November 21, 2009

#049: Up

The most recent addition to Pixar's beloved lineup is heralded as the best yet. I would definitely not go that far, but I will agree that Up was a really good movie. I don't think Pixar has ever released anything bad. Any Pixar film is head and shoulders better than the average film made these days. In this great Pixar library Up probably falls somewhere in the middle for me. It had moments of brilliance in storytelling, but as a whole just doesn't stand up to the magic of Toy Story or Finding Nemo. I had really similar reactions for both Up and last year's Wall-E. In both films there are sequences of pure genius in the first act, then the films tend to fall apart towards the middle, only to make a slight recovery at the end.  It is really difficult for me to explain why I felt Up came up short of those others, but I will try.

First lets talk about the good.  The first 20 minutes of this film are amazing.  There is almost no dialog, yet somehow we feel such a connection with the characters.  Usually montages seem forced and end up being really corny, but Up is able too pull off one of the best montages I have ever seen.  The beginning of this film feels like a fine work of art.  The creators payed so much attention to detail and every decision seemed calculated and thoughtful. It was wonderful storytelling.  Those nearly silent first 20 minutes are able to illicit more emotion than the entire rest of the film.  I wish it was able to sustain that level of feeling it had at the beginning.  Unfortunately, it wasn't able to, but then again we are talking about a kids movie here.  It didn't start out feeling like a kids movie, but it takes plenty of opportunities to remind of of that fact in the rest of the film. I didn't expect this movie to be anything more than a good animated kids movie, but after that beginning it had raised the bar.  Contrasted against the start, the rest of the film felt a bit silly.  I lost the connection I started out with.

What would The Littler Mermaid be without Ursula?  What would Aladdin be without Jaffar?  What would The Lion King be without Scar?  What would Up be without some old guy searching for a bird?  Wait! What?  Yes, the antagonist in this film is Charles Muntz, an elderly gentleman on a lifelong quest to capture a bird.  Muntz is smart enough to invent a collar that allows dogs to talk, yet he continues to live in solitude because he cannot complete this task.  He is so obsessed with getting this bird and redeeming himself that he has essentially wasted his life and lost all touch with humanity.  This can be paralleled with Carl. He feels like he wasted his life by never giving Ellie the adventure they had dreamed of as children.  Carl has started to withdraw from society. He is content with living out the rest of his life in lonely reflection on what he wasn't able to accomplish.  Unlike Muntz, it isn't too late for Carl.  Little Russel is there to renew Carl's connection with humanity, and give him something to live for.  Up is directed at children, but poses the very adult question of; "What does it mean to live a fulfilled life?"

I did really enjoy Up, while at the same time I couldn't help but feel it was missing something.  I loved the connection between Carl and Ellie that they were able to establish at the beginning.  However, the rest of the relationships don't feel as meaningful or complete.  The driving forces of the movie change and when that happened it lost some of it's heart.   I found the action sequences at the end to be boring, and just wanted to get back to story.  Those sequences made the ending feel frantic and rushed.  I know I am over thinking this movie, but it is what I do.  Despite my complaints, everybody should watch Up.  It is a really well done film that most anyone will enjoy.


November 14, 2009

#048: The Reader

This is another film that I am very late in seeing. The Reader centers around a relationship between mid 30's Hanna (Kate Winslet) and 15 year old Michael (David Cross & Ray Fiennes). Their affair only lasts a summer, but it will affect them both for the rest of their lives. The first half of the film shows us this affair; from when they first met to its abrupt end. The scenes are awkward, but charming at the same time. Michael is young and approaches life with excitement. He is innocent, but now has a secret that sets him apart from his friends and disconnects him from his family. Hanna is more mysterious, hard and unemotional, but also possesses an innocence of her own. Their relationship is obviously wrong, but we can't really hold either of them at fault for what is going on. Once it had started it could not easily be stopped. It was complicated, yet so simple.

     As The Reader goes into its second act we see Michael move on to his college years. Hanna once again comes into his life, this time in a very different setting. He is faced with a decision that will effect the rest of her life. This decision seems simple, but will result in an embarrassing admission for both parties involved. Michael will have to acknowledge that he had an affair with, and cared for, this woman. Any association with her at this time will not be good for him. At the same time he will have to expose a secret about her. A secret she has gone to great lengths to keep. He ultimately makes his decision, and both of them must live with it.

