Monday, June 21, 2010

Toy Story 3 and the magic of Pixar

If you're somewhat familiar with this blog, and what it's been covering so far, you might be  shocked to see that I'm writing about an animated "kids" movie, from a studio that specializes in animated "kids" movies. This is not your average cult, exploitation, horror, science fiction, fare.

What it is though, is a near perfect example of almost everything about movies that has made them the most enduring artistic love and obsession in my life. Sure, I love music, literature, and fine art, but when it comes to question about what I would bring with me on a desert island, I'd forgo those things in favor of a few of my favorite films.

I went to see Toy Story 3 last night. I walked out with the kind of wonderful emotional confusion that can be the result of tangling with the rare beast that is a truly GREAT movie. I'm using great in the sense of having a secure and well deserved place in film history that will insure future generations of film geeks, film students, directors, writers, animators and actors, most important of all, your everyday, average film goer will look at with reverence and gratitude. This is the kind of film that sets the standard for what people are talking about when they describe a film as "classic". This isn't great in a Felini, Godard, Welles sense, but in an It's A Wonderful Life, Wizard Of OZ sense. This film, and the two previous entries in the trilogy are going to become the kinds of films that are part of family rituals, with people sitting down together to watch them as a kind of special event that helps signify and bolster the bonds they have and are even still building on.

The story is fairly simple, and I'm not going to get into too many details, because I basically went into it blind, knowing nothing about it. Andy, the kid Woody and Buzz have been serving as loyal toys, is now seventeen and headed off to college. The toys are all very worried about what's going to happen to them. Are they going to the attic, the trash, maybe even college with Andy if they're lucky? The answer to that question is what compromises the film's plot. And although it still contains the kind of humor, action and fun which helped to make the two previous films so great, this one is much more a meditation on very adult themes. Loss, death, moving on, letting go are all the things at the heart of this movie. Some of the critics have described it as a much "darker" film than the others, and that's true in a sense, but in another sense it's not really true at all.

It's not "dark" in the sense of being foreboding or depressing or anything like that. What it is, and what is one of the things that makes it such a truly great film is that it is earnest and sincere without ever being pandering or manipulative. Sure, those are probably darker themes than the first two films, but in a trilogy about a child's toys, trying to aid him in his journey, where else could you possibly expect this to go? And that's the kind of honesty which is so often lacking in much more high brow, lofty films which are supposed to actually be "dark" and "adult". It's essentially the difference between Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and A.I. I liked A.I., it's themes were very interesting and one's I often enjoy, and it was beautifully shot and performed, but it wasn't a GREAT movie, specifically because there were a number of points at which it was clearly being manipulative, and not honest. This film is honest, sincere, heartbreaking, joyful and beautiful. I don't really think of this as a "dark" movie at all, because there's no malice here. Everything any of these characters does, even the antagonist, is perfectly understandable given their situation. And the heartbreak of loss tends to be at the center of a number of those situations. As an adult, you've had those heartbreaks, and you've had those moments of letting go, you've been through those struggles, and very few of us are ever dealing with any of them in any way other than the best way we know how at that time. If you were a kid who was seven or eight years old when the first film in the trilogy was released, you're in your twenties now, and these films and these characters have been with you through a good deal of your life. Now at a time when really putting down childish things is going to start to play a vital role in your life, they're there, in a way that you can relate to as someone in their twenties.

It gives me a good deal of hope to know that a generation of kids is being communicated with in this honest and loving a fashion by at least one of the many companies who are communicating ideas and messages to them. There's a whole lot of love in these movies, and I find that extremely admirable and hopeful.

Because it does deal with the inevitable logical conclusion of a child growing up, and does so with this level of care and quality, it becomes the last chapter in the much larger story of the Toy Story franchise. Not only are all three of these films excellent as self contained narratives, with their own stories and their own strengths, when you see this third film, and come to understand where it stands with the stories and themes of the first two movies, it starts to become clear how brilliant it is on that level as well. These three films do tell a much larger story than any of them alone, and it's also as good a story as the singular narratives they each tell.

Here's where I start veering off into the kind of territory that is going to be blasphemy for the world of film geekery. In terms of sheer film making quality, and beauty of imagination, specifically because of how fantastic this last film in the trilogy is, I'd put the Toy Story trilogy up against Star Wars or any of the other great trilogies in film history, any day of the week. That might seem like a bold, shocking statement to a generation of people to whom the original Star Wars trilogy was the gold standard. But consider where this film comes from and it's overall lineage, and it starts to get less shocking.

