Category Archives: Reviews

Anonymous on Pixar – Part the First (being an Examination of Toy Story’s Part 1 and 2 through the lense of Parental Anxiety)

While I continue working on those few pieces that it seems like I’ve been consciously avoiding for all these long, long months, I thought that – just in time for Christmas – I’d republish an intriguing series of articles centered around Pixar’s milieu and the apparent threads of hopelessness and misanthropy that run dormant underneath their superficial candy-colored surfaces, found on the /tv/ board of that eponymous, anonymous nerve-center, 4chan.

The series of articles begins with 1995’s Toy Story, and proceeds pretty erratically through the course of their filmography – whether or not I necessarily agree with the substance of the pieces to follow (and, I don’t think anyone on Match Cut has been more critical than I of people overstating the thematic importance of Pixar’s films) is, I think, not as relevant as how interesting an experiment it might put toward the validity of the slogan I’ve branded my homey little blog with, just up ahead. Give me your thoughts, readers. I feed on them.

What’s Toy Story really about, if not childhood joy? You might have missed it, if you’re one of those “young-at-heart” geeks who hate when parents gush over their larvae, who avoid kids like they’re ticks with Lyme disease, and/or who inexplicably complain about sharing a Pixar screening with its target audience. The fact is, Toy Story movies are about parental angst. Full stop. That’s what drives them – moms and dads fretting that Junior doesn’t think they’re cool anymore. The first film put reasonable effort toward embedding the theme inside its whimsical premise. The second film pretty much dick-slapped us with a middle-age identity crisis. With Toy Story 3, Pixar gave us an empty-nest Dirty Sanchez and then held out its ring so we could kiss it. (And you did, too. Don’t even pretend you didn’t.) Fine, that’s obvious to the rest of us. What people often miss, though, are the specific thematic statements that the movies make. We’re talking about the original Toy Story here, so let’s dive in and examine Pixar 1995’s view on parental issues.

Pop quiz: What’s missing in Andy’s life? Answer: a father. That’s because Woody is the father figure, the coolest guy in the child’s whole world. (It’s also because father issues are every screenwriter’s security blanket, but that’s a snark for another day.) The story is about a father whose son no longer thinks he’s the niftiest bloke on the block. He’s old and worn, the interloper is new and glamorous, they clash, blah blah blah. Okay, that’s a workable setup. Though perhaps it bears observing that during their rivalry, neither of these self-absorbed goobs really cares about what Andy thinks. In fact, despite all Woody’s lip service, they both literally clam up and stop talking if he so much as enters the room. Emotional distance is a required element in daddy dramas, you see. But I’m not going to dwell on the kid.

I’m more interested in Mom.

There’s some freaky subtext going on here. What sort of father is Woody supposed to represent? Is he still metaphorically married to Mom? If so, does that mean Buzz is horning in on Dad’s turf? Is Mom’s eye wandering toward a younger man? She’s the one who pulls Buzz out of the closet, after all, and presents him to her son. And then Buzz usurps Woody’s “spot on the bed.” Oh dear. No, Mother, you’ll wreck the family! Or maybe Woody represents a father who’s divorced and living in a different house (hence never interacting with Mom). Does that make Buzz Mom’s new beau? And Woody is trying to get rid of his son’s potential stepfather? Either way it’s a pretty ugly scenario. I keep picturing Mom as a dolled-up cougar seducing some young turk prettyboy. He’s brimming with good looks and gadgets and he makes her feel young, but his clue tank sits on Empty. I’m also guessing her wine humidor is well-stocked of late, and why not; her new lover’s a space cadet and Andy’s father is a controlling, vindictive jerkoff who can’t stand the thought of another man actually mattering to the boy. That’s not even getting into the subtext of Mom replacing Woody, with his floppy physique and empty holster, with battery-powered Buzz. I’m not going there. I do have some pride, packed away in a box someplace. So the two father figures compete like selfish idiots through the first half of the movie. Eventually they get sucked into one of Buzz’s immature fantasies, which lands them at Sid’s house. Let’s examine Sid’s house, shall we?

Sid’s an intelligent, imaginative boy several years older than Andy. His little sister is several years older than Andy’s little sister. There’s a mother we never see. And there’s a dad. The setup is pretty clear – this is Andy’s life a couple of years later, after Buzz’s childish fantasy worldview wins out. (There’s even an adult dog to match the puppy Andy gets at the end of the film.) But something’s gone horribly wrong. Andy’s now a sadistic, probably neglected little bastard. Dad (Buzz) is a lazy slob watching kids’ TV and sleeping in the middle of the day. This is not a happy-fantasy household. This is the point at which Buzz realizes how naive he’s been all along, and even more humiliating, when he tries to fly back to his Space Ranger delusion, he winds up domesticated and emasculated as “Mrs. Nesbit.” Dang, that’s some grim pickin’s for a kid movie. Who am I supposed to root for here? Buzz, who’s destined to ruin Andy’s life, or Woody, whose selfish insecurity started the whole mess? Lasseter solves the dilemma when both men renounce their psychological weaknesses and work together to escape this terrible fate. Or rather Woody works to escape it, because Buzz can’t. He’s duct-taped to his destiny. And it’s going to kill him. Man, let’s just call it: Buzz Lightyear is one pathetic character.

