Thursday, June 24, 2010

Toy Story 3 Review

Toy Story 3:
Directed by Lee Unkrich
Released in 2010

As the final scene of Toy Story 3 faded into black, I was bombarded by a deluge of emotions and thoughts. First off, what a phenomenal film, I said to myself. Everyone around me seemed to unanimously agree. Then, I realized how relieved I was that Pixar, the master at animation with an impeccable lineup of feature films and digital shorts, has been channeling their power into good instead of evil. Because if this studio, which has achieved the impossible by making not only an excellent, but the best entry in a beloved series with the third installment, focused their powers on the diabolical then we would all be hopeless. I would gather that I was alone in that sentiment. No matter. The mad geniuses at Pixar have created what, dare I say it, may be their best film yet with Toy Story 3. They take everything they do well - humor, adventure and, of course, tear-jerking sentimentality - and ratchet it up to the tenth degree. 

Everyone knows the general premise of the Toy Story films:  a diverse collection of toys come to life when humans are not around. It is a brilliant concept, something everyone as a child must have wondered. It worked for the groundbreaking first film, as well as the sequel which held its ground and then some. Now for the third and supposedly last entry in the trilogy, the toys' owner, Andy, is moving off to college, leaving the expressive pieces of plastic to an uncertain fate. Andy's favorite, and the rightful protagonist, Woody tries to rally the crew to take refuge in the attic, where Andy assigned them. However, the idea of "Sunnyside" Day Care sounds much more enticing, and here the rest of the toys happily spend their time until they realize this is not the synthetic nirvana they hoped for. The story flows seamlessly, even if it is broken into a number of "acts," per se. There is a surprising variety of settings and conflicts the toys get themselves in, but the true scope of the film does not come into perspective until post-analysis, as the movie just rolls along uninhibited. 

Like any Pixar film, the voice talent is stellar. In Toy Story's case, however, it is has always been a degree above the rest. Tom Hanks returns with wit and soulful longing as Woody. His character has been a premier example of the emotional depth animated characters can hold since the series' inception, and this time Woody is even more conflicted, more layered, more multi-faceted. He has learned not to expect Andy's attention anymore, but to nobly surrender his arms and face his doubtful fate, akin to a discharged soldier. By his side is Buzz Lightyear, Tim Allen once again, though more subdued than before. A few malfunctions and some romantic tension keep Buzz in the spotlight, though he shares it with the rest of the cast to a greater extent this time around. Among those around him are cowgirl Jessie (a spirited Joan Cusack), sarcastic Hamm (Pixar staple John Ratzenberger), the dim but sweet Rex (Wallace Shawn) and the finest casting decisions of all, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, voiced by the Master of Venom himself, Don Rickles, and Estelle Harris of Seinfeld fame, respectively. These returning favorites all provide inspired performances, and prove once more to be lovable, vivid characters.

Joining the established cast is a new band of superb characters. Leading is the strawberry-smelling Lots-o-Huggin', or Lotso for short. His chill Southern drawl and penchant for bear hugs means he can only be good, right? Voiced by a hearty, impassioned Ned Beatty, Lotso is the ringleader of the day care's toys, and his warm facade hides a dark past. This backstory is beautifully told through a narrated flashback (by a memorable Chuckles The Clown no less), and establishes Lotso as one of the richest characters in the Pixar canon. Some of his cohorts include a glittery octopus with Whoopi Goldberg's voice, a freaky baby doll, and Ken from Barbie. Ken, played by Michael Keaton, consistently reveals himself to be the feminine fashionista he is, even when adopting a tough guy attitude. He melts at the first sight of Barbie, and awkward scenes such as this and the bookworm (Richard Kind) encounter make his character nowhere near as psychologically complex as others but a key figure for comic relief. 

