Friday, June 19, 2009

"Up," Up and Away

Apologies for the long absence; I've been on vacation and more recently, in the process of moving cross-country. Here are the movies I've seen in the last month or so.


written and directed by Pete Docter & Bob Peterson
featuring voices of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson

It’s a vision straight out of a dream: a rickety shingle-roofed house soars into the sky, pulled aloft by thousands of brightly colored balloons, bound for a land lost in time. Evoking a little bit of “The Wizard of Oz” and Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” not to mention the picture-books of Chris Van Allsburg, it stirs a sense of giddy anticipation of infinite possibilities, all contained in the one-word title of the movie. After all, to go up, up, ever upwards—isn’t that the fantasy everyone’s had at one point or another, in childhood or beyond?

Of course, both the house and the movie eventually come back down to earth, with mixed results. As a film overall, “Up” doesn’t completely fulfill the promise of that singular, and singularly lovely, image of the floating, balloon-propelled house. But like all Pixar creations, it brims with charm and easily outshines most of what passes for “family entertainment” these days. That’s notwithstanding the fact that “Up” centers on a fairly unlikely hero—Carl Fredericksen, retired balloon salesman and full-time crotchety old man, a septuagenarian as creaky and full of memories as the house he makes fly. The movie rather brilliantly renders him sympathetic by opening with a brief overview of his life up to that point: In a sequence remarkable for the economy and poignancy of its storytelling, we learn that Carl was attracted as a child to tales of adventure, particularly the exploits of famed explorer Charles Muntz; that he found a kindred spirit in a girl name Ellie, whom he grew up with and eventually married; that he and Ellie had a long and happy life together, despite being unable to have children or to visit the far-off lands they dreamed of; and that when she died, he lost most of his interest in living.

Still, live on he does, if only for his memories. Faced with the prospect of losing his home to a developer, Carl coolly decides one night to take off—literally—and take the house with him. He sets course for Paradise Falls, a distant and exotic land where Ellie and he had always intended to go, but soon finds his plans complicated by a young stowaway—a roly-poly, vaguely Asian Boy Scout-type named Russell, haplessly trying to “assist the elderly”—and, once they land, by the appearance of a giant native bird, followed by the long-missing Charles Muntz (voiced with gusto by Christopher Plummer), who’s taken up residence in Paradise Falls and vowed never to leave until he bags said bird, and Muntz’s pack of highly trained dogs. Things get even hairier (literally and figuratively) when Muntz becomes convinced that the interlopers are plotting to steal “his” bird. However, with the help of the bird and a friendly dog named Dug, Carl and Russell prove more than a match for Carl’s onetime idol-turned-nemesis, who plays like a cross between Charles Lindbergh and Colonel Kurtz.

Co-directed by Pete Docter (who previously directed “Monsters, Inc.”) and Bob Petersen (who wrote the screenplay for “Finding Nemo” and also had a hand in “Ratatouille”), “Up” continues Pixar’s tradition of extraordinary visual imagination and technical excellence. No other animation studio comes even close to capturing the level of detail evidenced in Muntz’s cavernous dirigible-turned-luxury-craft, the texture of Carl’s ties, and the nuances of expression in his dour, mostly inexpressive mien. On the other hand, for pure narrative originality and intelligence, “Up” doesn’t touch “Ratatouille,” by far the finest entry in the Pixar canon. Certain plot elements feel rote, like the obligatory climactic action sequence towards the end and the gradual melting of Fredericksen’s gruff reserve towards plucky, talky, innocent Russell, and like “Monsters, Inc.”, it can be so sweet that it borders on treacly.

What saves the movie is its delightful sense of humor. The early interactions between Carl and Russell have their share of amusing moments, but they’re soon upstaged by the purely physical humor of the outlandish bird of paradise, and even more so by Muntz’s dogs, fitted with collars that allow them to talk and express all their doggish thoughts—to hilarious effect. I mean, how can you not laugh at a line like “My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you”? The movie also gently mocks the physical limitations of old age, which enliven what could otherwise have been a pretty by-the-numbers final showdown between Carl and Muntz.

