Friday, November 5, 2004

The Incredibles

Pixar Animation has done it again. Although it’s hard to say exactly what it is Pixar keeps doing, since no two Pixar films are alike. Most of the greatest animated films of recent years are products of Pixar, and part of what makes them so great is their phenomenal appeal to all ages. There have always been kids’ movies with jokes aimed at parents, but Pixar films have scenes that leave kids enthralled while conjuring tears in the eyes of adults; the very same scene touches both. The Incredibles is certainly no tear-jerker, but it’s not trying to be. The Incredibles is truly smart, funny and exciting. It joins the ranks of the great superhero movies (granted, a short list) and emerges as one of the few films of the year that’s truly worth your eight dollars.

The film opens with Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) fighting crime and showing off his super abilities. Right from the start, The Incredibles employs some great action sequences, as well as some hysterical visual gags. Mr. Incredible’s wife, Elasti-girl (Holly Hunter), has the ability to stretch in just about any way imaginable and makes the remark that her husband needs to be “more flexible” with her. After the fun opening scenes, The Incredibles jumps ahead to a time in which the public has turned against superheroes and forced them into normal lives. The Incredibles now live in the suburbs where they work desk jobs and desperately try not to expose their superpowers. Itching to escape his retirement and return to the good old days, Mr. Incredible leaps at the chance when a mysterious woman recruits him for one last mission.

All of Pixar’s films are beautifully animated, but a quality story always comes first. The Incredibles is founded on a great idea; once the action kicks in, the story is on par with most superhero stories, but the idea of superheroes who have entered retirement is a good one. There’s plenty of clever satire on the monotony of everyday life, as well as family bickering. The four-way argument at the dinner table is verbally similar to what every family has experienced, but this one involves supersonic speed, freezing powers and force fields.

Much of the plot will be just out of reach of some younger viewers. Whereas children easily understood that Nemo was lost or that Woody was in danger, they may not all grasp why Mr. Incredible’s marriage is in danger. That won’t make much of a difference though, because The Incredibles is an absolute joy to watch. The characters are fun and the story has a good heart concerning the importance of family, but the action ultimately takes center stage, and it’s breathtaking. The animation is a wonderful balance between realism and the typical cartoon, and this environment sets the stage for some amazing action scenes. The filmmakers created a world in which anything is possible and used it to its fullest extent, filling every moment with delightful images.

The Incredibles are a fun family and they have no trouble making the movie work. There are also some memorable minor characters: Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) uses his freezing powers to fight crime alongside the Incredibles, and Edna Mode (director Brad Bird), the designer of all the greatest superhero suits, is an absolute riot. The film could probably have benefited from a little more time spent with these side characters, but that’s a pretty minor criticism. The Incredibles is not only fun, but a marvelous achievement in animated film.

Some day, Pixar’s going to make a movie that’s simply “good,” and it’s going to be a huge disappointment; on the other hand, perhaps that day won’t come anytime soon. They’re now officially six for six.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Ray

He was blind by the age of seven, but Ray Charles Robinson didn’t let that stop him from becoming one of the world’s most beloved entertainers. His mother drilled into him the idea of not letting anyone turn him into a cripple; the choice was entirely his own. What this latest film about Ray Charles shows so well is how he made that choice on a daily basis. He recognized his own talent and knew he could convince others to believe in him if he first believed in himself. Unfortunately, there wasn’t always much to believe in. Ray goes behind the success and shows the real Ray Charles, from his consistantly failing marriage to his deep-seeded drug addictions. These kinds of biographical movies often fall short because there aren’t many actors who can pull them off, but Jamie Foxx absolutely shines in the greatest performance of the year.

Ray Charles began as most great artists do, traveling from town to town looking for work. The film wastes no time showing the extraordinary challenges Ray has to face that some would take for granted, such as walking up the stairs to the bus. He demands to be paid with one-dollar bills, because he knows he’d be cheated otherwise. The color of skin isn’t the least of his struggles, either. Amidst all these challenges, though, Charles never settles for discouragment, nor mediocrity. He is always moving forward. Just as he begins making a name for himself, he realizes that his employers have been cheating him, financially. Rather than try to work it out, he immediately confronts, rebukes and leaves them, no questions asked. He knows he can’t survive without room to grow.

