Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” – There’s a snake in my boot!

Poster for "Toy Story 3"

This review will contain moderate spoilers.

My favorite toy as a kid was the Red Dragon Thunderzord, an eight-inch robot that could transform, through a series of clever twists, into a brilliantly articulated dragon that could fly around the room (with my assistance), demolish a Lego castle, eviscerate Stretch Armstrong, and wipe out his plastic army men without breaking a sweat. As of this writing, the zord is standing on my shelf…a nostalgic replacement I purchased from eBay a few years ago. The original has long since been lost…boxed up, thrown away, or donated. Who knows.

Over the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of rewatching Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story films, and I was struck by the realistically bittersweet ending of the last entry, in which Woody and the gang decide to stick with Andy, rationalizing that it’ll be fun while it lasts. And as we must expect, at the outset of the third installment, most of Andy’s toys have already disappeared – sold at yard sales, donated, or lost to the years – the sad and logical extension of all the perils built into the first two films. But a few favorites (of both ours and Andy’s) remain – cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn), piggy bank Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and the Slinky Dog (Blake Clark). But Andy is 17 now and hasn’t played with them in years; he’s about to leave for college, and his mom insists that he box up his toys for donation, attic storage, or the trash.

Through a series of mishaps and miscommunications, the toys are donated to a local daycare center. They meet the leader of their new community, Lotso (Ned Beatty), a plush, warm-sounding, purple “huggin’ bear” who tells them that being donated is the best thing that’s ever happened to them. He limps onward with a cane, giving them a glorious tour of their new home, and for a brief moment, it looks like Sunnyside Daycare might be a wondrous retirement for these toys. But Woody – steadfast Woody – won’t have it. He wants nothing more than to get home to Andy, even if there’s nothing his owner would rather do than box him up in the attic. While this may have just been his prejudice talking, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s right. The daycare center turns out to be a dystopian nightmare, with new toys thrown into the toddlers’ room to be smashed and mutilated by hands too young to play with them properly. Only the chosen few get a chance with the older kids, whose playtime might be a bit more stimulating than being shoved into a gaping nostril. Lotso is effectively a Stalinist overlord, ruling the daycare center with an iron fist (and a kindly silver tongue), even enforcing his very own Berlin Wall (a children’s bathroom) patrolled by a huge, lazy-eyed baby doll (which is somehow much more creepy walking around on two legs than on all fours). The toys are locked in cages and guarded by night, and any misbehavior is rewarded with a trip to “the box” (you don’t wanna know). And it’s at this point that Toy Story 3 becomes one of the best prison escape films I’ve ever seen.

The plan is intricate, and utilizes all of the toys to great effect (did you know Mrs. Potato Head can use her missing eyeball for remote viewing?). It has all the slickness of a joyful heist film, but is peppered with many downright harrowing character moments (a scene in which Buzz is held down and has his battery compartment forced open made me physically uncomfortable).

Still from "Toy Story 3"

Lotso is a remarkable villain. He is a merciless and brilliantly developed tyrant, and his past is not that dissimilar from Jessie’s. Like that poor cowgirl, he was abandoned by the girl that he cared for deeply, but unlike Jessie, it completely destroyed him. When Lotso faces off with Woody over a precarious trash dumpster, he furiously screams, “You are a toy! A piece of plastic!”. This moment eerily echoes the speech made by Woody to Buzz in the first Toy Story, but when Woody said this, he was just trying to knock some sense into a deluded space cadet. He was defining his life and the purpose of his existence. The tragedy of Lotso is expressed brilliantly as he screams the purpose of his existence: “We’re all just trash! Waiting to be thrown away! That’s all a toy is!”

Ned Beatty’s vocal performance completely sold me on this theme (mature and nihilistic though it was for a G-rated film), and it is followed by one of the most viscerally terrifying scenes I’ve ever experienced on film. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it, but director Lee Unkrich crafts an intense, fast-paced, and visually brilliant sequence, and manages to hit every believable and jarring emotional beat that the situation demands. The scene is also punctuated brilliantly by Randy Newman’s score (which shines throughout the film).

