Super 8(6/11/2011)

6-11-2011Super8

To some extent, producers remain the odd monkey wrench in the gears of the auteur theory.  We all like to point at directors as the overall visionaries behind films, and we also have a pretty good idea how writers, actors, and various crew members can influence a film, but what about the producer.  It would be easy to dismiss them as money-men without much artistic influence, but that’s not really true either.  Certain high-profile producers like Jerry Bruckheimer have been able create a stamp of their own that clearly pervades the films they put their names on.  Certain name-directors like Steven Spielberg have used the producer credit in order to usher in works by like-minded (but less known) directors.  The man who seems to most thoroughly confound the line between the director and producer role as of late seems to be J.J. Abrams, a filmmaker with an acute sense of what projects can be highly commercial while still being hip and interesting.  Whether or not Abrams personally directs one of these projects often seems incidental (he adds little to the ones he chooses to direct, aside from a lot of lens flare).  I’ve never been a huge fan of the snarky side of his tastes (which have manifested in projects like Mission: Impossible 3, the T.V. series “Alias,” and some of the lesser parts of his Star Trek), but when he’s in he’s making science fiction projects with cryptic advertising campaigns like Cloverfield and the show “Lost” he can be pretty awesome.  Fortunately his newest film, Super 8, falls distinctly in this latter category.

Abrams film is set is a small town called Lillian which is situated in the middle of what would today be called the rust belt, but this film is set in the late 70s and the town still has an active steel mill.  An accident at this mill would claim the life of the mother of the film’s main character, a thirteen year old named Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney).  Joe experiences a certain period of grief, but life does go on and this young teenager does have plans for the summer which he has no intention of setting aside.  Namely he wants to help his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make an amateur zombie movie using a Super 8 camera.   Joe is working makeup and special effects for the project while their other friends act, film, and create pyrotechnic effects out of commercial fireworks.  At the last minute they decide to add another member to their motley crew, a girl named Alice (Elle Fanning) who will play a role in the film while also chauffeuring them around in her father’s car (which she drives anyway despite being well under the driving age).  One night they take this production out to a seemingly abandoned train station where they are witness to a very real and very frightening train crash which will be the catalyst for a long adventure.

The center piece for Super 8’s advertising has been a shot of an overturned train car getting dented from the inside out by some angry force within.  Yes, that is exactly what it looks like, a large creature escaping from its imprisonment.  I’ll try not to spoil anything further, but I do think I need to come out and establish that this is indeed a monster movie.  When the creature pops up he’s pretty well rendered by top of the line special effects, but it takes a while before we get to that point.  Like Jaws before it, this is a film that conceals exactly what the central monster looks like until near the end.  This is probably a wise choice, the impact of CGI creatures on modern audiences has been greatly diminished over the years and the sight of such a creation (no matter how well crafted) is about as anticlimactic as a fake looking rubber shark would have been in 1975.

The Spielberg comparisons don’t end there, not by far.  Super 8 is an unabashed tribute to the early works of Steven Spielberg on all levels.  It has the child protagonists of an E.T., the suburban chaos of a Gremlins, the dysfunctional family dynamics of a Poltergeist, the more modern effects work of a Jurassic Park, and certain (arguably unearned) shots and plot developments clearly invoke Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  What’s more, the idea of children making amateur genre films with home video equipment is taken directly from certain mythology about Spielberg’s real life childhood.  That the film has borrowed so heavily from another filmmaker does not help the case for Abrams as an auteur (though his beloved lens flare is in full effect), but I don’t see it as some sort of unacceptable ripoff either.  What Abrams has done with Spielberg’s style is not far removed from what Paul Thomas Anderson did in his early films with the styles of Martin Scorsese (Boogie Nights) and Robert Altman (Magnolia) and if I can appreciate those movies in spite of their clear lineage I see no reason not to afford this one the same leniency (Abrams even went the extra step of having Spielberg sign on as a producer, something Anderson never did).

