Monthly Archives: August 2006

The Ant Bully

Lucas Nickel is a small kid, who gets pushed around by the local bullies and big kids. In retaliation, he torments a small ant colony in his front garden. One of the ants, Zoc, is a wizard who plans to save the colony by making a potion that will shrink “The Destroyer” (Lucas) to the size of an ant. What Zoc hadn’t counted on was the Queen’s decision about Lucas’s fate. Rather than sentencing him to death, she forces him to live with the colony, so that he can find out what it is like to be an ant himself. Adventures ensue. Lessons are learned. It’s a fun film.

But what bothered me about it is the billing the voice actors get. The big names on the movie poster are Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and Paul Giamatti. I have no problem with Cage and Roberts being there. They do the voices for Zoc and Hova, two of the main ant characters. But Streep and Giamatti both have exactly two scenes each. And not big scenes, either.

Until I saw the film, I had no idea that the mighty Bruce Campbell does the voice for Fugax, an ant scout. Campbell has a big role in this film, with substantially more screen time and more lines than Streep and Giamatti put together, and yet he is relegated to a much lower billing.

The emphasis placed on the voice talent–or rather, the lack of such emphasis–is something that I like about Pixar’s animated films. If you look at the posters and promotional material for Cars, for example, you won’t find Owen Wilson’s name in big letters, even though he’s a reasonably big box office draw right now. The fact that Pixar itself is a guarantee of quality allows them to concentrate on finding the right voice for their characters, rather than the right star to put on the poster. Would Craig T. Nelson have been given the lead voice in The Incredibles if Pixar had been unsure of a box office hit? Would Brad Bird have been given the opportunity to play Edna Mode (one of the best voice performances ever)?

I know that the reality of Hollywood is that big names are what draw an audience in. I just find it disappointing that even in animated features, where the actual presence of a big name actor is less relevant than in a live action film, this is still so clearly the case.


As others have pointed out, the plot of Cars is a rehash of Doc Hollywood: hot shot rookie racing car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is on his way to the big final race of the season when he gets separated from his support truck, and is pulled over for speeding through the sleepy town of Radiator Springs. He is sentenced to fix the town’s main street, and in the course of serving out his time, he finds friendship, love, and a certain amount of humility. The small-town core of the film is bracketed on both sides by a sports underdog plot that can’t help but stir the heart.

Outstanding computer animation is commonplace these days, but Pixar still manages to produce films that are–visually, at least–a cut above the rest. Cars is probably the most beautiful film they have done to date, but because they make it seem so effortless you probably won’t even realize it until the film is over and you think about some of the sequences. It isn’t as complex a film as The Incredibles, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a perfectly judged classic family film, the like of which is hard to find these days. The story is rich and well paced, the characters are memorable and likeable, and its wholesome themes are so well integrated that they don’t trigger waves of message-induced nausea. When it (inevitably) becomes a daily feature in our living room as soon as it is released on DVD, I won’t object in the least.

Miami Vice

So many action films these days are action comedies, and so many of the current glut of remakes tip knowing winks to the audience, that it came as a little bit of a surprise to find no humour whatsoever in Miami Vice. No shared jokes, no snappy retorts, no witty one-liners as the heroes casually blow away the bad guys. In fact, there’s not even any casualness. This is a very deliberate and very intense movie.

My two main criticisms are that the sound was muddy and unclear–I had a hard time following some of the dialogue–and that it peaked too early. The hostage scene at the trailer park felt like the climax to me, rather than the big confrontation that followed it. I still recommend it without hesitation, though.

My Super Ex Girlfriend

Ordinary guy Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson) starts dating shy, neurotic Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman), only to discover that she is actually the superheroine G-Girl. Jenny/G-Girl’s neuroses prove too much for Matt (she is especially jealous of his friendship with his co-worker Hannah) and he breaks up with her. A decision Jenny doesn’t take too well.

For the most part this is a funny, clever riff on the everyday life of a superhero. The humour is mature and sometimes crude, and much less silly than you might expect. Although Uma Thurman takes things a bit over-the-top, Rainn Wilson as Matt’s dorky buddy, and Eddie Izzard as the mild-mannered supervillain provide excellent support, and the cast spark off each other in a very engaging way.

In fact, right up until the closing scenes I was thoroughly enjoying myself. But OMG the ending is a mess. It shakes off any pretense of subtlety and intelligence, and dives into to a poorly shot and appallingly special-effected girly cat fight, followed by a “let’s all be friends” wrap-up in which all enmities are quickly forgiven and forgotten. Given the imagination and decent screenwriting apparent in the rest of the film, it’s a lapse of creativity that led to me shaking my head in disappointment as I walked out of the cinema.

Superman Returns

I know I’ll incur the wrath of Superman and Bryan Singer fans everywhere who loved this, but I’m afraid that Superman Returns didn’t do anything for me. (WARNING: significant spoilers ahead.)

