Best Picture Review #4: Up

Thursday, February 18, 2010

There's a cliché that the judges on American Idol love to overuse: "S/he could sing the phone book and it would still be good." Well, I'm going to use a modified version of it at least one more time: The people at Pixar could make a movie about the phone book and it would still be compelling. Up wasn't the first Pixar movie I went into expecting a train wreck - I didn't really think a movie about a fish swimming across the ocean to find his lost son would be that compelling - but once again, I find myself in awe.

If you think about it, every single one of the Pixar films has at least one memorable scene that advances the plot without using a single spoken word, and I think that's what makes their films distinctive. In Up, they have perfected the art. Consider the following scene (it's from the first act, so there's no spoilers here):

That's not even the only important scene to utilize this technique. The adult Ellie has no lines, yet she's an important character all the way to the end.

There's plenty to be said about the words that are spoken as well. The characters that you don't expect to talk are maybe the funniest, and they provide comic relief at all the right times. This device in lesser hands would have been a serious detriment to the overall feel of the movie, but directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson made sure that the silly elements didn't dominate.

Ultimately, Up is about how one man deals with grief, and while I'm typically skeptical of movies where everything is wrapped up neatly at the end, the storytelling here is so masterful that I don't think viewers should feel cheated. In fact, the inclusion of the stowaway and the relationship he develops with Carl makes it that much more believable, not to mention more relatable. Up is the first animated movie since Beauty and the Beast to be nominated for Best Picture, and the distinction is more than deserved. I can't think of another animated movie that's tried to do so much and succeeded. 5/5

Best Picture Review #3: District 9

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

First-time director Neill Blomkamp wants you to know that District 9 is an important movie. Nothing is more obvious in the first act of the film. If you didn't get the District 6 reference in the title, Blomkamp hits you over the head with repeated mentions of South Africa, then ups the ante by naming his protagonist van der Merwe (There's an entire genre of jokes in South Africa devoted to a bumbling idiot named van der Merwe - here's one example). The first 10 minutes skewers bureaucratic inadequacy and exposes human nature's xenophobic tendencies in no uncertain terms.

As the mockumentary structure advances the storyline, it becomes increasingly apparent that the audience is being set up for a huge bait-and-switch (minor spoilers ahead). Wikus van der Merwe's eventual victimization is fairly predictable, but the manner in which his rejection comes to be was a pleasant surprise to me. His somewhat Kafka-esque metamorphosis provides some of the more poignant and thought-provoking scenes of the film. The scene where Wikus' wife Tania calls him back - apparently after much deliberation; Blomkamp takes care to tell us plenty of time has passed - and accepts him despite his compromised state was a particularly touching scene.

However, the problem with that precise scene underscores the problem of the film of the whole - the story runs out of steam and starts to rely on action movie cliches. When watching the scene in question the first time, I was hung up on the idea that the phone call might be a trap set by fictional MNU to get a fix on the cell phone location. (Sorry to be so vague. If you've seen the movie, you understand that I'm trying to avoid spoiling too much.) In fact, MNU has not thought of this and is apparently resigned to spreading negative propaganda. The subsequent scenes resemble a capture the flag game that could have been in the Halo movie that Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson were reportedly working on before moving on to District 9.

While the final act seems weak due to way too many last-second close calls, it could have been redeemed had the relationship between van der Merwe and Christopher Johnson been stronger. D9 tries to sell Wikus' final act as selfless and sacrificial, but given his repeated pleas to Johnson to "fix him," his transformation as a character rings false.

In light of this disappointing denouement, the promise of a cutting commentary on humanity that District 9 makes at the outset seems hollow. The effect is almost as if the two halves of the movie were written by two different people, which is entirely possible given the split screenwriting credit. I wrote this review once before deleting it and writing a more favorable review (it may not sound like it, but there's plenty to like here), but eventually I came back and rewrote the original one. I don't think it's overly harsh to be down on the movie as a whole because it doesn't live up to its own lofty expectations, especially when they're made so explicit as I outlined above. I look forward to a more experienced director remaking this movie in 20 years. A successful formula for the fictional future director living in my head would be to keep the first two-thirds of the story and then to take the ending in a completely different direction. Here's hoping. 3.5/5

Best Picture Review #2: Up in the Air

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This review contains minor spoilers. You've been warned.

Let's think about the standard components of a standard romantic comedy. Funny? Check. A girl teaches a guy to stop being selfish and open up to others? Check. Said guy realizes this important fact at the exact moment that he's about to achieve his life goal, resulting in him going silent, then bolting for the door and ignoring requests to stay, followed by a "running through the airport and getting to the gate just in time" scene so he can go see her? Oh yeah.

Up in the Air
is without a doubt a romantic comedy on the surface. Go snorkeling a little bit, though, and you'll find that there's so much more.

