#116 - Hopscotch

Dedicated To
Ronald Neame
1911 - 2010

Added 6/21/10

Hello again, film fans! I’m sorry that the Electric Theatre’s planned week-long hiatus stretched out a bit longer than I’d anticipated, although I should have realized that I wouldn’t immediately have anything to write about when I got back. Fortunately, I’ve rectified that situation so let’s raise the curtain on this week’s flicker shows.


Toy Story 3

I approached Toy Story 3 cautiously, fully prepared to be disappointed. True, Pixar’s track record is extraordinary but it isn’t spotless. Even the best filmmakers have been struck down by the curse of the second sequel. Too often, it’s one trip to the well too many. Not here. Most studios would have been content to go the “continuing adventures” route with this franchise, churning out separate, unconnected movies for as long as the series remained profitable. Pixar has done something much more difficult and meaningful, creating a bona fide trilogy, giving each entry its own themes and weaving a legitimate dramatic arc for these characters that rivals most live-action series. The result is a movie that’s colorful, exciting, funny, and surprisingly intense.

The colorful, exciting and funny parts of this equation should come as no surprise. Even Cars, which for my money is Pixar’s weakest effort by a country mile, is visually dazzling. But it’s hard not to be impressed by the quality of the animation here. Pixar has come a long way since the original Toy Story back in 1995, particularly when it comes to animating human beings. Andy, now college-bound, looks and moves like a real person. They’ve also made great strides with texturing. Even considering how good their earlier movies looked, it’s a mere warm-up for the level of detail on display here, especially in the new toys at the daycare center. Lotso the bear looks real enough to touch and Big Baby is genuinely creepy with its droopy eye and faded scribbles on its leg. And once again, Pixar reminds us that there is no animation studio better at finding the right voice actor for every part. All the old favorites are in fine form (I was a bit shocked to realize that John Morris has provided the voice of Andy in every Toy Story film since 1995) and the new additions are ideal, particularly Michael Keaton as Ken. (Dear Tim Burton…please give Johnny Depp a rest and make another movie with Michael Keaton soon. He’s great and we miss him. Thanks.)

But what makes Toy Story 3 so memorable isn’t the story or the technical wizardry on display or the comedy. Actually, the movie sags a bit in the middle and I felt myself impatiently wanting director Lee Unkrich to move things along. But the final third more than compensates with moments that are shockingly grim and ultimately, emotionally resonant. The series has done a magnificent job capturing the special connection between a child and his or her toys. If you find yourself choking back a tear at the end, you can take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. When I left home, I gave most of my toys to my younger brother. Today, some of those would be worth a lot of money and I’ve occasionally regretted that decision. But watching Toy Story 3 reminded me how happy my brother was to get those toys and I knew I’d done the right thing.

If the team at Pixar is as smart as I think they are, Toy Story 3 will be the last we see of Woody, Buzz and the gang. It’s an absolutely perfect way to say goodbye to these characters. As the film ends and the credits roll, nothing more needs to be said. Pixar will certainly move on to new challenges and odds are that they’ll make many more films that enchant, amaze and touch us deeply. Toy Story introduced us to what they were capable of and the series will always be a touchstone for the studio. Toy Story 3 closes this chapter of Pixar’s remarkable history with grace and style. I can’t wait to see where they take us next.
(* * * ½)

Jonah Hex

As a fan of both comic books and westerns, I know and like the character of Jonah Hex, the hideously scarred bounty hunter of the old west, which puts me ahead of most moviegoers who have never heard of him and couldn’t care less. Given his relative obscurity, a Hex movie offered a chance to make a wild, go-for-broke western unlike anything since the glory days of Django and Sergio Leone. Well, that chance has been completely wasted. Jonah Hex is the most slapdash, half-assed movie of the year. And considering that so far this has been the most slapdash, half-assed year of films I’ve seen in decades, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Let me try to piece this thing together. Josh Brolin plays Hex, a confederate soldier in the Civil War who rebels against his commanding officer (John Malkovich), killing his son in the process. Malkovich gets his revenge by slaughtering the Hex family and branding Jonah’s face. Near death, Hex gets the ability to speak to the dead, becoming a bounty hunter when he hears that Malkovich was killed in a fire. As it turns out, he’s alive and kicking, assembling a super-weapon invented by Eli Whitney that shoots glowing yellow balls of…well, something…Unobtainium perhaps. Anyway, it blows stuff up real good. Hex is recruited by President Grant (Aidan Quinn) to stop the madman before he destroys Washington during America’s Centennial celebration. Oh, and Megan Fox is a whore.

