Wreck-It Ralph– Friday, November 2 at AMC Loews Lincoln Square. Director: Rich Moore. Writers: Jennifer Lee & Phil Johnston. This terrific feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios is easily my favorite animated film so far this year. I saw it at a mid-morning showing on opening day that was packed, mostly with kids. This many kids in an audience usually makes me apprehensive. It reminds me of Saturday matinees when I was growing up, which were usually pretty chaotic, lots of chatter and running around. Even then I mainly just wanted to watch the movie (nerd alert!). But soon after Wreck-It Ralph began there was barely a peep. Everyone seemed transfixed, young and old alike. A sure sign that a film is really working is when it completely captures the attention of the audience.
I was disappointed to varying degrees earlier this year with Paranorman, Frankenweenie, Hotel Transylvania, and Brave. Wreck-It Ralph is a much stronger film. All of its pieces fit together in a thoroughly enjoyable way. Like most of the best animated films, there’s a sense of wonder, of discovery, inventiveness, and emotional content that feels real. Animated films that do this for me include The Iron Giant (1999 – greatly underrated), Spirited Away (2001), The Incredibles (2004), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Toy Story 3 (2010), and almost anything from Aardman Animations, going back to Creature Comforts and the thoroughly bonkers Wallace & Gromit shorts.
Here’s a trailer for Wreck-It Ralph. It’s an international version, which is a bit different from others I’ve seen. It conveys a good sense of the film.
Ralph is the antagonist in a video game called “Fixit-Felix, Jr.”, one of many games in an arcade. The premise is that, as with the characters in the Toy Story films who come to life when humans aren’t around, the characters in these games all have lives in a cyberspace reality inside the games. Ralph is a classic outsider, tired of his “bad guy” status and the isolation he feels because of that. Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of his struggle to become a “hero” in his world, to find acceptance. Along the way he meets his counterpart, another outsider named Venelope von Schweetz, who lives in a game called “Sugar Rush.” Here’s a clip of their first meeting.
Ralph is voiced by John C. Reilly and Vanelope by Sarah Silverman. They both bring a lot to the party, creating an emotional reality that goes a long way in helping us become invested in their characters. Here’s a clip of Sarah Silverman talking about her character.
Fixit-Felix, Jr., the hero of his game, is voiced by Jack McBrayer, best known for his role as Kenneth on the Tina Fey TV seriee 30 Rock. Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, the lead character in a high-tech military/sci-fi game called “Hero’s Duty,” who reluctantly joins Ralph in his quest, is voiced by Jane Lynch. I was a bit put off by her the few times I’ve watched Glee, but she’s perfect here.
The bottom line is that Wreck-It Ralph is an incredibly engaging, clever and inventive film from start to finish. It made me feel really good. You won’t be bored.
As a bonus, there’s a really great 7-minute black & white animated short called Paper Man that plays before Wreck-It Ralph. A young man, an office worker buried in paperwork, chances to meet a pretty young woman on a subway platform, who boards a train and leaves before he can say anything. The rest of the short concerns his efforts to get her attention with paper airplanes after he sees her through an open window in a office across the street from where he works. I tried to find a clip, but had no luck. Here’s a still I found which conveys the look of this wonderful, touching little film.
The Bay– Friday, November 2 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Director: Barry Levinson. Writer: Michael Wallach. This is a very effective little horror film, or eco-horror, to be more precise, as it concerns parasitic isopods mutated by various toxic spills in Chesapeake Bay that terrorize a small, ocean-front community by eating their way of their victims after they’ve infected them. This takes place over the course of a Fourth of July celebration filled with tourists, more fresh meat for these ghastly crustaceans sporting seven pairs of leg. Pretty grim, and they actually exist. The Bay has antecedents in sci-films of the 50s such as Them! (giant ants!), Tarantula (giant spider!), and many others. Atom bomb testing was frequently the culprit in those films. The Bay updates the scenario with environmental issues and the fear of viral contagion. It’s also yet another film presented as a patched-together documentary in the currently trendy “found footage” style. I guess we have the success of The Blair Witch Project to thank (or blame) for this trend. This can be a lazy way to tell a story, and it usually turns me off before I even see the film. But I have to say, it works very well here, just as it did in Chronicle earlier this year. Like any tool, it all depends how you use it.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Bay is that it was made by Barry Levinson, an Academy Award winning director. He kicked off his career most famously with Diner in 1982, followed by The Natural (1984), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Rain Man (1988), and recently You Don’t Know Jack (2010), an HBO movie with Al Pacino as Jack Kervorkian. These are just a few of his films. The point is, he’s a very good director and these are very good films, but most of them mainstream studio productions. That he would make a film like The Bay seems almost an anomaly (or maybe a mid-life crisis). Whatever the reason, it’s rather exciting that old-school directors are willing to tackle edgy material in new ways. William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) certainly did this with Bug in 2006, a corrosive, truly disturbing psychological horror film with Ashley Judd and the always fascinating Michael Shannon, tightly wound and freaked out as only he can be. Friedkin was less successful with Killer Joe earlier this year, adapted from a play by Tracy Letts (as was Bug), but you certainly can’t say he’s taking the easy out at this stage of his career. It’s like Levinson and Friedkin are reinventing themselves for a new marketplace, and producing some very interesting stuff in the process.
