Monthly Archives: June 2010

Knight & Day (2010)

Imagine a James Bond movie from the point of view of the Bond girl. That’s the premise for the curiously titled Knight and Day, a mostly breezy action movie that really resembles a romantic comedy with guns. It works thanks to the chemistry between Cameron Diaz (Bond girl) and Tom Cruise (super agent). She’s engulfed in a sketchy international spy caper that is replete with typical stock characters (sleazy agents, kooky scientists, angry authority figures). The movie, under the direction of James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma), tried too hard to be lighthearted and can veer from confidant to indifferent. The film is told from Diaz’s point of view, which means there are chunks of the movie where the action occurs off screen, which will naturally disappoint people. There’s one montage where Diaz has been drugged and she keeps going in and out, waking up to a different dangerous situation. It’s meant to be satiric but it might also frustrate. The action sequences, on whole, are well paced and make use of their exotic locales. Knight and Day doesn’t fully work due to its leaps in tone from satire to sincere romance, the on/off switch for the law of physics, and introducing a secondary antagonist far too late in the film. Cruise lays out a full-on charm offensive. You’re reminded that this man is a movie star, and Cruise has fun tweaking that image as well as the public perception over his mental state. His character may be crazy after all, but Cruise is having serious fun and you might too watching the man with the million-dollar smile.

Nate’s Grade: B

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When in Rome (2010)

When in Rome, do not do as this banal movie does. Know what kind of movie you’re in for? There’s an audio record scratch/slowdown effect twice in the first ten minutes. Kirsten Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is an unlucky in love workaholic who, when in Rome, pilfers coins from the Fountain of Love. This makes the subjects who tossed the coins (Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, Danny DeVito, Will Arnett) magically fall in love with Bell. They chase her back to New York and act like obsessive stalkers. Essentially, this is a rip-off of Love Potion Number Nine, except this rom-com is neither romantic nor comedic. The comedy is mostly brain-dead slapstick and the payoffs never materialize. In one scene, Bell and a date go out for a “night dinner” where they eat completely in the dark. There’s plenty of potential there but it’s like a minute until her posse of stalkers interrupt and the date’s over. There’s stuff like people running into trees, people squeezing into a tiny Italian car, a vase that’s supposed to break as a wedding celebration and refuses to break, and Bell and her lead, Josh Duhamel, have zero chemistry and like a three feet height differential. The movie is so joyless and bereft of energy. The scripts seems to be missing many scenes that fill in details about the various characters, or at least help give setup and context. The movie exists squarely in the absurd realm of romantic comedies and it’s thoroughly mediocre. I would expect nothing less from the writers of Old Dogs. I enjoy Bell but it’s not hard to resist the spell of this junk.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Micmacs (2010)

So what exactly does Micmacs even mean? A cursory search online brings me a few definitions: 1) a Native American Algonquian group living in Canada and upper New England, 2) the Algonquian language of the Micmac. That doesn’t exactly clear things up, especially considering that Mimacs is a French movie by the famed filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet. An interview with the director has him explaining that the title is French slang for a mixture. That seems appropriate since the film is a mélange of the director’s other works, high on inventiveness and visual whimsy. Except the one thing Jeunet strangely left out this time was a reason to care amidst the high-powered shenanigans.

Bazil (Danny Boon) is a bit down on his luck. A landmine killed his father when Bazil was a child. He drifted through life, got a job at a video store, and then got a bullet in his brain thanks to a drive-by shootout. The doctors decided to leave the stray bullet inside or else Bazil will become catatonic. Bazil eventually is adopted by a batch of homeless misfits living in a junkyard. They accept Bazil and encourage him to seek vengeance against the warring arms dealers responsible for the land mind and stray bullet. Bazil and his colorful new family plot to antagonize the arms company CEOs. They come up with crazy schemes to then frame on the rival CEOs to escalate tensions. Bazil and crew intend to expose these men and their corporate crimes to the world.

Micmacs succeeds where Rian Johnson’s Brother’s Bloom dangerously came close, and by that I mean that Micmacs overdoses on whimsy and I pronounced it clinically dead about an hour in. It’s too much; it’s just too much. Jeunet has always created movies that existed in rich, idiosyncratic worlds but those worlds always felt lush and lively and bursting with wonder. What saves a movie from whimsy is an emotional connection to the proceedings. 2001’s Amelie is a perfect example of cinematic “magic realism” but it’s also a moving and emotionally rewarding love story that transcends the plucky heroine. 2004’s A Very Long Engagement was a rapturous, old-fashioned love story with flights of fancy. Now, after a long six-year absence, Jeunet seems to have lost touch with the heart. There is no real emotional entry point for Micmacs. The protagonist is pretty much a blank. Yeah, you want him to get justice and you pull for the underdogs, but at no point did I care whatsoever for any character. Most of the junkyard characters are just ideas, walking-talking heist components (the human cannonball, the girl whose brain is good at math, the toy maker). Several characters barely exist except for their specific roles in Bazil’s schemes. There’s a romantic angle with the female contortionist (Julie Ferrier) and Bazil, but that comes off as less a function of the narrative and more of a desperate “Well, who else is gonna get together?” necessity. Jeunet has put together a movie that is all surface and no polish. Sure, the movie is intermittently entertaining and has plenty of imagination, but Micmacs is without a doubt the least involving and least accomplished film from a man responsible for a fantastic output.

The tone of the film seems to hew to something like a silent movie, which might explain why all the older members in my audience were constantly giggling while I just occasionally snickered under my breath. The comedy never rises above the chuckle level. There’s plenty of controlled wackiness, nothing gets too out of hand or edgy despite the fact that the plot revolves around getting vengeance on arms dealers. I was expecting something a little darker than the cutesy oddballs that I got. The best and darkest moment in the film is when we see that one of the arms dealers collects body parts of dead celebrities (Marilyn Monroe’s molar, Mussolini’s eyeball). It’s an interesting quirk that actually reveals something about the dark heart of the antagonist. There should be more moments like this. The bullet in Bazil’s brain is barely referenced. I have no issues with whimsy when it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative, and that’s the problem with Micmacs. The story is merely the vehicle for the inventive hijinks. The story is suffocated by whimsy and visual energy, therefore there’s no room for character development. All that inventiveness takes center stage. If playfulness is all you seek in a movie, then Micmacs will likely satisfy. Jeunet still makes movies that nobody else does, but he’s fallen fall short of his own lofty standards.

