Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Envisioning Villeneuve

As most Edmontonians are aware (unless you have been on Mars for the past year, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears,) Edmonton City Centre Airport is closing. This has raised a lot of questions and uncertainty for a lot of folks, especially those who work at the airport, but the one that I am asking most often is "What will happen to the small general aviation aircraft using the airport?"

The most common response I get is "Traffic can easily be accommodated at Villeneuve."

For those who don't know what "Villeneuve" is, this is Villeneuve:

If you've never been there, it's located 10 minutes from the west city limit of St. Albert on highway 633 (Villeneuve Road) or accessible north from the Yellowhead on highway 44, a 37 minute car trip from downtown Edmonton.

Having flown into many airports around Alberta and Saskatchewan during my nine years as a private pilot, it's my opinion that Villeneuve, as it exists today in the above photo, is not much to look at. The runways are short, there's no running water on site, and there's not a great deal of hangar space. The site does have a lot of potential, but if the City Centre Airport were shutdown completely tomorrow, I would have serious doubts about the long term survival of the general aviation industry in the area.

I propose completing three actions which will help general aviation stay viable and relevant in the Capital Region:

1. Expansion of Villeneuve to include the following:

-Runway 08/26 widened to 150' and lengthened to 6000'

-Runway 16/34 lengthened to 5000', intersecting with 08/26

-A category I instrument landing system on runway 26 (back course approach on 08)

-A permanently constructed terminal building, replacing the modular building which currently serves as the terminal

-Running water on the site

-ATC hours extended. Right now, tower closes at 9 PM. Needs to be open until at least 11 PM and start earlier.

In order to attract and retain businesses, the facility itself must be attractive. I believe the location of Villeneuve is a red herring; Springbank Airport is a 30 minute drive from downtown Calgary and has come along in leaps and bounds over the last five years. This is because Calgary Airport Authority is making good on its ambitious 20 year plan for the site, which aims to increase the airport's capacity to more than 300,000 movements per year.

I think closure of Edmonton City Centre Airport would face much less opposition if the city immediately reached out to Sturgeon County and Edmonton Airports and got Villeneuve going. Fixed dates, fixed assets. Saying "Here's a drawing of T-Hangars (the aviation equivalent of the 1200 sq. ft home) and a promise of someday" doesn't count. To make it viable takes effort, and the future growth plan on the Edmonton Airports webpage is not it.

One really important thing to note is that the airport is currently using only 162 of 573 hectares. This leaves a huge amount of land for future runways and other developments as needed. Given that the Edmonton City Centre Airport occupies 217 hectares, there is obviously potential to turn Villeneuve into a much bigger and better facility than ECCA.

Of course, the ILS and the ATC are up to NavCanada, which is a private not-for-profit company, but I strongly believe they'll be more willing to make the investment if Edmonton Airports makes the investment.

Do the market analysis, review other successful GA airports, hire somebody to get it done.

2. The reduction of the landing fee at YEG for aircraft with fewer than 6 seats.

Edmonton International Airport offers great services to GA aircraft already. It's too bad that these aircraft are charged a minimum fee of $50 to land at the International to take advantage of said services.

Edmonton International can also handle a large increase in traffic. In fact, Springbank is a busier airport traffic-wise, and charges no landing fee to all piston aircraft. Low landing fees encourage greater use by general aviation aircraft according to COPA which in turn pours dollars into the airport businesses and the local economy by extension. In fact, landing fees have been shown to actually decrease airport revenue. For further details, please see COPA's guide to public airports. This report also mentions Edmonton City Centre, which, in 2006 sought a move to encourage light aircraft to use the field, driving up land lease revenues. Edmonton Airports eliminated the $15/seat landed seat fee for private aircraft with six or fewer seats and eliminated the landing fee for aircraft with four or fewer seats.

I would actually like to see the landing fee for piston aircraft at Edmonton International abolished completely for a period of five years following complete closure of City Centre Airport and/or while waiting for upgrades at Villeneuve to be completed. At a minimum, I would like to see it immediately reduced and restructured to a level that is more in line with comparably sized airports throughout Canada.

3. The creation of a "General Aviation Capital Reserve Fund" by the City of Edmonton.

The City has indicated in reports that the City Centre Airport would have required $35M in capital investment in the near future for the repaving of both runways. It is important for the city to realize that it cannot shirk its obligations to provide general aviation infrastructure in the Capital Region by closing the airport. That's why I propose setting up a capital reserve fund of $35M using the proceeds from the sale of the YXD lands, which have been quoted as being worth up to $500M. Edmonton Airports has already offered tenants at City Centre $20 million toward the construction of new hangars. This new fund would be designed to complete additional general aviation capital projects at all three airports (EIA, Cooking Lake, and Villeneuve) in the region.

I know that these actions will do nothing to satisfy those who want a return of scheduled service to Edmonton City Centre Airport, but in the meantime, it will go a long way toward mending fences with an industry that believes it is misunderstood and undervalued by the city. In fact, I believe that if something to these effects had been done prior to the July 8, 2009 vote of city council, the lawsuits and the petition might not have happened.