Luckily Woody understands how this father thing works. He accepts and dignifies the horrible creations of his son’s immature imagination. This allows them to escape a miserable life – the horrible creation of Buzz’s immature imagination. Because dreams are for kids, you see. Adults only ruin things by dreaming. I can’t wrap up my commentary on Toy Story without mentioning the famous enduring question: What exactly are the rules about toys interacting with humans? The movie would have us believe that toys voluntarily stop animating when people are around. That’s why Woody and the mutants were able to chase off Sid, right, because they chose to break the rules? But I don’t buy it. For one thing Buzz doesn’t know he’s a toy, yet he still collapses on cue. More compellingly, even imminent death is not enough to motivate a toy to break character. This is borne out several times during the film. Based on the evidence, I’m convinced it’s an entirely involuntary phenomenon.

So how do we explain the scene where animated toys scare away Sid? That’s an interesting question. Look at it from the toys’ perspective. Any time a human can see them, they lose all bodily control. They have no choice; it’s biological. Now put yourself in Woody’s position as Buzz awaits his gruesome execution. Woody blames himself, but there’s not a damn thing he can do to stop it. He’ll never give up though, even when he’s already failed. His mind races so fast that the wheels come off. He concocts a plan that hinges on something flat-out impossible – animating in the presence of a human. As he thinks it through, he realizes it will only work if escaping the house, a goal so unattainable moments before, suddenly becomes quick work. But none of that matters now. If the only plan left is utterly insane, why he’ll just go insane. So he does.

Yes, the end of the movie is “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.” It’s Brazil performed by plastic toys. It’s Woody’s mad refusal to accept the inevitable. Remember that the next time you see the final scene, with Woody and Buzz and the gang gathered on that idyllic Christmas morning. When Andy yells “A puppy!” on the baby monitor, maybe it’s a David Lynch-style reconnection to the awful real world. Maybe Woody and Buzz’s sheepish grins are the final crack in the merciful delusion. Maybe it’s a gift that we cut to black right then, and not two seconds later when reality snaps back into place with a *bang*.

Now, let’s have some more from Toy Story 2.

Now things get interesting. Toy Story 2 was the Pixar movie that first grabbed the audience by its throat, pinned it to the sidewalk and growled “This ain’t your daddy’s half-ass cartoon shop!” in a Christian Bale Batman voice. Or maybe it was a Sarah McLachlan voice. (They’re both so sincere.) The movie starts with a giant middle finger to video games, in a Buzz Lightyear 3D platformer with graphics the industry would still murder kittens for, eleven years later. Maybe Pixar was trying to sell some real-time version of RenderMan? If so, judging by modern games, it didn’t work out.

Anyway following from the lessons of the first movie, Buzz is now a sane, well-adjusted toy. Woody is… well, maybe Woody’s mindset has changed, but there’s no way to know. He’s back to being Andy’s favorite and with no new challengers, he’s essentially identical to who he was at the start of the original. When the old Buzz proved to be a Galaxy-class loser, I guess the urgency wasn’t there. (In fact as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that he’s every bit as selfish and insecure as he was when Buzz first arrived. Does he even remember anything that happened in the other film? That question may not be as snarky as you might think.) This time around Andy’s going off to “cowboy camp” (where all the hip kids spend their summer, I’m sure). After ripping Woody’s arm, he leaves his floppy pal behind. So begins Parental Angst II: Angst Reloaded as Woody can’t keep up with his child-figure and stares his hand-stitched, polyvinyl mortality in the face. Meanwhile Andy’s mom has decided to sell a bunch of Andy’s toys while he’s gone, because Fuck that kid, I’m getting mine. Which leads to Woody being stolen by a sensitively-portrayed overweight person who collects valuable toys.

In the miscreant’s high-rise apartment, we learn that Woody is actually a rare and extremely valuable doll from the halcyon, pre-Space Age era of cowboy popularity. He’s the final piece in a collection of merchandising for an old TV show, joining a cowgirl and a tail-wagging horse and shoot, hold on a second, did I write that correctly? Pre-Space Age? Seriously? Something’s really not adding up here. Let’s review Woody’s origin. His TV series was canceled after the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Given the show’s popularity (it made the covers of Time and Life) let’s be generous and say Sheriff Woody toys might have been released as late as 1960. Toy Story 2 take place in 1994. Come on, math wizards, how old does that make Al’s collection? Holy assless chaps! Those toys are at least 34 years old!

Just how long was the Prospector’s “eternity on a dime store shelf?” And poor Jessie! She might have been “in the dark” for 25 years. No wonder she’s more unhinged than a rattlesnake’s jaw. But the interesting character is Woody. First of all, we’ve narrowed down the age of Andy’s metaphorical father. 34 sounds about right for an identity crisis. Evidently Andy got him in kindergarten, around five years old, and Andy’s maybe ten now, which puts the acquisition circa 1989. That’s at least thirty years after Woody’s Roundup was canceled. So tell me, where the hell was Woody for thirty freaking years?

Woody makes no mention of that time. At all. He doesn’t even remember the TV show, unlike the Prospector. What are we missing here? What’s different about Woody? Well, Woody has an owner. A super-special kid who makes him feel alive. But was Andy his first? If so, why would he be surprised by Jessie and the Prospector’s sad past? Doesn’t he remember his thirty ownerless years? Or if Andy wasn’t his first owner, why is he shocked that Jessie’s experience with Emily was comparable to his own? Surely he’s been around the track more than a few times. This doesn’t make sense. Woody’s no dummy. I see only one way this shakes out. Woody flat-out doesn’t remember his past. Something about having an owner, who impresses a godlike will on him year after year, overwhelms the mind of this little plastic-headed man and purges what’s come before. In fact, being Andy’s favorite, Woody’s endured a far larger dose of human psychic domination than the other toys. His concept of self has been wholly conquered by a grade school demigod. In his mind, he doesn’t exist beyond Andy.

