Thanks to Tom Berger for another animated movie review!
Toy Story 3 finishes off the franchise that was started 15 years ago by Pixar's first feature length film, Toy Story. It's an unsurprisingly fitting end to a great series of films, maintaining all of the charm, humour and heart of the previous two films while illustrating what 15 years of evolution can do to CG animation.
The film finds the human star of the series, the not-so-young-anymore Andy, getting ready to pack up for college. Asked to figure what to do with his now long neglected toys Woody and Buzz (voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, respectively) so his younger sister can inherit his bedroom, Andy decides to take Woody along to college, consigning the rest of the maudlin, worried crew to the attic. A misunderstanding by Andy's mom finds the toys on the curb, waiting for the garbage truck. After a narrow escape, the toys manage to get themselves donated to Sunnyside Daycare, where they can finally be played with and appreciated again. Shortly after arrival, they meet the grizzled toy patriarch of the daycare, Lots-O-Huggin Bear (Lotso, voiced by the very good Ned Beatty), who ensures them that their years of neglect are behind them and they can look forward to a lifetime of joy and attention thanks to an ever changing line-up of toddlers.
It becomes quickly clear, however that life at Sunnyside isn't quite as bright as the picture painted, and the toys are now left to hatch an escape plan from the tyranny of Lotso's reign.
The story is gripping and suspenseful, the action is dynamic and exciting (including an amazing Barrel-O-Monkeys nuclear explosion), and the humour, as always, is top notch. There's a formula here, not a complex one but consistent none the less: a little danger, a little emotion, and a laugh every minute-and-a-half, no matter what. Of particular note is Buzz Lightyear set to the Spanish default, and the sexually ambiguous Ken doll strutting his stuff for Barbie in a wide variety of vintage fashions.
The film plays to its strength: its characters and its witty, moving script, and in doing so boils up an engaging story rich with legitimately bitter-sweet themes of separation, loss and transition. Close to home for anyone that has ever outgrown a childhood toy, the film manages to make what might be a modern retelling of "The Velveteen Rabbit" sweet and funny while, true to Pixar form, striking a heartfelt nerve. It's not just a great piece of animated storytelling, it's a great film, bar no qualifiers what-so-ever.
Noteworthy as well is the opening Pixar short, Night and Day. It's a remarkable innovative piece, and an inspired hybrid of classical 2D with 3D animation that almost defies description. In fact, the short was such an unexpected joy, I encourage you to watch it knowing as little about it as you can. My favourite Pixar short by a landslide.
Cameron Diaz does what she can with what little she's given to work with in James Mangold's brainless, hyperactive and utterly rote spy-romance-thriller Knight and Day. Paired with the increasingly wooden, increasingly off-putting Tom Cruise as half of a pair of mis-matched adventurers on the run with a valuable MacGuffin fighting off arms dealers and CIA agents alike, she seems to be the only one in the flick that's got a half-inch worth of ambition.
Diaz is asked to play one of those uniquely stupid Hollywood-committee takes on a modernized cute-woman-in-peril-who-learns-to-handle-her-own-uzis, a tough-talking Bostonian who raised her younger sister and is totally girly, and cute, and goofy, and likes boys, but wears boots (!!) and fixes up muscle cars (!!). Cruise plays agent Roy Miller, the agent gone rogue who swoops into her life and together, they have a series of absolutely predictable kung-fu & fireball escapades across a series of scenic European rooftops.
Knight and Day attempts to enliven its muddled, characterless story by kicking things off with the zenithal version of one of the tiredest Hollywood tropes - characters "meeting cute" - and it succeeds well enough in its early stages, where Diaz is allowed to stretch her cute-chops talking to herself in an airplane bathroom while Cruise's Miller wreaks havoc outside.
It's all downhill from there, though, as Cruise robotically manufactures a performance that at best is reminiscent of the cocky, aggressive charm he could exude in decades past. The film trades in its early attempts at characterization for repeated slapstick gags and hard to follow plot twists, all of which it then tries to paper over with breathless action and hokey romance.
To be fair, the film doesn't shoot very high. It wears its low-brow goofiness right there on its sleeve, and it mostly achieves its goal of being a light-hearted, dumb as a rock summer action movie, which is more entirely than can be said for, say, Ashton Kutchers' repellent Killers. See it in a good mood with low expectations and you might be well enough convinced that it's light rather than stupid, fun rather than ridiculous, charming and cute rather than manufactured and plastic.
That last part is probably a stretch though. 4/10
Another day, another remake. Another safe choice during apparently rocky times - this wintry economic climate, don't you know - and we're off and watching Joe Carnahan's big-screen version of the A-Team. In 2010.
