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Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his best pal Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) must venture out of their arcade home once Vanellope’s game gets broken. She’s in danger of having her racing game shelved for good unless they can find a new steering wheel controller. Thanks to the installation of wi-fi, Ralph and Vanellope hop along the information super highway and visit an online metropolis bursting with life and possibility. It’s a world of advanced games, races, and interactivity and Vanellope might not want to go back to her old world, much to the chagrin of Ralph.

Fear not, this is not Disney’s rehash of The Emoji Movie, a slapdash gallivant through Internet culture, apps, and the most famous online brands. The first forty minutes or so of Ralph Breaks the Internet are silly and visually appealing as our familiar characters expand their horizons to the world of online gaming. Much like the first film, there are a lot of rules and mechanics to establish as a foundation before things can get too complicated. The first Wreck-It Ralph was a bit more structured and clean in this aspect whereas the sequel gets to feel a tad episodic. The Grand Theft Auto/Twisted Metal world of street racing provides a splendid contrast and plenty of satirical touches. It’s still amusing as Ralph and Vanellope discover the new worlds and we see how the filmmakers choose to depict their inner workings, like a concierge working a search bar or spammers as pushy street promoters. Although it also leads to some questions, like this world has Google but no YouTube, instead combining YouTube and Buzzfeed into one entity where hearts count as upvotes/likes. Is there a reason Disney might not want to have steered children to YouTube? Or is there something more corporate about promoting a rival media company when Disney is planning their own online streaming magical kingdom? It’s an entertaining beginning but I started to get worried about whether or not this was the extent of what we were going to get with a Ralph sequel. Is this really all going to be about raising money to buy an arcade controller wheel?

It’s about the forty-five minute mark where the film takes a welcomed turn, where it focuses far more on the character relationships between Ralph and Vanellope, and that’s when the film deepens into something much more special. The antics beforehand were colorful and amusing but too episodic, but once Ralph and Vanellope are split apart, now those same imaginative antics are used in the service of developing characters and exploring their inner conflicts. It’s like the movie went next level with its potential. Vannelope’s excursion into the Disney Corporate Realm leads to fun cameos (Groot), and newly sad cameos (Stan Lee, R.I.P.), but the meta interaction with the Disney princesses is a hoot. The film cleverly ribs the Disney traditions of old but, and this is the key part, finds ways to relate it back to character conflicts and assumptions. The Disney princesses lead Vanellope into a new soul-searching direction, which leads to an inspired musical number that’s filled with silly, ironic non-sequitors and a declaration of purpose, a wonderful melding of the Disney storytelling of old and new. From here, the movie gets better and better as Ralph goes to greater lengths to sabotage Vanellope’s plans to leave him for a new game. The final act grows from this misguided attempt to hold onto selfish needs and rebuke change, and it culminates in a climax that is built around the characters and what they’re willing to give up for one another. For a movie that starts with silly gags about eBay and Twitter, it grows into something that genuinely could bring some tears.

The overall message, that growing apart is okay and can be healthy, that friendships will inevitably change over time and to not stand in the way of change, is a lesson I was not anticipating from a “family film.” I was expecting Ralph Breaks the Internet to mostly cover the dark side of the Internet, in an albeit family-friendly manner, about the casual cruelty and lack of empathy that is magnified from the perceived anonymity. The movie does cover some of this material briefly when Ralph stumbles into a hall of mean-spirited comments (“First rule of the Internet: never read the comments”). I was expecting a more simplified and pat lesson about the evils of the Internet, but instead the filmmakers deliver something far more applicable and important for young people. They could have gone for easy life lessons about online behavior, and instead Ralph Breaks the Internet goes above and beyond to make its message more personal and sympathetic.

Reilly (Kong: Skull Island) provides a lot of heart to his doofus; enough to keep him grounded even when his character starts making bad decisions to keep the status quo. Silverman (Battle of the Sexes) has a harder time just because she’s asked to keep her voice at a childlike level, which can be grating at certain points. She is still able to convey an array of emotions. The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is key to the series being more than the sum of its parts, and both actors help this through their sometimes warm, sometimes bickering interactions. The biggest new addition is Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) as Shank, the leader of a gang of car thieves. She’s a tough lady that takes an immediate shine to the attitude and gusto of Vanellope. The character and her world are more welcomed than Gadot as a vocal actor. She’s fairly limited in range. I did enjoy that they specifically animated Jason Mantzoukas (Netflix’s Big Mouth) as a nerdy question-asker and Oscar-nominee June Squibb (Nebraska) for five seconds each.

The Wreck-It Ralph franchise is another stellar plank in a growing armada of Disney animated franchises that could challenge Pixar for supremacy. Walking away from Ralph Breaks the Internet, I had to think it over but I concluded that I was more emotionally fulfilled and pleased than with Pixar’s Incredibles 2. I’m not going to argue that Ralph is the better of the two movies when it comes to storytelling, visual inventiveness, or action, but I was happier and more satisfied leaving Ralph. This is an imaginative, colorful, cheerful, and heartfelt movie with a valuable message and the understanding of narrative structure to see it through. I’m now thinking about a potential third Ralph movie (the director says there won’t be another, but let’s see what Disney says after those box-office grosses come in). We’ve gone to the realm of online gaming, so what’s next? Maybe Ralph’s game gets transferred to a collector’s home out of the country, like in Japan, and then it’s about Japanese gaming culture. Or my pal Ben Bailey suggested Ralph’s game gets relocated into a movie theater, one of the few places arcade machines are still present, and it’s Ralph in the world of the movies. The fact that I’m pitching sequels says something about the franchise’s potential and its accomplishment. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a worthy sequel with of equal parts compassion and wit.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Some of Hollywood’s most famous characters are its monsters, and no I’m not referring to studio executives. Kong was one of cinema’s first international stars, a stop-motion marvel in 1933 that had a hankering for blonde women. His legend has endured many different incarnations and once again the gigantic gorilla is given his close-up, in Kong: Skull Island, the second phase in a would-be MonsterVerse after 2014’s Godzilla. This time the monster comes through. Skull Island is a pleasing two hours spent with just enough style, thrills, and comedy to enjoyably pass the time best accompanied by a big bag of popcorn.

