Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Toys Are Back, All Shined Up and Ready For Play In 3-D!

(An exclusive two week engagement starting Oct. 2nd)
Both Rated G
Toy Story: 81 minutes
Toy Story 2: 92 minutes
Walt Disney Pictures
***** out of 5

If we are to fully believe in the hope for 3-D animation it comes directly from the hands of Pixar. While “Up” didn’t manage to satiate my belief it has now come to term with their re-release of the original “Toy Story” films. Lately there has been a glutton of 3-D films. While none in the live-action arena have given leeway in hope, the cinematic gimmick of yesteryear now has legs to stand on. This isn’t saying Pixar is the only production company capable of producing fine 3-D films in either format. Simply put, live-action films have characters and props looking like they’re placed in front of cardboard cutout sets while CG animation manages to fully immerse with added depth and clarity.

When the decision was made to make “Up” Pixar’s first film to use the now standard 3-D effect a lot of the budget was strictly for “depth budget.” This handled a completely separate aspect of the production to tackle the use of 3-D to enhance the viewing pleasure rather than to be used simply as the gimmick it is. Personally, I did not think the added use of 3-D made the film any more enjoyable. It made a few of the scenes a little more exciting but overall still didn’t fully immerse me in a world I had already seen a month earlier in standard 2-D. The fun and joy of watching a CG animated film is that these already have a 3-D quality to them when made by a major studio.

Surprisingly, all my early opinions were squashed with the use of 3-D in this re-release. Scenes that have been watched repeatedly now feel completely fresh. Originally released in 1995 and 1999 there was obviously never any intent by the filmmakers to make these readymade for an eventual 3-D release 10 years later but you’d never know. Objects fly at the audience and point of view shots feel more realistic than ever. If you thought the toys looked lifelike before prepare to be amazed as you wait for one to leap off the screen and beg to be taken home and be played with.

“Toy Story” was directed by John Lasseter but written and storied with some very familiar names – Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft and even Joss Whedon (yes, that Joss Whedon). It’s a simple story about toys that come to life when humans leave the room. They have an owner named Andy (voice of John Morris) who loves his Sheriff Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) more than the rest but still plays with all in elaborate set pieces. Along comes Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen) who inadvertently replaces Woody. Woody sporting a case of “laser envy” accidentally knocks Buzz out of the bedroom window prompting a rescue mission to bring Buzz home.

Never before has a song been as welcoming as when Randy Newman’s penned, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” begins to play over the opening credits. It’s as if he and everyone at Pixar is your grandpa giving you a great big bear hug (which makes even more sense if you’ve ever seen Randy Newman).

“Toy Story 2” is the continued adventures where all the original toys are back and new faces are brought in to expand the journey. This was again directed by John Lasseter but co-directed with two new Pixar directors (Ash Brannon and future “Toy Story 3” director Lee Unkrich) and written by a team of newly credited writers aside from repeated contributor Andrew Stanton. This time Woody is in the process of rescuing Wheezy the Penguin (voice of Pixar’s late Joe Ranft) when he is stolen from a yard sale. Al (voice of Wayne Knight) takes Woody to his “No Children Allowed” apartment complex where he meets the rest of the “Woody’s Roundup” crew – Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl (voice of Joan Cusack), Stinky Pete the Prospector (voice of Kelsey Grammer) and Bullseye, Woody’s sidekick horse. This time Buzz sets up a search and rescue mission leading them from Al’s Toy Barn to the apartment complex where lessons are learned and identities confronted.

One of the best things about watching this new version of the “Toy Story” films is that they have only converted the original content into 3-D so the animation is left untarnished. This particularly made the films fun to watch back-to-back in a theater. They may have been released 4 years apart but just so much as the rendering of the dogs Buster and Scud is incredible.