Pixar Animation's first film was the wildly successful and deeply beloved Toy Story. It was the film that put them on the map with the general public. They'd done some animated shorts before, which had attracted enough attention for Disney to develop an interest in them, but it was Toy Story, Woody, Buzz, their kid, Andy, and the cast of other toys which made Pixar a powerhouse. Here's another fact to consider, Pixar has had 11 consecutive films open at number one in box office receipts. We all know ticket sales are certainly not a good indicator of quality, which is not what I'm suggesting. But, it does show that the movie going public, and not just the "family" crowd, have developed a pretty enthusiastic desire to see Pixar films, and a rock solid trust in the quality of film they're going to make. Take a look at some of the beloved titles on that roster and you start to get some idea as to why Pixar has been able to pull of that previously unthinkable feat. The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Cars, Up, Ratatouille, A Bug's Life. Not all of them are great films, definitely, but there sure isn't a BAD film in the lot. Sure, maybe Cars and Monsters Inc. aren't top quality stuff, but that's because we're inevitable comparing them to films as great as the Toy Story films, WALL-E, Ratatouille, and Up. A middling quality Pixar film is bound to be one of the better films released in it's year (unless it's a really good year for film). A high quality Pixar film has come to be a thing of real beauty.

The rest of the Hollywood studios could certainly learn a thing or two from Pixar. It's possible that the complexity of computer animation makes it necessary, but one thing is certain, they take the time to make their films right. I've been reading stories about the coming of Toy Story 3 for about three years (though I could be wrong about that). A teaser trailer without any scenes from the movie was released last year with Up. It seems to take them an average of three or four years to go from the point that the studio actually decides it's going to make a film, to then delivering it to the theaters. In a number of cases, the directors or writers have been working on the ideas for years before that. Pixar has become a brand, but it's not the kind of brand marketing experts and companies have become so good at creating in the last twenty years. Pixar has become one of the most trusted brands in American business, by taking their time, getting it right and delivering the highest quality films they can. Luckily for us, the people at Pixar seem to be a good deal more conscious about what they're attaching that name to, and making sure it is the highest possible quality than basically every other studio producing feature length films today. They seem to be extremely weary of tarnishing the name Pixar by cranking out some piece of crap simply because the name itself is generating box office success. It's a good thing too, because it's easy to see when a film is too quickly patched together without any real care for the material, and the audience loses faith. How many other companies can really be described that way today, no matter what their product is? Not many.

What do you get when you take your time and get it right? Toy Story 3 is on track to have the biggest June box office performance of all time. It will beat Transformers 2, which people stopped watching thirty minutes after it began. That film, a mess of bigotry, stupidity and absolutely no real desire to communicate anything but "send me your money", is being dethroned by something so much more real it almost makes me want to shout.  Pixar doesn't do big, cutesy viral campaigns or e-mail lists for everyone who's ever bought anything Pixar. They don't have to do any of that. They deliver the goods, every time, and they get rewarded with customer loyalty. It's the kind of extremely simple premise which seems to have disappeared not only from the film industry (if it ever even existed there), but from American business in general.

We're living in times that in many ways are very cynical. I'm not lamenting that fact. I think these are times in which we should be cynical. At the same time, it's good not to forget why we should be cynical. We should be cynical because, in these times, we've become so sophisticated at manipulation through media, whether it's politics or business, that we're rarely ever getting anything that's sincere, honest, and made with the kind of quality that only the love of quality itself can produce. Everywhere we turn, there are people trying to convince us to accept the cheap (and I don't mean inexpensive), easy alternative. We're presented with a framework that suggests we can completely accept this kind of cynicism because the only other alternative we have is a doe eyed, ignorant naivete which doesn't take good account of reality. Toy Story 3 and Pixar, in it's history, are in their own way, small proof that this is a false choice. We can have, and handle a kind of honest sincerity that is available to us only because we take full account of reality. I've avoided saying things like this in my reviews, but I'm saying it now because I think it means something in the context of this film. It's the reason I think the Toy Story films are important films. Not just important to film history like Felini, Godard or Welles, as I alluded to before, but important culturally. We need to be reminded of these things, and that's one of the many ways storytelling has been so important to speaking to the better parts of human nature since cave men started drawing on walls to help them remember who they were and what their lives were actually about.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Splice (2010, Vincenzo Natali)

Science fiction has become so ubiquitous in contemporary film and fiction that we hardly recognize it as itself. The days of the kind of heady, science fiction that commented on society and culture hasn't been in vogue or even much to be found for a long time. Though there may have been a healthy bit of cheese to the science fiction films of the sixties and seventies, they were also the inspiration for so many great films and pieces of literature that followed, that their cultural importance has to be recognized.

So it is enjoyable to have such a good new example of this kind of science fiction in theaters. Splice, the new film by Vicenzo Natali (who also wrote and directed the cult favorite Cube), is a very, very good film. I don't know that I would call it a great film or that it will be placed on the mantle with the kinds of classic science fiction films which are its' ancestors, but it is a well written, beautifully shot and constructed, enjoyably subversive and somewhat shocking film.

