Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Can’t Stop the Music (1980)

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When you start to become a movie fan, just as you hear about the great movies of the past, you hear about the movies that are infamous for just how bad they are. One of such films is Can’t Stop the Music, the 1980 Village People vehicle that Nathaniel Rogers picked for the April Fool’s edition of his wonderful Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. In case you were wondering, the movie is just as ridiculous as you’d expect. The script is horrendous, the performances bad all around, and while your enjoyment of the music will depend on your personal feelings towards disco (and the Village People), there is no denying that there is worth in watching this movie. I mean, who doesn’t prefer an entertaining and interesting failure to a boringly mediocre movie. I would watch this musical ten more times before I watch Darren Aronofsky’s Noah again, for example.

Picking the best shot of Can’t Stop the Music proved to be surprisingly hard. There are just too many ridiculous things going on in this movie. I suppose the most famous part is the raunchy “YMCA” sequence, but you have lots of equally bizarre things to pick from, like the all-white milk shake dance, Steve Gutenberg’s childishly enthusiastic dancing, Valerie Perrine’s eerily constant smiling, and Bruce Jenner playing a square that suddenly decides to wear what is basically a crop top. Just the opening scene (pictured above) is fantastic, as it features Gutenberg rollerskating around New York City.

The thing that ultimately got to me while watching Can’t Stop the Music is that I couldn’t grasp just how self-aware the movie is. The horrible initial reviews, and its reputation as the first winner of the Razzie award for Worst Picture sugges the people involved didn’t know what movie they were making. But then, there’s a scene like this:

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That is Steve Gutenberg and Valerie Perrine on their knees, unbuttoning Bruce Jenner’s pants after he spilled hot lasagna all over himself. If that isn’t the filmmakers catering to the audience that, frankly, would love the campy qualities of a movie starring the Village People, then I don’t know what that is. This shot is the Rosetta stone to understanding the pleasures of Can’t Stop the Music. I think it’s ridiculous that someone would give this movie a bad review, or that it would even call it bad, considering how perfect it is in its tone and sensibility. And if the people involved didn’t know they were making a future camp classic, well, then this might very well be one of the most fascinating movies ever.

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Noah: I’m Starting to Believe This Guy Might Not Have a Sense of Humor

Noah

Here’s what I don’t know: I don’t know if Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is the most pretentious and self-serious movie I have ever seen. That it is an incredibly pretentious and self-serious movie… of that I’m absolutely sure.

For the first two thirds of the movie, Noah is a relatively straightforward retelling of the Biblical text on which it is based. It takes its fair amounts of liberties in the way it interprets and stretches what is a fairly brief part of the book of Genesis into a feature-length film, but it is not until well into the final third, once the flood comes, that Aronofsky’s intensions in telling this story become apparent. Noah (Russell Crowe) is a tormented hero, trying to live with the internal conflict of not knowing how to reconcile the fact that he is the one chosen by God to execute his will with his earthly emotions. When Crowe was announced as the star, he struck me as pretty uninspired casting, but he is actually the perfect (if expected) pick to bring this man to life. His is actually the only truly good performance in a film that is otherwise populated with such a cold and uncharismatic cast as Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson (who disappoints after giving such a lively performance in last year’s The Bling Ring) and Logan Lerman, who would be the most vanilla actor around if it weren’t for Douglas Booth, who is also in this movie. It’s a shame that his performance gets lost in a movie that is basically another big boring typical Hollywood movie.

It always seemed a little weird that a big studio like Paramount was giving a filmmaker of such particular sensibilities as Aronofsky more than 100 million dollars to make a Biblical epic. A push on part of the studio to get as big an audience as possible for the film was something that I was expecting, but I didn’t think it would be this extreme. There is little that separates Noah from the recent, mediocre, sword-and-sandal epics we’ve been getting (such as Wrath of the Titans or Pompeii). Whatever personality can usually be found in a Darren Aronofsky movie is buried under a bed made out of every cliche in the 21st Century blockbuster handbook.

