Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol(12/21/2011)

When you think about it, it’s pretty interesting what Tom Cruise has done as the producer of the films in the Mission: Impossible series.  After all, a film franchise is essentially a brand, something that’s supposed that people are supposed to depend on being the same every time they come back for more, but instead Cruise has opted to bring on a new director and reinvent the franchise in every single installment.  That’s not to say that every (or even any) of these reinventions has actually worked, the John Woo directed second film is widely seen as s dud and I’ve never been a fan of the J.J. Abrams directed third film (even though I’m probably in the minority on that), but it seems like an interesting and courageous way to drive a series just the same.  Of course the best film in the series remains the slick original film which Brian De Palma managed to turn into a modern thrill ride while still grounding the proceedings with some degree of realistic spycraft.  Now Cruise has made one of his most outlandish hiring choices yet by bringing in Brad Bird, a director who had previously only worked with animation up to this point, to helm the latest entry in the series: Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol.

This installment begins with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) imprisoned in a Russian jail for reasons we are not immediately privy to.  After a fellow IMF agent is killed on a mission, the remaining members of Hunt’s team decide to break their former leader out of incarceration in order to hunt down the assassin.  To do this the team breaks into the Kremlin in an attempt to find files related to the incident, but this proves to be a trap. It was a ploy by the assassin to steal a nuclear device, set off a large explosion in the building, and then frame Hunt and his team for the entire affair.  This leaves Hunt disavowed by the government and on the run, left with no option other than to continue hunting the man responsible for all this, put an end to his scheme, and in doing so clear his name.

What I never liked about Mission: Impossible 3, in spite of a number of strong elements, was a certain snarkiness that seemed to pervade the whole film, an attitude that all too often plagues J.J. Abrams’ films including his 2009 Star Trek film, though it was mercifully absent from this year’s Super 8, possibly because his desire to recreate Steven Spielberg’s aesthetics forced him to maintain a certain reverence that he would have otherwise abandoned.  Mission: Impossible 3 was the sort of film that would center its entire premise on an unexplained MacGuffin called “the rabbit’s foot,” almost as if to mock the very notion of making a straightforward spy movie.  It reeked of a sort of hipster insincerity, as if it felt it needed to drown every moment in insincerity so as to avoid being mocked, which to me a cheat.  I was looking forward to seeing the series move on from this, but then I saw the “Bad Robot” logo, realized that J.J. Abrams was still on board as a producer, and realized I was in for some trouble.

Though Cruise and company are clearly trying to set this installment up as a sort of reboot by calling it “Ghost Protocol” instead of “Mission: Impossible 4,” it actually maintains Mission: Impossible 3’s continuity to a much greater degree than other installments of the series have and to some extent it seems to be a continuation of that film’s vision.  Fortunately the snark seems less aggressive this time and isn’t nearly as off-putting as it was in “M:I-3,” but it still maintains a rather light tone and lacks a certain seriousness that this series has given us in the past.  Brad Bird proves himself to be a competent craftsman, but he lacks the auteurist stamp that (for better or worse) De Palma, Woo, and Abrams were able to bring to the table.  If you didn’t know better you’d never know that this was the same person who gave us The Incredibles and Ratatouille.

Worst of all, Brad Bird clearly had no intention of bringing Pixar’s “story first” maxim to the table in his live action debut, in fact there really isn’t that much story here to speak of.  Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol seems remarkable shameless about the fact that it was just three or four interesting set-pieces being strung together by a very thin and rather clichéd plot. The basic notion that Hunt and his team have to operate as renegades would seem to be a good way to keep things interesting, but it really doesn’t amount to all that much.  The team still seems to have access to all the technology they want (which in this installment has gone from being merely fantastical to being outright science fiction), at least when it’s convenient for the plot, and we rarely get that much of a sense that they’re operating in any way that’s different from how they normally would.  Sure, at one point Cruise is forced to mountaineer on the outside of a building because his assistant can’t hack into the building’s security any other way without access to the CIA’s servers, but somehow I suspect that they’d find some other reason to make him climb that building with or without the “renegade agents” angle.  What’s more, the villain’s basic scheme of setting the Russians and Americans against each other in a nuclear war is as clichéd as it gets: we’ve seen the same lot in every movie from The Sum of All Fears to X-Men: First Class.

Part of the irony of all this is that the film tells a very dated story of nuclear tensions between The United States and Russia (a full twenty-two years after the end of the cold war) by staging action sequences in places like Dubai and Mumbai, both centers of 21st century “new money” prosperity.  Of course the locations are arbitrary; the plot is loose enough that they could have set these scenes anywhere, so they’ve chosen places that are trendy right now.  That’s not to say that these settings aren’t an asset, they are, and they give the film a level of production value that help form the movie into what it’s trying to be: a bigger than big blockbuster.  In fact, production values are probably this film’s greatest asset and there are a number of pretty good action scenes that do make the film worth seeing.  The film comes complete with a very well staged destruction of the Kremlin, a scene where Ethan climbs and then repels from a very tall glass building, and a car chase through a sandstorm.  All of these scenes are better than what you’ll see in the average action movie, but none of them are truly transcendent.  This series has yet to top the fight on top of a moving bullet-train or the elaborate CIA break-in from the original Mission: Impossible.