In the 15 years since the first Toy Story, Pixar’s animation has progressed immeasurably, but time and again, they have proven that their greatest strength is their understanding of character and story*. Pixar has crafted an absolutely gorgeous film here, but it is not about plastic toys – the soulless, lifeless, disposable pleasures of youth. It is a film about life, love, friendship, and loss; hope, despair, and finding one’s purpose. It is funny, exciting, surprisingly poignant, and easily Pixar’s finest film**. I’m a little wary of giving this film a perfect score, since I may well have handicapped myself by revisiting the first two films immediately beforehand. This might better be considered a rating for the entire trilogy, and not just its brilliant send-off – but I can’t help it. I’ve seen this movie twice and I wouldn’t change a thing.

FilmWonk rating: 10 out of 10

*This is one area in which Pixar has consistently beaten Dreamworks, and I was given a stark reminder of this during the end credits (minor spoiler), in which Buzz and Jessie dance to a Spanish-language version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. It could just be a throwaway gag, but it’s not. It builds on what’s come before. It’s a character moment with some surprising weight to it. And no amount of Shrek and Donkey dancing over Smash Mouth can touch moments like these. Well done, Pixar.
**Narrowly edging out The Incredibles for me.

Uwe Boll’s “Rampage” – I never thought I’d review this

Poster for "Rampage"

The film: Postal.
The scene: A large public square.
A small-town crowd gathers before a dais holding several local celebrities and media. The film’s director, Uwe Boll, is interviewed on camera about the rumors that his films are funded by Nazi gold (which he happily confirms). Verne Troyer (best known as Mini-Me from Austin Powers) sits in a wooden high-chair and introduces the town’s latest toy sensation, the Krotchy doll. A mascot-sized version of this doll – basically a huge, anthropomorphic dick – stands proudly on the stage nearby. A paunchy man dressed as Hitler barks into a microphone that terrorists are coming. A fight breaks out between the dick-man and Boll. Several Arab stereotypes rappel down the side of an adjacent building and start firing indiscriminately into the crowd. The cops, terrorists, Nazis, dick-man, Boll, and a nearby barista all pull out guns and start shooting each other. A man in a motorized wheelchair is graphically wounded and starts rotating uncontrollably. Boll personally shoots three small children (including a happy boy holding a lollipop), and we see several lingering shots of their slow-motion blood-splatter. The director catches a bullet to the crotch, and manages to squeak out one last line before collapsing: “I hate video games…”

Thus spake Uwe Boll, that prolific and panned writer/director of an untold number of video game adaptations. I can assure you, dear reader, the scene above is not an aberration – of the three Boll films I’ve seen, not a single moment strayed from the nonsensical, immature, and patently offensive formula you see above.

Until now.

His latest outing, Rampage, is not an adaptation of a video game, but rather a story of a young man (Brendan Fletcher) who becomes dissatisfied with his life and the society he lives in, and decides to go on a killing spree. Now, please brace yourself, because my shocking admission is this – the first act of Rampage reminded me rather favorably of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Like that film (which was a loose dramatization of the Columbine shootings), Boll prefaces his explosive finale with an impressive degree of character development. While he proceeds with a fraction of Van Sant’s subtlety or narrative coherence, he still manages to effectively convey the important points about the young, disturbed man who is Bill Williamson. He hates his life. He hates his parents. He hates America, global warming, and the Iraq War. He hates the barista who made him a piss-poor macchiato. These scenes are intercut with Williamson’s video manifesto, in which explains his various beefs with America (using the same half-dozen lines of nihilistic claptrap repeated over and over). Fletcher’s performance isn’t demanding or spectacular, but it’s effectively chilling, and gives some surprising depth to the character. While this act could have used some improved editing, I can’t argue with its effectiveness, and it showed some remarkable restraint on the part of the writer/director.

