Sunday, June 26, 2011

Midnight in Paris

I have a soft spot for Woody Allen movies. Even supposedly terrible ones like Scoop are films I can enjoy a great deal. Granted I've only seen about half of his movies, but there hasn't been even one that I downright disliked, simply a couple I haven't cared for as much. This year's offering (I say "this years" because Allen works so regularly that 1991 was the last year he didn't have a movie, and he still released 11 movies in the 90's) is the charming romantic comedy Midnight in Paris. It's not as deep or as impressive as Allen's best work, but damn if it isn't romantic, funny, and highly enjoyable.

Owen Wilson takes on the lead role here, that of hack screenwriter Gil Pender. He churns out crappy Hollywood movies but yearns to write a book and be important and worthy like his literary heroes. He's in Paris on vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams), they tagged along with her parents who're there on business. He's a romantic who wants to roam the streets and stop in cafes, drink wine and walk in the rain. He's the only one in the group who even likes being in France until he and Inez meet up with Paul and Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda) who want to take them to Versailles and drone on in pseudo-intellectual talk about French history and art. Gil just wants his simple pleasures (and to be out of the presence of the insufferably pompous Paul) and Inez is happy to get rid of him, so she lets him go.

While the clock strikes midnight one night, a car pulls up and a jovial group of people pull Gil in with them and take him to a party. At the party he sees a guy who looks mysteriously like Cole Porter singing songs to adoring listeners, and meet a couple who introduce themselves as the Fitzgerald's, F. Scott and Zelda. Scott takes a liking to Gil and offers to take him along to a bar they're going to to meet up with Hemingway. Gil finds himself magically drawn into the world of 1920's artistic Paris, a time and place he'd dreamt of his whole life. He runs across Dali, Bunuel, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Matisse, and TS Elliot, among others during his few extraordinary nights. He also happens to run across the beautiful Adriana (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), who has Picasso, Hemingway, and legendary bullfighter Juan Belmonte fighting for her affections. Gil falls for her just like the others do as he dreads the inevitable end of his miraculous journey through 1920's Paris.

Owen Wilson is one of the better actors when it comes to playing the traditional "Woody" role. He has a bit of Allen neurosis, while also keeping his strangely laid back charm, and some shades we've not seen from him before. His ability to portray Gil's hopeless romanticism, while those around him try to destroy it, is essential to making the movie work. Wilson's Wedding Crashers love interest McAdams is pitch perfectly hateable as Gil's relentlessly unsupportive fiancee, so obviously crushing on Michael Sheen's pedantic Paul while Gil is too busy being annoyed by him to notice. Marion Cotillard is as luminous as Paris itself, making it unsurprising that so many of the artists are using her as their muse.

The script is Allen's strongest since Sweet and Lowdown, the sweetness and romance fully coming through without being forced in the slightest. The gorgeous photography by ace cinematographer Darius Khondji brings an extra amount of warmth to the movie that fits in nicely with the unassuming romanticism Allen's going for. I also like Allen's comments on coming to terms with the times you live in and not getting bogged down in the nostalgia of the past, because the people in that time probably didn't think everything was so great and idealized a previous era too. Even with a little bit of intellectual comments on nostalgia, it's still hard not to think of this movie as simply one of the sweetest love stories I've seen in a long time, and glad to see one of my favorite filmmakers working at such a high level.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Best and "Worst" of Pixar

In honor of this weekend's release of Cars 2, I've decided to take a look back at the features Pixar Studios has given us so far. I love what are generally termed "kids movies", although I don't judge them any less harshly because they're "just kids movies." Every movie should be held to a high standard, and since these are what we're feeding to our kids developing minds, I'd hope people would actually hold them to a higher standard, but I could rant on that subject all day.

As I've written before, with their track record and the consistency they've shown with their 11 movies over the last 16 years, I'd put Pixar on equal (if not higher) ground as classic Disney and Japan's Studio Ghibli. They've simply given us amazing movie after amazing movie, with barely a misstep anywhere in sight. That said, let's get to the list. I've watched every one of these multiple times, so none of my comments are coming from memories recalled from long ago.

11. Cars

The least ambitious and least interesting of any of the Pixar features, Cars is not a bad film. It's simply a nice, sweet little picture that can't hold a candle to any of the other movies the studio has put out. The story of "big city hotshot who learns to appreciate small town life" has been done 1,001 times before, and Director (and Pixar Chief Creative Officer) John Lasseter does nothing to dress it up in the slightest way. Cars is a straight forward and fun movie, but without any desire to be more, it really just kinda sits there at the bottom of the heap as obviously Pixar's weakest moment.