At its very core, UitA has a philosophical question for you - is having and cultivating relationships worth the trouble, or is having that much weight on your shoulders holding you back - personally or professionally? It's not a unique question for Hollywood - the content itself doesn't differentiate itself from, say, The Family Man starring Nicolas Cage, but the execution in answering that question sets it apart.

How so? For me, the scene that forces the issue is the one in Detroit. They're testing they're new technological way of firing people, which results in an odd set-up where Ryan (George Clooney) and Natalie (Anna Kendrick) are firing people from the next room. Ryan, a man who believes in keeping people at a distance, has been resisting the changes because he knows that helping someone "transition" requires a personal touch, but he hasn't noticed the tension until now. In the moment where a just-fired distraught employee walks past their conference room, Ryan gets it. I love it when the moment of realization in a character study is palpable like this. The director, Jason Reitman, also did Juno and Thank You for Smoking, and this is exactly what makes those movies great as well. In each of these three movies, you can see the main characters cognitively recognize how they're supposed to change, and here's the rub: they never do it right away. Isn't it like that in real life? It takes some time to change your actions even after you've changed your belief system.

Of course, what this does is set up a cheesy moment like the one I mentioned at the beginning, with the running through the airport and all. If you haven't seen the movie and you've read this far, I've already ruined it for you anyway, so I don't mind telling you that this actually happens. This is the struggle that I have with UitA: it was an amazing character study. All three characters did brilliantly. For the most part, the narrative structure was tight and purposeful. But it seemed like Reitman didn't know how to end it. The twist at the end was believable, but lazy. MAJOR SPOILER (highlight to read): Sure, the fact that Alex had a real family allowed her to say that line about Ryan being her escape from real life, but then why did she agree to go to the wedding? A better plot line would have been for her to have several other "escapes" that she encountered on the road. And let's not forget the gigantic elephant in the room: product placement. Call me a purist, but that was way too much. Overall, I really liked Up in the Air, but it suffered from some fatal flaws that make me wonder why it was nominated for Best Picture. 4/5

Best Picture Review #1: Avatar

Friday, February 5, 2010

I will be reviewing all of the Best Picture nominees in the days leading up to the Academy Awards on Sunday, March 7, just as I did last year. (You can find those reviews by clicking "Academy Awards" under "Labels" to the right.)

It would be very easy to pigeon-hole Avatar as a movie that is heavy on special effects with a story that seems to be borrowed from other well-known works. I did that very thing with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button last year. While that description would not necessarily be untrue for Avatar, I don't think it's fair.

First, let's talk about special effects, which almost seems like a misnomer. Effects implies that something was added in post-production, and nothing could be further from the truth here. According the The New Yorker (link NSFW - language), Avatar is "the first big-budget action blockbuster [shot] in 3-D." James Cameron wrote the script in 1994, but the technology wasn't good enough to actually shoot the idea. It wasn't until he saw Gollum on screen in one of the LOTR movies that he was convinced that the technology was ready, and even then he basically had to invent his own camera to accomplish what he did.

The result is absolutely breathtaking. Cameron is quoted as saying (back in early 2007!), "Ideally at the end of the day the audience has no idea which they're looking at," and in my opinion, he accomplished just that. There were only a couple of instances in the entire 162 minutes that didn't ring true to me, but those were very easily overlooked. (An example would be at about 2:56 of this video, where one Avatar pushes another and it just doesn't look quite right - understand that I'm really nitpicking here.) Have I said enough about the technical achievement yet? If you haven't seen it, go watch it in 3-D at the theater while you still can. This will probably be the first movie that's done an injustice by putting it on Blu-ray.

The vast majority of the criticisms I've heard about Avatar concern the story. Let me summarize them for you: it's not completely original. A simple internet search led me to comparisons of Dances with Wolves, Delgo, Dune, FernGully, The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, and many, many others. While it is true that Avatar and several of these movies share common archetypes, I don't think that this really diminishes the story arc at all. Cameron's screenplay challenges militarism and ethnocentricism (among many other topics), and since we apparently aren't getting the message, I'm okay with stories that attempt to engage these topics in a fresh way. If anything, the message is a little heavy-handed. Note to Mr. Cameron: Using the phrase "shock and awe" is the opposite of subtlety.

My quibbles with Avatar concern more of the same problems that affect other Hollywood blockbusters: too many shallow characters (especially Col. Quaritch and Trudy), cheesy one-liners, monologues given by the bad guys before they die, and plot twists that exist solely to justify more explosions. In a regular action flick, it's easy to overlook these flaws, but not in this case, at least not for me. Avatar aspires to be included among the Pantheon of Great Movies, and while I certainly agree that it will go down in history as a hugely influential work, it falls short of being an all-time great. 4.5/5.

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