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Toy Story 4 (2019)

The Toy Story franchise has been the gold standard for Pixar with three excellent movies, the last of which was released back in 2010. When the Pixar bigwigs announced they were making a fourth entry, I felt some degree of concern. The hidden world of toys still felt like an interesting world with more stories to be told, but did we need to revisit Woody and Buzz and the gang? Everything ended so beautifully and perfectly with the third movie, with the toys getting their sendoff from their original owner and a new life in the possession of a new child, little Bonnie. I’ve been more wary about this movie than just about any other Pixar film because the audience had something that could be lost, namely closure. If they harmed that perfect ending in the crass desire to extend the franchise for an extra buck, it would have been aggravating and depressing to disturb something that felt so complete. It’s like when Michael Jordan came out of retirement (the second time) to be a shadow of himself for the Washington Wizards in order to sell tickets for the team he was part owner of. Nobody wanted that. I’m happy to report that Toy Story 4 is a treat of a movie and a worthy addition to the franchise.

Bonnie is gearing up for kindergarten and nervous about the change. She isn’t allowed to take toys with her to school, though that doesn’t stop Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) from tagging along. In her desire for a friend, and with a little assist from a certain cowboy, Bonnie creates a fork-figure named Forky (Tony Hale), and amazingly it comes to life. Woody tries valiantly to convince Forky that being a toy to a child is the greatest gift but he’s also really reminding himself now that he sees his influence waning with Bonnie as he’s selected for play time less and less. During a family road trip, Forky escapes and Woody leaps to find him, both of them coming into the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an antique doll missing a functional voice box who has her sights set on Woody’s voice box.  It’s at this small-town pit stop for a carnival that Woody discovers Bo Peep (Annie Potts), an old flame he never thought he would see again. She’s assured, happy, and preaching a life of being independent from a kid. Woody has defined himself for so long by one identity, and now he must decide which to follow.

In many ways, Toy Story 4 takes themes and questions from the third movie and improves upon them, making what could have been a retread feel like a do-over you didn’t know you desired. It’s been many years since I saw the third film but I recall the major themes being the fear of change, reconciling one’s self-identity, and the courage of letting go and starting over. The toys had to recognize that their owner was growing up and their old place wasn’t going to be the same. This same issue finds new life in Toy Story 4 primarily through the lens of Woody, who finds himself on the decline with his kid’s interest. He’s not offended or upset by this but is still trying to provide what assistance he can as a beloved toy, even if that relationship becomes more and more one-sided. His identity is in selfless sacrifice for another, but with the re-emergence of Bo, he is now contemplating a life on his own, a life without a kid. This alternate path never seemed a possibility until his former flame stepped back into his life. It challenged Woody in a way that feels more personal and more relevant than it did with 3, especially with the removal of a larger external threat to occupy the attention of our main characters. This places a renewed focus on Woody’s internal dilemma beyond his role as leader and protector.

Toy Story 4 might also be the weirdest movie of the franchise, which really elevates the comedy into another realm. I thought the characters played by Jordan Peele (Us) and Keegan Michael-Key (Predator) were going to quickly wear out their welcome; they seemed to be a heavy part of pre-release teaser trailers. The filmmakers don’t overdo them and use them in clever ways, which is a compliment that can be applied to every new character in this sequel. The plushies by Key and Peele have a hilarious running gag of their increasingly absurd plans to attack a woman, and one instance deliciously prolongs the eventual punchline, becoming more bizarre and macabre to the point that I lost control from laughter. Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3) is fun as a very Canadian Evel Knievel motorcycle driver, and the weird references to the Canada-ness of it are played completely straight, making it even funnier (his laments with the French-Canadian boy’s name made me snicker every time). There’s a trio of action figures, Combat Carls, and one of the three is always left hanging for high-fives and he just leaves his arm up waiting, silently pleading, and then lowers it in defeat, and it’s hysterical even just as a background gag. The ventriloquist dummies are routinely played for creepy laughs and physical humor. There’s a running joke where Buttercup, the unicorn voiced by Jeff Garlin, is always suggesting getting Bonnie’s father sent to jail no matter the circumstances. It’s these touches of weirdness that make the movie stand out that much more from the three others.

The villain of Toy Story 4 is given a surprising sense of poignancy, enough that I genuinely sympathized with her plight. She’s a damaged doll used to being behind glass, isolated and separated from the children she wishes to be part of. She views her salvation in fixing in her damaged voice box, her perceived disability. She’s after what Woody has physically, the voice box, but it’s a means to an ends to have what Woody has had emotionally, the love of a child in need, the connection she yearns for. I won’t spoil what happens with her but even when there are setbacks the film and the characters don’t give up on Gabby Gabby. Her perspective and desires are still seen as valued, and the eventual resolution of her character put a lump in my throat. She wasn’t really the villain after all. She was just another toy in pain looking for acceptance and having to adjust her identity. I feel like there is a conscious disability empowerment message implanted in Toy Story 4, namely that those who are disfigured, disabled, or seen as “broken” can continue to be valuable and that their lives don’t end.