In addition to replicating the tone and style of Spielberg’s early films, Super 8 also replicates the late 70s/early 80s period that they were set in.  This isn’t just another act of mimicry, that the film exists in an environment that was that was less cynical about adolescence and rural life is pretty important to its general tone.  However, the film’s period detail can at times go beyond mere atmospherics and into almost fetishistic territory.  I haven’t seen a film revel in its late 20th century trappings to this extent since Jonathan Levine’s ode to 90s New York, The Wackness.  Usually this isn’t too much of a distraction, but at times when they really call attention to something from the 70s (such as an conversation about how “amazing” a portable cassette player is), it can be a bit much.

Of course a big part of why the film is set in the 70s is that children were still allowed relative freedom to run about town without any kind of supervision during that decade, something that’s pretty important when you’re making a film about a bunch of young teenagers.  Speaking of the young actors here, they’re all surprisingly good.  Casting young actors can always be a really iffy proposition, even if you can get a true prodigy to star in your film there will often be a side character or two that will be really annoying, but here almost all of the young actors are at least competent if not quite good in their respective roles.  Joel Courtney is clearly a standout and he perfectly captures the sad but oddly less than devastated way that children deal with grief.  Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota Fanning) is also clearly a great talent for someone of her age; in the Fanning and Courtney characters in the film clearly have a crush on one another and in their scenes together the young actors perfectly capture the sort of awkward burgeoning sexuality at the core of youthful puppy love.

While the young cast is good, this isn’t a coming of age film at its heart, it is a summer monster movie.  There are some very nice set pieces here like the incredibly intense train wreck scene and a tense scene in an overturned bus.  That’s not to say that this is a full on action film and people expecting a non-stop thrill ride of the kind that Hollywood has been offering recently may go home disappointed.  That said, I found the movie refreshing in that it isn’t dominated by CGI.  Computer effect are used when needed, and they’re used well, but this does not feel like a movie that shot extensively in front of a blue screen, the environments feel very real and there are large segments that are devoid of effects.

Back up, let’s analyze the last sentence of that paragraph: “the environments feel very real and there are large segments that are devoid of effects.” Is that really something to brag about?  Yes, in the large budget, Hollywood produced, summer-movie environment of 2011 that is something rather unique.  However it is only by those standards that Super 8’s restrained effects work and focus on storytelling is wildly impressive.  Compared to the great films that the film was inspired by (or other recent summer triumphs like Inception or The Dark Knight for that matter), Super 8 is more of a minor accomplishment.  In the end I think this fits in better with other films that Spielberg produced like Poltergeist or Back to the Future than it does with the Spielberg directed films that it probably aspires to, but that doesn’t mean that is isn’t still a hell of a good time at the theater that should not be missed.

***1/2 out of Four

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The Tree of Life(6/4/2011)

6-4-2011TreeofLife

I can think of very few movies that have been more anticipated by myself and the film community than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.  We say that a lot of movies like say, The Dark Knight, are hotly anticipated but with projects like that we’re merely anticipating a great time at the theater and not a potential G.O.A.T., but that’s exactly the scope of just how amazing this movie felt like it could be. Malick’s films are always hotly anticipated given his slow output, but there was an added level of mystery to this project that trumped the anticipation for his previous work.  In the six years between the release of this and his last film, the excellent variation on the Pocahontas story The New World, we heard all kinds of strange random rumors involving everything from lyric poetry to minotaurs and while we were never quite sure what the film would end up being we knew it was going to be something major.  When the film won the Palm D’or at the Cannes film festival it only added to its luster, and hot off that victory it finally found its way into limited American release.

How to describe this movie?  Anyone familiar with Terrence Malick’s work will probably have some idea of what to expect, but this is operating on a much more abstract level.  As non-narrative and dreamlike as his previous films could get, they did still have a clear story on a macro level; Badlands was about a couple on the run, The Thin Red Line was about a World War II battle, and The New World was about the Pocahontas story.  I suppose you could theoretically sum this movie up in similar sentences, but that would be even more deceptive.  This really isn’t a “story,” it’s a meditation, the film equivalent of poetry rather than prose.  I don’t think you can really “spoil” the movie as such, but for the purposes of this writing I’m not holding back in that regard.

