When Lightning McQueen crashes during a race with a cocky, younger talent, he starts fearing retirement but tries to find his way back at a new racing center, and with a new, annoyingly enthusiastic trainer. The third film reconnects with the original in several ways. Beautifully designed in 3D, with harrowingly convincing racing scenes, earthy tones and an emotional story. Clearly, the hijinks of the second movie are a thing of the past… on the other hand, most ingredients here are much too familiar. Still, Cruz Ramirez is an engaging new character.
2017-U.S. Animated. 102 min. Color. Widescreen. Directed by Brian Fee. Voices of Owen Wilson (Lightning McQueen), Cristela Alonzo (Cruz Ramirez), Chris Cooper (Smokey), Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer… Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Kerry Washington, Bob Costas, John Ratzenberger, Lewis Hamilton, Cheech Marin.
Trivia: Previously unused recordings of Paul Newman from the first movie are used in some flashback scenes.
In 2006, Texas Monthly writer Pamela Colloff published an oral history of the 1966 massacre in Austin where a 25-year-old former Marine went to the 28th-floor observation deck of the tower at the University of Texas, found a suitable position and assumed the role of a sniper. Charles Whitman shot 42 people on campus that day, killing 16 (a 17th victim died of injuries as late as 2001). It’s a compelling read titled ”96 minutes”, detailing the drama from beginning to end. That article is also what inspired filmmaker Keith Maitland to direct this documentary, with Colloff as an executive producer. One might think the excellent article is enough, but this film finds a way to really take us to the university on that day.
August 1, 1966 was an unusually hot day in Austin, close to a hundred degrees. 18-year-old Claire Wilson was a freshman at the University of Texas, already eight-months pregnant. She was deeply in love with her boyfriend Tom, and that day they were having coffee. On their way out in the heat to feed the parking meter, Claire suddenly fell over as struck by lightning. Tom didn’t understand what was happening, until another bullet hit him, likely killing him instantly. As more people were targeted by the sniper, Claire lay there on the ground, with a dead boyfriend next to her and a baby in her belly that was not moving around anymore. Earlier that day, Charles Whitman had murdered his wife and mother and now he had come to the university to make his fantasy about shooting people from the tower real…
Made possible by crowdfunding
This isn’t really the story about Whitman, but his victims and the heroes who dared confront him up on that observation deck. Maitland realized early on that making this movie would be problematic. First of all, there was the issue of financing, but that worked out thanks to crowdfunding and a grant. Secondly, Maitland understood that filming a reenactment of the events on campus would be hard, especially since he really wanted his audience to understand the logistics and get close to it. In the end, he decided to use rotoscopic animation, a technology familiar from films like A Scanner Darkly (2006) where animators trace over live-action footage. After all, animation had been used to great effect in another documentary, Waltz With Bashir (2008). Maitland filmed the campus and then staged reenactments with a cast working against a green screen in his backyard. Watching this approach is initially a little jarring, but we’re soon drawn into the drama and its ”characters”. Actual footage from that day blends with the animation and the director shows not only a great eye for visuals but an excellent knack for storytelling, based on interviews, allowing us to get to know these people. We’re moved by what happens to them and also frequently at the edge of our seats because of the tension. Near the end of the film, some of the actual people who lived through that day (including Claire Wilson) appear to tell us more about what they experienced and what the aftermath was like, adding even more of an emotional impact. Watching Claire talk about how she forgives Charles Whitman for what he did to her is devastatingly powerful.
We are so used to these shootings on school campuses now. In 1966, that wasn’t common and what Whitman did has etched into the minds of everyone who was alive then. Near the end of this film, Keith Maitland draws a connection to the many shootings of the past decade, some of which we barely remember. There have been so many. How sick isn’t it that the 1966 massacre would only get attention for maybe 24 hours today?
Tower 2016-U.S. Part Animated. 82 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Megan Gilbride, Keith Maitland, Susan Thomson. Directed by Keith Maitland.
Trivia: The events were fictionalized in the TV movie The Deadly Tower (1975).