Lots of treasures are to be rediscovered such as spotting the starred bouncy ball, “A Bug’s Life” Dim toys in Al’s Toy Barn, Pixar short film clips on the television as Hamm (voice of John Ratzenberger) frantically flips channels to seeing where the always strategically positioned A113 winds up. Everything old is new again and prettier than ever. They haven’t glossed things up so much as finally enhanced the viewing experience for a film to truly immerse the audience in a world already so beloved. Previously available only on VHS and DVD, after seeing this presentation I simply cannot wait for the eventual Blu-ray releases. Applause all around on a fabulous job well done creating something so fresh from something probably considered dated by lesser fans of the medium. Run to see this anew at a theater near you before the exclusive two week engagement runs out!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Let Your "Surrogates" Be Your Guide Through the New Bruce Willis Thriller

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene.
88 minutes
Touchtone Pictures
*** out of 5

I freely admit it; I’m a big fan of director Jonathan Mostow. But sometimes you can feel a director slipping with each film and I really hope that with some more films under his belt and his name back in the writer’s credit he can get himself back on track. With his first theatrical outing he brought us a spectacular little film called “Breakdown” starring Kurt Russel and Kathleen Quinlan in a fight for survival along the highways of the back roads. This was co-written with the same writer he teamed up for to give us “U-571” (Sam Montgomery) which brought bigger stars along with it such as Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, and Jon Bon Jovi. It was a very claustrophobic and intense film that almost completely takes place under water and within in confines of a submarine yet managed to be gripping and interesting all the way through which is a big deal for a guy who has no normal interest in the war genre.

For Mostow’s third theatrical outing he teamed up with one of the most powerful movie stars of all time, now-Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also brought along some new writers to the series, Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato. These four brought us the much maligned “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” I am a big supporter of this film. Most people hate it but it never took itself seriously, had some amazing robot-on-robot fight scenes and gave us the first true downer ending of the whole series. And anyone who can’t find the beauty in the mayhem behind the never-ending scene of street destruction just needs to realize their watching a movie about robots and really let their suspension of disbelief go crazy.

In Mostow’s latest directing effort he brings back the robots and the “T3” writers but completely check their brains at the door with “Surrogates.” Thankfully they also brought along another one of the world’s reigning action stars with them, Mr. John McClane himself, Bruce Willis. Based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele something seems to have been lost in the translation here. There’s plenty of heady ideas but its set up against a who-dunnit that’s so obligatory you wish there was more action along the way to make up for what is totally lost in the story department. I guess this makes us not forget that the writing partners, while bringing us the likes of “The Game,” “T3” and this summer’s “Terminator Salvation,” also reaped upon us “Watchers 2,” “The Net,” “Primeval” and their worst film to date, “Catwoman.” Their writing is a mixed bag for sure but when they get it right it’s usually more than watchable; especially when they have a good director behind them such as Mostow or David Fincher (“The Game”).

In “Surrogates” the year of “Present Day” is never made mention to but it starts with an interesting set up showing news clips and interviews that took place “14 Years Ago” when Dr. Canter (James Cromwell) has developed the technology behind the surrogate machines to allow people with disabilities to lead fully functional lives through the use of these machines controlling them with their own brain cells. “11 Years Ago” it is said that the use of the surrogate machines becomes more mainstream and normal people beginning using them to lead their days without the worry of pain or injury. “7 Years Ago” we are told that through the use of the every day population becoming more and more surrogate and less and less real, live humans the crime rate has then dropped to only 1% across the country. “3 Years Ago” there is a rise in tension between humans and surrogate users and a very “District 9” “Human Coalition Reservation” is formed where only humans are allowed to enter which is run by “The Prophet” (Ving Rhames).

For the first time in years a murder has taken place in “Present Day.” Dr. Canter’s son has been out partying through the use of a surrogate and someone uses a weapon against him which not only completely fries the Identity Card of the machine but the Dr. Canter’s son’s brain as well in the process. Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is brought in to investigate with his partner Peters (Radha Mitchell). After speaking with Dr. Canter himself they stop off on another floor and speak with someone in the manufacturing department where they find out that a bunch of Army surrogates were returned with not only their identity cards missing but their optics removed as well. Eventually it is brought forth that a machine called the “Overload Device” has been manufactured within the Army that can obviously kill the surrogates along with their human counterpart. Now Greer not only has to find out who killed Dr. Canter’s son but try to uncover who’s really behind the weapon, piece together the conspiracy behind its use and as always, try to save humanity in the process.

