This blog post contains spoilers.

Let me just say right off the bat that overall I really liked Toy Story 3. Its heart was in the right place, it had a lot of laughs, and both the very beginning and very end of the film pulled on my heartstrings in all the right ways (Andy’s speech about Woody had me in floods of tears.) It should also be said immediately that even Pixar underperforming is still better than all of their contemporaries at their very best (Studio Ghibli notwithstanding.)

But that is both a blessing and a curse for Pixar. Their standing in film culture is so high that to dare criticize any of their output is tantamount to blasphemy for some people. This is why even a weak effort like Ratatouille finds itself with multiple Oscar nominations simply because it’s a masterpiece compared to the likes of Open Season and Barnyard (Like that’s really hard.) But the Pixar masterminds aren’t artistic gods. Every great filmmaker you can think of has made at least one film their oeuvre could do without. Why? Because they are human beings, just as capable of error as everyone else. To shoot down anyone who has the courage to say that The Incredibles is 30 minutes too long, that WALL-E ceases to be a masterpiece as soon as the human race turns up, and that even Up goes a little too bonkers in the third act is not only unfair, it’s also wrong. It is the reason why mediocrity rules the day, because anyone who demands higher standards from the entertainment industry is dismissed as a snob (Which, incidentally, is the definition of snobbery, as it’s saying one opinion is better than another.)

So while Toy Story 3 works really well in several places, I have no reservations in saying that it is also deeply flawed and far from the masterpiece everyone is making it out to be. It’s not that the Emperor has no clothes, it’s just that he forgot to put his pants on today. You know, like having a plot that isn’t just a complete rehash of the second film in the series with elements of The Brave Little Toaster thrown in for good measure. Let’s see, we have the threat of Andy no longer caring about his toys, a prison-like setting for said toys, an antagonistic toy whose cynicism tries to bring everybody down, and a climactic set-piece in a massive location in which the toys try to get back home. Along the way, we have several scenes of the toys facing their own mortality as children inevitably grow out of them. Now, I wasn’t expecting a story on the level of King Lear, but a little more ingenuity would’ve been nice.

Watching the film felt like getting into the heads of the writing staff. I could just see them agonizing for hours on end over how to top themselves in terms of action, sentiment, and suspense. The resulting film is a textbook example of how — in Mr. Plinkett’s words — biggerer is not always betterer. Sometimes, stakes can be so high that the tension ceases and the story alienates rather than involves. For me, the moment came when I realized I was watching Pixar’s abstract portrayal of life in a concentration camp, with rewrites from David Lynch thrown in for good measure. Of course, this comes to life the most in the already-infamous “incinerator scene.” The rest of the audience was practically holding their breaths wondering how their beloved characters whom the writers wouldn’t have the guts to kill off but let’s pretend it’s inevitable anyway would get out of this fine mess. I, on the other hand, just thought it was weird. And overdone. See, when Woody and Buzz were trying to escape the clutches of the sadistic Sid in the first film, it felt like watching a stripped-down horror movie where the threat of violence was tangible and yet restrained. Here, the horror elements were so crazy and desperately threatening that it bordered on silly. It’s like the difference between the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Shutter Island.

In the end, I was left with a film that I enjoyed and appreciated mostly for reasons related to nostalgia, which I think explains the buckets of praise being heaped on the film like it’s the Citizen Kane of animated features. It’s not on par with the original Toy Story by a long shot, or even Toy Story 2 for that matter, and once the insane hype dies down in a year or so, I think more and more people will start coming out of the woodwork and echoing the same sentiments. Just remember: It’s okay to dislike the new Pixar movie. Don’t listen to any halfwit who tells you otherwise.

But Armond White still sucks.


The voyeur inside me.

14 June, 2010

I more or less lost interest in this blog — although I keep getting e-mails about my pan of The Hangover, which is quite nice — but the resurgence of the issue of violence — particularly violence against women — in cinema has drawn me back to the Kingdom of Doom, and I feel like I need to get my feelings on the matter off my chest.

Michael Winterbottom has a new film out called The Killer Inside Me, based on a book by Jim Thompson which I’m in the middle of reading. It’s already out in the UK and it’s due out in the US very soon. Like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, it’s gotten the press all hot and bothered over the issue of whether or not extreme violence in art is ever justified, especially when women are involved. This article in The Guardian, and particularly the typically uninformed comments, got my mind racing about the subject, which is why I’m here now.

So here’s the thing:

The contentious scene in the film occurs in the first few pages of the book. It’s a horrible, grotesque scene to read, and I imagine it will be even worse when I eventually sit down to watch it. However, at no point while imagining this misogynist act of violence take place did I think to myself, “Why isn’t that delightful?” I reacted the way Thompson expected me to react: With horror and disgust. Winterbottom is saying the same thing in interviews, that extreme violence should be horrific and disgusting in art because that’s the whole point. Violence isn’t cute or fun, it’s ugly. Just like when Gaspar NoĆ© made Irreversible and argued that watching Monica Bellucci be brutally raped for 9 minutes was justified because we need to be aware of just how horrible rape really is.

“Well, duh,” I can hear you saying. “I know violence against women is bad. Why else would a filmmaker relish in it unless he wanted us to enjoy it? We don’t need to be reminded.” Fair point, but I disagree.

As Dr. Kermode points out in the Guardian piece, very few people expressed their outrage last year over a scene in Crank 2 in which a woman’s breasts are shot off. Like the rest of the film, this moment was played for cheap laughs. They wanted you to enjoy it. Given Hollywood’s casual attitude towards violence in general, it’s easy to take for granted just how ugly and unpleasant it really is unless you’ve actually witnessed or experienced it yourself.

All moviegoers are voyeurs. This is something we’ve been aware of since Michael Powell put us behind the lens of a killer in Peeping Tom. The question is whether or not we are taking pleasure from our voyeurism. Well, it depends. This question can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Contrary to popular belief, every single film you’ve ever seen — be it A Steven Spielberg Film or Un Film De Michael Haneke — is a piece of entertainment. If you’re being engaged by a work of art, it doesn’t matter if it’s low-brow or high-brow, scatological or intellectual…you are still being entertained.

The differences come within the standards of the particular artworks. I think Die Hard is a massively entertaining action movie, but I also think Raging Bull is a deeply affecting character study that entertains me for completely different reasons. I’m not having fun when Jake LaMotta is slamming his body against the concrete wall of a prison cell, but if I wasn’t being entertained by the scene on some level, I wouldn’t be in floods of tears by the end of it.

Works like The Killer Inside Me or Irreversible — films that seek emotional honesty from the anti-social acts they portray — are not the problem. Films like Transformers, where the female characters are only there for the purposes of non-ironic titillation, are the problem. For all the articles written about the character of Hit-Girl in the massively overrated Kick-Ass, I didn’t see one person complain about the fact that the love interest was nothing but a walking plot convenience and masturbation fodder for nerds. Finally, do we still need to see slasher movie after slasher movie in which Maxim models engage in gratuitous sex scenes only to be casually slaughtered a few frames later? What makes any of these films any less offensive to women?

Answer: They don’t hold the voyeur accountable.