Still from "Rampage"

And then the “fun” begins. Bill drives a remote-controlled van into a police station and detonates a massive bomb (which conveniently displays “GAME OVER” to the approaching cops before vaporizing them). The ensuing CGI explosion looks like something out of Independence Day, complete with the classic rear-view mirror shot as Bill peels out to avoid the massive, car-tossing fireball. He dons a glorious suit of Kevlar, pulls a pair of never-ending submachine guns, and proceeds with an epic and sadistic killing spree. Bill Williamson is the man with the plan, demonstrating ingenuity and invulnerability worthy of Jack Bauer, but for no grand purpose apart from mass murder. Perhaps it’s my massive exposure to cinematic violence speaking, but Boll actually manages to make this heinous assault on innocent life seem…cool.

And that’s how uncomfortable Rampage is. The film glamorizes violence in a way that’s really no worse than stylistic bloodbaths like Bad Boys 2, but proceeds with a disturbing level of sadism and nihilistic fervor. The film applies the logic of the “torture porn” genre to a gleeful shooting spree, rendering the audience partially complicit in the horrors to which they’re choosing to subject themselves. The juxtaposition of these themes with Boll’s over-the-top action direction is surprisingly effective. And in a sequence that could just be nonstop, mindless shooting, Boll manages to craft some remarkable moments of tension (a scene in which Bill quietly enters a crowded bingo hall was far more terrifying than any of the moments in which he just stormed into a building shooting).

The film’s ending is laughable and thematically dubious, and much of the acting and improvised dialogue was downright awful. But this was a tense and riveting film – I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, despite wanting to at several points. Is it a good film? Very nearly. And it’s easily the best thing I’ve seen from Boll.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Vincenzo Natali’s “Splice” – What hath man wrought?

“Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms; creating or implanting embryos for experiments; creating human-animal hybrids; and buying, selling or patenting human embryos.”

-George W. Bush

We all heard it, or at least heard about it – the moment when the President of the United States, perhaps after watching Mansquito on the Sci-Fi Channel, stood before Congress for a Constitutionally-mandated State of the Union and demanded that they ban the creation of human-animal hybrids. We laughed, or at least chuckled a bit. Most of us knew about Dolly, the cloned sheep. A few of us might’ve seen the mouse with a mock human ear on its back. But human-animal hybrids? Did the President honestly expect us to believe that there’s a lab somewhere diligently toiling to build its very own centaur?

From Cube director Vincenzo Natali comes Splice, a provocative and disturbing drama that explores that very possibility. The film stars Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley as Clive and Elsa, a pair of rockstar geneticists working to synthesize a miraculous, disease-fighting protein by splicing together DNA from a variety of different animals. The lab’s aesthetic is very pop-sci… Think “CSI” with snazzier wardrobe – I daresay Adrian Brody sports a different novelty geek tee in every scene. The two scientists are also romantically involved, which makes their almost giddy pursuit of new life that much more poignant. Their first several creations are failures, pickling grotesquely in jars next to celebratory champagne bottles with the name of each prospective bioengineered couple – “Adam and Eve”, “Sid and Nancy”, and the latest – the still-living “Fred and Ginger”. Appropriately, these two look like a pair of huge, malformed guinea pigs. With no faces and third-degree burns. They’re monstrous to behold, and serve quite effectively to remind the viewer that it took millions of years of evolution to make us look as sexy as we do now, and a bit of random DNA splicing is likely to end up lacking in the aesthetic department.

'How do you know what she'll do?'
'I just know, okay?!'