And much comedy there is to be had. Toy Story 3 is surprisingly hilarious; one of the funniest movies I have seen in some time, in fact. The laughs remain G-rated but will probably appeal to adults more than kids. Of course, there are some clever sight gags, including a brilliant scene involving Mr. Potato Head and a tortilla, but Hamm's unexplained, precise musings on technology, and allusions to classic films like The Great Escape and The Exorcist make this film comical to a nearly universal audience. Apparently a portion of this audience is located in Spain and Latin America, as Buzz has a moment with the Spanish language, complete with subtitles. This scene is both respectful to the Hispanic culture as well as completely priceless, dance moves and all. Coming from a different culture is the thespian, high-brow Mr. Pricklepants, voiced by Timothy Dalton. It is amusing as he believes he is "acting" when his owner plays with him, and tries to stay in character even when said owner is absent. The laughs in this film come at a constant pace, and make for the funniest Pixar film yet.

What is perhaps most impressive about this film, however, is how well it balances all of the emotions it stirs. The frequent moments of hilarity do not in any way mitigate the impact of the suspense or sadness this film presents. Tender, touching scenes have been a skill of Pixar's, seen in the near-perfect intros to both Wall-E and Up, and this film once again reaffirms their prowess.  The general premise of physical atrophy and mental maturity present far more austere dilemmas than in the previous Toy Story films. The toys can save the day and make it back to Andy's house, but instead of being greeted by a youthful boy's grasp, they face a dank attic, or worse. The main reason I believe this film affected me so deeply is because, in a sense, it is presenting my story. I am just a little younger than Andy on screen, and I spent my youthful days absorbed in imagining preposterous scenarios, or playing with an overwhelming multitude of toys. Now, I am faced with circumstances that are anything but quixotic dreams: SATs, college admissions, declaring a major, and deciding what I really want to do with my life. Andy and I shared those innocent days together, but now we mutually have to move forward, to grow up. Anyone in my age group will draw the same parallels, and suddenly the massive time gap between the second and third Toy Story does not seem like an unnecessarily prolonged wait but, simply, aging. It is so basic yet so beautiful in a way; this film arises both the most progressive and nostalgic senses in me. 

There is no doubt that the timing of this film's release is perfect for me, but the emotional resonance will strike anyone. Parents will be wrecked, as shown in that scene of pure simplicity involving Andy's mom and his empty room. There is also a scene near the end, which I will not spoil, that may catch some off-guard, as it may initially seem immature. But, just like a somewhat similar film Where The Wild Things Are, this scene captures the inner child in all of us, showing the immortality of imagination. The introduction montage to Up may be a more condensed, beautiful scene of emotional perfection, but a number of scenes in this film rival anything Pixar has done before. As a whole, it may be their most affecting movie yet. And it is also the funniest! Again, the balance between the two is flawless; neither side is adversely affected by the other. Anyone with a pulse will be somewhat moved by this movie, some more than others, and it is truly an outstanding feat that this remarkable depth of the human psyche is conveyed through computer animation alone.

It is also worth mentioning the traditional digital short that precedes the feature film. Called Day + Night, the short is, unsurprisingly, superb as well as extremely innovative. Combining 2D, hand-drawn animation and 3D Pixar animation, this film is set on a blank, black backdrop with only two mute cartoon characters. The inside of their bodies is filled with a CGI day or night setting, and all of their actions are performed through natural actions. For example, urinating is sensibly conveyed by a running river (complete with a blissful face expression), and quacking ducks symbolize laughing. The short is merely about these two, disparate beings interacting with each other, and the end result is a touching, humorous experience that is unlike you have ever seen before. The short's appearance is so shocking, in fact, that it may take a few seconds to even realize what it is going on on-screen. Day + Night is an original, charming short film, and a fitting lead-in to the main attraction.