Splice is the newest in a very long line of fictional stories that stretches all the way back to "Frankenstein". Instead of reanimating dead bodies though, our intrepid scientists in this film are played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, and they are splicing human DNA with that of animal DNA to create a new organism. Of course, this new organism is the miracle humanity has been waiting for in combating all manner of disease, and the scientific team use the proteins and antibodies it's body creates to save millions from death. They are then held as heroes, but reviled by a secretive religious cult who attempt to destroy them and their creature. Battles ensue. The good guys win.

Everything in that last paragraph, except the parts about Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley starring and the DNA splicing are completely false. Our scientist protagonists do actually splice human DNA with a number of other animals DNA to create a new life form. It really doesn't go very well. The how and why of not going well is what makes Splice such an interesting and worth while film. The story line of the scientist overstepping his or her bounds in the midst of intoxication by the knowledge they've gathered is nothing at all new, as I said before. This film does take that story in some new directions though, and more fully explores some of it than other films or other mediums of fiction have. Those things do make it a thoroughly modern film in it's own way, but one which will resonate with audiences a long time in the future as well.

Adrien Brody is really the heart and soul of this film. Without his performance I don't think audiences would be willing to sign on and take the ride the film has in store for them. Luckily for Vincenzo Natali, and audience members, Brody is terrific, and the ride is certainly worth taking. One of the things that makes Splice somewhat different than most of the films that are within the same family is that is isn't really about the science at all. There are certainly some questions related to the moral implications of gene splicing, and specifically using human DNA in that effort, but they're shown through these two scientists relationship with each other and their relationships with the world around them. It is the characters, their relationships with each other and the creature they create that really drive this film and it's story. The effects are at times average, and others spectacular in their depiction of this living creature. I didn't feel at any point during the film that there was an attempt to put the effects front and center as the focus of the film. It's always about the characters and the story, and that was really refreshing to me. In fact, as the film moves forward, I honestly feel the effects became more and more subtle.

Natali delivers some moments in this film, story elements and scenes which are completely unexpected. It's gotten harder and harder to surprise me in the course of a film. That's to be expected when anyone watches as many movies as I do. There are lots of other people out there who are just as able to understand the normal rhythms and usual story elements at least as well as I do or better. There were a number of times while watching Splice that I was genuinely shocked because I in no way expected to see what was on the screen when I was walking into that theater. I will always give some credit to any film maker and writer who can accomplish that.

There are some pretty disturbing elements in this film. The things in the film which were disturbing and unsettling have nothing to do with blood and gore. There's actually very little gore in the film. What is disturbing about it, like everything else in the film and what makes it so good, is disturbing because in some way, it always comes back to story and character. I was sitting there squirming in my seat because what I was seeing on screen related back to some other piece of information I'd already been given. With the exception of the final sequence in the film, there's really not even any violence in this movie, and it's still pretty disturbing.

I do want to speak to the most often expressed complaint I've heard about the film. In a nutshell, people can't seem to get their minds around the idea that scientists this brilliant could possibly make the number of stupid decisions these two make in the course of the film. I understand that criticism, but at the same time, those decisions are never related back to a lack of intellect. These are obviously two people who are very talented and capable in their field of study and research. That's a literal no brainer. Not one mistake in this film is made out of sheer stupidity, and nothing in the film suggests that. It suggests at every turn that these mistakes are made because of personality failings these characters already have. The mistakes they make are made because they're either being arrogantly brash or they're being dishonest with themselves about their own intentions etc. The history of humanity, even very recently, is full of very intelligent, very capable people making the most elementary of mistakes for all these same reasons. In essence, these mistakes are made because these two people are immature and irresponsible, not because they are stupid. And again, immature and irresponsible are at no premium in the world we live in, no matter a person's intellectual ability.

That is one of the things I really do appreciate about this film. From the fifties forward, we've had a relatively steady diet of films part of whose overall perspective comes from a distrust of science and scientists. This is perfectly understandable to me, considering it was in the fifties that we as human beings, specifically scientists, cooked up the weapons which could literally destroy the world. It's important that the question "should we" is always addressed, along with "can we". But this film doesn't take that kind of perspective. It doesn't give us the kind of cookie cutter "bad scientist" who does something so incredibly irresponsible that none of us watching could possibly begin to see ourselves doing. These are people with very regular failings, like any regular person. Those failings also happen to be married to an incredible ability and talent that very few people have, and I think that's the kind of idea which is important to put forward and that we should be making a part of the narratives we tell each other, because they do eventually have some effect on our way of asking questions and having discussions.

Either way, Splice is an extremely well made film and it should be a boon for science fiction fans, horror fans and people who like to see people succeed outside the studio system. This film was bought for distribution after it was filmed. It was filmed and shot completely independently. It was able to draw the budget it did because of Natali's previous work, and honestly, it looks like it should have been a much more expensive film than it actually was. I can endorse Splice enthusiastically. Go check it out in theaters.