some other Pixar films, I think it comes up short in the story department. Love the idea, love the character design, love the world it creates, love a bunch of things about this film -- but I don't love the script. I didn't think it was the best idea for what to do with the characters, and I think the narrative suffered as a result.
7. Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton). What I like about Wall-E is what I think most people like about it -- it is the most different from other Pixar films. I'm not suggesting Pixar needed to vary from its winning formula, or that it even really has a formula. Just that it was incredibly bold to set a "children's movie" on a dystopian post-apocalyptic Earth where all humans have evacuated, and those of the species who still survive are blobs flying through the universe on the spaceship version of a cruiesliner. But it doesn't mean that this film didn't leave me feeling a little cold and lonely. I was bombarded by other people's affection for it, but I just couldn't bring myself to their level. I liked the love story but didn't love the love story.
8. Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird). My my. Paris looks absolutely wonderful, and the animation is as lovingly detailed as in any Pixar film. However, I must say, I thought the plot meandered, and the result was an over-long movie. I like the message of finding your creative bliss, and there were a lot of things about this movie that really impressed me, but in the end, I left the theater with my socks firmly on.
9. Up (2009, Pete Docter). I don't want to say too much about Up because many of my readers won't have seen it yet. I will say that I had a bad hour leading up to showtime, so it's possible that colored my impression of it. And I also felt myself clawing at the 3-D glasses a bit, so there's that. And since I only saw it 24 hours ago, it might end up deserving to be higher on this list. But let's just say that outside of a couple terrific passages -- the opening marriage montage is classic Pixar -- this is a weird movie full of curious decisons, some of which are downright head-scratching. There's something very abstract, even European, about the idea of a house carried away by balloons. Up needed more of that vibe.
10. A Bug's Life (1998, John Lasseter). And here's where there's a real drop-off. I agonized over some of the other decisions on this list, but not this one. Pixar may not have known that it would eventually be able to create one brilliant film per calendar year, but it still seems strange that this was the best the three years after Toy Story could produce. I don't give A Bug's Life an actual thumbs down, but I do have to think about it for a moment. Certainly there's some good stuff in it, but the story is boring, the character design is lacking (the ants are blue?!), and it's just not very memorable. For me it also suffers in comparison to Dreamworks' Antz, which came out the same year and was a more satisfying realization of the concept, though I know I'm in the minority on that one.
As I just performed this exercise, it was difficult, because Pixar is so good that it feels uncharitable to call any of their movies even relatively bad. (Except A Bug's Life, that is). And I'm struck with the notion that I really need to revisit some of these films, especially the ones people love much more than I do.
But I do think there's probably a reason that four of my top five choices are four of the first five movies Pixar made. Not that they got worse over time, but that I got older. That I became more jaded and less receptive to the flights of fancy that are Pixar's bread and butter. My generation is the first to come of age with a wealth of different animated movies to choose from. The older generation had one Disney movie a year (or maybe every other year), and that was it. Us? We have animated favorites ranging from The Secret of N.I.M.H. to The Iron Giant, not to mention all the movies in Disney's 1990s revival. And so it is that many of us have proudly carried our love of animated movies into our adulthood, determined to never lose our ability to love children's movies. It's what keeps us young, keeps us from admitting that we're actually adults.
But we are adults. And it's only logical that our affection for these movies would deteriorate just a little bit, even if we'd rather not acknowledge it.
I guess the proof will come on June 18, 2010. If there's anything that can cure my Pixar blues, maybe it's the release of Toy Story 3. After 11 years, Pixar's best two films will finally get their long-awaited, long-discussed, once-destined-for-a-DVD-release sequel. And if that can't do it for me, maybe nothing can. (Oh, except possibly Cars 2, scheduled for release in 2011. See? Other people liked Cars too. Hence, Cars 2. See what I did there?)
Here's hoping I'm still a kid.