Last word: “When I went to the University of Texas, my first day of freshman year in 1994, I took a student tour and I asked about the tower shooting. I was told, ‘We’re really not supposed to talk about that.’ That was the official stance from the university. And then the tour guide said, ‘But if you stick around afterward, I’ll show you where there’s some bullet holes.’ Everywhere on campus there are remnants of this thing — these little scars. It’s actually more like an open wound over our community. Because it hadn’t been tended to; it was like a wound that had been infected but kind of lived with.” (Maitland, LA Weekly)
After failing to capture a former child actor turned supervillain, Gru and Lucy are fired from the Anti-Villain League… but then they meet Gru’s long-lost twin brother Dru. Another contrived sequel in this series, but one that’s very hard to dislike, right from the hilarious opening chase. Steve Carell is clearly having fun with his dual role. Colorful supporting characters, the minions and a new bad guy, a cheesy villain who’s stuck in the worst trends and fashions of the 1980s, provide guaranteed laughs. Packed with action, as always in this series, gorgeously designed in 3D and widescreen.
2017-U.S. Animated. 90 min. Color. Widescreen. Directed by Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda. Songs: Pharrell Williams. Voices of Steve Carell (Gru/Dru), Kristen Wiig (Lucy Wilde), Trey Parker (Balthazar Bratt), Miranda Cosgrove, Steve Coogan, Julie Andrews.
In 2029, Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team are hunting a hacker known as the Puppet Master who’s infiltrating a vast electronic network that uses cybernetic bodies. The film that inspired the Wachowski siblings to make The Matrix (1999) is an impressively staged, creative thriller about a futuristic society where everybody’s using enhanced ”shells” instead of their bodies, leading to philosophical musings on identity. Intense action is counterbalanced by quieter moments that are effectively scored by Kenji Kawai’s brooding music. Interesting throughout, even if tension comes and goes.
1995-Japan-Britain. Animated. 83 min. Color. Directed by Mamoru Oshii. Comic Book: Masamune Shirow. Music: Kenji Kawai. Voices of Atsuko Tanaka (Motoko Kusanagi), Akio Otsuka (Batou), Iemasa Kayumi (The Puppet Master), Koichi Yamadera, Tamio Oki, Yutaka Nakano.
Trivia: Original title: Kôkaku kidôtai. Rereleased in 3D in 2008. Followed by Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). The original manga was also adapted as an American live-action film, Ghost in the Shell (2017).
The 16-year-old daughter of a chief leaves her tribe and Polynesian island to find the demigod Maui, bringing a mystical stone that was lost for a millennium. Inspired by Polynesian mythology and the stories about the shapeshifting Maui in particular, the legendary Disney directors delivered their first entirely computer-animated film in 3D, and it’s a beauty. Engaging songs (by among others ”Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda), gorgeous sights and bursting with creativity, this is an adventure that overcomes a few slower stretches in its traditional Disney/Pixar formula. Dwayne Johnson is fun, and so are the dumbest pet chicken in history and the cute coconut pirates.
2016-U.S. Animated. 107 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Osnat Shurer. Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker. Screenplay: Jared Bush. Songs: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i (”You’re Welcome”, ”How Far I’ll Go”). Voices of Auli’i Cravalho (Moana Waialiki), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Rachel House (Tala Waialiki), Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger.
Trivia: Titled Vaiana in several European countries because of a trademark conflict, and Oceania in Italy to avoid confusion with the Italian porn star Moana Pozzi.
Last word: “So much of the movie takes place on the water, and the water was the hardest thing to animate. It’s always in motion, and then we wanted it to be a personality in the movie based on our trips to the South Pacific five years ago, where they talked about the water like it was alive, the ocean had feelings, and emotions, and we said we’ve really got to get that into the movie, but that meant our special effects who would normally do just the water… We had to team them up with character people who do the characters and acting so it moved not only like an ocean but have it really react, act, to be happy, sad, confused, frightened, whatever it might be.” (Musker, SlashFilm)
Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is dealing with his mother’s terminal illness and a bully at school when late one night he has an encounter with a ”monster”, a giant yew tree that has three stories to tell him. Patrick Ness brings his children’s book (and Jim Kay’s illustrations) vividly to life in collaboration with an impressive filmmaker who makes it impossible for us not to shed tears. But this isn’t a simpleminded tearjerker; its complex and for children totally relevant and relatable message about the nature of grief is illustrated in smart, symbolic ways where animation and fantasy blend into real life. Young MacDougall is perfectly cast as the boy who’s struggling with himself.