This version of ancient Biblical times feels more like the a generic stand-in for a period piece, than the work of a creative person. Everyone is white and speaks with an english accent, they live in a post-apocalyptic-looking world of dark sand and lone green peaks, and they wear anachronistic clothing that looks remarkable similar to contemporary v-necks. Add to that the trendy hand-held camera and the ridiculously overused orange and teal color palette and you’ll get an idea of how boring and uninspired Noah looks. Of the movie’s visuals, there is element that works is the addition of a group of fallen-angels-turned-rock-giants named The Watchers. It’s not the presence of these creatures (which some people have said look a lot like stone age Transformers), but the decision to animate their movement in a way that evokes stop-motion animation and, in an epic like this one, the work of Ray Harryhausen. Thus, Noah evokes these cheesy fifties epics while not having half the personality or excitement for cinema that they did.

The problem here is the relentlessly serious tone that prevails throughout the movie. Giant rock monsters and flocks of animals solemnly marching towards a giant boat suggest ample room for experimentation, but Aronofsky’s movie is so lifeless. Everything is dour, and serious, and vaguely prophetical. In this way it reminded me of two equally flawed movies: Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 BC, with its endlessly generic classic epic talk, and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, with which Noah shares maybe a stronger resemblance as far as big Hollywood movies that are way too serious go. Also, even if the director might be trying to do something different, Noah follows the plot structure of an action or disaster movie a little too closely. From using Crowe’s Gladiator past to turn Noah into an action hero to having a cartoonishly evil, Tubal-cain (played by Ray Winstone) antagonist that provides the movie with a final violent confrontation, all just feels a little too familiar.

The Aronofsky-Nolan comparison may be obvious (I’m certainly not the first person to make it), but also telling. They are both directors who broke through with independent films and later decided to take Hollywood’s big piles of money in order to direct ambitious projects. They also share certain tonal similarities, including certain self-seriousness and lack of humor in their movies. There is the occasional funny line here and there (even in Noah), but for the most part everything that is being said is very important, and things like people dressing up as bats should be taken seriously. That self-imposed importance is something that I don’t like about Aronofsky’s early work (especially Requiem for a Dream), but the director grew on me with his latter films. The Wrestler was refreshingly stripped-down and naturalistic while Black Swan (which I still think is his best film) was a glorious match between psychological thriller and camp sensibilities. Noah, however, has him going back to the days in which everything he does is supposed to be the best movie ever made.

Grade: 3 our of 10

Disney Canon: Bolt (2008)

Bolt

I didn’t know about this at the time, but here’s the interesting behind-the-scenes story of Bolt’s production. The movie was originally titled American Dog, and was going to be Chris Sanders’s -and co-director Dean DeBlois’s- follow-up to their successful Lilo & StitchIt was reportedly the story of a Hollywood dog named Henry, who accidentally finds himself in the middle of the Nevada desert, where he learns the values of small-town living. Rumor has it John Lasseter wan’t a big fan of Lilo & Stitch, and so when he became chief creative officer at Disney, he wasn’t very happy with Sanders’s new project. Just like he did with Meet the Robinsonshe gave bunch of notes on what should be changed about American Dog, including the Southwest setting, which was deemed too similar that of the movie Lasseter himself was directing: Cars

Needless to say Sanders wasn’t very pleased with these demands. He was crafting a movie full of weirdly comedic characters with a Stitch-like sensibility, and here was Lasseter -a man who had been vocal about disliking his most successful movie- telling him to make it sweeter and softer. I guess they fought, because Sanders decided to take his business elsewhere. Things ended up pretty good for Sanders, who went on to work at Dreamworks, where he directed How to Train Your Dragonwhich was not only a huge hit, but still the best movie in that studio’s filmography. As for American Dog, it got a couple new directors -Byron Howard (who went on to direct Tangled) and Chris Williams (who is directing the upcoming Big Hero 6)- as well as a new title: Bolt. 

Like I said before, I was pretty much completely ignorant about the movie’s history when I first saw it. The trailers and promotion weren’t very promising. I was already disappointed by the direction Disney had taken at the time, and Bolt didn’t look much better. A movie about a talking dog starring the celebrity voices of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, coming at the end of a decade so plagued with mediocre animated movies starring talking animals, wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to. But the reviews were largely positive, and since that year’s Kung Fu Panda had proved that funny animals could be done right, I was willing to give Bolt a try… And really liked it!

