Saturday, July 31, 2010

Academy of the Underrated: The Cotton Club

Cotton Club DVD cover and Amazon link

Francis Ford Coppola’s THE COTTON CLUB is an interesting case study in how bad reputations can dog a film before it even comes out. It was, at the time, a catastrophe, a $50 million or so epic emerging from a tangle of funding and production troubles only to get dumped by the studio. Coppola’s career, already in trouble, did not benefit, and I actually first heard about this movie from a rerun of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and a surreal sketch featuring a conversation between two women, one distressed by Coppola’s financial troubles and who spoke with a French accent for some reason. (It was the Ebersol years. They had troubles of their own.) But after twenty-five some years, pretty much all of this has faded into the background.

What’s left is a damn fun movie. THE COTTON CLUB is a spry, colorful affair in a grand old Hollywood tradition, albeit one I can’t quite narrow down. Set in the 1920s at the height of Prohibition, it’s a gangland spectacle that deals with race, family, and romance, while also providing us some great song and dance numbers and incredible visuals. It deserves a lot better than its current obscurity, and that’s why we’re here.

The Cotton Club was a legendary nightclub which featured a number of top black musicians and dancers- but was, like so many upscale clubs, whites-only. The film follows two stories to reflect a segregated society. Richard Gere is Dixie Dwyer, a coronet player who saves the life of mobster Dutch Schultz (James Remar) and is rewarded with entry to his inner circle, which is wrapped up with the gangsters who run the club. Gregory Hines is “Sandman” Williams, who with his brother Clay (Maurice Hines) does a mean tapdancing act which gets them booked at the Cotton Club. They may not like the fact that there are no blacks allowed in the audience, but it’s the best gig in town short of Broadway. Dixie falls into an affair with Dutch’s moll Vera (Diane Lane), while his brother Vincent (Nicholas Cage) gets involved in Dutch’s numbers racket. Sandman starts courting a beautiful mulatto singer named Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee), and has a falling out with his brother. The two stories don’t intersect very much, but as the years go by there’s plenty of violence, heartbreak, and joy to go around.

Now, going into a notoriously expensive, lengthy picture about the Prohibition era from the director of the Godfather saga, you would naturally expect a stately, dignified epic. But here, Coppola’s aiming for something different; instead of doing a thoroughly modern take on the material, he draws on the atmosphere of and nostalgia for the Jazz age, repeating some classic gangster and showbiz movie tropes, while the script examines them from a modern perspective. The result is that the picture rarely drags; there’s always something to grab our attention, whether it’s funny or grim, and if a certain narrative unity is sacrificed, it’s on the altar of pure entertainment.

The film’s treatment of the racial issues its subject matter evokes benefits from its light touch. It’s not a problem picture, and the black characters we see are not helpless victims of the system. However, race keeps popping up. Dutch, a Jew, is incensed by the mocking of an Irish gangster and stabs him at a party meant to force a reconciliation; Vincent shows some careless entrepeneurship in trying to bring his numbers racket into black neighborhoods, which stirs up the resistance of the black organized crime community (most notably Lawrence Fishburne, instantly memorable as gangster Bumpy Rhodes, based on Bumpy Johnson.) Lila is light-skinned enough that she feels she can try to pass for white, but doesn’t want to leave the black community behind, to say nothing of Sandman. Just working at the Club is in and of itself a moral dilemma, especially given Lilia, Sandman, and others’ run-ins with a racist stage manager.

Richard Gere (who does his own coronet playing) and Diane Lane make a good onscreen couple- the central romance in movies like these is always a potential pitfall because it risks feeling obligatory, but here at least there’s genuine chemistry. Hines, however, dances away with much of the picture, performing some incredible tap routines (one of which was improvised during a delay in filming.) The club owners, played by Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne, have an engaging brotherly relationship, which has its payoff in a glorious scene after one of them has been kidnapped. Nicholas Cage, basically roped into this production because his uncle needed whoever was available, shows some signs of the intensity that would quickly define his career. Overall, as one might expect from Coppola, the ensemble is great.