Objectively speaking, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol is actually a better film than either Mission: Impossible 2 or Mission: Impossible 3.  That is to say that it isn’t as flawed as either of those films and there are fewer specific complaints to be raised about it.  And yet, I don’t know that I respect it as much as either of them.  “M:I-2” and “M:I-3” both ultimately failed because they chose a direction to go, really went for it, and sort of got derailed along the way.   Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol on the other hand more or less plays it safe and the results end up being very above average.  It’s a film that is pretty fun while you’re watching it and will likely elicit hyperbolic responses shortly after leaving the theater, but how much of it will the audience remember about it two weeks later?  Certainly the biggest action scenes, which probably comprise fifteen to twenty minutes of the film’s screen-time, but aside from that I’m willing to bet a lot of the movie will be forgotten.

*** out of Four

Shame(12/19/2011)

Two years ago a film called Hunger premiered out of competition directed by some guy calling himself Steve McQueen.  Steve McQueen?  There was a dude making movies who was naming himself after the actor Steve McQueen?  Weird.  It didn’t matter though because as soon as people saw Hunger it became clear that the oddness of the guy’s name wasn’t nearly as important as the fact that he was clearly one of the most talented filmmakers to emerge in the last five years.  On top of that, Hunger also introduced the world to Michael Fassbender, who did a phenomenal job portraying the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in that film and since then has  done high profile work in films ranging from Fish Tank to Inglourious Basterds to X-Men: First Class.  Now the two of them have reunited in McQueen’s sophomore effort, Shame, and this time all eyes are watching them with incredible scrutiny.

The shamed party in the film is Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a well paid yuppie living in New York.  The guy seems to have the perfect life to most outside observers; he’s young, attractive, confident, and wealthy.  What these outside observers don’t know is that Brandon is a sex addict with a habit of consuming copious amounts of porn on the internet and in print and then hiring prostitutes for anonymous and sometimes rough sex.  This has kept him isolated, but it’s become a routine for him and he seems more or less comfortable in it.  This all changes when his sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives unexpectedly and plans to stay with him for a few weeks, an act that will ultimately force him to confront the self destructive elements of his lifestyle.

There have been other films made involving sex addiction, most notably Paul Schrader’s 2002 Bob Crane biopic Auto-Focus, but there have been this clearly focused on the topic and that might be because the topic isn’t taken all that seriously by the general public.  The recent South Park episode called “Sexual Healing,” which ridiculed shamed celebrities like Tiger Woods for using sexual addiction as an excuse for their behavior, summed up most people’s conception of sexual addiction: that it was largely an excuse for usual male promiscuity.  Shame is an attempt to take the issue seriously, to frame sexual addiction as every bit as miserable as addictions to drugs, alcohol, or gambling.  It certainly doesn’t depict Fassbender’s character as a happy “swinging single” even if he has all the money and status that such a lifestyle would normally entail.  That’s because his libido has gone far beyond any kind of moderation.  At one point we see his porn collection, which takes up much of the space in his closet, and whenever he is shown  “getting some” he seems to divine no joy from the experience.

The sheer misery that this character has brought upon himself is shown most vividly in a sequence midway through the film when he tries to actually start a conventional relationship with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie).  They seem to be one another’s intellectual equals over the course of a date and in another life you could see them becoming a happy couple, but as soon as they try to consummate the relationship Brandon’s taste (or should I say need) for kink takes over; the man simply cannot make love when he feels a constant urge to fuck.  Then there’s his relationship with his sister, which is awkward at best and cruel at worst.  His sister clearly wants to reach out to him, but what are they going to talk about?  His porn collection?  As she lives at his apartment and it becomes increasingly hard to hide his lifestyle from her he becomes more and more cruel to her in order to hide his shame.

Fassbender’s excellent performance goes a long way towards helping the audience understand this character and his problem.  That’s not easy because this guy acts like a real prick at times and generating sympathy for him can be a truly herculean task.  While Fassbender understandably dominates discussions of the film, Carey Mulligan’s work in the movie is also really strong and worthy of consideration.  McQueen lives up to his potential as well, having not missed a beat from his bold and highly confident work directing Hunger.  He’s still mixing excellent Hollywood caliber cinematography with some really unconventional editing.  There’s not a lot here that’s quite as stylistically bold as the thirty minute conversation sequence from Hunger, but it’s still clearly the work of a very talented individual with different training and sensibilities from most filmmakers.

