‘Up’ is a beautiful downer you should see

May 29, 2009


FROM JASON’S $3 CINEMA — He is not cut like Brad Pitt. He is not slick like James Bond. He is not cunning like Jason Bourne. He is not overbrimming with bravado like Indiana Jones.

No, the hero of Pixar’s stunning Up is world-weary and melancholy, sore in his bones and relying on a cane for support.

And in the first 10 minutes of Up, the animators at Pixar managed to pump so much life and loss and love into him that my wife was already bawling, and I — the hardened macho man that I am — was swallowing every two and a half seconds to keep down the aching lump in my throat.

Carl Fredrickson is the eager-eyed boy who finds true love in a young neighborhood girl. They live happily ever after together, growing old while their dreams of adventure-seeking in South American are trumped by domestic reality. When his Ellie dies, Carl uses a flotilla of helium balloons to soar his entire home to an idyllic jungle vista and live out his wife’s fantasy.

That fervent tribute to a lost soulmate would have been a terrific movie. Being infatuated with my own wife of seven years, I was entirely emotionally vested in Carl. I would be a shell without my Lisa.

But instead of telling that simple story in an appropriate 30-minute short, Pixar needed to bow to the feature-length convention and pollute its heartfelt tale with a kid-friendly cast of zany secondary characters.

There is a Boy Scout who gets roped into Carl’s adventure, along with a talking dog, a monstrous tropical bird long thought to be extinct, a geriatric and insane villain, and an army of anthropomorphized canine killers. Every single one is superfluous to Carl’s emotional journey.

There’s also a load of cheap jokes imposed on an otherwise perfect tragedy.

Look, I understand that Pixar makes money by targeting the under-12 demographic. Without the cartoonish faux-suspense and bad guys, youngsters wouldn’t be hooked and they’d lose out on ticket sales. Children certainly not going to care for a script about growing old. And in the United States, we for some reason still relegate animation to the realm of adolescents; it’s not considered a valid art form for an over-50 audience, like Up should have been tailored to.

That really annoys me.

So instead of a literary tale, we get a beautiful story watered down by sentient canines flying biplanes that shoot darts. That really happens. It’s somewhat mitigated by a nifty Star Wars reference, but it was still gratuitous.

It will make hundreds of millions of dollars for Pixar. It will also serve as the perfect example of how pandering to multiple audience demographics can sully a piece of art.

Fortunately, the visual part of the art was in no way soiled. The lighting, shadowing, and color were astounding; we saw the 2D version of Up, and even without 3D glasses it still looked like ViewMaster slides put in motion and perfect focus. The character models looked at points like real-world puppetry.

That’s a big admission coming from me, because I am typically critical of computer-generated content. But CG has certainly advanced since the days of Toy Story. Here, some of the rocky South American landscapes look photorealistic (remember how bad the same textures were back in the days of The Last Starfighter?), and praise is certainly due.

Overall, I ardently recommend Up with just those few reservations. If it doesn’t get to you, then you are either too young or Vulcan. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a film many will pay to own on DVD, as most of the comments I heard on exiting the cinema were along the lines of, “It was terrific, but it was just too sad.”

Død Snø: Shawn of the Dead meets the Third Reich?

April 18, 2009

dodsno01FROM JASON’S DVD PLAYER — I now know two words in Norwegian. Død means “dead,” while Snø translates easily enough to “snow.”

I doubt I’ll ever have use for the phrase, except when I go hunting at Blockbuster this summer for the Norwegian-indie-Nazi-zombie-horror-comedy flick Død Snø, set for release June 12 in the States.

Seemingly taking queues from Shawn of the Dead’s simultaneous genre-revitalizing and self-mocking humor, the Scandinavian undead epic pits reanimated fascists against vacationing teens who stumble on a cache of stolen Nazi gold.

The pillaged treasure was hidden during the Reich’s occupation of Norway during World War II, and a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque cursed horde rises to claim it back when the protagonists find it in a desolate mountain cabin.