Good Lord, no wonder he lost control of his sphincter when Buzz took over the small pond. It wasn’t just his ego – Buzz was stealing his soul. Think about that the next time you see a montage of Woody and Andy frolicking through the house. As Andy mindlessly bangs Woody around, he’s smashing Woody’s individuality to pieces. With each passing hour, Woody is strongarmed that much farther into psychic identity slavery. Andy is a goddamn unthinking mind-vampire. Even more chilling, who’s to say how often this has happened before? Did he have a previous owner who was just as super-special as Andy, but has been erased from his mind like shaking an Etch-A-Sketch? Maybe even four or five previous owners? Is he living in some twisted Playskool edition of Memento? Maybe he’ll cross paths with Barbie and think she’s crazy when she asks about someone named “Andy,” because Bonnie is now the slaveowner of his pathetic toy soul. Buzz and Slink and Potato Head, spared the magnitude of Woody’s psychic domination, can only sadly humor his latest delusion of bliss.

Once again, spitting through the holes in cartoonworld logic is entertaining and all, but the guts of a movie are its subtext. We’ve already examined the low places Toy Story went. Let’s see if the sequel can beat it in a game of allegory limbo. If you’re a parent, you know I wasn’t just waxing snide when I called Andy an “unthinking mind-vampire.” Children will tear down your psychic defenses and shred the person you thought you were. They’re Jeffrey Dahmer to a parent’s old identity. This total redefinition happened to Woody long ago, only he doesn’t realize it. The thirty-something father he represents has pegged a huge amount of self-worth on his position as the primary male role model for Andy. He’s the obsessive dad in tube socks who coaches too many little league sports. If he’s missing his cowboy hat, the world must stop until he finds it because that’s the way things are done.

But time is a mocking bastard. It makes children stronger and healthier while it robs grownups of the same. A father’s biggest worry is that his son will recognize this decay, because then he can’t pretend to be Michael-Jordan-meets-Wolverine anymore. Since his original identity is long since dissolved in an acid barrel, he’s left a miserable, gassy old cushion-cowboy. Stuck in testosterone oblivion. When Pixar had to visualize this anxiety in a single image, they chose a rip in Woody’s arm. The real-world equivalent is quite different. It affects a man’s extremity, but it has nothing to do with his arms and legs. You know it’s true. Woody’s popped seam represents losing the loop in his lariat. The rattle in his snake. The function in his junk-tion. You wouldn’t think sexual fitness would matter as a father, but the wound to his self-image is like a crack in a swimming pool: everything goes down a whole new drain. I mean crap, not only does Andy reject him from cowboy camp, but Mom sticks him on a shelf and leaves. Then he attempts a macho rescue while his arm flops around like a dead minnow. I don’t see how they can make it any clearer. Luckily a man shows up with a black doctor’s bag. Is he friend or foe?

So Woody’s been waylaid from the tatters of his self-respect as a father, to a place where not only does he have a new identity – you couldn’t cram more identity into that room with a dozen Japanese subway workers – but he’s literally the star of the whole show. He’s got the traditional trappings of a midlife crisis: a new ride (Bullseye), new male friends (the Prospector) and a bipolar party girl (Jessie). And he’s got Al, who you thought was a villain all this time, but is actually the personification of Woody’s burgeoning new self-image. Al is Woody’s yen to be desirable (he’s worth a million bucks!) and successful (can you say penthouse apartment?). He’s having a blast with his resurrected youth, but there’s a problem. He still wants to go back to Andy. Uh-oh, that doesn’t sit well with his new pals. They bag on him for it and he gets defensive. So much for feeling desired. How does that affect his metaphorical manhood? His arm falls off completely. His poor dysfunctional six-shooter is withering under the icy glares. But wait, here comes his revived confidence, Al, with the answer! Remember kids, this movie was produced in 1998, the year a certain little blue pill hit the streets and kicked off a revolution in spam filtering technology. One masterful medical touch-up later and Woody’s back in action, ready to root and toot. He even waves his baby-maker in Jessie’s face. “Hello! Hi! Hell-ooo!”

The restoration of his self-respect is complete. He’s ready to return to his duties at home. But man oh man, it’s not that easy. He has to say goodbye to that sweet bouncy redhead in the window. The Prospector, the embodiment of being older and in perfect physical condition, is all like “Dude, tell me you’re not walking away from that raggedy action to go back to the vampire and the iceberg.” But he steels himself and tries to make the break. Here we come to the pivotal moment in the movie, the scene that hikes it and the entire Pixar studio up to the next level. Let’s face it, when you talk about how good Toy Story 2 is, you’re really saying how effective Jessie’s Song is. Everything else is a skillfully-constructed stage for this number to be performed. It’s not even that interesting of a song. Randy Newman probably dashed it off in an evening while putting whiskey in his water and tossing a few more Oscar nominations into his marble fireplace. But man, Sarah McLachlin sells it like a thousand-dollar call girl, doesn’t she?