Well now because any time previous, in the late 80's after the TV series ended in 1986 or in the two decades following, an A-Team movie would have been a sad thing, a pitiable thing, a ridiculous idea, as people in the late 80's or in the two decades following would remember the thing about the A-Team show, the thing being that it was ridiculous, and often terrible, and a pitiable thing itself. Time heals all wounds, and makes bad jokes funny.
Now though it, like G.I. Joe and Marmaduke and Miami Vice and Charlie's Angels and Dukes of Hazzard and Clash of the Titans retains only the rosy glow of nostalgia. We can smilingly sing the brassy theme music - daah dah dah, dun duun dun - and recall B.A.'s catchphrases and fear of flying and mohawk and that Face was something of a scoundrel and the cigar and the van but we've forgotten things like the episode where they accidentally hire Boy George to play at a rough and tumble oil pipeline country and western bar and then have trouble 'n' such. Time carves away those bad bits and leaves a false memory, a goofy ideal, ripe for resurrection.
The good news is Carnahan's remake makes the most of those well-trod, resilient bits of remembered corniness. Face (Bradley Cooper) is a scoundrel non-pareil; B.A. Baracus (Quentin "Rampage" Jackson) is a volatile crusher so unmanned by the thought of flight with the manic Murdock (Sharlto Copley) that he must be repeatedly tricked, drugged and heaved onto the plane, whereafter the smiling, smoking Hannibal (Liam Neeson) must distract and bribe him with food. There's none of it surprising, but that they're there at all, these little character-jokes and quirks, is enough to recommend the film despite its howling macho idiocy. That's how low the bar has been moved. That's how little the money folks think of us action movie fans, as they crank out retread after sequel after prequel after reboot after reimagining after remake. That's how bad things have gotten. I like the A-Team movie because the people in it smile and don't do cool slow-motion stylish gun-shooting. Seriously.
The characters in the A-Team movie seem happy, most of the time. Their jokes are creaky and I've heard them all before (in 1983) but they seem to be having fun blowing things up, which is more than can be said for most of the dour goings-on in comparable action films of late. The second Transformers movie, the fourth Terminator movie, this year's A-Team clone The Losers or even Ridley Scott's (A-Team co-producer) own Robin Hood: they all evince a weird need to be slick, stylish and frowny-faced, to let their characters suck as little joy as possible from their stories.
The A-Team might be shallow and loud and old and hackneyed and more than a little misogynist and freighted down with ridiculous "serious" sub-plots, but it at least cracks jokes.
Its characters, over-familiar and goofy, are interesting if not compelling, and the story moves and changes according to their choices like a story should (mostly). Some child, somewhere, could see a thing in Face, or in Murdock or B.A. or Hannibal that they might, being a child, want to emulate, to aspire to be, which is a bit of cheap magic that nonetheless lifts this whole creaking TV remake pile a little bit above the tide. 6/10
It's not quite Pixar-like, Judd Apatow's streak of very funny, very good films, but it's close. As a producer, he's as close as it gets to Mr. Automatic, going from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy to The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Talladega Nights to Superbad to Pineapple Express with only a couple Year One's and Walk Hard's to queer the run.
Apatow's done it the right way, by surrounding himself with a gang of truly funny people and by recognizing what a lot of timid, gloss-obsessed Hollywood folks won't: that guys like Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Steve Carell and Seth Rogan could carry pictures. They're all... these are odd-looking dudes, these Apatowian fellas, and it's hard to make them look good blown up billboard size. But all of them can write their own jokes, all of them are funny, and as Hill proves in the new Get Him to the Greek, all of them can carry the weight of a big film on their back, despite their schlubbiness, despite the films not being SNL spin-offs. There's just talent and comedy, that's both fresh and charmingly old-fashioned.
With Get Him to the Greek there's a weird bit of Hollywood story/actor oddness that evaporates as soon as the picture gets rolling: writer/director Nicholas Stoller is taking characters from a previous film that he directed (that was written by and starred Jason Segel), Forgetting Sarah Marshall, keeping one intact (Russel Brand's rock god Aldous Snow) and slightly tweaking one other (Jonah Hill's disturbed-fan maître d' becomes a shy music intern), and sets them loose in a completely unconnected narrative.
Snow is the last true rockstar, recently fallen hard off the wagon post-a disastrous, career-threatening single about starvation in Africa called "African Child". Worried about slumping record sales and a label-head (the surprisingly entertaining Sean "Diddy" Combs) looking for "the next thing", intern Aaron Green (Hill) suggests the company return to its rock roots and sponsor a gig at the Greek theatre in L.A., to mark the 10th anniversary of a legendary Aldous Snow show. Green is sent to London to collect him, packing an adrenaline shot and instructions to do whatever it takes to get the slippery, deluded, hard-partying rock god to L.A. in three days. Very funny hijinks ensue.
