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Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3

Are the toys headed for retirement?

It’s fair to note that Pixar have pushed their creative and technical boundaries a fair distance since the brilliant sequel Toy Story 2, which they rescued from the Disney direct-to-dvd bin, which proved that sequels can be both bigger & better. The likes of Wall-E with it’s beautiful, near-silent first act, or Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, which convincingly demonstrated that CGi can do realistic human animation and action, together, were both arguably a step forward, certainly technically and, with Wall-E, arguably dramatically too.

That, and the rule of diminishing returns had even a huge Pixar fan like myself more than a little concerned that Pixar were becoming very Disney-fied since the takeover, with their announcement of sequels toToy Story 1 & 2, Cars and Monsters Inc, and their switch to staggered international releases (something which, in the digital projection era / electronic delivery of digital films direct to cinemas, cannot be justified and really rankles). We all remember the poorer, direct-to-dvd fare that the ailing Disney put out to keep the cash flowing before being rescued and revived by Pixar themselves.

However, in the superb opening scene, Pixar dismiss out-of-hand any suggestion of lazily dialling in this third instalment by opening with a stunning re-working of the opening scene from the first film, yet also brilliantly tieing it into the sequel, smartly batting away any accusations that this was simply a cash-in on popular established characters. I felt like applauding there and then at their bravdo.

And the joys keep on coming with lovely nods to the previous two films adventures peoppering the film, yet never at the expense of alienating new viewers. The themes of loss, rejection and obsolescence are again front and centre, but underlying this film’s plotline most of all is the theme of friendship. Woody and the gang round up, through a series of mishaps, in a day centre for children, which appears on the surface to be a welcoming place where the gang will be played with by eager children every day – yet also serves as a clever allegory for retirement homes and that theme of obsolescence which is quite a brave theme to tackle in a family film, though Pixar can take brave risks due to the strength and confidence of their writing . Of course, all is not what it seems in this nursery, with the corridors and playrooms ruled with the soft, fluffy, strawberry-scented fist of Lotso, a cuddly, oh-so-cute yet damaged bear, who has a cynical streak running through him and severe abandonment issues.

Despite the plot and themes being familiar territory, Toy Story 3 feels fresh and full of energy, the new characters added in skillfully, the old ones all being given parts to play with Mr Potato-head in particular getting a lot of laughs in a wonderfully inventive and hilarious scene, and the brilliant shuffling army soldiers getting a nice cameo. And I have to mention  the film even has time to stuff in a  romance when Barbie  finds her Ken – their sub-story is at times as deliberately clichéd as a Mills & Boons novel, at times oh-so-modern and so, so funny.

There is action and laughs a-plenty, yet the film also manages to be heart-rendingly moving; at one point the toys are placed in a scene of so much peril they seem totally doomed – Pixar being brave enough to up the tension to an unbelievable level (and even amongst this they still have the skill to throw in a moment of beautiful poignancy) and despite the auditorium being packed with kids it fell completely hushed at this point. The tension is possibly the highest I’ve endured watching a movie, and this in a family film. There really seems NO escape for Ham, Slinky, Jessie, Buzz…

So yes, Pixar may have  pushed the boundaries of their art further than the technical demands of another Toy Story, but this is a masterpiece of writing, and a fittingly entertaining, funny and moving finale to what is easily the best animated trilogy ever conceived.

10/10

Moon

Moon

2009, Dir: Duncan Jones, starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey. Format: Region B Blu-ray Disc

70’s sci-fi is white. Gleaming white, lord knows how they can afford the bill for the Mr Sheen! In Duncan Jones debut feature, white is definitely the new black as he serves up a taut, tightly crafted love letter to the cerebral sci-fi films of his childhood like Silent Running, Solaris and of course 2001 – perhaps the whitest of movies committed to celluloid.

Whether down to script, or budget concerns (Jones eeks out great value for his $5 million budget) Moon is set almost entirely in one location – the helium3 mining base on the moon and is almost entirely a one man show. Fortunately, the budget stretched to indie-actor Sam Rockwell who plays “Sam”, the lone – apart from his AI computer “Gerty” (voiced by Kevin Spacey) – base operator who collects and sends home the precious energy gathered by giant harvesters from the regolith on the lunar surface. Nearly 3 years into his mission, and with live communications with earth and loved ones out of service, Sam is seeing hallucinations and finding his lonely exile beginning to take it’s toll on body & mind.

