***/**** DVD - Image A Sound A BD - Image A- Sound A+ Extras A- screenplay by Caroline Thompson, based on a poem by Tim Burton (adaptation by Michael McDowell) directed by Henry Selick
by Vincent Suarez You know the feeling: too many movies, too little time. You walk down the corridor of your local multiplex, relishing the titles on the marquees and posters, and you know that many will unfortunately have to be seen on home video. If you're lucky, you'll make wise choices, but, occasionally, your home viewing includes that film you regret not seeing theatrically. For me, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (hereafter Nightmare) is one of those films. Having grown weary of Burton's quirkiness after the disappointing Batman Returns, I passed up Nightmare in favour of movies I now cannot recall; what a shame. Fortunately, Touchstone's optical disc presentations of this magnificent film (the previous LaserDiscs and last year's DVD release) provide more than a glimpse of what was surely a wonderful theatrical experience.
***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+ directed by Clyde Geronomi & Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
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by Bill Chambers Despite its streamlining of the
particulars, Walt Disney's feature-length Cinderella ultimately takes fewer liberties with the source material (chiefly,
Charles Perrault's "Cinderella, or The Glass Slipper") than almost
any of his other animated fairytales. Consequently, there remains the problem
of a heroine who'd still be sweeping the floors were it not for her Fairy
Godmother, the deus ex machina to end deus ex machinas. The
Cinderella myth, as Perrault interpreted it, is at best anachronistic--we learn
that beauty is a virtue but that grace is a gift...whatever that means. Disney's contemporization turns it into a karma
fable of sorts, with martyrdom paying off like a jackpot and the comeuppance of
Cinderella's tormentors the real happily-ever-after of the piece. Cinderella's a less-than-ideal role model for the millions exposed to the movie in childhood, really, because she accepts victimhood until external forces intervene on her behalf.
Image B Sound A- Extras C
"Dia de los Dangerous!," "Careers in Science," "Mid-Life Chrysalis," "Eeney, Meeney, Miney... Magic!," "The Incredible Mr. Brisby," "Tag Sale--You're It!," "Home Insecurity," "Ghosts of the Sargasso," "Ice Station--Impossible!," "Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean.," "Past Tense," "The Trial of the Monarch," "Return to Spider-Skull Island"
by Ian Pugh Lengthy postmodern discussions about the drug use in "Scooby-Doo" and the sexual habits of the Smurfs dominated the public mind long before TimeWarner acquired the Hanna-Barbera catalogue. It was only a logical move, then, that TimeWarner's Cartoon Network would devote much of its late-night Adult Swim programming block ("Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law", "Sealab 2021", and, to a lesser degree, "Robot Chicken") to taking the old H-B anti-classics and filtering them through the fine mesh screen of a contemporary ironic eye. Look here, we've got an old superhero, he's an attorney now, that's pretty wacky! Check it out, we've turned the straightforward drama of "Sealab 2020" into angry surrealism! It works to varying degrees of success, primarily depending upon the individual show's (or individual episode's) willingness to move beyond the inherent ridiculousness of its premise. What can we say, then, when "The Venture Bros." represents the kids-on-adventures serial "Jonny Quest", a series centred on a family whose surname is a literal synonym for the characters being parodied? Are we meant to gasp when brilliant über-dad Dr. Benton Quest becomes Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture (voiced by Henry Fool's James Urbaniak), an ignorant pill-popper, negligent of his teenage sons Hank (co-creator Jackson Publick) and Dean (Michael Sinterniklaas)? Or when bodyguard/second father figure Race Bannon becomes Brock Samson (Patrick Warburton), an emotionally-detached psychopath?
