Pixar´s last two films, Ratatouille and Wall-E, were the kind of wonderful, transcendent animated films that Hollywood rarely sees. Their latest, Up, doesn´t quite reach those heights. Writer and director Pete Docter previously helmed Monsters, Inc. for the company and wrote the Toy Story films; co-writer and co-director Bob Peterson wrote Finding Nemo. Up isn´t a masterpiece, but it´s about on a par with those films.
The film opens with some wonderfully recreated 40s newsreel footage of Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), explorer-adventurer who travels the globe in a giant mansion-zeppelin. He returns from the mysterious jungles of Paradise Falls, South America with stories of a fantastic creature – and evidence in its dinosaur-like skeleton. When scientists disprove Muntz´s claims and publicly shame him, he takes back to the jungle, this time vowing to bring back a live specimen.
We´ll hear more from Muntz later on, but in that 40s cinema audience watching his exploits is a young Carl Fredricksen. Carl is eventually voiced by Edward Asner, but for the first ten or so minutes of the film he´s completely silent. His love of adventure brings him to the talkative Ellie, who shares his passions: they dream of travelling together to Paradise Falls and in a montage that spans 60 or so years, get married, try unsuccessfully to have children, and grow old together until Ellie dies. Heavy stuff for a kids´ film, but Pixar has never pandered to its younger audience. These early scenes are the best Up has to offer, nostalgic and endearing and quietly touching without becoming overly sentimental.
After Ellie´s death, we see Carl in his city home, right in the middle of a construction site. If you´ve seen the trailer or advertising materials for the film, you´ll know what happens next: Carl and his house take to the sky under the support of thousands of helium-filled balloons as he finally travels to the place he and Ellie dreamed of. Tagging along for the ride is stowaway boy scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), who wanted to aid Carl and win a “helping the elderly” badge to complete his master explorer status.
Carl and Russell eventually do get to Paradise Falls, where they run into Muntz and talking dogs and yes, the fantastic creature. A lot of the joy in the film is discovering the oddball places the script takes us to. Up is, at heart, an old-fashioned adventure serial, a badge it wears proudly on its sleeve.
It´s also one of two problems I had with the film. Here´s a cliffhanger adventure and the main characters are two old men, a young boy, a pack of dogs and a friendly creature, all of which are frequently put in scenes of peril. It a nice contrast to your usual adventure, and things never get too intense, but I was eventually put off by all the scenes of these weak (not really weak, but weaker than usual) characters getting shot at and dangling over ledges and hanging off a rope miles in the air. Maybe it´s my own fear of heights. Someone once mentioned to me that they found Ratatouille too violent for a kids´ film, to which I scoffed; but in Up, I can almost – almost – see it.
My other problem with the film is that the sentimentality eventually becomes a tad too obvious – at least in direct comparison with the beginning of the film, and with Rataouille and Wall-E, which were more grounded in their specific characters. Here, Carl was never able to have kids, and Russell´s father is rarely around, and we know exactly where their relationship is going, few surprises along the way.
But to compare Up to Pixar´s last two masterpieces is almost unfair. Suffice it to say that the film lives up to the studio´s usual standards, and represents a considerable step up from the animated films produced elsewhere in Hollywood (though this year, Coraline should give Pixar a run for its money).
Note: Up is screening mostly in a Czech-dubbed version on Prague screens, but you can catch it in English (with Czech subtitles) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům. The Czech dub is screening in digital 3D at selected cinemas.
James Gray has slowly been building an impressive resume of intimate New York crime dramas in Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night, films which I´ve respected and admired if not really loved. His latest, Two Lovers, abandons the crime aspect to present a kind of realist romance, and I think it´s his best yet. And it´s positively drenched in contemporary nighttime NYC atmosphere, which creates a wonderfully vivid portrait of life in the city rarely seen since 70s Scorsese or Woody Allen.
Two Lovers stars Joaquin Phoenix, in what is apparently his final acting appearance as he commits to his music career. Maybe you saw him on Late Night with David Letterman, in which he seemed to pull a Crispin Glover. This is hopefully (and likely) a publicity stunt, as Phoenix gives his one of his finest performances here as the introverted, deeply injured Leonard Kraditor, who begins the film by tossing himself into the bay at Brighton Beach in a half-hearted suicide attempt.
It´s some years after Leonard´s fiancée has left him, and he has moved back to his parent´s small Brooklyn apartment, working with his father (Moni Moshonov) at the family´s dry cleaning business. Prying mother (Isabella Rossellini) makes sure he takes his medication for bipolar disorder while keeping a close eye on his footsteps from behind a closed door.
Dad might sell the business, and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a potential buyer, has eyes for Leonard. Leonard seems to like Sandra too, though he isn´t in love with her – he doesn´t have the kind of passion for her he had for his fiancée. That passion comes back to Leonard with the introduction of Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the pretty new neighbor he´s quick to make friends with. Only problem: she sees him as a brother, and she´s currently involved with a married man (Elias Koteas).
This is the framework for your usual romance – comedy or not – the romantic triangle. In most films, the guy would get the girl he wants, the girl would find out about the other girl, the guy would make things right and be forgiven, and the other girl would be better off without him, anyway. Not here. In Two Lovers, things are as realistic as possible, even painfully so – we might hope for the romantic fantasy, but eventually get a striking dose of reality. Not harsh, or depressing – just real; this is how these things turn out.
The way Gray paints each of these characters´ relationships is the best thing about the film. Not only Leonard and the two women, but also Leonard and his parents, Leonard and Sandra´s father, Michelle and her older boyfriend. These all struck a chord with me. But the one between Leonard and Michelle really dug in – I can´t recall a film that had presented this kind of relationship so effectively, so spot on.
Phoenix gives an incredible performance, imbuing this troubled character with an empathy we wouldn´t expect; early scenes show an awkward, mumbling presence we don´t expect to care for as a romantic lead, but he´s eventually brought to life. The rest of the cast is fine, but Phoenix really shines.
And whether it´s the Brighton Beach docks, or Brooklyn apartment blocks, or upscale downtown restaurants and nightclubs, Two Lovers is just bleeding a rich and vibrant NYC atmosphere. And it´s not the 70s/80s New York that most of us know from the movies, but what the city has become over the last 20 years. This is a contemporary New York, incredibly specific in mood and personality, that I´ve experienced myself and only seen from Gray in the movies.
Also opening: Muži v říji (Men in Rut, showtimes), a new comedy-drama from director Robert Sedláček starring Jaromír Hanzlík, Igor Bareš, Jaroslav Plesl, David Novotný, Marek Taclík, and Igor Chmela. Screening in Czech.
And: August 21st has been dubbed Avatar Day, with an exclusive look at 15 minutes of James Cameron’s highly anticipated film premiering in cinemas across the globe – for free. In the US, the footage will screen at some 100+ IMAX cinemas; in Prague and Brno, it will screen at midnight in digital 3D cinemas at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům and Velký Špalíček.