Brand as Snow is the spectacle, the wild spark that animates the whole film. Snow vacillates wildly from petulant artistic preciousness to aggressive junkie posturing to anarchic drug logic and back. Story-wise, tt's a dangerous thing to chance, as the rock-excess thing has been parodied to near-death. Brand, though, limns the edges of his chaos with occasional moments of human frailty. The film notes late in the going that Snow's self-appointed rock messiah is intelligent, and it's a small ignorable moment that speaks to the subtle bits of originality in the film's script and in Brand's performance: he's a pompous idiotic waster in true rock fashion, but there's a cruel, manipulative intelligence underneath it all that helps the whole film feel fresh and funny, even if it's going over well-trod Spinal Tap ground.
The discovery of the film, though, is Jonah Hill as Aaron Green, the spectacular punching bag at the heart of a film that mercilessly visits every kind of humiliation and degradation on him. He stands square in the furnace blast of Snow's rock-superstar excess and the shrivelling, repeated "mind f__ks" of his conniving, unbalanced boss: he pukes, he's sexually assaulted by more than one person, he's threatened, cursed, party to a stabbing. But what makes Hill's performance truly funny is that while he is in essence a nebbish, a victim, a barf-coated ill-looking cannonball of a man he nonetheless retains a really kind of compelling dignity and oddly endearing self-confidence. There's a depth to Hill's performance in this film (and in Forgetting Sarah Marshall as well) that's actually… special. He's not an oversize wild-man, he's not a tiny Michael Cera-esque mumbler. He's doing something new, and it along with everything else in this film is very very funny. 8/10
The funniest joke in the long-awaited live-action/CGI adaptation of everyone's second-least favourite comic strip Marmaduke is actually intentional, which is kind of impressive. Of course, it's not funny in the way that the filmmakers intended it to be funny so that's too bad I guess but it is actually a joke that is actually funny. Some connection had been made, through the layers of awful script and boring staging and legitimately creepy CGI. They intended to make me laugh, when they had the mean dog Bosco call out our Owen-Wilson-voiced hero in the middle of the hero's crowning moment, a big raucous "O.C. rager" of a party, icing our dog out with a growled, "Marmaduke? More like… Marmafake." And they did.
I laughed, I admit it. Marmapuke, Marmapoop, Marmadreck… there's a lot of ways the screenwriters could have gone, and they chose Marmafake, which…well dog-gone it, it doesn't even rhyme.
Notes: I also laughed when the filmmakers, seeking to set the tone after Marmaduke & family's big cross-country move to the O.C. from Kansas so the dad (Lee Pace) could work for a dog-food company with a mean boss (William H. Macy, for some inexplicable reason) by mixing "California" by Phantom Planet almost directly into "California Love" by 2Pac. I assume they'd spent all the soundtrack licensing money by that point, because they left out "California" by Belinda Carlisle and "California" by John Mayall and "California" by Joni Mitchell and "Going back to Cali(fornia)" by L.L. Cool J and "Hotel California" by the Eagles. Too bad.
Anyway Marmaduke is, we're told, a big, gangly goofy dog played by two or more real dogs in the film, that talks with a creepy CGI animated mouth. I'm pretty sure, at least, that they used more than one dog because sometimes Marmaduke has a big, dangly pair of testicles, and sometimes he doesn't, which is obviously problematic and I started thinking, while on-screen Marmaduke was having another interminable dialogue session with some other dog about something that to so brazenly, as filmmakers, use dogs with varying levels of testicle-havingness is kind of bold, almost as if they're saying "Yeah, sometimes 'duke's got nuts and sometimes he doesn't. We don't care, because nobody will notice, and if they do notice, it's because you're a perverted weirdo who both looks at and notes dog's nuts." Which left me feeling vaguely insulted, and terribly aggrieved.
So Marmaduke has some friends that are dogs and some enemies, and he makes some mistakes and eventually gets sad and runs away from his family and his haughty girlfriend, voiced by Fergie from the Black-Eyed Peas, who is actually a better voice actor than she is a singer. Marmaduke then falls into a sink-hole along with another funny-looking but faithful and nice dog (voice of Emma Stone) and then or perhaps before then there is a dog-surfing championship and everything is fine, even the sub-plots about 'duke's dad's mean boss and his kid that hates soccer.
Kids might like it, but I doubt it, as aside from being creepy and awkward and really poorly plotted it's just… dull. One of the first thing they teach you in screenwriting school is "show, don't tell", that expository dialogue is a no-no and narrators all the more so. But dogs can't really act, and they don't really do anything except run around and eat sandwiches so for the film to have a narrative structure the dogs have to talk, a lot, explaining everything, and because dogs don't drive or frame houses or fold clothes they talk while just… standing there looking around. It's hellaciously boring, but probably unavoidable as Marmaduke is clearly an intellectual property that fans have literally been screeching and rending their clothes to see brought to the big screen and given the ol' Hollywood treatment.
I don't have anything more to say about Marmaduke. 2/10