I knew very little about this film going in. For some reason I was expecting to be bored by it. I was very surprised by how much it drew me in over the first half. The scenes in Hanna's apartment are captured very vividly. It is awkward, and shows quite a bit of nudity, but it all serves to make it seem genuine. As a viewer I believed what I was seeing, and that part of the film really worked for me. The second part, which brings in all the Nazi stuff, really didn't work for me. The beginning made these people seem real. The middle made it very apparent they were just characters on a screen. There is a lot more to be dealt with in the second half, so it will undoubtedly become more messy. However I don't feel like it was approached with the same care as the beginning. There are about 45 minutes where Michael is chain smoking with a look of concentrated sadness on his face. This section felt really forced, and I couldn't wait for it to be over. There were parts of the ending that recaptured that feeling and emotion we saw early on. The final scenes may not satisfy our hearts, but I felt they worked with the story.

     I would definitely recommend seeing The Reader if you have not done so already. If you have seen it, let me know what you thought. What did you think about the role of water in the film? For the first hour there is water in almost every scene. Then there is a span where water is decidedly absent. Is it that the water cleans the physical and emotional filth from their bodies? Is it merely a symbol of renewed purity, and forgiveness? Is there more to it? I think the main take-away from The Reader is the consequences of inaction. As children we are told we will get in trouble if we do something. This film is about trouble caused when people chose to do nothing. In water, if you do nothing, you drown. You have to actively move your arms or kick your feet in order to stay afloat. Here we see them do nothing, and the price they must pay for it.


November 7, 2009

#047: Across The Universe

I am a bit late on seeing this film. When Across The Universe was first released I decided that I would probably never watch it. It just didn't look like my kind of movie. Once it had come out on dvd I started hearing more about it. I knew people that hated it, and others that really enjoyed it. I wasn't interested enough to rent the dvd from Netflix, but they had it as a "watch instant" option, so I added it to my queue. I never got around to watching it. Then Netflix made available streaming to the PS3, so I finally decided to give Across The Universe a try. Quickly I could tell this movie wasn't going to be my usual cup of tea. I have never been a big fan of musical theater, and Across The Universe has a lot of the same characteristics. It was very odd to hear these iconic Beatles songs performed by random singers; most accompanied by choreographed dance numbers. It was all very weird, and I didn't know how to react to it. I am a fan of the Beatles, and I am wonder what Beatles purists thought about this film. The musical pieces were loosely strung together by a plot, which wasn't always the easiest to follow. At times the story felt like the central focus of the film, and the music was there to support it. At other times I felt like the music was the centerpiece, and the story merely served to take us from one song to the next. I am still not sure how to react to it all, but I will say that I liked Across The Universe more than I expected to. However, I did have very low expectations. There were some enjoyable performances, along with some pretty stupid ones. I hate to ride the fence on any movie, and this is a tough one. I can totally see why people loved the film, and I can also see why others hated it. Ultimately I got bored with it and my mind was wandering by the halfway point. I wanted to be able to skip to the next musical piece then choose whether to watch it or continue on to the next. For what it was, it seemed pretty well done. However, I don't think I really got it. By this time anybody who had interest has already seen it. I will not attempt to convince anybody to see it that didn't already have an inkling to. If you have Netflix, there is no harm in firing it up on the "watch instantly" and seeing how it strikes you.

November 2, 2009

#046: The Girlfriend Experience

     The Girlfriend Experience received quite a bit of buzz amongst the critics when it was released. If I am going to pretend to be a film critic, I need to watch movies like this. Therefore I added it to my Netflix queue and waited for its dvd release. I got it in the mail the other day and decided to sit down and see what all the fuss was about. Part of the hype was due to the fact that the lead is played by an adult film star, Sasha Grey. Even though she has "appeared" in several movies, I would not consider her an actress... and it showed. While her acting might seem Oscar worthy when compared to other porn stars, it just doesn't hold up in an actual film. The Girlfriend Experience feels like an assignment submitted by college students who spent way too much time trying to make it seem meaningful when there was no substance there to begin with. I hated this movie and got absolutely no enjoyment from watching it. Any guys tempted to watch it just because of Sasha Grey will also be disappointed. The subject matter of this film actually has the potential to be interesting, but it is presented in a awkward style, making it all seem pointless. The movie is riddled with annoying conversations about the economy. Similar, yet likely more interesting, conversations can be heard at coffee shops across the country. It left me wondering what BS the characters would have talked about if this movie were made in a time of economic prosperity. Combine the inane dialog with the horrible acting, and this movie is a perfect storm of unwatchability. I understand that the conversations are meant to be meaningless because she is pretending to talk to her Johns on their "dates". However, this fact does not make them anymore exciting to listen to.