A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 122 – Hancock

Hancock – June 30th, 2010

Sure, let’s start with a car chase/shoot out juxtaposed with Will Smith passed out on a bus stop bench, obviously hungover or still drunk. And with the first poke of a woman’s ass, I dislike him (she does call him on it). It’s an inauspicious beginning for someone who’s supposed to be the hero of the movie and a hero in general. But that’s the point. He’s drinking and flying and he really doesn’t want to take the time and effort to save the day because he’s an ass, but hey, it’s what he does so what the hell, right?

We are firmly in anti-hero territory here, set in as close to the real world as a super hero movie is going to get. I was absolutely thrilled to hear a reporter actually say how much the damages Hancock caused in the opening scene will cost the city. I have long maintained that major metropolitan areas need meta-human insurance. Look at any Batman movie. Look at The Fantastic Four. Look at Ghost Rider. Think about the damage done by villains and heroes alike. Meta-human insurance, seriously. I’m also glad to see a little nod to Niven’s essay about Superman’s love life, or if not to Niven’s essay, to the concept behind it. Basically all the shitty down sides that would come with powers like that. And I mean all the shitty down sides, from isolation to inadvertent destruction. Not to mention not knowing his origins.

We do eventually find out where Hancock came from. Sort of. I mean, we find out enough about his past to know that there’s a whole pile of history and mythology mixed in there. I picked up a few pointers to it early on, like the movie tickets Hancock has (not quite a spoiler, but one of my favorite Highlander episodes touches on the same themes and makes the same reference but from a different direction, so, yeah, pop culture dork here). And the bits and pieces of background only serve to make the movie richer. The trouble is, before you can get that background, there’s a whole hell of a lot of foreground.

First we have to establish Hancock as an anti-hero. That’s accomplished pretty easily with some great action sequences and some fun rough and tumble stuff from Will Smith, who plays Hancock at the beginning in a way he doesn’t normally appear in the movies. It’s prodding at all the super hero tropes we all know and love. I mean, Superman is all well and good, but sometimes you need to toss Wolverine in, you know? Also, comic books exist in this world and Wolverine does get referenced. Fantastic. Anyhow, then once we’ve established our anti-hero, we have to redeem him. Enter Ray, a somewhat desperate and sort of cringe-inducing marketing and PR guy (at first – he gets better) played by Jason Bateman. He sets himself the task of getting Hancock’s public image back on track and convinces him to do some of the jail time he’s been setting himself up for what with all the property damage and such. Only after the brief jail stint do we get to the real meat of the movie.

Suddenly it’s not all laughs and Hancock threatening to shove heads up asses. Finally we get to know just what he is and why he doesn’t remember his past and we get to see just how shitty the down sides really are. Beyond the drinking and the destruction and the scaring people. Beyond everything we’ve seen up to then. I don’t want to spoil it, but man, it’s a kicker. At least it is for me.

I am a sucker for a story about the tragedy of immortality. If someone had sold this to me as that, I’d have raced to the theater. I’m not shocked that this got mixed reviews (or so I heard, I’ve mentioned I’m avoiding reviews before writing my own) and wasn’t the huge hit it might have been. The pacing is weird, what with the whole set-up/redemption thing it has to do before we get the mythology and the emotion and the heartbreak and the true redemption that comes with wings and purpose. It’s a deeper movie than the beginning implies on the surface, but look a little deeper at that beginning and it does things with sociological issues that most super hero movies won’t touch with a ten meter cattle prod. It’s touching on race and class and yeah, gender too. It almost makes me wish I was still in college so I could use this as the focus of a gigantic academic paper, because even though the pacing is odd in the transitions and the story has to hit a lot of points in a very short time, I think it would be worth a deeper look than I can give in a daily review.

This movie deserved a better reaction than it got, in my opinion. It’s fun and it’s deep and all three leads – Will Smith, Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron (I haven’t mentioned her much, but I’ve got my reasons and she’s fantastic) – are excellent, playing their parts far more intensely than I’d expected. It made me cry at the end. I should have seen it in the theater. I’m truly sorry I didn’t.

June 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Hancock

June 30, 2010

Hancock

I love a deconstruction of comic book and super hero tropes. And I love movies with their own mythology, whole worlds created to fit the outlandish characters in them. So this here is a movie almost custom made to appeal to me. I’m a little puzzled that this movie didn’t do better in the theaters, but maybe I shouldn’t be. Maybe people just don’t want what is essentially speculative fiction in their big budget summer blockbuster movie. Maybe the sort of person who goes to a Will Smith film doesn’t want to have to think, or doesn’t want the kind of story we have here.