The movie moves along so quickly that it seems like every character just naturally intuits what must be done next, like they all have the screenplay in hand just off camera. Bazil is so quickly adopted by the junkyard gang. He so quickly discovers who is responsible for his life’s troubles. The schemes are so quickly thrown together. They aren’t even that complicated, mostly distracting and framing. The movie just feels like a spinning plate that has to keep moving or else everything will just break. I suppose Jeunet and his longtime co-writing collaborator Guillaume Laurant are trying to keep things busy so people won’t notice that they don’t genuinely care what happens.

This being a Jeunet film, of course it’s spectacular from a technical standpoint. Every frame of a Jeunet film can be used as a mural. His compositions delight the eye and the colorful cinematography by Tetsuo Negata (Splice) makes Paris seem like a dream city. The production design looks like it was taken directly from the Steampunk Architectural Digest magazine. You’ll never have to worry about the visual aesthetics or ingenuity of a Jeunet film. But there are plenty of artists that can master technical craft (you can find them in the world of commercials) but it takes something much more to marry technical precision in the service story and character. Micmacs is a strange film not because of plot, character, tone, or energy, but because Jeunet spent six years in absence and returned with a film that’s got plenty of style but no heart inside all that artifice.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Final Storm (2009)

Famously detested film director Uwe Boll finally tackles a subject that many film fans, and video game aficionados, felt he could possibly be the harbinger for – the apocalypse. Yes, in our apocalypse-drenched times with the bottoms falling out of economic markets and civil unrest, it was only a matter of time before Boll decided to put his unique German stamp on the end of the world. Usually we associate a feeling of dread with the apocalypse, akin to the feeling of dread whenever somebody turns on a Boll movie. Except Boll’s apocalyptic entry, The Final Storm, is a direct-to-DVD oddity that actually works for a while but ultimately fails like other Boll movies. But here’s the funny thing – it’s not Boll’s fault.

Tom (Steve Bacic) and Gillian Grady (Lauren Holly) ditched their big city lives to raise live on a farm out in the country. The TV is filled with apocalyptic flair: riots, fires, strange weather, radiation leaks, power outages, etc. Over the night, a ferocious storm knocks out the family’s power. Their dog runs off into the night and a mysterious stranger collapses on their doorstep. Silas (Luke Perry) says his family used to live on the Grady farm, but he can’t remember much else. Tom is convinced (somehow) that Silas is no good, whereas Tom’s wife is happy to accept a guest that will agree to do housework. When the Grady clan, plus Silas, enters into town they find it deserted. People seemed to have vanished overnight, except for the violent gang roaming the town. Silas, a man of faith, is pretty confidant that God’s Rapture is upon mankind, but Tom goes back into town once more to seek answers about the world and about Silas’ family past.

For a while there, The Final Storm actually presents a pair of intriguing mysteries that keep the mind occupied: 1) Who is Silas, and 2) What has happened to the outside world? The world has pretty much disappeared; neighbors are gone, the police station has half-drunk cups of coffee and half-eaten donuts. Tom keeps trying to find a rational explanation for what is happening, arguing that the empty town was evacuated as a precaution. But a precaution against what exactly? Something major is underway or has already taken place. Ever since the heavy storm, there have been no birds singing or crickets chirping, no real noises of any kind. Silas is pretty confidant that it’s the end of the world and says that all they have to do is “stack up the chairs and turn out the lights.” Boll places us in the family’s camp; we only know as much as the beleaguered family trying to make sense out of the unexplainable. Canadian screenwriter Tim McGregor (Bitten) is telling a worldly event from a small perspective, trying to personalize the apocalypse. There are no big special effects sequences a la 2012 where the earth swallows cities whole. There is only uncertainty and an overall dread that something is coming but must be waited for. It’s an unsettling thought and played out with enough Twilight Zone –level ambiguity to keep the audience guessing and sticking around for answers.

A general complaint is that nobody seems to react about, you know, the End of Days. Animals and people disappeared over night. Certain townspeople are left behind. Why? Why were others taken and others not? How exactly does that one get explained (in the Left Behind movies, they comically tried to explain the Rapture as “radiation”)? The only one who shows any sign of concern is Gillian, probably because she’s slotted into the thriller female role and thus needs to express concern and eventually need saving. Tom is too preoccupied with his paranoia over Silas, and Silas is supposed to be mysterious so he reacts like he always knew the apocalypse was right around the corner. Even Graham (Cole Heppell), the Grady’s son, seems to be more concerned with his missing dog than the end of all existence. If only everybody was this blasé about the End of Days.

But then there’s that other mystery. Silas shows up at the Grady family home the night of the intense thunderstorm. He says he can’t recall how he got there, per se, and his body is covered in Biblical tattoos. Silas also appears to have some sort of insight into what’s happening in the world. He even tells Graham that his dog, which ran away during the storm, is dead. He’s so certain and preoccupied with making a nice grave marker for the dog that I almost started guessing that Silas was the dead dog incarnate. Seriously, the movie really tries hard to present the illusion that Silas has some sort of ephemeral connection to what is happening, some sort of understanding that goes beyond knowledge of Scripture.

And then the last 20 minutes of the movie reveal that Silas is … (spoiler alert) just some dude who killed his dad and escaped from prison. The Grady home is Silas’ old family home. So the guy who Tom kept saying was dangerous, who showed no real signs of being unbalanced or anything other than courtly and helpful, is revealed to be your standard killer on the loose. This is where The Final Storm utterly falls apart. These characters should be reacting with more alarm about the end of the world. Perhaps McGregor was trying to illustrate how extreme situations affect us, and how jealousy and paranoia can take hold as a means of comfort and survival. But I don’t buy that. First off, it rewards Tom for his unchecked paranoia that had no basis in reality. Silas fixes the roof, helps fend off attackers in town, and chops wood, but it all just makes Tom angry. The last 20 minutes is Silas fully embracing his villainy, the stuff that didn’t show any previous signs of existing. Silas is one big red herring and the movie shifts gears so quickly and absurdly to fit in “super able killer terrorizes family clan” mode. Silas gets frisky with Gillian, asking her to bring in hot water for his bath while he’s in the tub (it’s like an Amish Body Heat). Then he goes full crazy and tries to hand Tom in a tree. Eventually, Silas is set on fire and stabbed with a pitchfork. Then the family stares into the sky and watches as stars get blotted out and the universe collapses. Where is the connection to the apocalypse? The two storylines don’t seem to mix when there is no greater connection. It feels like an ordinary “dangerous drifter” story weirdly set against the backdrop of the apocalypse. Why connect these stories if there is no relevancy, McGregor? It seems like an awfully big waste of time.