In any case, I strongly encourage you to attend the free Fly-In and barbecue at Villeneuve on August 21, check out the facility, and let the representatives from Edmonton Airports know that you support the growth and sustainability of general aviation in the region.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Let's Talk About Inception...

(Note: The post below is certified spoiler free. Not that you'd understand what the hell I was talking about anyway if you haven't seen the film)

Let's talk about the genre first: simulated reality. I admit I'm a bit partial to it. It seems to be hit and miss with the critics. The Matrix and The Truman Show were very well received, but others like The Island, Vanilla Sky, and Lost Highway were panned. And there are some noted problems with some simulated reality films: they're pretentious and overly complicated with no real insights, have inconclusive endings, and make use of deus ex machina. Inception is guilty of these, but 84% of the critics love it. Why? The plot is so dense that it loses the audience from time to time, but it's so entertaining that repeated viewings to fill in some of the missing pieces don't seem like a chore. Even if the viewer completely tunes out, it is still good enough on its own as a big, loud action movie.

For this project to work, Christopher Nolan had quite a challenge. For a science fiction film to be believable, it must create itself a set of rules and never deviate from them. However, for a psychological thriller (especially one involving dreams,) there can be no rules; the possibilities must be limitless. It walks a very fine line between creating a world of unreality, and needing the audience to buy into it. It doesn't CGI you to death (which was part of Avatar's problem) and uses just enough to make its point.

I picked up two symbols in the film that warrant discussion: chess, and mazes. The chess references are easy to spot at first glance: Robert Fischer, Jr., is of course a reference to the chess Grandmaster Bobby J. Fischer, and Ariadne picks a pawn as her "totem." The maze references are a little less subtle. The characters need to create maze-spaces in their subject's dreams so new thoughts can slip in unperceived. It's curious that the logo to Christopher Nolan's production company, Syncopy, resembles a maze, as does the logo for Legendary Pictures, the film's other studio. Then, I recalled in Greek mythology about the Labyrinth. Theseus was guided through the maze by Ariadne (Ellen Page's character's name) who provided him with a skein of thread so he could find his way out again. In logic, Ariadne's thread refers to a method of solving a problem with multiple apparent means of proceeding. Ariadne's thread is heavily used by Artificial Intelligence in game-playing situations, notably chess programs.

The choice of the song "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" is an interesting choice for a couple of reasons: Marion Cotillard, who played Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose was also in this film, and it's ironic because DiCaprio's character is filled with guilt and regret. It's the reason he's such a head-case. Some of the lyrics to the song, loosely translated, include "I am not concerned with the past, with my memories I set fire to my pains and pleasures, I don't need them anymore."

So, what's the verdict? I think it will pick up nominations for art direction, cinematography, visual effects, sound editing, and sound mixing. If it picks up a nomination for film editing (and it should…making those time-bending scenes line up must have been a holy nightmare) then it will also snag director and picture nominations to go with it. And if it were up to me, Marion Cotillard for supporting actress.

And if all else fails, know that Armond White hated it. Therefore, it has to be good.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #5: Toy Story 3

#5: Toy Story 3 (2010)

Director: Lee Unkrich

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Estelle Harris, Timothy Dalton, Bonnie Hunt, Wallace Shawn,

It is complete, dudes. And it was everything I thought it would be. Luckily, I made it through the entire film without needing the tissues, despite the fact that I almost cried watching the trailer.

Toy Story 3 has taken in $41 million on its opening day alone, which has to be some kind of record. Unfortunately, the Tomatometer rating has dropped to 99%, owing to a couple of hacks named Armond White and Cole Smithey, the self-proclaimed "smartest film critic in the word." The criticism is mostly dedicated toward the scary content in the film that deserves a PG-rating. Newsflash! Most Disney movies are scary! Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? Sleeping Beauty? The Lion King? Aladdin? Terrifying, am I wrong?

Unlike the first two films, this one is more plot focused instead of character focused. There is seemingly not much change in the characters as a result of the events and doesn't reveal a lot in the way of backstory. I thought we'd learn more about Woody. Since "Woody's Roundup" last aired in 1957, that would make Woody 53 years old. What was he doing between 1957 and 1995? I had a theory about this; that Woody previously belonged to Andy's father. That's supported by Andy's mom declaring that Woody was "an old family toy" at the yard sale in Toy Story 2. But Andy's dad has never appeared in any film, and isn't even in any of Andy's family photos. So that dashes that theory. However, the Pixar staff was clever enough to plant a YouTube commercial for Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear and distort it to make it look like a VHS recording that came from the 80s. Check it out. It had me fooled; I went in thinking this was a toy that actually existed. The prison break sub-plot is brilliant, though, and that makes it all worth it.

The voice acting is very good, but it's mostly the new characters who steal the show. Ned Beatty is terrific as Lotso, and Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants deserved a bigger role. Animator Bud Luckey also nails the role of Chuckles the Clown.

It certainly earns its place in the Pixar pantheon. It would have been easy to turn this film into an easy cash-grab. In all the ways that Shrek has gone downhill due to greed, Toy Story keeps its integrity. I'm hoping it picks up a nomination for Best Picture. I think the screenplay deserves consideration (Michael Arndt, of Little Miss Sunshine fame, as well as Stanton and Lasseter) as does Randy Newman's musical score.