When the film debuted at the Venice Film Festival there was some chatter about the film’s quality and a lot more chatter about the film’s ability to penetrate the U.S. market given its sexually explicit content.  This of course led to predictable counter-articles bemoaning the puritanical hypocrisy of American audiences and of the MPAA, but this is in some ways undercut by the fact that most of the films that actually run into ratings problems tend to be, in their own blue state way, just as puritanical as the audiences that are supposedly unable to handle them.  Most of the films that get the NC-17 or Unrated films that get released feature lots of unpleasantly “unerotic” material like Monica Bellucci being brutally raped in Irréversible or Jennifer Connelly going ass-to-ass for drug money in Requiem for a Dream.  Rarely will you ever see an NC-17 rated movie that actually makes sex look like a slightly enjoyable activity (with John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus being a notable exception), possibly because they don’t want people confusing their work with pornography.  As you can probably guess from the title, Shame is not an exception to this.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, as much as I’d like to see more “sex positive” films get this kind of serious treatment there’s no denying that the messy downsides of sex are also worthy of cinematic exploration and it often isn’t explored as well as it’s explored here.

**** out of Four

Finding Pixar- A Skeptic’s Journey: Toy Story 3 (2010)

Toy Story 3

This is the final part of an eleven 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.

Here we are, at long last we’re at the end of the road, the finale of Finding Pixar: A Skeptic’s Journey.  When I first started this project I wasn’t exactly sure where it would end.  Cars 2 hadn’t come out yet and I wasn’t sure whether it would turn into yet another cause célèbre for critics, which seemed unlikely given the icy reception the first Cars received but you never know, maybe the Pixar guys were making that sequel out of an intense desire to to redeem the franchise.  As it turns out Cars 2 became Pixar’s first outright critical failure, earning a measly 38% on Rotten Tomatoes and the public wasn’t much interested either, to date it is the studio’s second lowest grossing film and likely would have been the lowest grossing if not for ticket price inflation.  I saw the trailer for Pixar’s next film, Brave, the other day and it wasn’t doing anything for me and frankly I’m beginning to feel like I finally caught up with Pixar just in time to see it finally collapse under its own weight.  Maybe this series has unintentionally captured the studio’s “classic era” from beginning to end, and what more appropriate way to end the era than the way it began: with a Toy Story movie.

Part of why I thought Cars 2 might have had a shot at success was because Pixar had made a successful sequel in the past.  As readers of this series will know, I thought the first Toy Story was a pretty shaky effort and that Toy Story 2 was a substantial improvement.  When we left Buzz, Woody, and company they were still the beloved belongings of Andy but there was a clear foreshadowing that they would eventually find themselves abandoned and forgotten much the way the Jessie character had once been.  The people who saw that film when it first came out were left hanging for an entire decade, but I had the benefit of knowing that there was a third sequel down the line that would explore the final destiny of these toys and when I turned the film off I was much more excited to see how the series would end than I initially thought I would be.

The thing is, by the time I finally got around to seeing Toy Story 3 Pixar had changed a lot, they’d raised the standards and what they did with the first two Toy Story films seemed pretty distinct from what Pixar had become.  That can be seen to some extent in the film’s look because this is one of the few Pixar movies of this era that isn’t much of a technical breakthrough.  The film mostly recreates the aesthetics of the first two films, they do use modern technology to do this but you’re only going to make that old Woody design look so good, the new toys like Stretch and Lotso look tellingly better.  There are certain elements of the film that do look good, namely garbage and garbage bags, which they decided to make look hyper-real for some reason.  I’ll also give them credit for stepping up to some degree when it comes to human characters, these models don’t look wonderful but they don’t have cartoony exaggerated features or anything.

When I analyzed Up I was a little bit baffled by the fact that so much praise was heaped upon the film’s first fifteen minutes when most of the rest of the film was largely an adventure movie.  Similarly Toy Story 3 crams a lot of emotional material into its beginning and ending but operates like a genre film for much of its running time.  Specifically it emulates a prison escape movie with the Sunnyside Daycare Center sitting in as the prison, Lotso the bear sitting in as the warden, and his assorted goons acting as the guards.  This all seems a little cutesy at times, but it does provide the film with a fairly fun second act which would have operated well enough as a sort of short film unto itself.  That said, a bunch of talking toys making their way through mundane settings is never going to be as exciting or as epic an adventure as a chase across space or a journey across a hidden South American jungle, so these adventure aspects do fall short when compared to other recent Pixar movies.

It ultimately isn’t the adventure material that had people talking at length in 2010; it was the bookend material in which the toys need to deal with Andy’s impending departure.  This is all predicated to some degree on a bit of a conceit.  Why did Andy, a seventeen year old college bound teenager, still have any of these toys at this point?  Has he really had a damn toy chest sitting idle in his room this whole time when he should have moved other toys like bongs and condoms?  I suppose I can except this as a necessity to get the film going but it’s a bit harder for me to accept how concerned Andy seems to be about these things by the time the film ends.  I could maybe imagine a teenager going through the trouble of anonymously dropping these things off at a daycare center, but would any real seventeen year old drive to a virtual stranger’s house, approach her child and give an extended speech about giving these things a home?  I’m sorry, but that’s a bunch of bullshit.  Any real teenager would have dumped these things in the dumpster shortly after they left the driveway.  Scratch that.  Any real teenager would have dumped these things shortly after they entered middle school.