Hancock trys to tell the story of what life would be for Superman if he existed for real. What would life be like for a guy who can fly, is indestructible, and has super strength. Early on in the movie it is established why Hancock can’t have a physical relationship with a mortal, fragile, human women. If you’ve read Larry Niven’s “Man of steel, women of cleenex” you know what to expect there. Surrounded by these oh-so-delicate creatures Hancock has had to isolate himself. He’s turned into a lonely, surly drunken bastard. Sure he still fights crime, in a way, but he’s a loose cannon. His brute force methods leave a path of destruction in his wake.

As a result people hate him. It’s a great premise. He tries to help, really he does, but he’s so isolated that he can’t quite relate with the people he’s helping. It doesn’t make things better for him that everywhere he goes people yell at him for making things worse. At the start of the movie he’s pretty much given up, and you can tell. He lives his life out of a series of bottles. He has absolutely no human contact, and nobody at all seems to like him.

Until he meets Ray, a down on his luck public relations consultant who’s life Hancock saves. Ray is this wholesome guy who just wants to make the world a better place, and when Hancock plows into his life he sees this as a chance to do just that. He becomes determined to help Hancock figure out how to be a hero without being an asshole. His son worships Hancock as a super hero. His wife is wary – she clearly has some deep-seated reason to not want Hancock involved in her life.

So the whole first half of the movie is about Hancock and his attempt to blend in and be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem. On Ray’s advice he turns himself in to the authorities and does time in prison as penance for all the destruction he’s done. All the time he’s there Ray tries, with little apparent success, to coach him on how to encourage a better reaction from people when he is at a crime scene. Things like don’t leave a big crater when you arrive. Treat the police with respect for doing their job because, you know, they aren’t bulletproof like you are.

The whole movie – up through Hancock’s triumphant return to public life, is played pretty much for laughs. It’s a good-time story of an immortal super human learning how to cope with people, and people finding out that they probably need him. Then things suddenly take a darker turn. We begin to see a little about Hancock’s story. How the first thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital with massive head trauma. How he didn’t even know his name and so when the admitting nurse asked for his “John Hancock” he figured that must me it. Oh, and how this was eighty years ago, because he doesn’t age.

So was it something about he head wound that made him what he is, or is there more to Hancock’s story? Well, of course, there’s more. And the second half of the movie is him discovering his past, learning what he is and where he came from, and having to deal with that as well.

I’m deliberately being vague here because I don’t want to spoil the movie for anybody. I will only say that I love the mythology that the movie establishes for him. I love the tragedy, the aching loss that is hinted at. And it’s this strange turn that changes the movie from being just a summer popcorn flick into something more, deeper, and better. Maybe it’s because of this twist in the entire feel of the film that was partially responsible for it vanishing from the public eye so suddenly. But, hey, that’s alright with me. If there are a lot of people who didn’t see this movie that just means I get to look good when I recommend it to them. I get to be the guy who discovered this hidden gem of a big budget movie.

You can really see, watching this, that it is a group effort. The actors play really well off of each other. Will Smith gets to both play a badass unstoppable super hero and at the same time imbue him with a sort of sad loneliness. Jason Bateman as Ray is fantastic. He’s given lot of dialog that could come off as condescending and preachy, but you never see him as anything but a simple guy who has a vision of something better. Charlize Theron as Ray’s wife Mary gets some of the meatiest parts of the movie, and it’s no surprise that an Oscar winning actress like herself can absolutely perfectly cut to the movie’s surprisingly touching and tender core.

And huge congratulation and thanks have to go to director Peter Berg. He uses a lot of tricks to keep the story gritty and human, especially when it begins to escape into super hero territory. He uses a lot of steady-cam work, down on the ground, to get us into the picture. Very often in tense scenes of dialog he has characters and scenery obscuring part of the frame up in the foreground. It makes you kind of want to lean in and get around this stuff to literally get more into the film. Another trick he uses a couple times is clever inter-cutting. Both the lengthy prison montage that portrays Hancock’s re-integration with humanity through three or four inter-cut story lines, and later in one of the climactic fight scenes, which is played between scenes of Ray at a corporate board meeting. Cool and well done.

I really love this movie. For being something strange and different than what I was expecting. And for creating a cool world that I want to see more of.

June 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 121 – The Corpse Bride

The Corpse Bride – June 29, 2010

So very many puns and songs and little hidden jokes (like the Harryhausen plaque on the piano Victor plays early on, and I’m pretty sure a little boy in the church is supposed to look like he’s right out of a Gorey cartoon). And so much gloom! Really, this is like the epitome of Tim Burton. It’s the Burtoniest Burton movie. Dancing skeletons, consumptive Victorian characters and a corpse in a tattered and cobwebby wedding dress. There is no mistaking this for anyone else’s baby.

It’s a sad tale of a jilted bride, killed by her fiance the night they meant to elope and stuck in the underworld until someone proposes to her. It’s the sad tale of a groom finding himself accidentally wed to a corpse and trapped in the underworld while he attempts to get back to the land of the living and his true fiancee. It’s the so very sad tale of two sets of parents wanting to marry off their children to exchange money for status. And it’s the sob-inducing tale of a grifter who gets what he deserves. Oh, wait. Strike that last bit. That’s not sad at all! And neither is the one before it, unless you’re using sad to mean not unheard of but not terribly romantic.

