May 31, 2009

Up

Russell assists Carl amid a lost Peruvian Jungle in Pixar's 'Up'Up, the tenth feature film by Pixar Animation Studios, is an impossible picture to pin down. It borrows liberally from our collective subconscious, not the least of which with its iconic image of the house floating through the air, carried by a massive swarm of balloons. It is a love story, a tragedy, a coming of age story and an adventure serial. It has talking animals, but it is not a talking animal picture. It is a children's film starting two old men (and a Wilderness Scout), told from an elderly perspective. It is joyous and melancholy, brazen yet at times incredibly subtle. Most of all, it is a celebration of living.

The film opens with a news reel about the great adventurer Charles F. Muntz, a heroic Charles Lindbergh-esque adventurer who returns to the jungles of Peru for proof of his disputed discovery. Inside a dilapidated old house on the way home with the name of Muntz's zeppelin scrawled on it, he meets Ellie. Another passionate Muntz fan, she is as talkative and outgoing as Carl is laconic and introverted. A beautifully rendered montage follows their life together, through all of the blissful small moments as well as a few cruel tragedies. It ends with Carl at Ellie's funeral, alone again.

To picture Carl Fredrickson as the film resumes, imagine Walter Matthau at the end of his career with hair just a shade darker than snow -- and then squash him to a third of his height. His personality is all Ed Asner, though: curt, growled opinions often hastily reconsidered. All of fire of Lou Grant, but with the additional gravel of an additional four decades of living. Unlike Asner's famous TV incarnation, Carl is as unabashedly sentimental anyone who says so little can be. Ellie was the light of his world, and his devotion to her is the guiding force of his life.

He is joined by Russell, an overly eager wilderness scout who floats away with Carl while searching for an animal under the old man's porch. He frustrates Carl, who seems him as both an obstacle to fulfilling a promise and as a symbol of the child he could not have. Russell has his own share of vulnerabilities, leaving himself emotionally exposed as only an innocent child can. Watching the two bond is one of the great pleasures of the film, as they slowly peel back the layers of each others' lives. Russell helps complete Carl's story, and Carl helps preserve Russell's innocence for just a little while longer.

They relationship grows over the course of a 1930's adventure yarn full of exotic jungles, mysterious creatures, a mustache-twirling villain and thrilling mid-air acrobatics. Though anchored by the poignant human developments, Pete Doctor's setpieces are arguably the broadest and most fantastic in Pixar's history. Only minor concessions are made to the rules of gravity and physics, with many moments that would be impossible even by standard action movie logic. Anyone who has a problem with it should remember they bought a ticket to a film with a house floating through the air on balloons on the poster.

Up aims for something unusual in for modern cinema, especially animated fare: it reflects on how time changes us and effects us, how we miss out on things we deeply desire and discover wonderful things we'd never have expected. It explores what it means to be old with a lifetime of experiences and relationships behind you, and from that perspective it witnesses youth with a lifetime of experiences and relationships yet to be had. It is a coming of age story for a man nearing the end of his life; a man who experienced the kind of love we all hope for faced with the opportunity of experiencing the kind of love he'd long since given up hope for. Despite occasionally going too far out on a limb, it stands as an instant classic.(***½)


May 27, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Humans battle machines in 'Terminator Salvation'"Come with me if you want to live," Kyle Reese barks at Marcus Wright and it's to Anton Yelchin's credit that we aren't distracted by the callback. His performance, quickly following his take on Chekov in the rebooted "Star TreK" in a grim commentary on Hollywood originality, channels Michael Biehn's crazed eyes and unwavering intensity. His supporting role is one of the few highlights of McG's strange little hybrid of a movie, a frustrating war epic that marries the mythology of the earlier Terminator films with the iconography and sensibility of the Mad Max films.

This is not the Future War we saw flashes of in the earlier films; it's browner, dirtier, more rural. Unanchored from the real world of the present, there isn't the same tension and weight to the proceedings. Cameron's films and Mostow's follow-up were all deceptively intimate films; two or three good guys at war with one seemingly unstoppable bad guy in a world that largely failed to acknowledge either. With more primitive machines hunting far better trained and equipped humans, McG's end of the world feels far less threatening than 1984. A rotating roster of protagonists and the lack of a clear villain results in a two hour epic with shockingly little character development.

After opening in 2003 with Marcus Wright donating his body to science minutes before being executed, the film quickly jumps to 2018 where John Connor and Kate Brewster have emerged from the fallout shelter and joined the burgeoning resistance. Despite repeated successes on the battlefield, Connor's superiors are highly suspicious of him. Their unease has a lot to do with his ham radio broadcasts, which mix seemingly uncanny predictions about the enemy with the gospel of the late great Sarah Connor. Christian Bale's performance doesn't help either; Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl played Connor as compassionate, brilliant and visibly tormented by the weight of destiny. Both played the character with a warmth that made them easy to like and trust. Christian Bale's steely and impenetrable performance keeps us at arm's length, one of the most crucial missteps of the film.

The closest thing to a human performance is Sam Worthington's Marcus Wright. His character development, while sparse, far exceeds the glimpses we get of Bale's John Connor. Worthington gamely works his way through action setpiece after action setpiece with obvious athleticism. The twist involving his character, spoiled in seemingly every trailer and TV spot, raises some of the film's more interesting questions. Nothing were shown, however, demonstrates why a new protagonist had to be created when fans walked into the theater far more interested in what Kyle Reese and John Connor were up to. Had the focus been on either of those two as the sole protagonist, the result would have been a far more cohesive final product.

And yet for all of my criticisms and disappointments, the film remains an enjoyable two hour thrill ride. The use of apocalyptic cliches like the mute child sidekick and the roaming nomadic tribe led by a frail old lady don't seriously detract from what is already a flawed enterprise. McG's elaborate pyrotechnics and action choreography are unlikely to be paralleled again this year. Compared to Mostow's slavish recreation of Cameron's style and pacing, the production here feels like a bold leap forward.

As a preposterous but entertaining ride that showcases key events from the Terminator mythology, Terminator Salvation is perfectly satisfactory. The disappointment comes from remembering that it is the successor to one of the most critically acclaimed action series of all time. Sometime around Judgment Day, the franchise lost track of its characters and story.(**½)