The film critic and provocateur Armond White received a lot of flack in 2010 for saying that Toy Story 3 “strictly celebrates consumerism.”  As usual, White misses the forest for the trees in his analysis, but he does have a point; Pixars lionization of these inanimate objects borders on the ridiculous at times.  This is an entire series of movies based around the near worship of material goods, it’s enough to make me want to shout “dude, they’re just toys” to John Lasseter’s face.  Granted, we’re supposed to feel for these toys because we see them talk, but that only really applies to the fantasy world of the film, it doesn’t have much bearing on real life.  At least that’s how I see it, frankly that’s something that I’ve never connected to with this series and that’s largely unchanged.

Thematically I feel like this is otherwise largely a retread of what we saw in Toy Story 2.  The first sequel already explored the fact that these toys would one day be abandoned and it also explored the notion that they would one day need to decide between trying to stick with Andy or move on to a different living situation.  One sees how much Toy Story 3 borrows from Toy Story 2 when one considers the character of Lotso, who bears a striking resemblance to Stinky Pete.  Both Lotso and Pete were formerly abandoned by a previous owner and are resentful of this, they both have ironically silly names given their menacing status in their respective films, they both try to hold the heroic toys in captivity for their own gain, and they both suffer remarkably similar fates at the end of their respective films.  Granted, Lotso does have the added dimension of being a dictator of sorts over his domain, but otherwise they’re damn near the same character.  Granted, I might have seen it as less of a retread if I’d seen Toy Story 2 twelve years ago instead of eight months ago, but it sticks out nonetheless.

Does that mean that Toy Story 3 is a completely unnecessary sequel?  No, not at all.  Pixar has learned a lot since they made the first two Toy Story films and with this installment they’re able to show what this series can be when given a more confident execution.  A lot of the logical flaws I had with the first two films are largely absent from this one, or at least they aren’t as readily prevalent.  They’ve also done a lot to tone down some of the annoying side characters from the first two films like that stupid dinosaur, who rightfully doesn’t have many lines in this one.  More importantly, this final sequel allows Pixar to give the series some degree of closure.  To have left these characters where they did at the end of Toy Story 2, with the characters never facing the end of their relationship with Andy, would have seemed wrong in some way and I completely understand why they’d want to correct that.  Still I wish that they’d found some new thematic ground to break while they were at it.  I suspect that it was this new thematic ground that they were trying to find in the decade it took them to finally make this thing and I don’t think they ever really did.  So, while they were able to make a perfectly functional sequel with some very enjoyable moments, they weren’t able to make that same leap forward that they did with Toy Story 2 and as such I think they’re going to see this as a little bit of a missed opportunity.

The Short Program: Day & Night

Over the course of this retrospective I’ve been up and down on the shorts that Pixar had been producing, which had slowly grown kind of formulaic and predictable over time.  Every once in a while they’d make a Gerri’s Game or a Boundin’ that would just seem really cool, but all too often I’d leave the shorts with a feeling of “that’s kind of neat, but I’ll forget about it a few minutes into the actual movie and never think about it again.”  In general I’ve had the feeling that Pixar had just outgrown the short film format and that these five minute trifles just weren’t representative of what they were capable of when they were at their best anymore.  That said I think that the last short film I’ll be analyzing, Day & Night, is awesome and just might be their best work to date.

That this won’t be an average Pixar short is apparent at first glance as the whole film takes place against a black backdrop with a pair of silhouettes representing day and night the only illuminated objects.  These two objects essentially look like traditionally animated cartoon characters but they are filled with CGI animated landscapes of idealized Norman Rockwell Americana at either day or night for each respective character.  The two initially distrust each other and fight, but they gradually come to realize that a lot of cool things tend to happen at both times of the day and they start to hit it off.

The visual creativity here goes without saying and the message that is telegraphed here (be open to new ideas) seems like a somewhat hokey moral, but it’s the subtext that’s really interesting.  This isn’t really about morality or the day night cycle, it’s about the animation community.  Pixar was once shunned by traditional animators as an unwanted outsider and I’m sure that there were people at Pixar who viewed the old guard as a bunch of dumb old fogies.  The two sides would fight amongst each other at first, much as the day and night characters do here, until they finally realized that they were both capable of doing neat things and accepted each other.  That this short is visually a manifestation of traditional and computer animation working together to make something beautiful only underscores the notion that good things have come from a united animation community working together that will continue to make good things going forward.

Pixar Found- An Epilogue

In the last year I’ve spent a good eighteen and a half hours watching these movies and written upwards of 30,000 words about them.  By all standards I have found everything that I’m going to find about Pixar at this point and I wish that I had more to say about them in final analysis besides “I guess they’re pretty good at what they do.”  I knew going into this that there were a handful of narratives that might come forward.  I genuinely hoped that after a few movies I’d start to love these movies every bit as much as the public at large had and build a narrative of the skeptic turned believer, but that never really happened.  The only Pixar movie that really truly achieved some degree of greatness was WALL-E, and I was decidedly less than in love with many of their other films.   On the other hand I knew that I might have ended up hating all these movies and would have been able to build the narrative of the unconverted skeptic who would bravely declare that the emperor had no clothes in the face of hyperbolic praise by critics and audiences, but that never really happened either.  Quite the opposite, I’d say I at least liked every Pixar movie except for the first Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Cars and I even found things to like in all three of those.