I have assigned it the #5 spot, making it just slightly better than Toy Story 2, but couldn't quite match Monsters, Inc. Also, a little disappointed there was no teaser trailer for Cars 2. Come on, Pixar!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #1: WALL-E

Well, it's finally here. In a few short hours, Toy Story 3 premieres across North America as the first midnight showings roll out. I will hopefully be out to see it this weekend, and you'll know I'm there if some nerd starts clapping and cheering when Luxo Jr. hops onto the screen. Early reviews are unanimously positive. It looks like Toy Story 3 may cruise to 100% positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, marking a perfect score for the whole trilogy, which would be a record that would stand for all time. At this point, I'm dying to see some risk their credibility by giving this film a bad review. Come on, critics. I DARE you.

And now, for the best Pixar movie made to date:

1. WALL-E (2008)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Starring: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver

"Another triumph for Pixar and Andrew Stanton!" was what I wrote in my initial review of this film. And indeed, it is a great achievement for Stanton to have made the top two of the list.

Unlike most environmentally-themed films, WALL-E doesn't disappear completely up its own asshole with messages. It doesn't shove it down your throat. The ecological agenda is plain to see, but the mass consumerism in the film is because of too close a tie between big government and big business. Also, the lack of dialogue in the film allows it to transcend language barriers and make it appealing to both adults and children. The first "conversation" between WALL-E and EVE takes place 22 minutes into the film, and the first human conversation takes place 39 minutes in. There are numerous biblical references as well. EVE is named so because WALL-E's loneliness reminded Stanton of Adam. Eve has also drawn comparisons to the dove in the story of Noah's Ark.

Stanton's own definition of the film's theme is that "irrational love defeats life's programming." We see WALL-E who is cleaning up garbage alone every day for the past seven hundred years, never questioning why. EVE comes in and will initially have nothing to do with WALL-E, instead focusing solely on her objective. Stanton argues that we all fall into our ruts and habits either consciously or unconsciously to avoid messy things like having relationships or dealing with other people.

WALL-E snagged one Oscar for Best Animated Feature and had six more nominations: Best Music, Original Score, Best Music, Original Song (Peter Gabriel's "Down to Earth") Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Screenplay. It certainly deserved a Best Picture nomination and should have WON the damn thing, given the forgettable crop that year: Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, Milk, Frost/Nixon, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Also, the Los Angeles Film Critics named it Best Picture of 2008. However, this one has the dubious distinction of being shut out at the Annies, and is the only Pixar film to be shut out besides A Bug's Life. The fact that this happened, along with Kung Fu Panda running the table, is unholy. How could they get it so right by picking Cars over Happy Feet and then fuck it up so badly two years later? What, were they smoking crack up their asses?

So this concludes my series on Pixar. If you haven't seen all the films on this list, I would highly recommend you do so. And go see Toy Story 3. I'll comment on it once I've seen it and place it on the list.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #2: Finding Nemo

2. Finding Nemo (2003)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Starring: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Stephen Root, Geoffrey Rush, Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson

It seems as though Finding Nemo is Pixar's prestige or flagship piece, as it was their most commercially successful effort, and I believe a lot of people have seen this who maybe haven't browsed the rest of the library. Its gross was $867,893,978, which was nearly unheard of at the time for a G-rated film. It is the best selling DVD in the world with over 40 million sold. Unlike oddball films like Ratatouille and Up, this film is almost universally endearing. It really defined the classic Pixar modus operandi of a character's journey toward self-improvement; the appreciation of friends and family through venturing out into the real world. There is suspense throughout this one, but the real heart of the movie is in the message: the difficulty and importance of letting children develop their own identities. The one flaw that it has is that there are WAY too many characters. It seems like there are many who are in the film for only a minute or two. How can kids keep track of them all? Everyone knows Marlin, Nemo, and Dory, but there's also Crush, Bruce, Gill, Bloat, Peach, Gurgle, Bubbles, Jacques, Nigel, Squirt, Mr. Ray, Anchor, and Chum. Of course, Crush (voiced by Andrew Stanton) kind of steals the show, and even has his own Disneyland attraction.

And do you think I saw it in the theatres? Heck no. As a first year university student who knew everything there is to know about everything, I was still a snob against animated films. But when I rented this one on DVD, it sure smartened me up and reminded me that there is a world outside of live-action.

Finding Nemo won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature; the first win for Pixar in the category. It was also nominated for Best Music, Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Sound Editing. Should have been nominated for Best Picture, but there was an unusually strong field in the category that year (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) although it did pick up the Globe nomination. It dominated the Annies, winning 9 against respectable competition (Brother Bear and Les Triplettes de Belleville)

So, only one more left to go, and if you've been paying attention, you know exactly which one it is...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #3: Up

3. Up (2009)

Director: Pete Docter

Starring: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson

After WALL-E, I think the already high expectations on Pixar got dialled up even more. And Up delivered. Pete Docter bested his first effort.

