Saturday, May 30, 2009

Not all the way UP, but a change in altitude.

Warning: there is a SPOILER in the third paragraph. If you are troubled by spoilers, don't read the area within the red SPOILER lines below. Thank you.

To begin with, don't expect anything really new or spectacular in the realm of animation in Disney/Pixar's Up. There are the kind of increments of technology that you'd suspect, if you've watched the progress of CGI animation. To my eyes, they've gotten a lot more comfortable at rendering of fur on animals - at least some of the animals.

There is something unexpected in the first six minutes of the film. Everyone expected to see Ed Asner's character Carl Frederickson as a grouchy old man. But we first encounter him as a boy, someone who fell in love with adventure - but who only began seriously considering it when he met the love of his life, Ellie (Elie Docter).


I'm going to spoil the surprise of this part, because it must be discussed. We see Carl and Ellie growing up, finding a house, and keeping a dream - of going to South America to visit a mysterious place. Things keep getting in the way of their departure. And the biggest obstacle comes when an aged Ellie gets sick and dies.

As a man, I have biological obstacles that keep me from crying much. This scene got me to cry. And I sensed, in the packed theater of all kinds of ages, that everyone felt the same.

This event shadows much of the rest of the film. It gives Carl a depth and a meaning he wouldn't have posessed otherwise. It makes his grudging friendship with the young impetuous scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) critical to us.


But take it away...and you have a standard-plotted adventure. You have a stock villain in the disgraced adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) and his army of raised-intelligence, voice-box-equipped dogs. You have predictable but well-planned fight and action sequences. You have a happy ending with "where are they now?" stills running throughout the credits.

This is a well-constructed story, even in minor details. The things that happens to Carl's helium-hoisted house are logical and important in the plots. Witness what happens to the simple hose on a reel mounted to his porch. There is more character humor - and slightly rougher character humor - with the characters, earning the film a PG rating. And although Christopher Plummer does the voice of Muntz, the character's appearance is a kind of combination of Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston. That's a pretty devious character design.

But what I didn't perceive was the desire to tell a different kind of story. There are so many echoes of previous Pixar and Disney CGI films that I could almost predict some of the events.

Upon thinking about Up, I couldn't help but compare it to Disney's classic Sleeping Beauty. It was one of the last of the "Disney Princess" films supervised by Walt Disney. It wasn't profitable on its initial release. Its art style was more stylized than previous Disney animated features, in an attempt to make it look more mature than previous Disney films, but its story and characters were anything but original. Does anyone but a Disney completist even remember Aurora from that film?

Directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (Peterson also wrote the screenplay) are Pixar alumni with films like Wall-E, Ratatouille and Monsters, Inc. to their credit. And maybe that's the problem. Maybe there needs to be a new vision of what Pixar and Disney can do with animation. It might be too much to ask for something completely dramatic from them; that's never been successful in American animation.

Up has been hailed by critics, and it will probably be Disney's most solid hit for the summer. Disney's The Princess and the Frog shows up later, and its innovation will be Disney animators unafraid to show a broad spectrum of black characters, not just the Muses from Hercules. (We didn't get the trailer for Toy Story 3 in my theater.)

I enjoyed Up, and so did the rest of the theater. And maybe it's unfair of me to be asked to launch from my seat and do a midair flip for every new film. But I sense Pixar settling into a rut, no matter how profitable, and I think they've got to break new ground. Or inflate a bunch of balloons and fly above the ground.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A mangy, flea-bitten Wolverine.

Like many other people, I managed to see the "leaked" version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Despite that, I went to see it in a theater with some friends. Instead of a full-fledged movie, it looks like the Lifetime Women's Movie of the Month. Call it Poor Little Logan: Happy at Last.

Basically, the movie tells us little about Wolverine that we didn't know. One item that's hardly a spoiler; his full name is James Logan. Not too surprising for a Canadian. Most comic fans also know he's incredibly long-lived, and the long title sequence showing him fighting in the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam don't do much. Although the costume and prop department must have had a field day working on that sequence.

The reason I call it a Lifetime movie is that it's full of romantic heartbreak. Logan loses nearly every normal human that approaches him, through the baddy-baddy's that are chasing him. About the only point of all the bloodshed and action sequences is to find out who organized this fatwah. Anyone who saw X-Men 2: X-Men United can guess it's an evil military person.

Note: in the comic book origin, the evil military person was with a Canadian program. That had at least some real-world significance. Canada has always felt threatened by the Lower 48, and it made great sense for a paranoid military strategist to capture and utilize mutants in order for Canada to feel safe. Putting an American in charge of the operation - that is set at Alkali Lake, clearly in Canada - was utterly stupid.

In fact, "utterly stupid" is the best description for the plot. About the only good things in the movie are little snippets of various mutants from the comics. The movie did a good job on The Blob, the impossibly fat and unmovable mutant, which I guess was a combination of costume and CGI. And the long-time Cajun character Gambit conducted himself well, with the cockiness and sleazy charm of the comics.

And, of course, Hugh Jackman looks great with his shirt off, and copes well with the stupidities of the plot. The biggest stupidity being that, whenever he and his brother Sabertooth face off, they charge directly at each other at high speed, claws and fingernails out. It looks like something that would be done in bad comedy anime. If anything in this film would be worth parodying, it would be that.

But in all honesty, this film will not do very well. It doesn't deserve to do well. It was a lame attempt of Marvel to squeeze out a quick film for the summer, without the kind of forethought and care that Iron Man or Fantastic Four received. If there are to be any more X-Men Origins films, which I kind of doubt now, they had better do some honest work. Especially, they should find a reason we should care about whoever they are featuring.

The most drama this film will produce is whether senior executives at Fox will be canned for the bad handling of the bootleg situation. Not just letting the bootleg leak, but their bad attempt to provide positive spin afterwards.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Star Trek - The Real Motion Picture.

I have to start this review with a personal note, but it's pertinent to the new film Star Trek.

As many of you know, I've had a terrible week. Tuesday morning I was laid off from a job I've had for 33 years. I will not be hurting financially for a while, but I will find another job that will serve me better and let me serve humanity better. It's bleak out there on the employment front, as most of you probably know, but I shall persevere.

More than that, working for many years on an overnight-only shift, without seeing the sun and interacting with humanity, has warped me in ways I'm only beginning to understand. I will have to change much about my life, including things like exercise, diet, spending and other things I took for granted. So this week has been a very strange time for me.

When some friends invited me to a sneak preview of Star Trek, it was a blessing. And provided me with some insight. Producer J.J. Abrams (famous for the TV shows Alias and Lost, and the movie Cloverfield) was given an ailing, worn-out wreck of a concept and was told to make it new. Trek had to change, just as I am having to change.

The world of Star Trek has been put through the wringer. The last series, Star Trek: Enterprise, proved to be horribly unpopular. Even hard-core Trek fans couldn't take it. Abrams had to remake the show anew, without completely alienating the old fan base.

I can't say that all the Trek fans will be satisfied. Trying to please them has been a losing battle. But from the viewpoint of someone who does not own any Trek action figures and reads very few Trek novels, the movie Star Trek is a breath of spring air.

It alters the facts of the known Star Trek history. But the movie has a very simple explanation for that, that any real science fiction fan can accept. And I mean people who read and view more than just Trek or Star Wars or other genre movies, who read novels and novellas and other movies. And - the only clue I will give you - it will be familiar to comic book fans who've seen the various ways that the DC and Marvel universes have been rebooted. In fact, this "rebooting" makes up the central plot element of this movie.

Chris Pine doesn't play James Tiberius Kirk like Shatner. No one can. And he doesn't have to. His Kirk is a troublemaker, and a troubled kid. His rebelliousness is challenged by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and he is told he could become an officer in four years if he works hard. Kirk says "I'll do it in three."

That brings him up against Spock (Zachary Quinto), a relatively young Vulcan who is challenged by his half-human heritage. He is certainly not the head-slicing villain Sylar of Heroes here. Even playing a being whose emotions are screwed down tight, he is one of the best acting surprises in the movie. And that's saying a lot, since there are lots of surprises and worthy laughter in the film.

In this film, Spock designed the famous Kobayashi Maru scenario, the unbeatable training exercise that Kirk beats - by cheating. But before Starfleet Academy can boot the offender out, an emergency comes - a strange starship, with advanced weaponry and technology, is attacking Vulcan.

The villain is Nero, played by Eric Bana, whom you remember from the first miserable Hulk movie and the much better Munich. This Trek antagonist doesn't speak like Ming the Merciless or Count Dooku or in any other stilted "foreign" accent. His smooth, almost comfortable voice is scarier because it isn't "foreign."

You'll notice I'm talking about characters here. This film's great virtue is characters. This Kirk is brash and impetuous, but he doesn't always come out ahead. He damn near gets killed several times. And it takes the wisdom of Spock - this time, the original Spock, played by an incredibly old Leonard Nimoy - for Kirk to understand his destiny. And, frankly, for us to figure out the film's central riddle.

Simon Pegg, the protagonist of the horror comedy Shawn of the Dead, is fantastic as Scotty. Imagine, instead of James Doohan, the original Montgomery Scott had been played by Billy Connolly. I could talk forever about the others, but not now.

Because I must emphasize that this film also has strong action, that starts from the very beginning of the film. There is tension and violence that clearly indicates this isn't the staid world of Trek, where a starship always sits right-side-up when travelling. We are told early that anything can change, and it does.

You probably know that the sequel to this film has already been approved and the cast signed. The preview reaction was that positive. And it was positive among the audience I saw it with - with the exception of two hardcore Trek fans who bitched about changed details. I don't care, and the casual mass audience who will flock to this film won't care either. This is fully the spirit of Trek, and it is good.

I will spoil a surprise that comes at the end of the credits. It's no Easter egg or blooper. It's a simple text message remembering Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett Roddenberry (her computer voice recordings are her last performance before her death). A lot of hardcore fans didn't stay for that. I did. And the remaining people applauded. And I think, wherever their souls are, the Roddenberrys are applauding this film, which will make Trek live for a new generation.