If this serves as the finale of the franchise, it will end on a fitting and resonant high-point. As much as Toy Story 3 was about change and acceptance, this sequel does a very respectable effort of personalizing that message even more to one central character’s dramatic arc. It also works wonderfully playing off of our collective investment in the character over the course of four movies and twenty-four years. There are some drawbacks to this approach. It makes the majority of the other toy characters feel like they have little to do on the sidelines, other than fret about retrieving Woody and Forky. Buzz is given a cute joke about listening to his inner voice but it doesn’t amount to much more than a cute joke. The inclusion of Forky feels like an exciting and even daring addition, tackling some existential questions and how and when toys are “made” and brought into being, and he presents these for a while. Once we get to our carnival setting and Forky is captured, he seems to be forgotten about. He’s more a motivation point for Woody than overtly anything else. I suppose you could make the analysis that Forky represents how Bonnie is moving on even with invented toys at the expense of Woody. However, these are minor quibbles considering the quality and emotional involvement of what Pixar has produced.

It goes without saying that the animation is beautiful but what amazed me is how expressive the faces of the characters could be, even when they were relatively inflexible toys. The relationship between Woody and Bo actually has a surprising amount of nonverbal dramatic acting to communicate nuance. As the years go by, I continue to be further and further amazed at the Pixar animators and their abilities.

As protective I was over Toy Story 3’s perfect ending, I am happy to say that Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence in this hallowed franchise and even improves from the third film. The themes are something of a repeat but the filmmakers have elected to focus almost entirely on Woody and his personal journey, and it makes the loss and possibility more robustly felt. In many ways the film is an exploration on relationships and the need to redefine ourselves, to move onward when the time is right, and to try something new even if things get scary. Between Woody and Gabby Gabby, ostensibly the hero and villain of the piece, they’re looking for meaningful connections where they can. They may be secondhand, they may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of affection. This is a joyous movie that finds time to be wonderfully weird and often funny. It might not have the set pieces or ensemble showmanship of the prior Toy Story tales, but what it does have is a character-based emphasis on the most complex figure in this universe of toys. The conclusion is moving and satisfying and I don’t mind admitting that tears were shed. I even teared up at different other earlier points. Toy Story 4 could have gone a lot of different ways but I’m relieved and appreciative with this new sendoff we’ve been granted.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Post (2017)

Even with the added timely benefit of championing a free press in the era of Trump, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a movie held together by big speeches and Meryl Streep. It’s the story of the Pentagon Papers but it’s told from the wrong perspective. It’s told through the reference of whether the owner of the Washington Post (Streep) will or will not publish and how this endangers her family’s financial control over the newspaper. Plenty of dismissive men doubt her because she’s a woman. It’s simply one of the least interesting versions of an important story. Streep is her standard excellent self and has a few standout moments where you can actively see her character thinking. I just don’t understand why all these talented people put so much effort into telling this version of this story. I missed the active investigation of Spotlight, how one piece lead to another and the bigger picture emerged. There was an urgency there that is strangely lacking with The Post. The question of whether she will publish is already answered. It feels like the screenplay is designed for Big Important Speeches from Important People. Tom Hanks plays the gruff editor of the newspaper and Streep’s chief scene partner. They’re enjoyable to watch, as is the large collection of great supporting actors (Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, and a Mr. Show reunion with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk). This is a movie that is easier to admire than like, but I don’t even know if I admire it that much. The film has to call attention to Streep’s big decision and the stakes involved by underlining just what she has to lose and reminding you how brave she’s being. When Streep leaves the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s a bevy of supportive women lined up to bask in her accomplishment. It’s a bit much and another reminder that The Post doesn’t think you’ll understand its major themes. It’s a perfectly acceptable Oscar-bait drama but it sells its subject short and its audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

Inferno (2016)

inferno_ver3_xxlgYou know it’s a bad sign when the best part of your movie is the scenery. Inferno is the third in the Robert Langden series where Tom Hanks stars as the world’s foremost symbologist that traverses old European museums and cathedrals to solve mysterious puzzles. The Da Vinci Code was pretty bad, its sequel Angels & Demons was a marked improvement, and now Inferno is a depressing step backwards. Langden has to stop a madman (Ben Foster) from releasing a super virus that will kill half the world’s population. The villain’s plan requires him to wait and he has no reason to do so. Waiting only needlessly delays his goal and makes it more likely for him to get caught or fail. His plan is stupidly convoluted, but I didn’t expect that the good guys’ plan was also stupidly convoluted, relying upon fake blood squibs and disguises and for what? There are three competing, stupidly convoluted storylines that smash together. I simply could not engage with what was happening and felt I had little reason to care. The mystery aspect is pretty tame and the thriller set pieces are unmemorable save for a climax that at least feels like the highpoint. There was one interesting aspect that never fully gets developed and that’s the idea that Langden can’t trust his senses. He’s a man who relies on his arcane intellect and to turn that against him, as well as possibly draw in hallucinatory visions, was a smart move. It’s only more disappointing when they fail to do anything with this possibility. The myriad plot holes were clearer to me than the hackneyed plot itself. Inferno has some very nice footage as Hanks and Felicity Jones scamper from one Florence site to another and that’s the best thing I can offer about this mess.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Sully (2016)