It’s all about how wonderful it is to be loved by a child and how heartbreaking it is when it ends. Jessie was, metaphorically, a young mother whose daughter bailed when she came of age. Now Jessie pines terribly for those golden days. Every time I watch that scene, I want to run and hug my children so hard their endocrine systems burst and they never grow up. I want to bury myself in warm family love and comradery.

What’s Woody’s reaction? Fuck that kid. I’m getting mine.He bails on Andy. He puts Andy through exactly the misery Jessie is feeling. He punches his kid in the soul before his kid can do it to him. Jesus, Woody is a gold-standard asshole.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s Woody’s timing that’s egregious, and what it reveals about his fundamental egocentrism. Right after Jessie’s Song? That’s ten gallons of perverse. But given his circumstances, the temptation to stay is quite understandable – fame, power, security, heritage – plus he just got his Gatling gun firing again. Does he really want to take it home and polish it alone while his wife sleeps off her latest Bacardi Breezer coma? Or should he stick around and pop off a couple hundred rounds with this high-stepping rodeo rider? A few months of reverse Jessie would shave down a lot of guilt. Sure she just smacked him with an epic passive-aggressive haymaker, but her spunk screams totally worth it. So they start acting childish and ticklish and all the dance steps that will inevitably lead to fluffing their stuffing. But middle-age crazy doesn’t come that easy! Onto the scene crashes Buzz Lightyear with the Four Dwarves of the Middle-Class Apocalypse – Stingy, Whingy, Droopy and Blob – to interrupt their High Nooner. (If anything can take the Will out of your Rogers, it’s these guys.) They’ve come at great comedic peril to bring Woody home, because nobody escapes surburbia alive, but Woody gives them the plastic boot. He’s committed to his renewed youth and success. And really, in the long run, is it so bad for him to pursue genuine self-worth again?

You know Pixar’s answer to that question.

Before Buzz is gone, Woody glimpses a recording of his old TV show and sees Sheriff Woody, a marionette, singing happily on the end of a dozen puppet strings. And it’s a whack in the sack. There on the screen is the solution to everything, a key to happiness so simple he had lost it in all the hubbub: a puppet has no cares or worries. A puppet doesn’t feel the crush of guilt or doubt or inadequacy. A puppet goes where the strings pull him, free from the awful burden of his own identity. Woody had that blissful freedom in his old life, and he almost threw it away. With a rush of relief he tells Buzz he’s coming home, and invites Jessie to come with him, because, y’know, cowgirl.

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Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.”

Ha ha ha, here it is.

Within the strange world of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, dreams are given concrete, literal meaning, and ideas are seen literally as something as potentially dangerous as a virus. There’s no indication of just how far into the future this story takes place, but it’s obvious that it’s been a while – it’s a science fiction world rife with the possibilities of the exploration of the subconscious, something that seems pretty common knowledge and yet – ostensibly,  still in their burgeoning state – such things seem to have been relegated mainly to the tools of corporate espionage, as much as we’re aware of them, in any case. Our main characters, Cobb and Arthur, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt respectively, are old hats at this game, and the former’s been at it long enough to garner a reputation as “the best in the game” – like you do; but this is a Christopher Nolan film, however. And, all it takes is a little push.

Is it strange that, in a film all about dreams – whether manufactured or real – and figments of the subconscious that the moments that take place in what is ostensibly the real-life are the most surreal and dreamlike? I have to think this is something intentional on Nolan’s part, because – while his multi-leveled dream sequences are filled with visual and narrative expansion and experimentation, they operate with what comes off initially as a very cold, antiseptic logic. It’s only later on, as Cobb’s own mental monsters start bursting these self-created universes at the seams that the pretexts of the sensical are dropped gradually, little by little. But, almost from the beginning – from the moment that they’re first woke up until all of the team has been corralled together – there’s an almost imperceptible sort of haziness to everything; strange turn of phrases that catch the audience and the characters off-guard for a moment, leaving a tonal impression on the scenes to come. Things and events seem to drop into place with the sort of coincidence that is really only found in the dreamscapes and subspaces and, more than anywhere else in the film, Nolan’s graceful-yet-quietly-sudden staccato sense of visual editing from location to location reminds one of nothing so much as the sudden, dizzying hops from context to context  that one experiences during sleep.

On the other side of the coin, while I still find complaints that Nolan’s dreams “just aren’t surreal enough” a little nonsensical, because seriously what kind of dreams are you people having, it’s very true that they operate mechanically – which is a given, in a sense, because inside the narrative it’s acknowledged that these are things being built up by a team of designers and architects to fool the Mark of their whole heist scheme, Cillian Murphy’s  character. They’re meant to be cheats, in a sense – reasonable enough facsimiles of the real world, governed by the harsh, self-contained set of rules that Cobb and his partner have set up to keep the whole thing from falling into disaster and disarray.  And, like all of Nolan’s films, the real drama within results from the inner, personal fragmentation of the main characters bumping up and breaking through their own strict self-governance, resulting in external chaos, and fire and brimstone all around. Here, such a thing is personalized in the form of the constant recurring figmentation of Cobb’s dead wife, first glimpsed only in the depths of his subconscious, locked away as a part of some intentionally half-forgotten memory – and then, constantly intruding into the coldly and almost mathematically designed  shared dreamscapes of the film’s multi-leveled heist scheme, a chaotic variable portrayed by Marion Cotillard whose attacks act as a double-edged knife toward anyone who would intrude on what “she’s” laid claim on. Although, considering that she is only a half-hollow mental representation of the memory of a loved one created by Cobb as the emblem of his subconscious, this complicates matters considerably. Enough for a future post and to spare, I think.