10. Toy Story 2

This one has bothered me for the past dozen years. As soon as it came out, Toy Story 2 was hailed as superior to the groundbreaking original, and one of the great sequels of all time. While I was sitting in the theater, I couldn't help but feel like it was good, but it wasn't really special. There's nothing wrong with it necessarily, but there's nothing that keeps me wanting to come back over and over again. Jesse's heartbreaking past notwithstanding, there isn't anything here on a story level as magical as the simplistic first movie, and eventually the third explored the idea of "lost" toys and kids growing up much better than it's done here. So I kinda have a tough time with Toy Story 2, I can't find many flaws (you can always nit pick at something, but I mean real flaws) other than I just don't find it that interesting or enchanting or memorable.

9. A Bug's Life

Ok, now, only the third from the bottom, but I'll just say this: I love this movie! I've always had a fascination with what the world looks like through different eyes, and Pixar's cute-ification of the tiny world of insects is lovingly realized. It's one of their less complex movies (only their second time out of the gates, I'll cut them a bit of slack for growing pains), and basically juts a crossing of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and Aesop's The Ant and the Grasshopper, A Bug's Life kinda got lost in the shuffle when it was released. Although made concurrently, and pitched to its studio after A Bug's Life had begun production, Dreamworks Studio's Antz was released a month prior, giving people two bug-central, ant starring movies withing a few weeks of each other. Antz was rushed through production to make it out first, and time has not been nearly as kind as it has been to Pixar's release. While A Bug's Life is bright and colorful and fun, Antz's CGI animation has dated badly, and the story is not handled nearly as expertly. A Bug's Life is not one of Pixar's greats, but it's deserving of a better reputation than it currently has, I think.

8. Finding Nemo

The release of Finding Nemo seemed to be when critics and audiences first started seriously looking at Pixar as more important than just "kids movies". It received unheard of critical acclaim (Roger Ebert named it the 4th best movie of 2003), and made boatloads of money. I've watched it many times, and the story of a dedicated but overprotective father searching out for his kidnapped son certainly pulls the heart strings in a way that may affect me more with my impending fatherhood coming some months away. As for now, I can't help but just look at the breathtaking underwater animation, so lovingly realized that I forget about the story sometimes and simply watch the sides of the screen for those beautiful little touches Pixar does so well. The chemistry between Albert Brooks and Ellen Degeneres is hard to not get caught up in, and even if the actual Nemo storyline, and that of the sharks, isn't quite as great, they're certainly good and don't bring anything down. Finding Nemo is a great movie, and further proof of Pixar's genius that it's only their 8th best movie.

7. Up

Again, a movie I'd give 4 stars only lands in 7th place, you just can't beat that kind of quality. I wrote a full review of Up when it came out (here), and it was released to a great amount of critical acclaim, even snagging a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars (when their 10 nominee experiment took place). The thing that Up has going for it the most is that it has the single best piece of film in Pixar's catalog: the "life" montage near the beginning of the picture. It's one of the greatest achievements in all of animation, I think, for its wordless telling of an incredibly emotional story, proving once again that you don't need dialog to further your story. I cannot praise that sequence enough, even if I watch it removed from the context of the movie as a whole, I still tear up. Sadly, the rest of the movie simply can't live up to such an amazing creation and even though it's a lot of fun (though the talking dogs are a bit hard to stomach sometimes) and has a lot of heart, I simply can't have it any higher than this.

6. Toy Story 3

I've also written about this one since I've had this blog (here), and named it as my best movie of 2010. The issues it explores of Andy (and other children that toys belong to) growing up and moving on is handled with a tremendous amount of depth and care. I knew Pixar had the creative balls to end on a down note, so I was completely engaged in the trash sequence, but I'm also glad that they ended on a different and much more emotionally satisfying moment. One of the most grown up of American animated movies.

5. Monsters, Inc.

No Pixar movie has benefited from re-watches more than Monsters, Inc. I liked it ok when I originally saw it, but didn't find the magic that I'd been hoping for. Over time, as I've revisited it, it grows and grows in my mind and I love it more every time I see it. Billy Crystal and John Goodman are so incredibly good together that even though their voices are so distinctively their own, I always felt like I was watching Mike and Sully, and not actors voicing a character (this is a particularly excellent recurring theme for Pixar movies). There is so much invention going on in Monsters, Inc. that just got lost on me the first go 'round, I suppose. Around every corner, in the sides of the frame, in the boundless references from Ray Harryhausen to yellow snow, this movie has so much life in it! In addition to that, the bright, fun colors and sets, the easily hateable villain in Randall (voiced to perfection by Steve Buscemi), and the wonderful door chase scene keep me coming back again and again. I also think it may have Pixar's most sweetly perfect ending.