cpbh8ejwgaaispb-jpg-largeI think I had the same initial thought that most did when they saw the news that there was going to be a movie about the Miracle on the Hudson airline pilot: where exactly is the feature-length story? The flight itself lasted only about 200 seconds before landing on the river, and the sequence is thrillingly recreated and held off until halfway through the movie. The hero in the cockpit, Sully (Tom Hanks), is consumed with ensuring each and every last passenger is accounted for. When he gets the news that all survived, he can finally allow himself to breathe, to take in the full magnitude of the events, and it feels like a cleansing moment of deep emotional catharsis for him and the audience. But what’s the movie here? Apparently the NTSB and the airline insurance companies are disputing whether Sully could have safely landed the plane back at an airport instead. It’s exactly the kind of flimsy, manufactured conflict that sets itself up for moral grandstanding and a courtroom confrontation where our heroes will be vindicated, and we get all that. Sully’s unexpected spotlight wears on him as he feels like an ordinary citizen not worthy of the term “hero.” No other plane has successfully landed in water without a loss of life, so I’m sorry pal, but you’re a hero, even if you think you were just doing your job. Hanks is suitably low-key and humble and strong and emotionally resonant, though he was better on just about every front with Captain Phillips. The direction from Clint Eastwood is respectful without going into hagiography. The overall message is one of uplift, widening the focus from Sully to other heroes in New York City that day that came together to help others. It’s a moving message without having to resort to melodrama. At a mere 96 minutes, Sully gets you in and out and provides a solidly entertaining glimpse at the people who rose to the challenge when needed most. It’s a well-made movie that goes as far as it can without trying your patience.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Bridge of Spies (2015)

wpid-images3.jpegAn intriguing behind-the-scenes negotiation during a heightened period of danger, Bridge of Spies relies upon its history to do the heavy lifting and it’s plenty enough for a handsomely made, reverent, and engaging legal procedural that’s also hard to muster great passion over. Tom Hanks is again a noble everyman, this time an insurance lawyer, James Donovan, called in to defend a mild-mannered Russian spy (Mark Rylance) captured during the Cold War. Things get even more complicated when spy pilot Francis Powers is shot down over Soviet airspace. The movie’s civil liberties arguments are pretty clear and still applicable to our modern era, but the movie becomes exponentially more interesting once Powers is captured and Donovan travels to Eastern Berlin to negotiate a prisoner swap while trying to work three sides, the Americans, the Russians, and the Eastern Germans who were hungry for legitimacy. It’s during these back-and-forth negotiations and posturing that the movie really hits its stride, pulling incredible facts together while forcing our protagonist to be the world’s greatest poker player. It’s the details of this story that makes it feel more fulfilling from spy techniques to the new life on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The acting is robust and Rylance (TV’s Wolf Hall) makes a strong impression in a role that requires him to be cagey to a fault. Hanks is his usual determined, inspirational self, which plays all the right emotions in a way that still feels expected and a little boring. Bridge of Spies is a slighter Steven Spielberg affair, a good story well told with good actors but a movie missing essential elements to plant itself in your memory. It’s a fine movie but sometimes fine is just not enough, and considering the talent involved in front of and behind the camera, I expect better.

Nate’s Grade: B

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

105207_galSeemingly sure-fire Oscar bait, Saving Mr. Banks left enough Academy voters cold and it’s easy to see why. First off, the behind-the-scenes sparring to adapt Mary Poppins is the movie we want to see, watching crotchety author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) butt heads with head honcho Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). The movie is at its best when these two share the screen, with Walt’s genial strong-arming finding little traction with Travers stern refusals (no Dick van Dyke, no animation, no mustaches). What I wasn’t expecting was a parallel storyline detailing Travers childhood in Australia dealing with an unstable home life thanks to a drunken father (Colin Farrell). It literally takes up half the movie, and while there are a few interesting juxtapositions, the screenplay just trades off scenes; one in 1961, then one in 1906, then back again, etc. The issue is that the flashbacks are never very revelatory and have no business dominating the running time. All of the information gleaned from these flashbacks could have been corralled into one late flashback, or even mentioned in a speech. Saving Mr. Banks gives you two movies running parallel, but most people will only be interested in the one. It’s a pleasant film, benefiting from strong performances by Thompson and Hanks (perfectly cast), but one can’t shake the feeling of Disney P.R. pervading the film’s retelling. It comes from the perspective that Disney is always right and that Travers was always wrong, having to work through her personal issues before relenting, even tearing up at the final product. In real life, Travers never forgave Disney and never allowed another of her Poppins books to be adapted into a film, though not for want of trying by the studios. It feels unfair to portray an author’s artistic integrity as an obstacle that needs to be defeated, but there it is, and Disney’s Mary Poppins, while beloved, resembles much of what Travers feared. Who defends the cranky authors of the world when they have a point? Saving Mr. Banks is an entertaining film, charming and likeable, until you begin to look beyond the fairy dust and realize the revisionism before your eyes.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Most people regarded David Mitchell’s 2004 sprawling novel Cloud Atlas was unfilmable. It has six different stories each set in a different time period, slotted into a different genre, and each a variation on storytelling. Mitchell’s tome was structured like a series of nesting dolls, each narrative pulling back to reveal a character reading the previous manuscript, and eventually the direction was reversed. We go from the mid-nineteenth century to post-apocalyptic and back again. I read the book over the summer and found it to be enthralling, especially because each storyline was written so distinctively in a different writing style. The post-apocalyptic linguistics definitely took some getting used to. How could you turn this unwieldy book into a workable movie?

The Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, teamed up with German director Tom Tyker (Run Lola Run) to try and find a way. They decided to split up the stories into a musical syncopation, with stories blending into one another. As a result, Cloud Atlas is six different movies for the price of one but it’s far more than the sum of its parts. Cloud Atlas coalesces, bleeds, and bends, becoming a Mobius strip of causality and courage and love. The trio of directors, who shot simultaneously with two separate film crews, has done the impossible and translated Mitchell’s brilliant novel into a soaring, compelling, and multifaceted epic on hope and humanism.

Where to begin with this one? Well, in 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is traveling across the Pacific back to his home in San Francisco. He’s fallen ill on the ship and keeping the secret of a stowaway in his chamber, a Moriori slave named Autua (David Gyasi). In 1931, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is a penniless gay musician looking for refuge. He offers his services to the aged but still famed composer, Vyvian Ayers (Jim Broadbent). Ayers will dictate and Frobisher will assist in writing. In 1971, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a reporter investigating a series of murders tied to a nuclear facility and a report the head honcho (Hugh Grant) doesn’t want exposed. In 2012, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is a small-time publisher who mistakenly checks himself into a nursing home that won’t allow him to leave. In 2140, a new working class is grown from the lab. Somni 451 (Doona Bae) is one of these fabricants. With the help of a revolutionary (Sturgess), she escapes her confines and learns the horrors of the totalitarian world and becomes part of the rebellion. And 100 winters after “The Fall,” mankind has descended into agrarian tribes. Zachry (Hanks) is a goat herder who reluctantly agrees to take Meronym (Berry) to a hallowed mountain. Meronym belongs to the last group of technology-abled civilization, the Prescients, and Zachry mistrusts her and is tempted to kill her to protect his people. Just describing this stuff is tiring and could take up two reviews.

This is going to be a very divisive movie, this much I can tell. It’s so powerfully earnest that you either embrace its mushiness and ambitions or you smirk and mock its New Age philosophy and optimism. There will be no middle ground with this film. We’re talking about transmigrating souls over the course of 500 years, Tom Hanks as a post-apocalyptic goat herder, and an evil presence known as Old Georgie, who looks like the forgotten cousin to the Wicked Witch of the West. There is some stuff in this movie that is plenty goofy, especially when seen on the surface. It takes a while to ease into the film, adjust to its tempo and accept the context of those goofy elements. But once that’s established then it feels like you can handle anything. There’s such an overflowing of feeling in this movie that it’s easy to make fun of it, to dismiss it under the safety of ironic detachment. It would be easy to decry the Cloud Atlas team for being self-indulgent or pretentious. What they are doing is far from normal, but the achievement of Cloud Atlas is the graceful way it finds to connect the rhythms of a deeply felt humanity. It has its stirring moments and memorable scenes, but when compacted and collected into a beautiful whole, that’s where the movie transcends. When an authoritative character barks, “You are but a drop in an ocean,” and our hero responds, “What is an ocean but a series of drops?” you either roll your eyes or you cheer. This is an earnest movie that wears its humanism on its sleeve. You either roll with that or you don’t, and I decided to embrace the big, messy, mushiness of the whole project and was swept away.

For a three-hour movie, the time flew by, and by the end I knew I had to see Cloud Atlas again. The first viewing requires much in the way of processing. You’re stringing together the disparate strands of the narrative, you’re listening hard to decipher the post-apocalyptic tongue of Zachry and company, and then you’re also keeping track of what actors are playing what characters, crossing lines of race and gender. The disguised actor factor is something of a fun ”who’s who” party game throughout the movie; initially distracting and somewhat questionable (especially the cross-racial makeup). I think seeing Cloud Atlas a second time will allow me to immerse myself further, finding new depths and connections. The pacing is surprisingly swift for a three-hour movie. You barely notice the time is gone, and honestly I could have done with even more movie, especially during the Neo Seoul segment. Given the six segments, some stories are going to be more compelling than others. I don’t think too many people are going to be as compelled with Frobisher’s creative sessions as they are Somni’s escape from enslavement. Initially, you’ll be scratching your head what they all have in common, and the lighthearted segments seem to clash with the more severe segments of systemic abuses. But then the big picture starts to eventually emerge and you see the parallel themes of oppression, bondage, rebellion, sacrifice, abolition and the yearning for freedom at all costs. The filmmakers find clever ways to thematically link their different tales. The movie starts to become a musical experience, much like Frobisher’s central melody, the overlapping notes of repetition and the swelling movements of human life in minor and major.