Everyone he comes in contact with admires his talent, but he faces the familiar ailment of not having anything unique to offer. His manager correctly identifies the problem, telling him, “No one wants another Nat King Cole.” Ray’s records are selling, nonetheless, but it’s not enough for him. During his first conversation with his future wife, she tells him, “I wonder who the real Ray Charles is.” He says he doesn’t know, but we get the sense that he doesn’t want to tell. He later writes I’ve got a woman, which reveals his true style; a completely original cross of R&B and gospel. She’s initially appalled, but can’t deny the power of his sound. He divides crowds at night clubs, causing some to shout that he’s hellbound for playing the devil’s music, but most people quickly get over it. Ray Charles’ music is just too good to pass up.

Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray is nothing short of brilliant. Foxx never goes over the top, but manages to capture all of Charles’ flair. He delivers the Ray Charles trademarks, most noticably his smile during performances, but he also gets the little things right. The way Foxx speaks, walks, and even the way he holds his arms after each song all reflect a performance designed to stand up under scrutiny. I started out watching Foxx closely to see how he would handle the role, but within minutes I forgot the performance and felt like I was watching the real Ray. Foxx doesn’t sing his own songs, but this is a wise decision on the part of the filmmakers. When striving for authenticity about a completely unique musician, who are you going to get that can sing like Ray Charles?

Ray moves back and forth between scenes of Ray’s journey through the music world and scenes of his childhood. He was raised on a farm in northern Florida where he witnessed the death of his brother at a very young age. Although Ray was clearly not to blame for his brother’s drowning, he never forgave himself. Throughout the film he periodically relives the incident, the first time being especially effective. While packing his suitcase, Ray suddnely believes the case to be filled with water. Panicked, he shuffles through his soaked shirts and closes his hand around a limp, young arm. He recoiles in terror, only to realize his imagination has gotten the best of him. These scenes say more about what’s happening inside his head than dialogue ever could.

His relationship with his wife suffers through a long series of lies and addictions. While packing a bag for him, his wife discovers a set of drug needles. She blasts Ray for keeping the secret from her, but he basically ignores her and continues with business as usual. Soon, it’s not just his wife that notices. During a recording session, a studio representative expresses his concern to Ray’s manager, to which the manager responds, “What do want me to do about it? Listen to that sound, man!” What Ray slowly realizes is how he betrayed his promise to his mother about never letting anyone turn him into a cripple; through his series of lies and addictions, he’s completely crippled himself. When one of his back-up singers becomes pregnant with his child, Ray denies her request to leave his family for her. She almost laughs and cries simultaneously, telling him in one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, “Between your music, your dope, and me, you’ve already left your family, Ray.”

The tale of Ray Charles’ life is a great story, but often a sad one. It’s a story of how the people he loved never came first; his music was always more important. Ray emerges as a portrait of a real man, and this wonderfully honest portrayal doesn’t necessarily paint him as either good or bad. Ray shows Ray Charles for what he was, nothing more. It knows exactly what is needed to succeed, which is more than most films know.

Friday, October 8, 2004

Friday Night Lights

We’ve all seen that mediocre sports film, haven’t we? It’s the one about the washed-up team without a chance that ends up rallying around a coach, overcoming every obstacle to defy the odds, and failing to surprise anyone in the movie theatre by winning the big whatever. That film has over a hundred titles and the cast varies occasionally, but it’s essentially the same one every time. Thankfully, Friday Night Lights is not that movie.

Based on a true story, Friday Night Lights has a different tale to tell; not a tale of disappointing football players, but of disappointing people. It doesn’t show a team in shambles, but rather an entire community...an entire world. The high school football players in this story aren’t students who play football on the side. These are kids who don’t have anything else. They live and die on the field, and all that matters in life is scoring more points than the other team before the clock runs out. The trouble is that nothing lasts forever, and after 10 years of experiencing nothing but 100 yards of life, the world begins to look too big for comfort.