Seriously, this is a geek orgasm. I can’t wait to see it.

I’m not normally a fan of zombies flicks, though several works in recent years have worked to change that (the aforementioned Simon Pegg film and Left 4 Dead among them). I’ve never been a fan of gore for gore’s sake; but if a work can be more about creativity and subtle fun-poking at genre cliches instead of blood and intestines, then I’m all in.

I also don’t really give a hoot about another Romero allegorical commentary about American consumerism.

Dead Snow sounds like it’s going to be more horror than comedy, but with consistent piss-taking — I’m just not sure whether they buzz around the movie is due to intentional or unintentional humor. Norwegians are smart. They can’t possibly think they can get away with stock baddies like Nazis rising from the icy grave, for shit’s sake.

One thing is sure: I like Scandinavians. They seem so laid back. I’ve never heard of anyone being prejudiced against them. The northern ladies are hot (I’d like to bjork de bjork de bjork them like the Swedish Chef). And somehow they seem to be at once at the leading edge of fashion while still wearing Thor hair and knit sweaters.

The film was released in Norway on my birthday in January, and was shown at Sundance before IFC purchased North American distribution rights. IFC is the same indie party behind Y Tu Mamá También, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Fahrenheit 9/11, and the controversial Transamerica.

Unfortunately, kids, you won’t be able to slap Dead Snow on your Netflix queue this summer because IFC has an exclusive distribution deal with Blockbuster — though I give even odds that Blockbuster will be belly-up in the next year.

Regardless, Død Snø is already getting decent ratings from folks in-the-know, scoring 7.0 on IMDB. That’s better than Innerspace, The ‘Burbs, Young Guns, Heavy Metal, Hot Shots!, Ghostbusters 2, or Talladega Nights.

There are some weird demographic splits in the mix, too. Usually, zombie and other horror flicks are the demesne of the male geeks, but tracking for Dead Snow is actually better among females. What’s more, it’s getting an average IMDB rating of 9.5 from women 45 and older, while men in the same age group only give it an average 6.2.

And that’s got me wondering.

I’ve only got one beef so far with the movie: the tagline. It’s “Ein! Zwei! Die!” That’s fine, I suppose, but if you’re a Nazi German, then you think they’re saying, “One! Two! The!”

Oh, and by the way, I know that pesky Ø symbol has been nagging at you the entire time you’ve been reading this. Here’s the wiki entry so you can stop obsessing.

‘I Love You, Man’ is maybe a little too accurate for comfort

April 4, 2009

FROM JASON’S LOCAL THEATER — The way my wife kept knowingly elbowing me in the ribs the entire 110 minutes of I Love You, Man was more than just physically uncomfortable.

Since graduating from college several years ago, I’ve found myself mired in those particularly strange doldrums where man-friends are awkward to come by. It’s not that I’m socially inept. It’s just that the workforce is a different playground than high school or college — relationships are much more casual and often competitive now that I’m almost 30.

So in the theater with Lisa, I was squirming a bit about the film’s main theme: When all-around good guy Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) is engaged and needs to find  a best man, he realizes his old friends have fallen by the wayside and goes in search of a new blood brother.

Lisa’s been hassling me now about this for ages. “Why don’t you have any close guy friends?” she asks. “Don’t you want to go get a beer with someone?”

The problem is that at my age, how do you 1) find a guy with common interests, 2) build a relationship without feeling totally, totally gay, and 3) find time to juggle a bro and a wife?