2016-Spain-Britain-U.S. Part Animated. 108 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Belén Atienza. Directed by J.A. Bayona. Screenplay, Novel: Patrick Ness. Cast: Lewis MacDougall (Conor O’Malley), Sigourney Weaver (Grandmother), Felicity Jones (Lizzie O’Malley), Toby Kebbell, James Melville, Lily-Rose Aslandogdu… Geraldine Chaplin. Voice of Liam Neeson.
Trivia: The novel was originally started by Siobhan Dowd, but she passed away before finishing it. Tom Holland served as a stand-in as the Monster during the making of the film.
Last word: “I have lots of friends who are illustrators, and we talk a lot about how what you don’t see is more important than what you can see in a painting. In that sense, I didn’t want to see the faces of the characters in the animated stories. For me, they’re more ideas than characters, so I thought, ‘I don’t want to see actors playing them.’ I realized the best way to do that was with drawings. So then it made perfect sense that Conor himself drew the characters. That created an immediate connection to me, because I was obsessed with drawing when I was a kid. And then I started to feel the whole story in an even more personal way.” (Bayona, The Verge)
After two Despicable Me films, we got a spin-off focusing on the lovable minions, their history of supporting villains through the ages and how they ended up in New York City in the 1960s, met a new boss – and then tried to rob Queen Elizabeth II in London. At first, it’s hard to picture a whole movie starring supporting characters whose sole motivation is to serve a larger-than-life villain… but audiences ate it up and the filmmakers serve up a reliably amusing series of ridiculous scenes throughout. The story is for the birds, but the movie as a whole is funny and cute, with Pierre Coffin’s voice work a key advantage.
2015-U.S. Animated. 91 min. Color. Directed by Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda. Voices of Sandra Bullock (Scarlet Overkill), Jon Hamm (Herb Overkill), Pierre Coffin (Minions), Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan… Jennifer Saunders, Steve Carell. Narrated by Geoffrey Rush.
14-year-old Hiro is a robotics genius with a brilliant future ahead of him at a prestigious university, but a sudden tragedy takes him in a different, dangerous direction. Disney’s first animated Marvel movie is an unexpectedly successful collaboration that brings out the best from both studios. Attractive entertainment in beautiful 3D for both kids and adults; even though there are intense battles with a supervillain, the film’s heart is in the right place. Funny, but the story also knows how to handle grief in a poignant way. A friendly, rational and inflatable robot called Baymax steals the show; the film also creates an eye-popping futuristic city by merging Tokyo with San Francisco.
2014-U.S. Animated. 102 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Roy Conli. Directed by Don Hall, Chris Williams. Screenplay: Jordan Roberts, Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson. Comic Book: Man of Action. Voices of Scott Adsit (Baymax), Ryan Potter (Hiro Hamada), Daniel Henney (Tadashi Hamada), T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr… James Cromwell, Maya Rudolph, Stan Lee.
Trivia: Followed by an animated TV series (2017- ).
Oscar: Best Animated Feature.
Last word: “I loved that part of the movie, the research phase, because it felt like you were a student in college again, you were just so wide-eyed and learning on a daily basis, almost to a point of over saturation because you’re consuming so much. But it’s also a really exciting time, and the cool thing is you don’t know how it’s going to come out the other side, you’re just ingesting as much as you can. Baymax is the perfect example of that as the process working so well, because prior to that Carnegie Mellon research trip, there was no inflatable robot, there was no character Baymax, there was a name, there was an idea to use a robot.” (Hall, Geeks of Doom)
Judy Hopps makes her dream come alive as the first rabbit to enter Zootopia’s police force; on parking duty, she stumbles across a plot where predator animals are disappearing… Two of the directors behind Bolt (2006) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012) joined forces for this attractive and hugely enjoyable 3D adventure that has a little clever fun with the difference between real animals and this genre’s typically Disneyfied characters. That becomes a key part of a buddy-cop story that pairs up the rabbit with a con-man fox. Well-made and witty, with amusing voice work; good entertainment for kids and adults alike. A sloth steals the film’s funniest scene.