Luke Perry (TV’s first Beverly Hills 90210)  and Lauren Holly (Dumb and Dumber) don’t seem too shocking to star in a Boll movie when you remind yourself that this isn’t 1996 and neither star has exactly been in high demand since their zeniths. That’s the Boll casting way: catch a falling star. Perry is actually pretty good. He has this serene nature to him that regrettably makes him seem knowledgeable, until you realize that his secret he’s hiding is mundane. He has a slight creepiness brought out through his serenity, but then he gives in fully to malice when his character indulges the dark side. Holly’s character is mostly the worried mother figure, the concerned type who widens her eyes and dribbles her lips to denote said worry. There’s little else to her character, though McGregor tries to come up with some weak back-story. Holly goes in and out of a Southern accent but is generally decent at being wary. What is perhaps the most perplexing is that Holly agrees to get naked for a Uwe Boll movie. She takes off her shirt during the first of two eventual sex scenes with her husband (the second one seems even more dubious against the backdrop of the apocalypse). Holly has done nudity before on screen, but I think this was her first chance to show off recent surgeries (check out 1993’s Enter the Dragon to compare the difference). Anyway, it’s a point of excitement for any NCIS fans out there that can still feel something below the waist.

As for Boll, this is one movie that I can honestly say is not his fault. His direction doesn’t exactly elevate the material but at the same time he doesn’t get in the way of the mysteries. I was genuinely interested in discovering what has happened. I figured a religious explanation was going to be the climax, especially after we witness a blood-red moon. But it’s not Boll’s fault that the movie collapses at the end when it feels the need to endanger the family by cribbing from slasher movie rules. Boll’s direction is fairly invisible, though a few shots seem to go on much longer than necessary. The entire production feels like a TV-movie just with a few more naughty words. I feel like Boll is getting a better command of how to direct actors because Holly, Perry, and Bacic (TV’s Big Love), who actually is the best actor of the bunch, all give decent if underwhelming performances. But it wouldn’t be a Boll movie without some form of imitation. I think McGregor and Boll were trying to create their own version of Cormac McCarthy’s widely revered, The Road. There’s an unidentifiable apocalypse, a father and son, roaming bands of desperate gangs, and the general unease of futility creeping up. Too bad that Boll’s movie

The Final Storm isn’t necessarily a good movie by most standards but by Boll’s standards it rises to the top of the junk heap. The supernatural apocalyptic mystery is clearly the most interesting aspect, far more interesting than Silas becoming your standard movie maniac terrorizing a family. Has he no consideration? It’s the end of the world, man. Leave land squabbles for the day after the apocalypse. This unrelated side story pretty much derails the movie during the last act, jettisoning the apocalypse for lousy thriller fare. Boll’s direction lets the story play out to its potential and we feel the pull of the mystery, the longing for discovery and answers, and then the answers end up being far less than satisfying. The Final Storm is probably a little too slow for its own good, which furthers my hypothesis that McGregor had half a story about a crazy drifter and thought, “Well, I can’t finish this. I’ll throw together some end of the world stuff and call it a day.” Boll seems to be advancing as a director; the last few movies have become more capable. This is the first of his thirteen movies (and counting) that I’ve reviewed that I can say, without a hint of seething irony, that this movie sucks and it’s not Boll’s fault. Of course, you’re still left with a movie that sucks.

Nate’s Grade: C

Eclipse (2010)

This may be an obvious statement but I will never be a teenage girl. Shocking news to anybody who never knew of the existence of my Y chromosome. Regardless, it’s hard for me to empathize with the madness that surrounds the cultural juggernaut that is the Twilight series. I cannot work myself into a frenzy. I cannot get madly passionate about the merits of Team Jacob vs. Team Edward (though full disclosure: I lean more toward Jacob). I cannot even understand the appeal of the main character and why she’s worth every human, vampire, and werewolf fighting over her. I just can’t walk in the same shoes of the Twilight faithful and their devotion to author Stephenie Meyer’s series. I get the appeal because its adolescent wish fulfillment with the flashes of danger muted by the overall security of traditional values (the vampire wants to wait until marriage before they have sex). I fully acknowledge my divorce from this conjured reality of the Twilight series. But that doesn’t mean I can’t judge the films on their merits. The first film worked for what it was, the second one was resoundingly bad, and now the third film, Eclipse, manages to reheat the same love triangle squabbles and call it something fresh.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is about to graduate high school and, presumably, graduate from the human race. Her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), has pledged to grant her wish and make her a vampire so they can truly be together forever. Bella’s friend/werewolf/ab model Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is vehemently against this plan. He wants Bella to be with him instead. He’s the safer choice and she doesn’t have to become dead for a happily ever after. Bella is torn between her two romantic options, again. However, Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) is out their plotting vengeance against Bella and the Cullen clan of “vegetarian” vampires. She’s creating an army of newborn vampires in Seattle. The army is so powerful that the Cullens reach out to the werewolves for an alliance. Mortal enemies comes together, including feuding paramours Edward and Jacob, to protect Bella and vanquish Victoria once and for all.

For starters, stuff actually happens in the third Twilight movie. I know that’s a fairly damning comment in itself that one must wait until the third movie for action. But here’s the thing: the plot fails to advance more than an inch. At the end of New Moon, Bella pretty much made her choice when she decided to whisk to the other side of the earth at the very utterance of Edward’s name, leaving poor Jacob high and dry. In Eclipse, she solidifies her choice. In New Moon, Bella implores Edward to turn her into a vampire, which he agrees to do after she graduates from high school (what a bizarre academic motivation strategy). In Eclipse, Bella further implores Edward to turn her into a vampire, which he is reluctant to do, but eventually he agrees. In New Moon, the werewolves and vampires don’t like each other. In Eclipse, that’s about the same, but they form an uneasy alliance to protect Bella, the most important girl in the whole wide world. The third film feels like a student’s paper revision; characters now add supporting evidence to explain their decision-making. Bella now gets to expound in further detail why she should be turned into a vampire (hint: she doesn’t feel like she fits in), Jacob adds to a budding Master’s thesis on why he is the better romantic option for Bella, and Edward gets plenty of opportunity to be the wet blanket, whether he’s turning down a horny Bella (no action there) or warning her about the dire lifestyle of today’s modern vampiric American. Much of Eclipse is people sitting around and chatting about their decision-making, verbalizing stuff that Meyer has no ability to place as subtext. By the end of the movie, at least you feel satisfied that everybody has weighed their options, even if they keep making the same dumb mistakes.

Speaking of action, Eclipse greatly benefits from having an external threat throughout the movie. The first two films felt prosaic and self-involved partially due to the fact that an antagonist was never introduced until the final act of each movie. The first two movies were two hours of brooding and making cow-eyes at each other, followed by a requisite climactic fight that felt anything but climactic.