Up is probably Pixar's lightest and funniest. It has brilliant voice acting (especially by Bob Peterson as Dug the dog,) and is wonderfully written. Its "failed purpose" theme makes it required viewing for crabby old guys everywhere. Hell, it deserves to win based on the the first 10 minutes of the film alone. I almost spit coke all over the theatre floor when we see that Carl and Ellie are infertile. That's a bit heavy for a kid's movie, don't you think?? Despite the outrageousness of some of the plot, there is also quite a bit of emotion in this one, so I think it strikes a good balance. Up was also the first Pixar film to be released in 3D during its initial run.

Up was only the second animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. Of course, it took the category expanding to ten nominees to finally make it happen. Up went on to lose to The Hurt Locker. It did win two Oscars: Best Animated Feature and Best Music, Original Score to Michael Giacchino. It also swept the minor circuit awards shows in these categories. It was also nominated for Best Sound Editing and Best Original Screenplay. However, it was surprised at the Annies, winning only twice, for Best Animated Feature and Directing in a Feature Production. In a very divided field, it lost out to Coraline and The Princess and the Frog in 7 categories. It grossed $731,338,164, making it Pixar's second biggest commercial success.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #4: Monsters, Inc.

4. Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Director: Pete Docter

Starring: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Bob Peterson, Bonnie Hunt

What a surprise this was! This being the first Pixar feature not directed by John Lasseter meant we had no idea what to expect. And Pete Docter really owns this movie. The premise of the film is just so good: that when a kid says there's a monster in the closet, there really is something there. The fact that the monsters need the screams to power their city is what makes it brilliant. And they top it off with the theme that laughter is more powerful than fear. It goes from being light-hearted, to suspenseful, and then endearing, all in the span of 92 minutes.

The voice acting here is clearly the best of the best. And really, it was a risk to cast John Goodman, who had sustained box office failures in both We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story and The Emperor's New Groove. Billy Crystal provides the hilarious comic relief and makes a great sidekick for Goodman. Steve Buscemi also provides the perfect slimy dirtbag voice for Randall. Bob Peterson, who is equally as talented as a voice actor as he is a director/screenwriter, is the voice of Roz. Even two-year-old Mary Gibbs is good, providing the voice for Boo.

Here's some trivia: Randy Newman's song "If I Didn't Have You" was the first Oscar for Pixar (not including Lasseter's Special Achievement award for Toy Story) and Newman's first win in 16 nominations. It received three more nominations including Best Sound Editing, Best Music, Original Score, and a nomination for the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar, although it would lose to Shrek. It was also dominated at the Annies, winning only once for Best Character Animation, losing to Sen to Chihiro no kamikakusi and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. It did, however, become the eighth highest grossing animated film of all-time, earning $525,366,597.

I wonder what they'll do for Monsters, Inc. 2. I'm thinking along the same lines as Toy Story 3, where Boo is all grown up. She'd be about 12 when this film releases. But who is directing this? It's a mystery. We can confirm that it's not Docter, Unkrich, Stanton, or Lasseter. Gary Rydstrom perhaps? Bob Peterson?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #5: Toy Story 2

5. Toy Story 2 (1999)

Director: John Lasseter

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wayne Knight

Originally intended as a direct to video sequel, this one experienced serious quality issues much like the first film and was overhauled completely in 9 months. Toy Story is definitely a character story, and you have to feel something for these characters to appreciate the film. This one reveals quite a bit of the backstory of three of the main characters. Initially, Jessie was really annoying to watch, but I thought Pixar turned a major corner with Jessie's musical number. "You never forget kids like Emily or Andy…but they forget you." I really liked Kelsey Grammar as Stinky Pete in this one. (He tells Woody that Andy won't take him to college, but if you look at the trailers for Toy Story 3, that is exactly what he does. Oh yeah!)

As mentioned before, this one received 100% positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, so why can't I rank it any higher? Well, we're high enough on the list now that finding fault with any of these shows is becoming really difficult. So I guess Toy Story 2 is #5 just because the top 4 were a little bit better. I guess the scenes outside of Al's apartment are just a little bit slow, but that's really the only thing.

Toy Story 2 was nominated for one lousy Oscar: Best Music, Original Song for Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me." However, in one of the rare displays demonstrating that the Golden Globes are ahead of the curve, Toy Story 2 won the Globe for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, only the second animated film to do so. Toy Story 2 also received 7 Annies. One of those rare instances where the sequel is better than the original. Hopefully, history will repeat itself in five days.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #6: Ratatouille

6. Ratatouille (2007)

Director: Brad Bird

Starring: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofalo, Ian Holm, Peter O'Toole

And now, slightly better than Brad Bird's first effort was Ratatouille.

Before we go further, what's the most important aspect of making a film? Well, good writing, first of all. After that, it's editing, cinematography, and musical score, in that order. Ratatouille beats The Incredibles because the writing was just that much better.

I admit I had some serious doubts about this one when I first saw the promotional display for it in the theatre, Spring 2007. Rats don't make endearing characters, there's zero merchandising potential, and they even had to spell the name of the film phonetically on the poster, for God's sake. However, I was proven very wrong as this one made $623,707,397 at the box office.