But, this is also Nolan’s most strongly, explicitly formal film – indeed, the whole second half is a breathtaking exercise in building convolution upon convolution while still managing to keep it within the level of clarity expected from a well-orchestrated thriller. But, he takes advantage of this in other ways, as well – several surprisingly visceral set-pieces that utilize the multi-tiered composition of the narrative, all happening at once, and all doubling in emotional and physical intensity, the farther down the levels we go. While Dileep Rao swerves through the rainy streets just one level within Murphy’s head, another level down JGL is engaging in a harsh, ugly hotel hallway brawl, suddenly complicated by the momentary absence of gravity one level up, here multiplied several times over. And, yet another level down, Cobb and co., do their best to push forward past the guarded personification of Murphy’s inner-most mental sanctum – the only one of which that feels just the slightest bit bland, if only because of the monotony of color and the weird, sudden barrage of action movie cliche’, if only for a minute or two.  Whatever minor complaints people might have had about Nolan’s brand of action filmmaking have, I’m sure, all been resolved here – in particular, what little bits and pieces we see of Rao’s chase sequence through the rainy streets of the subconscious, which is loud, stark and even sweaty (not to mention visually clear, for those of you out there and you know who you are) The culmination of all of these things one upon another results in a startlingly lyrical quality as everything slows down, and the van breaks through the bridge barrier, and JGL slowly, weightlessly moves his crew toward the elevator, all of them suspended in mid-air with a crank-handle. That last sequence is one that left me scratching my head, actually – I couldn’t figure it out; it seemed a little too seamless to be a work of CGI, and too fluid to be utilizing any kind of wire-work. I’ll admit, it stumped me. A little ways up I used the word ‘orchestrated’ in a sense to liken this to a well-made thriller – but, there really is no other word for this type of thing. It’s dazzling orchestrating, made all the more astounding in hindsight because you only realize just how daunting it is when looking back at the work as a whole – the narrative swerves and doubles back on itself, in and out, here and there. A dream within a dream within a dream, and still deeper.

Yet, with all of this excessive, almost obsessive sense of composition, I still don’t agree with those who say either the film or the characters comes off as emotionless – indeed, I think the whole thing is motivated by emotion, and it’s also where all of the drama arises from; Cobb’s raw, unchained subconscious emotion batting up against the mathematical expectancy of his mental heist-plot, the dynamics of the relationship between Murphy’s character and his father which acts as both the catalyst and the climax of the plot. And, once the film reaches that arid land of limbo, then it’s boiled down to basically all emotion, without any of the logic that had preceded it. You do find yourself feeling for and connecting with Cobb’s character, the more his story is revealed, and it’s importance becomes larger  to the scheme of things, overall. His overwhelming guilt at the memory of Mal’s death,  or the moment when he tries to reach out both to either Mal or to the older, Limbo-wearied Saito – both of them being, given your individual interpretation of the ending, which I’ll get to below, personifications of certain elements of his own subconscious – two scenes among others that are as strong as anything Nolan has done, yet.  There is a real, beating heart here, working in tandem with the brain of an algebra wizard. The characters themselves don’t really bare out what little insults of monotony have been leveled at them, either – it’s evident that all of them are possessed of internally complex, fleshed out emotional lives – something that’s either completely out in the open or, in the case of JGL’s character, hidden behind the eyes most of the time. But, every so often, as in the scene where he steals a kiss from Ellen Page’s character, there’s a real sense of fun that breaks out from behind them.

Myself, I do have one major problem with the film – and, to be fair, it is a big one, having to do with the ending. That final shot, the one that’s left audiences nationwide gasping – it feels inauthentic, unneeded for anything that the narrative requires. It’s not really an emotional or intellectual conclusion to anything – it just seems like Nolan didn’t want to leave the Cobb character with any kind of  conclusive, even ‘happy’ ending. Sure, some might say that it’s meant to imply that Cobb has resolved to let go off the inner riddle that’s been plaguing him ever since Mal’s death – the question of reality, and how does one cope with the constant perception of multiple ‘realities,’ or differentiate between one or the other – and accept what he’s been given. But, I don’t know – even that seems a little disingenuous, and if that was what was intended, then it’s not an implication that was put forward strongly enough to leave any real impression – on me, at least. Retroactively, it casts a pall over the rest of the film for me, as any bad or at least unsatisfying  ending for a film that had – up until that point – worked wonderfully. But, here it makes one go even farther and question the internal, logical conceits at the heart of the picture. And, the disconnect between the two becomes even clearer. One could cut out that final shot and not a thing would really be different about the film on a superficial level, though – so, whatever that’s worth, I suppose. Also, at certain points this almost seemed like a film paid for, sponsored by and with the total cooperation of Armani and Rolex. These people are so, so unbelievably well-dressed – all the time. Everywhere. It’s eye-catching, but –  a Hawaiian shirt would’ve been nice, here or there.

Nolan’s winning streak of combining auteurism with a true sense of genre subversion and visceral action-movie prowess hasn’t been seen since at least the eighties. Let’s hope it continues for a good, long while.