In 1973, a geological surveying team has discovered a heretofore-unknown island ominously shaped like a skull. Everyone is heading there for different reasons. Bill Randa (John Goodman) wants to prove the existence of monsters, and that he’s right. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) wants one last mission before returning home from the Vietnam War and its anticlimactic ending. James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the world’s best big game trackers and wants a new challenge. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is an award-winning war photographer who wants a new scoop. Their plans are put on hold when a 100-foot tall ape, Kong, violently knocks their helicopters out of the sky. The survivors scramble to regroup and escape the hostile locals on Skull Island along with the aid of Hank Marow (John C. Reilly), a WWII fighter pilot who crashed on the island thirty years ago and might have a few screws loose from the experiences.

Kong: Skull Island is a monster mash-up that knows how to entertain in grand smash-em-up style. It is not a remake of the original King Kong story, and being free of that “twas beauty killed the beast” narrative opens the movie to be its own thing, a high-concept action vehicle and clear Vietnam War parallel. It’s like someone watched Peter Jackson’s agreeable if bloated 2005 King Kong and said, “Hey, what if we shaved off the first hour and spent the whole time on Skull Island, the undisputed best part of the movie?” It’s the equivalent of an-all marshmallow box of Lucky Charms (Simpsons reference!). The unique environment boasts a retinue of fun surprises and a variety of action set pieces that keeps the movie from falling into a valley of repetition. It’s not just giant apes and dinosaurs, there’s also giant bulls, insects, and in one creepily terrifying moment a giant spider that uses its stalks of long legs to try and impale its prey down below. It’s a long lost world that allows for a constant sense of discovery that doesn’t get old. When the characters stumble upon a graveyard I wanted to soak up every detail of the spectacular collection of bones. I was grateful that Vogt-Roberts made fine use of his locations, real and computer enhanced, to build a sense of space and atmosphere.

One of the best aspects is that the producers have apparently learned from 2014’s Godzilla and elected not to play an elaborate game of hide and seek. My biggest complaint is that I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie. I was not content to settle for a shadowy impression or a glimpse of a tail here and a foot there. It was an artistic decision that toyed with audience anticipation but it also felt like we were being lead on. Too much teasing and not enough of the good stuff. This is not a problem with Kong: Skull Island; the title beast makes his presence known in spectacular fashion around the half-hour mark, and there’s no tiresome visual obfuscation to blunt the impact. You see Kong smash and it’s glorious carnage. He’s established as ornery protector, a sheriff of Skull Island keeping order with the fragile ecosystem. It makes the world of monsters seem much larger and more balanced. I wish there was more for Kong to do as a character but without his familiar arc he’s less character and more a testy god. There is a moment or two that hint at the soul inside the giant ape, but he’s mostly the physical embodiment of implacable force and the good and bad that goes with such power.

The Vietnam parallels are plentiful and provide a dollop of subtext to the conflicts, but this is a movie that doesn’t forget to have fun. The imagery can often fall into Apocalypse Now flashbacks and other war movie iconography, from the burnt orange sunsets casting dusky silhouette to the slow motion explosions trailing after teams of helicopters. The ever-present 70s rock soundtrack almost reaches Suicide Squad levels of needle-drop proportions in the first half, constantly reminding you of its time period. Skull Island isn’t a very deep movie but it does subvert some genre expectations at turns. A character given significant attention is taken out rather unceremoniously. An appeal to a greater sense of humanity is curtly brushed off. A lone heroic sacrifice that proves to be fruitless. Our more photographic heroes are evidently the worst, most useless characters (more on that below). For a movie that doesn’t strive for more than two hours of entertainment, it finds interesting sub routes.

I’m shocked at what director Vogt-Roberts has proven capable of considering his only other film was the low-budget, rather unremarkable coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer. This is a Russo brothers-esque statement, a Colin Trevorrow-style jump from minor indie to full-blown big screen spectacle. Is Hollywood going to sign up Joe Swanberg or Shane Caruth to direct the next four-quadrant blockbuster based on a toy? He does an adept job of capturing the action with style, and his shot compositions are routinely visually pleasing, confidently guiding an audience’s eyeballs to key info within the frame. I loved Kong’s immediate introduction as the camera circled him in a 360-degree pan, stopping at points to slow down before ramping up once more. There are amusing angles that highlight the comedy or tension of a scene, and Vogt-Roberts’ sense of geography and scale enhances the destruction. The prologue even had me hooked, as we watch a pair of enemy WWII soldiers parachute on the beach and continue their fight on the new territory. It was such a slam-bang opener and Vogt-Roberts’ use of camera placement reminded me of Spielberg. The special effects are reliably terrific even if they don’t seem like leaps and bounds from Jackson’s Kong. The skull-faced lizard monsters are scary enough to be threatening while still cool. The monster mayhem is lovingly reproduced and in environments where an audience can see the spectacle.

Another improvement is that the human cast has just enough characterization to make me care. With the newest Godzilla, I didn’t care if the giant lizard stepped on any of them, short of maybe Bryan Cranston. However, in this film I wasn’t impatient for the monsters to return that much. The best characters are, ostensibly, the antagonists. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) who goes full on heart of darkness, obsessed with killing the mighty Kong, asserting man’s dominance, and winning a war that others tell him cannot be won. He’s still sore and frustrated from the Vietnam War’s conclusion. He’s convinced that brute force and intractable persistence will win out, and he’s trying to prove something to himself, to the brass in D.C., and perhaps to all the lives lost under his watch. It’s not subtle characterization by any means but neither is a movie with a giant ape fighting monsters. Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) uses any opportunity to prove his life’s research about the existence of ancient monsters who he claims are the ones who rightfully have dominion. He’s using the looming possibility of a threat, and the paranoia of the U.S. government in the Cold War, to his sneaky advantage. Watching Goodman and Jackson glare at each other, neither side refusing to back down in their stolid beliefs and personal, self-destructive obsessions, is the non-monkey highlight of the film.

