I only hesitate to call Toy Story 3 the best in the Toy Story series because it’s been around a decade since I’ve seen the previous installments. Otherwise, this one surpasses my memories of the first two: wildly imaginative, surprisingly dark and complex, it ranks right up there with my favorites from Pixar, Ratatouille and Wall*E.
Instead of giving us a retread of the earlier films – which so many animated sequels are prone to do – Toy Story 3 jumps forward a number of years to create a whole new set of problems. It´s something a lot of Gen X/Yers can relate to: young Andy is now about to go to college; what´s going to happen to his toys?
Mom wants to clear out his room, and gives him three choices to deal with its contents: take them to college, store them in the attic, or throw them away. Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the rest of the toys prepare themselves for a long stay in the attic; hey, at least there´s those fun guys from the Christmas decorations box up there.
But through a series of unfortunate events, Andy´s toys find themselves donated to the Sunnyside, the local day care center. Everything seems nice as they´re warmly received by a roomful of happy toys: there´s a big baby doll with a lazy eye, Barbie´s Ken (Michael Keaton), and the Care Bear-like leader of the group, Lotso (Ned Beatty). But Sunnyside isn´t as pleasant as it seems, and things soon take a surprisingly dark turn.
As the characters find themselves trapped at Sunnyside, Toy Story 3 becomes a prison-movie parable; it takes things even further during a fiery garbage dump climax, during which the characters seem to accept their fate and embrace each other one last time (while the scene starts out as something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it shifts gears and might go too far as it seems to recall Schindler´s List). It´s heavy stuff, really, and not for the youngest of viewers. The recurring theme of abandonment and saying goodbye also reaches some profound depths.
But there´s still a lot of fun to be had. Director Lee Unkrich, co-director of the previous installment as well as Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc., fills the screen with a vivid imagination and joyful invention: a See N Say (“the cow goes ”) toy becomes a roulette wheel, a cymbal-banging monkey serves as alarm-sounding watchman, a Chatter Telephone whispers advice to Woody through its receiver. The new characters also bring a lot to the film, from Lotso´s tragic backstory to Ken´s rather transparent sexuality (Keaton was clearly having some fun here).
Toy Story 3 is playing in both 2D and 3D versions. I hesitate to recommend the 3D version over the 2D, if only because it seems to add so little to the proceedings. It does bring a little depth, and never draws attention to itself with anything jumping out of the screen towards the audience; in fact, after a while I had forgotten that I was watching a 3D feature. But while it blends seamlessly into the picture, I fear the overly-soft backgrounds in the 3D version detract a little from the art inherent in the animation.
Day & Night, the 6-minute short that precedes the movie in cinemas, is just as good as the feature. Directed by Teddy Newton (who voices the Chatter Telephone), it´s a retro-cool mixture of CGI and hand-drawn animation, 2D and 3D, featuring competing silent characters that represent night and day. The use of 3D here is far more imaginative than the actual movie.
Note: Toy Story 3 is playing in a Czech-dubbed version in most Prague cinemas. You can catch the 3D version in English (without Czech subtitles) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský Dům, which is currently screening it once per day at 14:20.
Early on in Joe Carnahan´s The A-Team, Hannibal Smith outlines a complex heist plan in front of his team, using little figurines on a board game-like map. Intercut with this, we have second-long clips of the plan in action; brief spurts that, we assume, are visual cues of how everything should go. Then, as Hannibal wraps up his outline, we cut to an extended climax of the heist and how everything works out according to plan. It´s a nice setup. I then waited patiently for the actual heist scene to unfold.
Only it never comes. No, the ADD-inflected A-Team delivers intercuts the setup and payoff for almost all its big action sequences at the exactly same time, resulting in a jumbled mess that delivers neither suspense nor thrills nor, despite all the explosions and crashes and gunplay, any action at all. The film only suggests action. It´s cut together like a trailer. There´s nothing going on here except the pretense of something going on.
I complain about the frenetic cinematography and editing of most contemporary action scenes, and Carnahan takes that one step further: to throw us off even more, he cuts in flashbacks and flash-forwards and quippy one-liners and bad-guy reaction shots and everything else that could be just fine surrounding the action, but has absolutely no place during the action. The A-Team shows us a punch about to be thrown, and then cuts to five unrelated shots before it connects, if it connects at all. It´s a perfectly incomprehensible clusterfuck that approaches surrealism in its ineptitude.
