It is the principal consensus that Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece. Not because it stayed faithful to the sentiments of its beloved predecessors, but because it dared to expand upon them. Toy Story introduced an enjoyable one-note tale of a cowboy doll clinging to his owner’s favoritism, allowing room for its follow-up films to explore the humanity of this theme in much more depth.
This is the charge that faces the Finding Nemo franchise, what with sequel movie Finding Dory newly announced — will the next chapter for the Pixar pisces just be a rehashing of the 2003 road comedy? Or will the latest venture delve more explicitly into the most interesting subject introduced in Finding Nemo: mental disability?
The superficial plot design of Finding Nemo likely spawned from road comedy staples from the days of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, but the journey beneath the sea hearkens to a more recent, much heavier entry in the genre: Rain Man. When the uptight straight man Marlin (Albert Brooks) takes up begrudgingly with flighty loner Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) on a globetrotting quest to find his lost son, we're transported to the cross country trek of Charlie and Raymond Babbitt (Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman) in Barry Levenson's Oscar-winning picture. Self-serving Charlie teamed up with his estranged brother Ray, an autistic savant, not out of compassion or fraternity but to further his own conquest for his father's inheritance. Along the way, Ray's disability provides a number of hurdles (he can't board an airplane, can't go outside when it rains, can't be touched) and opportunities (his knack for quick counting does the boys quite a few favors at the blackjack table) alike for Charlie as their travels take them to strange places (backwoods motels, doctors offices, Vegas casinos) and situations ranging from comical to emotionally resonant.
With Marlin and Dory, it's the same song: Marlin monopolizes on Dory's unique ability to read human English (and speak a bit of whale, as she'll proudly boast) as they traverse the realms of sharks, jellyfish, sea turtles, and a school of John Ratzenberger, bounding from moments of laughter and tears all the while. But beyond the surface value similarities, the relationship between Marlin and Dory is reminiscent of that of the Babbitt brothers. Impatient Marlin is at his wits' end with Dory's demanding mental state. The biggest hurdle along the way for the duo is Dory's short-term memory loss, not a mere character quirk in Finding Nemo but a bona fide disorder that prevents her from living independently (when left alone by Marlin towards the end of the film, Dory's anxieties kick up and overtake her memory altogether, leading her to forget the entire mission she and her fair-weather had just braved).
Alongside a forgiving and accepting Marlin, Dory's traumas are assauged and her memories bolstered. But we don't imagine that Finding Dory will do away completely with the trait that defined DeGeneres' fan favorite character in the first movie. What they should do, instead, is really tackle the issue, diving headfirst into a multifaceted, emotional and intellectual story about living with (and living with someone living with) mental disability. Sounds like a silly venture for a Pixar movie, maybe, but just think of the Toy Story franchise: a trilogy that expanded from "What if toys came alive when we left the room?" to a heartrending allegory about self-preservation, loss, and identity.
Finding Dory has an opportunity to build upon the simplistic ideas that made Nemo a charming one-off feature — to make the characters worthwhile in further episodes, we'll have to see a deeper exploration of what makes them tick. Marlin is plagued with insecurity, Nemo with a physical disability, and Dory (who, as the title would indicate, is the focal character in the new movie) with a mental disability. And this disability deserves an intricate center stage treatment.
As mental impairment is a subject matter that Hollywood has tackled time and time again, Finding Dory can learn from the example of past greats. Beyond Rain Man, we have a number of other public and critical favorites that can provide example of moving and insightful ways to depict the journey of a mental disability sufferer. A constant among many of these films is the director's drive to shatter society's expectations of the spotlit figures — nobody believed much in Forrest Gump's titular hero at the beginning of the movie, but Tom Hanks' most memorable cinematic character went on to take part in, if not institute, just about every great event in American history. Ditto Radio, on a much smaller scale: Cuba Gooding, Jr. portrayed a mentally disabled young man whose spirit brought a small town football team to unity and grandieur.
Dory's limitations did not keep her from achieving victory in Nemo, but then again we didn't see the extent to which they anchor her down. Following in the footsteps of uplifting sagas like Forrest Gump and Radio, Finding Dory might look to chronicle the wowing capabilities of memory-loss victims in the same way: perhaps her indomitable zest for life will outweigh her handicap in the sequel's story, branding Dory with the sort of embrace of self-worth advertised by Hanks' and Gooding's pictures.
There are, of course, much less "whimsical" accounts of mental disability in recent cinema: the 2001 movie I Am Sam might have endeared viewers to Sean Penn's character and invited them to truly understand the complexities of his condition in an unprecedented way, the film didn't offer the fairy tale ending many might have expected, or hoped for. It might unlikely for Finding Dory to bear to the wills of bleaker realism, but not implausible. Toy Story 3, Up, and Wall-E rank as three incredibly heavy, often dark, movies. In this vein — and borrowing from the attitudes of I Am Sam, of Rain Man, of the "Flowers for Algernon" film adaptation Charly — we might look for a Finding Dory that actually sets standing limitations on Dory. She will never be able to live on her own or even remember things prior to the present hour, it's a somber state of affairs. Perhaps for a character so enamored, a story this real is what fans deserve?
