Friday, June 5, 2009

Up

Pixar and I have a game that we like to play. Whenever I see a trailer for a new Pixar movie, I assume that it can’t possibly be as good as Pixar’s previous movies. The folks at Pixar assure me that it is, and after I’ve seen the movie, one of us is declared the winner. I have yet to win this game. Up marks Pixar’s tenth feature film, tenth work of art, tenth masterpiece. I thought that nothing could effectively follow WALL•E, the best film of 2008, but let me remind you again that the score currently stands: Pixar - 10, Dee - 0.

Up features a wonderful protagonist: Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), age 78. A widower soon to be evicted off his property, Carl decides it’s time to embark on the adventure that he always wanted to take with his wife. By tying thousands of balloons to his house, Carl lifts off and sets a course for South America. Once airborne, he discovers that Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Explorer Scout, has inadvertently stowed away on board. When the two of them reach the jungles of South America, they encounter many perils, not the least of which is learning to get along.

Pixar has made me laugh and cry during the same film on multiple occasions, but now they’ve made me do it in the first 15 minutes. Up boasts a brilliant prologue, one that reminds us that grumpy old people don’t appear out of thin air. In today’s youth-obsessed culture, it’s easy to forget that all old people were once young. Carl Fredricksen grew grumpy over time, and for specific reasons. The early montage reflecting on his marriage has no dialogue, but conveys the kind of genuine emotion that storytellers dream about. Carl is a rich, fully-developed character, and pairing him with a young child was a masterstroke.

When Up isn’t moving you to tears, it’s making you laugh, and not just half-heartedly, with under-your-breath chuckles. The scenes between Carl and Russell had me hooting and cackling, which might have been embarrassing had I been the only one in the theater making such a racket. A grumpy old man and a joyful, optimistic child - as a comedic filmmaker, you would have to work pretty hard to lose with that setup. The rest of the comedy comes through some wonderfully innovative fantasy, which complements the realism unexpectedly well. The human characters are grounded and relatable, but then you’ve also got mythic birds, talking dogs, and a flying house.

As always with Pixar, the magnificent animation captivates, but it takes a backseat to the story. Story has come first at Pixar since day one, and it’s remarkable that Pixar’s beautifully rendered movies aren’t known for their animation. Everyone loves them for their stories and their characters. In addition to being Pixar’s tenth film, Up also marks the studio’s first 3D feature. 3D effects are so rich and impressive nowadays, and they work especially well with computer-generated images. The film would still play very well in a traditional format, but if you have a chance to see it in 3D, it’s worth the few extra dollars.

In an unexpected way, Up reminded me of one of my favorite novels, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Carl Fredricksen learns late in the game that he’s been missing the joy in life’s little moments. He always dreamed of adventure, but failed see the adventure in the world immediately around him. His journey made for one of the funniest, most touching, and most rewarding filmgoing experiences I’ve had in a long time. Before the film began, the audience cheered during the teaser trailer for next year’s Toy Story 3. Pixar is returning to the familiar territory that began it all, which I know they wouldn’t do unless they had a great story. I’ve already decided not to play my silly Pixar game on that one, or any others, for that matter. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the magic.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some peril and action.

Up has some intense action (especially intense in 3D), but nothing to worry about. You’ll probably be far more emotionally exhausted than your children, because your children won’t fully appreciate Carl’s backstory. Kids will eat up the humor, the visuals, and even the grumpy old protagonist. Definitely treat your kids to this picture, but know that you’ll also be treating yourself.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Angels and Demons

Ron Howard’s team missed the mark a bit with The Da Vinci Code (2006), failing to achieve the right balance of action, intellect, and suspense. Howard’s approach hasn’t changed much, but Angels and Demons works better than The Da Vinci Code, mostly because the book is more cinematic in nature. This action-based thriller succeeds better than its puzzle-based predecessor, but it still suffers in some of the same respects.

Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon, a Harvard Professor whom the Vatican summons shortly after the Pope’s death. The Illuminati, a secret society that hopes to destroy the Catholic Church once and for all, has kidnapped four prominent Cardinals. The assailants tell the Vatican that one Cardinal will be murdered every hour, from 8 pm to 11 pm. In addition to the kidnappings, they have hidden a highly explosive substance somewhere on Vatican grounds, and the device will detonate at midnight. Langdon races against the clock to rescue the Cardinals and save the Vatican from imminent destruction.

I felt while reading the book that it would make for a better movie than The Da Vinci Code did, and while the book’s structure is better suited to the big screen, the film adaptation still falters in the face of time constraints. The novel isn’t any more realistic than the movie, but the novel seems more realistic, largely because it takes its time. As an author, Dan Brown had complete control over pacing, allowing him to properly balance the brainy parts and the action. By contrast, the film crew had to not only convey the entire story in just over two hours, but also make its absurd premise seem at least somewhat logical. Not even Robert Langdon has faced a challenge so daunting.

Ron Howard did about as well as anyone could have. The cast delivers, though I’m still not sold on Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon. Hanks is easily one of the greatest and most versatile actors in the business, but he just doesn’t work for me as the Harvard-Professor-turned-action-hero. Hanks’ likability alone carries the character to a certain extent, but not far enough. The supporting cast is solid, featuring especially strong performances from Ewan McGregor and Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd.

Much has been made of Dan Brown’s historical inaccuracies, but its worth noting that his stories, however spotted with misinformation, are very tightly woven. Here we find yet another pitfall for the film adaptation. As soon as you cut one element out, however small, another suffers. This film version omits many tidbits, meaning that the viewer who spends too much time thinking about the plot will find holes the size of St. Peter’s Square. There just isn’t time to patch up all the leaks in the ship. Angels and Demons has more action than The Da Vinci Code, but it still pauses for the occasional history lesson, which rubs up against the ticking time bomb plot device like sandpaper on a sunburn.

In the end, Angels and Demons has enough thrills and intrigue to hold our attention and provide a good time (Ron Howard is a first-class filmmaker, after all), but it’s a fairly forgettable flash in the pan. I don’t like to point out films’ problems without offering solutions, but I confess to not having the answers for this one. Oh, I could list a few specific changes I would make (though not without disclosing plot details, which I won’t do), but I stand by my assessment that Dan Brown’s novels aren’t cut out for the silver screen. Cinematic time limits make it too hard to adequately understand and care about the complex situations.

Ron Howard has proven to be a master of suspense, but the script has to be character-based. If you put great characters in Ron Howard’s hands, he’ll make you sweat every time, even if you know how the story turns out (Apollo 13). I admire Howard’s work, especially his willingness to expand his horizons. His filmography grows increasingly diverse, though I suspect these Dan Brown adaptations won’t be remembered for as long as his other films. It sounds impossible, but Angels and Demons, an enjoyable thriller about mystery, murder, and scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, never approaches the level of suspense that Ron Howard achieved in 2008 with Frost/Nixon, a film about two men sitting in chairs, talking.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material.

The violence is harsh, bizarre, and very creepy, especially a horrific scene where a Cardinal is burned alive. Kids would be frightened, and with good reason. 13 should definitely be the minimum age here, and a few extra years wouldn’t hurt. Even though it’s not very bloody, the violent imagery stays with you.