As anyone who endured the Matrix sequels will attest, the Wachoswkis are film theologians and Cloud Atlas is unabashedly spiritual. The filmmakers openly favor examining the spiritual side of Mitchell’s novel rather than the political. I found the results to be intriguing but short of profound. From a philosophical/theological standpoint, Cloud Atlas is not breaking new ground or even going into great depth. We’ve got some basic Eastern notions like reincarnation and trying to improve upon one’s soul through various lifetimes. There’s also the notion that death is just a transitional phase and not the end. The film is also very interested in the transcendentalist interconnections of human history. “With each crime and each act of kindness, we give way to our future,” says Somni at one point. I like this; it’s essentially karma in its purest form but it also denotes that every choice gives ways to multitudes of possible futures (perhaps pedestrian but I still like it). I feel that human kindness is long-reaching and casts out many ripples, and Cloud Atlas is a film all about the ripples, seeing the long-reaching effects to causes, and discovering that individuals can become movements and movements can become inspiration. I also like the relatable debate over religious belief in the far-flung future; the Valley people worship Somni as their gracious Goddess, but the more advanced Prescients view her as a person, noble and with strong and important ideas but flesh and blood. And yet the film doesn’t look down on Zachry and his people for their beliefs; Somni inspires them to do good. Do the details matter when the results are positive? Cloud Atlas has plenty of intriguing questions roiling around, moments of pause worthy of post-screening debate. It’s not too deep but it’s far from shallow (the Wachoswkis love their Christ-like imagery, don’t they?).

From a filmmaking craft standpoint, Cloud Atlas is often breathtaking. In some respects it feels like something radically new, a $100 million dollar art film. The visuals are wonderful and the different time periods all come across handsomely mounted, perfectly realized, the details vivid and period appropriate. The future worlds are easily the most engrossing just because of how different they are. You’re never spoon-fed the answers in this movie, so we’re left to put together what lead to each future. I would have loved to have gotten even more details about Somni’s world, a time where democracy has been replaced by “corpocracy,” a world run by corporations. The ambitious story structure of Cloud Atlas could have easily become confusing, but the filmmakers smartly give each segment its own little undivided period to set up that world and its unique tone. They even provide date stamps. Then things get more spliced together, the different storylines cascading and braided together. Some of the storylines have to wrap up early and others are saved for heartbreaking finales of tragic resonance. The elliptical romances spanning centuries provide nice counterpoints and satisfying out-of-time conclusions for storylines that don’t always end cheerful.  The movie is often thrilling, intellectually stimulating, disturbing, and poignant, though to be fair it comes up short when it comes to emotional involvement. Like the stunted depth of its philosophy, the movie has a way of drawing you in but never fully; it’s all about a wealth of human feelings and the nature of humanity yet it quixotically comes up short emotionally.

With up to six roles to play, the actors are given plenty to work with. It would be redundant to say you’ve never seen many of these actors like they are in Cloud Atlas (has anyone ever seen Berry in whiteface?). Every actor gets to play heroes and villains, saints and sinners. Only Weaving (The Matrix) and Grant (The Pirates! Band of Misfits) play antagonists in just about every story, and when you have Weaving at your disposal you have to give the man a role with menace. Grant gets to play a post-apocalyptic marauding cannibal. You won’t see him eat anybody’s face in one of those Bridget Jones movies. Like the filmmakers, the actors display full commitment to their varied roles no matter how silly some of the future diction may sound (“for true-true”). Hanks instantly anchors your empathy as Zachry and grounds a storyline that has the biggest danger of slipping into silliness. Readers will know I’m not the biggest Berry fan, and that is probably being charitable. However, I was truly impressed with her work in Cloud Atlas and would easily classify this as her best work since her Oscar-winning turn in Monster’s Ball. Her portrayal of Luisa Rey has such fire and her Meronym has such melancholy. Broadbent (The Iron Lady) is still highly enjoyable as a pompous sort, I’m always happy to see Keith David, and Weaving is delightful in his venomous villains, as a devil, a hit man, and most vividly as the Nurse Ratchet-style sadistic head nurse antagonizing Cavendish. The real breakaway star is Bae (The Host), who also benefits by having the most involving storyline. Her gradual awakening is just about note-perfect, alternating between curiosity, horror, amazement, and finally anger. All of those emotions need to be free of histrionics but if too underplayed then Somni seems like a walking zombie. Bae finds the right somber middle ground and her journey is the most emotionally rewarding.

In the end, there’s so much to unpack, dissect, discuss, debate, and contemplate with this movie, and every hour I think of some new connection that dovetails the plots. Cloud Atlas is a thrillingly artistic mosaic, a giant puzzle that begs for closer examination. Unlike the films of Terrence Malick, this is a dense, challenging work that is also accessible and, here’s the heretical part film snobs, entertaining. We get a kaleidoscope of the human experience told in beautiful flourishes. There are a lot of demands with Cloud Atlas, and ultimately it may demand multiple viewings to completely sort out one’s opinion on this gigantic picture of gigantic feeling. I’m still uncertain whether I really enjoyed it or loved it, nagging doubts concerning the limited emotional attachment to consider. I’m curious what a second viewing, stripped of analyzing which actor is in what body, will allow me to further appreciate the scale and scope of the film’s achievement.