With this in mind, it makes sense that Clive and Elsa would go behind the backs of their bosses to incorporate human DNA into the mix, but it’s still a bit of a cinematic conceit that the resulting creature looks much less horrifying than Fred and Ginger. Dren, as she comes to be called [Nerd spelled backwards], looks more or less human from the torso up, but sports double-jointed legs, feet that are equal parts monkey and kangaroo, and a rather ominous looking tail (Didn’t Chekhov say something about a huge, venomous spike in the first act?).

The creature design and visual effects are just superb. Much like the creatures of Will Wright’s “Spore”, Dren was is clearly designed to be viewed in stages; to this end, we have cinematic conceit #2… Her aging is rapidly accelerated. After a series of CG quasi-fetuses, Dren is played by a human child with various practical and CG tweaks. As an adult, she is played to great effect by French actress/model Delphine Chanéac. For a performance in which she never utters human speech, Chanéac makes Dren into at least a somewhat legitimate “character”. But she’s also bald, she never blinks, her head darts around like a bird, and she moves with an animalistic fluidity and speed. Like the residents of the uncanny valley, Dren seems irrevocably human, and yet even when her animal parts aren’t visible, she just seems…wrong.

Consequently, Elsa’s interaction with Dren is pretty jarring at first. She seems to forms a maternal bond almost immediately, to Clive’s chagrin. But while her relationship with Dren developed mostly organically, Elsa didn’t completely work for me as a character… She starts off as the moral “Eve” of the situation, acting as the impetus behind the creation of the beast and then dragging Clive along for the ride, but as the film goes on, her history and motivations get a bit muddled (particularly by the rushed introduction of the character’s less than healthy upbringing). In spite of these minor difficulties, Polley gives a fantastic performance, the chemistry between her and Brody is undeniable. They are completely believable together as both a romantic couple and quasi-parents (although this may be the most striking example yet of why a couple shouldn’t work together!).

At first, Elsa and Clive seem almost high on life (which seems plausible enough for cutting edge geneticists), but their boldness and arrogance is thoroughly smacked down as the film goes on. We are run through a myriad of moral and ethical questions regarding the creation and upbringing of a human-animal hybrid. There were the ones I expected – Do you treat it like a human or an animal? Like a pet or a research subject? – and a few others I frankly never would’ve imagined*. There was one question that I would have liked to see more of – what do you teach a creature with near-human intelligence? We see a bit of this when Dren is a child, but due to her rapid aging and character changes, this question is too hastily abandoned. Nonetheless, Splice is quite impressive as a bioethical thought experiment, perhaps joining the ranks alongside (but not quite eclipsing) Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. And like that film, it tackles material that will probably no longer be science fiction in a decade or two.

'None of her animal components have predatory characteristics.'
'There is the human element...'

Splice also reminded me of Jurassic Park, reiterating that film’s ethos of “life will find a way”. The only problem with the film’s portrayal is that in the case of a designer organism, it’s not entirely clear – either to us or the organism itself – what exactly it’s finding a way to do. It doesn’t fit in with the natural order, and its behavior (and relationship with other creatures) is governed largely by overlapping and often contradictory tidbits of chemical instinct. I may be giving Splice too much credit, but this naturalistic chaos may well be the point the film is trying to make. And like Jurassic Park before it, the characters certainly pay a believable price for their hubris.

In its marketing, Splice looks more or less like a typical monster flick, although only about 10% of it is what I would really call creature-horror. Nonetheless, Vincenzo Natali’s direction throughout the film ably plays on monster movie conventions to add additional stakes (and a few brilliant moments of dark comedy) to what might otherwise be an overwrought morality play. Splice may well be one of my favorite films of this year, but it is also one of the most visceral and shocking things I’ve ever seen, and it’s definitely not for everyone. But Natali has once again proven himself a thoughtful and provocative sci-fi writer/director. Splice may not explore every possibility of its audacious premise, but it is still a brilliant and haunting achievement.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

*Ah, the fevered dream of every sci-fi explorer from James Kirk to Jason Mewes. Was I surprised? Certainly. Disturbed? Not really**.
**(the first time, at least)