***/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A- screenplay by John Logan directed by Gore Verbinski
by Walter Chaw Before he succumbed to bloat with his two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, Gore Verbinski struck me as a particularly bright light in American genre pictures. His remake of The Ring and the first Pirates of the Caribbean flick were a one-two step that seemed more indicative of his promise than the not-awful-in-retrospect The Mexicanand the awful but not bloated Mousehunt. (Well, okay, it was a little bloated.) When he's right, his stuff plays a lot like South Korea's genre cinema: walking a tightrope between grotesquerie and lightness that happens so seldom outside of Seoul it's fair to wonder if proximity to an entertaining dictator is prerequisite. With the CG-animated, Industrial Light & Magic-assisted Rango, Verbinski teams again with muse Johnny Depp to send up Depp's muse Hunter S. Thompson in what functions as a kind of footnote to both Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Sergio Leone's four-film Spaghetti Western cycle. Unfortunately, it also references Polanski's Chinatown and Verbinski's own concept of an antiseptic purgatory from his endless Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
*½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B+ screenplay by Simon Wells & Wendy Wells, based on the book by Berkeley Breathed directed by Simon Wells
by Angelo Muredda It's hard to say who Mars Needs Moms was made for. An expensive but passionless special-effects exercise from yeoman director and co-screenwriter Simon Wells (The Time Machine) and producer Robert Zemeckis, who's put all his creative eggs since The Polar Express in the motion-capture basket, Mars Needs Moms sits uneasily with compatriots like The Pagemaster in the no man's land of children's films too dreary for most children to sit through. If it's too taxing a journey for kids, though, it's largely a bore for anyone else--a flat 80 minutes of animated bodies tumbling through metallic space chutes and neon hallways ripped from Tron: Legacy, scarcely made watchable by some of its impressive technological feats and by its surprisingly subdued tone, which at times borders on the elegiac.
THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER ****/**** Image B- Sound B Extras C- screenplay by Jerry Rees & Joe Ranft, based on the book by Thomas M. Disch directed by Jerry Rees
THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER GOES TO MARS **½/**** Image B Sound B Extras D screenplay by Willard Carroll, based on the book by Thomas M. Disch directed by Robert C. Ramirez
THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER TO THE RESCUE */**** Image B Sound B Extras D screenplay by Willard Carroll directed by Robert C. Ramirez
by Walter Chaw I'm most familiar with Thomas M. Disch for his sterling non-fiction work (The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of and The Castle of Indolence) and a few samplings of his less impressive genre short fiction, and though I was aware that he'd written a couple of children's books about a band of appliances, I'd never felt compelled to investigate. The first taste of Disch's novella The Brave Little Toaster, then, came to me by way of a feature-length animated adaptation from Disney that, a little like Babe: Pig in the City, probably caused enough consternation in the hearts and minds of studio PR to result in its relegation to a minor theatrical push with a botched advertising campaign. Here's a film, after all, that's as innovatively disturbed--as usefully frightening--as any of Uncle Walt's own vintage Merry Melodies and Silly Symphonies. In the whitewash of modern American children's entertainment via the Big Mouse, anything that isn't facile and patronizing is to be avoided and disdained.
GNOMEO & JULIET **/**** screenplay by Kelly Asbury & Mark Burton & Kevin Cecil & Emily Cook & Kathy Greenberg & Andy Riley & Steve Hamilton Shaw, based on an original screenplay by John R. Smith & Rob Sprackling directed by Kelly Asbury
CEDAR RAPIDS **½/**** starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver screenplay by Phil Johnston directed by Miguel Arteta
by Ian PughGnomeo & Juliet is pretty much exactly the movie you'd expect from one of the directors of Shrek 2. On the bright side, it's also a little bit more. In this latest iteration of Shakespeare's timeless classic, Montague and Capulet are a couple of pensioners living on Verona Drive whose lawn gnomes spring to life every now and then to wage war on each other. The lad and lass of the title (voiced by James McAvoy and Emily Blunt) meet from opposite sides and fall in love, and so on and so forth. As you may have already guessed, Gnomeo & Juliet makes room for its cutesy puns and pop-culture references by robbing "Romeo & Juliet"'s premise of all emotional heft: the warring tribes have no sense of familial bond, which renders the central romance completely weightless; and it's all performed with an absolute minimum amount of bloodshed, culminating in, yes, a happy ending. It's tempting to cry anti-intellectualism until one considers the film's predominantly British cast--after all, hasn't British culture earned the right to make self-deprecating jokes about Shakespeare's influence? (It just feels right knowing that Michael Caine and Maggie Smith are leading the charge in this gnome war--though Jason Statham voicing an angry, Napoleonic Tybalt sounds more subversive than it actually plays.) In fact, the film's generally cavalier attitude towards "unassailable" literature gives the impression that it was trying to piss someone off, what with most of the loathing and introspection replaced by the requisite noisy action sequences.