I suppose at the end of the day this is all just going to have to boil down to the fact that these movies really just aren’t made for me.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t respect their craft and that there aren’t many things I’ve found to enjoy in their best films like The Incredibles or Ratatouille, but even when they were at their best there were still certain childish elements that just kept me at a distance from them.  In short, these are Disney movies, I don’t think most of them are that far removed from the Disney movies I saw when I was a kid like The Lion King and Aladdin.  Most of the hype about this studio I’d heard made it sound like some kind of great leap forward for animation, but really it feels more like a continuation of an existing legacy to me.  I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Lasseter and company had simply made all these movies under the Disney banner in place of all the nonsense like Chicken Little.

Will I be seeing the rest of Pixar’s movies going forward? Not necessarily, I certainly have no intention of seeing Cars 2 anyway.  That doesn’t mean I won’t have an open mind going forward, if Pixar releases another movie with an interesting premise that gets the critical reception that they’re accustomed to I’ll probably check it out.  I might not necessarily be there day one and I might wait for it to come out on Blu Ray, but I won’t have my head in the sand.  That goes for the larger spectrum of family films as well, in fact there’s a good chance that I would have skipped seeing Martin Scorsese’s Hugo had I not done this project and I do plan to go back and see a few other family movies I’ve skipped in the past.  I doubt I’ll ever be a fully fledged fan of family movies, just as many people aren’t ever going to be fans of horror movies or westerns or what have you, but I will give them a chance and give credit where it’s do.

Hugo(12/1/2011)

When Martin Scorsese announced that his next film would be an adaptation of the young adult fantasy novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret it seemed an odd choice to many given that he’s largely known for making gritty and blood-soaked crime films.  The choice makes more sense when one considers some of films that Scorsese has been championing recently like Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, Jean Renoir’s The River, and most notably the Technicolor fantasy film The Thief of Baghdad.  These were all Technicolor extravaganzas with fantastical elements that made use of what was at the time cutting edge technology and visual effects work.  Scorsese has also never really been averse to genre filmmaking, having already made thrillers like Cape Fear and Shutter Island, biopics like Kundun and The Aviator and even an old style Hollywood musical in 1977’s New York, New York.  So with that in mind Hugo (which was awkwardly renamed by the studio) does make sense within Scorsese’s filmography, though how successful it is remains to be seen.

The film is set in 1920s Paris and focuses on a twelve year old boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who has lived in the Parisian train station ever since his father (Jude Law) died and his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) trained him to work the station’s many clocks.  He’s been secretly doing this on his own ever since his uncle disappeared, but during his free time he salvages mechanical pieces in order to finish building the automatron (clockwork robot shaped like a human) that he and his father once worked to build.  One day he tries to steal a piece for this automatron from the station’s toy store and the store’s proprietor (Ben Kingsley) catches him in the process.  He calls over the station’s police liaison Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) but really begins to freak out once he confiscates Hugo’s notebook and sees his design for the automatron.  He keeps the book, causing Hugo to venture outside of the train station to reclaim it and in the process he meets and befriends the toy store owner’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the two of them decide to go on an adventure in order to figure out what the toy store owner’s connection to the automatron is and why it distresses him so much.

I should address the big three dimensional elephant in the room but I’ll also say upfront that my experience with 3D is limited and I can’t really bring any kind of expert analysis to the topic.  Prior to this the only 3D film’s I’d seen in 3D were Avatar and Tron: Legacy, and I saw both of those in the IMAX format rather than the Real-D format that my screening of Hugo employed.  While those previous films largely took place in otherworldly (and CGI heavy) environments, but Hugo is set distinctly in this world, albeit in the past and through a somewhat fantastical lens.  I can’t say that Scorsese has exactly re-invented the 3D wheel, I don’t see this as some sort of vindication of the format as a tool for master filmmakers, but his use of the format is mostly effective and tasteful and I don’t regret having splurged for the more expensive 3D ticket.

The film’s use of cutting edge 3D technology is somewhat ironic given that Hugo is largely a tribute to early silent films and the French pioneer Georges Méliès in particular.  I’d heard about the film’s affinity for silent cinema ahead of time and expected it to largely manifest itself through subtle shot recreations and other minor nods that would only be noticed by devoted cineastes, but it turns out that early cinema is actually a major part of the film’s plot.  Films are watched and addressed by name and Méliès himself actually emerges as a character within the film.  This material, particularly a handful of flashbacks to the production of Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon and other ground-breaking shorts, are where the film shines.  This material is all the more interesting because it is largely factually accurate and Scorsese is able to fit a strong argument for better film preservation and better respect for cinematic artistry into the proceedings.  At the very least it’s the best reintroduction of Méliès work into pop culture since The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” video.