The closest thing approaching human drama, and even tragedy, is Reilly’s distaff character, and I don’t know the last time that John C. Reilly was asked to be a movie’s human compass (Magnolia?). His out-of-time character has a definite degree of cabin fever wonkiness. Reilly excels at being the offbeat oddball and has some welcomed comic relief moments, but it’s the drama related to the character that stuck with me. With the appearance of new human faces, he can take stock just how much of his life he’s missed out on and the family he’s been absent for. His genuine melancholy provides a depth to a character that would ordinarily just be made fun of for being kooky. Still, he’s got some great gallows humor that keeps the movie alive comically while also reminding of the dangers at stake.

The rest of the characters are rather interchangeable or curiously have little impact on the plot, and that unfortunately includes the headlining stars. Hiddleston (Thor) is a big game tracker and he’s the most useless character. Think about that. He’s supposed to be a wildlife expert and a tracker and he provides no real purpose other than he fills out a tight shirt nicely. Hiddleston is eye candy and little else, which is strange considering his skill set should have factored into the plot somehow. He points them in the direction of water and that’s about it. Larson (Room) is a recent Oscar-winner and has tremendous skill burrowing into her characters and finding a raw vulnerability. With Kong, her anti-war photographer gets off a few ideological shots with Jackson, but there’s little to separate her from the other diverse supporting castmates who are just bodies meant to be sacrificed. They’re all waiting to be eliminated in fantastic, gruesome, or unexpected ways. You won’t exactly be shedding a tear for these people when they become monster chow. Fun fact: ⅔ of the core cast of Straight Outta Compton are here (Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell), which apparently shows that Ice Cube isn’t a fan of long travel.

Enjoyably dumb at points and smart enough to know it, Kong: Skull Island is an admirably efficient monster movie that delivers its share of fun. Vogt-Roberts makes a major statement as a visual stylist and director of big-time smash-em-ups. The action is varied, intense, and vividly realized from carefully positioned camera angles and a team of high-class special effects wizards. Kong: Skull Island knows what an audience wants and happily delivers. The actors, for the most part, are enjoyable or enjoyably expendable. If this is the next step in the growing MonsterVerse, then I saw bring on the cataclysms and world-destruction. Friendly tip, stay for a post-credits scene that sets up future installments and try not to pump your fist in excitement. Kong: Skull Island is a boisterous B-movie that can make you feel like a kid again watching the amazing film feats of classic monsters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Lobster (2016)

lobsterWhen people decry the relentless slate of sequels, remakes, and redundancy from the Hollywood assembly line, they’re looking for something original and different, and there may be no movie more different this year than Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. David (Colin Farrell) is the newest guest at the Hotel, a place for singles to find their true love. He has 40 days to fall in love with a compatible mate or else he will be transformed into an animal of his choice (hence the title, David’s choice). The people at the hotel are all in competition to find their mate. Outside the confines of the hotel, in the woods, are dreaded single people, those who ignored the rules of society. They are to be feared and hotel guests are rewarded for capturing wild singles on weekly hunting trips. One way or another, David is going to have to decide his place in society as a person or animal.

The Lobster is daringly different, wildly imaginative, and drops you into the middle of its cracked, alternative landscape and expects you to pick things up as you go. It’s something that the writer/director already achieved with chilling, car-crash fascination in Dogtooth, a dark parable about extreme parental protection that crossed over into abuse. This is a world that opens with a distraught woman driving a long distance just so she can shoot a donkey in the head. Who is this woman? Why would she purposely murder this animal? Why is she so emotionally invested? And with that jarring act of peculiar violence, we’re off. We’re never told how this world came to be, it just simply is. There isn’t any extensive exposition save for one initial sit down David has with hotel management to determine what animal he’d like to turn into at the end of his stay if unsuccessful in love. There’s a genuine sense of authenticity to this deeply weird place and the characters all play it with straight-laced absurdity, which makes the satire land even harder. It sells even the most bizarre aspects, like the ongoing visual incongruity of wild animals just trotting around the background. You can sit back and think, “I wonder what that peacock’s story was, or that donkey, etc.” Its abnormal background pieces that add to the context of the world. I loved discovering new little wrinkles and rules to Lanthimos’ world that made perfect sense within its parameters. In a world where coupling is the only goal, of course masturbation would be a punishable crime. I enjoyed that there are other means guests have to stay at the hotel, chief among them hunting down the loners in the woods, which allow the more awkward or anti-social guests added time at the expense of others. Even in a world this bizarre, there are people who are making their own way, including the revolutionaries in the woods (more on them later). The movie is exceedingly funny and so matter-of-fact about its peculiarities to make it even funnier.

960The movie straddles the line between skewed ironic romance and cynicism, so I’m not surprised it’s rubbed people the wrong way. This can be a pretty dark movie and that’s even before the violence against animals/former people. It’s certainly written from the point of view of someone who is single and those currently in that category will likely relate the most to the film’s strident social commentary. “It’s no coincidence the targets are shaped like single people,” a man says in reference to target outlines. The pressures can seem absurd in their own regard, and the film has a clever concoction where the “happy couples” are merely two people who share a superficial physical trait. These two people are near-sighted. These two people get nosebleeds. These two people have a limp. Even the characters are named after their physical depictions, like The Limping Man and Short-Sighted Woman. It’s not exactly subtle but the satiric effect is still effective. The hotel manager says, to a newly cemented couple, “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children, that usually helps.” The humor can be very dry and very dark, never stopping to inform you where to laugh. There’s a sad woman played by Ashley Jensen (TV’s Extras, Ugly Betty) who is desperate for companionship, offering sexual favors to any man who might just alleviate her loneliness. She is ignored and often threatens to kill herself, and then one day she does it by jumping out a hotel window, but she’s not successful. It’s one more dark, awful ironic point of suffering for this woman, and she screams in agony while others ignore her, including a clearly affected David, still trying to play indifferent to win over the hard-hearted woman he sees as his best way out of the hotel. It’s a hard moment to process but one that made me admire the film even more for the cold courage of its convictions.

