Thursday, 26 August 2010

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 will be one of the highest-grossing films of 2010 as well as one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year. Based on those laudable achievements, one should probably be thinking of Toy Story 3 as a modern classic. And indeed Toy Story 3 is a very well-made film. The actors supplying the voices are well-cast and perform flawlessly, the dialogue is as witty and intelligent as one could possibly expect from such a film, the technical wizardry is worthy of Pixar’s brilliant history, the film is very funny (Buzz is the highlight), and Toy Story 3 is filled with moments of heartfelt emotion.

So have you detected the direction of my review yet? No, I’m not heading towards four star/favourite films of the year territory. On the contrary, the previous paragraph needs to be followed by a huge BUT and I am tempted to give Toy Story 3 only three stars, though I will probably have to settle for ***+.

For Janelle and me, Toy Story 3 was a huge disappointment. Despite all of the film’s strengths, it had a gigantic hole in the middle which, as far as I have been able to determine, has not been noticed by even one film critic (sigh). Setting aside Disney’s failure, yet again, to consider redeeming the bad guy (despite a background story which would make it very easy to do so), which you’ve heard me talk about enough, the huge hole is called Sunnyside. The horrific Sunnyside storyline is guaranteed to traumatize young children for years (at least Janelle and I would have been traumatized for years if we had seen it before the age of ten). The failure of critics to draw attention to this is, I assume, a sign of how desensitized our society has become to what is considered acceptable children’s entertainment. With so many violent films getting a PG rating, this should come as no surprise, but to assume that children are capable of dealing with the kind of darkness and torture (not to mention the evil-looking baby doll, which feels like something right out of a Child’s Play-like horror film) featured in Toy Story 3 is, to us, an indication that something has gone horribly wrong in the film industry (indeed in the entertainment industry as a whole if you glance at video games these days). Of course, this is not new, even for Disney. Disney’s earliest animated films (like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty) also contained horrific scenes which traumatized young children (I was traumatized by fairy tales for years, with frequent nightmares about witches and wolves), but the new Pixar animation makes scenes feel much more real and the darkness at Sunnyside is so deeply sinister and all the more terrifying because it’s about toys. Why do we think it’s okay to traumatize kids? Is it some rite of passage that kids need to go through to become wise and wonderful human beings? After all, I survived the trauma, didn’t I? I’m not buying it. Fear has become an epidemic in the 21st century and the role of violence in our society is closely related to that fear. Surely we don’t need to exacerbate that fear by making little kids afraid of their teddy bears and baby dolls. And I’m sorry, but it’s just plain naive to think this is not going to be one of the outcomes, for thousands of kids, of watching Toy Story 3.

Why do we think a potentially wonderful film like Toy Story 3 requires a dark action-filled centre to entertain today’s audiences (and today’s kids)? Sunnyside could have been handled in a much gentler and lighter way, making the redemptive ending actually more powerful in the process, and Lotso could so easily have been redeemed, helping children understand that childhood trauma (like that induced by some animated films), even abandonment, does not have to scar one for life. Toy Story 3 could have been a four-star film and I feel compelled to give it ***+ because it’s so well-made, but the suspense left me cold and wanting to give it ***. My mug is up but the stuff inside makes me shudder.

A final comment: We were required to watch Toy Story 3 in 3D. You know my opinions about 3D by now. In this film, as in most films, it did absolutely nothing for me. Janelle asked me whether I thought all animated films (and many live-action films) were going to be in 3D in the future. It’s a horrible thought. My gut tells me this is a passing fad. Very few people I know are big fans of 3D and I think the masses will eventually get tired of it.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Two Excellent Films to Watch For

I watched two great films this week, one of which is sure to make my top five of 2010.

I Am Love

Even by Italian-film standards, I Am Love, directed by Luca Guadagnino, is an unusual film. With what I can only describe as a quirky use of cinematography, symbolism and music, this tale of a bored housewife in a rich Italian family in Milan tries to be something special. Much of it works for me, so I guess it succeeds in being special, but some parts apparently went over my head (this film needs a group discussion afterwards - I got lucky and watched it with a group who saw much, including rather obvious religious symbolism, that I had missed). Of course, this is also true of many of Italy’s classic films of the sixties, which I Am Love reminded me of.

Tilda Swinton stars as the housewife and the film works largely because of her perfect performance. With few words (this is a very quiet film), she conveys a wide range of emotions as her life takes an unexpected turn away from boredom and begins to spin out of control. Some of this is predictable, some not, but it is always fascinating.

While the film focuses on Swinton’s character, I Am Love is about the whole family and we are given a glimpse into a variety of interesting family and business dynamics leading to the rather intense ending. Don’t leave when the credits start to roll - it ain’t over yet. ***+

Winter’s Bone

Wow! Wow!

Need I say more? You must know by now that any review I write which begins with two wows is going to end with four stars and probably a place high up in my top ten films of the year (I think this is my favourite film of 2010, so far).

Winter’s Bone is an amazingly realistic film about life in backwoods Missouri (I do not mean this in a disparaging way but simply descriptive). It’s about a seventeen-year-old girl (played magnificently by Jennifer Lawrence) trying to take care of her two younger siblings (her mother is virtually catatonic and her father is missing) who suddenly finds out that her father has put the house up as part of his bail and now has vanished. If she doesn’t find him, she loses the house, which is about all they have.

This is a very dark, scary and disturbing film. Because it feels so realistic, you get a sense of what’s going on (and has gone on) even when you don’t see it, so the violence you don’t see is even more disturbing than what you do see. Fear plays a major role in this haunting film (almost everyone in the film is afraid) and that fear can’t help but become part of you as you watch the film.

Winter’s Bone takes place in one of those parts of North America that still seem somehow lost in the past. Walter, you and I lived (and you still live) in a part of the world like that, where the only connection many people in rural areas have with the present is a satellite dish.

What makes this film so special is the way the many characters you meet, even for just a few minutes, feel so real that you get a sense of their entire past histories without being told anything about them. This is a testament to the flawless acting (John Hawkes is a standout here) as well as the great direction by Debra Granik.

Because the characters are so real, their actions always feel authentic. One could spend hours analysing each person in the film (why they do what they do and act the way they act), making Winter’s Bone a unique member of the ‘profoundly humanising films’ club (though the humans involved are all hurting). It is also a film with one memorable scene after another. I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t say more, but this is an absolute must-see (though NOT for the faint-hearted). **** My mug is up and full of the finest brew.