Anyhow, the lead players are Victor, the groom; Victoria, his intended fiancee; their parents, Victor’s being rich but with new money and Victoria’s being poor but with heaps of status; Emily, the titular corpse bride; and Barkis Bittern, a jackass. Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure I’m not giving much away to out him as a nasty fellow. The movie isn’t super subtle about the direction his character is going. I mean, look at his chin! He’s practically Robert Z’Dar.

So Victor’s supposed to marry Victoria, ends up accidentally sort of married to Emily, doesn’t want to be, tries to get back to the living world to find Victoria. Victoria’s parents try to marry her off to Bittern, Victor finds out, there’s a couple of rather incomplete weddings and some Hamlet allusions, and then they all live happily ever after. Except they don’t. There’s a lot of singing and eyes popping out and a worm with a Peter Lorre schtick going on, and like I said, it’s Burton for miles.

Stylistically, I cannot fault the movie one jot. It’s lovely to watch. The animation is beautiful and if you like Burton’s aesthetic then you’re in for a treat! The thing for me is that while I do enjoy Burton’s movies, I don’t think I enjoy them to the same level that I’m supposed to. They’re lovely and they’re fun, but I’m not going to go raving about how they’re better than sliced bread or anything. I don’t know, they just don’t bowl me over. I can appreciate the feel of this movie, and the voice acting (really, the voice acting – look at the cast! It’s fantastic!) and the amazing amount of work it must have taken, but I’m not rushing out for Corpse Bride bedsheets. I never was very good at the goth thing I suppose.

Now, I did enjoy the movie. It was a light little thing, which is odd to say since it’s got so much Burtony gloom going on, but really, it is. For the most part. It’s a fluffy little love story with plenty of singing and dancing, just with Burton’s trademark feel to it all. Making one of the main characters a corpse doesn’t make it not fluffy. Especially not when you have a little skeleton dog named Scraps. It lightens the mood, you know? Just about the only thing that brings it down for me is the ending.

I mean, sure, happy ever after for two of the three, but given that Emily was killed by her fiance, that leaves one of the two potential brides without a sympathetic groom, so unless this movie was going to go in a distinctly triangular-shaped direction, someone was going to end up alone, you know? I know the end is supposed to be all sweet and wistful and aww, it’s okay because look, butterflies! Except meh. I’m just not satisfied by it. Why not a bridal boutique in the underworld? Why not sing with the band in the tavern. Butterflies? Really? It’s a bizarre ending to the movie and I’m left feeling like I’m not sure what I just watched. Fun, yes, but then with some things that just don’t match up for me. A pity, but still, I’d watch it again. I’d probably just turn it off before the end.

June 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Corpse Bride

June 29, 2010

Corpse Bride

I was really was looking forward to watching this movie when I first bought it. I hadn’t had a chance to see it in the theaters, and it was billed as a return by Tim Burton to stop motion animation – as sort of spiritual sequel to The Nightmare Before Christmas. When I finally did watch it, however, I was disappointed. I’m going to spend today’s review attempting to enumerate why.

A large part of it is that the music dosn’t capture me the way Nightmare Before Christmas’ music did. Strange, because the cadences are similar, the general feel is the same, and it’s undeniably a Danny Elfman score. But whereas in Nightmare I enjoy every song, and they provide the spirit of the movie, in this movie the music starts up and I have to brace myself. The songs, which are meant to drive the plot, feel like grinding halts – or perhaps more like something wedged into the movie from some other continuity. The score from the movie works, and I love the piano playing by the characters, which serves to establish much of the tenderness and connections in the movie. But the songs I can’t stand.

Another problem I have is that I don’t much enjoy the land of the dead as portrayed here. I can clearly see how I’m supposed to react to it. All the color in the movie is relegated to the underworld. The land of the living is all darkness and monochrome grays and browns. When we reach the land of the corpse bride we’re suddenly in a world of purples and greens and blues. The music turns to uptempo jazz. The dead are a nonstop party of laughs and visual gags. I know I’m meant to enjoy this exciting, fun, rich and supposedly hilarious afterlife, but it just grates on me. I can’t wait for the “funny” parts to end so we can get back to the somber world above.

Maybe it’s just trying too hard. It’s as though a focus group combed through Nightmare and attempted to extract the bits they thought would be most appealing to that goth crowd who buys all their clothes at Hot Topic. And the result is that it seems over-wrought. All too carefully planned and too deliberate. Let’s have a Peter Lorrie worm! Let’s have a cute skeletal dog! (Instead of a cute ghost dog.) Everybody loves when eyeballs pop out – how many times can we have that happen in one movie? Making Christmas becomes a song about making a wonderful wedding. It’s not as charming, but it’s clearly derivative.