This is the first time I watch the movie since late 2008, and almost six years after the fact, I can’t help but look at Bolt in quite a different way. First of all is the fact that I now know how Disney would get its critical and commercial groove back in the following years (Bolt was by all accounts a hit, but nothing compared to some of the movies that followed it, especially last year’s Frozenwhich just unseated The Lion King as the company’s highest grossing hit). This shouldn’t really affect my appreciation of the movie, but a lot of my affection for it had to do with how surprisingly gratifying it was to see Disney make a really good movie again. I didn’t absolutely love it back then, and I still like it now, but a few years of hindsight make the movie’s successes and shortcomings more apparent.

So, in its final form, Bolt could easily be described as The Truman Show meets The Incredible JourneyOur protagonist is the eponymous dog (John Travolta), who is also the start of a fictional television show in which he fights characters such as evil spies in order to get his owner Penny (Miley Cyrus), the daughter of an important scientist, out of danger. In some sort of bizarre method acting technique, the producers of the show keep Bolt thinking he is actually living the show, which has understandably made him quite paranoid. So much so that, one night, thinking his girl is in danger, he escapes and somehow ends up alone in New York City. Eventually, he teams up with a cat named Mittens (Sussie Essman) and a hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton), who also happens to be his biggest fan, as he makes his way back to Penny.

The weakest part of Bolt is everything that has to do with the Hollywood satire. It is, frankly, not very original in its portrayal of show business as incredibly frivolous and money-oriented, and it certainly doesn’t help that this part focuses on the humans, which are, by far, the worst realized characters in the movie. There isn’t much to their personality (insensitive agent, hard-ass network executive), their design isn’t particularly stylish, and the character animation is very simplistic, almost static. Most of it also relies on insider jokes about Los Angeles culture, which aren’t necessarily bad, but don’t feel particularly fresh or funny. Take, for example, this scene featuring a group of typically Californian pigeons trying to pitch a movie idea to our hero.

The curious thing about this scene is that, while not being particularly funny, it does showcase one of Bolt‘s biggest strengths. Animation is clearly the best possible medium for “animal acting”, thanks for it giving the possibility of total control over what are usually incredibly difficult creatures to train, and yet, we so rarely see animated movies that actually animate animals as such. Great examples of delicately and accurately animated cartoon animals include Bambi and Lady and the Trampbut especially nowadays, it’s very difficult to find that amount of detail put into the way animals move in our animated movies.

Bolt has carefully animated animals to spare. Just in that clip, you can notice the heads of the pigeons realistically moving back and forth. The best job, however, is done in the lead characters: Bolt and Mittens. This is crucial to the success of the movie, since Bolt’s character arch is basically him getting to know what it’s like to be a normal dog. It sounds a little ridiculous that one would make a movie whose emotional core essentially deals with the nature of being a dog. Surely there’s room to make a reading about this dog identity crisis standing in for letting children be children or some such message, but Bolt is surely specific enough in its canine understanding, that one can’t help but feel moved by the joy Bolt gets out of understanding the simple pleasures that come from feeling the wind in his face, or chasing a stick.

Beyond the protagonist’s self-discovery, the heart of the movie lies in the relationship that develops between him and Mittens. Actually, it’s this street smart cat, that ends up being the star of the movie for me. You see, for long stretches of the film, especially the first half, when Bolt is in a Buzz Lightyear-like state of not realizing he is living a fantasy, he come across as not very likable, and also kind of ridiculous. It’s the cleverness and desperation for surviving her encounter with this mad dog that makes Mittens the most relatable character of the movie. Not to mention her amusingly sarcastic attitude. I am also a sucker for the design of the character, with her incredibly thin body (appropriate for a cat who must fight every day for her food) and her big, green, eyes.

I also get a pretty big kick out of Disney playing with the fact that the studio has, for so long, been so much more sympathetic to dogs than it has been to cats. And although the movie has Bolt’s name, and it begins and ends with his relationship with Penny, it’s really Mittens journey from house cat to street cat to house cat again that excites me the most.