I like this one because obviously, they were taking big risks and most of them pay off. It's basically a discrimination tale, told in a highly original format. The Linguini character is a bit bland and started to get on my nerves halfway through, but he redeems himself in the end. He's isn't nearly as bad as Mater. I think most of the dislike comes from the fact that he is the only human character without even a trace of a French accent, so that makes him even more of an outcast. Also, Michael Giacchino's musical score is one of the best around. And, I personally believe the quote at the end that "The average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so" was a direct shot at the (relatively) bad reviews that Cars received.

Ratatouille won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It was nominated for Best Music, Original Score, Best Achievement in Sound, Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. It all but swept the Annies, winning 9, only losing in the Best Animated Effects category to Surf's Up.

I will leave you with what is probably my favourite clip from a Pixar film:

Friday, June 11, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #7: The Incredibles

7. The Incredibles (2004)

Director: Brad Bird

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson

I haven't seen this one all that much. Maybe it's because the first half the movie is a little bit slow, but well worth it to get to the second half.

Rotten Tomatoes has this classified as the 16th greatest action film of all time, but its underlying themes are what distinguishes it. "They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity" and the line that best sums it up "Once everyone is super, no one will be." I thought Craig T. Nelson was perfectly cast as the burned-out aging superhero Mr. Incredible and Brad Bird as Edna Mode was also fantastic.

Brad Bird had also directed The Iron Giant and I found that The Incredibles has a lot of the same comic book influences. Bird had brought over a bunch of collaborators from The Iron Giant who hadn't worked with the computer before, but they certainly made it work. Out of all 10 films, I'd have to say that visually, this one is my favourite. They took a "nothing is impossible" approach. They were animating hair and fabric underwater, hair blowing through the wind, human scenes…all of which are very difficult to animate. There were also 89 set pieces, triple that of Monsters Inc. There was a different degree of realism to this one.

The Incredibles won the Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Achievement in Sound Editing. It was nominated for Best Achievement in Sound Mixing and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. It was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy. It was also nominated for a record 16 Annies, winning 10.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #8: Cars

8. Cars (2006)

Director: John Lasseter

Starring: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, George Carlin, Cheech Marin, Richard Petty, Michael Keaton

Alright, so Cars is a guilty pleasure of mine. Some would make the argument that this was Pixar's first stumble. It received by far the worst reviews out of any of the Pixar films…75% on the tomatometer, which was still good enough to be considered "Certified Fresh." I think it got a bad rap because it came after The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. Or maybe it's because it's Pixar's shill film; the merchandising alone topped $5 billion. The writing is weak (it directly rips off Doc Hollywood,) the musical score is kind of blah, and the voice acting (with the very notable exception of Paul Newman) is mediocre at best. I mean, Owen Wilson and Larry The Cable Guy were total duds. That Mater character really grated on my nerves by the end. I realize he's the comic relief here, but when you start comparing the character to Jar Jar Binks, that's when you know they way overdid it. And Holy God is this one long! 116 minutes is a real stretch for an animated feature when most kids these days have ADHD. The technology, however, advanced rapidly, as the computers used were 40 times faster than those used in The Incredibles, and 1000 times faster than those used in Toy Story.

I guess for me it has that children's literature charm to it. While it wasn't terribly insightful or original (Lightning McQueen learns some easy lessons, like winning isn't everything, nobody is poor who has friends, etc,) it was a lot of fun to watch. The bygone town on U.S. 66 setting was very appealing to me and well done.

Cars won the Annie, PGA Award, Saturn Award, and Golden Globe, for Best Animated Feature, but lost the Oscar to Crappy Feet, which was highway robbery (pun most certainly intended.) One more glaring example of the Academy being out of sync with the rest of the world! Grammy winner "Our Town" was also nominated for Best Music, Original Song. Cars was also the last film to involve Pixar stalwart Joe Ranft. It earned a comparatively modest $461,982,881 at the box office, Pixar's 3rd lowest total.

Cars 2 looks like a bit of a shitshow. Lightning and Mater involved in international espionage? How is that going to work? But, to be fair, when I first heard about Ratatouille, my reaction was something like "A cooking rat!? Fuck! Come on!"

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #9: Toy Story

9. Toy Story (1995)

Director: John Lasseter

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Annie Potts, Wallace Shawn, Jim Varney, R. Lee Ermey

I'll probably get some flak for this one since it appears in everyone else's top 3. And really now, what is my problem, given that this one is rated 100% on the tomatometer and is the AFI's 99th greatest film of all time?

One thing I did not too long ago was watch Up, and then watch Toy Story right after that. And I came to a realization: Toy Story looks like shit! There's a considerable lack of texture, some of the characters look like plasticine and some of the animation is jerky and exaggerated. Even the lip syncing isn't the greatest. But when it first came on the screen, we shit our pants. Computer animation wasn't anything new, but a feature film had never been done before. It was a huge undertaking just in terms of characters and set pieces.

And it all came so close to never happening. When an early draft was screened, Disney execs hated it so much that they ground the project to a halt and order a total re-write. Woody was originally written as sarcastic jerk because Disney had told Pixar to make the film "edgy."

