Reappraising Raising Arizona: Why We Revisit Films

FOREWORD: You might be wondering why Check the Reel‘s been so barren. Briefly: I made the transition back to college at the start of September; since then schoolwork and personal life have done their part to keep my online output limited beyond cursory Facebook posts. Now I once again have the time, means, and energy to pick up with CtR. I did not drop film writing entirely during my hiatus. For some reviews and articles I’ve written recently, check out my school newspaper The Knox Student. To those who have continued to read CtR while I’ve been absent, thank you. I hope it continues to be of some interest.


It’s been a good autumn for film.

Scratch that: it’s been a fucking awesome autumn for film. I can’t remember a better time to attend movies on a regular basis than these last few months. If summer dragged between tentpoles, the end of August opened a can of worms with ParaNorman, and now – trucking through October, still a month away from the big Thanksgiving releases – I can name a dozen films at least worth a ticket for the discussion they inspire. Several of these films have already guaranteed places in my “Best of 2012” list. Regardless if Dredd, The Master, Seven Psychopaths, End of Watch, or Hotel Transylvania are accounted for at this year’s Oscars, they deserve to be experienced and shared; each speaks with a unique voice, showing visions of worlds and characters that linger with you long after leaving the theatre.

It’s also been an instructional time for film. While summer caters to superhero mega-hits and winter gushes with speculative award winners, fall welcomes film’s “Misfit Toys”: the weird genre experiments, not-quite-indie dramas, and Halloween frights you’ll find scrunched together on the marquee. Some seasons you can process every film with the same part of your brain. Not fall. You’re always switching gears, figuring out what viewing process the film demands and what method its madness wields.

You might be wondering why I listed Hotel Transylvania, a slapstick animated comedy about monsters voiced by Adam Sandler and Selena Gomez, alongside The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s dissection of human guilt, malady and obsession, a difficult but rewarding watch with images that match its ambition in beauty. How does the merciless End of Watch stand toe-to-toe with the shameless Dredd, one a few day in the life of two LAPD cops, the other a few days in the life of the steel-armored, dystopia-wandering, sci-fi menace Judge Dredd? These films clash in subject and delivery, and they cater to very different sets of expectations. How do we reconcile these genre barriers and view each film on equal ground?

The answer comes from a film released nearly thirty years ago, not in the fall but the spring, though it also carries the spirit and difficulty of autumn films. It baffled critics upon its release like Roger Ebert, continues to baffle viewers today, and I’m not afraid to admit for the longest time it stumped me too. I’ve seen it at least seven times, spread out across five years and many stages of my mental growth. Only now do I feel comfortable talking about The Coen Brothers’ quirky American fable, Raising Arizona, a film I fought just to love.

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Not the Only Titan: Moving Past the Age of Pixar

Last month the news broke that Pixar was working on Finding Nemo 2. Original Nemo director Andrew Stanton, reported to also helm the sequel, played the usual Hollywood game of denying without denying anything, and though Pixar’s made no official announcement Ellen Degeneres has entered talks to reprise her role as Dory. It’s not surprising: Toy Story 3 only had to begin production and we knew Pixar was in the sequel business. Cars 2 followed a year later, Monster University is on its way, and Finding Nemo has a 3D re-release coming up as well. A sequel also serves a useful PR role: Andrew Stanton’s live-action debut John Carter lost Disney $200 million (whether that’s his fault or Disney’s, who had no clue how to advertise the film, remains debatable). Revisiting well-trodden territory guaranteed to do gangbuster at the box office reconciles Stanton with Disney and increases likelihood he’ll get a second chance at live-action.

It makes perfect sense from a business standpoint; Pixar might even know how to work it creatively. Neither of this matters because it’s already upset purists who want only new ideas, and more will voice their anger once the first ads appear. Many others won’t let this news taint their image of Pixar. Trust Pixar, they’ll say, just as has. Don’t worry about the Cars series: Pixar makes that just for the merchandise, of course (Pixar has said no such thing); Brave wasn’t great but it had good intentions, and Merina’s a great role model for women (The film’s female director was replaced by a hyperactive man-child who describes Merina like an Irish Angelina Jolie). All Pixar’s sins are venial, and their fans absolve them immediately.