This material is enough to warm the heart of any film lover and is the reason that I will ultimately recommend the film; however, the rest of the film is not necessarily worthy of these highlights.  In fact, during the film’s first third in which cinema was not front and center I was about ready to write the film off as an outright failure.  At the center of the film’s problems is the character of Hugo Cabret himself who is frankly the weakest character in his own film.  I was not moved by Hugo’s angst over his missing father, which rarely transcended its young adult literature origins, and the fact that the character is only really connected to the Méliès though a huge coincidence doesn’t help matters either.  The character is also brought down by Asa Butterfield who, to be perfectly blunt, is not very good here.  It’s not easy to call out a thirteen year old actor, but the fact of the matter is that he gives a very wooden performance compared to, say, Joel Courtney work earlier this year in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8.

Another young actor, Chloë Grace Moretz, comes off a lot better here and shows that she can be quite strong when playing normal child roles that don’t involve murdering people.  In fact, most of the rest of the cast is quite strong here.  Ben Kingsley, who is coming off as string of half-assed work in bad Hollywood movies, seems renewed here and while I wouldn’t call his performance a tour de force he certainly delivers respectable work.  There’s also solid work here from actors in smaller roles like Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Christopher Lee.  The one adult performance I was less than pleased with was Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as the station inspector though that might have had more to do with the character than with Cohen’s performance.  Whenever that station inspector came into the film everything came to a screeching halt, the humor got more juvenile, and the 3D seemed to get more gimmicky.  Scorsese does manage to humanize the character later on and make him into less of a living cartoon, but that doesn’t change the fact that for much of the film he feels like a concession to family audiences looking for lighthearted humor related to testicular injuries.

Speaking of which, I don’t think that kids are going to get much out of this.  This movie belongs to that strange subset of contemporary films like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are that are ostensibly for families but really for hipster types who still yearn for nostalgic whimsy.  I feel like Scorsese really just wanted a project that would allow him to experiment with certain technical advancements and then found this young adult book that would give him an economically viable project to do this and also let him to bring the story of Georges Méliès to the public as an added bonus.  If that’s what the guy needs to do to make a film, I guess it’s fair play but it also leaves us with a film that’s trying to please two audiences at once and not necessarily succeeding at entertaining either.  Younger audiences likely will not respond to the film’s melancholic tone and will likely be bored by the Méliès material while older film buffs will be forced to sit through a very middling work of whimsical fantasy in order to get to “the good stuff.”  As for adult audiences who aren’t film buffs and who don’t know or care about the works of Georges Méliès… well I don’t think they’ll respond to anything here.

I do have grave reservations about Hugo I do ultimately think the positives outweigh the negatives, at least for the very narrow audience that the film seems to be intended for.  When the film is at its best it is the best tribute to the power of cinema since Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds.  However, I’m not going to let my enthusiasm for these elements blind me to the fact that they’ve been wedged into the middle of a family film which is average at best.  This is a very uneven and ultimately flawed film worth seeing only if you’re a Scorsese devotee with a strong interest in film history.  I am both of those things and as such I was able to enjoy the film as a whole, I don’t know how many more people fall into that sub-group.

*** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Attack the Block(12/7/2011)

Ever since Attack the Block premiered at the South By Southwest film festival early this year the internet has not been able to shut up about it.  As is often the case when fun genre films like Kick-Ass or Cowboys Vs. Aliens debuts at a regional genre film festivals (like SXSW, Fantastic Fest, Comic-Con) I see a wave of hyperbolic praise all through the year whenever it comes up.  If only that internet hysteria translated into anyone in the real world giving a damn.  People cared so little about this particular movie that the distributors never even bothered to open it in my city, a development which annoyed me to no end because it robbed me of my chance to be part of that discussion.  By the time it came out on DVD and Blu-Ray I was about ready to say “fuck that movie, if the distributors didn’t think my city was good enough for it I’m never seeing the damn thing.”  Eventually cooler head did prevail and I did decide to give the film a shot

The high concept at play is “aliens invade a London housing project.”  Specifically these aliens are furry black little things with glowing wolf-like jaws, and they’ve landed in “the block” amidst Guy Fawkes Day celebrations which have hidden the decent of their space craft.  Instead of running into the military or a group of scientists or the police they run into a gang of teenage malcontents who had recently mugged a woman and stolen her engagement ring.  Naturally these young guys react by stabbing the shit out of the first alien they see, and bringing it back to their building in order to sell it to a tabloid.  What they don’t anticipate is that they will soon be besieged by other aliens who will leave them fighting for their lives.

To some extent I am pretty sympathetic with what the filmmakers are trying to do here.  We’ve seen dozens of movies where aliens, monsters, Russians, or what have you have attacked the suburbs and provided young white kids with an adventure, and it is nice to see urban youth getting this kind of treatment for once.  The filmmakers also don’t soften the fact that these young people are malcontented hoodlums, in the very first scene they’re seen robbing someone at knifepoint and we also see them hanging around with some really dangerous looking criminals who grow reefer in an apartment high up in the housing tower.  The film doesn’t excuse these kids’ sometimes criminal behavior but it doesn’t judge them either, it simply accepts that they’ve been led to a certain lifestyle by their environment and allows them to proceed from there.