The individual stories of Cloud Atlas may not be terribly profound but collectively this movie is something special. I anticipate it will be trendy to mock its sincerity and ambition and New Agey spirituality (not that a negative opinion is automatically invalid). We live in a cynical world. It’s rare to find a movie that has so many things to say with such intense earnestness. It’s even more rare for that movie to be good. Due to the sci-fi elements and time hopping, The Fountain and 2001 will be natural film comparisons, but In some ways Cloud Atlas reminds me more of another divisive film, 2001’s Moulin Rouge!. Both were sincere movies about the genuine power of love and human connection, told with such artistic flair, drive, and ambition, and both attempt to transform the traditional tropes of storytelling and drama into a brave new 21st century collage of sight and sound and sprawling spirits. Simply put, you’ll never see a movie like Cloud Atlas again. So do yourself a favor and see it already, then find someone to talk about it and compare how fast the time goes. Then, if you’re like me, see it again.

Nate’s Grade: A

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)

The biggest surprise on the morning of the Academy Award nominations was the inclusion of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in the nine nominees for Best Picture. Critics have universally derided the 9/11 drama, becoming the lowest critically rated Best Picture nominee in the last 30 years, according to some awards pundits. The second lowest rated Best Picture nominee in that same span of time? The Reader, also directed by Stephen Daldry. Under new Academy voting rules, a nominee has to garner at least five percent of first place votes on members’ ballots. That means that at least 250 Academy members voted this crass, manipulative, off-putting, wrongheaded, exploitative movie as the best film of the year, thereby voluntarily divulging they must not have seen a single other movie for 2011.

Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) was nine years old when his father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), was killed on September 11, 2001. He was in one of the World Trade Center buildings and left six frantic phone messages before perishing. In the ensuing months after the disaster, Oskar is lashing out against his mother (Sandra Bullock) who spends all day in bed. Then one day he discovers a mysterious key in his father’s closet inside an envelope labeled “Black.” Oskar’s father used to send his son on a series of adventures around New York, looking for a fabled “sixth borough,” forcing Oskar to confront his numerous fears and insecurities. Oskar looks through the New York phone book and catalogs over 400 separate people with the last name of Black in the five boroughs. He’s convinced that his father has left one last hidden message somewhere in the city.

My main sticking point was that I found Oskar to be an insufferable, bratty, little jerk. I understand he’s hurting and he’s trying to work through his pain. I understand he is gripped by irrational fears and has a hard time relating to others. I understand that Oskar’s father even tested him for Asperger’s, though the results were negative. Some people will try and explain away Oskar’s callous behavior in sweeping generalizations having to do with the ignorance of children or some undiagnosed medical problem. I’ve known people with Asperger’s syndrome and while Oskar fits a few of the superficial tics, being a jerk is not a symptom, sorry. He’s so mean to his grieving mother and indifferent about other people that I wanted to slap him. I found him to be unsympathetic and wholly irritating. I found his unsupervised journeys for cutesy quests throughout New York City to be dubious. His parents just let their ten-year-old socially awkward kid run around New York City by himself at all hours? The movie goes in a bad direction when it partners this talky nuisance up with a silent old man, played by the wonderful Max von Sydow (the movie’s only other Oscar nomination; another stretch I’d say).

Here’s a breakdown of my thought process: Oskar comes home on 9/11 to find the last recorded messages of his father, including an admission of love for his family. Oskar runs out and buys an identical answering machine and sneakily hides the original, denying his mother, a grieving widow, the chance to hear her husband’s voice one last time. Screw that kid. I’m sorry but that’s what went through my mind and to me he never recovered. His actions are inexcusable. Then he gets mad because his mom sleeps all day. She’s grieving you little snot! And then he has the gall to tell her, “I wish it was you instead!” It’s a moment intended to draw gasps, ripping the scab clear off whatever pretensions mother and son have with one another. But it just made me dislike the kid even more. The fact that even by the film’s ending emotional catharsis Oskar still hasn’t shared the answering machine messages with his mother is reprehensible.

The other factor that caused me to despise the main character was how Horn proves to be a dreadful actor. This is the first acting role for the former teen Jeopardy champ. He’s able to spit the rapid-fire, idiosyncratic dialogue burdened with cumbersome detail. However, Horn gives a terribly mannered performance. He has this annoying manner of over enunciating every single word, getting lost in a character affectation, always stagy and artificial. You combine a bad actor with an aggravating character and make them the lead of the story, and I’m already daydreaming possible murder scenarios (I don’t condone child murder mind you — I’d make it look like an accident). As for Oskar’s parents, Hanks is hardly in the movie and Bullock does shockingly well, nailing her most emotional moments. I’d rather see this movie from her point of view, trying to make sense of the insensible to her challenging son who hates her.