The visuals are something else, a kaleidoscope of glass, neon, and atmospheric effects, best shown off in a passing-of-time montage which feels both old fashioned and modern. Just the look is seductive, and when it’s combined with an energetic, slightly sloppy narrative, the result feels more warm and welcoming than a lot of more formally refined pictures.

This was one of those movies that had no chance of living up to the stories and rumors that were swirling around it during production. The film opened to acceptable if unspectacular business, but Orion at some point announced they would retool the material into a TV miniseries, effectively killing its theatrical run. (I don’t think this miniseries ever materialized.) Since then it’s sunk into the background; Coppola would manage a comeback with PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, and this and other pictures were forgotten. But it shouldn’t be. It may not be the filmmaker’s best work, but it’s surprising in its agility and vibrance. When one considers just how wildly out of control the production was even before the director stepped in, it’s a miracle that what we get sails as smoothly as it does.

Inspired by the book by James Haskins
Story by William Kennedy, Francis Coppola, and Mario Puzo
Directed by Francis Coppola

Grade: B+

Friday, July 30, 2010

In Theaters: Inception

Inception poster and IMPAwards linkChristopher Nolan’s INCEPTION is out, and it puts me in a bind. I tried to go into the film with as little information as possible, reading no reviews and only knowing what the occasional TV promo told me. This worked really well for me, but here I am writing a review which someone might read before seeing the film and- wait, who am I kidding? My traffic is in the teens on a good day. For those few who haven’t seen it and are here, I’ll steer clear of spoilers as best I can.

I, and I suspect a lot of critics and film buffs, are inclined to be favorable to Nolan’s latest; not just because he’s a director with a strong track record including one of the most highly acclaimed films of the past five years or so, but because he used his clout to get Warner Bros. to bankroll a big-budget thriller that is not in any way based on an existing property. INCEPTION is as close as you can get to an original movie at this level, and it’s extremely refreshing. A slick, well-oiled machine, the movie rushes through parallel plotlines and subtle surrealism with remarkable agility, and if it isn’t quite as powerful as it could be, it’s still a superb experience.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, a kind of espionage agent who specializes in going into the dreams of important people to steal their secrets. Cobb lives away from his home and children in the United States, unable to return because of an outstanding criminal charge. A businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) makes him and his team an offer, which would include pulling strings to clear his name, if they do one job for him. But it’s a unique job, in which the crew will be putting something inside the target’s mind- in this case, convincing Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), heir to a communications empire, to split up the company.

Creating an idea inside a dreamer, known as “inception”, is thought to be impossible, and to make it work Cobb hires an architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page) to design three separate levels of dream. When he takes his team- including muscle Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), disguise-artist Eames (Tom Hardy), and pharmacologist Yusuf (Dileep Rao)- inside Robert’s head, they find a more-hostile-than-usual dreamscape, where they are stalked not only by elements of the man’s subconscious reacting to outsiders, but Cobb’s own memories of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard), who killed herself and framed him for the death. There’s a ticking clock in each dream-world, as each layer contains a “kick” to bring back people from the next. If they miss it, they could get lost in an eternal, collective limbo.

This is essentially a caper movie, at least in structure. The objective isn’t that important; we don’t have a stake in whether or not some corporation breaks up. Rather, we’re interested in the process itself, from the construction of dreamscapes to manipulating them for the purposes of a smash-and-grab. The architecture is fascinating, especially when the main caper starts and the dreams start to interact with each other in complex ways.

The film’s images and action setpieces are also pretty spectacular. The highlight, shown above, is a battle in a hallway where gravity is shifting due to a car chase in a higher-level dream. The technique is as old as Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling (if not older), but the blocking is complex and the illusion is seamless. Nolan has been getting steadily better at this action thing, and there’s much less jumping around and rough cutting than in THE DARK KNIGHT. There’s quite a bit of CGI, but it’s rarely obvious, and the visuals have an austere, minimalist beauty.

The true emotional draw is Cobb being haunted by his dead wife, and here the film falls prey to bad timing. Earlier this year we had SHUTTER ISLAND with Leonardo DiCaprio also playing a man haunted by memories of a departed spouse, and if you saw that it’ll be hard to put out of mind. It’s a solid story, but somehow lacking in intensity; it may just be the familiarity of the trope. Ellen Page is likable enough, but I think more could have been done to develop her character as a contrast to Cobb’s. I will say that this is the first time I’ve seen Levitt in an action role, and he’s terrific; he has a nice comic deadpan which helps offset how dangerous he can be. Tom Hardy also has some terrific scenes and displays a sardonic sense of humor.