The film (sort of) revolves around the O’Briens, a family living in suburban Texas, and the film opens on a moment of tragedy for the family when the mother (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram informing her that her nineteen year old son has been killed (presumably in Vietnam).  It then flashes forward some fifteen or twenty years and we see Jack (Sean Penn), the brother of that fallen son who’s become an architect living in a vast metropolis.  Don’t get too used to seeing Sean Penn though, because he’s only really in the movie for something like ten minutes.  Soon Jack begins reminiscing about his past.  Now most movies would then flash straight back to the guy’s childhood, but this one opts to instead flash back all the way to the dawn of time, which to my knowledge is the longest flashback in cinema history.  We then see the entirety Earth’s origins from the Big Bang through the impact of the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, before we get back to following the O’Brien family.

Before I try to explain this evolution sequence, I should probably explain Terrence Malick’s style to those who aren’t familiar.  Malick is, above all, a visual filmmaker.  His movies would not work at all if they were transcribed as novels or plays and the crux of his style is focus.  He’ll often tell stories that could otherwise be done conventionally but instead skews the perspective and focuses on things that are often taken for granted in the environment.  For example, The Thin Red Line was set during the battle of Guadalcanal and did show a lot of the fighting you’d expect, but often it would cut to shots of the island’s wildlife and scenery that other directors would ignore.  This tendency is taken to its extreme in The Tree of Life; with the film’s early evolution sequences force the audience to see humanity (and by extension the story that the film will get around to telling) as the end result of billions of years of slow evolution, a fact that would normally not be dwelled upon to anywhere near these lengths.  It’s also just a beautiful sequence rendered through what are (mostly) state of the art visual effects.  It is vaguely reminiscent of documentaries/screensavers like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka, except that this has an actual point and it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

After that “distraction” we begin to follow the O’Brien family starting from Jack’s birth and continuing through a sort of montage through his growth and the births of his two brothers.  Malick is firing on all cylinders through these parts and his style seems to have evolved since we’ve last seen it.  The editing seems to have sped up a little (though it’s still probably a little slower than the average Hollywood director today) and he uses a lot of very aggressive camera angles, something that I don’t recall being overly present in his other work.  This along with the evolutionary sequence made for a powerhouse first hour of the film and I was eager to see where it was going.  But then the film starts to focus in on the childhood of Jack and his brothers, and that’s where it started to lose me.  For the last hour of this 138 minute film we spend a whole lot of time just watching children play outside, occasionally this is interrupted by moments of tension within the family between the childrens’ strict father and free-spirit mother, but then it goes right back to endless shots of the kids playing and at times the film just seems like the most well produced home-movies ever filmed.

I get that all this is a sort of a continuation of Malick’s attention to the things that most filmmakers take for granted, namely the fact that real domestic drama unfolds over time and is interspersed between mundane bits of daily life, but that doesn’t change the fact that we spend a whole lot of time witnessing a lot of beautifully shot nothingness.  None of this is helped by the fact that the O’Brien family turns out to be a rather boring family.  That’s probably the biggest difference between this film and Malick’s previous movies which in spite of their stylistic meandering were still at their core about people who lived relatively remarkable lives.  The O’Briens on the other hand seem to live a relatively normal life in spite of their domestic strife (which is established as being not at all unusual in that time and place).  Yes, the difference between the two parents differing personalities is sort of interesting and yes there’s something kind of beautiful about how Malick depicts nature as a playground for the young, but we’re given unneeded scene after scene establishing these points over and over again.

We’re also left to wonder why this film, which seems to be about human life in its entirety, seems completely disinterested in much of anything other than childhood.  Aside from the Sean Penn bookends we stop following Jack when he’s in his early teens, we don’t see his teen years, his education, his entrance into urban life or much of anything about his middle age life aside from the fact that he struggles with modern life.  The film also never returns to the point where it began, the death of Jack’s brother; we don’t really see Jack’s response to this or how he copes with it in his formative years.  We do see some glimpses of his future, but why should we settle for mere glimpses when the film has dwelled on his childhood in such extreme detail?  I feel like some of this stuff might have been filmed and cut out, something that Malick is notorious for doing, and I sort of wish we saw more of this rather than honing in on the whole “idyllic shots of children playing” thing.

