Monthly Archives: April 2013

Review: Up (2009)

up
Let’s just get it out of the way, shall we? I am not a Pixar fan. There are a lot of little reasons, I guess, like the fact that I don’t really care for CGI or computer animation, the standard humor of modern kid’s movies annoys me, stuff like that. In the main, though, I’ve been unable to pinpoint my dislike of Pixar’s films. This is not to say that I hated them all; most of them were mildly entertaining. I enjoyed Monsters, Inc. I really loved The Incredibles. But overall, there’s something lacking for me. Still, I try to keep an open mind, and so we recently watched Up.

Carl (voiced by Ed Asner, but he looks like a cartoon Spencer Tracy) is a crotchety old man, mourning the loss of Ellie, the love of his life. They bonded as children over a love of adventure and exploration, but as adults, they got caught up in the mundane and never chased their dreams. When Carl finds himself in danger of losing his house, he decides to make the grand voyage he and Ellie always planned. Together with an unwitting stowaway, Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), Carl embarks on a wild adventure to Paradise Falls. Along the way he tangles with his boyhood hero, Charles Muntz (voice: Christopher Plummer, look: Kirk Douglas), whose single-minded obsession with proving the existence of an exotic bird has driven him mad. Ultimately, Carl re-discovers himself through his experiences, and learns to let go of the past and look to the future.

Up has all the usual hallmarks of a Pixar production: excellent voice cast, imaginative story, great visuals, funny little additions here and there. It’s hard to argue with the technical aspects, since they are generally flawless. I will say that the Pixar schtick of giving animals voices without anthropomorph-izing (totally a word) them, per se, is funny at first, but grates a little after a while. I know stuff like that is tossed in to make the kiddies laugh, but it doesn’t amuse me, particularly. I love older children’s movies, so it’s something about the newer stuff that bothers me, but that’s another post for another time.

Partway through Up, I realized what it is that I don’t enjoy about Pixar’s ouvre. In most cases (and like most movies), they have a message. A moral, if you will. And that’s fine, but it’s Pixar’s execution that doesn’t sit well. Their films are too finely calibrated. It’s as though someone wrote a computer program with an algorithm designed to search out each and every concept that tugs at a heartstring, and then put that concept into play within the greater context of the film. Hit this mark, move on to the next mark. Charming montage of childhood sweethearts growing old together, check. Lonely boy with absentee dad, check. Appreciation for unspoiled nature, check. And so on.

I know this is not a widely-held viewpoint, but I didn’t feel like there was any heart or humanity to the movie. It was all too slick, too perfect. That perfection may be, for many, the draw of Pixar’s films, but for me, I think that there is a great deal that gets lost. Had actors been portraying those roles, there would have been a thousand little nuances to their performances that showed us their sadness, their need. In the case of an animated film, we are left to understand those concepts without really seeing evidence of them. An illustration can only go so far; it can only show human emotion on a basic level.

The Pixar films that succeed (for me) are the ones that are not attempting to delve deeper into emotion: The Incredibles is a cartoon action flick. Monsters, Inc. has a sweetness to it, but it’s not trying to go too far. Most of the others don’t reach the emotional depths they’re reaching for. I’m not trying to tell anyone not to watch Up, or any other Pixar film. I’m well aware of their success, and it’s cool that people of all ages can enjoy them. I even look forward to sharing them with my daughter when she’s old enough for them. But I’ll still wish that they were a little less perfect, and had just a little bit more heart.

Advertisements

The Snow White Wars, decided

It’s been a long time coming, but we’re finally ready to decide who really is the fairest of them all. In this corner, we have Snow White and the Huntsman (henceforward known as SW&TH), a dark and gritty retelling of the fairy tale. In the other, Mirror Mirror, full of saturated colors and quippy one-liners. Who will emerge victorious? Ready? En garde…FENCE.

