Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tangled & Faster

Ah, classic-style Disney animated movies, or in this case revamped classic Disney, where have you been?  This is a much-rhetorical question as indeed the real return of the "official" animated Disney movie line-up not counting certain 'other' movies like sequels or random things like Doug's 1st Movie or, of course, Pixar) really came back last year with The Princess and the Frog.  This isn't entirely to discount some of the other movies from the past few years, but until last year- under the guidance of new head-honcho John Lasseter and featuring the directors of classic fare like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid- Disney's official line-up looked lost.  It was a good start, and Tangled is an ever better next-step forward.  It doesn't try to pretend what it should be, conventional family entertainment for "all-ages" (as it might be said, albeit here the rating strangely is PG, maybe for a scene of brief violence), but it does give it some extra 'umph' in comedy and attitude.

In story it's got the basics of the straightforward fairy-tale (though with the changed name, so, y'know, as the marketing guys put it, so boys would go... yeah): it's the Rapunzel story, where a little baby with awesomely-magic hair (created by a flower that has such powers to make rejuvenation possible) is stolen by a youth-hungry woman Mother Gothel and taken up to the large tower where she is locked away (if only in 'word').  Cut ahead to 17 years later and hungry-to-go-outside Rapunzel is about to turn 18.  Mother Gothel is insistent in her "subtle" way that she can never leave, of course never revealing anything of her true intentions.  But then, wait, what about the 'fair prince?'  Not here - this time there's a bandit named Flynn Rider (nay Eugene Fitzherbert), who comes up to the tower by sorta-happy accident, surprises the hell out of Rapunzel, but offers the prospect she's been waiting for: to see the lighting of the lanterns in the village.

It's Disney, so there are the stock characters.  There's the plucky-super-CUTE sidekick in the form here of a chameleon.  There's the sorta not-good-but-not-bad side characters (the characters at the pub, who, I should note, give the most memorable song in the movie with "I've Got a Dream").  There's the aforementioned villain with nefarious, self-fulfilling intentions.  But here's the cool thing about Tangled: the stereotypes and conventions we've come to accept are given a revamp, but not to the point of being so noticeable or annoying or whatever (it's not, for example, a Dreamworks animated movie).  It's a tough rope to walk (my fellow C-Stumper Matt made a much better case for this dichotomy at Disney than I could), but it somehow works.  I was reminded of the quick-witted humor of a Warner brothers cartoon, even to the point of thinking back to what the Animaniacs writers would've done with material like this as very similar, and yet still thinking of the Disney formula, namely with the songs and the general outcome.

One of the things that makes Tangled so fresh is the approach to the characters, making them conventional and "family friendly" but genuinely funny, and (shock) without a reliance on a whole lot of pop culture gags or whatever.  The leads, Rapunzel and Rider, are likable people who have genuine concerns about what they're doing, and it's fun to see how they work out their conflicts (when Rapunzel finally comes down from the Tower for the first time she has a kind of "OMG this is awesome!" "OMG I am in soo much trouble!" thing that makes for some sweet-natured fun.  And Rider, somewhat more typical though more roguish and sarcastic than other Disney male-heroes in a female-dominated story (kind of like the John Cusack character in Anastasia maybe? didn't see that one, anyway moving on).  Hell, there's even a horse named Maximus that is made into a bad-ass of sorts as he is at first a bounty-hunter out to get Flynn Rider for his big reward, and then becomes his ally though still with reservations (and a belly full of apples).

The big surprise though is the Mother Gothel.  Matt, too, pointed out some of the genuine creativity with this character, but I'll elaborate: she is one of the most terrifying villains in Disney movie memory precisely because of her two-faced nature.  She's sweet and doting, and then cold as ice on the other.  She's like a toxic combination of adorable Christian-Conservative Mother who wants to keep her child sheltered from all of the harm in the world, and the subtly abrasive Guilt-Trippin' Jewish Mother who makes statements like "Oh great,  now *I'm* the bad guy!"  I don't know if I've ever seen a villain quite like her, and yet she has qualities like the Judge in 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' and Sleeping Beauty.  Oh, I should mention Sleeping Beauty more - this is like that, only, all overall, (get ready for this) better.