The plot of the movie is paper-thin and simple. Young Victor, the son of a successful fish merchant, is being wed in an arranged marriage to Victoria, daughter of an impoverished but noble lineage. (And if you think that after Burton’s Ed Wood film the Victor/Victoria reference is accidental than you clearly are not paying attention.) Both families get something from the deal: Victor’s family get nobility, and Victoria’s are saved from the poor house. But the young couple have never met. When the skittish and easily flustered Victor flubs his vows at the wedding rehearsal he flees to the woods, where, while practicing those vows, he places the ring on what he believes to be a twig protruding from the ground. It is not a twig, however. It is the skeletal hand of a young woman who was murdered on her wedding night, and so Victor finds himself inconveniently and inadvertently wed to a dead woman, and not to Victoria at all. (And just when he had begun to realize that he liked Victoria after all.) Hilarity ensues! (okay, not really.)

The problem is that the movie is not about the plot. The plot is there to give Danny Elfman an excuse to create some songs, and Tim Burton a chance to create an iconic array of wacky and grim characters. Possibly with the merchandising of action figures and t-shirts in mind. If you don’t enjoy the songs and the deliberately grizzly humor however, there’s really no reason for you to be watching the movie.

My biggest problem with the whole movie is that I feel so bad for not liking it. It appears to me to be a derivative and deliberately commercial movie, but I can also see a lot of Burton and Elfman’s souls bared here. The aesthetic is so very Burton that it practically hurts. It’s like one of his sketchbooks come to life. An there’s a jazzy number that lays out the entire back story of the corpse bride sung by Elfman himself which seems like song directly from the Forbidden Zone. The stop motion is amazing (though not as mesmerising as I found the animation in Coraline, which is now my gold standard of stop-motion at its absolute peak.) Having seen the puppets the animators used, with their intricate clockwork machinery, I am awed by the accomplishment that this movie represents. The sheer amount of work displayed on the screen here is humbling. The vast pool of talented actors that voice the cast is a dream team of Burton greatest hits. Johnny Depp. Helena Bonham Carter. Christopher F-ing Lee!

The amount of care, love, and effort that went into this film is obvious. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that I found it so disappointing. I wish I could love this movie as much as I’m clearly meant to. I just can’t. It does make me look forward to reviewing Nightmare Before Christmas though, and it makes me wish, once again, that we had The Forbidden Zone in our collection.

June 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 120 – Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider – June 28th, 2010

I’m going to say this right up front so there’s no doubt as to why I enjoy this movie: Wes Bentley and his demon gang. That’s it. Okay, that’s not it completely, but it’s a good chunk of it. I’m a complete sucker for Bentley and guys who look like him (good cheekbones, dark hair, pale skin, blue eyes), and the whole elemental demon thing is always a direction I enjoy. Motorcycles are fun, as is fire. I mean, this should be a fun movie. It’s just lacking something. The things I love about it aren’t what should be the heart of the movie.

We begin the movie with carnival stunt rider Johnny Blaze making a deal with the devil to cure his father’s cancer, selling his soul in return for some clear x-rays only for his father to “mysteriously” die in an accident during a routine motorcycle stunt the next morning. Dang. That’s harsh, dude. But really, if you’re going to deal with the devil, you’ve got to go all Dethklock on him and make sure that contract is air tight. Anyhow, the devil totally kicks Johnny while he’s down, tells him it’s not worth trying to have a life or anything cause the devil owns him, and Johnny takes off out of town, leaving his sweetheart, Roxanne, behind. Again. Harsh.

Fast forward a ways and Johnny Blaze is now Nic Cage and a huge stunt star whose best friend and roadie is played by Donal Logue. He travels around, doing big motorcycle stunts and not dying cause the devil won’t let him, not making any attachments and being thoroughly miserable. And while he’s trying desperately to rekindle a romance with the girl he left behind when he was seventeen, the devil’s son has decided to put daddy out of business and gotten a little gang together to get a hold of a contract for a whole town’s worth of souls. Daddy calls in Johnny and thus we have our Ghost Rider, a motorcycle stunt man who really just wants a date with his old flame (get it? flame? right? GET IT?!) and the bulk of the movie involves a combination of Johnny trying to get out of the contract he made with the devil by trying to defeat devil jr. and his goons, and win over Roxanne while sporting a flaming skull head and wielding a chain whip and tasked with the job of judging the guilty and keeping Blackheart (devil jr.) at bay.