So, Pixar has done it again. Toy Story 3 is an achievement in animated storytelling, and a laugh riot in itself.  Third installments in movie series, especially animated ones, are typically a sad occasion, when the quality and reputation of the previous episodes are thrown out the window. Not so for Toy Story 3:  everything that made the first two films modern classics is improved and polished. This is a seriously funny film, one that will make anyone of any age, race or creed laugh throughout. This is also a thrilling film, filled with suspense and that rolling sense of adventure that makes the Toy Story films so appealing to adults and children alike. This is also a sad film. Not in the lugubrious, doleful sense but in a bittersweet manner. Because beneath the animated guise and entire premise about walking, talking, independently-minded toys, lies something real. It is the most intrinsic concept in our human existence:  growing up. Every single human, living creature, even cell in the world goes through this process, yet a computer-generated, 3D, $190 million budget film captures it beautifully. Toy Story 3 will stick with you, occupying your mind as you stroll down life's finite road yourself. 

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The A-Team Review

The A-Team
Directed by Joe Carnahan
Released in 2010

When walking into a theater to watch the latest summer blockbuster, your standards for enjoyment are set much differently than they would be if you were seeing, say, Doubt. An explosion or two, or three or four, and a familiar cast of macho men and pretty ladies are all that is really necessary for a hit. Audiences love it when this plan comes together, to paraphrase Col. Hannibal Smith, but critics usually do not. I like to think of myself as not too snobbish in my opinions (I took Iron Man 2 for the glitzy fun it was), but I have to side with the evil pundits on this one. The A-Team is a reasonably fun time with a few particularly sharp action sequences, but it is drowned in many flat attempts at humor, a ridiculously predictable plot, and, most shocking of all, a lack of real excitement. 

To paraphrase Hannibal Smith again, the plot is so banal and predictable that you can always see three steps ahead. That being said, it is serviceable for this brand of brainless cheese. As we all know, this movie is based off the absurd television show of the 80s. The premise of that series, in which four Vietnam veterans are charged of a crime they did not commit and subsequently fight for peace through covert means, is used here. The only edit here is, instead of the Vietnam War, these soldiers served in the Iraq War, which actually ends near the beginning of this movie. Let's bring that detail to life, please. Nonetheless, the A-Team is comprised of four members:  the leader, Hannibal (Liam Neeson); the philanderer, Face (Bradley Cooper); the brawn, B.A. (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson); and the deranged, Murdock (Sharlto Copley). Throughout the film, their status oscillates between heroic acclaim or unjust ostracization by the military. This fluctuation of stature provides a constant conflict, on top of defeating the antagonists, but, in the end, there were one too many double crosses for a senseless flick like this to handle properly. 

As trailers will attest to and the cast alone shows, this is a man's film. At least, that is what I believe. For every scene of B.A. piledriving a fool, you get about five minutes of shirtless Bradley Cooper. This puzzled me, perhaps more than any other aspect of this movie. Sure, the guy is in great shape and is, to quote Hannibal for the third and hopefully last time, "really tan." But, unless you are a bodybuilding monster like an 80s Stallone or Schwarzenegger, a topless male lead will not appeal that much to the masculine crowd this film is meant for. If it is trying to reel in (Steely Dan references are incessant in this movie as well) a female audience, every other aspect of this film, such as Jessica Biel's near useless role as nothing more than eye candy, screams otherwise. The wise middle ground? Try the guinea tee, a la Bruce Willis in Die Hard, for a mix of muscle and moderation. 

Digressions aside, there is still enough masculinity to appease the average action junkie. Liam Neeson chows on enough fat cigars to make J. Jonah Jameson blush, and the ridiculous stunts (assisted by a nagging presence of CGI) are so bombastic that they will appease anyone who only values spectacle. There are many ludicrous explosions, more so than necessary, but that was the point of the original series in the first place. The special effects and action could be better, as all the hand-to-hand fight scenes are shakily filmed in a way that aims for Greengrass' Bourne films but fails to achieve that sense of palpable grit. It should not be this way, as the director Joe Carnahan also did Smokin' Aces, a movie with a more outrageous storyline but some really innovative, spectacular action sequences. 