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“Tired Feet Syndrome” – August 21, 2010

Well, the last few things I’d mentioned and a couple of other potentials are currently being tossed around the management behind Slant’s The House Next Door – although, they’ve already got more than their fair share of writ about Nolan’s Inception from every possible angle, so that’ll either go up here or on Blogcritics, along with a look at Michael Winterbottom’s uneven, though nonetheless unnerving for it,  piece of psychodrama The Killer Inside Me.  Those’ll be around in a few days – but, at current I want to talk about something else.

Mike Stoklasa’s name is making the rounds everywhere on the internet recently, it seems – predominantly for his Red Letter Media series of reviews under the guise of 119 year old grandfather-cum-monster Harry S. Plinkett. And, to be sure, they’re all great stuff – any one of them, but especially his reasonably epic hour and a half long examinations of the first two Star Wars prequel films, are prime examples of the New School of internet filmmaking, as concisely edited and tightly put together as any theatrical documentary.  But, let’s not forget he’s done a bunch of other stuff too, this guy. And, one of those things that I’ve been obsessing over a little bit these last couple of days is his micro-sitcom The Grabowskis, which is  something very much like a Married With Children as conceived by David Lynch. And, it’s quite possibly one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a good while.

It’s a strange, potent mix of non-sequiter, dead-baby humor and sudden, whiplash turn on a dime subversion – all so obviously cartoony and over-the-top that there’s no risk of any real disquieting pause at any of the implications held therein; the couple’s baby is an obviously plastic doll that looks like it was pulled from out of some toy-store dumpster somewhere, giving off  occasional coos and cries so shrill and exaggerated that it’s almost nightmare-fuel, coming from its dead, plastic eyes and unmoving mouth. Everyone indulges in a violent, bloody slapstick to be redeemed like Looney Tunes characters episode after episode –

– which is, I think,  one reason that certain episodes, like the Chad Vader and Hardware Store ones from the final season, are so effective. We become used to these zany, weird and obviously comedic characters acting in ways that don’t at all seem self-serious that when, for example, the wife receives news that “her entire family was killed,” the couple responds by breaking down and weeping in a fashion so  remarkably prolonged and  down to earth that it kind of takes us by surprise. It’s a weird splash of cold reality to the face – and, just for a minute, we start to reconsider everything else we’d seen before. The husband, Cliff’s actions and disregard toward the baby and his wife (who’s really only known as Honey – first it seems like a term of endearment, but no really, that’s her name), and so on, which were up to that point something that was treated as purely and blackly comedic starts to look a little sociopathic. And, this continues in the Hardware Store episode – where, what begins as  an initially outright comedic kind of thing with some general sitcom-esque dialogue suddenly becomes on the turn of a phrase a mind-bending, Lynchian nonsequential nightmarish chase sequence, which further casts the husband as some kind of psychopathic monster, now shambling and bow-legged, not unlike what the Plinkett character would become later on – who seemed to be, at that point, mostly an occasional bit character played by Rich Evans without the mushmouth tobacco-chew tang provided by Stoklasa.

There also seems to be some occasionally touched-on themes of real neglect, never fully in the dialogue and never so seriously that it takes you out of the moment – but, a large point is made that, even though the couple at the center of the series depends largely on welfare and state services and live in a pitted-out ghetto neighborhood, they somehow seem to have enough money for Bluetooths and IPhones, which they constantly disregard as if they were reusable plastic toys, as well as all manner of booze and drugs which, speaking from experience, can usually run you a fair bit of money, or horse cock, especially in the ghetto. This is something that kind of comes full circle in the last episode of the series –  all throughout the running time, we’re reminded that the baby’s on the counter just behind them, something they seem to be only vaguely aware of . The final shot sees the husband run back into the apartment, right past his baby in full view, and grabs the toaster off the top of the fridge, after which he promptly runs back out.

And, then the baby promptly catches on fire. See this show. Do it here.

The Hardware Store

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Aaron Schoenke’s “Batman: City of Scars” @ Blogcritics

Well, readers. I decided to try something different – in keeping with what seems to be an unintentional focus on the superhero genre on my blog these last few posts, I thought I’d take a look at something that every other fanboy I know has been clamoring about, over the last couple of days. It’s a fan-film (!) that’s been getting a lot of hoo-ha and attention since its release, Aaron Schoenke’s “Batman: City of Scars.” And, while I can’t say much for it in a narrative or actorly sense, visually it’s an astounding piece of work, especially when you consider it had a budget just this side of what Kevin Smith had to use on Clerks – you can find my full review here, at Blogcritics.

Give the man a cigar.

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Greens and Reds and Golds – June 12th, 2010

Alright, alright. I’m not dead – it’s been a bunch of trouble over nothing, this last week, I’ll say. All of it due in no small part to the local branch of AT&T – and, this is the third time something like this has happened, but never for as long as an entire week. So – I’m gonna throw my hat in. I’m going to boycott these rancid, poncing fuckers even as I piggyback off their service. It’s a broken down system that they’re perpetuating, and it must needs be either fixed or torn away completely. But, enough of this – let’s get down to the bid’ness.