Next Time: Disney went back to both traditional animation and fairy tale heroines with The Princess and the Frog

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: L.A. Confidential (1997)

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This is an entry for the amazing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, hosted by Nathaniel Rogers over at The Film Experience

I wanted to marry my choice for the best shot of L.A. Confidential with this particular viewing of the film, and the biggest thing I took out of if (besides gaining even more admiration for Dante Spinotti’s work  as the movie’s cinematographer) was Kevin Spacey’s performance. I’ve never been a big Spacey fan, having grown up in his über-hammy post-American Beauty days, so I always am surprised when I actually like him in something. That is why I must say that I love him in L.A. Confidential. It is without a doubt my favorite performance of his, so I wanted to pick a shot that showed both the awesomeness of Kevin Spacey’s character (fame and glamour-loving cop Jack Vincennes) and the amazing visual work done in the movie. The perfect shot came very early in the film:

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A classically colorful Hollywood movie theater in the background. The best representation of the magic of the dream factory. And in the foreground, like a twisted film director, Vincennes gives out orders, setting everything up for what is essentially a fabricated arrest. They are making news just like they make movies.

Not only do I love the concept of the shot, but its beautiful use of widescreen. That composition, with a central vanishing point and the shot vertically divided into thirds. There is a grand, and eye-pleasing element to it. I also love how Vincennes is shot from a low angle, making sure we know how much he revels in being a celebrity, and how he may say he wants to get over with this quickly, but he knows this is the kind of thing that keeps him part of the Hollywood glamour he enjoys so much.

Muppets Most Wanted: Are These The Muppets That I Used to Know?

The Muppets Again

I liked The Muppetsdirected by James Bobin and starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams, so much that it made my list of the top ten movies of 2011. As a lifelong fan of Jim Henson and all of his creations, I was absolutely ecstatic with the creative success of a movie that would introduce Kermit and the gang to new audiences, and most importantly, make me able to see more productions involving these characters that I love so much. Most of the creative team from The Muppets comes back for Muppets Most Wanted. Bobin directs again, he co-writes the script with Nicholas Stoller (who wrote the previous movie with the curiously absent Jason Segel), and Bret McKenzie, from Flight of the Conchords fame, comes back as composer of seven new songs. These people nailed the anarchic yet warm spirit of the characters so well in The Muppets that it is with deep grief that I have to announce that Muppets Most Wanted just doesn’t work nearly as well.

The movie picks up at the exact moment where The Muppets ended, as the Muppets realize they have just finished their first movie in years, and don’t really know what to do next. The answer comes fairly quickly, and our heroes engage in a song number called “We’re Doing a Sequel”. This song (which is the best of the original compositions) starts the movie in a very welcome and faithful note to the characters’ nature, harking back to the meta-commentary at the beginning of The Great Muppet Caper, where Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo interact and read the opening credits. The plot of the movie also suggests that Most Wanted would like to be the Muppet Caper of this new generation of movies, as it features the Muppets embarking on a mysterious and action-packed adventure through Europe.

It also takes inspiration from The Muppets Take Manhattan, separating Kermit from the rest of the Muppets, so that they can be wild and unrestricted without his voice of reason. In Manhattan he got hit by a car and got amnesia, in Most Wanted, he is kidnapped, sent to a gulag, and replaced by his doppelgänger: criminal mastermind, and most dangerous frog in the world, Constantine. That is a dynamic that has worked before, since there is inherent drama in putting Kermit in danger, considering he is the only Muppet with a strong enough personality and set of skills to keep the band together. With this foundation, the movie can have as much fun as it wants. There is some genuinely hilarious stuff going on in Muppets Most Wanted, but it is also a movie plagued with problems.

The first problem is a tricky one to talk about, since it might not even be the movie’s fault. It might have been something that just happened in the theater where I saw the movie, but the sound mix was awful. The music and the sound effects were too loud, and the voices too low, I had to really force my hearing to understand what the characters were saying. It is well known that one of the first things you learn at film school is that bad audio will throw audiences away much faster than a low quality image ever will, and in the case of Muppets Most Wanted it threw me immediately. I would like to know if anyone else had this problem as to be sure it wasn’t something that happened only at my screening. Curiously, I had the same problem when I saw The Muppets in theaters. As I did with that movie, I will rewatch Muppets Most Wanted when it comes out on DVD to see if the problem persists.

