Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Up" Review

Pixar's track record continues to shine with the release of their newest movie "Up". While not as much of a masterpiece as last year's Wall-E, it still provides plenty of laughs and thoughtful storytelling that is above and beyond what would appear to be the reach of most studios.

"Up" is the story of 78-year-old Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) who has had a lifelong love of exploration and who never seemed to be able to get out there and do any real exploring. After marrying his childhood sweetheart, who shared this love of his, there was always something preventing the couple from going to Paradise Falls in South America, the one place they truly wanted to go. Illustrated in an incredibly moving montage at the start of the film, the audience is taken through the journey of their life together, including some surprisingly mature themes that will probably go over the head of smaller viewers but heartbreaking for those who have the ability to grasp the situation.

After the death of his wife and being forced out of his home by business development, Carl decides he has nothing to lose and uses thousands of balloons to lift his house upward and spend his remaining years in Paradise Falls. Meanwhile, young Wilderness Explorer Russell is looking for his final badge, the "Help the Elderly" badge, so he can become a Senior Explorer. Carl unfortunately wants nothing to do with him, yet through a series of circumstances, Russell becomes part of Carl's journey and through this exploration they begin to learn more about each other and discover what it means to truly live a full life.

The film excels more than anything else with the characters. Russell and Carl are so incredibly well written that each decision they make is one that can be understood. The progression of the characters moves along at a solid pace and when the moment of realization occurs for Carl, you really feel his epiphany with him, which is a testament to the great writing of the team at Pixar.

And there really is something for everyone in this movie. Goofy sight gags for the kids, deep meaningful themes for the adults, all in a PG movie.

The only real negative to the film was the fact that I didn't find myself buying Carl's willingness to deviate from his original plan. It seemed slightly forced in an attempt to create some sort of conflict, but upon watching it again, I suppose it's possible that it will be better understood why he decided to make the decision that he did.

From a technical perspective, this movie is again a masterpiece. The light from the balloons, the stylized character designs, and even the 3D effects all add to create a beautiful atmosphere that could be enjoyed even if you had no idea what was being said on screen. What's also incredible is how the 3D effects were not overwhelming at all, only serving to add literal depth to the movie, and never going for the cheap poke-in-the-eye gags. Some movies can really have the 3D as a distraction, but here it was clearly part of the storytelling and they made every attempt to not abuse that.

"Up" ultimately is a touching, unconventional story that succeeds on just about every level. Upon first viewing of the trailer last year, I wondered whether or not it would be viable to have an old man as a protagonist, but, as Pixar always does, they proved me wrong for even questioning it.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Terminator: Salvation Review

Numerous interviews with the director of "Terminator: Salvation", McG, have reeked of a deep insecurity about the project; a desperate need to tell the world "this movie is good, really! Look at all the people involved other than me! That will show you!" Yet, the movie succeeds in being an interesting fourth entry in the Terminator franchise and a relatively solid summer blockbuster, but not much else.

The movie begins with John Connor (Christian Bale) on a mission to take out a Skynet facility in 2018. Connor knows he is going to someday lead humanity to victory against Skynet, he just doesn't quite know when that is going to be. In the meantime, his pregnant wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) sits at home doing doctor things waiting for him to return. The mission somehow wakes up Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) from some sort of half-man/half-machine slumber. Frankly, describing the plot is partially an exercise in futility since it mostly involves the Resistance trying to defeat and run away from Skynet and Marcus discovering what he truly is.

Which leads to the main problem of this movie: the plot is essentially incomprehensible toward the end. The motivations of Skynet are strange at best and completely nonsensical at worst. Sure they make some good strategic moves from time to time, but when it comes to their ace in the hole, it seems like they did not think that one through at all, which I'll refrain from describing as to not spoil anything.

Connor also serves as some sort of section leader of the Resistance but has little say as a top decision maker. Which is fine, since this is relatively early in his Resistance career. The problem is that you never really see TRUE leadership from him. Sure, he has a little John Connor radio show where he talks to anyone who will listen about how Skynet will one day be defeated, but this isn't exactly leadership. That's not to say that Connor is incompetent. On the contrary he shows himself to be an excellent fighter and capable of making incredibly smart decisions. It would seem that he is working up to this point, and many already see him as a de facto leader on account of his radio addresses.

In fact, the true standout is Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) who, as a teenager, is able to keep his cool in difficult situations and inspire those around him with his confidence and poise. It makes perfect sense that he is the father of John Connor, since you can see the man he is growing into and the choices that he makes. Unfortunate then that Connor himself doesn't seem to have the same sort of ability.

Fortunately, all the actors in the movie give it their best and provide a real core upon which to build the rest of the film. Bale is consistent as always and really puts everything he has into the character of John Connor. Worthington spends much of the movie yelling insanely, but when he is given the opportunity to settle down for a moment, you can really see his charisma. His confusion about his nature is on full display and he plays it very well.

The action scenes are really the big draw to the movie though, since most of the movie is just nonstop action for the sake of action. On a sheer entertainment level, this is where the movie shines through. The Terminators look more real than ever given that most of the movie relies on practical effects and not on CGI, giving the battles more intensity than they otherwise would have. The CGI that IS there is not only effective, but complimentary to the practical action, creating an incredibly believable world that presents the engaging struggle between man and machine.

The problem is that most of the action adds nothing to the story. They're entertaining battles to be sure, but they're without purpose. They have such length but the plot developments only happen slightly before and slightly after each battle and even then these are only mildly interesting developments.

McG clearly set this up as the first part of a trilogy, but the movie ends so unceremoniously that I find myself completely unconcerned with what will happen next in the Terminator saga. I will still be first in line to see the next one, but it also isn't hotly anticipated.

When all is said and done, this is definitely a movie worth seeing in theatres, especially if you're a fan of the Terminator franchise. They make some cool callbacks without going over the top with it, and while much of the plot will leave you scratching your head, there's enough positive here to recommend it as a fun summer popcorn action picture.