With Eclipse, we have Victoria building her army of newborn vampires, and we see that army form, wreck havoc on the streets of Seattle, and for once the Twilight series feels like it has a real threat. That’s because Victoria has never ever felt like a threat. I don’t know how she’s represented in Meyer’s books, but in three movies, this curly-haired vampire has always come across as woefully unintimidating. She feels like a Kate Hudson romantic comedy character with fangs. It just doesn’t work no matter how fast the filmmakers show she can run through forests. The Cullen clan will occasionally chase after her, that is, when they’re not lining up like they’re making superhero posse poses. Victoria has never cut it as a villain, so it’s a good move for her to amass an army of super vampires that will do her bidding. The audience is repeatedly told, rather than shown, how serious the newborn vampires are because, you see, newborns still have some human blood in them. Never mind that the Twilight movies have never made mention of this power before. What’s puzzling is that Victoria has been building up her base of bloodsuckers for over a year, so why aren’t there like a ton more? The army of newborns consists of like twelve vampires. I understand the logistics of having to feed and house multiple vampires, but if I was planning for a brutal assault I’d want as many of these super vampires as I could sire.

Let me rephrase some of what I just said. New Moon did have an antagonist and her name was Bella Swan. She was sullen, whiny, self-involved, casually hurtful, and she led around Jacob on a leash. The dude is obviously in love with her, and even tells her face-to-face in Eclipse. Bella toyed around with her self-described “best friend” for whatever she needed and then she screwed him over for her sparkly vampire. In Eclipse, she starts to repeat this same pattern of behavior. Every movie makes it emphatically clear that Bella and Edward are destined to be together, and yet every movie has Bella engage in this annoying, wishy-washy “Maybe I’ll be with you, maybe I won’t” dance to make the boys fight over her one more time and thus validate her existence. I’ve seen this type of behavior before; it’s loathsome. She’s less unlikable and callous in Eclipse. Bella is absent any defining characteristic so that the millions of Twilight readers can insert themselves into the story as the girl everybody wants to fight over. Edward practically hounds her at every turn to marry him, which also seems like another case of wish fulfillment. Bella seems defined by whatever man she has at the current time. I’m surprised more of Meyer’s readers don’t find this fact insulting. Well, in Eclipse Bella doesn’t magically sprout a personality so you’re stuck yet again with the Bella bores.

Director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) was an interesting choice to handle all this teenage melodrama. The visual aesthetic is much more refined and accomplished, and the pacing is infinitely better. New Moon was 130 minutes but felt eight times that long because of all the repetitious plotting and brooding, not to mention the gratuitous beefcake shots. Eclipse is only six minutes shorter than its predecessor and yet it moves along at a steady jaunt thanks to the immediate external threat. It still has to fit in all those beefcake shots to make the soccer moms swoon, but at least the movie maintains that pulpy teenage synergy from the first Twilight movie. The special effects have greatly improved as well, which makes the wolves vs. vampire fight scenes more entertaining to witness for the right reasons.

The screenplay for Eclipse includes all sorts of extras to round out the Twilight universe, though they are tangential to the plot at best. Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed) get their back-stories revealed, which means flashbacks with costumes! While each is momentarily diverting, why am I getting time taken out from the movie to flesh out the lives of what are, essentially, background characters? At least Slade doesn’t just let the actors jaw away with exposition; he shows the audience their pre-vampire lives. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has adapted every movie so far and she seems well aware of what her audience expects. Eclipse has the exasperating habit of not leaving anything implied. When Rosalie warns Bella about choosing to become a vampire, Bella promises she’ll never want anything more than Edward. “There’s one thing more you’ll want,” Rosalie says. And then, because the audience is perhaps too thick to pick up that subtlety, she adds, “Blood.”

Our threesome of young actors all seem to have their parts well memorized at this point. One part pouting, one part glowering, and two parts yearning. This is the meatiest film yet for the actors as they all get to assemble heir cases. Jacob argues that he’s best for Bella and tries to convince Edward that if he truly loves her, he won’t let her become a vampire. Edward knows the heartache that comes with transforming into a monster and watching as everybody you love dies while you seem to be standing still. Oh, and there’s that whole insatiable desire to drink blood thing, which is just gross. Bella realizes she’s in love with two guys at the same time. She also realizes that in order for her relationship with Edward to last, she will inevitable have to be turned into a vampire. It’s the fork in the road every “girl who dates vampire” story must ultimately lead.

Stewart and Pattinson give serviceable performances, though Stewart seems like she’s doing you the favor of acting, like she’d rather be elsewhere. Once again, Lautner, who seems to have the most fun with his role, upstages them. There’s a sequence where the threesome share a tent in the mountains, and Bella is freezing and the ice-cold Edward cannot warm her. A plan is hatched: Jacob will crawl into the sleeping bag with Bella and warm her with his body heat. The ridiculousness of the scene is pierced by Lautner deadpanning, “Well, I am hotter than you” (which left my packed theater screaming in approval). Even though he’s saddled with quasi-stalker dialogue like “You love me, you just don’t know it yet,” Lautner makes the most of his wolf-boy licking his wounds.

Here’s another revelation thanks to Eclipse: vampires are apparently made of porcelain. When a vampire is destroyed in the Twilight world, they literally can have limbs snapped off like it’s nothing. They look like dolls getting ripped apart. Occasionally someone will have their head beaten and the vampire cranium will just shatter into thick pieces, much like a porcelain doll. Weirdest of all, whenever a vampire gets hit they are accompanied by this rattling sound effect, like inside the vampires are filled with rolls of nickels and dimes. It’s bizarre and distracting. I don’t ever remember this happening to vampires in the previous two installments. Why not go the Buffy route and just have dead vampires turn into ash? It doesn’t have to be as violent and nauseating as vampires getting staked on HBO’s superior True Blood, but I expect more than vampires just breaking. These are the creatures of the night. They should not be fragile little porcelain dolls. I know Slade and the producers went this route so that they could ramp up their bloodless action and get away with more onscreen.

