Kids Movies! Movies Reviewed: Toy Story 3, The Last Airbender, Despicable Me, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

This week I’m going to take a look at some of the kids’ movies and animation playing right now. So if you’re a kid, or have kids, or just like that kind of movie… stay tuned.

Kids movies, much more than a lot of crappy adult genre movies, take their stories very seriously, and I respect them for that, well, I respect the ones that have good stories. I love a good story, especially one with a bit of magic, or supernatural, or super heroes, or mythological heroic back stories. Because it doesn’t matter if they re-tell a well-known story, as long as they do it well. So let me tell you a bit about each movie’s story (I won’t give away the endings, don’t worry) and whether I think it’s worth watching.

“Toy Story 3”

Dir: Lee Unkrich

“Toy Story 3” in 3-D is a continuation of the earlier computer animated Pixar and Disney “Toy Story” movies, about a kid’s toys who, when their owner isn’t around, reveal themselves to be living beings with real emotional lives and personalities. In this version, Andy has grown up and is heading off to college, and the toys find themselves abandoned and donated to a daycare center. So they have to escape from this virtual prison run by a gang of mean toys, like Lotso, a deeply cynical “Burl Ives”-type scary, strawberry-scented care-bear, a baby doll zombie, and Ken, Barbie’s groovily-dressed, clothes-horsey kinda gay boyfriend.

It’s up to Woody, the 60’s cowboy doll, to rescue spaceman Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang, in a sort of a Dante-esque journey. Woody descends into this inferno to free Beatrice – or more accurately a whole bunch of Beatrices – (Beatrici?) from a virtual hell. This time the bad stuff seems a lot worse than it had in the earlier ‘Toy Story”. It’s not just a childhood fear of abandonment at work here, it’s actual, palpable danger. Sort of scary, to tell the truth.

I remember disliking the first Toy Story – it felt like a well-plotted infomercial there to sell toys, and had a distasteful whiff of nostalgia for the white suburban 1950’s where women all stayed at home and boys and girls knew their roles.

It’s kept a lot of that, but somehow seems a bit more subversive than it’s predecessors. And while keeping its nostalgic sentimentality, it is actually an emotionally wrenching movie — I laughed, I cried (OK I didn’t actually stand on my seat and cheer) and I thought it was a good movie – despite the toy-selling factor.

“The Last Airbender”

Dir: M. Night Shyamalan

“The Last Airbender” is a live action, 3-D version of the TV cartoon called Avatar – not that Avatar, another one.

In ancient times, in a sort of a made-up Sino-Tibetan-Japanese-Sumatran pan-Asian world, there were people in four kingdoms each based on one of the 4 elements – air, water, fire, and earth. There were certain people in each kingdom who could bend an element – bending means you can toss that fire or water around, and make it go “Pshew! Pshew! Pshew!

just by gesturing with your magic fingers.

And then, there is one guy who can bend all four elements – he’s known as The Avatar. But the Fire people have taken over and are oppressing the rest of them. So they want to catch the last airbender – a little bald kid with strange facial tattoos and an arrow on his forehead pointing down, named Aung – who might be the Avatar. He was asleep in an ice bubble for a century, but now he’s back.

Most of the movie is just the royal family of fire guys chasing Aung, and the rest of the elementals trying to get Aung fit enough to fight them.

This movie got trashed by critics, more so than it deserved – it wasn’t all that bad. M Night Shyamalan is not my favourite director (he’s been coasting on his 6th Sense “I see dead people!” success for quite a while now, with a whole bunch of duds), but it’s not bad, with some cool special effects, and visually captivating with ancient ruins, and mountain-top Buddhist monasteries—great to look at, with the feel of the TV cartoon.

But the characters never really develop, you never feel for them except for the conflicted, exiled prince of fire Zuko (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”) and maybe pudgy, pre-pubescent Aung (Noah Ringer). Too many lines like: “Faster Aung, they‘re right behind us!”, too much fighting and chasing, not enough actual story. And the 3-D effects in this movie are a waste of time.