Starring as Snow White…Lily Collins vs. Kristen Stewart
snows

First things first. There are those among you (Hi, Ben!) who will be disappointed to learn that there will be no K. Stew bashing here. SW&TH is actually the first thing in which I’ve seen the erstwhile Bella Swann, and I have to say that I enjoyed her performance. She wasn’t burning up the screen or anything, but I thought that her bewilderment (perhaps natural) suited the role and that ultimately, the flaws in the character were due to poor writing rather than poor acting. Her “rousing the troops” speech was quite good.

Lily Collins, on the other hand, had more to work with, and capitalized on a great deal of personal charm. Her Snow was spunky, kind-hearted, and mischievous, none of which require a great deal of acting, but which she conveyed well, nonetheless. Like Stewart, she did not employ a great deal of range, nor was much needed. Her chemistry with Armie Hammer was weak, but since their relationship was hardly dynamic, it didn’t matter.

Winner: Lily Collins. Overall, she did a better job of selling the role and carrying the action.

As the Evil Queen…Julia Roberts vs. Charlize Theron

evilqueens
I’m a Julia Roberts fan. I know she’s not the most amazing actor ever, but she’s generally enjoyable to watch, and her turn as the Wicked Stepmother was no exception. I thought she was hilarious. She was snarky and appropriately vain, and clearly not a nice person. Since this version of the Snow White story was obviously meant to be a comedy, I think Roberts was a great choice as an actress willing to laugh at herself.

Here’s something that you may not have known. Ready? Listen up. CHARLIZE THERON IS TERRIFYING. In Mirror, Mirror, Julia Roberts makes the claim early on that it is [her] story, and not Snow White’s. That proves to be false, but in the case of SW&TH, it is Theron’s movie from beginning to end. She is chewing up the scenery like there is no tomorrow. If Roberts was willing to laugh at herself, Theron was willing to go full-on psycho with crazy eyes and snarling delivery. Her Evil Queen was literally the stuff of nightmares.

Winner: Charlize Theron. Girlfriend deserved an award for that performance. Seriously.

The Love Interests…Sam Claflin/Chris Hemsworth
vs. Armie Hammer



When I first realized that SW&TH was including a “prince” (Claflin) in addition to the Huntsman (Hemsworth), I thought it was a ridiculous idea. But, it really worked within the framework of the story. I enjoyed Claflin’s role, William, more than I thought I would as well. Both he and Hemsworth had good chemistry with Stewart (no, really), and William actually was a more developed character in some ways than the other two leads. Hemsworth wasn’t given a lot to do besides grumble and look beefy, which he did perfectly well, although I wish they’d just let him keep his own accent. One of the biggest failings of the movie, for me, was that what he and Stewart had to work with was not great. Theron was given all the good dialogue, or something. Maybe they’ll fix that in the (sigh) sequel?

Armie Hammer’s Prince Alcott is the exact opposite of either William or The Huntsman. Oh, he’s still beefy and heroic, but he’s also really funny. Hammer gets full marks for the scenes in which he is under a “puppy love” spell. Beyond that, he was a competent swordsman and has a fabulous speaking voice, but (as previously mentioned) had next to no chemistry with his Princess.

Winner: TIE. I really wanted either Hemsworth or Hammer to sell me, and they didn’t. The addition of Claflin was more interesting than I’d bargained for, but still doesn’t sway the balance for SW&TH.

The Dwarves



Ah, the dwarves. A necessary part of the Snow White story, but in this case, something of a controversial topic, which I don’t really care to discuss in detail. Briefly, SW&TH chose to use actors of a “regular size” to play the dwarves, whereas Mirror Mirror utilized little people (please note that the Internet says this is the PC term. If that is incorrect, please let me know). I don’t wish to be offensive, but to my mind, the rationale has a lot to do with the role that the dwarves play within the two stories. In SW&TH, the dwarves are reasonably serious characters, very similar to those of Tolkien. They are a proud people who have been cast out, and so they join in Snow White’s fight to free themselves. The dwarves in Mirror Mirror have the same motivation, but it’s a comedy, so they’re mostly there to be funny, and, well, there are notably few “serious” actors of a smaller size. Having said that, both septets are effective and enjoyable to watch. In the case of SW&TH, sadly, they don’t quite live up to potential considering we’re talking actors like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins*, and Toby Jones. Are you noticing a theme?