Daldry wishes to use the backdrop of 9/11 to talk about important items. It’s too bad that his movie has nothing legitimate to say about healing. I was assuming that over the course of the film Oskar was going to run into a diverse collection of people, all healing, all with their own stories of pain, and then he would learn that the real treasure was the community of strangers he had brought together. Nope! Oskar runs into a gamut of fine actors, including Viola Davis, John Goodman, and Jeffrey Wright, but they all become mere baton-passers to a self-involved kid. They and their stories don’t matter. The lock to our missing key doesn’t matter. There’s a final revelation concerning Oskar’s mother and her activities to benefit her son that seems entirely implausible. Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have transformed Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about collective grief into a strangely myopic narrative given the scale of the suffering.

The movie is so transparently manipulative, shamelessly exploiting 9/11 anxieties and trauma to tell its intolerable little quest. In no way is 9/11 meaningfully connected with the overall story of loss. Oskar’s father could just have readily died in a war or had a brain aneurism. What 9/11 is used for, however, is an easy device to stir the audience’s emotions. Daldry will flash back to it at seemingly random moments in the narrative, to goose the audience into feeling gloomy. I’m sure many people will sit through this movie and feel moments of genuine sadness, but that’s because the filmmakers are shamelessly manipulating the raw feelings we have over a national tragedy. It’s hard not to feel a lump in your throat seeing the towers smoking, frantic calls to missing or doomed loved ones, and final recordings bearing the weight of compounded dread. It’s not too soon to talk about the psychic wounds of that terrible day but I strongly resent people who exploit those memories. There are moments that are so misguided and yet given the Hollywood gloss of an awards-bait picture. The very opening image is of Tom Hanks free-falling to his death. Oskar’s little picture book he constructs at the end of his journey includes a final page with the World Trade Center. And there’s a little slip that when pulled creates a picture of a man falling up back into the tower. What? Is that supposed to be a good thing?

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is such a misguided, crass venture that’s also extremely shameless and incredibly cloying. The main character is unlikable, exasperating, and portrayed by a rather amateurish child actor. Daldry’s hackneyed direction will settle on treacle and contrived sentiment whenever possible, but the emotions never feel properly earned. He’s pressing buttons and forcing tears, and several viewers will be unaware of how efficiently they were manipulated into having a moving experience at the theater. I know I can’t be alone is seeing through the manipulation and feeling indignant about the ordeal. I’m not against tackling the difficult subject of 9/11 in movies (I declared United 93 the best film of 2006). Here’s a good question for you filmgoers out there: is there that big of a difference between this movie and 2010’s unpleasant teen drama, Remember Me? Both use the 9/11 attacks to cover narrative and characterization deficiencies, vulgarly exploiting our feelings of the events to engender feeling, and both don’t belong anywhere near an awards stage.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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

Angels & Demons (2009)

Angels & Demons works better as a movie. It is a better movie than The Da Vinci Code, but since I found that film to be one of the worst of 2006 you should know this is not high praise.

Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, with a better haircut) is the world?s foremost expert on ancient symbols and texts, which is why the Vatican recruits him for a very important mission. The Pope has recently died and Vatican City is in the middle of the cardinals deliberating who will be the newest leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Four of the cardinals, top candidates for the Pope position, have been kidnapped. The Illuminati, a centuries-old secret society, says that a cardinal will die every hour, from 8 PM to 11 PM, and then at midnight Vatican City will be destroyed. The Illuminati was made up of followers who felt the church was rejecting science, and so we?re told that in the 16th century the Catholic Church responded reasonably by branding the Illuminati followers and executing them. 400 years is a long time to wait for revenge. To make matters worse, antimatter was stolen from the CERN facility in Switzerland and placed somewhere within Vatican City. The battery holding the antimatter is scheduled to die about, conveniently, midnight, and the antimatter will result in a huge explosion (science note: antimatter is real but it is entirely harmless and not combustible). With the help of Carmenlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGreggor), acting church leader until there’s a new Pope, and particle physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), Langdon must race against time to save the Catholic Church.

The time element gives the movie a sense of urgency that was missing before, and a kidnapping plot provides a firm structure and supplies more chances for action than unraveling a 2000-year old church conspiracy on the divinity of Jesus. The plot of Angels & Demons works out like a high-stakes scavenger hunt, shuttling Langdon across the many sights of Rome to find the next clue. However, the narrow timeline of killing a cardinal on the hour every hour makes for some tight squeezes, both for Langdon and the cardinal-killing man. I never understand why the villains give themselves such a small window to work with. I know the whole “dead cardinal every hour” thing has a nice ring to it, but is it wholly practical? There’s all that driving around Rome and the Vatican, which has got to be crowded since millions are awaiting news about a new Pope. Beyond this, why must Langdon and crew always show up to a site with like five minutes before the cardinals will be murdered? Are they stopping to get subway sandwiches in between? The timeline and plot setup provide more action sequences that make the movie fleetingly entertaining in spurts.