Toy Story lands at 9th mostly because of the story itself. While it earned a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, I felt it to be a bit tedious during the scenes in Sid's house, and leans on the computer animation gimmick too much. The franchise is definitely made up of character stories, and they're not really well-developed until Toy Story 2, which we will get to further on down the list. The story, however, has become timeless with kids, and is just as appealing now as it was 15 years ago. But, I refuse to accept that they got it perfect on the first try, and I'm sure that most Pixar staff would agree with me. After all, zero complacency and never being satisfied with results is how they got themselves to where they are today.

Toy Story earned a special achievement Oscar for John Lasseter, and was nominated for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score, Best Music, Original Song, and Best Original Screenplay. It swept the Annies, winning eight, including Best Animated Feature, Individual Achievement: Animation (Pete Docter) and Individual Achievement: Writing (Andrew Stanton.) It also picked up a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture: Comedy/Musical.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Pixar Feature Film #10: A Bug's Life

So, we've got only 10 days until the release of Toy Story 3, so here come's movie #10:

10. A Bug's Life (1998)

Director: John Lasseter

Starring: Dave Foley, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, David Hyde Pierce

We'll clear something up here right away…I frigging love A Bug's Life. Just because it came in last in this review series does not mean it was a lousy movie.

Call it second film syndrome, call it whatever, but this one just seems to lack the Pixar timelessness. I think they've buried this one underground somewhat, as it never appears in any of their trailers the way some of the other films do (i.e. "From the Creators of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles…") I spent most of the film feeling sorry for Flik myself, and it was getting a little bit depressing. The Hopper character was also a little too badass to be real. I love going to the movies and rooting for the bad guys, but Hopper just doesn't have any redeeming qualities! Also, a grasshopper named Hopper? Andrew Stanton was coming off an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay and that was the best he could come up with?

One thing which hurt A Bug's Life was that Antz came out a month prior (as part of Jeff Katzenberg's ongoing feud with the Walt Disney Company) becoming the second feature length computer animated film. Antz was also critically successful, although A Bug's Life outperformed it at the box office.

Despite all this, it's got witty dialogue and contemporary humor to keep things entertaining for the older crowd, and there's plenty to keep the kids occupied for 96 minutes. There's also a substantial improvement in the animation despite only being three years removed from Toy Story. The crowd scenes were monumental achievements at the time.

A Bug's Life scored 91% on the tomatometer and picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score. It was also nominated for four Annies but lost the Animated Theatrical Feature Award to Phil "Brad" Bird's The Iron Giant. Its worldwide gross was $363,398,565, Pixar's ninth best total.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Let's Talk About Pixar Animation Studios

Throughout the history of film, there have only been a handful of movies to receive unanimously positive reviews. Looking at Rotten Tomatoes.com, there are 19 movies to receive 100% positive reviews based on 50 or more reviews, and they include such classic films as The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, North by Northwest, and Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb.

Toy Story and Toy Story 2 also happen to be on this list.

I try not to comment on movies that I haven't seen yet, but this, combined with the fact that Pixar has turned out the Best Animated Feature three years in a row and a Best Picture nominee last year, has expectations at an all-time high for Pixar's latest achievement, Toy Story 3. I'm also expecting a lot from Lee Unkrich who has been around Pixar since the original Toy Story and co-directed three of Pixar's better films: Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo.

Toy Story 3 starts us off 10 years after Toy Story 2, and Andy is setting off to college. All his old toys end up being donated (by accident) to a daycare. Hell, I was almost crying in the trailer when old Andy looks on Woody and Buzz as he's packing up his old toys. I saw Toy Story when it first came out in 1995, when I was 10. It's kind of the last movie I saw as a kid. The next year, I "graduated" to more mature cinema and saw Fargo in the theatres as an 11 year old. It is still my 8th favourite movie of all-time.

So, I guess for me, the Toy Story franchise has a quite a bit of nostalgic value. Last week, Unkrich put up a contest on Twitter: post a picture of your adult self with your favourite childhood toy. And I think that's really what the essence of Toy Story 3 will be. We all have a favourite toy. Some of us are still in possession of it, and some of us aren't. It's kind of like Jessie's abandonment in Toy Story 2. Whatever became of our favourite toys?

I think that this plot will produce another success for Pixar. But what's next for them? Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters Inc. 2. So Pixar will not put out an original concept until 2012; a three-year gap between Up and Brave. In light of all these sequels, and the return to the "Disney Princess Formula" coupled with the shit-canning of Newt, I think that Pixar may have jumped the shark. I'm afraid the creative juices may be drying up in Emeryville.

Nevertheless, starting tomorrow, I will rank and review all 10 of Pixar Animation Studios' feature-length productions in anticipation of Toy Story 3's North American release on June 19.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

82nd Academy Awards Predictions

Last year, I was 20/24 in Oscar predictions, which I'm pretty sure I'll never beat.

Best Picture

Should win: Up

Will win: The Hurt Locker

I can't say why a particular film deserves to win, but I can tell you why each one won't win. The Hurt Locker? Early release date and small box office. Avatar? All flash and no story. A Serious Man? Coens have won too recently. Up? A token pick; The Academy actually hates animated flicks. An Education? Produced outside the U.S. and lost the BAFTA. District 9? See Avatar. Inglorious Basterds? Too "trendy." The Blind Side? Too cliche. Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire? Too depressing. Up In The Air? Glib, superficial, and a total chick flick. Come to think of it, that makes it perfect Oscar bait. And with 10 nominees, that makes an upset all the more possible.