At the end of the day I think this is a movie that deserves another viewing.  Many have compared the film to 2001: A Space Odyssey and I can see why, it has the same ambition, the same dedication to visual filmmaking, and both films have a similar interest in man’s link to prehistoric times.  The first time I saw 2001 I thought it was boring bullshit and I continued to think that until repeated viewings convinced me that it was one of the greatest films if not the greatest film ever made.  Over time The Tree of Life may sway me in that direction as well, but after one viewing I’m not sure I can even really call the film a success. It could also be that this simply isn’t a movie that’s going to speak to my experiences. This is after all a film that deals heavily with three things that I have a general distaste for: children, 50s nostalgia, and religion.  It’s not the film’s fault if it happens to touch upon things I don’t find particularly interesting, but that isn’t going to change my personal reaction to it.  I’d certainly recommend that any true follower of cinema see the film if only to be part of the discussion, and Malick’s visual style alone is worth the price of admission, but unless future viewings convince me otherwise I don’t see myself being one of its champions.

Note: As far as giving this film a star-rating goes; well, movies that function on such a unique level seem to defy the very concept.  I’m giving the film three stars, which reflects my overall recommendation of the film as well as my ambivalence about it and its ability to meet its own high standards. That isn’t to say this is an equal movie to something like Thor which I recently gave the same rating to based on the standards of its genre and station.

*** out of Four

Finding Pixar- A Skeptic’s Journey: Monster’s Inc. (2001)

Monsters Inc

This is the fourth part of an eleven part (maybe twelve part) series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

The closest I ever came to seeing a Pixar movie in the theaters was in the November of 2001, when I sat in the back of a crowded theater scheduled to screen the film Monsters, Inc.  About ten minutes later I had seen what I had arrived for, the trailer for Star Wars: Episode 2- Attack of the Clones which I’d heard was attached to the Pixar film.  Satisfied with the trailer I got up, left the auditorium and proceeded to the screen next door which was playing the film I had bought a ticket for, an immensely forgettable Jet Li vehicle called The One.  At the time I had no idea that the movie the Star Wars trailer was attached to was anything other than a typical kid’s movie.  The poster for the film did say “from the Academy-Award winning makers of Toy Story,” but I’m not sure anyone really knew just what that meant at the time.  Pixar hadn’t proven with A Bug’s Life that they could be wildly successful when working outside of their signature franchise.

Worldwide, Monsters Inc. would go on to make more than half of a billion dollars at the box office, which seems like a success on paper but it would not become the iconic animated film of 2001.  That honor would be taken away from Pixar by their future arch-rival, Dreamworks Animation, who released a little film called Shrek.  On paper the two films seem comparable, but while Monster’s Inc. was a solidly performing family film, Shrek was a pop culture phenomenon; it outgrossed Pixar’s film domestically, gained almost as much critical attention, and to add insult to injury Shrek is the film that would go on to win the inaugural Oscar for Best Animated Film.  To Pixar fans, Dreamworks would always be a super villain, not because they necessarily hate their films on any objective level, but because they just kind of seemed like douchebags.  To put it in terms of another crazy cult, Dreamworks were the Microsoft to Pixar’s Apple (a comparison that’s all the more cogent given that Pixar’s CEO at the time just happened to be Steve Jobs).  While Pixar was seen as a group of earnest tech geeks trying to make great stories, Dreamworks came off like a group of guys in suits who cynically researched the right combination of talking animal and celebrity voice actors to maximize profits.  In other words: those guys were in it for the money, man.

I tease the Pixar fanboys a little bit there, but to be fair their beef seems pretty legitimate, at least if Shrek is any indication.  I actually saw Shrek when it came to HBO not long after it left theaters, and to put it bluntly, Shrek fucking sucks.  I’m not going to go into all the details as to why I hated Shrek, but it was definitely an off-putting experience, in fact Shrek is probably a big part of why I’ve been ignoring Pixar and children’s movies in general all of these years.  At this point in time, Monsters, Inc. is clearly the better respected of the two movies, but it wasn’t as clear at the time.  Few critics will admit it now, but Shrek was most definitely a critical darling back in 2001.  Roger Ebert gave it four stars, it got a solid 89% on Rotten Tomatoes (which is only 6% less than Monsters, Inc., and both of those scores are skewed by more recent reviews), and there were quotes floating around the film’s advertising like “it is one of those rare films that can appeal to everyone who has half a funny bone.”