The fact that something other than two-hours of lovey-dovey romantic declarations and intense, self-indulgent brooding happens means this is by far the most action-packed film in the Twilight series yet. It’s still not that good but it is a vast improvement over the dour suckfest that was New Moon. In fact, since Eclipse repeats many of the same plot points there really is no reason to ever watch New Moon. Skip it altogether. Once again, little of consequence happens in the film but at least Bella isn’t insufferable and we get some nice supernatural fight scenes out of it. The appeal of the series has failed to be translated on the big screen. It’s all about the swoon, and Eclipse will keep the Twi-hards swooning as they take in their male sex objects brought to visual life. Once again, I will state that the Twilight series comes across like a tedious teenage soap opera scrubbed clean of teenage hormones. Eclipse is probably the most guy-friendly of all the films so far, but even that isn’t enough to keep old material interesting the third time it’s reheated.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Rampage (2009)

When I heard that Uwe Boll was writing and directing a movie called Rampage, my thoughts immediately went to the 1980s arcade game of the same name. In the game you played as one of various classic movie monsters, like King Kong or Godzilla, and the mission was to obliterate a city building by building and avoid the military forces trying to take you down (edit: later turned into a 2018 movie starring The Rock). At first I thought there was no way that Boll could raise a budget big enough for a giant monster movie, then I paid closer attention to Boll’s Rampage and discovered it only had one cost-effective monster — man. Boll’s film revolves around a single man massacring a small town. Most surprising of all, Rampage is actually earning Boll a full slate of positive reviews. Critics have mostly taken a shine to this violent shoot-em-up, going so far as to all it Boll’s best film to date. I suppose Boll’s recent upgrade in ability he showcased with Stoic and The Final Storm raised my expectations that the prospect of a “good Uwe Boll movie” is actually a concept not just in the theoretical realms any longer. It could happen. I can honestly say that Rampage is not it.

Bill Williamson (Brendan Fletcher) is just a regular dude living at home with his parents and bouncing from dead-end job to dead-end job. That’s all about to change. Bill seems to have taken a cue from his friend Evan (Shaun Sipos), who has advocated radical measures be taken to make the world a better place. Bill has been building a bundle of arms and body armor for one mission — to kill as many people as possible in a day.

I think the movie’s main weakness is that it’s too insular. We can never free ourselves from Bill Williamson’s head (really, Boll? William Williamson? Are you even trying?). I understand that Boll tries to drop us into the psychosis of a seemingly ordinary 23-year-old burnout that snaps. To that end, Boll effectively fills the background with an mélange of chatter; short news radio bursts are strung together noting the ails of the global ails of the world. It feels like an actual peak into the anxiety-riddled skull of the main character. But this guy just isn’t that interesting. We’re never given any real insight into his thought process because Boll holds back whatever Bill really thinks until the very end, which means for the majority of the movie we’re just watching a nut in body armor. A far majority of the movie is tagging along on Bill’s killing spree, watching person after person gunned down. Is this entertainment and for whom?

Boll assembles a better thesis about what makes people grab guns and lash out than he did in 2003’s school shooter rumpus, Heart of America, which also starred Fletcher as a chief bully. But that doesn’t mean that the pieces fit together any better. Bill’s rationale is that the world is overpopulated and could use a good pruning. So everybody goes. This is a pretty weak justification, especially when you consider that he’s slaughtering the denizens of a SMALL TOWN who has plenty of room for growth. Will purposely goes out of his way to gun down the servers who irritated him the day before, thus he seeks vengeance not ideological purity. Boll at least switches spree motivations late into something a tad more consumerist, but by then it’s too late. We need outside perspectives for this story to become more than a horror highlight reel of death. This movie could have worked from a Falling Down-esque narrative divided between the man on the rampage and the man in hot pursuit. That dynamic would provide for more thrills as well as a natural good guy and bad guy designation. But Boll doesn’t want any such designation. He wants us to be uncomfortable from beginning to end, to empathize with Bill early on and become horrified about what this says about all of us. A radio broadcaster says, without a hint of irony: “I don’t know how this could happen here or anywhere?” You’re uncomfortable but not because of what Bill is doing. You never empathize with the guy because he’s a loser and pretty hotheaded. It’s because the movie is bereft of commentary that makes it uncomfortable because then the violence becomes celebratory.

Rampage is set in a small town for some sort of ham-handed message about the unpredictability of violence, but could something of this magnitude truly go down in today’s technologically saturated world (for extra sledgehammer irony, the town is called Tenderville)? I will even give some leeway that a small town has a limited number of police officers and Bill blows up the police station as his first goal, but then where are all the neighboring cops? When we live in a world where everybody owns a cell phone, and every cell phone owner is an amateur journalist, it’s somewhat preposterous that news of this magnitude would remain so isolated for so long. As soon as a crazy guy walked down the center of town and murdering everybody, you better believe that CNN would have some cell phone video up in a manner of minutes. Surely the barrage of 911 calls would have informed emergency technicians that the police station was bombed and the killer is still on the loose. Where are the neighboring communities’ police officers? Where are the helicopters? In the age of information, nobody seems able to communicate anything. And why do people have trouble locking and barricading their doors? As Bill goes window-shopping for victims all the store doors remain unlocked, allowing him easy access to blow away customers. If Rampage was set in a violence-torn area that had become eerily accustomed to the sound of gunfire then perhaps people’s initial indifference to gunfire could be explained. But remember, this is a small town for maximum intentional dramatic impact. They should be extremely responsive to the sound of continual gunfire. And these people should be packing too.

The scheme of Bill’s coalesces in the last ten minutes of the movie, attempting to offer clarity and advance the material. Beware gentle reader, spoilers will follow, but you’ve already come this far. In the end, Bill has planned his killing spree with the intent of framing his only friend, Evan. Bill has made sure all his mail-order purchases were delivered to Evan’s home, Evan is the one with the long YouTube rants about overpopulation and people standing up to make change, and Evan’s father is a former radical from the 1960s who justified violence in the name of good causes. Of course we only learn that last bit in the film’s closing seconds because why would something like that be relevant to know beforehand, right? Bill meets his buddy in the woods for their scheduled paintball date, tazes the bastard, then stuffs a gun in Evan’s hand and has him pull the trigger to fulfill his role as patsy. The cops will think Evan has killed himself after being pursued into the woods. This is why Bill had to come back and brutally gun down an entire salon of women because he took his mask off and exposed his real face. Bill then disappears with the money.

As you expect, there are more holes to this plot than Swiss cheese. First off, there’s a noticeable height difference between Evan and Bill (Fletcher is only 5’4″ tall). Take into account different boot sizes, massive amounts of security camera footage, the registration for the cars that Bill turned into suicide bombs, the fact that the stolen bank money would now be marked, an autopsy report that would discover the stun gun wound and the awkward position for the self-inflicted gunshot wound, and the eye witnesses that must have seen Bill roaming around his neighborhood head-to-toe in his armor, never mind the fact that a massacre of this size practically guarantees the FBI’s involvement, and you’ve got so many areas for this master plan to unravel. That’s probably why Rampage ends with a post-script informing us Bill took off and has yet to be caught because somehow he’s a criminal genius.