Throughout the movie, I just didn’t know what I was supposed to feel. I couldn’t find its emotional centre. Was it Clark Kent’s/Superman’s struggle to pick up the pieces of his life after being away for five years? Was it Lois Lane’s struggle to figure out if she is still in love with the Man of Steel? Is it the stress inflicted on Lane’s marriage by the introduction of an impossibly perfect third man? Is it the discovery of a new father-son relationship? Is it the tension of the battle with Lex Luthor?

In an effort to turn Superman Returns into a complex superhero story for grown-ups (the holy grail of a Superhero Date Movie), director Singer seems to have lost sight of the fact that Superman is the ultimate comic book superhero. Personally, I’ve never found him particularly interesting because he is too powerful and too infallible. Clark Kent’s bumbling secret identity has always felt like a gratuitous affectation to counterbalance Superman’s extraordinariness: there is super-strong and there is super-weak, but the ambiguous middle levels are left for other comic books to handle.

However, taking the film on its own terms–as an attempt to create an emotionally rich and deep Superman story–there are two things that stood out for me as particular failures. The first is Lex Luthor. When he first appears, he is dripping with menace, a character of ruthless planning and selfish intent. By the time the credits roll, he has been reduced to a Scooby-Doo-style incompetent villain, a figure of mere ridicule. And yet, as the Bad Guy, he has to be capable of coming close to defeating Superman. His (dubious) comedic presence distracts from the film’s attempts to be serious.

The second failure is the screenplay’s refusal to treat the Superman-Lois Lane-Richard White (the man Lois married in Superman’s absence) love triangle seriously enough. In the “classic” version of such a tangled relationship, Lois Lane would have married the Wrong Guy. Richard White would have been handsome, rich, glib, and a total rotter under the hood. He would make his son call him “sir”, and he would be out womanizing in clubs and bars while Lois stayed home to take care of her child. Superman would return, Lois would realize that White was a bastard, and would walk out on him with a cutting farewell speech that highlighted all his failings as a human being.

But this Richard White isn’t that character. He is portrayed as a handsome, rich, ambitious, and rather decent guy. He loves his wife and son, even though he realizes that Lois once loved Superman and may still be in love with him. He is thoroughly human, but he still ends up saving Superman’s life. What kind of anguish is he going through?

In writing classes, writers are often suggested to ask the question: “where’s the pain?” Pain and suffering lie at the heart of emotionally significant stories, and the person I see as being hurt most by this love triangle is Richard.

Okay, so the film is Superman Returns, not Lois Lane’s Husband’s Heartache, but the fact that Richard White is developed to this extent, yet deprived of any opportunity to show his side of the story, emphasizes again the film’s lack of credibility as a “serious” piece.

So does it work as a crash-bang superhero flick, then? No. There was only one set piece I found genuinely thrilling, and that was the airplane sequence. The hair on my neck stood up when Clark Kent ran out of the bar and revealed the suit beneath his clothes, and the rescue he pulls off is amazing. But measured by that moment of brilliance, the disaster scenes at the end felt mundane, and the final continent-hauling came across as implausible.

The final indictment I have is that the closing scene, where Superman pours out his heart to his sleeping son, brought neither a tear to my eye nor a lump to my throat. Since becoming a father, even the slightest cinematic display of father-child tenderness makes me blubber. But here? Nothing. A film that leaves me cold in the face of such an apparently significant emotional outpouring is a poorly constructed one indeed.


Good, stupid fun, full of unnecessary action and implausible stunts. I felt that Alex Pettyfer (who plays Alex Rider) was too bland to be sufficiently heart-throbby, but maybe that’s because I’m a) straight and b) old enough to be his father. Alicia Silverstone is still hot, even though she plays a housekeeper whose main role seems to be to shout “Alex!” repeatedly in a variety of exasperated tones. Bill Nighy is the best thing in the film, though. Worth watching just for the way he munches a biscuit.

The Machinist

For the first ten minutes or so I found it hard to see past Christian Bale’s radical physical transformation into a horrifyingly emaciated stick figure. I had heard about him losing an enormous amount of weight for this role, but I didn’t realize just how far he had gone.

In the film, he plays Trevor Reznik, a factory machinist who is losing his mind. This is the cause of his weight loss. He hasn’t slept in a year, and has developed obsessive-compulsive cleaning behaviours. At work, his concentration is shot, and he is starting to see things. Or is he?

The story follows Reznik as he struggles to come to terms with a reality that is fragmenting around him, and lies squarely in the territory covered before by films like Jacob’s Ladder, Memento and Fight Club. It deals with the layers of (un)reality in a much more “arty” way, though: the direction and cinematography is beautifully sparse, but quite self-consciously so. The twist at the end is predictable, but still satisfying. It’s a movie for the mind, rather than for the heart.