Supplementing the dark satire is an off-kilter romance that emerges halfway through the film once David escapes the hotel. He finally meets up with the source of our narration, the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). It’s here that the movie shows glimmers of hope for the hopeless as David and this woman are drawn to one another. They’re in a world of outcasts but the rules of those in the forest do not allow coupling. They reject the expectations of the ruling order, and so they must remain resolutely single. the only time David and the Short-Sighted Woman can be open with their affection is when they go undercover into the city, posing as a couple, and getting a chance to kiss with abandon, all as a cover of course. They build up their own secret non-verbal language to communicate their feelings, much like a couple builds its own personal shorthand and inside jokes. The loners are only to listen to music individually and dance the same, but David and the Short-Sighted Woman synch their CD players to listen to the same track, to simulate like they are sharing a dance together even if not in proximity. It’s here where The Lobster becomes a beguiling and surprising love story and one where the heartless may grow a heart, watching two odd people find one another in such an odd world. However, Lanthimos does not let this emergence of romance blunt his message. The loner leader (Lea Seydoux) suspects coupling in her group and goes to some pretty drastic lengths to test the fortitude of feelings between David and his secret girlfriend. It’s like getting cold water dumped on the runaway spell of optimism. The fitting ending is left in ambiguity for the audience to determine whether they were meant to be after all.

It’s also in the second half of The Lobster that the movie loses some of its grandeur and momentum. We’re introduced to a new primary setting with new rules to adapt to and a new order to follow, and there’s a general interest to discovering another competing area of this landscape with a diametrically opposed social order. They punish people by mutilating parts that come into affectionate contact with another person. We see a couple with bandages around their red, swollen mouths, and then the reference of the “red intercourse” makes your imagination fill in the horrific blanks. David has left one regime dictating his life to another regime dictating his life, but they just aren’t as interesting. It feels like the film is starting to repeat itself. I would say the second half world building isn’t as compelling as the first but that’s why the romance emerges, something for the audience to root for. Now that he’s finally found someone he connects with they’re not allowed to be together. There’s never a shortage of irony in a Lanthimos movie.

rs-240540-thelobsterThe actors are perfectly in synch with the strange rhythms of this world, and Farrell (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Weisz (The Light Between Oceans) deserve special attention for their committed performances. Farrell gained 40 pounds for the role, which seems to have translated right into his stint on season two of HBO’s True Detective. He’s a schlubby guy that’s still mourning the deterioration of his marriage and larger society is insisting he get over it. He has only 40 days to recover or he’ll be plucked from the ranks of humanity. There’s great sadness tinged in his nonchalant responses to the absurd realities of this world, and Farrell keeps finding ways to make you laugh and wince. Weisz is our placid voice into the strange new world and it helps establish a sense of grounding as well as connection to her character when she eventually emerges. She injects a palpable sense of yearning to her character, especially once David is in reach and they begin their relationship. It’s got the cute romantic comedy staples but on its own terms, and seeing Weisz smile warmly is a pleasure in a morbid movie.

The Lobster is a romance for our age and an indictment of the romance of our age, an era where the swipe of a finger on an app is the arbitrator of contemporary dating. It’s a satire on our fixation of coupledom and being in relationships even when they’re not sensible. It’s a cracked fairy tale that punctuates the romantic love we’ve watched distilled to an essence in Hollywood movies. It’s a surreal and dark movie that manages to become emotionally moving and poignant, leaving on a note of uncertainty enough for different factions in the audience to interpret as either hopeful or hopeless. The Lobster is a unique movie with a singular artistic voice that dominates every shape of the narrative, the characters, and the boundaries of this fantastic alternative world. I imagine my depth of feeling for the movie will only grow the more I watch it. This isn’t an overwhelmingly dark or unpleasant movie without the presence of some light. It’s not an overly off-putting movie without an accessibility for a curious audience, whether those people are single or in happy relationships. The movie is inventive, transporting, but still relatable, rooting the nexus of its weirdness on the same awkwardness and anxiety everyone feels with the prospects of prolonged romantic courtship. If 2016 was a year that celebrated the oddities of cinema getting their due, then The Lobster is a captivating and unusual creation deserving of its spotlight and surefire future cult status amidst lovers of the weird.

Nate’s Grade: A

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Disney has taken plenty of drubbings with its non-Pixar animation output. They’ve all but abandoned traditional 2D animation, and the failure of The Princess and the Frog is unlikely to alter that decision-making. The Disney stand-alones have gotten better in quality; last year’s Tangled was well received and banked some nice dough. I expect Wreck-It Ralph to do even better. A film about the lives of video game characters seems ripe for a merchandizing bonanza, plus all the parents will need something to shut up their sweet little bundles of joy for two hours of relief.

Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain of a classic arcade game. He climbs a condo building, Donkey Kong-style, and smashes windows. Felix (Jack McBrayer) is the handyman the player controls, hopping from ledge to ledge fixing what is broken with his magic hammer. But Ralph is tired of always being the bad guy, getting hurled off the roof at the end of every game by the residents. He’s labeled as a “bad guy” but he doesn’t believe he’s so bad. To convince the townspeople of his game of his worth, Ralph abandons his game to seek a medal like what Felix earns at the end of every game. He trounces around an assortment of games, including a space Marine shoot-em-up led by the no-nonsense Calhoun (Jane Lynch), before landing in Sugar Rush, a girlie version of Mario Kart. Here he meets the rascally girl Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). She agrees to help Ralph get his medal if he’ll help her build a racing car and get her in the game. Vanellope lives on the run as a glitch in programming. The other game characters tell her she’s a mistake, but she knows she’s a racer at heart. Except without Ralph, Felix and the other game characters seem like they’re glitching. If they can’t get him back, they may lose their game and their home.