We have no idea just yet what Finding Dory has in store. Maybe we'll just find ourselves in another seafaring journey filled with laughs and whimpsers. But maybe we'll see a real examination of the internal struggle of DeGeneres' character — that's how the movie can truly work wonders; Pixar does best when Pixar dives deepest.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
[Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures(2)]
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Do the Bourne movies make any sense? Enough. The first three films — The Bourne Identity Supremacy and Ultimatum — throw in just enough detail into the covert ops babble and high-speed action that by the end Jason Bourne comes out an emotional character with an evident mission. That's where Bourne Legacy drops the ball. A "sidequel" to the original trilogy Legacy follows super soldier Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) as he runs jumps and shoots his way out of the hands of his government captors. The film is identical to its predecessors; political intrigue chase scenes morally ambiguous CIA agents monitoring their man-on-the-run from a computer-filled HQ — a Bourne movie through and through. But Legacy has to dig deeper to find new ground to cover introducing elements of sci-fi into the equation. The result is surprisingly limp and even more incomprehensible.
Damon's Bourne spent three blockbusters uncovering his past erased by the assassin training program Treadstone. Renner's Alex Cross has a similar do-or-die mission: after Bourne's antics send Washington into a tizzy Cross' own training program Outcome is terminated. Unlike Bourne Cross is enhanced by "chems" (essentially steroid drugs) that keep him alive and kicking ass. When Outcome is ended Cross goes rogue to stay alive and find more pills.
Steeped heavily in the plot lines of the established mythology Bourne Legacy jumps back and forth between Cross and the clean up job of the movie's big bad (Edward Norton) and his elite squad of suits. The movie balances a lot of moving parts but the adventure never feels sprawling or all that exciting. Actress Rachel Weisz vibrant in nearly every role she takes on plays a chemist who is key to Cross' chemical woes. The two are forced into partnership Weisz limited to screaming cowering and sneaking past the occasional airport x-ray machine while her partner aggressively fistfights his way through any hurdle in his path. Renner is equally underserved. Cross is tailored to the actor's strengths — a darker more aggressive character than Damon's Bourne but with one out of every five of the character's lines being "CHEMS!" shouted at the top of his lungs Renner never has the time or the material to develop him.
Writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton Duplicity and the screenwriter of the previous three movies) is a master of dense language but his style choices can't breath life into the 21st century epic speak. In the film's necessary car chase Gilroy mimics the loose camera style of Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass without fully embracing it. The wishy washy approach sucks the life out of large-scale set pieces. The final 30 minutes of Bourne Legacy is a shaky cam naysayer's worst nightmare.
The Bourne Legacy demonstrates potential without ever kicking into high gear. One scene when Gilroy finally slows down and unleashes absolute terror on screen is striking. Unfortunately the moment doesn't involve our hero and its implications never explained. That sums up Legacy; by the film's conclusion it only feels like the first hour has played out. The movie crawls — which would be much more forgivable if the intense banter between its large ensemble carried weight. Instead Legacy packs the thrills of an airport thriller: sporadically entertaining and instantly forgettable.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Claire is an attractive CIA operative and Ray is an M16 agent who simultaneously leave their Governmental spy activities in the dust to try and profit from a battle between two rival multi-national corporations both trying to launch a new product that will transform the world and make billions. Their goal is to secure the top-secret formula and get a patent before they are outsmarted. While their respective egomaniacal CEOs engage in an unending battle of wills and one-upmanship Claire and Ray start out conning and playing one another in a clever game of industrial espionage that is even more complicated due to their own long-term romantic relationship.
WHO’S IN IT?
Reuniting Closer co-stars Julia Roberts (as Claire) and Clive Owen (as Ray) turns out to be an inspired idea. They turn out to be the perfect pair oozing movie-star charm and electricity in this elaborate con-game that might have been the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant might have made in the '60s (in fact they did in Charade). Roberts with that infamous hairstyle back the way we like it and Owen looking great in sunglasses prove they have what it takes to navigate us through this ultra-complex plot in which no one is sure who they can trust at any given moment. They play it all in high style and the wit just flows as the story skirts back and forth during the period of five years. The supporting cast is well-chosen with juicy roles for Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (out of their John Adams duds) as the two CEOs going for each other’s throats. Giamatti who sometimes has a tendency to overdo it is especially slimy here and great fun to watch.
Big-star studio movies today rarely take risks and often talk down to the audience but in Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has crafted a complicated con-comedy that requires complete attention at all times just to keep up with the dense plot’s twists and turns. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a New York Times crossword puzzle and Gilroy and his top-drawer production team deliver a glossy beautiful-looking film that’s easy on the eyes hitting locations from Dubai to Rome to New York City.
Like any good puzzle it sometimes can be frustrating putting it all together and Gilroy’s habit of taking us back in time and then inching forward gets a little confusing even with the on-screen chyron pointing out where we are at any given moment. Stick with it though and you will be well-rewarded.
A scene near the end where the formula must be found scanned and faxed in a matter of minutes is sweat-inducing edge-of-your-seat moviemaking and it provides the ultimate opportunity for Roberts and Owen to take the “con” to the next level. Another where Roberts uses a thong to try and trick Owen into admitting an affair he never had is also priceless and gets right to the heart of the game-playing.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
Never. Stock up during the coming attractions. If you miss a moment of this entertaining romp you might never figure it all out.