More importantly Shrek was the movie that seemed more like something an adult could appreciate, after all Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy were funny people and it seemed like the movie could have worked simply as a comedy if nothing else.  However, I quickly learned that I apparently didn’t have “half a funny bone,” because Shrek proved to be an incredible waste of my time.  The critics had lied to me, or perhaps more accurately, they’d cried wolf to me.  After my less than stellar experience listening to the critics about Shrek, I began to take most critical praise toward children’s animated films with a big grain of salt.  I decided that if a handful of dumb references to other movies were these critics’ idea of “appealing to adults as well as kids” they were simply operating on different standards than I was.  As far as I could tell they were just advising parents as to which silly children’s movie was the most tolerable, it would be a while before I would come to see a difference between Pixar and their rival in this regard.

Shrek did such a good job at dominating the pop culture in 2001 that I barely knew anything about Monsters, Inc. prior to my viewing, in fact I knew even less about it than I did about A Bug’s Life.  To me, Monsters, Inc. has always just been “that one with the blue bear and the green cyclops.”  As such it was interesting to notice that this was, at its heart, a buddy movie.  Of course Pixar had seemingly already explored that territory in Toy Story, but that was a riff on a different kind of buddy movie, the 48 Hours variety of buddy movie where the characters become friends after initially disliking each other.  This buddy film seems to be more closely based in the model developed by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the “Road to…” series in the 40s, in which an established long time friendship is (lightly) put to the test over the course of an adventure.  In fact the whole movie has kind of a 40s/50s lounge entertainment motif that begins with the Saul Bass inspired opening credits sequence, extends into the film’s jazzy score, and is confirmed by Randy Newman’s Oscar winning song “If I Didn’t Have You.”

The core friendship at the center of the film is made quite believable in large part because of the voice performances by John Goodman and Billy Crystal.  Goodman was perfect to play the slow speaking but thoughtful blue collar Sully but it’s Crystal that sorts of steals the show as the fast speaking wisecracker Mike Wazowski.  In fact I think this is probably the coolest voice cast that I’ve seen from Pixar; James Coburn and Steve Buscemi are also cool character actors that work really well for their respective characters.  It probably doesn’t hurt that the actors are all working with some of the best written dialogue that Pixar has delivered up to this point.  This is probably the first movie they’ve made which pretty much functions as a straight up dialogue-based comedy, and while I wouldn’t say I was laughing uproariously through it, I did find most of the jokes to be genuinely clever and well timed.

The Pixar guys seem to have a lot of fun crafting a monster-world for the film, though I must say this is part of a trend in these movies that I’m getting a little concerned about.  Everyone remembers the cartoon “The Flintstones,” a work that was thoroughly dedicated to the one joke that everything in the Stone-Age was just like real 50s suburbia… except made out of rock.  It’s a process I’ll call “Bedrockification” and there’s been a lot of it in the four Pixar movies I’ve seen so far whether they’re creating a toy world where “the attic” is the afterlife or a bug world where a box of animal crackers is used as a traveling circus wagon.  This is taken to a dangerous peak here with just about every scene bringing some little twist to the table about how monsters live harmoniously in a city.  In this particular movie, I actually rather enjoyed this, but if these movies become increasingly reliant upon this kind of thing I feel like I’m going to get sick of it fast.

Visually the film is pretty good, at least on a design level.  Pixar’s animation technology hasn’t really advanced through these movies as fast as I guess I thought it would.  There are certain things that the film really animates well and you can kind of tell what elements of their tech they spent the most time improving for the film.  Sully’s fur, for example, is extremely well rendered throughout the film.  Other elements though, like Wazowski’s Medusa-like girlfriend, still just seem kind of dated.  I’m not even sure I’d say it looks all that much better than A Bug’s Life, though a side-by-side comparison might dissuade me of that impression.  Overall though, the tech wasn’t distracting and probably was well within (perhaps even exceeding) the expectations of the film’s time.