2016-U.S. Animated. 108 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Clark Spencer. Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore. Screenplay: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston. Song: ”Try Everything” (performed by Shakira). Voices of Ginnifer Goodwin (Judy Hopps), Jason Bateman (Nick Wilde), Idris Elba (Bogo), Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt… Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Shakira, Kristen Bell.
Oscar: Best Animated Feature. Golden Globe: Best Animated Motion Picture.
Last word: “The very first place, well when John [Lasseter] asks you to pitch movies, new ideas for movies, he asks you to come in with at least three ideas, because he doesn’t want you to just put all your eggs in one basket. And I think Nathan Greno and I who just directed ‘Tangled’ came in and we pitched I think six ideas to John. And what a lot of those movies had in common were these anthropomorphic animal characters. And John got very excited about that. He said, well I don’t know about this one, but I like the animal characters and he got very excited about this idea that he said, ‘I will fully support any movie that shows animals running around in tiny clothes.'” (Howard, Slash Film)
A hot dog sausage and his bun girlfriend realize that their existence at the Shopwell’s supermarket is based on a lie – those groceries that humans bring out of the store are not saved, but eaten. A 3D animated comedy targeted at adult audiences, a very raunchy, foul-mouthed spoof of Disney/Pixar movies. Filled with the expected stoner and sex jokes that are part of every Seth Rogen comedy. Some of it is funny, and those looking for food-related puns will get their fill… but what makes other Rogen movies more satisfying is an emotional core. This one’s too childish.
2016-U.S. Animated. 89 min. Color. Directed by Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon. Screenplay: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir. Voices of Seth Rogen (Frank), Kristen Wiig (Brenda), Jonah Hill (Carl), Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco… Danny McBride, Paul Rudd, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek.
When a mutagen is stolen from a lab in the Arctic Circle, the now reformed Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to find the guilty – and he’s partnered with a female agent. The kind of sequel that audiences wanted to see, but where the filmmakers really seem to have struggled trying to come up with a way to continue the story. Well-paced, with lots of amusing scenes featuring Gru’s popular minions. Looks attractive in 3D… but all the frantic spy-movie action, trying to conceal the emptiness of the story, gets a little wearisome in the second half.
2013-U.S. Animated. 98 min. Color. Directed by Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud. Song: ”Happy” (Pharrell Williams). Voices of Steve Carell (Gru), Kristen Wiig (Lucy Wilde), Benjamin Bratt (Eduardo ”El Macho” Pérez), Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong… Steve Coogan.
Trivia: Al Pacino was originally hired to voice ”El Macho”, but dropped out. Followed by Despicable Me 3 (2017).
AN UNFORGETTABLE JOURNEY SHE PROBABLY WON’T REMEMBER.
One year after the events of Finding Nemo (2003), Dory begins to remember a few things about how she got separated from her parents; together with Marlin and Nemo, she sets out to find them. This 3D sequel is stunningly beautiful, showing just how amazingly technology is moving forward. However, the story is less impressive; largely copying the original, the adventure feels more bloated this time as well. But the filmmakers still vary their locations a lot and there’s so much fun to be had that audiences are not likely to care; some of the moments are touching. Spirited performances, including Ed O’Neill as a likably grumpy octopus.
2016-U.S. Animated. 103 min. Color. Produced by Lindsey Collins. Directed by Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane. Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse. Music: Thomas Newman. Voices ofEllen DeGeneres (Dory), Albert Brooks (Marlin), Ed O’Neill (Hank), Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Hayden Rolence… Ty Burrell, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver, John Ratzenberger, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett, Allison Janney.
Trivia: Alexander Gould, who voiced Nemo in the original, can be heard as a delivery-truck driver and his co-worker. Dafoe, Garrett and Janney appear in a post-credits scene as the characters they voiced in the first film.