In any case, that audio problem got me off to a rough start, but it’s something that could potentially be fixed in future viewings. There was still something bigger that bothered me about Muppets Most Wanted. First, I thought it might be that the humor was a little bit of a letdown. For every moment when I laughed at loud, there were a lot of jokes that didn’t land, or that were perfectly funny… until they go on for too long, or are punctuated by another comment that just ruins the flow and the humor. A very clear example involves Gonzo’s idea for an act called the “indoor running of the bulls”, which only gets the green-light when Kermit is absent, and is a total disaster. “Who could have foreseen this?” asks Gonzo, a pretty ridiculous and funny line that is ruined when Salma Hayek, in one of the many celebrity cameos, adds an “I did. I saw this coming”. There is an irritating amount of this going on in the movie, but at the same time, Muppets Most Wanted features three of the funniest moments I’ve seen in a movie so far this  year, so I can’t really fault the movie for trying too hard with its comedy (If you’ve seen the movie and are curious about which they are: one involves the swedish chef, another a cameo by Danny Trejo, and the other comes midway through Miss Piggy’s big song).

After a lot of thinking, though, I landed on what exactly kept me from embracing Muppets Most Wanted: it was missing Jim Henson’s touch. The emotional attachment the talented people behind the camera had towards Henson’s creations worked wonders in The Muppets because it was a movie all about the nostalgia and love Jason Segel and Walter felt for the Muppets. Now that the items of nostalgia themselves are at the center of the movie, it’s starting to show how understanding, and even love, for the material doesn’t equal passion. Bobin, Stoller and McKenzie know these characters, what works comedically and tone-wise, but there is just something missing, and I think it’s Henson’s passion for his puppets and the art of puppeteering.

When Henson and his colleagues made the original trilogy of Muppet movies that came out between 1979 and 1984, they knew what kind of filmmaking was required for making a movie featuring puppets. There is a level of technical expertise that is not present in this new movie. Thanks to the development of green screen technology, it is now relatively convenient to shoot a movie featuring puppets. The trade off, however, is that a lot of what happens in Muppets Most Wanted looks fake, or heavily produced. I salute the fact that the filmmakers decided to go on location for a lot of the scenes, but when we see Constantine hopping and fighting jailguards, or dancing on Ricky Gervais’s head, we know that that isn’t really happening. 

Henson used to revel on the idea of making people wonder how he achieved his puppeteering effects (you might think of Kermit riding a bike in The Muppet Movie, or remember that the first episode of The Muppet Show features Kermit drinking a glass of milk), but also understood that in order for the muppets to be truly magical, there is a certain level of tactile realism that must go around them. The appeal of puppets is that they stand at the edge of the division of what is real and what is fake. Bobin is simply not as experienced at working with puppets. While he gets the anarchy in the humor of the characters, his style is also too frenetic. Everything is too loud, and big, and relentless, and his blocking, framing and editing of the characters is so overstuffed all the camera angles and quick cuts made me kind of dizzy.  

To Bobin’s credit, though, he knows that not all of the movie can be so frenetic, and he gives us some quiet and small moments that work really well. As a matter of fact, after a somewhat rough beginning, the movie really settles into an interesting pace towards the midpoint and works towards an effective final stretch. Even though there are major problems in the execution, the movie’s heart is in the right place, and there are enough funny moments to call it a bad movie. My thoughts on the movie might get warmer with further viewings, but for now, it’s just ok.

Grade: 6 out of 10

Disney Canon: Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Meet the Robinsons

I’m so glad that a recurring theme in this Disney Canon Rewatch Project has been the surprising realization that many films I once dismissed are actually far better and more interesting than I thought. I’m not gonna lie, this project started out of a sense of nostalgia for the movies I watched as a young kid and the kind of completist desire that burns in every fan’s soul. Encountering the virtues that I missed as a child provides a deep relief of knowing my love and enjoyment of these movies has to do with more complex reasons that simple childhood nostalgia. Now, in the case of Meet the Robinsons, we have something different, a movie that I had never seen, yet had dismissed nonetheless.