This is Fletcher’s (Freddy vs. Jason, HBO’s The Pacific) movie and he pretty much hides behind his character’s literal and figurative mask. It’s not too hard to glower and walk with purpose, which is what Bill does for most of the movie. He doesn’t come across as overtly threatening, which is probably the point, but nor does Fletcher ever show insight into Bill’s dark recesses. He just seems like an irritable child with guns who wants to settle some scores from a bruised ego. Fletcher has acting ability but his assimilation into the Boll Players should worry anybody who wants to see that ability again (four Boll films and counting). Curiously, Katherine Isabelle, the star of the clever teen-girl-werewolf Canadian horror series Ginger Snaps, has a near cameo appearance as one of the salon workers who gets murdered. Having an actress like her play such a small character with brief screen time seems bizarre. Maybe Fletcher, as the film’s co-producer, called in a favor from his Freddy vs. Jason co-star.

Boll’s direction pretty much gets swallowed whole by the void of his main character. Every decision seems made to suit some kind of allegorical message that never seems to materialize. The camerawork is self-consciously shaky; there’s no reason a simple family conversation over the breakfast table should look like a 9.8 earthquake is going on simultaneously. The film also has the annoying habit of jumping forwards and backwards in time for split-second edits. I couldn’t tell if these flash edits were mere foreshadowing peaks at what was to come, trying to sate a bloodthirsty audience getting antsy, or if they were small fantasies playing out inside Bill’s head, showing his violent tendencies and delicate hold on reality. Well, they were just previews for the main attraction, which makes their use hard to fathom. If Boll wanted an audience to be shocked by what was to come, why give them previews? The film would have worked better without the non-linear quirks. Boll makes sure his camera is never far away from Bill, and during stretches the camera is pinned on Bill’s face as he huffs and puffs and kills people off screen. It’s Boll’s one somewhat interesting moment of artistic restraint. Boll is improving as an action director in certain regards. Rampage has some nice stunt work and some pretty well executed explosions.

Don’t believe the steady stream of good press for Rampage. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to write these words … but Rampage does not live up to the hype. It is not Boll’s first successful movie; I’d argue that his Vietnam movie Tunnel Rats came much closer to being a good and entertaining movie. Rampage is a rather empty vehicle to watch innocents get massacred. It lacks subtext and commentary, so the violence becomes gratuitous and meaningless, which is much more uncomfortable than anything Boll intends with his narrative. Obviously, Boll has modeled his story after recent incidents like the Virginia Tech gunman in 2007. Sadly, there is no shortage of crazed gunman stories in the news to pick from. If Boll attempted to squeeze some subtext into the various proceedings, satirizing the sensationalistic media turning people into fragile, potentially-lethal time bombs, or perhaps even the allure of fame through whatever costs, even the most infamous, then maybe watching countless people get shot would at least offer some meaning. I wasn’t expecting a Funny Games dissection level of violence and voyeurism and the participation of the viewer, but I expected more than watching a dude in a suit of armor kill fleeing civilians for an hour. If that’s your idea of entertainment than perhaps you should go play a video game that rewards such behavior. Don’t worry; it’s only a matter of time before Boll transforms that into a movie next.

Nate’s Grade: C-

This Is It (2009)

More like a DVD behind-the-scenes feature that never materialized, This Is It is a documentary following Michel Jackson’s rehearsal for his comeback concerts that never were to be. The entire film feels more like a memorial service than an actual movie. It feels like a supplement. In between teary interviews where performers express how Jackson inspired others, we do experience some key moments where Jackson reminds us about his brilliance as a performer. The man is relentlessly dedicated to perfecting his vision, and he isn’t afraid to push others. But overall, This Is It is mostly a boring enterprise that ultimately alternates between feeling like a reverent memorial and a crass cash-grab. Unless you’re a Jackson fanatic, there really is no reason to watch this film. It provides no insights into Jackson’s final days, his state of mind, or even the events that lead to his death. I was morbidly searching for any little clues but the movie seems to skip over anything that doesn’t portray the King of Pop as a saint. There will be many documentaries and TV specials in the future that examine the life and impact of Jackson, as well as his bizarre and damages personality, but this isn’t it.

Nate’s Grade: C

The A-Team (2010)

“Overkill is underrated,” quips Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) in this big-screen adaptation of the 1980s hit TV show of the same name. And appropriately enough, like its source material, The A-Team is the very definition of mindless action. It’s completely shallow, goofy, yet over plotted and occasionally too serious for its own good, but like the A-team, the movie delivers when it counts. There is an undeniable pleasure in watching professionals work together, hatch a plan, and then watch that plan come to fruition. The A-Team is like an ADD-child because it can rarely sit still; five minutes won’t pass before something blows up. Writer/director Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces) makes sure to keep things flying on screen so that the audience won’t stop and think about the multitude of plot holes and absurdities. The signature sequence that sums up the movie best is when the A-Team boys have escaped a downed aircraft by hiding inside a tank with parachutes attached. As they tumble back to earth they must try to “fly that tank” to land properly. It’s ridiculous on its face but rather entertaining. But the movie has its tongue firmly planted in cheek, even when it comes time to incorporate the show’s signature catch phrases (you could make an effective drinking game for the amount of utterances of “fool,” and, “I love it when a plan comes together”). The A-Team is overblown, silly, high-octane B-movie that obliterates your senses and thinking abilities, which means it successfully captures the spirit of the TV show.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Get Him to the Greek (2010)

How many scene-stealers get spin-offs? That sounds like something you’d more likely find in the realm of TV, but it does happen occasionally in cinema. In 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, comedian Russell Brand played British rock star Aldous Snow. He stole Sarah Marshall and he also stole the movie. Now the stringy Brit with the crazy hair gets is own movie, Get Him to the Greek, a semi-sequel to Sarah Marshall.

Aldous Snow (Brand) has had his career hit a bit of a snag. His latest album, and lead single, “African Child” has been met with a tidal wave of bad press. Critics are calling it the worst thing to strike Africa after famine, war, and apartheid. His longtime girlfriend and fellow recording artist, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), has dumped him and gotten full custody of their son. His life, and he, has gone off the wagon. Music exec Sergio (Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs) is desperate for ideas to help make money for his company. Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) suggests to the boss man that it will be the 10-year anniversary of Snow rocking out at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, a seminal concert event. The boss tasks Hill with traveling to London, retrieving Snow, getting him to a Today Show performance in New York and then to the Greek in L.A. for an anniversary concert. Of course babysitting a drug-addled rock star and getting him places on time is easier said than done.