Last word: “The first thing to know is nothing that we had made [on ‘Finding Nemo’] still exists. As Andrew said to someone else, it’s like trying to boot up your old computer from 13 years ago. It just doesn’t exist. So we knew going in that we were going to be rebuilding and recreating anything that we were going to be using from the first film; characters or sets. And then invariably the question comes up: How much are we going to change it? Because, to your point, the rendering and the imagery and the capabilities are so much better 13 years later. It’s always a delicate balance.” (Collins, Screen Crush)
Sometimes I hate the band wagon during the awards season. You know what I mean – one documentary or animated film gets all the attention because the category is pretty small. In 2010, everybody simply decided that the wonderful Pixar film Up was the best of the bunch in the animated feature category and it went on to win the Golden Globe, the BAFTA and ultimately the Oscar. There was an automatic feel to it, even though another animated film, Coraline, was also hailed by critics and became a box-office hit. Up deserved its awards, but wouldn’t it have been nice if just one of them went to the equally great Coraline?
11-year-old Coraline Jones and her mom and dad move to the creaky Pink Palace Apartments in Ashland, Oregon. Coraline’s parents are usually busy with work and encourage her to explore the neighborhood. She runs into an annoying boy called Wybie, who’s the grandson of the landlady, and then she finds a rag doll with buttons for eyes… and a hidden small door in her apartment. Her mother helps her unlock it, on the condition that Coraline doesn’t disturb her anymore, but there is nothing but a brick wall behind it. Later that night, the girl wakes up and follows a mouse to the door – where she discovers that the brick wall is gone, replaced by a long corridor that leads her to an alternate version of the apartment… with alternate parents. Who have buttons for eyes.
Spicing up children’s entertainment
Writing that last sentence gave me the chills. This film may be animated, but director Henry Selick knows how to spice up children’s entertainment with elements of horror and comedy. His Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was a tremendously enjoyable Tim Burton-esque dark fantasy. Just like Coraline, that film was made with stop-motion animation, but this one is even more ambitious, technically and story-wise. Numerous sets were built and everything was further complicated by the addition of 3D that required stereoscopic camera solutions. Selick was also inspired by a Japanese animator, Tadahiro Uesugi, who designed the look of the film, coming up with the idea that colors should be muted in the real world and unrealistically bright in the Other World, as if to underscore how easy it is for Coraline to be seduced by her Other parents who do all the things that her real mom and dad are too busy for. The story, which has been compared to Lewis Carroll’s work, was originally written by Neil Gaiman and was much too short for a feature film. Gaiman expanded it with Selick, introducing among other things the character of Wybie who doesn’t appear in the original book, but feels like he could have. It’s a great, initially unpredictable story about how the grass may look greener on the other side, especially to a child who’s gotten used to the flaws of her parents. Sure, there’s something creepy about the idealized version of her mom and dad that she finds on the other end of that corridor… but life there is so sweet, after all! When the truth emerges, and we understand what message the film is conveying, we’re still hooked because it feels like we’re visitors in a unique, little world that constantly offers treats.
Coraline may be a nightmare, but it’s also funny and engaging, especially when it involves the folks who also live at Pink Palaces, including a Russian acrobat and the hilarious retired burlesque actresses Ms. Spink and Ms. Forcible (made memorable by the always solid Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French). A few scenes with them turn into marvelous musical fantasies that add even more eye candy (and laughs) to a film that’s already got plenty of it.
Coraline 2009-U.S. Animated. 100 min. Color. Produced by Claire Jennings, Bill Mechanic, Mary Sandell, Henry Selick. Production design, screenplay and direction byHenry Selick. Book: Neil Gaiman. Voices of Dakota Fanning (Coraline Jones), Teri Hatcher (Mel Jones/The Other Mother), John Hodgman (Charlie Jones/The Other Father), Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David… Ian McShane.
Last word: “Nobody liked the first draft, including Neil, even though it was incredibly faithful. [When I decided to add the character of Wybie] I realized that Coraline needed someone in her real world to talk to. Another kid seemed the most simple way to go. I set it in the U.S.. I kept a few characters British. Everyone was British in the novel. I wasn’t comfortable rewriting dialogue and trying to hold on to that. And there’s other details. The rhythms of a film are always different than a novel. You always have three acts. In the book she goes to this other world, and it’s very much a real place. I needed to have her go back and forth several times to build up. It’s multiple trips, and I decided to make it seem like a dream.” (Selick, Cinema Blend)