This can be forgiven, maybe, if the movie embraces its lunacy and gives us something truly different. Truth be told, I had fun with the over-the-top A-Team for about an hour: the ridiculous stuntwork (helicopters doing barrel rolls, a tank flying through the air using the gun as propulsion), the machismo swagger, Murdock´s one-liners. Past the hour mark, however, the movie loses all charm as it devolves into more standard action fare, and becomes positively tortuous to sit through.
The A-Team is, of course, based on the mid-80s TV show created by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, which starred George Peppard and Mr. T as part of a rogue do-good commando squad made up of four unjustly disgraced Vietnam vets. I never really watched the show, but caught enough of it to feel the goofy charm that resulted in its success, which the movie only gets half-right.
In the movie, Liam Neeson takes over for Peppard as the leader of the team, Col. John ‘Hannibal´ Smith. Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) is Templeton ‘Faceman´ Peck. UFC star Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson fills in for Mr. T as B.A. Baracus, and District 9´s Sharlto Copley is ‘Howling Mad´ Murdock. The setting is upgraded to Iraq: after a successful mission in which the team retrieves counterfeit USD and printing plates for Captain Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel) and CIA ghost Lynch (Patrick Wilson), they´re double-crossed by a team of mercenaries lead by Pike (co-writer Brian Bloom), blamed for the fallout, dishonorably discharged and sent to separate prisons.
Now they have to clear their name(s), which involves breaking out of military prison, getting the team back together, and tracking down Pike. The measures are ridiculous – the highlight, the aforementioned flying tank scene – but the direction so inept that we cannot follow the action, or derive any pleasure from the preposterousness. What we understand from the tank scene is not from what we see, but what is explained to us in a string of dialogue that continues throughout the scene. The (unimpressive) CGI, the stuntwork, and the explosions are all perfunctory; we´d understand it just as well with our eyes closed.
By the hour mark, the plot of The A-Team seems to have resolved itself. It continues anyway, stumbling over a single plot point for another 45 minutes and delivering an explosion-filled climax that is a complete disaster.
Neeson and Bradley are just OK as the more-or-less straight-faced members of the team. Jackson seems fine, but the Baracus character is a real mess: continually whining about his fear of flying, getting his ass kicked, and delivering precious little ass kicking himself. But Copley absolutely steals the show as Murdock: the one-liners whispered under his breath resonate louder than all of the faux-action and macho swagger in the film. Wilson and Bloom are also good, providing some humor; they contribute one of the film´s best scenes, an otherwise inconspicuous car ride.
By the midpoint I was half-enjoying movie; by the end I hated it. If you can forgive the film its faults (a tall order, considering this action movie completely botches the action scenes and becomes a real snooze), you´ll have a good time here. But as much as I enjoyed (or tolerated, rather) some of the individual aspects, I just can´t forgive those faults. The A-Team is the machismo-pandering equivalent of Sex and the City 2.
Ah, now here´s a movie that gets the hyper-edited action right. Of course, you can´t ask for too much: Pierre Morel´s From Paris with Love is all loud action and a louder John Travolta performance, and precious little of anything else. But hey, at least it´s competently filmed, and with junk like The A-Team masquerading as a Summer Blockbuster, sometimes that´s all you can hope for.
Just don´t go in expecting anything extraordinary; Paris doesn´t have the gripping revenge-themed plot of Morel´s last film, the surprise hit Taken, or the kinetic all-out action of his first, District 13. But it does have plenty of action, and here´s a twist: despite the fact that it´s edited within an inch of its life (to hide the fact that no, John Travolta is not an action star) I could actually decipher the action scenes and kinda-sorta tell what´s going on. The plot I´m not so sure about, but hey, one step at a time.
Jonathan Rhys-Myers stars as James Reece, an Ambassador´s aide in Paris who doubles as a CIA operative. He´s into low-level stuff – switching license plates, tailing suspects – but dreams of a promotion into seeing some real action, a dream his beautiful girlfriend Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) seems to support; she doesn´t even mind when he takes a work call right after she proposes to him.
That call from the office is the promotion James is looking for; no details on his assignment, but he´s off to the airport to meet his partner, Charlie Wax (Travolta), who has been detained after refusing to leave his backpack full of energy drinks behind. Soon the two of them are racing down Paris streets, shooting up Chinese restaurants, chasing down drug dealers.