Of course this wouldn’t be a Pixar film without some plot-holes and half-baked explanations about how elements of the world function.  The film’s central conceit of a city powered by children’s screams seems rather contrived, but this is a fantasy plot so I realize you need to just go along with things like that to a certain extent; but it does still bring certain questions to mind like “how does the real world not catch on to this wave of home invasions that seemingly threaten their children?”  You could maybe justify this as the result of parents dismissing the children’s stories as mere nightmares, but after a generation or two you’d think they’d catch on.  The notion of the monsters being afraid of the children for some reason is a little harder to swallow.  You’d think after a few years of scream-energy collecting it would become pretty clear that there hasn’t been anyone killed by being touched by a child and they never really explain what crazy logic has led these monsters to believe that simple objects like socks are going to hurt them.  Is this a cover-up by the monster-government?  Maybe, but what’s the motive for such a lie?  You’d think the scream-energy industry would want their power-source to seem as clean and safe as possible rather than the opposite.

Those are questionable elements, but what I’m a lot more concerned about is the way that the film plays fast and loose with the trans-dimensional doors during its third act.  Particularly I question the way that sully was able to return from banishment so quickly by simply waiting for another monster to invade a bedroom in one of the homes in a town near the mountain that he was banished to.  How many monsters are there invading this world at a given time?  There must be a hell of a lot if Sully can count on them invading a room in the middle of such a remote place, and if these invasions are that widespread that just brings back the question of how the world’s adults haven’t caught on to this monster invasion.  What’s more, it brings up the question of how effective a punishment banishment can be if it’s that easy to escape from it.  Worse than that is the way the door travel becomes even more confusing in the film’s climactic action sequence, in which they seem to be able to travel between doors pretty much at will and come out wherever the hell they want even though it had basically been established earlier that this travel system would require traveling all the way to another child’s bedroom in order to leave through another door.  That’s unfortunate, because that chase scene through the doors is otherwise hands down the most ambitious chase scene Pixar has attempted so far and it’s completely undercut by some really shaky logic within the travel system at its heart.

While these plot issues are there, I had bigger issues with some of the character motivations.  In particular the moive sort of depends on the notion that Sully would form a sort of surrogate-father relationship with Boo, which frankly seems like bullshit to me.  Perhaps if the film had given the character some more time with the kid I’d believe it, but he seems to only spend a day and a half with it before entering “I would die for you” territory, and he probably spends half of that time believing that the kid was dangerous.  But as unbelievable as that development was, I was a lot more disappointed with the simplistic motives of the villains in the movie.  I certainly thought that Randall Boggs and Henry J. Waternoose III looked cool, and Boggs’ invisibility power was well utilized throughout the film, but what drives these characters beyond simple greed?  Nothing, and after the three dimensional and sympathetic villain from Toy Story 2, that’s a disappointment.  It’s made especially disappointing because there would have been depth to them if the filmmakers had bothered to dig for it.  For example they could have examined a genuine desire on the part of these villains to end Monstropolis’ energy crisis, or they could have better explored the view that monsters have of human children and whether there’s really a difference between their new mode of scream collection and the old ways.  Instead the film seems to be content with making them simplistic evil corporate villains and I can’t help but see it as a missed opportunity.

I don’t want to come off as nitpicky about all of these things, it’s just that I really am seeing potential in these movies now and the people making them just seem to cut a lot of logical corners that have been holding them back and bogging them down with a lot of flaws.  I also don’t want to make it sound like I’m dismissing the film because of all these things either, because I’m not, in fact I rather liked the movie in general.  While the film did have as many large logic holes and the Toy Story films, I felt like it didn’t have nearly as many of the small scale mistakes like Toy Story 2’s karaoke ending and it was nicely devoid of annoying characters like the Dinosaur from that series.  In general, this seems to be the most mature film that Pixar has put out so far, at least in tone if not necessarily in subtext.  This feels less like a kid’s movie than their first three films, possibly because it has two adult lead characters at its center and both of them behave like adults within a somewhat recognizable society.  So while I didn’t find anything as interesting here as Toy Story 2’s moral dilemma, I still enjoyed it the whole way through in a way that I didn’t with Pixar’s first two films.