Despicable Me

Dir: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Gru, is a flat headed, low browed bad guy villain with a nose like Mr Burns. He’s a truly evil, grinch-like villain. He lives in an old house where he secretly makes nefarious weapons with the help of tiny yellow capsule-shaped minions and a diabolical scientist — like James Bond’s “Q”, except hard of hearing.

But Gru is thrown when he’s told he’s over the hill in super-villaindom. The insecurities of his childhood – his mother never supported him – hence the name “despicable me” – come back to haunt him. A new villain, Vector, has stolen the Great Pyramid. What can be bigger than that for a villain to steal? Gru Decides to steal the moon, once he gets a hold of a gun that can shrink things. But the only way to get it is by using three cute orphan girls – Margo, Edith and Agnes – who sell cookies door to door, as bait. So he pretends to adopt them.

The movie follows his relationship with the spunky orphan girls as a ne’er-do-well Dad, as well as his quest to capture the moon. This is a really good movie, capable computer animation, cool-looking characters, minimal product placement, and with stories not out of place with Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl or Charles Addams – but not too scary either. (Suitable for kids).

The one thing I thought was remarkable is that three of the main characters, the orphan girls, were completely absent from all the trailers, posters, and pictures before the movie came out – I guess they think boys won’t go to see movies with girls in them. Anyway, I liked this movie a lot.

Finally,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Dir: Jon Turtletaub

Finally,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

(starring Nicolas Cage as the wizard Balthazar and Jay Baruchel as his apprentice, Dave.) While ostensibly based on the Mickey Mouse cartoon in Fantasia, this sorcerer’s apprentice is much more compicated. Merlin, in King Arthur’s day, was the greatest sorcerer in the world. But his three protégés — Veronica, Balthazar and Horvath – fail to kill the evil Morgana. Instead, a bunch of them are turned into “grimholts” – statues that look like Russian Matryoshka dolls — that hold them captive. It’s up to Balthazar, still alive centuries later, to find a new apprentice to be the Prime Merlinian. He locates the self-conscious NYU science nerd, Dave, in New York City. Dave must help him stop the villain Morgana, and her accomplice the traitor Horvath –played by Alfred Molina — while he learns wizardry in a modern-day one-man Hogwarts, even while he pursues his childhood crush, Becky.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a fun, pseudo- Harry Potter movie. The acting’s good: Nicolas Cage shows amazing restraint (unlike most of the terrible movies he’s in); Molina is great as the villain, Horvath, and Jay Baruchel — while almost exactly like in most of his other roles — carries the part well. (He’s always great.) Still, his voice changed 15 years ago – the guy’s 28! — so he should stop playing mock-twelve year olds. I also liked the way they combined physics with magic. And I thought new-comer Teresa Palmer — as Dave’s crush, Becky — was also great. (And her character works for a community radio station… excellent!) The New York City scenes – Empire State and Chrysler building, always seen from high up among the gargoyles — is attractive too. And there are lots of fun references to older movies, including Ghost Busters, King Kong, and Toy Story. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”  is a good – not great, but not bad – movie for people who like magic adventures, Walt Disney movies, or Jay Baruchel.

Oscar Predictions

Last week, instead of my usual reviews, I posted about the Academy Awards, that land of mediocre excess, and squirmily embarrassing endless thank you speeches, of kowtowing, false modesty, and some genuine tears of joy. I did very short explanations and reviews of almost all the movies nominated for best picture, and made a few predictions about who I think would win. And now I’ve added a comment on my (generally wrong) predictions.

In alphabetical order:

“Avatar” as everyone and his sister already knows is a partially animated 3-D movie about Jake, a disabled soldier who is sent to another planet to secure its resources for a big multinational, and to pacify the angry giant blue, cat-like locals called the Na’vi who stand in their way. Though normally in a wheel chair, whenever he gets locked into a coffin-like machine, he can inhabit a giant blue body, an avatar, that can live in that planet’s ecosystem. Jake becomes accepted by the Na’vi, especially a woman who he grows to love, but has to decide whether to stand by his new family who’s way of life is threatened, or the military-industrial consortium who brought him there, and also allowed him to walk again.

Avatar is a fun, science fiction adventure epic cartoon that cost half a billion to make, but made back two.