Make no mistake, this is a fun movie, but I’ve seen a lot of people go really overboard with their praise for it.  For one thing I think the alien invasion and the world’s reaction to it doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  We see the aliens here cause a lot of carnage all over this neighborhood and their actions generally aren’t subtle, and yet the movie also seems to want us to believe that no authorities or media figures witness any of it and that everything that happens is supposed to be a mystery to everyone except the central cast of kids.  Additionally, the production values here are very middle-tier.  The aliens look almost comical rather than truly menacing and the action is generally very small scale and not overly ambitious.  The characters are also kind of thin; the various gang members didn’t do much to distinguish themselves aside from their leader, Moses, and when a couple of them were finally picked off I can’t say any of them had done enough to distinguish themselves.

I understand why so many people are so enthusiastic about this thing; it’s fun to feel like you’ve discovered something that your friends don’t necessarily know about, especially when it’s an accessible genre film that can be recommended to the average movie-goer without worrying that they’d find it pretentious and challenging.  Pop the Blu-ray in some Saturday night with friends and enjoy, but let’s not make this into something it isn’t.  This isn’t that much smarter or more unique than the average Hollywood genre film and I wouldn’t call it better crafted either.

*** out of Four

Finding Pixar: A Skeptic’s Journey- Up (2009)

Up

This is the tenth part of an eleven 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.

One of the things that first launched my interest in finer cinema was the T.V. special “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Thrills,” part of the once annual series of top 100 lists that the American Film Institute put out over the last decade.  I was intrigued by the many clips and began trying to systematically watch every film on the list.  By the time I was done I was a fully fledged film buff and I didn’t stop there.   I moved on to AFI’s original top 100 list, and once I was done with that I began watching all the films that won the Oscar for Best Picture.  From there I embarked on the difficult task of trying to watch every movie that ever been nominated for Best Picture.  Of course that’s a huge undertaking that I’ll probably never finish, but I have succeeded is seeing every Best Picture nominee since 1969 (with the exception of 1972’s The Emigrants which has never been available on DVD).

That accomplishment stood until 2009 when two movies came out that would break this accomplishment.  One of them was The Blind Side, a football drama that looked incredibly corny and borderline racist.  Distasteful as that movie looked, I probably would have held my nose and watched it in order to maintain my Oscar-watching dominance, but I never bothered because I’d still have one more nominee to watch from that year: Pixar’s Up. Yes that’s right, after a decade of critical whining and complaining the Academy had finally given in and nominated a Pixar film for Best Picture.  Of course this probably only came to pass because of a rule change expanding the number of nominees from five to ten, which more or less made the accomplishment meaningless, but the fact remained that there was a post-1970 Best Picture nominee on the books which I hadn’t seen and that ate at me.  In fact it was around the time of that nomination that I first began plotting out this marathon/essay series.

The initial release of Up was a definite down point in my interest in Pixar.  While WALL-E had almost looked interesting enough to make me break down and start going to Pixar movies, what I saw of Up looked more or less like a typical animated kids movie.  That alone wouldn’t have been so bad, but the Pixar fans of the world seemed to praise it just as highly as they did WALL-E just the year before and that reeked of fanboyism to me.  It began to sound like Pixar could put out anything and it would still be proclaimed “the best Pixar movie yet” by the studio’s fans.  Furthermore the hyperbole put into question the sincerity of the praise that had come before, I began to wonder if the studio’s fans had been crying wolf this whole time and it just made it kind of easy to be dismissive.

The consensus back in 2009 seemed to be that Up was at its strongest during its opening moments, where the audience is witness to a condensed version of the protagonist’s life thus far.  I can’t express just how much this sequence had been hyped up, pretty much everything that’s been written about the film brings it up, sometimes ignoring everything else in the film in order to focus on it.  After finally seeing the scene I can’t help but feel a little bit let down.  For one thing I found the opening few minutes in which Carl and Ellie meet as children to be rather grating, specifically Ellie’s dialogue and general look with wild hair and missing teeth.  It looked weird, but the next ten minutes or so were indeed pretty good, but not exactly great.  I mean, it’s a just a montage people, a montage.  That’s not exactly a new or unique filmmaking tool and this particular montage isn’t that much better executed than similar scenes we’ve seen before.  There was a similar montage set to The Beatles “Twist and Shout” the year before in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which didn’t garner nearly the accolades or press as the opening ten minutes of Up.