The Short Program: For the Birds

What I would have seen back in 2001 if I had stayed in that theater a few minutes after that Star Wars trailer was Pixar’s first new short film since A Bug’s Life, a three minute slapstick piece called For the Birds.  Like a lot of Pixar’s shorts at this point, it has no real dialogue and is set in a single location.  That location is a powerline that a number of small fat birds are perched upon.  Their birdlike rest is interrupted when a vaguely retarded looking blue crane chooses to sit between them, forcing the powerline to bend into sort of a “V” shape under its weight.  The small birds, none too happy about this, proceed to peck at the crane’s talons until it falls.  This snaps the cable back up with “hilarious” results.

Consensus about this short seems to be pretty positive amongst the Pixar community and it also won the studio its third and final Osacr in the Best Animated Short category.  I however, found it rather minor and disappointing.  I certainly didn’t find the birds in the film to be nearly as charming as other Pixar short subjects like the lamp from Luxo, Jr. or the snowman from Knick Knack (more on that one in our next installment), and the basic gag at the center seems like little more than something from a second rate Road Runner cartoon.  I especially thought it was disappointing after the brilliant Geri’s Game, a short that had a much more clever premise at its center as well as some genuine pathos.  While we were able to feel genuine sympathy from Geri’s loneliness in that earlier short, the crane that gets the last laugh here doesn’t come off as being a whole lot more relatable than the birds that were trying to peck it off.  Also, while I don’t think Geri’s Game was a lot longer than this was, it sure felt like a lot more happened in it what with all the various reversals within the chess game.  Notice also how Geri was able to one up his “opponent” by outsmarting him, while this crane just literally just stumbled into his victory.

The short does get some credit for its animation quality, but even that doesn’t seem like all that big a leap forward.  It’s certainly impressive that they were able to make the birds’ feathers move so realistically, and the background (though simple in nature) didn’t need to be out for focus the way it was in Geri’s Game.  However, the power lines themselves didn’t always look particularly naturalistic.  Also, as real as the birds’ feathers seemed, I found that their talons (especially the crane’s talons) looked pretty fake and distracting.  The sound also could have been better designed, the music seemed rather basic and uninspired and I also found that the crane’s honking noises were annoying and worked against the building of any sympathy for the thing.

All in all, this is probably the weakest Pixar short since Tin Toy, but that isn’t to say it’s a horrible piece of work.  After all, the main function of this thing is to provide a couple of cute easy gags before the start of a main attraction, and this does mostly serve that function competently enough.  Still, I can’t help but be disappointed with it given how much more they were able to do with similar goals in other shorts, especially given the extra experience and goodwill they had to work with here.

Thor(5/6/2011)

5-6-2011Thor

With the superhero film becoming a staple of the summer movie season it was inevitable that Hollywood would eventually run out of the most marketable characters of the Marvel and DC rosters.  Now the studios are digging deep into the backlog of Stan Lee creations and making movies out of characters like Thor, who was at best a secondary character within the comic book spectrum.  Of course this is sort of going to be a year of movies about secondary characters, what with Captain America and The Green Lantern in our future and the movie Iron Man proved that one of these second string superheroes could be used to make a pretty good movie.  Of the three major comic book movies this year, Thor is the one I’ve most been looking forward to, largely because I was pretty excited about Marvel’s choice of Kenneth Branagh to direct.  That isn’t to say I love Branagh as a filmmaker (I don’t, although his Hamlet was pretty sweet), but I was really glad to see that they were picking someone with gravitas, someone who would bring a certain seriousness to the proceedings and who wouldn’t turn the film into a big joke.

Unlike most superheroes, Thor is not an average person who stumbles upon some kind of radiation only to find it’s given them superpowers.  Thor is actually part of an elaborate fantasy/science fiction universe in which the universe is split into nine realms.  Earth is one of these realms and so is Asgard, a realm ruled by an aging king named Odin (Anthony Hopkins) who once came to earth and was worshiped by the Vikings he met.  Though Odin is seemingly immortal, he plans to hand down the crown to one of his two sons: the brash Thor (Chris Hemsworth) or the reserved Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  Thor comes close to receiving the title, but his coronation ceremony is interrupted when agents from a rival realm called Jotunheim break into the castle and try to steal a powerful artifact that had been won by Asgard in an ancient war.  Enraged, Thor and a group of warriors invade Jotunheim in retaliation, an act that is in defiance of Odin’s commands.  Furious, Odin decides that Thor is not ready to lead Asgard and as a punishment sends him to Earth, where he is stripped of his powers and is without a clear way home.