Yes, its standard action/sci-fi cliché here but it’s all in good fun and never meant to be too serious. Willis never really gets the chance to go into McClane mode until about an hour into the movie but there is a great scene that consists of him just standing in a hallway talking to his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike) conversing about simply just wanting the real her again and for them to stop living a marriage of machines. Another scene where the two argue in public and she simply shuts down her surrogate when the situation gets too tense for her brings a whole new meaning to the fight or flight condition.

The main drawback to the film as a whole is that it’s constructed as a mish mash of lots of other sci-fi thriller films. Everything from the already mentioned “District 9” and “Teminator” films to “A.I.,” “Minority Report,” and even “The Village” have scenes or situations “borrowed” right out of them if not straight outright. Had the film either had bigger ambitions with its own theme, maybe followed the source material more closely, or just gone for the most broad approach and gone with the full blown big dumb action angle things would have turned out much better than they do. I was pretty surprised with the final climax of the film though and for me it made up for most of the shortcomings along the way.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What Has Two Thumbs and Is Becoming a "Big Fan" of Robert D. Siegel? This Guy

Rated R for language and some sexuality.
86 minutes
First Independent Pictures
**** out of 5

Sports are definitely something that I have very slowly become a little bit more of a fan of over the years. For a very long time the only game I was ever a fan of happened to be baseball with my favorite team being the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. I’m not sure exactly why they’re my team of choice but it could be that they’re the parent team to my local Triple A affiliate the Salt Lake Bees. I am far from what one would call a big fan and some who know me are usually very surprised that I even have a slight interest in any sports team. I even have a super-secret superhero character I made up back in the day that goes by the name “Anti-Sports Guy” so obviously I’m the last person who should like sports films.

From “Blue Chips” to “Celtic Pride,” “Any Given Sunday” to “Necessary Roughness,” “The Mighty Ducks” to “Miracle,” “The Rookie” to “Major League,” sports films are kind of a dime a dozen. I have definitely seen my fair share and for the most part I normally enjoy them to the shock of many. But it takes a great one to come along and really knock one out of the park in my book. Last winter a little movie called “The Wrestler” showed up and gave Mickey Rourke the comeback special he needed. I personally thought it was due to his even better performance in “Sin City” but I guess “The Wrestler” managed to make a lot of people forget he was even in that film as the unstoppable hulking Marv.

The writer of “The Wrestler,” Robert D. Siegel, has now run two-for-two in the arena of sports films. The world of wrestling probably seemed like an easy enough target for reaching out some empathy upon its participants but when it comes to the world of football and its fans usually there’s much more room for mockery than there is for character development. Luckily, Siegel has given us much more to chew on here than a bunch of people sitting in a parking lot eating hot dogs, drinking beer and spewing profanity. There is sitting around in a parking lot, in more than one way, but this is not about some lunkhead who likes to show off his ego with a painted face.

Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt, aka your favorite rat Remy from Pixar’s “Ratatouille”) lives life day to day sitting in his booth as a parking garage attendant listening to sports talk radio writing talkback speeches on scratch paper so he can call as “Paul from Staten Island” at 1 a.m. in spite of waking his mother who needs her sleep in the next room. He travels to the New York Giants stadium with his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) in tow to not be in the stadium for the game but sitting in lawn chairs in the parking lot watching on a TV powered off his mom’s car’s battery.

One night Paul and Sal are out getting some delicious looking New York pizza and spot their favorite player, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) across the way. They decide to moronically jump in their car and begin following him and his entourage through the streets of New York. After a pit stop they continue into Manhattan where they manage to find a parking spot and follow Bishop into a strip club. This is where the more surprising elements of the film begin to play out. Paul and Sal admit to following Bishop and make the dumb suggestion that they know they made the pit stop which was obviously to buy drugs. This infuriates the drunken and drugged up Bishop who proceeds to beat the crap out of Paul sending him to the hospital with some serious damage and lies unconscious for three days. Everyone wants Paul to either sue Bishop, quit defending his favorite team after being beat down by his own idol, or maybe just simply grow up and move on with life. It’s when writer/director Siegel’s thriller elements come into play in a bar involving a rival sports talk caller Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport) that the movie comes together and throws you a curveball resulting in one of the greatest sports film endings of all time in my book.