“District 9” is a South African, ET-like drama, about ugly-cute Aliens from another planet who look like the undersea extras from Pirates of the Caribbean, and live in a decrepit refugee camp near Johannesburg.

Wikus, a wimpy, sweater vest-wearing guy working for a multinational corporation, is asked to go with the paramilitary soldiers to evict the “Prawns” — their derogatory term for the kind aliens, who speak an unintelligible language. But when he gets accidentally sprayed with a black substance that starts to turn him into one of them, he has to decide whether to continue to help the military-industrial consortium, or to aid his new friends to accomplish their goals.

"District 9" is an OK action/drama that addresses the problems of refugees in South Africa and elsewhere. The aliens, unfortunately, look so similar you can only tell them apart by their clothing, and the masks they wear are so stiff they make the ones in the original Planet of the Apes look natural and expressive, by comparison.

“An Education” is a drama adapted from a memoir about a smart and pretty16-year-old English girl in the early 1960’s who is trying to get into Oxford, but whose plans are upset by a sophisticated but sleazy man in his 30’s whom she falls for.

It’s an enjoyable and very well-acted, but soft, tame and nostalgic look back at a teenage girl’s coming of age.

“The Hurt Locker” is a drama about Sgt James, an American soldier in Iraq who adopts a devil-may-care attitude toward defusing insurgents’ roadside bombs. But it’s his life back home with his family that’s harder to handle. How will he resolve his military heroics with his own life?

“The Hurt Locker” is a simplistic, but sharp and tightly-done picture about an alienated American soldier inured to the death and destruction; but it’s also a movie which tiptoes around assigning blame for the war itself.

“Inglourious Basterds” is a multi-plotted, revisionist war movie about occupied France during WWII, where an evil genius Nazi Colonel is pitted against a blood-thirsty team of British, Jewish-American, and sympathetic German soldiers and spies who are out to turn the tide in the war. It’s also about a romantic woman with a hidden past and a vendetta who now runs a cinema in Paris, who tries to keep her romantic life while playing her role with all the opposing forces in France, as they head toward a Battle Royal climax. Who will prevail? Hint: I don’t want to give it away, but for those who don’t know… the Nazis lost the war.

While "Inglourious Basterds" is as excessive and bombastic as any of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, it was almost restrained in its level of gratuitous blood and gore. In other words, excessive, but not excessively excessive, if that makes sense. And he even included some good slapstick comedy and sweet, melodramatic romance in this long movie.

“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” is a great weeper about a fat, illiterate, and pregnant but kind-hearted high-school drop-out who uses her imagination to escape to a better world. She tries to turn her life around when placed in an alternate school writing class, but must deal with her monster of a mother and her miserable home life.

Precious is a good movie with two surprisingly good actresses I had never seen before, that dealt with difficult topics without succumbing to mawkishness.

“A Serious Man” is a comic drama about a middle class, middle aged, University prof in the midwest 40 years ago who faces a moral dilemma at work, and instability in all directions. He turns to a series of rabbis for help with his marriage, his brother, his neighbours, his children, and the meaning of life.

"A Serious Man" is a funny and uncomfortable movie by the Coen Brothers, but seems unsure whether it wants to be a stupid shaggy dog tale or a vortex of existential angst. It ends up being both.

“Up” is a cartoon about a grumpy old man who makes a rash decision to fulfill his and his late wife’s dream of visiting a remote mountaintop, but, who accidentally floats off in his balloon-powered house, with a boy scout on board. Later the two of them encounter the old man’s hero – a Charles Lindberg-type with his own private domain filled with trained, talking dogs – but soon discover their hero is not what they expected. Now it’s up to the old man and the little boy to make things right.

"Up" is an OK animated movie with some funny lines and hilarious talking dogs.

“Up in the Air” is a so-so comedy about a man (who strangely looks and sounds exactly like George Clooney) who travels corporate America firing strangers from their jobs. But is his world of airports, convention centres, offices, and furtive relationships in hotel rooms worthwhile? Or is the unfashionable, slow and homey life of his estranged relatives more “real”?

(The Blind Side was also nominated but I can’t review it, because I haven’t seen it.)