Maybe the problem lies with Nic Cage as an action hero. I like him okay in some roles, but he’s so laid back most of the time, it’s a weird role to see him in. I know he specifically wanted to play this role and I’m sure he enjoyed it, but I can’t really tell if it works. Maybe it’s that Wes Bentley steals the show for me. Maybe it’s that Wes Bentley’s coat steals the show even more. Maybe it’s that I really wanted to hear Henry Rollins’ Ghostrider on the soundtrack and it’s painfully conspicuous in its absence (to me, anyhow). Sure, there are things I like. I mean, it’s pretty cool that he learns how to deal with the whole bursting-into-flames thing by some Action Research! Actually, there are two action research scenes, and that’s pretty awesome. I do enjoy the climax and its lead-up, with the two Ghost Riders riding off into the desert, one on a horse and one on a motorcycle.

The more I think on it, the more I think it’s that the movie doesn’t do a good enough job setting itself up. Sure, it tells a good backstory for Johnny Blaze, but setting up Johnny is only half the plot. The entire thing with Blackheart and the devil and the contract they’re fighting for? And the intro and the last lines about legends of the West? It only barely touches on all of that. I get what it was going for. The closest it gets to linking everything is the scene I mentioned above with the two Riders. It’s a fantastic scene, even if not much happens in it. And the climax itself, taking place in the town whose inhabitants sold their souls, links it all. But up until then? It’s Johnny on his motorcycle in a big city. It’s the demons being demony in train yards and big cathedrals. It’s Johnny and Roxanne as a modern couple. There’s just so little set-up for the whole legend thing. It’s a big city superhero movie that wants to be a Western and it doesn’t manage it until the very end.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Ghost Rider

June 28, 2010

Ghost Rider

Another week and another Marvel property brought to the big screen. Ghost Rider is one of those lesser known properties from the seventies (like, say, the Silver Surfer or Iron Man) so it doesn’t come with the instant recognition of a Spider Man or Hulk or X-Men movie. Lucky for us we have a cool opening monologue from Sam Elliott that presents the premise of the Ghost Rider, a kind of bounty hunter for Satan who has to collect the souls of the damned.

The movie starts out with a great vibe. The whole opening, set in the seventies it seems, has a cool kind of Devil came to Georgia feel to it. Young Johnny Blaze is a kid who does stunt driving at county fairs with his father. To save his father from dying of cancer Johnny signs a deal with the Devil. It goes about as well as you’d imagine that should go. His father doesn’t die of cancer anyhow.

Years later Johnny is a mega-successful stunt rider who leaps over trucks and helicopters. He seems unable to die, and is haunted by the fact that his success is probably the result of his ill-advised contract with Satan. And there are foul things afoot – with an extremely sinister devil named Blackheart (played with erie flare by Wes Bently from meeting with three elemental-themed demons who want to find this fabled lost contract. An entire town of damned souls owed to Satan that will give this young devil unimaginable power. Enough, perhaps, to defeat his father, Mephistopheles, and rule the Earth.

To defeat Blackheart the devil calls on Johnny, demanding that he fulfil his contract and return the rebellious demons to hell. And so Johnny Blaze becomes the latest Ghost Rider, with a cool new flaming skull make-over and a nifty flaming custom bike with a kind of bones and steel look. He leaves destruction in his wake and can see the evil in the hearts of criminals and use their sins against them. He meets up with an enigmatic grave-digger played by Sam Elliott (remember him, from the intro? Mr. Plot exposition?)

So there’s all this cool stuff the movie has going for it. Warring devils. Apocalyptic legends. Wes Bently. Sam Elliott. It’s also loaded with cool special effects. There’s a sinister vibe to the whole main plot that’s very well handled and makes for a really cool movie. So why, with all this cool stuff going for it, does the movie at times seem so cheesy and schmaltzy?

Two words: Nick Cage. I guess I enjoy his odd take on things, and I appreciate that he’s a fan of comic books and wants to play a comic book hero. But a lot of what he brings to this movie lessens it. Why the jelly beans and the obsession with monkeys on TV? Why the Carpenters? Even when he is supplanted by computer effects as the Ghost Rider his character is given to cartoonish one-liners, which don’t seem to fit the mood of the rest of the movie.

I don’t know. Maybe the film makers felt that having a hero with a flaming skull and spiked leather wardrobe made the movie too dark. But to make the hero, who looks so bad-assed and awesome, into the comic relief? I just wish they hadn’t, because it’s a pretty cool movie as it stands, and it might have been more.

Still. It’s a fun movie, even with the missed potential. It has moments of marquee awesome (such as the inevitable Ghost Riders in the Sky reference.) Even the romantic sub-plot is tolerable, mostly because Eva Mendez gives Blaze’s love interest Roxanne a little strength to go with her bodice defying build. Her character is meant to be the wailing damsel in distress who can’t live without Johnny – but she’s having none of it.