INCEPTION accomplishes most of what it sets out to do, and if it’s not quite as powerful as some of Nolan’s other films, it still shows off his skill and imagination. It’s the kind of film whose details you can pick at for days, weeks after seeing it, and it doesn’t fall apart on reflection either. I wish more had been done with the dream worlds, and at times it concedes to the demands of the blockbuster by favoring action sequences over plot and character development, but those compromises don’t ruin the film’s effectiveness. It works, even if it could have worked better, and it aims higher than a lot of movies even try.

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan

Grade: A-

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Frasierquest 2.15: You Scratch My Book...

Frasier meets Honey
Frasier: Niles, you are giving a woman money in order to obtain physical affection! We are talking the world's oldest profession. Granted, this is sort of the Walt Disney version, but still.

Some guys- possibly most- will do anything for a good lookin’ dame. It happens to the best of us, and though it’s not something we tend to be particularly proud of, it persists. Frasier and Niles are hopeless cases, and in “You Scratch My Book...” they let affection drag them into some uncomfortable ethical places. This episode is a really good example of parallel plot lines being used to echo a theme, something the show hasn’t done much before. The writing’s sharper than usual, and the dames are lovely.

aphne has been getting into self-help, and asks Frasier to get an autograph from pop psychologist Dr. Honey Snow (Shannon Tweed). Frasier is sickened by Snow’s generic perky babblings, but utterly flummoxed by the woman herself, and starts dating her. Meanwhile, Daphne tells Niles to have his broker invest some of her money on his latest pick. She starts reaping rewards and spending like a drunken yuppie, and giving Niles the occasional kiss of joy. Frasier can’t help but think Niles is lying about her stock performance to obtain physical affection, but his integrity on the subject is tested when he agrees to write the foreword to Honey Snow’s latest book. Then he gets the manuscript.

Shannon Tweed is an interesting guest star for this show; a playmate and former wife of Hugh Hefner, Tweed was by this time making her way appearing in low-budget erotic thrillers that mostly just aired on pay cable. (She’s possibly better known now as Gene Simmons’ common-law wife.) In one of the very few roles where she keeps her clothes on, Tweed does a pretty good job; she has a look and attitude that projects intelligence. Dr. Snow’s brand of psychology isn’t the most incisive, but you get the feeling that she’s no flake.

So, confronted with yet another gorgeous and intellectual woman, Frasier tries to overlook that one tiny dealbreaker. Any chance at a long-term relationship is probably doomed by his lack of respect for her work, but he hopes that he can at least make it last long enough for, well, a few kisses of joy. It’s caddish behavior, but in Frasier’s defense he honestly tries to like her new book, or at least come up with a suitably dignified introduction. Niles, never one to miss an opportunity to show up his big brother, has a field day quoting from it.

Niles’ situation is similarly complex. At first Daphne’s stock did well and she gave him a kiss of thanks. Then it tanked, but he couldn’t bear to tell her she’d lost hundreds of dollars, so he made up the rest of her remarkable successes. And if he happens to get a little friendly affection out of it- well, there’s the rub. Niles is being a cad out of chivalry, because from the moment he met Daphne he knew he could never disappoint her.

Maneuvering both brothers into a similarly uncomfortable position does wonders for their trading of insults, and the byplay in this episode is the best it’s been in a while. I also like the amusing detail of the name of a restaurant Daphne treats the gang to: “Farmer Jack’s Chicken, Chicken, Chicken.” The occasional weird restaurant or store name will pop up on the show, and a laugh’s a laugh.

Between some sharp gags, satisfying interplay between Niles and Daphne, and the lovely Ms. Tweed, this episode is great fun. There’s inevitable heartbreak, as honesty and deception alike get punished, but as such we can forgive the Crane brothers’ brief ethical lapses. Sitcom characters exist to do the things we shouldn’t do, and in this case it’s go a little too far in the name of romance. Or quick smooches.