There are a few noteworthy scenes to mention, however. It will send any physicist to an early grave, but there is a part in the movie when the team is "piloting" a military the sky...freefalling...reaching terminal shooting the cannon at certain degrees. Hannibal barks the angle placements with such timed certainty that you cannot help but laugh at the preposterous premise this scene holds. Their solution is to land in a small lake, where an old couple is using dynamite to fish no less, so learning to accept the nonsensical science, or lack thereof, is mandatory to get through the film. Less egregious is a Dark Knight-esque skyscraper assault in which the A-Team truly fulfills its potential by incorporating grapple hooks, flashbangs, and a low-flying helicopter into one shocking attack. This scene is the one that sticks out in the end as what the film could have been if everything was done with such care.

Unfortunately, said care was not paid to most of the film. The finale throws (literal) fireworks at the audience with its large setpiece and liberal amount of fiery detonations, resulting in an ostentatious display of soulless action. It adds insult to injury when the screenwriters underestimate the intelligence of the audience when they constantly throw a barrage of flashbacks on the screen just to make sure the viewer knows how certain plot twists relate to previous events. It infuriates me when a sleight of hand maneuver that was furtively done five minutes before is interpolated between the unfolding action, only with an added video filter or two to exclaim, "HEY, REMEMBER THIS? didn't see that move coming did you?" Sorry, but everyone did. Everyone.

The team of four leads are all fine actors in their own right (though I am not too acquainted with Quinton Jackson's acting career), but the material that they are given does not make them particularly compelling or even comical. The mentally ill pilot, Murdock, is positioned to be the key comic relief for the film, but some of his lines simply fall flat. This is no fault to the magnificent actor filling his role, District 9's Sharlto Copley, as he takes bad lemons and attempts to make fine wine. There are welcome instances when his character is legitimately hilarious, such as his Braveheart parody or any teasing badinage between him and B.A..  When the main antagonist, Pike, not only watches but offers assistance to his own bumbling supposed executioner as he struggles with attaching a pistol suppressor, a successful scene of hilarity is made. But a lack of real laughs is an Achilles heel for any popcorn action film as self-aware as The A-Team, and considering some bad lines even repeat themselves (Enough with the toast points, B.A.), it is obvious more effort could have gone into the script. 

Speaking of Bosco "I ain't gettin on no plane!" Baracus, the UFC fighter slides into the vintage mohawk rather well, but he is still a perplexing character. Mr. T's original portrayal of the character included a fear of flying, which is humorously explained in the [very, very long] intro, but this film takes it farther by attempting to make him a pacifist as well. This leads to an odd character progression in which he starts as a cold blooded killing machine, reforms to an enlightened student of Mohandas Gandhi, but then returns to his bloody ways at the end. This makes him a pretty weak character in a sense, and he is not on screen as much as one would expect anyway. I would be lying, however, if I said I did not grin at watching Jackson kick a hapless, capoeira-twirling enemy into a wall about seven feet away. Now that is why I went to see this movie in the first place.

Bradley Cooper is mildly nagging in his dominant role, perhaps usurping Hannibal for on-screen facetime (sorry, could not resist the pun). He was a great fit for The Hangover, but this dude is not cut out to be the Tom Cruise that seems to be the aim here. On the other hand, Liam Neeson continues to put forth so much effort in roles that demand so little, as he did with Taken two years ago. The delightfully tacky line, "I love it when a plan comes together," is repeated a few times, and Neeson continually delivers it with such defined authority that the perpetually delayed Spielberg biopic, Lincoln, in which Liam plays the eponymous president, seems like the best idea of all time (seriously, get on that). 

Overall, The A-Team  is a superficial, fun time at the movies that always feels like it is failing to meet its real potential. Explosions ring left and right, but there is nothing between the ears. In the end, you may feel shocked that you were not actually shocked by any particular scene or plot twist in the movie. We have all seen it before; these are not the droids you are looking for. Adjust your expectations accordingly, for enjoyment can be had here in more than a modest degree, but I pity the fools behind this who did not deliver on all cylinders. 

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5