The film is set in Odessa, Texas, 1988, and the first image on screen is a seemingly endless West-Texas sky. One the one hand, the possibilities are endless and the sky’s the limit. The film doesn’t waste any time getting down to the reality of that imagery, though: the sky is endlessly repressive; there’s no escaping it. The Permian Panthers are led by Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), a veteran coach who seems instantly down to earth. Thornton is the perfect choice as the simple man just trying to do his best. Everyone else expects infinately more of him than his best, and this is where Friday Night Lights stands alone. The protagonist team is fully expected to win. The entire town has made up its mind before the season ever begins, and the biggest struggle for this team is living up to its own expectations.

The story itself is obviously true; it’s not the kind of tale a screenwriter would craft. Everything about it seems real. There’s no cheesy conversations between the coach and the struggling athlete or melodramatic pep-talks at halftime. In fact, there’s not even much of a romance, something many sports movies attempt, but don’t know how to handle. There are still scenes involving conversations and pep-talks, they’re just not overdone. This serves as a double-edged sword, though, because the movie isn’t very uplifting or inspiring. In fact, it’s almost depressing. In a small town where high school football is everything, there exists a vicious cycle of generations that grow up too fast.

One of the most powerful moments comes when three students are sitting on the side of the road, talking. The conversation is pretty grave, centering on the remainder of their shaky season. One boy tries to call everything into prospective, reminding his friends, “We’re just seventeen years old.” One of his comrades turns around immediately and asks retorically, “Do you feel like you’re seventeen?” Of course not. Their youth was the price of the life they were born into. Another jarringly raw moment is when an injured player breaks down in tears and realizes for the first time in his life that he might have to do something besides football. None of them are ready to leave the game, but high school is coming to an end, whether they win or not.

Friday Night Lights looks better than most sports movies. The film itself is gritty and almost a sandy color, much like West-Texas itself. The camera remains unusually active, refusing to hold still for more than a few seconds, and occasional extreme close-ups help keep it visually interesting. Performances are good all around, including a surprisingly sharp appearance by Tim McGraw as a drunken, verbally abusive father. Billy Bob Thornton remains well within his everyman element; his Gary Gaines is the only character who realizes what life is really about. Everyone else learns the hard way.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow exists as a cross between a classic film noir and a 1930’s comic book. Most comic books are only as good as their illustrations, and Sky Captain possesses gorgeous style. The other side of this coin is that most film noirs are only as good as their characters. Sky Captain is the biggest summer film that was held back for a fall release, and it could have been a wonderful summer action film; it also could have been an intriguing film noir. As it turns out, it’s not enough of either.

The story is set in a fantastic, futuristic vision of 1938. The opening scene shows a massive blimp docking atop the Empire State Building, and the visuals here harken back to classic concepts of the future; everything is sleek, metallic and overly shiny. We meet Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), an ambitious reporter covering the disappearance (and possible murder) of seven scientists. While hot on a trail of newfound evidence, Polly witnesses the invasion of New York City by an army of building-sized robots. Of course, there can now be only one hope for humanity: Sky Captain.

Actual name Joe Sullivan, Sky Captain (Jude Law) flies his plane into the very heart of danger, fighting evil as only a super hero can. As he flies over the city, Joe looks down and sees Polly running through the streets. She sees his plane, and they simultaneously utter each other’s names. These two have a history. Polly desperately wants her news story and holds the crucial piece of evidence concerning the mystery of the invasion, yet can hardly go alone. They suddenly find themselves dependent upon one another to unravel the mystery of the robots and save the world.

Sky Captain is the premiere for writer/director Kerry Conran, and he certainly presents a glorious vision. A computer effects extravaganza, Conran’s film has tremendous style. The action sequences are exciting enough, but the visuals are at their best in the first fifteen minutes. While characters and plot points are being established, the imagined city of New York provides the perfect backdrop. Every element has an unrealistic glow. The picture itself seems dim and murky so that even the brightest colors are reminiscent of black and white film. These scenes are the opening of a movie that never arrives, a film in which the visuals serve the characters and the story, instead of the other way around.

As the characters leave New York to track down the mad scientist responsible for the robotic mayhem, they also leave behind all sense of intrigue. The color palette brightens as the entire mood of the picture shifts away from character development towards typical action fare. The visuals never cease to impress, however, nor do the performers. Angelina Jolie turns up as Franky Cook, an old friend of Joe’s, but yet another good character is only hinted at. After all, there’s no time to consider her character’s motivations when there’s more robots to blow up. With two Oscar winners and one Oscar nominee at the helm, it’s a shame the cast wasn’t given greater opportunity.