No Guest Caller

Written by Joe Keenan
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired February 14, 1995 (Ahh...)

Frasier: Oh, don't be ridiculous! Our two situations are totally different.

Niles: Oh, really? How so?

Frasier: Well, for one thing, you've been misleading a woman for your own selfish gain.

Niles: And so are you!

Frasier: Well, I'm not finished. She was also trusting you to tell the truth!

Niles: Oh, and the difference would be?

Frasier: Your woman is English!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Random Movie Report #77: Big Man Japan

DVD cover and Amazon Link
BIG MAN JAPAN has a simple title and should be easy enough to describe. It’s a satire of old-school live action “Henshin” shows where giant Japanese superheroes fought giant monsters, done in a low-key documentary style. But it’s much, much stranger than that. Darker, too- while the appeal of the genre is couched in pure escapism and the can-do attitudes of its protagonists, BIG MAN JAPAN takes place in a bleak and cynical world where superherodom is a dying art appreciated by few. Japanese comedy tends not to make it over here, because it’s really hard for the humor to be properly translated, and I’m convinced I’m missing tons of cultural nuance, but it’s probably a surreal experience no matter what your nationality.

Masaharu Daisato (Hitoshi Matsumoto, who co-wrote and directed the film) is the last in a long line of “Dai-Nihonjin”, a term for which Big Man Japan is probably the best translation. He lives alone with a cat in a grubby apartment, frequents the local noodle bar, and every once in a while is called up to attach electrodes to his nipples and transform into a giant warrior to defend the country from giant monsters. The problem is, nobody cares. His battles are shown on late night TV to dismal ratings, and his agent (Ua, no really, that’s her full name) is trying to get him to wear giant logos on his body to bring in sponsorship money. He’s separated, tries to see his daughter more than twice a year, and spends a lot of time looking after his grandfather, once the most popular Big Man Japan of all, now senile and prone to wandering away from the rest home. A documentary team follows him through his travails as his career hits a series of new lows.

The pacing of the film is slow and deliberate, in a way that’s disconcerting at first. You’d expect what’s basically an Ultraman parody to be fast moving, but the film’s conceit is that this is just a job, a dying industry kept around for old time’s sake. The fact that there are giant monsters threatening Japan doesn’t seem to make people respect Masaharu or even view his work as necessary. A number of details aren’t really explained; not just why he’s the only one doing a necessary job, but also how the whole “Big Man Japan” concept seems to work and where all these monsters are coming from. Most of it, I assume we’re not meant to look at too closely, but it can pile up.

When we do get to the monster fights, they take on a surreal quality all their own. The battles are mostly CG, with Masaharu in giant form having odd proportions; the monsters almost all have human faces (at least a couple can even talk), and their powers range from odd to vaguely gross; whenever he kills one, it’s represented by their ghosts ascending into the sky in a circle of light, accompanied by a sound effect I’ve heard in many a Godzilla film. The pacing of the fight scenes tends to be slow, though they don’t last too long. There’s an intentional denial taking place of the normal thrills and spectacle of a traditional monster movie, the filmmakers instead opting for a deconstructionist approach.

A plot of sorts starts to emerge, involving a red devilish monster who sends Big Man Japan running, ironically garnering him much higher ratings than when he was winning. We also get some development of Masaharu as we see he’s basically tied down by his obligation to his grandfather, who saved him from a bullying father as a child (said father later blowing himself up in an attempt to max out his power.) He wants to confront the Red Devil (apparently sent by North Korea), but is also sort of a coward when it comes to facing an enemy stronger than he is, and other monster confrontations become PR disasters.

And then, very abruptly, the film takes a turn. I’ve looked at some possible interpretations of the ending, from genre commentary to nationalist allegory. As an ending, it’s sort of unsatisfying, and doesn’t quite resolve all the conflicts raised. That said, it is hilarious, and in and of itself is a brilliant parody of... well, to reveal what would be cheating. (And I’m really straining myself, because some of the bits are so good that you want to share them.)