Get Him to the Greek is ultimately a buddy movie. Brand and Hill play off each other so well. In fact, I might say that Hill’s character is a tad too dull when he’s not around the hyperactive and impulsive Snow. You sort of feel for the guy and you’d like life to turn out well for him and his girlfriend, but you’re not completely committed to the character. However, when he’s bouncing off Brand, the movie transforms into a wild comedy with many funny moments and a few that miss the mark. Green has been entrusted to handle his high-maintenance rock star and this presents a few stellar comic setups. Green has to make sure that his star is not impaired when he performs on the Today Show, so he steals Snow’s flask of booze and joint and downs them both to protect his star. The resulting appearance on the Today Show then flips the script, having the flaky star be the straight man to the highly impaired handler. The funniest sequence for my taste involves a drawn-out drug trip in a Vegas hotel. Things spiral out of control and involve furry wall groping, mass amounts of property destruction, and Snow stabbing Green in the chest with an adrenaline needle, then being chased by an incensed Sergio who will not be stopped even after being hit by a car. It’s an exhilarating, madcap sequence that picks up comedy momentum and plows ahead. You may not be able to relate to either character, but when you put them together the movie comes alive with comic mischief and misfortune.

Being a Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad) production, Get Him to the Greek has got to bring the heart with the raunch. Even though we spend the majority of the running time with two characters, the film is less character-based than other Apatow-produced products. The sentiment slips in at the end. Obviously, given the setup, you expect Green to become more aggressive motivated, Snow to become more mellow and conscientious, and we’re all better for it in the end. The two characters do begin to bond in their unusual way, which elicits much of the film’s enjoyment. I enjoyed spending time with these two guys, especially when they were together. That likeability factor got the film through some of its rough patches. As far as supporting casts, a hallmark of an Apatow-produced film, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs is the movie’s scene-stealer, mostly through sheer force of will. He’s not the funniest guy but man does he chew scenery with gusto. He’s so loud and crazed that he practically scares you into laughing as a defensive impulse.

Brand is a terrific comedy discovery. He has such an electric energy and his wild-eyed hijinks and deadpan delivery had me in stitches. I was worried that a full movie for Aldous Snow would wear thin, but Stoller and Brand have deepened the character. It would be extremely easy, and almost understandable, for Snow to just be this caricature of the rock and roll lifestyle, an easy send-up for easy jokes. But just like with Sarah Marshall, the more time you spend with Snow the more you start to like him. He’s genuinely charming. His onstage persona evokes memories of Mick Jagger, Led Zeppelin, and Freddie Mercury. He’s self-destructive and egotistical but he’s not as shallow as he may appear to be (his vocabulary is a notch above, too). He’s unpredictable but he’s not stupid. He’s fairly vulnerable with some real feelings, lamenting his failed relationship with Jackie Q and yearning to be the father for a son that may not even be his. His life is filled with hangers-on and leeches, including his own parents. Brand can be good at being ridiculous but he can also be very good at being miserable. His vulnerability and attempts to be something more than the sum of his lifestyle allows for some tender moments between the babes and booze.

Hill has graduated from supporting player to “regular dude” lead in the Apatow Academy. He’s presented almost as a brazenly average everyman, albeit one who appears to be dangerously overweight (seriously, Hill has ballooned like a blowfish and I worry for the guy). This role allows Hill to showcase the most range he ever has yet. He believes in the power of music and has a personal stake in what goes down at the Greek. He sells his dramatic parts better than expected. He and his girlfriend, Daphne (Elizabeth Moss from TV’s Mad Men), make for an unconventional couple via Hollywood’s superficial standards. It’s an interesting match and somewhat refreshing that Hill isn’t dating some knock-out (Moss is quite fetching, don’t get me wrong).

Greek doesn’t measure up to Sarah Marshall and part of that is because the story is a bit too shaggy, housing gags but lacking a stronger driving plot. Many of the scenes don’t connect so much as independently exist. Also, writer/director Nicholas Stoller (who also directed Sarah Marshall) sometimes doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. The drug-addled sequences tend to get a little tedious after the third or fourth time. Granted, drugs and alcohol are all apart of the modern rock and roll experience, but watching people act weird on drugs can get tiresome unless given a different context to work with. Some of the comic setups are a tad lazy but are saved by the efforts of Brand and Hill. When Aldous orders his lackey to smuggle heroin in his rectum, it feels strained even by the standards of wacky comedies. It feels like one episode that doesn’t lead to anything other than a quick, almost absurd, comedy dead-end. And for a movie with a ticking clock constantly running down the hours before Snow needs to be at the Today Show and then the Greek Theater, there sure is a strong lack of urgency. When they run late or miss planes, you don’t really care because you know it’s a matter that will be easily solved.

A fact I really enjoyed with Sarah Marshall was that the girls were given something to do — they were allowed to be more than the joke, they could be in on the joke. Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell’s characters were allowed to be nuanced, mature yet able to make mistakes, and both were funny while being central to the story. With Greek, the female characters are mostly one-note and then given a little polish. Jackie Q is all brash sexuality and Daphne is prim and constantly exhausted. They’re extremes made for easy laughs. When Jackie Q tries to get serious, we don’t really buy it because she seemed rather pleased to soak up the unhealthy riches of fame. Her behavior is inconsistent. With Daphne, her wet blanket personality is supposed to be the joke, and then when she cuts loose toward the end, requesting a three-way between her, Green, and rock star Aldous Snow, it feels wrong for her character and weirdly reminiscent of Chasing Amy. I know Get Him to the Greek is primarily a boys movie, but it lacks the same generosity of character that aided Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Get Him to the Greek is a solid comedy helped by two strong lead performances. It’s a nice addition to Apatow’s family of character-based comedies even if it doesn’t live up to its ambitions. The movie is consistently funny throughout, which is integral to being a comedy. The character dynamics lead to some entertaining comic set-ups and sometimes some lazy ones, but the troupe of actors makes it all work. Brand and Hill are a fine team and the movie has plenty of surprises and cameos to keep things fresh when a gag misfires. I wouldn’t mind seeing the further exploits of Aldous Snow, or even listening to some of his recordings (his Sarah Marshall tune “Inside You” was criminally left off the Oscar nominees in 2008). But this movie just made me realize how much more I appreciate Sarah Marshall, and how that movie has grown on me over time. I suppose like Hill’s character, it took an extended detour with Aldous Snow to make me realize what I truly appreciate in life.

Nate’s Grade: B

Toy Story 3 (2010)

I was completely unprepared for how emotionally involving Toy Story 3 would be. Sure, Pixar has managed to break and melt your heart through ten previous movies, but I suppose I foolishly felt that I was beyond caring for toys. But even in the opening minutes, a tremendous make-believe fantasy, I felt punches of emotion as each character was reintroduced. It felt like I was reconnecting with old friends and it was such a pleasant reunion. It’s okay, guys, to cry over toys.

