Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"Stranger Than Fiction" and "Cars"

Thought I'd take a break from writin' and get in a little blog action.

Saw "Stranger Than Fiction" over the weekend. I liked it better than I thought I would. The trailer made the movie look like an uninteresting one-joke movie (not to mention a seriously and determinedly drab-looking one-joke movie), but turns out there's more to it than Emma Thompson's voice booming inside Will Farrell's head while narrating his life. Remarkably, sreenwriter Zach Helm and director Marc Forster (of "Finding Neverland" fame) find a way to make a real and poignant story out of this high-concept premise. The love story between Will Farrell's and Maggie Gyllenhaal's characters works surprisingly well and helps ground the film in an identifiable reality, which, as a general rule, the film usually runs from. There were a few inconsistencies in plot and some in character, like the way Harold Crick (Will Farrell) acts as he walks to the bus stop at the end of the film, and the fact that Dustin Hoffman, who plays a literature professor, is reading a Sue Grafton mystery and has George Dawes Green's "The Juror" on his office bookshelves, and one of the film's messages, that great art is worth more than a single human life, seems extraordinarily wrong-headed to me, but overall, this one's not bad. Worth renting.

Also saw "Cars" on DVD Saturday night. Sadly, I called this one correctly back when I saw the first teaser back in 2003 (you remember -- the one featuring Larry the Cable Guy saying "Dadgum!" as if it was hilarious). Well, it's 2006 and the finished movie never rose above the level of that teaser. Needless to say, I didn't like it. I'd say "Cars" is the weakest of the Pixar films by quite a bit. Lasseter and the gang have had much more success anthropomorphizing toys and insects and fish than they have here trying to give human qualities to frickin' automobiles. At certain points in "Cars" it's crystal clear how difficult it was for the animators to turn cars and trucks into characters an audience can care about. At times they make it work, but just as often you could see the movie creak with the effort, particularly during the scenes where Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) are falling in love. How is that romance going to work exactly? Or any car romance for that matter? Not that I need to see what happens when a racecar mounts a Porsche, but the movie never even hints at the logic behind what's supposed to be a self-sustaining world even though all of their other films do.

All but one of the Pixar movies prior to "Cars" has set about depicting an alternate reality that exists in close relation to our own. The toys in the "Toy Story" movies had adventures while we humans weren't looking. "A Bug's Life" and "Finding Nemo" operate on the same principle: the secret life of certain kinds of animals. "Monsters Inc." presents a completely alternate universe, but one that has a recognizable relationship with our own: their inhabitants step through portals into our closets in order to scare our children. ("The Incredibles" deals exclusively with humans, so it doesn't really come into play here). But for the first time in Pixar's filmography, "Cars" presents a world completely devoid of and ignorant of humans, populated with human creations. As Moe Szyslak would say, "Whaaaaa?" The world of "Cars" is an entirely alternate reality without any tangible relationship to our own. (The film closest to "Cars" in this way that I remember was the abyssmal "Robots".) So if John Lasseter and the Pixar crew can't be troubled to answer questions like "Where do they get their fuel?" and "How are they able to do anything at all without opposable thumbs, like, for example, what does Doc do in his workshop exactly? Does he get up on his hind wheels to do woodworking?" and "What happens when they die?" and "How in hell do they procreate?" then they're asking their audience (their adult audience anyway) to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than usual, which takes an effort that might detract from a viewer's involvement in the story. I'm not asking for cinema verite in my anthropomorphizing animated movies, I just think that when filmmakers introduce audiences to a completely new world, they should go out of their way to show all the ways that world works; "Cars" did a poor job in that respect.

(Also, any movie that features a character voiced by Larry the Cable Guy as the film's comic relief is probably not aimed at the likes of me, so there's that. Man, was he not funny.)

Anyway, I could dismiss the whole thing and say that "Cars" was more of a kid's movie than Pixar's others have been, but Pixar's in the business of making the best animated movies in Hollywood and they've always done that by making big-tent films that appeal to everyone in a family. "Cars" wasn't it. Oh well. I hope they step up their game with "Ratatouille" next summer -- after this one, I'm sort of worried Pixar might be on some sort of downward skid.

Anyway, enough of me criticizing the work of immensely talented (and working) people. Back to writing.


blankfist said...

Ratat-phooey! So, you didn't like Cars, huh? Oh well. Disney is in the recent business of smucking up films, I've noticed. When did that company go from generating classics to aiding terrorists and hating freedom? Walt Qaeda. That aside, have you noticed that most CGI films these days have been, er... boring? Maybe back in the day when Toy Story was made, they could consider what they were making before releasing it, and now these sort of films seem to be a rush to market sort of enterprise. As if plot and theme are incidental and secondary to smarmy cute characters with some flavor-of-the-month actor voicing them.

harwell said...

I haven't seen Cars, but I think your dislike of Larry the Cable Guy as a voice is representative of the biggest problem as I see it with animated movies today: the voices. It's hard to suspend disbelief when Chris Rock is screaming at you in the guise of a beaver who happens to sound exactly like...Chris Rock. When the casting of name actors in animated fims works it can work well (Ellen in Nemo), but when it doesn't it seems like it REALLY REALLY doesn't. Instead of a voice actor who creates a character, we get a character created to look like an actor. Kind of a shame, honestly. Can you imagine if Bugs Bunny had been voiced by James Stewart or John Wayne or somebody? Naaahhhh.

Visually I think the CGI movies are kind of becoming boring too. Watch that new Simpsons preview and see if you don't think it's refreshing that it actually looks like what cartoons used to look like.

Speck said...

Cars was a great movie. And Crane is just a stuffy 9ft tall dude who pissy that he is stuck in Gor-ja.

blankfist said...

Dead blog.