I don’t subscribe to either position. Maybe I once belonged to the “trust Pixar” camp, back when WALL-E and Up blew the roof off how we thought about feature animation, when Pixar’s biggest misstep was a harmless morality tale with talking cars. Now I see them outside black-and-white in all their shades of gray. Everything I said at the beginning of my Brave review still stands: they’re a team of motivated artists devoted to their craft and that’s awesome; they set a great example for the rest of the industry; few studios will ever have a run as successful as theirs…

But let’s face it: the “Age of Pixar,” the time when Pixar made a great movie every year – Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Ratatouille – when they were the only studio we could always count on, has passed. They did not “sell out” or “lose their touch.” They might make more great movies, maybe excellent ones. What they won’t do is make their films unchallenged. Their monopoly on the industry has broken, and we now live in an era of egalitarianism, of many great studios and many more great movies, which Pixar’s are only a small portion of.

Dreamworks, Laika, Sony and Aardman Animation have all picked up Pixar’s slack and started playing their A-game. My latest “Trailer Thrash” features three such films coming out this year from animators as talented as Pixar’s. It’s a real possibility, considering these and the already-released ParaNorman and The Pirates!, that this year’s top five animated films might not even include Brave. For an original film from Pixar that’s a big deal. It reminds us John Lasseter and gang aren’t Gods but fallible humans. They fail as much as they succeed, make decisions based solely on money, and face the reality others may do what they do but better.

Now that Pixar has indulged itself in producing more sequels they’ve become “part of the pack,” so to speak. That’s not to say these sequels can’t be good or Pixar will never make an original film again. It does acknowledge the company has exhausted their impetus towards original, innovative properties. What some thought was just a rest period from consistent innovation, the Toy Story and Cars sequels after Up, has turned out to be a definitive path confirmed by Monsters University and now Finding Nemo 2Pixar has two original features vaguely announced, a dinosaur movie (that’s never been done before) and a film “about the inside of a girl’s mind,” which… I have no idea what that means. They could be good. No doubt about it, Pixar might blow us away again. Right now though I’m more excited for the unironic, action-bombast of Rise of the Guardians, Tartakovsky’s slapstick retroactive Hotel Transylvania, Laika’s next film in their series of macabre suburban fairy tales, and films even deeper in the pipelines, ideas like a new Sylvain Chomet project, Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio, and a world folklore anthology helmed by, amongst others, Alfonso Cuaron, Michel Gondry, and Marjane Satrapi.

Hearing about the Finding Nemo sequel hasn’t hardened my heart against Pixar, but it’s reminded me there’s a whole other world of animated fare beyond them, taking advantage of the medium’s potential and achieving exciting things. A lot of this wouldn’t be possible without the groundwork Pixar laid, so I’ll always be grateful to them as innovators and the first to explore CGI as an artform; they’ve paved a legacy as great as Disney and Miyazaki’s. Now let’s look for new legacies, new animation heroes waiting to take form. It’s a great disservice to all filmmakers, Pixar included, if we cling to one even as others offer so much more.


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Trailer Thrash 4: Hotel Transylvania, Frankenweenie, Rise of the Guardians

Every Saturday, Check the Reel features Trailer Trash, a close look at previews, trailer, and sneak peeks for films not yet released. What does the rest of the year promise for theatres and Netflix accounts? Which are the masterpieces? Which are the flops? Serbian Filmmaker reaches into the future and tells you what to expect from Hollywood’s up and coming.

Any time you look back at 90s animation and say, “Kids now don’t have it like we did,” you can thank Genndy Tartakovsky for making yours the superior childhood. He created Cartoon Network’s first original cartoon, the hilarious Dexter’s Laboratory, and followed it with Samurai Jacka God amongst animated plebeians. It captured the stoic intensity of a samurai film, twisted it into a demented, fairy-tale dystopia shaped by world folklore, and paved the way for other landmark animation, including Greatest Cartoon Ever Avatar: The Last Airbender. (Also featuring the voice of Mako!) Watch all three if you haven’t already.

Tartakovsky hasn’t slacked off since: he’s given us a Star Wars miniseries more captivating in five-minute fragments than half of Lucas’s film saga; Sym-Bionic Titan, a sweet, short-lived fusion of John Hughes and Gundam; the storyboard for Iron Man 2; and now Hotel Transylvania, a screwball monster-comedy hitting theatres just in time for Halloween.