  1. This step was easy in college. There were so many dudes packed into such confined dorm space that you couldn’t help but find somebody interesting doing something awesome, and the social barriers to entry were lowered. These days, I’d almost have to join some sort of club to meet other guys with my humor, cultural knowledge set, and sensibilities.Church is right out of the question; I don’t do sports because I’m uncoordinated; I refuse to hang out at a game shop; and I refuse to join activist groups because they always sour. A favorite hang-out is the library, but that’s no place to strike up a conversation.
  2. Anyone familiar with the Man Code knows it’s easy to strike up relationships with women. It’s finding common ground with other guys that’s the delicate matter.First, there is my northeastern US puritanical unbringing and its “manhood” baggage. Men don’t share feelings. They don’t talk things out. They don’t hug or touch in any way other than the occassional spirited punch in the arm or Top Gun-style high five.
  3. If you’re married, you know that time is a precious gift from the gods. Chances are you already have at least one job, a house to clean, cars to repair, dogs to walk, kids to clean up after, a toilet to fix, the lawn to mow, a kitchen to remodel, a sidewalk to shovel, groceries to buy, and then if there is time left over you collapse and maybe think about sex.After that, whatever hour a day is left over can be divided amongst television, video games, or beer.The Internet is a novel solution to the time-crunch-vs.-friends problem. For instance, Andrew and I have been hanging out online, watching movies, bragging about sexual prowess, debating economic and political realities, arguing about which bands are good and which are shite. Watching Battlestar Galactica. Surprisingly, watching Andrew make his own cheese. Gaming.

Paul Rudd decided to take an unrealistic tack. He trying man-dating. He actively went out seeking a friend, and that hilariously backfired until by chance he stumbled onto a kindred soul in Jason Segel (of How I Met Your Mother), who is the least interesting part of the entire film.

Let it be said at this point that I refuse to use or endorse the term “bro-mance.”

Overall, I was pretty happy with the film, with its sympathetic portrayal of my plight, positive treatment of gay characters, the excellent and appropriate use of Andy Samberg and J.K. Simmons as members of Rudd’s family, and the cute Rashida Jones as Rudd’s fiance (The Office), who thankfully plays against the ball-and-chain stereotype.

I was pleasantly surprised, really, with how well the script played out. I was wary of the suspiciously positive treatment Entertainment Weekly gave the film — the rare A for a comedy — and how various media have been overtly positioning Paul Rudd as the new everyman star.

That’s not to say there were no weaknesses in the flick: The constantly overplayed “guy slang” was annoying as hell, as was the blatant product placement and overbearing Rush worship.

Now, Judd Apatow wasn’t involved as far as I could tell, but the major players were from his crew and were making good use of his comedic style, falling in line with the likes of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. That means I Love You, Man was replete with the fart and sex humor I typically despise, but mostly with such heart that it avoided the shallowness of many of buddy films.

That could be attributed mainly to a dialogue that isn’t necessarily realistic so much as it is true, which I know is a fine distinction to make. But for all Rudd’s fumbling and polite clumsiness, he felt like a guy I could understand — a John Cusack more than a John Wayne.

YouTube Cinema: The Muppet Movie (1979)

February 24, 2008
Patriotism swells in the heart of the American bear.

muppets01.pngFROM JASON’S HENSON HERO WORSHIP — Just let me brag for a minute. I have The Muppet Movie soundtrack on vinyl. Yes, I grew up listening to this masterpiece in glorious lo-fi bliss and I’ll challenge anyone in a Muppets lyrics showdown.

muppets02.pngIt’s a good thing that this music rocks, because the plot of The Muppet Movie is completely incidental. The entire film is just an excuse to lead from one variety show-style musical number to the next, giving a sketchy origin story for each of the main Muppets.

muppets03.pngBoiling it down: Kermit treks across the United States on his way to Hollywood to become a movie star, meeting fellow Muppets along the way. He gathers his posse one at a time, with a frog-legs lovin’ restauranter named Doc Hopper hunting him.

muppets04.pngNot only do we have the immortal Rainbow Connection, but when Kermit meets Fozzie they sing Moving Right Along, which I remember singing in second grade music class. As a married guy, the absolute best thing about The Muppet Movie is the Kermit/Rowlf duet I Hope That Something Better Comes Along:

You can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em.
There’s somethin’ irresistabullish about ’em.
We grin and bear it ’cause the nights are long.
I hope that somethin’ better comes along.

muppets05.pngThere’s also substantial star power here. Not only do we have Jim Henson and Frank Oz, but the movie is chock-full of 70s celebs: Mel Brooks, Milton Berle, Dom DeLuise, Telly Savalas, Bob Hope, Elliott Gould, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Orson Welles.