Jon Favreau’s sequel to his exuberant, unabashed popcorn movie adaptation of Marvel’s Iron Man character is a fair bit less internally focused than it’s predecessor – in fact, in certain places it comes off as something of a real narrative mess. But, it’s the old-Hollywood rapport between Downey’s Tony Stark and the rest of the supporting cast that shines through and yet still manages to tie it all together, as the end comes rolling around. Favreau’s decided to built his sequel off the ground built by the various implications left by the first film’s ending – Stark finds himself at the behest of Congress and the internal back and forth mongering between himself and competing private arms dealers, even as he becomes an even larger public icon as Iron Man, bringer of world peace. Like the previous film, Favreau eschews paying any real attention to the political undertones that are kind of inherent in the character and the context of the story he presents, sweeping them all in varying degrees of obviousness under the rug, deciding instead to go full steam with the bombast – and in this, the film one-ups the previous film with considerable aplomb. Though the climax of the film might feel a bit too familiar for some – see, this time it’s not just one big robot, it’s like a lot of them, right – there are enough visceral moments between that push the film forward. Favreau’s direction can sometimes be surprisingly wooden when he isn’t confronting a situation where something blows up, however – he’s happy enough to rely on his actors to keep the scene going, which is fine I s’pose. But, it’s astonishing the contrast that’s created between a rather staid scene between Tony Stark and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and the sudden, harsh handheld attitude presented when Mickey Rourke’s silent antagonist Ivan Vilch breaks out of jail, the camera tracking him through the prison hall as plumes of smoke and flame frame him in sudden silhouette. Or, the finale – as Iron Man and Don Cheadle’s War Machine find themselves racing around Stark Expo. The camera never once settles, and yet never falls into unnecessary frenzy. Favreau seems like a director who’s made for this kind of thing – if he could bring the same feeling of excitement to his direction of more implicit, personal scenes, then there’d be a stronger narrative and emotional balance to the film. Oh, and Don Cheadle doesn’t take to the Rhodey character nearly as well as Terence Howard did – and Mickey Rourke makes the film with his idiosyncratic peculiarity of a villain, a man of short words and shorter tempers. He acts like a stone rock, unmoving in a film constantly on the move.

There’s probably never going to be a stronger implication of how the general attitude towards superhero films has changed in the last six years than in the reception toward Ang Lee’s Hulk film. It’s easily one of the most overlooked films in this newest up-and-coming genre – and, like most films that have been felled by similar fates, it was a combination of circumstances that did this one in during its first run, not the least of which could be said to be that old enemy of the director, studio-mandated misadvertising. But, it also seems to go a bit farther than that. Released in 2003 on the cusp of Bryan Singer’s more viscerally driven X-Men 2, and in the middle of the hype for Sam Raimi’s second over-the-top, cartoony installment of his Spider-Man saga, the film presented itself as an idiosyncrasy – half dedicated to the Jungian father-child relationship between Bruce Banner and his father at the core of the film, and at other times to the Hulk as persecuted giant-child, bounding from quiet desert cliff to cliff. When he responds to an attack, there’s not a lot of strong Jekyll-Hyde anger there – instead, the impression created is more like an angry toddler, almost. Screaming and shouting at his attackers, pounding his fists and feet on the ground. Ang Lee places a strong emphasis on emotional lyricism, shifting and moving through rather than from scene to scene, from the internal emotion of Nick Nolte’s face as he reveals his monstrous secret to Liz Tyler’s Betty Ross – on his eyes, and the twitches of his face, here and there – and to the external, as the Hulk escapes from the underground Army facility. Indeed, Lee integrates the internal and external psychosis of the character through his strong set-pieces in such a way that he’s created what can be called a true psychological action film – representing the harsh emotional reactions of Bruce’s character in a constantly moving kaleidescope of fragmented imagery, and this pours over into Lee’s stylistic approach to the film as well, the often-maligned comic book panel look, not at all dissimilar to that used in Photos by Barry Perlus, albeit in a more self-conscious four-color light. At times, this can get to be a little much – there’s sometimes too much in one frame to pay attention to at once, and a frenzy occurs. But, it’s quickly cooled – and, Lee finds a way to milk the device for as much emotional resonance as he can, contrasting faces against each other within the same frame, one on top of another; as in the climax of the film, which begins with Bruce against his father, set against the almost stage-like backdrop that comes down mainly to two stage lights and a couple of chairs. Nick Nolte’s David Banner is one of the most under-appreciated performances of – well, a long while, at least. Through tone of voice and twitch of eye, we’re constantly informed of the intellectual machinations of this man, a true monster that is, at the same time, made just the tiniest bit sympathetic through the quakes and breaks in Nolte’s voice. Perhaps it’s intentional, another trick of his. Or, it might even be a true example of his sanity breaking through. He’s given some of the longer monologues of the film, and Lee films these most often in long, unbroken shots, allowing Nolte’s old, soulful faces to fill the screen, now course and hairy, almost a pastiche on the common image of the Mad Scientist. He’s countered not without measure by Eric Bana’s turn as Bruce Banner, a man so constantly emotionally repressed since early childhood that, when something does break through, it comes like a thundershock – a loud scream, breaking the intentional monotony that had marked the character before, leaving the character half-fainted, exhausted in his chair afterward. In this light, certain critics claims that Bana is wooden in the film seem disingenuous, since it’s clearly something the film textually acknowledges, and utilizes. Liz Tyler tells David Banner that all he’s given his son is a great fear, “fear of life,” something that only really vanishes when he goes green. Lee sees the relationship between the two of them as something resembling a Greek tragedy, and this is made explicit during the final moments of the film, where Bruce as Hulk and his Father take to the skies, embodied within the clouds and the lightening itself, in a series of astonishingly painterly tableaux. And, then underwater – where the scale shifts, and the Hulk is no longer the largest body in the frame, now a tiny speck battling the waters themselves. If this film were released, like, now – I have no doubt that there’d be no end to the praise rained on it; as it stands, it’s right in the middle of one of those great critical reappraisals that happens every so often to certain films, years after their release. More than deserved.