This film may not be everyone’s taste (and would be pretty uninteresting if it was), but if you like this kind of thing, which I definitely do, it’s pretty good. The Bay can be streamed from Amazon Instant Video for $3.99. Bug, which I strongly recommend, is also available via Amazon Instant Video for $1.99 and Netflix streaming or DVD.
Flight – Saturday, November 3 at AMC Loews Lincoln Square. Director: Robert Zemeckis. Writer: John Gatins. This is a very strong film about addiction and powerlessness. Lest that put you off, it’s also a gripping story, a kind of thriller, with a great performance by Denzel Washington and a return to live-action filmmaking by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away). Flight had my complete attention from beginning to end.
Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic commercial airline pilot who successfully crash lands a damaged aircraft with only 6 fatalities (4 passengers and 2 crew members) out of 104 passengers (or “souls,” as they’re referred to by a flight attendant when she reports “104 souls on board” at the beginning of the flight). This sequence, which we return to several times over the course of the film, is extremely harrowing, at least as frightening as the plane crashes in Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000) and Peter Weir’s Fearless (1993). Whip is initially hailed as a hero for managing the seemingly impossible feat of bringing this plane down without killing everyone on board. But the audience already knows that he was boozing the night before with one of the flight attendants and snorted coke just to get on his feet in time for his 9:00am flight. His hero status suddenly changes, and Whip finds out with a jolt that he’s now the subject of an investigation to determine if he was drunk during the flight, which could send him to prison. Whip’s adamant denial of his alcoholism, to himself and others, and how this plays out, forms the crux of the film.
Denzel Washington’s performance is the backbone of the film, but all the performances are strong. These include Bruce Greenwood as the airline union rep who has been friends with Whip for years; Don Cheadle as his lawyer; Kelly Reilly (a new face to me) as a recovering addict Whip becomes involved with; Melissa Leo as the lead NTSB investigator; and John Goodman as Whip’s drug supplier. Goodman’s performance may be a little over the top, blustery and out-sized, but it fits the character. He’s very effective and entertaining in his two scenes.
A performance that deserves special mention is that of James Badge Dale in a single scene as a cancer patient Whip encounters during his stay in the hospital after the crash. It’s night, and Whip has gone to a stairwell to smoke a cigarette. This is where he first meets Kelly Reilly’s character, Nicole, who’s also there for a smoke. They’re joined by Dale’s character (“Gaunt Young Man” in the credits), a very outgoing and engaging guy who apparently hasn’t got long to live. This struck me as a key scene in the film, though I don’t quite know how to say why that is. It just felt like it. In a very funny spiel, Dale talks about death and the preciousness of life. You sense it’s bravado, but there’s something so appealing and life-affirming about this kid who’s going to die that it’s rather heartbreaking. James Badge Dale has been good in everything I’ve seen him in (24, The Pacific, and the grossly underrated Rubicon, all on TV), but he really scores in this one scene.
The music track also deserves mention. Some might think the song choices (which include “Feelin’ Alright”/Joe Cocker, “With a Little Help from My Friends”/Beatles, “Ain’t No Sunshine”/Bill Withers, and “Gimme Shelter”/Rolling Stones) are a bit too obvious for the scenes they accompany, but for the most part I think they work. And besides, they’re all really great songs. I especially liked the use of “Gimme Shelter” and the Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Sweet Jane”. The instance that rather calls attention to itself is having the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” introduce John Goodman not once, but twice. It’s like, okay, we get it. But I wasn’t bothered all that much.
Everything pays off, is delivered in full, during the climactic NTSB hearing near the end of Flight. Sometimes there’s a scene, a moment in a film, that’s almost overwhelming, that makes me feel like the distance between myself and the screen has collapsed. In that moment I’m completely vulnerable to what the film is giving out. This scene, and the next two that close the film, really laid me out, which felt great. This might be a great film. Time will tell on that score, but for now Flight is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and that’s good enough for me. – Ted Hicks