I didn’t quite love this movie. There’s an inherent, deliberate awkwardness to it- it’s slow-paced, off-putting, and grim. I’m not entirely sure I “get” all of it. But BIG MAN JAPAN has a lot to recommend it, including a strong lead performance and some well-thought-out commentary on the henshin genre and the nationalistic character of the superhero vs. monster narrative. It’s entertaining in its way, and has a certain love for the material it’s subverting, which is important. If it’s a little obtuse in the end and a little inaccessible, it’s also unique. And it is kinda funny. So you should probably give it a look.

Written by Hitoshi Matsumoto and Mitsuyoshi Takasu
Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto

Grade: B

Friday, July 16, 2010

Frasierquest 2.14: Fool Me Once, Shame On You, Fool Me Twice...

Frasier confronts his impostor
Martin: The world would be a happier place if everybody would remember two little words: people stink.

Years before “identity theft” would become a household term, people were still getting their stuff stolen by folks who would try to use any personal info found to their advantage. Sure, the internet made it easier, but in early 1995 most would-be impostors were doing it the old analog way.

“Fool Me Once, Shame On You, Fool Me Twice...” (hereafter referred to as FMOSOYFMT, or “Tokyo Drift”) is an episode where life dicks Frasier around for no good reason, and his faith in humanity is eroded. I’ve had brushes with this sort of thing myself, possibly owing to my own excessive faith in human nature, but never quite this bad. For one thing I don’t own a car.

It starts with Frasier’s briefcase being stolen from the Cafe Nervosa. In the midst of a long wait on hold to get his credit cards cancelled and replaced, Frasier gets in a debate with Martin over whether this incident proves the latter’s “people stink” philosophy. (Daphne weighs in with an anecdote that... I’m not entirely sure.) Persistent in his belief in the decency of mankind, Frasier gets a phone call from someone who found his briefcase (complete with car keys), agrees to meet them at the Cafe, and has his car stolen. Eventually he tracks down the miscreant, a habitual con artist (played by Nathan Lane), and tries to reason with the man, but is repeatedly confronted with the fact that he’s just a lazy bastard.

FMO...etc. is probably the show at its most cynical, with Frasier continually finding no validation for his view of mankind. Fortunately the stakes are relatively low; the con-man doesn’t want much, just to live easy for a few more days until he has to steal someone else’s belongings. Frasier can take the loss, but as is often the case with crimes like these, it’s more about the distrust engendered. Pretty much none of Frasier’s interactions with strangers go well this time around, and it’s enough to make anyone cynical.

I still think it’s wrong for the episode to end the way it does. Frasier being mistaken for the impostor and arrested is, if not as Hitchcockian as it looks on paper, an unsatisfying resolution. Even if we know that it wouldn’t take very long for the matter to be cleared up offscreen, not having that closure produces a slight dissatisfaction, even with an end-credits gag that establishes Frasier as a free man again. Saying this, I’m not sure there’s an obvious better ending, at least one that wouldn’t undermine the basic theme of the story.

Nathan Lane appears at about the cusp of nationwide stardom; he was already famous on Broadway, and the year prior to this he had been the voice of Timon in THE LION KING (which was probably still playing in dollar theatres when this aired.) He brings, ironically, a lot of energy to the character of a lazy cheating bastard, while dialing down his normal theatricality just a tad to be more convincingly sleazy.

Reinforcing the show’s cynical turn, we have Niles fed up with never being thanked for holding the door for a lady (though there’s the whole issue of whether just holding the door for ladies is kosher- but hey, Niles is a romantic at heart.) Even when faced with attractive women who are not Daphne, he’s a pushover. And speaking of which, as if to counterbalance the not-quite-darkness of the rest of the episode, our Ms. Moon is as chipper as ever. There’s also a nice scene between Niles and Roz, who still don’t like each other, but start to enjoy trading insults.

It occurs to me that I’m still making things look a little more grim than they actually play out, but again this is the disconnect between the story and the execution. In practice things are as frothy as ever, and there’s a sense that Frasier’s experiences don’t so much condemn the whole of humanity as they do certain parts of it. Martin’s advice, perhaps, needs a little clarification: some people stink.