That’s the Pixar brand of wit, in all its fundamental good naturedness; it’s sometimes sly, but never cynical, an especially refreshing phenomenon in an era when most kids seem jaded before they even reach middle school. The closest “Up” comes to satire is a brief swipe at urban (over)development, but even that’s used less as a commentary on modern society than as a commentary on Carl’s character, as reflected in his hostile response to it. Indeed, Carl’s character arc is so clearly directed at his learning to let go of the past—his past great love, his past great hero, his past great dreams, and all his mementos thereof—and so equally clearly offset by the crazed obsessiveness of his foil, Muntz, who’s far more deeply and dangerously trapped in the past, that the mapping of his trajectory can sometimes feel somewhat overdetermined. By and large, however, “Up” steers clear of preachiness and manages to stay as light and buoyant as Carl’s balloons. Like Russell and Dug, it aims to please, and succeeds beyond all rational expectations.




written & directed by Rian Johnson
starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, Rinko Kikuchi

If his first two films are any indicator, writer-director Rian Johnson likes creating imaginary worlds. Whereas his debut, “Brick” made a contemporary high school the setting for a pure film noir, complete with crackling dialogue straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel, his follow-up, “The Brothers Bloom,” is a caper movie that stages its cons so theatrically you keep expecting a backdrop to tip over or a red velvet to descend. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo star as the titular brothers, playing con men Bloom and Stephen, respectively. Stephen, the older brother, is the planner and stager manager, and Bloom is his chief player. They have a special effects person, too – Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), an explosives expert who sees everything and says nothing. Bloom is melancholy and always wants to quit; Stephen is incorrigible and always gets baby bro back in the game; Bang Bang says nothing and blows up things beautifully.

The plot focuses—sort of—on what Bloom swears and Stephen promises will be the brothers’ last con. The target is a beautiful and immensely wealthy eccentric woman named Penelope (Rachel Weisz), whom Bloom takes a shine to despite his brother’s warnings. The question is who’s really conning whom here? The film spends most of its time spinning out the answer; unfortunately after a bright and promising start, it starts to lose momentum in the second half and loses most of its logic in the last ten minutes. In its defense, this seems to be the price Johnson’s willing to pay to achieve a deeper emotional resonance. For interspersed among all the wacky hijinks and fake blood and tears there’s actually a pretty serious story about a relationship here (not necessarily the one you think), and the ending only makes sense in the context of that story. The problem is that the film is too busy being artful to build up a true emotional core—a criticism that could also be leveled at “Brick.”

Despite these flaws, “The Brothers Bloom” has many moments of great fun, and a few fleeting moments of actual poignancy, even if the latter owes more to the acting than to the writing. One could do worse for entertainment than spend a couple of hours in the made-up universes of Rian Johnson.



directed by Stephan Elliott
starring Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes
based on the play by Noel Coward

Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue is the kind of play that should feel dated, but doesn’t when it’s done right. Luckily for Coward, the latest film adaptation for the most part does it right, and strikes exactly the right note—easy and breezy, but with shadows at the edges. On the surface, “Easy Virtue” is a basic fish-out-of-water drawing room comedy: very young Englishman (Ben Barnes) marries older, worldlier American beauty (Jessica Biel)—a female race-car driver, no less!—and brings her back to his moth-eaten family estate to face a phalanx of hostile in-laws and nosy neighbours. Mutual shocks, snobbery, and one-upmanship ensue! But at a deeper level, it’s also about the tension between the past and the future, and specifically about the impact of WWI on the traditional British “county” way of life.

Director Stephan Elliot does an adroit job emphasizing the comedy without underplaying the pathos of the peculiar social situation presented. The casting is mostly spot-on. Biel seems a little too young and strikes almost too modern a note as Larita, the bride of questionable “virtue,” but one senses quite strongly that that was precisely the point in casting her: Larita is supposed to be a new breed and the harbinger of a new age that, like it or not, will replace the old one. As for Biel’s performance, it’s perfectly adequate, though less convincing when certain episodes of Larita’s past come to light; her face looks too fresh and untouched, and her expression too open, to be a cover for dark secrets. Fortunately, the filmmakers were smart enough to cast as her husband an actor who looks even younger and fresher-faced (though ironically Barnes, previously seen as Prince Caspian, is a year older than Biel). Barnes, who occasionally displays a fleeting resemblance to the eternally boyish Tobey Maguire, is quite good as the feckless yet charming only son.

But the real stars of the show are Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth as Larita’s parents-in-law: the former her formidable nemesis, the latter quietly in her corner. Few actresses can wither with a gaze, or a simple inflection, as effectively as KST, who somehow manages to make her character at once dreadful and not wholly unsympathetic. Firth, for his part, is note-perfect as the unwilling patriarch who completely checked out of life following the war, delivering sardonic one-liners with his trademark deadpan aplomb, yet also showing signs of a growing sympathy with Larita precisely because she voices her antipathy towards a dying world he himself hates but has lost all will to resist. Their dynamic is one of the most interesting aspects of the movie, and makes its ending (which I won’t give away) feel earned and not merely convenient. Overall, I think Coward would have been pleased with this production, and that’s no small feat.