One of the reasons that Thor is so effective is that it doesn’t trot out the same damn origin story arc that we’ve seen over and over during the course of this superhero-movie craze.  There aren’t any dopey scenes where Thor tries out his powers and is shocked/amazed at how effective they are and we don’t waste an entire movie with him deciding whether or not to use these powers to fight crime.  In fact if you really look at the film it’s more of a fantasy adventure than it really is a superhero film.  There’s also a strange George W. Bush allegory at the center of it all with an impulsive leader overreacting to an isolated attack and ending up in a quagmire (fortunately the film allows said leader to mature into a more reasoned Obama type, a third act that dubbya never allowed himself).  That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have more than a few clichés of its own, in fact I’d say its biggest sin is extreme predictability.  If you can’t tell right away that Loki isn’t going to end up being the bad guy, even if you aren’t aware of the mythological implications of being named “Loki,” you really weren’t trying.  It’s also not very hard to tell what course of action is going to lead Thor to overcome his predicament; in fact the film’s third act plays out exactly like you think it will.  Still, this all seems nicely unique from the Spider-Man/Iron Man formula and that is much appreciated.

If I was going to compare the film to another super hero movie, it might actually be Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie.  The two movies do have fairly different tones, but they have strangely similar structures, namely that they dramatically change settings and even genres at specific points.  Donnor’s film begins like a science fiction film on Krypton, then becomes a coming of age film in Smallville, before finally becoming a comic book story when it finally arrives in Metropolis.  Similarly there’s a clear disconnect between the high-fantasy Asgard scenes in Thor and the more comic-book-like material that arrives once Thor is banished to Earth. That section of the movie is characterized by a little bit of genuine pathos from Thor’s feelings of betrayal and failure, but it also has a distinctly comedic streak that comes from Thor being a fish out of water on Earth.  This humor feels refreshingly unforced and rarely devolves into cheap one-liners like the comic relief in a lot of these blockbusters can.  It’s not bust-a-gut-laughing stuff, but it’s entertaining and keeps the film going through its second half.

One of the less welcome elements from the earthbound segments of the film was a really silly romantic sub-plot between Thor and a scientist he meets named Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).  I struggle to really call this a romance because it’s not a particularly well developed relationship and it rarely rises above the level of Junior High puppy love.  The whole thing also falls well into the annoying action movie trope of people “falling in love” over the course of a short time for seemingly no reason other than that the two “lovers” happen to be the top billed male and female actors.  In fact, I almost feel like this whole thing was put into the movie in order to appeal to the Twilight crowd.  As I understand it, that series is also some kind of fantasy in which a powerful supernatural entity falls head over heels for a rather average human for seemingly no reason in a similarly sexless fashion.

In spite of my distaste for how that relationship develops, I did quite like Natalie Portman’s performance and her character.  In fact, performances seem to be really solid all around in the film, a quality that I feel comfortable attributing to Kenneth Branagh.  I went in worried about the mostly unknown Chris Hemsworth, but he was really pretty cool in the movie, which is impressive given that a lesser actor would have devolved into ridiculous camp with some of this material.  There’s also something refreshing about seeing someone with a Schwarzenegger-build kicking ass in a world where Jake Gyllenhaal is considered an action star.  Anthony Hopkins also seems to have risen to the occasion for Branagh, that’s not to say this is some kind of Oscarworthy performance, but he seems to really be putting in effort in a way that he rarely does anymore when he’s “slumming it” in movies like this.

Thor is not a work of fine art, but I think it works quite well by the standards of the summer blockbuster.  In fact I think it might just be the best film based on a Marvel property since Spider-Man 2, I certainly liked it better than the Iron Man films and the Incredible Hulk reboot anyway.  The key to its success is balance; it has just the right amounts of visual flair, character development, and humor and that creates a really fun (but not annoyingly stupid) tone that makes for a very good time at the movies.

*** out of Four