Behind the scenes, directors John Landis (Three Amigos, Animal House, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off) and Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Beetle Juice, Batman) were both puppeteers.

I’ll admit The Muppet Movie doesn’t hold up 29 years after its release, except on a very nostalgic level. But if you don’t like it, you’re not my friend. Either get with Gonzo (clearly the best Muppet) or get off my Internets.

James Bond #22 had better be better than its title

January 27, 2008

quantumofsolace.jpgFROM THAT DEGREE HANGING ON JASON’S WALL — Hey, MGM, that didn’t go over so well, did it?

Mike Dawson aside, I haven’t heard anyone rejoice about the title of the new Bond movie due out Nov. 7 — and I think even he’s just taking the unpopular view for the fun of it.

Quantum of Solace has several big problems. First, it doesn’t flow well. You’ve really got to contort your mouth to shove it past your teeth.

Second, people (erroneously) think of “quantum” as an adjective. Quantum mechanics, right? But the word isn’t so much a descriptor as a sub-genre. It’s actually a noun, meaning a portion or the smallest part of an object that can exist independently.

So what Ian Fleming really meant when he penned the title in 1960 was “A Tiny Amount of Solace” — which seems fitting. In Casino Royale, we saw Bond’s soul crushed by lost love. The trauma made him push emotion away and become a killing machine for MI5.

He deserves at least a little comfort. That doesn’t change my opinion about the movie’s name, though. My third issue with Quantum of Solace is that it can be said so much more simply and elegantly. The way it’s written makes it sound like a fourth-grader with a thesaurus.

The franchise’s caretakers have been obsessed in recent years with using official Fleming story/book titles, but that’s trend that just can’t continue. Remaining titles include Risico, The Hildebrand Rarity, 007 in New York, and The Property of a Lady. By today’s standards, those are pretty slim pickings.

More movie press photos saved from the trash bin

January 8, 2008

FROM THE DUMPSTER OUTSIDE JASON’S WINDOW — A while ago I posted some Star Trek (mostly from the fourth movie — Star Trek: The One With the Whales) press photos. They had been saved from a general purging of the newspaper office where I work, which is undergoing a renovation and cleaning for the first time in a couple of decades.

Rather than have some of these precious geek culture relics go in the dumpster, I slipped them in my briefcase. Again, click to enbiggen:

Star Wars: Episode VI: Revenge Return of the Jedi (1983)

ewok.jpgYou know, we saw a lot of the forest moon of Endor, but never Endor itself. Maybe there were some cool creatures on the planet proper; instead, we were saddled with primitive teddy bears in the final installment of the original Star Wars saga (The Luke Skywalker Trilogy).By all accounts, the costume designers were frustrated. The Ewoks were made of five pieces that had to be stitched on to the little people (under 4-feet, 6-inches — George Lucas wasn’t an equal opportunity employer on this one). The heads were sculpted, and the various tidbits of hoods and other clothing were designed to cover the seams.

For all the rambling I’ve done on this blag recently about Star Trek, I just want to go on record as saying Star Wars is definitely superior — despite the cuddly forest warriors from Return of the Jedi and Jake Lloyd.

The Fugitive (1993)

fugitive.jpgRun, Harrison, run! With roles as Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Rick Deckard, and Jack Ryan, Harrison Ford easily goes down in the geek cannon as perhaps the geek hero. The Fugitive was far from my favorite movie, but there’s no denying that Ford’s acting was head and shoulders above his performance in Jedi.

Of course, for my money, it’s all about Indiana Jones. Too bad I didn’t stumble across any old black and white glossies of Ford in the fedora.