Wait, so what´s their assignment? James is kept mostly in the dark, and so are we (a friend´s daughter overdosed on cocaine, Wax tells him, but James doesn´t buy it.) Paris keeps up the manic pace for a while, and it can be fun watching the mindless action with no pretension of a story of any significance to back it up. But eventually we need (or expect) some exposition, and when it finally does kick in, it isn´t exactly satisfying (let alone logical).
But From Paris with Love – just like Morel´s previous two films – moves at a fast enough pace that we don´t have much time to consider the story until the very end. And till then, the action is enjoyable enough in its own right for the film to skate by. I can´t stress this enough, the action scenes are competently filmed.
Travolta devours the role of Charlie Wax – wild, energetic, caustic; he lights up the screen whenever he´s around. In a nod to Pulp Fiction, he even talks about his favorite food, a “royale with cheese.” Rhys-Myers is fine, if completely overshadowed; it´s a much different film in terms of tone, but he and Travolta share the same kind of relationship Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington did in Training Day.
Is there enough in From Paris with Love to make it a good movie? No. Enough to make it a mindlessly entertaining 90 minutes? Absolutely.
“I want to kiss you now, but it smells like cheese in here.”
I knew The Back-up Plan wasn´t for me by the opening shot (which follows a crudely done animated sequence that nevertheless nicely summarizes the movie´s backstory): a lingering shot of Jennifer Lopez´s in-need-of-a-pedicure feet, elevated in the air as a sperm bank doctor injects her with semen. Apologies to Quentin Tarantino and other directors with a foot fetish, but close-ups of feet – even those connected to beautiful women – just ain´t sexy when they´re projected up on the cinema screen.
Feet, however, were the least of my worries. By the end of the film I had witnessed the most tasteless PG-13 birth scene imaginable, as a woman crouches on all fours in a kiddie pool half-full of water, bleats like a goat, relieves herself in the water, and pumps out the baby´s head – which we see in a mirrored reflection – like she´s dropping a deuce. Yes, this is played for comedy. For comparison´s sake, the birth scene in Freddy Got Fingered – where Tom Green swings a newborn around the room by its umbilical cord – was more tastefully done.
But back to the basics: the rest of the film isn´t nearly as noteworthy. Zoe (Jennifer Lopez) is a lonely pet shop owner (complete with a handicapped dog that rolls itself around on wheels and provides the requisite reaction shots) who hasn´t found the right man and, biological clock ticking, decides to artificially inseminate herself. Stan (Alex O´Loughlin) is a gruff farmer´s market goat cheese salesman. They meet one rainy day when they both get in the same cab and blame each other for stealing their ride. No, don´t tell me. You´ve seen that one before.
So Zoe and Stan start off on the wrong note. It only lasts 10 minutes, for which I was eternally grateful; I cannot take another movie where the unlikable romantic leads bicker at one another for an hour before realizing what we have known since the trailer, which is that they´re really in love. Of course, this being a contemporary romantic comedy, the story arc is dictated by some kind of bickering: in this case, because Zoe isn´t exactly sure that this guy she literally just met is ready to drop everything and become a father for her future children.
In reality, sure, this is a concern. In the view of The Back-up Plan: what a bitch. Stan is portrayed as the ultimate nice guy, doing everything he possibly can and then some out of what I guess is supposed to be ‘love´. Zoe is a paranoid airhead ready to dump his ass for the wrong choice of words.
You might have guessed it: The Back-up Plan isn´t exactly a beacon of originality. Throughout the running time we´re treated to every cliché in the book, involving pregnancy (morning sickness, binge eating, fainting at the sight of birth) or rom-com formula (meet cute, fear of commitment, break-up and back-together) or anything else (city girl on the farm, kooky old folks, doggie cutaways). At one point, a rogue conga line breaks out and envelopes our characters before they´re able to do whatever it is they had to do. I hate it when that happens.
Director Alan Poul had previously found success as a producer-director on TV (Six Feet Under). So did O´Loughlin, who I liked on The Shield. And just ten years ago, Jennifer Lopez was a talented young actress working with Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, Bob Rafelson. The Back-up Plan, a formula romantic comedy more transparent than most and usually offensively so, does no favors to anyone involved.