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Cory McAbee’s “Stingray Sam.”

Originally published at Chazz Lyon’s Gone Cinema Poaching – and, look how that went. Still looking for a good home for the interview.

With their 2001 release, The American Astronaut, Bobby Lurie and Cory McAbee introduced the festival-going audience to a peculiar vision of space, an high-bounding, exaggerated vision of the same kind of dusty frontier-town seen in things like Joss Whedon’s Firefly or Peter Hyam’s Outland – taking the use of Western (the genre, y’see) iconography up past eleven on the dial, and then breaking it off, filtering in elements of the older, American Studio musicals of the late forties and fifties, along with the stark black-and-white angles and bleak lighting of Film Noir; what resulted was compared to early David Lynch and Salvadore Dali upon release, among others – and since then, it’s become a midnight movie mainstay  around the country. I’m still not quite sure it’s as rocksteady as their most recent work, however –

Stingray Sam is another look at this world – this one released in six-minute serialized segments in front of festival showings of films like District 9 – but, one with some implicit heft under all that heavy formalism this time around. McAbee, again doubling as both director and the actor behind the face of the main character, places his narrative within the framework of a universe suffocated by corporations – and, unlike so many other, ostensibly similar, science fiction films, he does so with a strikingly subtle sense of humor not too far from that found in the works of Douglas Adams – a dry, deadpan wit manifesting itself in an awkward, showy handshake that goes on too long or in the ludicrous contrast of a spurs-and-hat cowboy flying a ramshackle spaceship; each segment begins with an advertisement from Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco, which pervades the walls and the street corners of the film on every side. But, all is implicit – and, McAbee goes a great length to parallel his attempt at social critique with the more personal relationship between Stingray Sam, The Quasar Kid (portrayed by gleefully idiosyncratic newcomer “Crugie”) and the young girl they’ve been asked to rescue, which is something that carries well past the screen if only due to the young actress’ (who is, in fact, McAbee’s daughter, I believe) striking doe-eyes.

Given the duo’s roots in The Billy Nayer Show, this -like the duo’s previous film – is a strong, bounding musical – and, like its attitude toward both science fiction and the Western, this element seems to owe far more to the older, more formally rigorous strand of musicals like The Music Man or It’s Always Fair Weather that were popular in the fifties, giving the whole film an implicit sheen of fifties iconography, all over;  though here, it’s all been filtered through a pungent mix of rockabilly and Buck Rogers, hard blues and Surrealism, and even a little Ed Wood in its penchant for the self-consciously low-budget and bizarre, something that is especially obvious when Sam and Quasar reach the Prison Planet and meet its genetically enhanced ruler, who seems like something of a camp mix between John Waters and Dudley Manlove’s Eros. There’s no unifying sound, here – and, there isn’t supposed to be. The first segment begins with a seemingly frivolous showtunes –esque number in a dingy bar on Mars, one that’s book-ended on the stage by one of the most hilariously laconic pair of female dancers I’ve ever seen; and the second segment gives us the alternatingly slow and punchy rhythmic and rhyming country song, “Fredward.” The rest of the film follows suit – a soft old-timey guitar lullaby whose lyrics become increasingly nonsensical upon examination, and so on. There’s at least one number per segment, and it’s a conscious hodge-podge of musical styles bumping up against each other, constantly evolving.

The film finds itself given a droll narration by David Hyde Pierce, who offsets the film’s constant spurt of manic energy with his casual, almost coolly intellectual lack of interest – yet, there’s a bit of rueful sadness evident in his voice, especially near the beginning of the first segment, as he recounts the history of Mars’ fall from burgeoning interstellar center to a wasteland begotten by corporate sponsorship. He’s the biggest name on the roster it seems, having met the duo through festival showings of their previous work. If the film(s) sense of snark begins to grow too much at times, Pierce is always there to counter it, and to bring it back down. The duo has another something-or-other in the works, a Werewolf picture that promises to be more ‘serious in tone.’ I’m going to miss the secret handshakes.

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone @ EInsiders

It took them a little while longer than usual, but it’s up – my final piece on the Dallas International Film Festival for EInsiders, attempting to examine in some measure Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, a film whose praises are sure to be sung by many when it reaches wide-release, whenever that might be. You can check it here.

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Derrick Borte’s The Joneses @ EInsiders

– which you can read here.

All around, this was just an unpleasant screening, even apart from the movie itself. I ended up having to mace this one obnoxious fucker sitting beside me because he kept laughing – into my face. It hadn’t happened yet, but I think this may be the beginning of my crude contempt for the bourgeoisie.

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Mark Landsman’s Thunder Soul @ EInsiders

You can read my review of Mark Landsman’s outrageously good documentary here, at EInsiders.


First Couple of Pieces For GCP Up, Finally

Ahoy all,

For those a-wondering at its sudden absence from the front page, my interview with Bobby Lurie of The Billy Nayer Show – along with a review of his and Cory McAbee’s most recent effort, Stingray Sam – can be found over on Gone Cinema Poaching. Go take a looksee – they’re real doozies, the pair of them.

The Interview

The Review