I hadn’t watched this movie all the way through since seeing it in the theater way back when it first came out (all of three years ago.) I’ve thrown it in the DVD player just to have something to watch once in a while and been turned off by Cage’s comic take on things and decided I had better things to do than watch it all the way through. I’m pleased, on this second complete viewing, to see that for the most part the film is as fun as I remembered it being that first time. You just have to get past some of the cheese in the middle.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 119 – Toy Story 2

Toy Story 2 – June 27th, 2010

Once again we deal with Woody and his lack of confidence getting him into big trouble. Of course, this time it’s not entirely his fault, but it is part of the plot. Then too, it’s not entirely unfounded worry on Woody’s part. It’s a sad fact of a toy’s life that eventually kids grow up and eventually toys just don’t get played with as much as they once were. And so this sequel begins with life in Andy’s room seemingly idyllic with the toys getting along and everyone having a grand old time until Woody’s arm seam rips during a particularly rough game with Andy. Alas, this means Woody is left on the shelf while Andy goes to Cowboy Camp. The shelf being a dangerous place for toys, the first step towards a yard sale. Plagued by worry, Woody follows a discarded toy out to the yard sale to save him and ends up stolen by a toy collector who recognizes Woody as a rare piece that will complete his Woody’s Roundup Gang collection.

So while Woody meets the rest of his Roundup Gang – Cowgirl Jessie, Stinky Pete the Prospector, and his horse, Bullseye – and finds out about the show he’s from and that the collector who stole him plans on selling them all to a museum in Japan, the rest of Andy’s toys set off to rescue him. Led by Buzz they track down the toy store owned by the collector, adventure out of the house to the store, explore the store itself and finally make their way to the apartment Woody and the others are trapped in. My only real complaint would be that for much of the movie it seems like two fairly disconnected plots. Sure Buzz and the rest are out looking for Woody, but I have to get all English Majory and start talking about the juxtaposition of old and new and the commodification of childhood to really connect the bits with Woody and Jessie talking about how kids grow up and leave you behind and the bits with Buzz and another Buzz and Rex and Hamm and Potato Head and Slinky Dog in the toy store. But it’s really a small complaint in the grand scheme of things.

Now, I did enjoy last night’s movie and I enjoyed it when I originally saw it, but this is the first time I’ve watched the sequel (overhype victim) and I’ve got to say it was a real pleasure. The jokes were spot on, I didn’t get Randy Newman-ed out, I admit Jessie is absolutely fantastic, the two plots do eventually meet up and spin together very nicely, and all the fun of seeing the animated come-to-life versions of the toys of the first movie is well expanded upon in this one. And I think this one had more emotional impact (I hear #3 is a killer in that respect). I admit, I cried during Jessie’s song about the girl who owned her originally. It might have been too heavy a plot on its own, without the humor of Woody joking around with Jessie later, and then the other plot with the toy store. It also would have been too static, with just that one apartment. So while the plots don’t mesh all the way through the movie, they do compliment each other nicely and the toy store part is worth it for the humor alone.

Some stand-out parts for me are the whole side-plot with Buzz meeting a still-deluded version of himself and repeating many of Woody’s lines and motions from the first movie. The whole toy store is fun, really, because that’s where you get to see so many more toys. The Barbies and the Rock-em Sock-em Robots, for example. Both done wonderfully. Again, I love the three-eyed aliens, this time with their fixation on Potato Head. I love how the toys band together to save Woody. It gives a real feeling of teamwork that the first movie couldn’t have with the plot it was given, and I think the dynamic works really nicely. All in all, it’s a wonderfully done movie and fine, I’ll use my review to ask my husband: Hey honey? Want to go see Toy Story 3 next weekend?

June 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Toy Story 2

June 27, 2010

Toy Story 2

This movie is one of those rare sequels that is better than the original. And it’s not just that the technical wizardry caught up with the vision of the people at Pixar. It’s a heart-touching tale of toys in peril, addresses dilemmas new to the Toy Stoy universe and has bigger adventure and more great jokes and references for the adults. By the time Pixar got around to doing a second Toys Story movie they’d had opportunities to hone their craft through A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc. They had upgraded their animation toolkit to include detailed hair shaders (seen here on the new puppy that has joined Andy’s family) and huge complex locations that would have been impossible in the days of hand-drawn animation (like the behind the scenes luggage sorting operation in the airport at the end of the film.) At the same time Lasseter and company have been perfecting their storytelling art, and this movie is a celebration of both technical prowess and great drama. In a computer animated kids movie no less.

The way I heard it Disney had ordered up a second Toy Story movie as a direct-to-video nugget for their money-mill. Part of Disney’s business model that started in the 90s was to keep their properties alive through lower quality animated fare for the secondary video market. Things like Aladdin: King of Thieves and Beauty and the Beast’s Enchanted Christmas. But they didn’t have anything like that from Pixar yet, so they demanded a sequel to their most successful property to date. The problem was that Pixar wasn’t really into the notion of doing lesser films for a direct-to-video market, so they crafted this masterpiece, which eventually went back for more special effects and was freshened up for a big theatrical release.