The pick is Up because not only should Wall-E have been nominated last year, it should have won the damn thing. I demand retribution for that in the form of a win for Disney/Pixar. Despite being somewhere in the middle of Pixar's list, it is one of its lightest and funniest. Up has brilliant voice acting, technical competence, and is wonderfully written. Its "failed purpose" theme makes it required viewing for crabby old guys everywhere. Hell, it deserves to win based on the first 10 minutes of the film alone.

Best Director

Should win: Quentin Tarantino

Will win: Kathryn Bigelow

Tarantino is going to be the next Marty Scorsese…I can't see him winning until he turns 95 too. Bigelow and her low-budget film beat her ex-husband and his megabucks magnum opus. Sweet revenge. Tarantino gets my nod for this year's prestige pic and a great ensemble cast performance, but the director usually has to win for the film to win it all.

Best Actor

Should win: Morgan Freeman

Will win: Jeff Bridges

We've seen this scenario before, haven't we? I'm thinking Mickey Rourke vs. Sean Penn of last year. And Bridges played basically the same character that Rourke did. I believe Clooney is a real contender. My pick is for Morgan Freeman despite playing an "Oscar-bait" role, but he won't win because he's won too recently in a Clint Eastwood film. And watch out for Colin Firth, everybody! Big upset potential.

Best Actress

Should win: Meryl Streep

Will win: Sandra Bullock

Tough call here. Sandra Bullock hasn't seemed to win over the critics, judging by the minor league awards, but I think the Academy will carry her through. Academy seems to like a comeback role, even though Streep was better. However, The Blind Side was better than Julie and Julia by a lot, so I'm torn. My gut instinct still tells me Streep will win, just as it was correct two years ago in telling me that Cotillard would upset Christie. Oh well…

Best Original Screenplay

Should win: Up

Will win: The Hurt Locker

Good field this year, and a tough one to pick. Writer's Guild was kind of all over the map this year, and I can't believe that Avatar was nominated for their original screenplay award. Gotta go with Up to support my Best Picture claim above, but I would not be upset at all to see A Serious Man win either. And since Ebert has called this one for Inglorious Basterds, it's wide open as far as I'm concerned. My streak of 14 consecutive correct picks in the writing categories could be at risk. Hurt Locker won the Guild award, but did not compete against Up and Inglorious Basterds.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Should win: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Will win: Up in the Air

Having seen only three of the films, I can only guess. I'll go with what the Guild said and pick Up in the Air to win because of the whole "unemployment bad economy" thing it has going on, which the voters seem to like for some reason. District 9? Give me a break.

Best Supporting Actor

Should win: Christoph Waltz

Will win: Christoph Waltz

Have to agree with them on something. Strong multi-lingual comedic performance combined with an extraordinarily weak field in this category make Waltz my 2010 Academy Awards Lock of the Week. Hopefully, newcomer status doesn't hurt him.

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Mo'nique

Will win: Mo'nique

Penelope Cruz plays a crazy ex-lover so well that she should win an Oscar. Oh wait, she did. Last year. Same role. Mo'nique's character was a bit too nuts to be really convincing, but there's not much competition. If Maggie Gyllenhaal wins, I'll be livid…she was brutal in Crazy Heart and should not be nominated.

And the rest:

Animated Feature Film: Up

Art Direction: Avatar

Cinematography: The Hurt Locker

Costume Design: The Young Victoria

Documentary Feature: The Cove

Documentary Short: The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant

Film Editing: The Hurt Locker

Foreign Language Film: Das Weisse Band

Makeup: Star Trek

Music (Original Score): Up

Music (Original Song): "The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)"

Short Film (Animated): A Matter of Loaf and Death

Short Film (Live Action): The Door

Sound Editing: Avatar

Sound Mixing: Avatar

Visual Effects: Avatar

Monday, February 22, 2010

Let's Talk About A Serious Man...

In a year of mostly sub-par movies, A Serious Man is like a flower that grew out of a pot of dirt. It's the kind of film one gets to make after winning the Best Picture Oscar.

This one probably isn't going to make much sense unless you know a little bit about the story of Job, which attempts to reconcile the existence of suffering or evil with the existence of God. Job was blessed with wealth and family, so basically, God made a bet with Satan that allowed Satan to remove those things, and still, Job would continue to praise God. Once his possessions and children are taken away, Job's wife suggests that Job "curse God and die." Despite his difficult circumstances, he does not curse God, but rather curses the day of his birth.

Knowing this, we can find the links and similarities between Job and Larry Gopnik. Larry never curses God; this is proven in the scene at the pool with his brother, where his brother blames Hashem for all his problems, but Larry does not agree. When Larry goes to the senior Rabbi, Rabbi Marshak, or the one who is closest to God, he is too busy to see him. This symbolizes the ridiculousness of spirituality being able to answer life's questions. And of course, the tornado at the end alludes to God speaking to Job from the whirlwind, saying that He will not explain why these bad things are happening to him. "Accept the mystery," Clive's father tells Larry, when confronted about the envelope of money left on his desk. Larry also says in his lecture: "The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can't ever really know...what's going on. So it shouldn't bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for it on the mid-term."