Of course a major component of that opening scene was Michael Giacchino’s Oscar winning score, which lived up to its hype much more successfully than that opening did.  The score was based around a pleasant whimsical theme which is repeated throughout the film in a variety of appropriate variations.  It’s such a good score that I’m pretty sure it’s been reused in a number of places, I could swear I’d heard it before in some other context.  The rest of the film’s aesthetics are also quite strong for the most part.  While the film never buckles the audience over with its realism the way that certain sequences in Wall-E did, there were elements that were quite impressive just the same.  The landscapes of Paradise Falls were appropriately beautiful, the balloon house is a very well rendered visual and the weather effects are especially impressive.  However, Pixar continues to be downright cowardly in their willingness to tackle the uncanny valley and consequently the models for human characters have actively devolved over the course of these last three films.  This was somewhat apparent in WALL-E but was easy to overlook as the result of the deformed nature of those human characters, but here there’s no denying that Pixar’s humans have increasingly exaggerated features and increasingly plasticy skin tones and this stands out when everything else in the films are looking relatively realistic.

Of course it might have been more than a little deliberate that these character models are cartoony, because the rest of the movie is like that as well.  That’s the major thing that differentiates this film from Ratatouille and WALL-E: while those films aspired to be as close to live action as possible while Up seems to be much more comfortable embracing its inner cartoon.  I’m not talking about the really fanciful things here like the flying house; I’m talking about elements of tone and a certain sense of humor.  For example, there’s a running gag in the film where the giant bird swallows the old man’s cane leaving a horizontal bulge in its long neck before it regurgitates the object.  That’s a scene that would have been completely out of place in WALL-E or Ratatouille, which were both movies that you could almost picture having been made as live action films with CGI elements, the same cannot be said about Up which straight up wouldn’t have ever worked as a live action film.

At its heart this is an adventure film, plain and simple.  The stuff about Carl’s wife provides a decent MacGuffin but it’s not overly deep and you sort of get the point (he needs to let go and move on) pretty early in the film.  As an adventure the film works fairly well although I guess I was expecting a little more.  The prospect of there being a creature near Paradise Falls had led me to expect the illest island this side of Skull Island but instead what we got was a generic jungle, a bird, and a bunch of moderately mean looking attack dogs.  If they were going to place all their chips on high adventure I guess I was expecting something a little bit more epic and creative.  Granted there are at least two decent set pieces, including a chase scene which likely would have earned a Golden Stake if I’d seen the film in 2009, but is that really enough… not really.  As far as cartoon action movies go I’d say The Incredibles worked a lot better and so did Wall-E to some extent.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s final third is predicated on the notion that saving a dopey looking bird from having to live as a zoo animal is worth risking your life over.  Seriously, a big part of what makes action scenes work are the stakes involved and if the only consequence of Carl and Russell failing their mission is that an overgrown toucan lives a less than wonderful life (and probably doesn’t even get killed) your movie is in trouble.  Speaking of which, most of the supporting characters in this movie are kind of annoying including the dog, the bird, and the little kid.  Granted, this is at least partly deliberate.  Carl is sort of a W.C. Fields character, he just wants to be left alone but he gets berated on all sides by animals and children and his reaction to them is meant to be humorous.  Still, that doesn’t change the fact we as an audience have to deal with these things as well and that is not very fun.  Don’t get me wrong, none of these characters reach Flic, Dorie, or Mater levels of annoyingness, but they certainly didn’t appeal to me.

All of this doesn’t mean that Up is a bad movie by any means, it’s certainly a moderately fun animated movie and if Pixar had released it sometime around 2003 or 2004 it may well have been their best movie to date.  However, by 2009 I feel like Pixar had raised the bar significantly and this doesn’t necessarily match up.  Of course that’s all a matter of taste; I can see why a throwback like this would appeal to Pixar’s long time fans who like them when they’re being cartoony, but that’s not me.

The Short Program: Partly Cloudy

If nothing else Partly Cloudy, the short that preceded Up, gets a lot of credit for ambition.  While the last Pixar short felt content to simply give us a moderately clever slapstick scenario, this one establishes an entire system that’s seemingly in place to govern the creation of everything on earth.  The short is set in a world where the myth that all children are delivered to their parents by storks (you know, as opposed to boning) and takes it a step further by explaining where the storks got all these babies in the first place.  As it turns out they got them from anthropomorphized clouds with faces and arms who are apparently able to conjure life into existence through… magic.

This elaborate concept is the backdrop but the short is more specifically a (surprise) slapstick piece focusing on a misfit stork and a misfit cloud (what is it with this studio and lovable misfits).  The cloud in question is a dark storm cloud who makes dangerous baby animals like alligators and porcupines rather cute baby animals like puppies or kittens and the stork in question spends the movie getting hurt by most of these creatures but he just keeps on delivering them because he’s a real trooper.

The world that the short sets up is certainly creative and it reminded me a little of Monsters, Inc. in its attempt to create an industrial scenario for a childhood fantasy.  The execution is also as polished as ever with the cloud people being rendered really well through animation and the landscape below looking really sharp as well.  However, I really feel like Pixar can and should be doing more with these shorts than making simple “rule of threes” slapstick pieces.  There seems to be a standard formula running through most of the shorts at this point and it’s getting a little old.  Admittedly this formula might have been less apparent to me if I’d seen the films over the course of ten years rather ten months, but I see it none the less and I’m beginning to feel less charitable about it.  Overall I can’t fault this short too much because it’s good at what it’s trying to be, but I’m not going to praise it too much either.