There are a couple things the film makers did to make the new movie a worthy successor to the first. For one, they created back story for Woody, creating a whole fifties retro Howdy Doody type show and companions and sidekicks for him. Unlike some sequels, which just try to re-make the first movie but with more explosions (I’m looking at you Die Hard) this expanded universe seems perfectly natural, and the aesthetic of the Woody’s Roundup show is such that you can almost believe that it really did exist in the first movie, just slightly off the edge of the screen. It seems an organic extension of the world rather than an unnecessary addition intended simply to wring money from the franchise. Furthermore, they added a lot of heart to the movie as well.

I was careful to make sure before putting the movie in today to have some issues handy. Part of the motivating force behind the plot of this movie involves the deepest fear of a toy, which is not to be played with too much or broken, but to be forgotten. There’s a heart-rending montage that tells the tale of how one of the new characters, Jessie, was abandoned by her owner when she grew up. It never fails to make me tear up, and it’s that deeper story that lends power to all the action that takes place in the later half of the movie. It’s like a dry run for Up. (Speaking of which – was that some kind of hidden reference to Up when Rex suggests using balloons to float up to the apartment where Woody is being held prisoner? Had they begun hashing out the story of Up way back in 1999?)

The movie is packed with cute references and nods to other films. There’s a Jurassic Park ref, a bit that steals directly from Empire Strikes Back (but with a much funnier outcome) and in the commentary they acknowledge that one of the bits near the end involving the use of flash photography to defeat an enemy was a nod to the end of The Rear Window. Oh, and there’s the “Cleaner” – a character hired to repair and spruce up Woody – who is Geri from the Pixar short Geri’s Game. I also think I spotted Tin Toy in the channel flips when Ham is searching for the Al’s Toy Barn commercial. So many little details and jokes.

Sometime soon I’m going to have to go see Toy Story 3 in the theaters. In 3-D if I can, since I’m such a a fan of 3-D in the cinema. And I’ll be sure to bring along a whole box of tissues.

June 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 2 Comments

Movie 118 – Toy Story

Toy Story – June 26th, 2010

The first thing that struck me after putting this in is that it’s a damn good thing the toys are the focus of the movie cause the humans are a wee bit too close to the uncanny valley for my taste. The toys, on the other hand, are wonderfully done, which is, of course, the whole point. This is the secret life of the toys we had as kids – and still have. I can count three action figures and twelve stuffed animals in our bedroom. Thirteen if you count the Weighted Companion Cube. And they’re not all mine. There are definitely more in the other rooms of our apartment. And while as a rational adult I’m rather certain that they’re not prancing around and tossing off Joss Whedonesque witticisms in our absence, when I was a kid? Yeah, I totally thought my toys were alive. I anguished over consigning dolls I’d been given but never much liked to the closet. I held on to toys I never touched out of a sense of loyalty to them.

So it’s kind of disturbing and bizarre to see Pixar take that and be all “See? Your toys DO give a damn!” AAAAAAAAH! There’s a part of me that feels like Sid at the end. Suddenly confronted with the eerie truth that these inanimate objects are quite decidedly animated. Thank goodness it’s just on screen, otherwise I’d have some truly T-Rexian guilt going on.

The toys we meet in the movie are certainly a lively bunch. Aside from the whole plot and all, the real charm of the movie comes from the toys themselves and the characters they’ve been given and the performances of their voice actors. It’s fun to see how Mr. Potato Head is a bit of a grump. T-Rex has some severe confidence issues. Bo Peep is a little more come hither than I’d remembered. And Woody is the confident and affable sheriff who leads them all in their daily routine of making sure their owner, Andy, is having a good time playing with them. To be honest, the plot is incidental to me. I just want to see more toys. The whole thing with Woody being Andy’s favorite and then getting replaced when Andy gets a brand new Buzz Lightyear (who has no idea he’s a toy and manages to provide a Wilhelm for us)? Yeah, I get it. Jealousy is an ugly thing, but who’s not familiar with it, right? As an emotional link for the viewer, it’s a tricky one. But it works okay because of their teamwork at the end, working together to get back to Andy after Woody “accidentally” knocks Buzz out the window and is then ejected himself when the other toys find out. Still, for me the whole movie is an excuse to hear the jokes made and see the toys up and about.

Of my two favorite scenes, only one really matters to the plot. The first is the whole thing with the little alien squeeze toys when Buzz and Woody get stuck in one of those impossible toy-grabber machines you see and avoid at arcades. I love that Woody describes the creepy little three-eyed aliens who worship The Claw as “zealots”. What kids’ movie uses the word “zealots”? This one. We desperately wanted one of those toys when this movie came out. They had them at Burger King or something, but we could never hit the right one on the right week and get the damn thing.

