Friday, February 11, 2011

Pixar 2, Facebook 0

I watched three movies last week: Toy Story 3, Up, and The Social Network. The first two were from the Pixar gang, which rolls out one fantastic film after another, with a hit ratio matched by no company other than Apple. The third film labored under a severe handicap: It had to deal with real people in real-life situations. Here are my takes on the three.

Toy Story 3 was easily the best of the lot. Written by Pixar’s plotmeister John Lasseter, it continues the saga of Woody the toy cowboy, Buzz Lightyear, the toy astronaut, and the entire menagerie of toys owned by Andy, a teen-ager now preparing to leave home for college. What to do with the toys? Andy decides to store them in the attic, but owing to a mixup they are carted off to a day-care center from hell. Woody eventually leads the Great Escape, but not before Lasseter has fashioned a variety of adventures, including a budding romance between two dolls named Barbie and Ken. As usual, Tom Hanks voices Woody, and Randy Newman composes the bouncy music. The Toy Story trilogy (there would seem to be no room for a fourth, but with Pixar you never know) is solid gold, and number 3 is the best yet.

Up is a bittersweet story that begins when a young boy meets an adventuresome young girl named Ellie, who dreams of traveling to exotic places like Paradise Falls in South America. (I was hooked when the little girl, rhapsodizing about the attractions of South America, said, “It’s just like America. Only it’s south!”) Eventually the couple marry and enjoy a long and happy life together – and then Ellie dies. The man, Carl Fredricksen, is now a 78-year-old curmudgeon, living in the same old house, an island of yesterday surrounded by skyscrapers and legions of lawyers offering to buy him out. Finally he has had enough, and he attaches a zillion balloons to his house and flies off toward South America. But he finds that he has a stowaway: a young boy scout eager to earn a merit badge for helping an old person, even an unwilling old person. The balloon-tethered house eventually makes it to Paradise Falls, where our duo encounter a series of hazards, notably including a storied explorer named Charles Muntz, who was the inspiration for Ellie’s odyssey of long ago. Muntz is now a madman with an entourage of vicious dogs (the Pixar animators do vicious dogs very well). All ends well, as you knew it would. The voices of Carl Fredricksen and Charles Muntz are supplied by Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer.

Now to The Social Network, about which I have mixed feelings. First, the good news: The screenplay, by Aaron Sorkin, is brilliant. Its machine-gun dialogue is just right coming from the mouths of computer whizzes, and the structure – a legal hearing, with flashbacks telling the main story – builds the tension neatly. The acting is terrific throughout. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the creator (or was he?) of Facebook and is a valid Best Actor nominee. Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake also give memorable performances in supporting roles.

What’s not to like? The story. These are, for the most part, unprincipled people treating each other like dirt (or worse, if you include the few women in the cast). The ethical and legal questions at the center of the plot center on who shares how much credit for Facebook. If you take the characterizations as authentic – and one assumes that the producers had a regiment of lawyers vet the book and the script – you have to wonder why these young men are (1) worth wrapping a $40 million film around and (2) worth spending two hours of anyone’s viewing time. Facebook and its ilk are social phenomena, I will grant, and that’s a reasonable subject for a documentary. But a movie without any sympathetic characters is hard to classify as entertainment.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Super Bowl

Sunday night a good football game competed for the attention of the viewers with commercials and the halftime show. The football game lost, not because the other stuff was better, but because the other stuff was so bad. You knew it was going to be a rough night when Christina Aguelera destroyed the national anthem, first by shrieking the song as if she were in pain, second by departing repeatedly from the tune the composer had in mind, and third, by forgetting the lyrics midway through. That’s right; this poor excuse for a singer found “O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming” too much to handle, so repeated an earlier line (but she even botched that).

As for the much-hyped commercials, with very few exceptions, they were just awful. The worst of the sorry lot was an incomprehensible promotion for Doritos. The best were the car commercials; at least they focused on the product instead of computer graphics.

But back to Christina. Why, oh why are singers of the national anthem at sporting events so determined to avoid the melody as written? Is the song that bad? Or are they afraid that an as-written rendition would expose the inadequacy of their voices? One look at the faces of the Packers and Steelers during Christina’s solo told it all. “This is painful,” they seemed to be thinking, or “Let’s play football – please.”

I was rooting for the Packers ever since the Patriots were eliminated. It’s a matter of fairness. Pittsburgh has the Pirates and the Penguins. It is the City of Andrew Carnegie and U.S. Steel. It was Gene Kelly’s home town. Green Bay has the Packers. Period. And now they are the Super Bowl champs. Justice has been served.