What doomed the Da Vinci Code movie was not the endless blather, though that certainly bored me to tears, but the fact that the film wanted to have its cake and eat it too — it wants to be a brainy thriller but get away with hokey thriller shortcomings. Angels & Demons suffers more or less the same killing blow. The flick wants you to shut your brain off and swallow these trite lapses in judgment and reality, forgiving the movie for zero character development and polluting the narrative with stupid genre stock roles, but then it also wants you to pay close attention and activate your brain to untangle the origins of symbols, conspiracies, and church doctrine. Angels & Demons introduces the idea of a ticking clock so it’s a far better paced affair than the previous film, but the movie still finds ways to get bogged down. Once again, Dan Brown’s novel has been adapted to a series of chases and sit-down chats, although this time Langdon does a lot of speed walking while he dishes out the minute history of church doctrine and architecture. To borrow from my own review of The Da Vinci Code: “You can?t be a brainy thriller and fill the story with hokey moments and lapses in thought, and likewise you can?t be an enjoyably straight forward thriller if you bookend all your action sequences with talky sit-downs to explain the minutia of your story.”

These stories are just meant to work better on the page than on screen. Puzzles and word games work when the audience can take a moment to pause but film is a medium of images and cannot simply go dead waiting for the audience to posit a guess. Movies don’t have time for you to chew things over. So then the puzzles just devolve into waiting for Langdon to explain everything, which he will do at great length. This can get tedious at a rapid rate. Langdon is less a character in this movie and more a walking, talking encyclopedia of exposition. He is robbed of anything that could be charitably described as characterization. Symbol decoding just does not work on the big screen, and Langdon is an expert whose profession is limited in application. I can’t foresee too many instances where a top-notch symbologist will be needed at a moment’s notice. Sure, it’s nice to get a history lesson and see plenty of those swell ancient churches, even if the filmmakers had to recreate them as sets because the Vatican refused them entry to film, but what point do these Dan Brown thrillers serve as movies? There is an intriguing discussion between science and the role of the church somewhere in this movie, but good luck finding much to stir your intellect. I confess never having read one of Brown’s tomes, including the super colossal mega-selling do-it-all Da Vinci Code, but surely the man deserves a better fate than to have his works die on the big screen as lamentably lame thrillers.

There are no characters in Angels & Demons, only stock roles and suspects. Langdon’s female sidekick (Zurer,Vantage Point) serves no other purpose but to translate Latin and Italian. Really, if Langdon is a scholar on the conspiracies revolving around the Catholic Church then perhaps he should put in the time and money to learn the language. The Vatican police are there as escorts and little else. Stellen Skarsgård (Mamma Mia!) serves as the chief of the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s security team, and Armin-Mueller Stahl (Shine, Eastern Promises) is a German cardinal running the ongoing recounts for a new pontiff. Both men are presented as sly, untrustworthy suspects. Stahl’s character routinely dresses down McKenna as well, saying the young pup in the collar is not fit for church hierarchy. It?s not much to go on but the “characters” are just figures that occasionally get in the way of the film’s long-winded art history tour.

I think a lifetime of watching movies has just made my mind too analytical to be surprised by the twists in these kinds of dead weight thrillers. I?m already thinking ahead from the first minute and I don’t think I’m alone. When we are introduced to two characters, one gruff and unhelpful and one kindly and overly helpful, it is rather obvious which character will be revealed as being treacherous to provide the biggest jolt. Does anyone still suspect that Hollywood would produce a pointedly obvious evil suspect and then have it actually be that person? Not in today’s class of Hollywood thriller. You see kids, today’s Hollywood thriller is more concerned with piling on the twists than constructing a story that sticks together upon reflection, which is why many a Hollywood thriller simply falls apart as a jumbled mess by the time the end credits roll. Sometimes the endings sabotage everything logically that happened before. For an example of a textbook modern thriller, go rent the French film Tell No One and marvel at how the movie manages to be mysterious without being ludicrous. Angels & Demons doesn’t quite suffer from this screenwriting malady, but the essential evil plot by the eventually revealed evildoer is the most convoluted, ridiculously complicated scheme I have seen since that terminal 2005 thriller, Flightplan.

Director Ron Howard is able keep the film moving, almost distracting the audience away from the plot holes, but Angels & Demons is an adaptation that was doomed to fail from the start. The film plays like a lecture on tape with the fast forward button stuck. I might find more of the blitzkrieg of acts and anecdotes more intriguing if I could verify that they were all accurate. This is a thriller that wants to be seen as smart, so it empties exposition without haste, but it also wants to get away with narrative cheats common in your direct-to-DVD idiotic thrillers. You cannot simultaneously tell me to engage my brain and then a second later tell me to shut it off, sorry. Angels & Demons would have been better served without the Illuminati conspiracy and just plunged fully into the debate about bringing religion into the modern age, the friction between science and religion. Any substance the movie does present ends up being window dressing to an average potboiler mystery. This isn’t an awful movie but it never rises above “acceptable waste of time.” Hanks and Howard will probably be back in due time with the movie version of Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which will be released in September 2009. I just hope the duo, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith, have learned enough from their mistakes. I myself have little faith.

Nate’s Grade: C

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