Anyhow, my other favorite bit is towards the end, during one of the darkest areas of the movie: Sid’s room. As part of the whole Get Back Home quest/buddy thing Woody and Buzz have going on for the majority of the movie, they end up in Andy’s neighbor’s house. Sid is sort of a younger Scut Farkus, but with more of a focus on explosions and no coon skin cap. Or yellow eyes. Same laugh, though, so I think my comparison stands. Sid is a nasty little piece of work who likes to destroy his (and his sister’s) toys. And in his room is the most fantastic collection of bizarre cobbled together toys ever. A doll head with mechanical spider legs, the bottom half of a Barbie with a winch on top, a jack-in-the-box with a hand that pops out. They’re the stuff of nightmares and the Twilight Zone and I always feel bad that they’re stuck there when Buzz and Woody escape, even if Sid is momentarily too frightened to touch them.

I guess I am glad I took care of my toys, even if I don’t play with them and many of the ones of my childhood have been packed up and given away. At least I know they won’t come after me in my sleep, and that’s a pleasant thought.

June 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Toy Story

June 26, 2010

Toy Story

We needed something easy to watch tonight, and Toy Story 3 is in the theaters, so it’s a special treat! The first ever feature length computer animated movie, and the film that launched Pixar to fame and fortune. It’s cool looking back at this movie again. The cutting edge of computer generated effects from the early nineties have aged somewhat. There are some scenes where the backgrounds appear vast and empty (often intentionally – such as when Buzz and Woody are lost at the gas station.) But the plastic looking CG tech of the day was ideally suited to the look of the movie they set out to make.

I was caught up in this movie again tonight as if all those years had not passed in between. Right from the opening scene I was grabbed once again by Randy Newman’s folksey songs and the bright and brilliant palette of the film. It was like being welcomed again by an old friend.

I haven’t watched this movie in rather a long time, and it’s kind of a shock to see how darkly jealous Woody gets. I suppose I had glossed over that in my memory after his later heroism and the different arc of the second movie. A quick summary of the plot for the one or two of you who have been living in a cave for twenty years and for some reason haven’t seen this movie: Woody is a cowboy toy – favorite toy of young Andy and sort of de-facto leader of all the toys that inhabit Andy’s room. (As a quick aside – I always found it strange that the children in this movie are Andy and Molly – since that’s me and my sister. As far as I know nobody involved in the making of Toy Story ever knew us, so I assume it’s a strange coincidence. I’m not ruling out the Truman Show explanation though.) For his birthday Andy gets an incredible new Buzz Lightyear toy, and Woody begins to fear that he’s destined to play second fiddle to the newcomer. Things are not made easier by the fact that the Buzz toy is delusional, and believes that he really IS Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, and not a child’s plaything. Eventually Woody accidentally knocks Buzz out the window and into the yard of the sadistic toy-torturing neighbour Sid. The rest of the movie is a big adventure story, as Woody has to rescue Buzz and they need to find a way to get back to Andy before he and his family move away.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s the care and love with which the good people of Pixar realize the story that makes the movie so endearing and has provided such lasting devotion and created not just a fantastic film franchise but also an entire film studio. As I watched it tonight I was examining every little detail. Things like the books behind Woody as he leads the toys in Andy’s room through a meeting (many of the titles are from Pixar shorts – with Tin Toy prominently displayed in the middle.) Things like the cool effect they used for Buzz’s glow-in-the-dark detailing. Things like all the cool space-themed games and drink dispensers at the Pizza Planet that Buzz and Woody visit.

The movie is packed with jokes that poke loving fun at the toys we all grew up with. (Mr. Potatohead particularly gets about twenty great gags about his removable appendages.) It’s also a celebration of the joy of play. Like all kids Andy has a huge mish-mash of different toys all of different scales and different manufacture, and the opening scene of him playing with them all is exactly the kind of imaginative flight of fancy that kids playing with their toys have to take. I love the over-sized popgun taped to Mr. Potatohead’s outstretched hand, and the piggy bank being the bank he’s robbing. I love all the cardboard boxes used as buildings. You see these toys, and Andy playing with them, and you want to play with them too.

When you think about Pixar (or when I do anyhow) there are names that come to mind. Lasseter, Docter and Stanton primary amongst them. (Bird didn’t come on the Pixar scene until later.) And there all three of them are in the story credit at the start of the movie. And look at the writing credits! Joss Whedon and Joel Cohen working on the same film? How could it NOT be pure genius? And that’s not even acknowledging the great vocal performances given by everybody on the project, and the amazing animation from the Pixar team. (I grin a little just thinking, for example, of Woody’s disjointed ambling ragdoll run.) I think Andrew, John, Joe and Pete created this world, made it real in a way through their own vivid imaginations and then shared it with some friends so that they could all play along in it. Then they opened it up and let us play in it too. It’s a wonderful thing. No wonder the joy of it hasn’t worn off at all in the fifteen years since this movie first came out.

June 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment