Monday, August 9, 2010

Motherfuckers Act Like I Forgot to Mention Stuff in the Last Post

Knew I forgot something: Toy Story 3 was another remarkable movie I saw this summer, and I had a few quick thoughts on it.

When I first heard it announced that they were making another Toy Story movie, more than a decade after the last one was released, I didn't get it. I don't think I've seen the original films since their initial releases, but I recall them fondly. The first was a fun family film with a great premise, the second fleshed out the original's themes into something more poignant and special. In fact, Toy Story 2 so perfectly did what it did that it seemed like it should be the end. Why tarnish something wonderful by returning to it unnecessarily? I can't imagine the inspiration for part 3 being anything more noble than crassly trying to cash-in on the goodwill of the earlier films by bringing back the franchise. But as it turns out, they happened to make an excellent film during the crass cash-in.

I think I've mentioned this before when talking about Ratatouille, Up, Beowulf, and Kung Fu Panda, but animation is a great medium for action sequences, and like those other kids films, Toy Story 3 is something of a concealed action film. In a world smothered in frenetic, shaky cam, rapidly cut, spatially incoherent action sequences, animation offers us a fresh breath of deep focus, precisely pieced-together action that allows momentum to build through motion and logic, rather than ADHD editing room theatrics. Not to mention the way animation frees the creators to craft some truly unique set pieces, as well as gives them access to an untethered, weightless "camera" that can get shots that would be impossible in the real world.

Part of the great fun of this film is that the last act, detailing the toys' escape from a day care center, is essentially a prison break movie that climaxes in an extended chase scene, a la The Great Escape. It's a veritable masterpiece of technical craftsmanship, punctuated by all sorts of delightfully clever ideas (Mr. Potato Head creating a new, unstable body by putting his appendages into a tortilla, which is attacked by hungry pigeons; a cymbal-banging monkey as a security guard; little plastic toy bins used as jail cells; so on) that put a goofy spin on the genre. It's the most intense action sequence I've seen in a good many years (in fact, potentially too intense and emotionally upsetting for small children... the toys come A LOT closer to mortal peril than you might expect) and it's in a freakin' kids movie.

I'm not going to lie and pretend I didn't have a strong emotional reaction to the film as well, but I did wonder if perhaps it, thematically speaking, hewed a little too close to the second film. As I remember it, that film was all about the toys coming to terms with the fact that their owner, Andy, was going to grow up one day and leave them behind. That was why so many adults connected with the film: it was a sneaky metaphor for parenthood. The climax of Toy Story 3 pushes all those same buttons, having Andy heading off to college, and it brushes a little too close to redundancy for my liking. What saves it is that they find a new angle in the material; this time, it focuses on Andy as well, illustrating his conflicted emotions about heading off to school and leaving his family/toy/childhood behind.

And fuck it, you know what? I want to talk about Step Up 3D a little bit while I have you here. I'm not shocking anyone when I say it's a silly, stupid movie filled with stock characters and dusty, shop worn cliches by the dozen. But it does a few things, and does them very well, that I greatly cherished. Film can be an artform of great narrative, thematic and emotional depth, but it doesn't always have to be. It can also be an artform that records performance, and celebrates motion and light in a unique and indelible way. Step Up 3D is an infectiously goofy, breathless dance flick that presents a neon colored world of nonstop kinetic energy; it also exploits the gimmick of 3D better than any other live action movie in recent memory. Bubbles, balloons and the dancers themselves are thrust out of the screen towards the audience; the dancers dance on a flooded stage, on a stage covered in white powder, and for their big finale, put on silly looking futuristic shirts with colored lights on them that add a synchronized light show to their dance routine. I kinda loved it.

I suppose the movie is indefensible on the level of dialogue and character, except to say that it has a charming dopiness about it; my frequent laughter was affectionate and not derisive. It presents such a gloriously fantastical world, one where uniformed dance gangs challenge each other to impromptu dance battles in public places, that you couldn't have wiped the dumb smile off my face with a squeegee.

Let me put it like this: I like old musicals and dance movies. While Step Up 3D clearly doesn't have a screenplay as strong or witty as, say, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Singin' in the Rain, it provides the same kind catching, winning fun. The high point of the film, for me, was a Fred-and-Ginger-inspired dance number between two of the leads on the streets of New York, dancing up doorsteps, putting trashcan lids on their feet for some softshoe, shaking tree leaves on themselves for a kinda snowy effect, etc., all done in one shot. It comes dangerously close to being magical, which is more than most mainstream entertainment aspires to.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Motherfuckers Act Like They Forgot About Dan

Hey all you out there in internetland. Just a quick update since I haven't posted here in a few weeks.

First thing's first: my girlfriend got a Twitter account and didn't want to try it alone, so I fucking caved and got one myself. You can read my 140-character-or-less thoughts @ASeriousDan. I haven't really found much use for it, except I'm posting a tweet (that's what they call it, right? "Posting a tweet"?) every time I watch a movie, with a mini-review and rating. I know, I know, what a perfect way to insightfully analyze film. Everyone else might as well just give up, I think I've reached the pinnacle of film criticism.

I did originally create this blog to talk about movies, so here are a few fast thoughts about some of the more remarkable recent films I've seen.

Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, about a teenage girl from the Ozarks searching for her missing meth dealer father before the state seizes their home, could have been a piece of miserablist poverty porn a la Precious Based On the Novel Push By Saffire. Instead, Granik crafted it into a skillful thriller and richly detailed slice of life. When the film first started, its desaturated color palette and handheld camera work had me worried it was going to be some sort of self-consciously gritty, self-important bit of Indie faux-realism, but for once this overused style works. As much as it is a film about a girl traveling to the depths of the meth underworld in a desperate bid to save her family, it's also a film about a specific time and place that creates a densely textured world without beating you over the head with it. A masterpiece of set design, it keeps finding all the right details, from the lizard cage in a drug dealer's trailer, to a little girl hopping around on her toy horse on the old trampoline stashed in her backyard. The film also signals Jennifer Lawrence, the lead, as an actress to keep tabs on. And more impressively it casts a whole new light on John Hawkes; known for playing twerps, here he gives a surprising turn as "Teardrop," an intimidating drug dealer who slowly reveals (just the slightest, mind you) amount of humanity when shit hits the fan.

Completely confounding to me was Alain Resnais's Wild Grass, but I mean that in a good way. It starts off something like a Jeunet film, a quirky fable about about a lonely dentist and a strange old man whose paths cross by chance, introducing all sorts of different plot strands that seem about to come together. Instead, the film pulls back layer after layer to reveal a bizarre creepiness under the light romantic comedy surface, and when the story finally "comes together," it is in a way that makes no sense and doesn't seem to answer anything. It's like the anti-Amelie. Like Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad, it almost seems like a self-conscious admission/analysis of its own impenetrability (albeit more playful and funny than that film) and an invitation to revel in its glorious artificiality, in this case a world of rich candy colors, flights of fancy and imagination, and energetic, show-offy camera work.

And of course I have to mention Inception. There's a lot you can (rightly) criticize about the film: it's depiction of dreams and the mind are almost perversely literal; Christopher Nolan still can't film a good shoot-out; with a few brief exceptions, the film wastes ample opportunities to deliver mindblowing visuals and/or surrealism. Yeah, I think Nolan is far too logical and not visually oriented enough to really make a movie about dreams. Instead, what he did was use his strengths in editing and story-craft to make a great heist/con movie style thriller. The "dream" motif is little more than a gimmick that allows Nolan to create some truly awesome set pieces, freeing him to play with time, space, gravity, parallel action, and so on. The last half of the movie is like one long suspense sequence (or more accurately, dozens of suspense sequences piled on top of each other and happening simultaneously) that doesn't let up for a second, even leaving us hanging when the film cuts to credits. It's not the best film I've seen so far this year (That would probably be either Winter's Bone or Bong Joon-Ho's Mother), but it is the most fun... but I'll have to see it again to determine if the film's nearly wall-to-wall exposition drags it down when you already know what's going on.