That is, except, maybe, most of the songs.  Disney thought they had a slam-dunk this time by bringing back Alan Menken for the songs, but most of them aren't memorable or catchy and a little clunky with music and lyrics (save for the aforementioned pub song and maybe parts of the lantern scene - oh by the way that scene is absolutely FANTASTIC visually as an experience).  What saves the movie is that it's gorgeously drawn (I say 'drawn' though it's CG, you'll see what I mean when you watch it), and it even has a one up on most movies period this year with its 3D.  Perhaps it's effective as it's hard to notice it some of the time- this was also the case reportedly with Toy Story 3 in 3D- but it works in its subtle way, and is most pronounced but beautifully so in the lantern sequence.  As the characters are in the foreground and we're still made to look at them, the background with all of those yellow marshmallow-like points give the glowing hue without distracting.  If more animated movies can follow Disney's trend, there might be a place for it just yet.

(and now for something completely different...)

Faster is a lean steak-n-potatoes movie.  Not much bullshit, only minor filler and mostly killer, and with characters that are so out of the textbook that it's admirable how, with the exception of a couple of big and almost disastrously implausible twists near the end (which I won't reveal here except to say it involves guns), it could be a story transplanted back to the 1940's with Robert Mitchum in the lead in gloriously-shadow-laden black and white, or in the 1970's with Charles Bronson with less bald and more mustache.

It's good, however, that the movie is out in 2010 as opposed to several years ago; I'm reminded of that two-week period of time, literally, when three revenge movies came out one after the other (Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Punisher and Man on Fire).  Faster owes a lot to the Punisher (revenge for a family member slain), certainly also to Kill Bill (a "death-list" that gets checked off a name one by one).  But to give some credit to George Tillman Jr - and contrary to what dudes said in their review as calling it a 'grindhouse' movie - it takes itself seriously enough to be enjoyed as just a straight-on dramatic thriller.  It's not being a so-crazy-it's-fun movie like a double-feature from the Weinsteins or even like the Crank movies.  It's just a straight up thriller stripped to (mostly) essentials; we believe the characters, as thin as (save for Billy Bob Thornton's "Cop") they might be, and that they are capable of what they do, or what they did.

Simple shit: "Driver" was what his profession entailed, getting-away from bank robberies with his brother and crew.  But the crew were set up buy someone, and the crew were shot and killed and, much more tragically for Driver, his brother.  Driver as shot, too, however now as a "Ghost" since the bullet didn't the brain, going out the cheek.  Ten years for the bank robbery.  Out and free, he kills a guy right away, just so he can get the "information" he needs.  He's a bit Frank Castle.  And a bit Terminator (does the guy even eat, and an enjoyable lack of subtlety all the way through).  His form of forgiveness is to call up one of the Dead-Men's sons and telling him the basic of what just happened.  He's dead.  "I'll kill you," the son says.  "Do what you got to do, but be ready to go down that path," Drive responds.  No shit.

Billy Bob Thorton's "Cop" (yes, introduced as such) is a little meatier as a character, and has more conflict going on than Driver as he has this murder case he asked for with this bald dude going around shooting former informants, and with trying to reconcile with his wife and son after being a heroin junkie for years.  This time Thornton isn't playing a louse for laughs, for straight drama, and it's refreshing.  A little (no, a lot) more basic is a character named "Killer" via title card who is a professional contractor, might call it quits with wife Leslie Bibb, but isn't quite ready as he's a little off his meds and has one more job to do.  For the money?  Nah, it's only one dollar.  It's the pride of the killer.  And his prey is just, you guessed it, the title.

I liked the no-frills approach to many of the scenes, and the action and chase scenes, when they do occur, are similarly cut-to-the-chase and down and dirty.  Perhaps that's what the appeal is through most of the film.  We know what will be done, and what needs to be done, like in a Punisher script or comic book as might be.  But it's interesting to see what small choices and details characters make, like when a showdown takes place in a seizure-inducing scene (uncomfortable but what the hell) where The Rock stares down Billy Bob Thornton with his gun, and Thornton is almost ready, nay prepared, to die, but he lets him live.  It's a scene where the intensity builds from the actors and the situation, if not so much the over-wrought lighting, and that has an appeal to it.

Again, the ending (or rather the climax) is a bit too silly to take after so much heavy drama, particularly in an exchange between the Rock and the actor Adewale (aka Mr. Echo) who plays a Tent-Revival Reverend by a river.  And some of the dialog can lean towards the cheesy if it's not careful (such as, say, any jokes for Carla Gugino - damn good and attractive actress, but no puns for the detective!)  But overall, if you just need to chillax on your barca-lounger with a six-pack, maybe by yourself, what the hell, with a "guy" movie that just cuts to the chase, this isn't a bad choice for action and suspense in a stripped-down, gladly conventional R-rated manner.

(Oh, and you may notice I called him The Rock.  It's not to disrespect the man's actual name and how he's now using it all the time as an actor but... for a movie like this, The Rock is all over it - so know your role and shut your mouth... Jabroni... ah, those were the days...)

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