Whilst the focused script, lean running time, sparsely brilliant soundtrack by Clint Mansell and tour-de-force performance from Rockwell (Oscar voting committee be damned) all contribute to the mix, it’s the attention to detail and subtle, restrained direction from Jones that brings things together. The set is cleverly constructed to match the film’s intended scope ratio and allow for varied shooting and re-dressing, and the model work for the moon’s surface and harvesters, whilst noticeable, still looks far better than cheap cgi and gives an authentic sheen to the 70s sci-fi veneer.

I’ve avoided spoilers in this review though Jones is brave enough to throw his first twist or reveal into the screenplay early on but still leaves enough discoveries to keep the audience thinking as events unfold. The originality of the screenplay also stops the film ever feeling just like a hollow pastiche of films gone by and more a return to ‘grown-up’ sci-fi – a genre which has been sadly lacking for years with perhaps only the remake of Solaris and the ambitious, wordless opening half hour of Pixar’s Wall-E being notable entries into this sub-genre (hopefully a void that can be further filled by Ridley Scott’s return to his sci-fi roots for the Alien prequels).

This is an excellent debut that marked Jones out as one to watch, and whilst his next personal project gestates, his success with this movie saw him hired to helm the Jake Gyllenhal sci-fi tinged action thriller Source Code. (review soon). With a bigger budget and more toys at their fingers, there is always a risk with Directors that they may lose focus and restraint and go all Stephen Sommers on us (see Van Helsing for evidence that the less-is-more approach should not be deviated from).  Moon, however, suggests Jones has an instinct for serving the story as much as the spectacle.

moon score

Never give up, never surrender!

1999. Dir: Dean Parisot. Starring; Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell. Format: Blu-ray Disc. Video 4/5 Audio 5/5

The best parodies, or satires, are those that begin by poking fun at the enduring clichés, in-jokes and myths at a particular show or genre before going on to embrace them all.

Galaxy Quest, does this particularly well, poking fun at it’s subject whilst eventually becoming a loving tribute. Infact, the plot of the film is cleverly constructed around this concept.

The out-of-work, down-on-their-luck former cast of the long since cancelled tv show ‘Galaxy Quest’ are forced to endure, horror of horrors, eking a living out of attending fan conventions. Captain Taggart of the NSEA Protector, the fictional starship from the show, played by James Nesbitt (Tim Allen) lives off his screen persona, enjoying his ’star’ status amongst the rest of the cast, whilst irritating the rest of the show’s actors who have come to despise both their former roles and Nesbitt’s grandstanding.

At one convention Nesbitt manages to further alienate his co-stars by accepting a solo gig from what appear to be some diehard fans who have gone so far as to construct a set of the NSEA Protector whilst dressing and staying in character as an alien race called Thermians. What Nesbitt and his crew, who are soon on board as they realise they nearly missed out on a paying job, don’t yet know is that they actually ARE an alien race, who believe the transmitted episodes of the show to be historical documents, and have hired the crew to pilot their fully constructed NSEA Protector and conduct negotiations with their arch-enemy, the murderous warmonger Sarris…

Never give up, never surrender!

Without spoiling a lot of the in-jokes (don’t worry, only a working knowledge of Star Trek is required) there is a rich vein of humour to mine and the film delivers this in buckets. Witness Weaver’s Gwen Demarco as Lt Madison who insists she has one job one the ship, which is to parrot the computer’s voice messages, and is damn well going to do it even whilst her uniform disintegrates frame by frame, or Alan Rickman, who gets the best lines as trained Shakspearean actor Sir Alexander Dane who loathes his character Dr Lazarus and his inane catchphrase.

As befits a parody of Star Trek there are fights in quarries standing in for the surface of an alien planet, tops are removed or slowly destroyed over the course of the adventure, countdowns are averted only at the last second, and Sam Rockwell’s minor cast member who gets caught up in the adventure, convinced as he has no second name that he is the ‘red shirt’ crew member who exists only to be killed off.

What’s particularly enjoyable is just how these plot devices still manage to coalesce into a satisfying adventure in it’s own right, what would have sufficed as the plot of an episode but, sandwiched between the parody and wider plot, it is a perfect fit without being stretched.

It’s interesting that some of the crowd-pleasing elements of Galaxy Quest have the same enjoyment and beats as those which punctuate JJ Abrams action-packed reboot of Star Trek, even down to the ‘red-shirt’ joke coming full circle.

An enormously enjoyable movie which features an excellent cast, shoehorns a decent story into the satirical framework along with some genuine moments of humour (one rock/transporter moment is just genius) and is one of the better parodies due to it’s lack of cynicism. A solid, very funny actioner that has been criminally underrated, but if you are a major Star Trek fan you might, like me, consider this to be a minor classic.