*/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B animated; screenplay by Shotaro Suga directed by Makoto Kamiya
by Bryant Frazer One of the more obnoxious trends in current filmmaking and distribution is the move towards cheapjack fansploitation movies. Masquerading as original, feature-film content, these low-budget theatrical and home-video releases are little more than expansive knock-offs of an existing, lucrative property that function as extended promos for yet another upcoming instalment of said franchise. In other words, they're commercials, bought and paid for by the very fanbase to which they're marketed. Not so long ago, we saw the theatrical bow of a decidedly sub-par feature animation, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, whose only reason for existence was its function as a come-on for the already-in-production Cartoon Network series. Then there's Resident Evil: Degeneration (henceforth Degeneration), an extended videogame cut-scene created to flog the upcoming release of AAA console title "Resident Evil 5". Taking place in the Capcom videogame's universe and filling in the narrative gap between "Resident Evil"s 4 and 5, it has nothing to do with the popular live-action film series starring Milla Jovovich.
***½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A- screenplay by Michael Arndt directed by Lee Unkrich
by Walter Chaw Woody (Tom Hanks) refuses to shake Buzz's (Tim Allen) hand in farewell at around the middle point of Pixar's Toy Story 3, marking a dark return of sorts to the petulant Woody of the first film and a harbinger of things to come as the picture closes with sights and sounds that are easily darker than anything dreamed of in its predecessors. Maybe it's the comfort that comes with being part of an established franchise--with the knowledge that the only watermark to exceed is that left by its own thorny, complex second chapter. Whatever the case, Toy Story 3 is more ambitious than Toy Story 2 yet less successful as well, mainly because the first half of it seems uncharacteristically uncertain of itself. It's a feeling of awkwardness that in retrospect coalesces into this idea that maybe it's dread that colours our reintroduction to these characters. Half of their number is gone without explanation, after all, including Woody's love interest, Bo. He grieves for her. We'll come back to this. Their owner, Andy, prepares to go to college, leaving the toys to limbo in his attic until some hoped-for, equivocal day when maybe Andy could have children of his own and thus reconnect in some pat, schmaltzy epilogue, we fear, through a closed circle of eternity via progeny. The picture resorts to nothing so simple as that, thankfully, wrapping up instead with a worthy extended post-script that returns the series to its origins, though not without irreplaceable losses and an absolute clarity of purpose that binds this trilogy into something like a definitive, modern existentialist philosophy. While it's not Dostoevsky, it's not that far off, either.
TOY STORY **½/**** Image A- Sound A+ Extras A screenplay by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow directed by John Lasseter
TOY STORY 2 ****/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A- screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlin & Chris Webb directed by John Lasseter
TOY STORY 2
by Walter Chaw What time and memory seem to obscure about Pixar's Toy Story is that it is, for the most part, shrill and unpleasant, though it's easier to identify now that Pixar's technical facility is familiar. The picture's thick with bad behaviour, with everybody's favourite vintage cowboy doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) acting the spoiled, wounded, ultimately dangerous brat, jilted by his owner for a newer model, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and determined to murder his rival until some moral compass asserts itself and Woody, grudgingly, comes to Jesus with his inevitable obsolescence. Toy Story plays a weird game with the idea of mortality in that its heroes are toys and, as such, doomed to a kind of infernal immortal half-life during which they can be tortured any number of ways--de-limbed, decapitated and reconstituted, melted, waterboarded we presume--in the name of a child's development. A memorable moment places our frenemies in a "bad" kid's bedroom where all the toys have been mutilated (our tiny Dr. Frankenstein provides the tension of the film's third act)--the message of the encounter retreating into that old kid's-flick saw that you can't judge a book by its cover.