No Guest Caller (technically)

Written by Christopher Lloyd
Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie
Aired February 7, 1995

Daphne Moon: This whole thing reminds me of when I first moved to London. And I was very mistrusting of people back then. I was convinced, the way to stay out of harms way was to walk the streets with me eyes cast down, never meeting anyone's glance. But, finally, I decided, that was no way to live. So, one day I just lifted up me chin and took it all in. Well, the change was amazing. There were sights I've never seen, sounds I've never heard. A tiny old man came up to me with a note in his hand. He needed help. I took his note, read it, and to this day I can remember just what I said to that man. "That's not how you spell fellatio."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Frasierquest 2.13: Retirement is Murder

Frasier and the suspect
Frasier: Ah, yes. Another beautiful Saturday night. The moon is full, the city lights are twinkling, lovers steal kisses in the park... and here, Chez Crane, my father and his assistant sit hunched over twenty year-old photographs of a murdered hooker. Life is a banquet.

Of the things one expects out of an average sitcom episode, “brutal unsolved murders” is probably not on most people’s lists. (And if it’s on yours, I’d like to know what sitcoms you’re watching.) “Retirement is Murder” focuses on what had been a background element for Martin in prior episodes- an unsolved case from his time on the force- and brings it to an early but satisfying resolution. The show doesn’t break genre to do this, though; it’s basically another attempt by Frasier to get involved with his dad’s interests, with comically mixed results. Still, it’s an interesting change of pace, written and directed by people who didn’t write and direct the show normally, and while normally it’s a bad sign when a sitcom plot casts far afield of anything related to its core premise, this holds up pretty well.

For a while Martin’s work on the “Weeping Lotus” murder, the grotesque killing of a Seattle prostitute decades ago, seemed to Frasier a morbid hobby. But as of late Martin’s been unusually distracted by his attempts to crack the case, even taking notes while in the stands at a Supersonics game. Frasier wants to help, and when Martin is away for a bit, he, Niles, and Daphne hover over the crime scene photos to try and put something together. One of the suspects is an animal trainer whom Niles has seen putting on a show with some very talented chimpanzees, and though he has an alibi, Frasier deduces that he could have gotten one of his apes to pull the trigger. Not wanting to spoil dad’s sense of accomplishment, he tries to rearrange the photos to point him in the right direction, and sure enough, Martin has a eureka moment- but Frasier’s not sure the theory will fly in the end, and wonders whether to tell his father the truth.

Every sitcom ventures outside the boundaries of its original concept given enough episodes; it’s how they grow. The growing pains, of course, include the occasional episode that doesn’t fit, or feels so disconnected that it’s irrelevant to the series as a whole, and for an episode revolving around an ancient, off-screen murder mystery, this was a very real danger. But from Daphne’s early pronouncement that there’s nothing Brits like her enjoy more than a grisly killing and a nice cuppa, we feel safe at home. This is the world of drawing rooms and esoteric clues and eccentric individuals deducing facts from as little evidence as possible. Frasier’s tried to play detective before and failed, but he’s not letting that stop him.

Frasier’s solution to the mystery is precisely the sort of over-elaborate explanation he would come up with (though to be fair, Niles helps.) So, perhaps inevitably, he is wrong and the real answer is more mundane. A detective would say that Frasier’s fatal mistake is in assembling a theory of the crime without looking at all the evidence first, while I’d say his fatal mistake in the end is not asking dad what theory he’s actually telling the police. So much embarrassment could have been saved, but alas, asking for clarification is not something anyone in Frasier’s world is terribly used to.

There’s a faint echo of “Burying A Grudge” in Martin’s motivation for trying to crack the case, having promised the victim’s mother he’d find the killer and her not having a lot of time left. This, and the other dark elements of the story, are nicely underplayed, not so much that they’re completely overlooked but enough to keep this firmly in the prime-time comedy realm.

So that’s basically how you present a murder on a sitcom. A little bit of silliness, some familiar mystery tropes, and a cozy atmosphere make this an episode that, rather than violating the show’s ethos, pushes at it and opens up the scope of the series a little more. We’ve had politics, the media, and the neutering of pets as subject matter, and now we can throw in murder mysteries solved at the dinner table. Truly, this show contains multitudes.