I know that’s not a very fair and film-critic-minded thing to do, but after the huge disappointment that was Chicken Little was the straw that broke my camel’s back, as I surrendered and decided that, maybe, it was time to give up on Disney. And it might as well have been, except that someone at Disney too saw the tepid response to the Studio’s announcement that it would only produce computer-animated movies, and the release of the horrible first film that was supposed to streamline this era, and decided that maybe that wasn’t the way to go. The big triumph for Disney came when they finally managed to strike a deal with distributing-partner-but-also-rival-who-was-constantly-outgrossing-Disney, Pixar Animation Studios. Disney bought Pixar, gave a bunch of shares of the company to Steve Jobs and promoted John Lasseter to the highest creative position they could.

I haven’t been an unapologetic fan of Lasseter’s work as creative head of Disney, but his tenure started with just the right foot. The first thing he did was announcing that Disney would go back to hand-drawn animation with the release of The Frog Prince (which would be retitled The Princess and the Frog). That in and on itself was enough to make me warm up to Disney. A couple years after the announcement, when I went to see Bolt, I was surprised and glad to see Disney was doing good movies again. And yet, had I seen the movie released between Chicken Little and Bolt, a retro sci-fi adventure titled Meet the Robinsons, I would have regained my faith in Disney sooner. It turns out Meet the Robinsons was the first movie whose production overlaps with Lasseter being at the helm. I don’t know if it’s him, or director Stephen Anderson, or someone else that had something to do with the production that I have to thank, but I’m so grateful that Chicken Little was a one-off and the studio was back on track so quickly. 

Back when this was released, I was living in Peru, so I don’t know how it might have gone down here in America, but the release strategy surrounding Meet the Robinsons was fairly muted. When it premiered, I had no idea that it was part of the official Disney Canon. It might as well have been one of those lackluster movies produced by an affiliated studio, like the unfortunate The Wild,  so I discarded it as such. The critical reaction to the movie was similarly muted, and so, I never felt the need to watch Meet the Robinsons until doing this project. I find it somewhat outraging, but not entirely surprising, that in the seven years since its release, I didn’t hear anyone recommend or say anything especially positive about this movie. So if you excuse me, I will go ahead and say Meet the Robinsons is the most underrated movie in the Disney Canon. Now, that isn’t the same as saying it’s a great movie, but while it has some pretty big flaws, Meet the Robinsons has so much to offer. Let’s get into some of the details. 

This is the story of an (you guessed it) orphan boy named Lewis, who also happens to have a very creative mind that makes him come up with crazy weird inventions that don’t usually work as well as he’d hope. This disastrous hobby of his is what keeps him from finding a couple that would warm up to him and adopt him. He decides that the way to go is to create a machine that would allow him to look at his deepest memories, and thus, will reveal the identity of his mother. It is during a school science fair in which Lewis plans to show his invention that he meets a boy named Wilbur Robinson, who not only claims to being from the future, but that Lewis must protect his faulty invention from being stolen by a creepy “Bowler Hat Guy”. That’s basically the premise of the movie, which could very well be divided into three segments. What I summarized in this paragraph would be the first segment, and also perhaps the weakest. Although it does a good job of setting up stuff that will pay off later in the movie, it also feels very familiar. Lewis is a typical children’s movie hero, and he is not all that fun or interesting.

It is worth to sit through this not-very-impressive beginning, and it’s not like it’s bad or anything. There is a lot to appreciate. First of all, you have the movie’s visuals. I didn’t write about this last week, but Chicken Little was a visual nightmare. From the art direction, to the character design and animation, it all looked cheap and amateurish. The animators must have gotten the hold of the computer software fast, because only two years later, Meet the Robinsons is remarkably slick. The art direction and character design, for example, are remarkable; inspired by Edward Hopper, Rube Goldberg and Walt Disney’s own Tomorrowland, to give an all-american, 1940s, retro-futurist vibe. The character animation is not quite there yet, which is to say some characters move better than others. Wilbur, for example, is a noticeable weak one, showing very uncanny and rigid movements. 