The first sign of trouble comes early on when Hex’s origin abruptly switches to animation. Now, I have no problem with animation. Jonah Hex is a comic book character and director Jimmy Hayward’s background is in animation (his previous directorial effort was the better-than-I-expected Horton Hears A Who), so the choice makes sense. But this is bad, cheap animation. We’re talking late-90s made-for-internet level work. Things momentarily look up as Hex lays waste to a town with horse-mounted machine guns, which you’ve got to admit is kind of cool. Enjoy it because it’s the last glimmer of inspiration you’ll see. Brolin does the best he can as Hex, which is more than you can say for Malkovich. He gives the kind of slightly disengaged performance he usually saves for movies like this, pausing before he delivers a line as if he’s trying to come up with something better before deciding it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Will Arnett from Arrested Development turns up, playing it straight as one of the President’s men, and it would be only slightly more bizarre and distracting if they had cast Betty White in the role. As for Megan Fox, there’s really no reason for her to be in the movie at all. She has a couple of scenes fighting off an aggressive suitor that go nowhere before getting kidnapped and held as a kind of hostage, although that plan doesn’t amount to much either.

The movie doesn’t so much race to its conclusion as it stumbles over itself trying to lumber to the finish line. It clocks in at a mere 80 minutes or so but it’d barely be an hour long if we didn’t see the flashback to Jonah’s origin no less than three times or lost the utterly pointless dream/fight sequence between Brolin and Malkovich. I assume it’s a dream, anyway. It might be something else entirely. You get the sense that the filmmakers screened their first rough cut of Jonah Hex for the studio and when the lights came up, the execs told them not to bother making any more changes. I have to assume Warner Bros. was contractually obligated to give this a theatrical release because there’s no other explanation why this didn’t go straight to video. Jonah Hex is an appalling misfire of a movie, an across-the-board failure on every level. It’s a safe bet that the odds of Marvel dipping into their Western characters and making a Rawhide Kid movie are now pretty much none. (*)


The Dish

I’m a sucker for stories that look at big, familiar stories from a new perspective and I have a soft spot for the low-key charm of Australian comedy. So it should come as no surprise that I was totally captivated by Rob Sitch’s The Dish, a funny, fact-based look at the 1969 moon landing. The only real question is why did it take me so long to discover this gem, originally released in 2000?

Sam Neill leads the cast as Cliff Buxton, the head of a team of radio operators running an enormous satellite dish in rural Australia. NASA originally wants to use the dish as a back-up for Apollo 11 but circumstances land the Australians in a key role receiving live television images from the moon. Patrick Warburton plays the NASA liaison who has a difficult time adjusting to the Australians’ more relaxed work ethic. Roy Billing plays the small-town mayor dealing with the arrival of the Prime Minister (Bille Brown) and the American ambassador (John McMartin).

Director Rob Sitch and his writing team are well-known television comedians, writers and performers on Australian television, which might explain the somewhat episodic feel of The Dish. This is not to say the movie is simply a collection of vignettes. Rather, it’s a well-constructed ensemble piece that truly develops each of these characters and makes them real. They’ve been given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a part of history and The Dish makes you feel what a rare, awe-inspiring position that is to be in. Both Neill and Warburton are terrific but it’s the smaller roles, including Kevin Harrington and Tom Long as Neill’s team and Billing as the mayor, who really stand out and remain with you.

Rob Sitch has only directed one other feature film, 1997’s The Castle, but The Dish shows he has great potential on a bigger canvas. This is an absolutely charming movie, a real delight from beginning to end. I hope we’ll be seeing more from these filmmakers soon. (* * *)

Thanks to Greg Robinson for this week’s TFTQ recommendation! As always, be sure to clue me in on your favorite movies that have fallen through the cracks, either by dropping me an email or socially networking with Jahnke’s Electric Theatre on Facebook. Here’s hoping that the next great movie I see is your idea.

Your pal,

Jahnke's Electric Theater

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