The story ends up taking a turn for the ridiculous as more and more action floods the screen, but the characters themselves aren’t bad. In fact, they all show promise initially. Polly Perkins is the kind of woman who’s always scheming and telling half of what she knows. She follows in the tradition of the seductive woman who cons the hero for all he’s worth, but unfortunately, she’s not that woman. Polly is only based on that stereotype, and stereotypes themselves aren’t interesting. Sky Captain is also bound by a stereotype; he would have been much more interesting as a scoundrel capable of mistakes, perhaps even wrongdoing. As it is, he’s far too predictable, and the hardest stuff he ever drinks is milk of magnesia.

Don’t misunderstand; there’s nothing wrong with a fun action movie. In fact, a simple action film can be great. Take Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example. Indiana Jones is an infallible hero who embarks on one great adventure after another, somehow managing to always keep his hat on. The difference between the two films is that Raiders knows what it is: an adventure film, through and through. Sky Captain throws in elements from all sorts of movies and never quite decides if it’s mocking its genre or embracing it. From jazzy film noir to science fiction to all-out action, Sky Captain would have been much better off choosing one and devoting itself fully, rather than dabbling in all three.

Still, Kerry Conran is to be commended for such a valiant first effort. His sense of style shows great promise; his future work should be the payoff.

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Vanity Fair

Many artists, both filmmakers and writers, are afraid of period-pieces. Struggles over how past eras should be presented often lead to the wrong, phony solutions. Humans have always shared the same obsessions and felt the same emotions. They have always been driven by love and power, and citizens of 19th-century England were no different. Vanity Fair achieves perfection in presenting believable characters delivering believable dialogue; I can’t remember the last time a period-picture was done so well.

The story follows Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), a girl whose parents die at the dawn of her adolescence, leaving her to be raised at a finishing school. Having grown into a lady and finding herself anxious to experience the realities of the world, Becky flees the school with her only friend, Amelia (Romola Garai) and travels to London. After becoming a tutor to the children of the wealthy Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), Becky catches the eye of more than one man. She makes all the right friends and finds herself soaring up the social ladder, causing one character to remark, “I thought her a mere social climber; I see now she’s a mountaineer.”

When Becky begins to “settle down” into a relationship, she learns from experience what matters most in life. All of her acquaintances are trapped by the same rules of high society and everyone struggles with questions of priority. A successful life comes at a terrible price, and what constitutes happiness is constantly under scrutiny. One older gentleman reveals to Becky, “The only thing that matters in life is to love and be loved.” The problem is that Becky’s not fit to love anyone, nor is she capable of giving her love to those who would have it.

While on her quest for success and/or happiness, Becky meets a charming cast of characters. Vanity Fair is based on a famous novel of the same title, and the structure of the story feels like a novel. The film isn’t afraid of presenting a plethora of characters, nor does it hesitate to take its time. There are emotions lurking beneath the witty, razor-sharp dialogue that the novel surely delves deeper into, but enough characterization is given so that the characters feel authentic. There are believable emotions presented, not just formulas.

The set pieces and the costumes are visually lush, bursting at the seams with color and life. All of these elements help reinforce the period, but the film’s true authenticity stems from the look of the city itself. Vanity Fair does a masterful job capturing the truths of everyday life in the 19th century. The camera shows wide, sweeping shots filled with grandiose architecture and elegant clothing, but then remembers to move in close and show the dirty filth of the streets. The film scraps historical stereotypes and goes out of its way to create an authentic representation.

Witherspoon absolutely shines in her performance as a woman confused by a life out of balance. Her accent is so flawless that I never thought about it, and all the subtleties of her performance add up to a great sum. Performances are more than suitable all around, but this is Witherspoon’s show and she delivers a jewel. We begin as mere spectators, but she pulls us closer in record time, making us care about her character. The film is not a suspenseful one, yet the next scene never comes soon enough.

This film left me with no complaints. Vanity Fair presents an engaging story, great characters, memorable dialogue, and beautiful art direction. It doesn’t appeal to any specific audience and is therefore unlikely to be an impressive success financially, but Vanity Fair is one of year’s best films just the same. It’s the kind of movie that stands out and makes us realize what so many others have been missing.