**/**** DVD - Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+ BD - Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+ screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Donald McEnery & Bob Shaw directed by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton
by Walter ChawThe Seven Samurai by way of ¡Three Amigos!, Pixar's A Bug's Life stands as the company's sole artistic disappointment, suffering from a weightlessness that is particularly troubling given that it is also the only Pixar production whose characters don't interact with the human world. The revelation embedded in its relative failure is that the animation studio is better at satire than it is at fantasy--not a terrible thing, for sure (after all, anime legend Hayao Miyazaki has never made a film independent of the human realm), the picture still points to the damning difficulty of creating a fantasy unto itself and based on alien quirk that is more than an exercise in Flintstones-era visual punning wrapped around a familiar underdog-uplift narrative.
***/**** starring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly screenplay by Dan Gerson & Andrew Stanton directed by Peter Docter and David Silverman & Lee Unkrich
by Walter Chaw Ten feet tall and covered in blue and purple fur, James "Sully" Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) is the leading scarer at Monsters, Inc. and best friend to his "handler/assistant," a green nebbish of a cyclops named Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). Despite their occupation, they're sweet fellas; less so is Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), a colour-changing, chameleonic thing who is jealous of Sully's reputation. When a dreaded child escapes into the monster's factory, Sully and Mike gradually unearth Randall's nefarious plot to overtake Sully for "Most Bloodcurdling" while trying to hide the renegade kid from their tick-like boss Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn) and Celia (Jennifer Tilly), Mike's girlfriend.
****/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A- screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Bob Peterson & David Reynolds directed by Andrew Stanton
by Walter Chaw The perfect American parable for an anxious new millennium, Andrew Stanton's Finding Nemo is riddled with nightmares and weighted by the existential smallness of its heroic pair, finding a certain immutable gravity in the fear and hope represented by children, rekindled, both, by the spate of child-on-child violence ending our last thousand years. Following hot on horror films that, like the horror films of the late-'60s/early-'70s, focus on unapologetically evil children (then: Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary's Baby, Don't Look Now, The Exorcist, now: The Ring, Identity, Soft for Digging), what Finding Nemo does is present generational paranoia from a parent's point of view, opening as it does with an act of senseless, heartbreaking violence in the middle of an idyllic suburbia. It's not the horror (at this point) of a child facing social ostracism in the school environment, but the horror of making a choice to escape a bad environment only to find oneself in the middle of an upper middle-class tinder pile about to light.
****/**** DVD - Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+ BD - Image A Sound A Extras A+ written and directed by Brad Bird
by Walter Chaw The first hint that there's something at work in The Incredibles far beyond the pale is the casting of Sarah Vowell as the voice of wilting Violet, the wallflower older sister in the Incredibles' nuclear family. Vowell herself is a brilliant satirist, a gifted writer, and in her heart o' hearts, a bona fide autobiographical anthropologist. She mines the tragedies of her life for insight into the thinness of the onionskin separating our ability to function with the iron undertow of self-doubt and disappointment that comprises all of our paralyzed yesterdays. The Incredibles does a lot of things well--a lot of the same things, as it happens, that Sarah Vowell does well. Through two Toy Story films and last year's fantastically topical Finding Nemo, Pixar has provided the new gold standard in children's entertainment, and it has consistently done so by injecting an amazing amount of insight and depth into the foundation of its bells and whistles.
*½/**** screenplay by John Lasseter & Philip Loren & Kiel Murray directed by John Lasseter
by Walter Chaw Soulless and anchorless, Pixar's Cars is the company's first all-around failure. It's got something to do with the lack of a human grounding: the only other time Pixar stumbled was with its similarly bleak A Bug's Life (that picture resorting, like Cars, to racial caricature as its primary tentpole), which is also the only other time the company has neglected to ground its story with homo sapien ballast. It's telling that a company pioneering machine-tooled animation so relies on that hint of humanity for its effectiveness; in its place, Cars resorts to cheap name-games (all the cities are car-parts except, dubiously, Los Angeles) as its primary gag and relies on a string of racing in-jokes (Darrell Cartrip, get it? Yeah, me neither) to lubricate its worn-down gears. It's the product of the "Larry the Cable Guy" school of redneck effacement tacked onto a tired redemption romantic comedy, even more tired fish-out-of-water malarkey, and finally an inexplicable blanket criticism of all things urban. Sub-vaudeville gags with weak payoffs and rudderless execution are the things one would rightly expect from a DreamWorks flick--pity that their strain of high-concept lack of inspiration seems to respect no host.