It’s essentially a Toy Story for gamers, discovering the hidden world of video games when nobody’s looking. There’s a great sense of fun and discovery learning about these characters and their worlds as well as what they do off the clock. I love the idea of a support group for video game villains coping with their lot in life. I feel like this could have been a movie unto itself and I would have been pleased. There are plenty of references to games from the 80s and 90s, before everything became an endless variation on first-person shoot and kill games of sport. Really the references are only going to work for former or current gamers in their 20s or 30s, maybe even 40s. Are teenagers even going to understand the famous Konami code or get the subway scrawl, “All your base are belong to us”? Heck, are teenagers even going to know what arcades are at this point? The cameos are kept to a minimum as we switch over to our main characters. Wreck-It Ralph isn’t as clever or groundbreaking as the Toy Story films, but it gets points for trying something different than most family films, which are content with the somehow irresistible combination of fart jokes and inappropriate pop-culture references. Even non-gamers will likely find something to enjoy with the movie. I’ve gone on record saying that there will likely never be a good video game movie. Allow me to amend that statement: there will never be a good movie BASED upon a video game.

Set in the world of video games is another matter. The animation style is very colorful and impressive, with some fun quirks to give the movie an extra dash of personality. I really enjoyed how the Weeble-like people in Ralph’s game move in staccato 8-bit style; a herky-jerky movement that left me smiling every time. The running jokes helped to turn a half-hearted gag into a thing of beauty, like Calhoun’s tragic bridal backstory. The antagonist of King Candy (voiced by an unrecognizable Alan Tudyk) proves to be more interesting than at first glance. The different game settings all have very different tones, allowing the movie to present a nice variety of visual imagery. Some of the more frenzied action of the “Hero’s Duty” game might scare young children. The animation looks wonderful and even the recreation of the graphically limited games is cause for some amusement. That’s probably the best word for Wreck-It Ralph; it’s routinely amusing and provides enough chuckles for me to mildly recommend to others. I would not, however, recommend seeing this movie in 3D. You would think a world of video games would be quite a boon in the extra dimension, but the 3D is hardly noticeable at all. This may be the worst 3D rendering of a major movie I’ve ever seen, and usually animated films are the best ones to see with 3D. Regardless, the substandard 3D won’t detract from what is an enjoyable theatrical experience.

What helps smooth over the film’s flaws is the presence of heart. Yes it too can get saccharine at turns, and that’s not a joke about Sugar Rush, but you’ll be surprised that by the end of the movie, you may actually be feeling things in your heart-space for these characters and their plights. Again, here is another 2012 movie that rips off the ending to the brilliant 1999 animated classic, The Iron Giant. Perhaps some of my emotional engagement is residual association from that masterpiece. If this is true, and Hollywood filmmakers have found the secret formula to make audiences feel emotions, then I await the onslaught of movies copying the ending to The Iron Giant (I won’t spoil it but for God’s sake, go out and see that movie). After about 30 minutes, the film really becomes a buddy picture between Ralph and Vanellope, outcasts from their games. Neither character is that deep, though perhaps that goes with the programming. They both are denied better lives because of others prejudices against them. When they join forces as a team to buck the establishment is when the movie finds a wealth of sweetness. While their character arcs will be completely predictable, from the misunderstanding and reconciliation, but that doesn’t mean it misses the mark. Their relationship, and the film’s simple goals, can get bogged down in the messy plot mechanics of the movie (there are a lot of rules to digest). The climax, though, is filled with all number of payoffs, some big some small, some you’d forgotten about; I’m genuinely impressed how smoothly the movie ties together storylines, finding a perfect return of the bad guy support group pledge to form an emotional peak.

There is a fun to be had and Wreck-It Ralph has enough colorful imagery to make your eyes glaze over. However, the story is a blend of familiar “be yourself” aphorisms given a retro polish. The motivation for Ralph, and Vanellope as well, is very flimsy, and the more time they repeat these miniscule goals (get a medal/compete in a race) the flimsier they become. Ralph is risking it all to get a medal because a shiny award is all it takes to convince the people in his game that he deserves better. The dubious logic seems pulled right out of a video game. There’s also a fair amount of messages about not being trapped by labels, breaking from the herd, believing in yourself, all those sorts of Disney beatitudes they’ve been dishing since the 90s. The plot also seems to fly well below its potential. We’re talking about a world of video games, and there’s a definite interest in seeing these realms mix and match. Unfortunately, the movie spends 2/3 of its running time in the candy-coated land of Sugar Rush. It’s here where Vanellope takes over the movie. Her relationship with Ralph works in fits and starts, and her annoyance level will vary sharply depending upon your tolerance index for Silverman’s baby-doll voice. Aside from a few retro cameos and puns, the humor is assuredly juvenile and filled with endless slapstick. Hope you like three minutes of “duty/doodie” jokes. You’re better than this, Wreck-It Ralph.

There’s one glaring plot hole that I feel deserves some deliberation. Throughout the film we glimpse Felix’s hammer magically fixing things that are broken. Just one whap and good as new. A late conflict arrives with the danger of the Sugar Rush game getting its plug pulled. The residents of the game could flee, but Vanellope would be stuck because she is a glitch, she cannot escape the game if it goes dead. Well couldn’t Felix use his hammer, tap Vanellope, and then “fix” her? To that end, what happens if the whole arcade goes out of business? We see the displaced game characters hang out at the surge protector, modeled like a train station. But what if that gets unhooked as well? How far can these guys run away to? They all seem inevitably doomed due to the dwindling business of arcades. Maybe somebody should start up a non-profit charity. Cue the Sarah McLachlan song (for just quarters a day, you can help a video game character in need…).

Colorful, vibrant, and occasionally witty, Wreck-It Ralph is Disney’s latest animated film to succeed with a solid formula of heart, attitude, and with an extra dash of nostalgia. I did enjoy the film but I always kept thinking there were so many better movies ready to be made given this setup. It does seem a little confused about who its audience is. It’s a bit too childish for grown-ups and a bit too plot-heavy and full of nostalgia for little kids. It packs a lot of jokes and plot into 108 minutes, which feels draggy at turns but flies by with enough spirit and energy that it’s hard to complain. Wreck-It Ralph is a perfectly entertaining movie that fits the definition of cute. It manages to make you care about the characters, which is a small miracle when you’re dealing with characters named Vanellope. Now that they’ve established this universe, hopefully Disney and the writers can expand their storytelling and really have fun with the possibilities at play.