Who would’ve thought that you could combine sports, drama, comedy, intrigue and a surprise ending all together to create such a spectacular triumph of independent cinema. It came to my surprise after watching the film to see that Siegel is Former Editor in Chief of The Onion. But when thinking back to his penchant for sports and strippers it kind of makes sense. Films like this show that there’s still lots of life left not just in the sports genre but in films that come out of the Sundance Festival. Everyone complains more every year that it’s all too Hollywood now, but when something this great and on such a small scale and budget can work its magic so well, there has to be something still working up there after all.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Damon Brings the Laughs In Soderbergh's Funniest Film To Date!

Rated R for language.
108 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
**** out of 5

Matt Damon and Steven Soderbergh have each made very different films over the years and Damon has now been in five of Soderbergh's. Soderbergh is more known for his bigger titles such as “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic,” and the “Oceans” trilogy but that may be about it. While two of those five were Oscar nominated, Soderbergh is probably much more well known within the indie art house crowds. From his debut film “Sex, Lies and Videotape” which played as part of the 1989 Sundance Film Festival in my local Park City, thru films such as “Out of Sight,” “The Limey,” “Full Frontal,” “Solaris,” “Bubble,” and parts “One” and “Two” of the “Che” films along with his most recent “The Girlfriend Experience” starring adult film star Sasha Grey.

Matt Damon on the other hand, aside from his helping with the “Oceans” films is obviously much better known. First winning attention as the star and Oscar winning co-writer alongside best friend Ben Affleck for their screenplay “Good Will Hunting,” Damon has given many amazing performances even when starring in some mediocre films. He also usually wins huge laughs making cameo appearances in another good friend’s films for writer/director Kevin Smith. From his first film appearances in tiny roles in films like “Mystic Pizza,” “Field of Dreams,” “School Ties,” and “Courage Under Fire,” it was the year of 1997 when he finally flew onto everyone’s radar with the already mentioned “GWH” and the adaptation of “The Rainmaker.” Since then he has managed to prove himself capable of doing just about anything as he started taking on mostly starring roles but never letting himself be too big to fill the shoes of a great supporting character. Just to name some from over the years there’s “Saving Private Ryan,” “Rounders,” “Dogma,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “Finding Forrester,” “All the Pretty Horses,” “Stuck On You,” “The Brothers Grimm,” “Syriana,” “The Departed,” “The Good Shepard,” and the “Bourne” films but has now teamed up yet again with Soderbergh for a hilarious trip through one man’s deliriously riotous thought process in “The Informant!”

*Let it also be known that he’s never one to shy away from making fun of himself as he also has made numerous appearances on “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” in hilarious bits whether it’s f*cking Sarah Silverman or defending himself as the true star of the “Bourne” films opposite Kimmel’s security guard Guillermo Rodriguez. Let alone his hilarious turn in “Euro Trip” singing about how poor “Scotty Doesn’t Know.” I also had high hopes as the title features one of my favorite things, an exclamation point - “Airplane!”, “Top Secret!”, “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” and “Hot Shots!” just to name some of my favorites.

“The Informant!” reads on its book cover, “A True Story… Based on a Tattle Tale” and though this was never made reference to in the film it is certainly hilarious and they do start the film with a “disclaimer” about it being based on fact which reminds me of the beginnings to some other rambunctious films, “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” The film is the story of ADM worker Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) and though it isn’t made mention until the end and is played as a plot point there’s no way it can be considered a spoiler to tell you now that the man has a serious case of bi-polarism and to me seemed very A.D.D. The thoughts running through this man’s head will drive you batty if you weren’t paying attention. I had no idea that the movie was going to have voice-over narration but it was a spectacular surprise and makes the film much more than it is being advertised as.

In Decatur, IL 1992, Whitacre schemes up a way of bringing attention to his employers through lies and deceit aimed at everyone from his company to the FBI to himself. The man has no idea what is fact and what is fiction and most of the time he seems to be making it up as he goes. He alleges that his company is involved in price fixing with the Japanese and eventually the FBI finally somehow gains enough evidence to actually make a case against the company as we find out that at least that aspect really is true but I don’t think Whitacre really knew if it was when he sought out to bring down the company in hopes of being made the new CEO.

Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (Damon’s “The Bourne Ultimatum”) allow the film play out at a leisurely pace for a comedy but instill so much dialogue that it plays more like a zany screwball from days long gone by. It takes place through most of the 90s, is filmed like a 70s drama and uses the rousing and silly music of 60s action films harkening back to the first James Bond's. The fact that these films are referenced to at some point was by no means accidental whether it was said in real life or not. If you really want to know what to expect going in imagine if you threw “Burn After Reading,” “Duplicity,” any of the .007 films along with a dash of some Marx Brothers absurdist dialogue into a blender then you'll be able to get a taste of what you’re in for. If any of that mixture sounds like it could be too much for one movie, well you’d be wrong, so there.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Director Brings In The Noise But Just Gives More Funk In "9"

Rated PG-13 for violence and scary images.
79 minutes
Focus Features
*** out of 5

When it comes to computer-animated feature films, there are some who get it and some who do not. There also happen to be some who are stuck in the middle and have great ideas, compelling visuals but still manage to skimp on the story in favor of getting to the next action sequence. The same tends to go along with the big dumb action movies of summer. When your new computer-animated feature film feels the need to be one of those movies it deserves to be released in the dump days of September. Marketing executives also must have thought they’d struck the ultimate goldmine when a film is called “9” as they have the even more ultimate release date of 9/9/09. However, it’s a good thing the movie is as loud and obnoxious as it is to keep you awake when the screening you attend also happens to be at 9:09 p.m.

Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov have never made the most emotionally fulfilling films. But they each have produced enough crowd pleasers filled with enough story to make up for their lack of emotion or true character. With the likes of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beatlejuice,” 1989’s “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Big Fish,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and “Corpse Bride,” along with “Night Watch,” “Day Watch” and “Wanted” you would think that even if the story was slim, as producers they would be able to help first time feature director Shane Acker come up with something more arresting than what they’ve given us with Acker’s own freshman effort “9.”

Based on Acker’s own Oscar nominated short film and padded out for an additional 68 minutes, “9” begins in a post-apocalyptic world where the only “living” things are robotic dolls created by The Scientist (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer). The Scientist has also created a machine that holds “The Brain” which was meant as a way for creating peace only to be stolen by Dictator (Tom Kane) and it winds up being the end of civilization instead. A group of these rag-tag dolls led by #1 (voiced by Christopher Plummer) are amassing to save each other as there appears to be no more humans which just makes the audience wonder why you’re supposed to care about their little mission to begin with. Along with #9 (voiced by Frodo himself, Elijah Wood) and the take-charge #7 (voiced by Jennifer Connelly) they fight off giant robot cat-beasts and flying sentinels right out of “The Matrix” but just when things get all “Lord of the Rings” and the characters start getting all cute and cuddly together you realize that the movie isn’t over and there’s still more pots to bang for the sound designers and more explosions to render for the computer animators.

*On a side note one character looks exactly like a do-over of Oogie Boogie from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” which just seems like a cheap way for Tim Burton fans to remember that they’re watching a movie he’s producing plus there’s also a weird throwback to the “Ghostbusters” ghost trap which again just makes the audience wish they were watching one of those other movies instead.

“9” falls far more into Burton’s category of films that consists of “Batman Returns,” “Mars Attacks,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “Planet of the Apes.” Sure they had pretty visuals, interesting effects work and brilliant moments of absurdly inspired silliness but they were big and noisy and far from par of the rest of his filmography. I remember just back in 2004 when the naysayers piped up upon the release of Pixar’s “The Incredibles” claiming that Pixar had joined the rest of the summer movies and that it was mere noise and explosions completely missing what that brilliant work really was, a complex dissection of comic book movies, superheroes and dysfunctional family relations. When it comes to “9” naysayers beware ‘cause you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Here is a movie that is so bereft of complex ideas that it feels the need to crank the volume to 11 but the action sequences end just as fast they start. Before you can think “ooh” or “ahh” it’s all over and you have no idea what really just happened or how it fits into the grand scheme of things. This is a very episodic and random film. At one point #1 tells #9, “Your path takes us to catastrophe,” and Shane Acker should have heeded his own advice.