There are other religious allusions as well: Larry looking from his roof to see Mrs. Samsky sunbathing nude in the backyard is similar to King David seeing Bathsheba. My own interpretation is that Mrs. Samsky is a pleasing form of the devil, trying to tempt Larry to commit adultery.

What really ties the film together nicely is the allusion to Schrodinger's cat. Very simply stated, Schrodinger proposed an experiment where a cat in a closed box was either alive or dead depending on the state of a subatomic particle. The thought experiment serves to illustrate the bizarre nature of quantum mechanics. We see this at the end, when Larry is agonizing over whether or not to accept Clive's bribe. Almost as soon as he does, he receives a phone call from his doctor indicating bad medical news.

When all else fails, know that the first five minutes (the Eastern Europe scene) explains the rest of the movie: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." The alternative, according to the Coens, is to curse God and die.

This can be a frustrating picture to get through at first, especially if you don't get some of the references, since the story doesn't seem to go anywhere and nothing seems to happen. But a little research goes a long way to really appreciating this one.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Let's Talk About Avatar...

(Caution: May contain traces of spoilers...)

You might have heard of it. That movie with the blue aliens? James Cameron's big bad-ass $200 million comeback picture? The one that is critically acclaimed and Rotten Tomatoes Certified Fresh? I saw it on Boxing Day and thought I would give it a few days before I commented.

Let's get this out of the way early: the film is a technical masterpiece. The editing, visual effects, sound, sound editing, musical score...it all kicks ass. Unfortunately, watching it in the 3rd row in 3D doesn't kick ass. I was constantly swatting at the bugs in front of my face. So what's my problem? I've heard the word "revolutionary" being thrown around in reference to this picture. And that's not entirely accurate. The film makes extensive use of performance capture, which is 14 years old. The 200 people in the world who owned an Atari Jaguar would know this. Beyond that, we saw it in The Mummy, the Star Wars prequels, the King Kong remake, Lord of the Rings, Monster House, Crappy Feet, The Polar Express, and many more. James Cameron has been on the visual effects frontier before: remember when the T-1000 melts into a puddle and then reconstructs? We shit our pants! But we were also witnessing major breakthroughs in CGI. Now, Cameron finds himself 10 years behind the curve. He did make some improvements to performance capture though, like better facial expressions. But it wasn't the same, because you knew exactly how it was going on. All those Na'vi people were actually wearing body suits covered with many small sensors and performing in front of a green screen. It was better in the case of Terminator 2 when you had no idea how these effects were being created, or even in the original Star Wars trilogy, when all the alien creatures were actual physical manifestations, and the way the human characters interacted with them.

Cameron says his inspiration for the film was "every single science fiction book I read as a kid." He should have thrown in a few films too. Every time I think about it, I find more films that Avatar directly ripped off: The Matrix, Pocahontas, Braveheart, Dances with Wolves, The Core, and FernGully. It even rips off Brother Bear, which itself is a retread of The Lion King. Are we so desperate for ideas that we're now on 3rd generation retreads? Further proof that there are only 14 scripts in Hollywood.

This is one movie that you have to shut your critical self off for, or else you'll be shooting holes in the plot the whole time. The most glaring one is the unobtainium (which is slightly less valuable then nevergetium), which has anti-gravitational properties. The corporation wants this one plot of land so they can strip mine it, but the natives refuse to move because they consider it holy ground. But are there not entire mountains of the stuff floating in the sky where no natives are living? What's the reasoning here? Any sensible resource company would do anything to avoid fighting a war. It's very expensive, and bad PR.

If I were an American soldier, I would be really offended by this movie. The security personnel in this film are depicted as low-IQ morons who kill without feeling, with one exception. And the Colonel Quaritch character is so cliche and "Hoo-rah!" that I knew what he was going to say before he said it. When they are killing natives, it is depicted as a tragedy. When the natives are killing them, it's depicted as jolly good fun. That's the picture of morality that Cameron paints in this film: no grey areas. You either sing and dance in the forest with the Na'vi, or you burn their babies alive and piss on the ashes. Not exactly fair, is it? I also enjoyed the slow motion used in the battle scenes. Every war flick since All Quiet on the Western Front has done it. I thought it was a nice touch.


To be fair, none of it would have mattered if the film had had a twist ending. I needed to be wowed in the end to make up for the previous two and a half hours. And it set itself up for a twist pretty well, in my opinion. I was expecting Jake Sully to die, or perhaps Neytiri, or maybe the Jake Sully avatar would die and he would end up going back to earth with the rest of them. Who knows. But, no, Cameron presses the religion button very hard, confirms the existence of a soul, and has it transferred to the Avatar body. There's your Deus Ex Machina to top it all off. Everything is wrapped up in a neat little package and the audience goes home feeling good.

So anyway, go see Avatar if you must, and shell out the extra couple of bucks to see it in 3D. But if you don't like science fiction or appreciate good screenwriting, you'll be in for a rough ride.