Oh, and the short before the movie about a couple looking to find one another in the big city is rather cute though I liked it better before it went overboard with the supernatural.

Nate’s Grade: B

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

If you’re contemplating having children, then We Need to Talk About Kevin may not be the movie for you at this moment. It takes a stab at the nature/nurture debate and proposes that some children are just born broken and beyond the reach of even the most dedicated parent. It’s not exactly the cuddly message we get from most stories about the joys of parenting, but We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling, provocative, and powerful portrait of grief, aggravation, and slowly dawning horror. Can even a mother love her monster?

Motherhood has not been the rewarding venture as promised for Eva (Tilda Swinton). Kevin (Jasper Newell at a child; Ezra Miller as a teen) wails so incessantly as a baby that she seeks out the sweet sounds of a jackhammer to drown out her shrieking babe. Even as a toddler, she knows there’s something just not right about her sullen, uncommunicative son. He seems to deprive her of any affection or attention she might find gratifying. Truly it seems much of Kevin’s motivation in life is to humiliate and torment his mother. It starts with being deliberately unresponsive as a child, and turning on a dime when in the presence of his father, then to delayed toilet training because he seems to enjoy making his mother clean up his mess (metaphor?), to the unexplainable massacre at her son’s hands. We Need to Talk About Kevin is an immersive experience, occasionally piling on how irredeemable Kevin is as a character. It also speaks to the unreliable nature of our shell-shocked point of view. It’s a disquieting film to say the least but I found it riveting and compelling at every second, artfully exploring a form of grief and social isolation that few will ever be able to fully understand.

There’s tremendous psychological detail to this nightmarish parenting tale, and it’s those details that make the film feel eerily authentic and not exploitative. I found it fascinating to be drawn into this world, like I was watching an intimate, illustrated case study come alive. I found it very telling that after Eva accidentally injures her son in a fit of frustration, she apologizes but can only bring herself to do so under the shield of third person, saying, “Mommy shouldn’t have done that,” rather than, “I shouldn’t have done that.” And then when they get home, little Kevin unspools a perfectly believable story to cover-up what really happened. Even at six this kid is a shockingly adept liar, possibly because he’s a budding sociopath. Horror movies have been bringing us little pint-sized terrors for decades, from Bad Seed to the Village of the Damned, but those wicked kids seem like child’s play compared to Kevin, a startling, vacant child who is the scariest of the bunch exactly because he feels completely real. No Satanic imagery, glowing red eyes, or over-the-top associations needed; this is one messed up kid.

Watching this tumultuous and combative struggle for domination is equal turns compelling and terrifying. In many ways Eva adopts the role of Cassandra, the Greek figure cursed with visions of the future that nobody believed; Eva warns the people in her life that Kevin isn’t right, that he’s entirely capable of great evil, yet everyone ignores her dire warnings, and even Eva is culpable to some degree of enabling. Rather than discipline Kevin or stick to her principles, she passively accepts the situation and carries on with full knowledge that Kevin is going unchallenged. To everyone else he seems like a bright, helpful, normal teenage boy, which is why dear old dad (John C. Reilly) is so condescending and dismissive when Eva voices concern. Parenting is supposed to be instinctive, right? Eva feels like a failure, that this young soul has been steered to the dark side under her watch, and I think her hesitation to continue ringing alarm can be summed up by the fact that she’s just exhausted, tired of fighting a fight that everyone else ignores. I think she may also be desperately hopeful that she can ride this out, that it’s only a phase for her son, that somehow he’ll grow up to be a normal, loving child through some miracle, like a switch will be flipped. The only time Kevin ever shows his mother compassion is when she reads him a bedtime story involving archery, a hobby that would prove deadly.

The film is told non-linearly as we observe the fragmented memory of Eva. We have to pick up the pieces of life much like Eva recovering from her son’s destruction. It’s interesting to discover the symbolic connections between scenes, the connective tissue binding the memories together, and director/co-writer Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) does an exceptional job of filling in key details to enrich this woman’s horrid life. The scenes don’t seem to last long, but Ramsay and her team provide all the meaning and weight we need so that the scenes matter. There’s a heavy amount of dread suffused into every scene in this movie, as the totality of events starts to become clear. The metaphors aren’t subtle but they are effective. Prepare for a lot of red in the color palate: squashed tomatoes, strawberry jam, splattered paint across Eva’s front porch as an act of vandalism. She spends the rest of the movie trying to clean away the red stains on her home (see what I mean about subtlety?). The splintered narrative also serves as a statement on Eva’s frame of mind, trying to move forward but haunted by a tragedy that goes down to the marrow.

And of course all praise of the film needs to also be placed at he feet of versatile actress Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton). She’s not given many lines of dialogue but what she is able to do to make her character feel fully lived-in is astonishing. There are so many different points of her life to play, from young exuberance to growing disdain to zombie-like pariah, and Swinton doesn’t strike one false note. Even during her grief and guilt she doesn’t go into hysterics. This is a woman that simply wants to waste away and be forgotten. Even when it looks like she might find some small measure of satisfaction or affection from another person, the movie sucker punches you. You realize that her son may be in jail but she’s serving a sentence all her own. Swinton is heartbreaking and subtle and nuanced even when it appears she’s simply staring off into space. You don’t really want to be in this woman’s head, and yet Swinton’s performance puts us there, hence all of my analytical assessment above. She’s a mixture of self-loathing, denial, bitterness, and penitence, and Swinton gives us telling glimpses of the storm below the surface. Her guilt is eating her away from the inside out. I’ll go on record and say it’s a crime that Swinton wasn’t nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (I personally apologize for not nominating her for the PSP Silver Cines).