The X-Files (1993)

xfiles.jpgIf you were one of those sniveling nitwits constantly worrying about whether Mulder and Scully would ever get it on, you missed the point of the updated pulp paranoia stories that were The X-Files.

Forget for a moment the messes that were seasons 5-7. Remember the good times — the monster-of-the-week episodes, the early black oil plot, the mystery surrounding Mulder’s sister, the horrible anti-science message, and the lazy skepticism-cum-catholicism thrown into the mix.

If only Chris Carter had remembered that the show wasn’t about some subtle social commentary or some deep Lost-before-Lost-came-along story arc.

By the way, if you don’t know that a new X-Files movie is in production, you forfeit all your geek cred.

Rising Sun (1993)

connerysnipes.jpgI’ve never seen Rising Sun. Honestly, I don’t remember ever hearing buzz about Rising Sun, or trailers for Rising Sun, or meeting anyone who had known somebody who once lived next door to a guy who saw Rising Sun. Therefore, I have no clever comments about Rising Sun.

However, I just had to save this photo from destruction because of the sheer awesome that is its juxtaposition. There’s James Bond standing next to Blade. The world doesn’t get much safer from psychos than that.

First act of ‘Star Trek: Of Gods and Men’ released online

December 29, 2007

ogam2.jpgFROM JASON’S COMMAND CHAIR — What is it about Trekkies that makes them obsess over ill-conceived time-travel plots?

Andrew and I just finished watching the first installment of Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, the extremely low-budget, convoluted mini-series being produced by various Trek alums as a “40th anniversary present” to fans.

We are perplexed, to say the least.

Directed by Tim Russ (Tuvok from Star Trek Voyager and a terrorist from that TNG episode where Picard wants to go horseback riding but crawls around the Enterprise’s innards instead), part one weighed in at 26 minutes, 12 seconds. Each minute had us scratching our heads and asking, “WHY? FOR THE LOVE OF KIRK, WHY?!”

ogam1.jpgThe plot (as it is): Charlie Evans — from the second episode of season one in 1966 — returns. As a young and powerful psionic 40 years ago, Charlie tried to take over the Enterprise after he was rescued from the surface of the planet Thasus.

Now he’s back with a grudge against Captain Kirk. He shows up on the bridge to confront Uhura (Nichelle Nichols reprising her role), Chekov (Walter Koenig), John Harriman (Alan Ruck — Cameron from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off!), Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), and Kirk’s nephew — who is now in command of the good ol’ NCC-1701.

Charlie uses The Guardian of Forever (from the second-to-last episode of season one, The City On the Edge of Forever — you know, the one with Joan Collins) to go back in time, presumably to assassinate Kirk as an infant a la The Terminator.

ogam3.jpgAs Doc Brown can tell you, changing the past changes the future. Charlie’s actions spawn (as far as we can tell) an alternate time line. It’s not the Mirror Universe that both TOS and DS9 visited several times. In this one, Harriman — an EVIL, Orion slave-girl owning Harriman — captains the Enterprise. Instead of the Federation, he is a member of the Galactic Order.

He captures a Correllian Corvette separatist ship and imprisons Princess Leia this time line’s version of Chekov, who heads the Rebel Alliance resistance against the Galactic Empire Order. Then Grand Moff Tarkin Harriman fires an Death Star beam Omega device at Alderaan Vulcan because it supported secession from the Order.

Overall, the plot seems muddled, the CG is kiddie-grade, the Federation-time line sets are straight out of the 60s instead of the darker 80s movie versions, Ruck’s alternate time line shirt is nice and glittery, and Garrett Wang is… well, Garrett Wang. With a wig.

All that said, it’s still Star Trek and we’ll still watch Act II of Of Gods and Men as soon as it’s released — if only to laugh at it.

I already linked to it, but again: Watch the movie here.

Don’t miss such great dialog as:

  • “It’s deja-vu all over again.”
  • “I’m sorry, I was just… (dramatic voice) remembering.”
  • “So, at last. The Fox has been outfoxed.”