The biggest thing that help me get through this first third of the movie, though, and one of my favorite aspects of the whole film, is the character named Goob. He is Lewis’s roommate at the orphanage. Very tiny, and sleep-deprived thanks to Lewis’s constant work on his inventions, he is a deadpan comedic highlight. The design of the character, with huge, tired eyes and a small body, as well as the way he moves and talks all work perfectly, giving us the idea that Goob is so tired he doesn’t even have the energy to really care about what happens around him. He might very well be my favorite character, if it wasn’t for our main villain, the Bowler Hat Guy (if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know this is a somewhat problematic statement, but I’m trying to write for people who haven’t). Apparently one of John Lasseter’s notes when he saw the first rough cut of Meet the Robinsons was that it needed a better, scarier villain. Well, Bowler Hat Guy is insane and grotesque as your Disney villains cat get. Just look at the bizarre magic that happens when he and Goob share a scene a together.

That scene comes in the middle of the film’s second third, which starts when Wilbur takes Lewis to the future so he would believe and help him. This whole middle section is basically just a bunch of weird stuff going on, as Lewis meets Wilbur’s family and the Bowler Hat Guy tries to pull off his plan. The pace becomes very frenetic as Lewis is introduced to the Robinsons, which are all a bunch of weirdos. There is the problem that the movie basically stops moving the plot forward in order to introduce all these characters and their crazy antics and go on full-on comedic mode. Not all the jokes work, but there are enough funny jokes (some are truly bizarre and creepy), that it all becomes fairly entertaining. The main attraction in this second third, at least for me, is Bowler Hat Guy. We spend a lot of time with him, and he is jut so creepy and funny. He seems very much inspired by Disney’s version of Captain Hook, emphasizing the pathetic and comedic over the genuinely threatening. If he is scary, it’s not because he seems like an evil mastermind, but because he looks and acts like a freaking crazy person.

The movie’s third, and final, segment is where it shows its heart and its emotional punch. While the story of Lewis is a relatively well executed, but overtly familiar plot for children’s movies, what ultimately happens with the villain, and Lewis’s implications in this situation end up being much more complex and interesting than I would’ve expected. The movie just didn’t surprise me because I had lowered expectations, it is actually good, and actually worth watching. It’s a far more interesting film that people give it credit for, and one that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Watch it, and start recommending it.

Next Week: Talking animals in an animated movie released in the 2000s? What a surprise… but hey, Disney does it very well with Bolt. 

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which premiered exactly ten years ago, is one of the movies that I hold closest to my heart. It was one of the movies that made me love the medium. I was twelve years old when I rented this from Blockbuster and discovered what a great movie could be capable of. That first viewing was all about the structure and crazyness of the story, even though I loved it, it wasn’t until later rewatches (and me becoming older and smarter) that I started to grasp the movie’s real genius.

There is so much I could say about Eternal Sunshine, but since this is for “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”, Nathaniel Rogers’ amazing series hosted at The Film Experience, I’ll focus on the cinematography. That was a technical aspect of the movie that I, weirdly, had always taken for granted. Even though I absolutely loved the movie’s visuals, I never stopped to realize “yeah, that is some pretty amazing photography work”.

Something that might seem a little superficial, but that definitely helps the movie be as effective as it is, is DP Ellen Kuras’s perfect realization of what memories look like. For most of the movie, we are basically in Joel’s Id. The closest I have experienced to being inside someone’s Id is when I’m dreaming, and by God, does Kuras manage to capture the look and feel of what it’s like to dream. Never have my dreams looked like the polished Inception. Or the whimsical The Science of Sleep. When I dream, my world looks just as messy and scary as Joel’s memories.

My favorite moment as far as the recreation of dreams go, is one scene in which Joel and Clementine are talking while lying in bed. As Clementine starts complaining about how Joel says she talks too much, the scene slowly turns darker and a cold spotlight is thrown on the couple. This feels to me like that moment when you realize you’re actually dreaming, and everything is recontextualized. Suddenly, Joel is aware this is a memory, just like it happens to me when I dream.

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