Predictions:

Best Actor: definitely Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”. WRONG: Jeff Bridges

Best Supporting Actor: (strangely enough, they were all great) it’s a real toss up, I think Stanley Tucci as the creepy neighbour in The Lovely Bones did the best job, but I have a feeling Cristoph Waltz will win. RIGHT

Best Actress: The two young Actresses Gabby Sidibe in Precious and Carey Mulligan in An Eduucation were both outstanding but I think Precious was more dramatic so it’ll probably go to her. WRONG Sandra Bullock (I haven’t seen The Blind Side)

Supporting Actress – I’m pretty sure it’ll go to Mo’nique in Precious. RIGHT

Bets animated feature: I haven’t seen Book of Kells, but of those I saw I thought "The Fantastic Mr Fox" was the best. "Coraline" had a great story. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure "Up" will win. RIGHT

(I’m also surprised that the excellent Japanese movie "Ponyo", about a fish that turns human, wasn’t even in the running.)

Best Original Script: I hope it’s "The Messenger", a heart-wrenching new drama about war vets who’s job is to tell families that a soldier is dead. NO PREDICTION ("Hurt Locker")

Best adapted script: I hope it’ll be In the Loop, a brilliant British political comic satire about how misinformation and disinformation can lead to war. NO PREDICTION ( "Precious")

Best director will probably go to Catherine Bigelow. RIGHT

Best Picture: Avatar WRONG! (Hurt Locker).

Final score: 4 out of 7 — slightly better than flipping coins.

The Demise of the Velvet Curtain

Posted in 3-D, Action, Avatar, Crank: High Voltage, Hitchcock, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Uncategorized, US, Velvet Curtain by CulturalMining.com on February 13, 2010

Everyone says that movies are going through a major change these days. I’m not so sure. Some people think that the big change is in their speed. The pace of movies is much more frenetic – and viewers have a lower attention span than they used to. So you get movies like Crank: High Voltage, a comic action movie from last summer about a British gangster who has to keep recharging the batteries in his artificial heart. Older action movies don’t have the speed and the special effects of newer ones. Hitchcock thrillers like North by Northwest — with airplane chases in corn fields and fight scenes on Mt Rushmore — are just not as impressive as they used to be. It’s simple enough now to have a herd of CGI elephants run across the screen, even for a cheap laugh.

But whether or not chase scenes are gradually speeding up their space, and are flashier, speedier, noisier, they’re still more or less the same. It’s just a matter of degree.

Other people point to the new technology available to audiences, saying: “After Avatar, all movies are going to be 3-D… And using video-game style animation!” I can safely say, that ain’t gonna happen. These kind of movies may become more frequent — as long as 3-D movies make money they’ll keep making them — but I doubt this will amount to a fundamental change in the nature of movies.

But I’d like to talk about one small detail that seems to be completely disappearing from the “movie experience” after 90 or 100 years, something that outlived silent movies, black and white movies, movies on film. But I’m not talking about something in the movie itself, but something outside the movie, in front of the movie.

There has been a subtle change in the past few years. One, seemingly superficial part of the movies is fading away. I’m speaking of the Velvet Curtain.

The what?

Traditionally, after the trailers, but before the movie begins, a curtain is lowered or pulled shut, only to reopen after the film starts to roll. So the first image of any film is the luxuriousness of curtains distorting the projected image, soon replaced by the crisper look of film directly on the screen.

You know when a movie is starting by the opening of the curtain, and when it’s over by its closing.

I don’t know for sure why it started. Perhaps a curtain was needed to replicate the vaudeville or stage theatres that were their main competition. In fact, many movie theatres used to share their screens with newsreels, cartoons, shorts, and B-movies in double features – so the opening of the curtain before the main movie gave it a sense of majesty.

Many theatres are now inserting a metaphorical curtain before the movie, a 3-D -looking commercial celebrating the magic and adventure of that chain’s cinemas – plants growing around the seats, shooting stars and rainbows in the sky, teenagers excitedly drinking cups of cola – but it doesn’t do it for me. And they haven’t even tried to find a replacement for the equally important closure at the end of a movie.

I’m not nostalgic, but I do regret the slow demise of this cinematic gesture, this "Amen", now in its death throes.

– Daniel Garber, February 12, 2010.

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