I feel the need to talk and talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin, to sing its despairing praises, to encourage lovers of challenging, complex, and emotionally devastating film to experience this exceptional movie. It’s psychologically rich, bold, and revealing with even the smallest details to round out this hellish family scenario. It’s not an easy two hours to sit through, not by a long shot, but there are certain rewards for those who choose to wade through the darkness, Swinton’s haunting performance among them. This is a difficult subject and it’s produced a difficult film, but sometimes we need to be put in uncomfortable circumstances to get at a greater truth. What is the greater truth of the film? Maybe that parenting is really, when it’s all said and done, a leap of faith, maybe that avoidance of hard decisions is no solution, and maybe that some people are just beyond redemption. A movie that makes you think? Somebody ought to talk about this one.

Nate’s Grade: A

Cedar Rapids (2011)

When people think about the temptations and sundry thrills of the Big City, most people are probably thinking of a sin-stained location like Las Vegas. Most people would not confuse Vegas with Cedar Rapids, and yet the Iowa city of note is the setting for a sweet and sometimes dirty, but still sweet, comedy of big-city adventures. To a guy from a town without a stoplight, Cedar Rapids is like New York City. It all depends on your perspective.

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is an insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin. The town is small but the little insurance agency that could has won the coveted Two Diamond Award four years running at the annual insurance convention held in Cedar Rapids. Tim’s life is in a holding pattern. He wants to do big things but can’t find the oomph to get there. He’s involved in a romantic tryst with his (one-time) seventh grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver). Tim’s chance to make a name for himself comes when he’s selected to represent his company at the annual convention. He has to impress the right people to take home another Two Diamond Award. Never having been on a plane before, he leaves small-town Brown Valley for big-city Cedar Rapids. At the convention site, Tim rooms with Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the more unsophisticated Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). The group meets up with Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), and together they work on helping Tim loosen up. Over the course of the weekend, bonds will be made, principles will be tested, and tom foolery of the first order will be had.

The premise is rather simple, small-town guy heads to the big city (well, bigger) and the culture shock that waits. But the film never looks down on Tim Lippe. While there is plenty of humor drawn from his naiveté, the movie doesn’t condescend or play up the small-town folks as rubes and squares. It’s funny to see Tim’s mild-mannered explosions of anger, mostly of the “horse pucky” variety of vulgarities, but the movie doesn’t say that the big-city folk are better than Tim. On the contrary, Tim is a principled and devoted insurance salesman, courteous to a fault. He could have stepped out of a Frank Capra movie from a bygone era (Mr. Lippe Goes to Town). Tim is sheltered, which provides some amusing fish out of water comedy, like when he initially is on alert because his roommate is African-American, a rarity in Brown Valley despite whatever the name may imply to some. Tim is a man out of time, but that can be small-town life in general. The Midwestern satire reminds me of the gentle yet knowing nudge of King of the Hill. Phil Johnston’s script sets up Tim’s dilemma as a crisis of conscience, the compromises we make in morality. Tim’s trip to the “big city” is the push the guy needs to get his life out of stasis. There’s something deeply satisfying in watching a character you care about triumph in the end, even if that triumph is a small victory befitting a small-town guy with a big heart.

The real fun of the movie, however, is watching the effect the group has not just on Tim but on each other. They teach Tim to cut loose and live a little, but this is still Cedar Rapids, so cutting loose goes as far as nighttime pool escapades and drunken sex. His flirtatious fling with Joan brings the guy out of his shell, and the two of them are genuinely cute together without going overboard. It’s a reserved romance that feels true to the nature of both of the characters. Dean is the loudmouth knucklehead notorious for his oafish shenanigans, but once he feels accepted he goes to war for his friends. He’s a buffoon but not stupid. And then Ronald, though less developed than the other three, provides a nice foil as a straight-laced businessman who keeps it together impressively. Together it’s a team of likeable characters that have grown closer together over the course of that weekend in Cedar Rapids, and you’ll feel the same. You feel like they’ve formed a family around the earnestness of Tim.

Helms (The Hangover) is a suitable candidate for a nice, regular, Midwestern guy. Helms has honed his awkward comedy chops after several seasons on TV’s The Office, and here he sticks to what he knows. Tim Lippe is another in a line of embryonic men. Helms settles into his usual nervous tics that fans will be familiar with. His sunny naiveté wins over the audience and provides for several laughs in contrast with the jaded “big city” folk. Reilly (Step Brothers) can overdo his character’s intentional obnoxiousness. He’s chartered a successful second career as a winsome nitwit, so like Helms, Reilly relies on notes gleaned from past performances. Whitlock Jr. is mostly straight man to the others. His comedic highpoint is an impromptu impersonation of a character from The Wire to get the group out of a dangerous jam (Whitlock Jr. himself played a state senator on The Wire). Other than that, he’s more contrast than character. Heche (TV’s Hung) is a real surprise. She underplays her character, tantalizing us with tidbits that leave us wanting more, much like Tim. The way she plays Joan, you feel the connection.

With all that said, Cedar Rapids still has its share of flaws. The naïve comedy can go so far before you start to question Tim’s senses, like his casual mistaking of a prostitute (Alia Shawkat, Whip It) for a fellow attendant. His relationship with his former seventh grade teacher is intentionally awkward, but the whole plotline presents an unseemly overtone that doesn’t fit. She’s made to be rather motherly, even when she’s rolling her eyes at her bedmate’s pie-eyed declarations of being “pre-engaged.” I think the motherly aspect makes the whole Oedipal mess even worse (Weaver just seems bored). Late into Act Three Tim goes on a drug-fueled bender that feels out of place for his character who, when first asked for a drink, requested a beer of the root kind. The character of Dean is given too many moments to just wander around and spout crude one-liners. It sometimes feels like the movie is resting while it lets Dean do his thing, and a little of this guy can go a long way.

The plot is relatively predictable and the ending is pretty pat. It works, but the actors and the characters were capable of more. The relationship between Tim and Joan also leaves something to be desired. There’s a great assembly of recognizable guests (Stephen Root, Thomas Lennon, Rob Corddry, Mike Birbiglia) that stop by but add little. Again, the potential for more feels missed. With a solid 80% of the movie taking place in a hotel, you can also start to feel a little cabin fever. And not that it matter much, but I’m disappointed that film with “Cedar Rapids” in its name was filmed in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Iowa did away with its in-state film tax credit).