Guest Caller: Mary Steenburgen as Marjorie

Written by Elias Davis & David Pollock
Directed by Alan Myerson
Aired January 10, 1995

Niles: It was an exquisite meal, marred only by the lack of even one outstanding cognac on their carte d' vijastite.

Frasier: Yes, but think of it this way, Niles: what is the one thing
better than an exquisite meal? An exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all night.

(Quote assist by Mike Lee at TwizTV.com)

Monday, July 05, 2010

In Theaters: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 posted and IMPAwards link
So here I am again, honor bound to tell you that Pixar has once again made an amazing movie. TOY STORY 3, despite coming 11 years after the last installment in the series, and despite being the third in a trilogy (historically a dangerous position), is as entertaining as the first two and serves as a nice capstone on the series. It seems almost futile to report this, since everyone seems to know already. But since I started this blog I’ve reviewed every Pixar release, so why stop now?

Andy (voiced by John Morris) is about to head for college, and his ageless toys haven’t been properly played with in years. They’re about ready to head to the attic, there to await the next generation of kids, but a mix-up during moving has them convinced they’re destined for the trash heap. So instead they hitch a ride to get donated to the Sunnyside day care center, where they’re promised a life of luxury and constant playtime. Unfortunately, head honcho Lotso Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty) isn’t quite as kindly as he seems, and has the new toys stashed in the caterpillar room, where the kids who have not yet learned to play gently heap all kinds of ungodly abuses on our durable friends. Woody (Tom Hanks) escapes this fate, marked to go with Andy to college, but when he learns what Sunnyside is all about, he has to rescue his friends.

This is the first Pixar movie I’ve gotten to see in 3-D, and it has its ups and downs. The technique is only really noticeable in the opening short, an ingenious mix of 3-D and 2-D animation called “Night and Day” that recalls the jazzy, experimental cartoons of the 50s and 60s. In the film proper, the third dimension adds an interesting effect to some scenes, but isn’t as integral to the experience as it was to, say, AVATAR. The process still causes eyestrain, I’m sad to say, and I worry if the gimmick/technique will endure as long as this is the case. But the 3-D doesn’t really detract from the experience either, and its use in the opening short is enough for me to recommend that you see it this way.

There’s an obvious common thread through all the TOY STORY films, in that they all involve the toys worrying about their future, becoming separated from the playroom, and facing all sorts of large scale dangers in an attempt to get back where they belong. That the formula is still fresh may partly be down to the fact that Pixar have let 11 years pass since the last entry, but it’s also due to the variations the writers have come up with this time. Sunnyside is an ingenious conceit, a sort of prison with a strict pyramid structure- Lotso and his favored toys get to be with the older kids, while newbies have to endure the Caterpillar Room until they curry favor with the boss. Woody finds himself in a little girl’s toy group, who basically think of themselves as theatre folk who do a lot of improv, and Buzz (Tim Allen) finds himself brainwashed and reset to “demo” mode, only for this too to get tweaked in... interesting ways.

Along the way there’s a good riff on the old prison-escape-movie genre, a whirlwind romance between Barbie and Ken, and a few segues into really dark territory that shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Pixar’s modus operandi. The tone is pretty well balanced between the funnier and more horrific moments, and I have to say that none of the action or chase sequences feels over stretched.

The voice acting is, in the best way, virtually imperceptible- we know most of these characters, we believe their interactions, and we don’t think about the voices behind the mic. It helps that there’s not a lot of celebrity casting, though a few interesting names pop up. It is curious that Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts in previous installments, doesn’t return here, having been given away offscreen, and sadly Jim Varney is no longer around to provide the voice of Slinky Dog.

Look, what can I say? Pixar is developing a track record that’s unlike any other studio in decades. TOY STORY 3 is up to its usual standards, which means it’s a great film. There’s no reason not to see it (if you don’t like 3-D, there are probably 2-D screenings out there.) There simply isn’t much more to observe, and writing this thing has taken long enough already. This is a superb finish to the story begun 15 years ago, and reminds us all to take care of those things which inspire our imaginations.

Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich
Screenplay by Michael Arndt
Directed by Lee Unkrich

Grade: A