Cowboy sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), the leader of Andy’s toys, is trying to keep hope alive. Andy is now 17 years old and on the verge of leaving for college. His favorite childhood toys have long since been relegated to a chest as Andy has matured. Joining Woody are spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), the timid Rex (Wallace Shawn), and the piggy bank, Hamm (John Ratzenberger). They are all the toys in their gang that remain. As Andy leaves their main goal seems to have been accomplished. They were there for their owner and now he no longer needs them like he once did. The toys have a few options left: stuffed into the attic, sort of like a retirement home, until perhaps Andy digs them out for his own kids, or being thrown out with the trash. Woody assures them that Andy would never just throw them all out, though even he has his doubts about their current purpose. They all feel the loss.

After a mix-up, the toys decide to take matters into heir own adjustable hands. They will sneak away inside a donation box for Sunnyside Day Care. The center seems too good to be true. The courtly Lotso Hugs Bear (Ned Beatty), who seems to lead the center, promises that all toys will never be forgotten again. When the children grow too old then a new batch moves in to play. It’s a toy’s dream, that is, until Buzz and the gang discover that they’re canon fodder for hyperactive, maniacally destructive toddlers. They can’t keep up with the daily abuse. Sunnyside Day Care is less a haven than a prison. New toys have to pay their dues and earn a place in the vaulted Butterfly Room, where young children lovingly interact with their toys. It’s a toy class system. Lotso refuses to cotton to rule-breakers, and toys are locked away nightly so they cannot escape. Woody must try to save his friends by breaking them out and getting back to Andy before he departs for college.

Given that the movie tackles major issues like moving on, growing up, and mortality, I knew I was in for some heavy moments, but absolutely nothing prepared for some of the emotions that clobbered me. You do realize through the course of this third film as the toys try and find a suitable place to retire, if you will, how attached you are to these characters. Late in the movie the toys are in some dire circumstances. There’s a horrifying junkyard sequence that even manages to evoke Holocaust imagery, which means parents are going to have to calm some spooked tykes come bedtime. There’s a silent moment, where the toys all seem to accept their fate, and all they want to do is join hands and face it together, as a united family one last time … and my God, I could not control myself. My face was dripping with tears (even thinking back right now is causing my eyes to well up a bit). Toy Story 3 isn’t the strongest of the trilogy in terms of character or plot (in some respects, the plot is a reworking of The Brave Little Toaster), but you better believe that it delivers emotional resonance in spades. Major credit goes to screenwriter Michael Arndt who won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine.

But fear not, Toy Story 3 is not all sturm und drang, it also provides plenty of laughs and plenty of visual wonder and excitement. The toy’s point of view has always allowed for plenty of amusing insights and satirical riffs. The personality clashes makes for the most jokes, and the new characters pull their own weight, particularly Ken (Michael Keaton), an effeminate clothing-conscious doll who finds his true love with the arrival of Barbie. The use of Big Baby as a malevolent goon is also refreshing and quite creepy. The Spanish Buzz reboot personality seems superfluous but cute. The jokes come by at a steady pace and while they all may not work as well (Ken in a trying-on-clothing montage set to “Le Freak”?) there are still moments of great creative ingenuity. The detailed escape from Sunnyside feels like a terrific parody of prison movies, and they way it utilizes all the different characters as key components is satisfying and fun. But the best moment of the break-out, by far, is when Mr. Potato Head is trapped, hurls his pieces out of an opening, and reassembles thanks to a tortilla body. It’s a weird visual, like something out of Salvador Dali, and yet I could not stop giggling from watching his floppy movements. It’s comedic while at the same time a genius move in drawing out an action sequence — it makes keen use of the players and their skills. From an action standpoint, G-rated Toy Story 3 manages to have more thrills and spills than any other 2010 movie so far.

Director Lee Unkrich (co-director for three previous Pixar flicks) makes quite a debut for himself. The complexity of the action, while still maintaining an internal logic, is hugely rewarding. The Pixar wizards truly know how to craft inventive action sequences and stay true to character. Unkrich’s command of visuals is impressive. The action is well paced, but it’s the man’s use of composition, camera movement, and editing make Toy Story 3 a visual treat. Unkrich fully knows how to best utilize and fill up the screen. The world of Toy Story is popping with color and visual whimsy, as well as plenty of sight gags and subtle movie references for adults. Ten years of advancements in computer effects has also allowed the toys to get a bit of a facelift. The 3-D process enhances the overall experience without calling attention to itself. There aren’t any standard 3-D moments where big and pointy things keep flying out at the audience. The 3-D provides a greater field of depth without distracting you from the pivotal moments of story.

The voice acting is just about perfect from top to bottom. Allen and Hanks are a welcomed pair, Cusack provides plenty of spunk, Rickles brings his usual dish of joyful disdain, and new characters like Timothy Dalton as a stuck-up thespian porcupine and Kristen Schaal (TV’s Flight of the Conchords) as a bubbly triceratops toy are fun additions that don’t overstay their welcome. Blake Clark takes over the voice of Slinky Dog from the late Jim Varney who died in 2000, and he does a fine job without sounding like a direct imitation. I was really delighted by Beatty. He has such a Southern gentlemanly demeanor that underscores the hardened heart of his villainous character. And yet, Lotso gets his own rich back-story of abandonment and bitterness similar to Jesse the cowgirl. Even when he’s dastardly we can see where the big purple Teddy bear who smells like strawberries is coming from. Ned Beatty has finally appeared in another breakthrough cultural film to redefine his identity. Perhaps now he won’t be best remembered as the guy who gets raped in Deliverance. He probably still will be.

A lot has changed in the 15 years since Pixar revolutionized the world of animation and family films with their first feature, Toy Story. Kids at the time are now teenagers; some embarking on college this summer themselves much like Andy. They too have to put away former childish things and move forward. Toy Story 3 is magic confluence of heart, wit, visual whimsy, cleverness, and drama. Not quite as sharp as the first two installments, or as artful as Pixar’s high-water mark, WALL-E, the third Toy Story is still a mighty entertaining piece of work. The last 30 minutes of this movie is harrowing and then deeply satisfying and moving, finding a fitting sendoff for characters that we’ve come to love. It’s all about moving forward, saying goodbye, and reflecting about times shared. I wouldn’t be surprised if Toy Story 3 inspires kids, and adults alike, to go home and play with their old toys, giving them renewed life and purpose.

Nate’s Grade: A

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