4. Toy Story

Ah, the one that started it all. I remember sitting in the theater watching Toy Story and not caring in the slightest about all the technical innovations, no idea of the watershed moment I was witnessing with the dawn of the CGI animation era, I was simply excited and enthralled with a wonderful, wonderful movie. Although we can go back now and see that the animation is noticeably inferior to the other movies in the Pixar catalog, it's not bad and it gets the job done. What we care about when we watch Toy Story are the exquisitely drawn characters, pitch perfect voice acting, and engagingly simple story. The recurring theme of the Toy Story movies, the theme of getting replaced and children growing older and moving on, is put all on Woody's shoulders in the first movie. It's only Woody that's being tossed aside, not everyone. Woody is the one who has to deal with Andy finding a new favorite toy, and he doesn't always handle it well. Tom Hanks brings such life and nuance and depth to Woody that it's impossible to think of another voice emanating from that characters mouth. And Tim Allen is so terrifically pompous and arrogant and clueless that I still identify with Woody's hatred and eventual acceptance of him. It's certainly the simplest (and shortest) movie in the group, but there is not one single thing about it that I would change.

3. The Incredibles

This is the best and most thrilling action movie ever made, if you ask me (which by reading this blog, you're kinda doing). I also think that with the issues of marriage and family and trying to find yourself when you don't know who you are anymore, The Incredibles is Pixar's most adult movie, most thematically complex, even though it's disguised as a bright colorful action movie for kids. Each character is created with a distinct personality, each speaks differently about their feelings and actions (you'd be surprised how little this happens in movies once you start paying attention to it), and the voice acting brings that last little bit to make these truly remarkable characters. All of that said, it's also just a mind blowingly amazing action movie, with set pieces that put Bond and Bourne to shame. The attack on the plane is my personal favorite, as the mounting fear in Helen's voice, and the parental actions she takes to possibly sacrifice herself for her children are a rare action sequence that makes me tear up with its dramatic implications. Then there's also the "discovering the joys of your abilities" quality of Dash vs. the flying machines. When Dash starts running (with unexpected success) on the water of the ocean, he lets out a little "oh man, that's so awesome I can do this" kinda giggle that lights my face up every time I watch it.

2. Ratatouille

So just like Big Night, I think Ratatouille ranks so high on my list of favorites if only because of its shared passion for food. The characters and story are flawless, the animation is beyond gorgeous, and the music is my favorite in any Pixar movie. But Remy's love of food strikes a nerve with me because I have that love as well. I think, honestly, Pixar's biggest achievement with Ratatouille might be making a story about a rat being in a kitchen cooking completely undisgusting and wonderful. I would've initially assumed impossible the feat of making me not be revolted by rats in the kitchen, even if both are animated. I think it starts a bit slow, but once Remy gets to the big city and starts on his true journey, I don't think it has a weak moment. And I must say that the scene of Anton Ego remembering a childhood moment when his mom was there to comfort him when he was upset (just crashed his bike, from the looks of its misshapen spinning wheel), is such a perfect moment that I can't even quite describe how it makes me feel.

1. Wall-E

The lonely, lovely, inspiring, inspired, and brilliant magnum opus of Pixar is Wall-E. There's no more loveable character they've created, no more fascinating world than Wall-E's solitary journey through the endless trash, and no sweeter love story than that of Wall-E and EVE (or EE-vuh, as he so endearingly puts it). It's so simple and perfect that you almost don't want them to go to the ship were the humans are. It goes anyway and even through its environmental preachiness, Wall-E never loses its hopelessly romantic heart, and makes me hope I never lose mine. It's simply one of the 5 or so greatest animated features we've ever been given, and quite easily Pixar's masterpiece.

Who knows where Cars 2, next years Brave, or the following year's prequel Monsters University will end up on an updated version of this list. Surely a sequel to the bottom movie on my list feels totally unnecessary, especially seeing as Cars is also the least critically acclaimed movie in the Pixar catalog, but with supposed Cars merchandise sales of $5 billion, it's not surprising that we're getting another go round with those characters. I'll go in with an open mind, seeing as Pixar hasn't yet let me down and always surprises me, and I'm sure I'll give Cars 2 a write up when I finally see it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

We've lost the Big Man

Clarence Clemmons 1942 - 2011

The Big Man, sax player for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, has passed away after complications from a stroke suffered earlier this week. His tenor sax additions to Springsteen's sound are among the greatest sideman additions in the history of rock and roll. His legendary outro solo on the Born to Run closer "Jungleland" famously took 16 hours to record, before both were happy with it, and was worth the time. Only the Rolling Stones ever used sax as well as Clemmons and Springsteen integrated it into their sound. A 6'4" former football player, Clemmons towered over his bandmates onstage and was a longtime fan favorite for the Springsteen diehards. Clemmons contributions and the many solos and melodies he added will be missed immensely and it's safe to say that the E Street Band will never be whole again. R.I.P. Big Man