The appeal of Cedar Rapids, the film, is much like the appeal of its central figure, Tim Lippe. It’s an unassuming, earnest charm, enjoying the company of likeable characters who we want to see succeed. I just wish the predictable plot had done more or trusted the actors’ capabilities. The core characters feel mostly authentic and easily recognizable, which makes the familiar, if at times bland, plot fairly forgivable. Helms and company are an easygoing bunch and you’ll be happy to tag along on their unspectacular hijinks in the “big city.” Cedar Rapids is the kind of low-key, charming little movies that often gets overlooked. It’s worth viewing for the pleasurable camaraderie of the core cast. Cedar Rapids, much like the city that bears its name, is worth a visit but does not require more commitment than that.

Nate’s Grade: B

9 (2009)

9 began its life with acclaim. Director Shane Acker won a Student Academy Award and a 2004 Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short for his eleven-minute tale of post-apocalyptic ragdoll people. Blown up to feature length and with a screenplay by Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride), 9 the film is being sold on the name appeal of producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (director of Wanted). It’s being sold to gloomy animation aficionados. I can hear the producers saying, “These guys will see anything that?s dark and different.” I advise everyone to surf YouTube and watch the eleven-minute original short by Acker. You’ll save eight bucks and see the more effective and satisfying version of 9. If you wanted to boil 9 down, it’s like The Brave Little Toaster starring the villainous robots from The Matrix. Sound like a winner?

War machines have killed humans. The only life on our planet is a handful of numbered ragdoll creatures. The main hero, #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), awakes in the home of a dead scientist. The outside world is demolished. He finds other little ragdoll people like him, each numbered 1-8. Together they must try and make sense of this scary new world and survive the roaming robots still on the hunt for… something. #9 accidentally gives life back to the monstrous Machine, who we learn is responsible for the downfall of mankind. Way to go, ragdoll. The Machine is patching together mechanical minions to take over the ashen remains of a post-apocalyptic world absent life. Seriously, I’m at a loss what the big evil Machine hopes to accomplish. Then again, maybe it’s just in need of a hobby.

Even at a scant 79 minutes, 9 the movie still feels stretched and draggy, chiefly because the plot is lousy and the character work stopped at the design stage. I was bored throughout, I didn’t care about any character, and the movie failed to even arouse my curiosity to solve the mysteries of the movie. I didn’t even care if I found out why these ragdoll creatures existed or what had happened to leave the world in chaos. I sat in my chair, completely uninvolved with what was happening onscreen. Part of this is because a majority of the plot involves these tiny characters walking from one point (a church) to another (a factory) over and over again; the plot could be substituted by a linear line connecting Point A and Point B. It’s all so crushingly repetitious. And these are not short distances either, compounded by the fact that it’s little eight-inch ragdolls walking these great expanses of land. I invite every reader to position two fingers on their hand, index and middle, and then proceed to pretend to walk across. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the miniature plot of 9 magnified for your edification. Just imagine weird robots chasing after your fingers and you get the drill. There’s not enough story here to make the jump and fill out a feature film.

The characters have an interesting design, to be sure. Each has different sewn parts but Acker makes the mistake of animation where the design is the full personality of the character. #8 is a big dolt, #1 is an old tyrant, #6 is a loon (voiced by Crispin Glover, naturally), #7 is a lady rag doll warrior complete with some purposeful enhanced womanly hips, and so on. The bland characters don?t ever take a moment to ask more important questions. These creatures have just been given life in a hostile world absent of life, so how about a moment where they ponder something a bit existential (Why am I here? What is life?) before they immediately speak English fluently and assimilate perfectly in a world they were born into moments earlier? The characters are a challenge to feel any empathy for.

The mechanical monsters designs also come across as highly derivative; then again, so does the movie as a whole. The main villain, The Machine, looks exactly like the Sentinels from the Matrix movies. It has a central red glowing eye, a head lined with pistons, lots of twisty tentacles, and even creates shockwaves of electricity that seem to bathe over the mighty creature. I think it even makes a similar noise as the Sentinels. Then there’s also one mechanical minion whose key design feature is a mutilated doll head. Too bad I already saw this exact same design in Toy Story 14 years ago. Here’s the thing: I don’t automatically cry foul whenever a design concept looks familiar, but when things just keep hitting you in the face with familiarity then it develops into a pattern. The overall film feels stitched together by the parts of other, better movies.

At least there’s a saving grace with bad animated films: you have something moderately interesting to watch considering the painstaking work that goes into every frame. That is not the case with the dreary 9. The entire landscape is post-apocalyptic, which means the sets are little more than ash, ruins, and barren remains. There are only so many scattered mechanical remains you can see before it all just starts resembling one vast junkyard. The setting is not 21st century, but more like mid twentieth in some unidentified Eastern European city (a film reel reveals that we’re in communist territory). I’m not saying that it’s impossible to find beauty in destruction, but this movie misses out. Acker and company has created a competently animated movie with a somewhat different look and feel, but there isn’t a single moment of wonder or awe to be had. It lacks an imaginative spark.

This animated tale lacks a sense of wonder, a sense of intrigue, even a sense of scale. The visuals and story are derivative of other sci-fi/fantasy films. In the original short, the characters were silent, causing the viewer to work harder at interpreting body language and context. If the ragdolls are just going to spout lame exposition gunk, they should have stayed silent. Director Rob Marshall’s upcoming big screen musical, Nine, need not worry about being confused with this film. In about two weeks, everyone except those with Hot Topic punch cards will have forgotten this mediocre movie. People who say, “It’s only an animated movie, give it a break,” are deluding themselves. No matter the genre, an audience should expect to be entertained. 9 just makes me hopeful that in the future Acker proves why he was targeted as a talent on the rise.

Nate’s Grade: C

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