*This is Bob Hoskins’ final film, as he has now retired from acting due to a Parkinson’s diagnosis. Very, very sad news.

Winner: TIE. Even if the dwarves of SW&TH didn’t have enough to do, they actually provided a lot of the emotional punch of the film, so they even out with the more-present crew from Mirror Mirror.

Visual Effects



The director of Mirror Mirror, Tarsem Singh, is well-known for his use of super-saturated color to produce striking visuals (see: The Fall). However, I was actually somewhat disappointed by the visuals here. Snow White and the Queen stood out from their surroundings due to brightly colored clothing, but for the most part, color was not a major player. Additionally, special effects were kept to a minimum (which I always appreciate). The Queen’s use of the mirror and a surprisingly creepy fight scene were the only notable exceptions.

On the other hand, the visuals were SW&TH’s strongest point (Theron notwithstanding). Director Rupert Sanders did a fantastic job of creating stark and striking landscapes, and while there were plenty of effects, they were never overdone or obviously computer-generated, which is a pet peeve of mine. All of the effects combined to provide a cohesive vision, from the Forest to the Queen’s magic army, to the magical creatures encountered by Snow White on her journey.

Winner: SW&TH. Visual effects aren’t something that I normally notice (unless they’re bad), and I was really impressed with these. Don’t believe me? Both films were nominated for the Oscar for Costume Design, but Huntsman got the nod for Visual Effects as well.

Script



As has been previously mentioned, SW&TH was seriously lacking in the writing department. The story itself was a great idea, but it fell apart when the characters needed to talk to each other. Dialogue was primarily used for exposition as opposed to character development, and as a result some of the characters were fairly static. This is often the case with regard to heroes and heroines, but they can still be fully-fleshed-out characters, even if they’re a little single-minded.

Mirror Mirror’s dialogue, full of snappy one-liners, was quite entertaining. Having some seasoned professionals like Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane around doesn’t hurt, but everyone acquitted themselves well in this respect. The story itself was rather more straightforward, and I’m not saying that the characters were any more developed than in Huntsman, but it was just more fun to listen to them talk. In a full-on comedy, it’s a bit more palatable for the dwarves to also be funny, and Lily Collins displayed surprisingly effective timing.

Winner: Mirror Mirror. It’s not award-winning dialogue, but it was totally effective within the context of the film.

And the winner is…

If you tally up the categories, you’ll find the two movies have reached a tie. As far as it goes, I do think that they were reasonably equal in terms of “tangibles.” Both entertaining films, solid B pluses. However. Remember that theme I mentioned earlier? Time and again, SW&TH reached for something greater, and fell just a bit short. I have no complaints with the actors. The film was great to look at. The story, with all of its extra interpretation and exposition, was a really fantastic idea. Unfortunately, the script just couldn’t live up to the idea. Snow White and the Huntsman could have been a really great movie, but it misses out on its full potential.

Conversely, Mirror Mirror isn’t trying to do anything fancy. It’s a semi-modernized, light look at the fairy tale. Everyone performs adequately, and it’s a totally entertaining way to spend a couple of hours (give or take). While the visuals may have been a bit disappointing given the film’s director, they weren’t bad, and didn’t detract from anything overall. Lily Collins, despite being a newcomer, manages to carry the film admirably well, and if you’re not a Julia Roberts hater, I think you’ll find her an entertaining, not-too-villainous villain. And so, by the slightest of margins, I declare Mirror Mirror the official winner of the Snow White Wars. Both movies are totally worth watching for the popcorn factor, and have markedly different interpretations to offer, but the lost promise of Snow White and the Huntsman was a sad disappointment.

Musical Moment: Happy Birthday, Debbie Reynolds!

You know what’s coming, don’t you? I don’t need to bother with much introduction. Perfect for a Monday morning, too. Happy birthday, Ms. Reynolds!

The movie: Singin’ in the Rain (duh)
The song: Good Mornin’