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|June 4 - June 10, 2009
• Thumbs up
by Michael Phillips
• To hell with Raimi
by Michael Phillips
by Michael Phillips
You know the most heartening thing about the new Disney-Pixar film Up? It may be wonderful, but it isn’t perfect. It feels nervy and adventurous and a little messy, the result of formidable creators and genuine wits working on an enormous budget, enormously well-spent.
As different as it is from its Pixar predecessors Ratatouille and WALL-E, and as different as those two masterworks were from each other, Up shares with those films a few storytelling glitches. Not everything adds up, and the action sequences run on a bit, as if the filmmakers were nervous about wowing us after all that uncommercial artistry. Yet the expansive emotional landscape of Up is something new. Disney stockholders surely would prefer the Pixar crew to crank out another Cars, spinning off another few billion in merchandising. (The Up budget is estimated to be $175 million, not including marketing costs.) While I realize the crucial role black ink plays in Pixar’s continued artistic health and well-being, I say: More power to these people. They are making the best films coming out of contemporary Hollywood.
For most of his life, balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen, voiced by Ed Asner, shared a dream with his wife, Ellie, to travel to Paradise Falls in South America. (The fictional locale was inspired by the tepui “tabletop” mountains of Venezuela, among other places, where Arthur Conan Doyle set The Lost World.) After Ellie dies, Carl’s yearning for adventure dies, as well. Yet it rises again, phoenix-like, and Up then becomes a chronicle of an unlikely friendship.
The narrative conspires to put Carl in a box, much like the one his wonderfully detailed head resembles. Threatened with losing his charming two-story house, the grump with the shock of snow-white hair engineers a highly photogenic escape: He floats his house away, thanks to thousands and thousands of balloons, in the direction of South America. Eight-year-old Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai, blessedly un-slick) is Carl’s inadvertent stowaway, a sweet kid trying to fulfill a merit-badge requirement for aiding a senior citizen. He’s looking for a father figure; Carl resists the role at first, though Russell’s attitude is infectiously, almost pathologically, optimistic.
Those are the bare bones of the script, co-written by director Pete Docter, in collaboration with co-director Bob Peterson. As with The Incredibles, Up sets the back-story via newsreel footage: One of Carl and Ellie’s childhood heroes, a Hemingway-brand explorer (Christopher Plummer doing the honors with silken menace), is shown as a wrongly disgraced public figure, hell-bent on proving the existence of a 13-foot bird Muntz claims to have spotted near Paradise Falls. I don’t think Docter and company solved this character’s place in the story, but Up soars all the same.
Some of the comic inventions are inspired: Muntz has a pack of dogs equipped with electronic voice boxes, which means they’re talking dogs, only they speak as if they’ve learned English from a poorly translated Berlitz guide. A nice dog named Dug becomes a faithful friend and ally to Carl and Russell in their race to save an exotic, prehistoric bird Russell names Kevin.
The 3-D effects here are subtle and lovely, emphasizing depth (and depth of feeling) over gimmickry, but this is one 3-D animated feature that holds up terrifically well in plain old 2-D. Like all the best Pixar work, Up will work one way for one age group or sensibility and quite another for a different group.
Early on, Carl’s courtship and decades-long marriage to Ellie is depicted in a four-minute montage. It is almost unbearably moving — an emotional and cinematic powerhouse, and the way composer Michael Giacchino scores it, your heart breaks several times in succession. Yet you don’t feel beaten up by the pathos, the way some of us felt as kids watching Old Yeller.
As Carl’s house takes flight, Giacchino’s waltz recalls Victor Young’s theme from Around the World in 80 Days. Strike that: It doesn’t recall it; it equals it. Docter’s film owes as much to the visual imagination of animation pioneer Hayao Miyazaki, who did Howl’s Moving Castle, as it does to any previous Pixar film. Call this one Carl’s Floating Victorian. And call it marvelous.
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To hell with Raimi
by Michael Phillips
Director Sam Raimi gets back to his disreputable roots with Drag Me to Hell, a title never to be confused with Spider-Man 4 (which Raimi is preparing; let’s hope it’s closer in quality to Spider-Man 2 than Spider-Man 3). This hellaciously effective B-movie comes with a handy moral tucked inside its scares, laughs and Raimi’s specialty, the scare/laugh hybrid. Moral: Be nice to people. More specifically: Do not foreclose on the old Gypsy woman, or it’ll be draggin’ time.
Raimi’s résumé is more interesting than people tend to remember. Have you seen, for example, Evil Dead 2 or its follow-up, Army of Darkness? If you haven’t, you should; they’re quite mad, and quite fantastic. Raimi knows how to modulate his technique, as with the coolly controlled morality tale A Simple Plan, but he’s a firm believer in the power of an active, expressive camera, as well as the value of insinuation. In Drag Me to Hell, a lace hankie, of all things, turns into a wraithlike portent of doom.
Horror fans shouldn’t worry about an excess of subtlety; the ook flows freely here, and there’s a knock-down, drag-out melee in a parking garage that’ll be hard to top at the movies this year, certainly as far as knock-down, drag-out parking garage melees go.
Alison Lohman plays Christine, an L.A. loan officer who makes a bad judgment call at the bank one day in an attempt to curry favor with her boss (David Paymer). For not granting an extension on the home-loan payments owed by Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver, who really is a raver), Christine becomes the target of a serious, serious Hungarian cuss-out (“You shame me!”). Before long, the demons of Hades are manifesting themselves and making Christine’s life difficult.
Maggots, old-Gypsy-lady drool, embalming fluid gushing out of a corpse’s mouth — Christine’s always getting hit with something in this picture. Lohman can be good, and she can be bad (terrible, in fact, in Where the Truth Lies), but in Drag Me to Hell she’s just right. The actress has a winning way of slightly under-responding to each new manifestation that jumps up out of nowhere. (We get a few too many of these bits; even the Jumping Out of Nowhere League may be growing weary of this gimmick by now.)
Justin Long plays Christine’s skeptical but supportive boyfriend. The plot explicators — a psychic and a medium played by Dileep
Rao and Adriana Barraza, respectively — do their thing with honest conviction, while Raimi’s special-effects folks do theirs.
Drag Me to Hell throws a lot at the screen, sticky or not. But unlike so much at the multiplex these days (Wolverine, for example), this low-down number doesn’t give you a computer-generated-imagery headache. Richly scored by composer Christopher Young, who comes up with some ripping solo Gypsy-violin lines, Raimi’s film favors simple pleasures: a silhouette of a demon sliding under a door or across a wall, or an ill wind that almost (but doesn’t quite) take the shape of something concretely terrifying.
Will the target audience go for it? I hope so. I hope the nation’s 17-year-olds aren’t so benumbed by Saw, Hostel and humorless remakes of humorless, better-made Japanese horror films that they’ve become indifferent to exuberant, well-paced trash. A little wit to go with the dread goes a long way with me. Hope I’m not alone.
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