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ParaNorman: What Brave Should Have Been

After The Dark Knight Rises, I told myself, “That’s it for summer.” There was still another month-and-a-half of $200-300 million budget blockbusters to go, from Bourne Legacy to the Total Recall remake, and this weekend it ends with a literal bang as Expendables II rolls into theatres, just before kids return to high school or college. Even knowing this I find it hard to care. I haven’t seen these films yet, and I intend to, knowing I may well be surprised and like them; forgive me though if I’m not excited to see a movie whose main draw is it has Chuck Norris five years after Chuck Norris jokes stopped being funny.

There’s always room for surprise, though, even in the most heavily-advertised season of moviegoing. You look away long enough and something special might sneak up on you, blowing you out of the water, capturing the holy trinity of intelligence, daring, and audience empathy that characterizes the most cherished, commercially successful films.

Something special like ParaNorman.

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Trailer Thrash 3: Last Stand, Man with the Iron Fists, Gangster Squad, Man of Steel

Every Saturday, Check the Reel features Trailer Trash, a close look at previews, trailer, and sneak peeks for films not yet released. What does the rest of the year promise for theatres and Netflix accounts? Which are the masterpieces? Which are the flops? Serbian Filmmaker reaches into the future and tells you what to expect from Hollywood’s up and coming.

With The Expendables 2 out this weekend, it’s a fitting time for Schwarzenegger, the brawny Austrian who knows more about bench presses than the Stanislavski method, to establish his comeback in the world of film; Last Stand hopes we’ll forget the eight years we mocked Arnold for being a bodybuilder in governor’s clothing and see him once again as a bodybuilder and badass, like we did in Conan the Barbarian, Terminator 2, Predator, Commando, even Last Action Hero. Reputations die easy. Bringing them back: that can kill people.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Film

A friend responded to my Dark Knight Rises review with a pithy “So, uh… do you like any movie?”

Admittedly, most of my articles on Check the Reel have either been critical (Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man) or qualified in their praise (Ted, DKR), so I understood and explained yes, my blog makes me look like a curmudgeon but I really do enjoy most films. The misunderstanding cleared up, my friend only added that critics get to him sometimes, especially the sort “with a giant pole up his butt who can’t enjoy any movie other than Citizen Kane.”

It’s a common image: the snobby critic, or “Jay Sherman,” who hates anything fun, popular, or remotely mainstream, who only cares about artsy navel-gazers, films about life, death, the universe and our place in it. Anything less than 2001 is dog crap on your shoe. I understand the “Jay Sherman” as I do every stereotype: I see where it comes from, how it’s evolved into its current caricature, and I empathize… but it all boils down to misunderstanding rather than how critics actually behave.

And that misunderstanding concerns the question at the center of film discourse. It’s what you assume when you come back from the theatre and tell your friends how you liked the movie. It’s what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences assumes when it awards Best Picture. It’s taken for granted by nearly everybody even as it causes so much grief and aggression.

“What do we like when we like movies?”

It sounds so simple, looks so innocent. How hard is it to say why we like films?

Try to answer with one single-clause sentence and you’ll see why. Try to explain without time to think it through and it’s only slightly easier. Most critics don’t even bother answering, at least not directly, perhaps because they hold it self-evident or hope their collective work will illustrate their definition of a good film. But the more you think about it the less self evident it gets. We think we know films in the broadest, most technical sense, and the more we focus our vision, on the how and why of film, the farther astray we go. And there’s no hope in reading through a critic’s bibliography. We live in an age of light-speed information, where websites condense 800-word reviews to a sentence blurb and number score. Most readers don’t know Roger Ebert’s history, his philosophy, writing style, and growth as a critic. They see a red tomato or green splatter and know if they should put an angry post in the comment section.

I don’t want people to misunderstand or take offense at my work with Check the Reel. I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. So I write this in hopes we can find that common ground, and answer confidently when a friend asks, “How did you like the movie?”

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Trailer Thrash: Oz the Great and Powerful, The Life of Pi, Skyfall, Cloud Atlas

Every Saturday, Check the Reel features Trailer Trash, a close look at previews, trailer, and sneak peeks for films not yet released. What does the rest of the year promise for theatres and Netflix accounts? Which are the masterpieces? Which are the flops? Serbian Filmmaker reaches into the future and tells you what to expect from Hollywood’s up and coming.

Poor Sam Raimi. He only created the modern superhero film and paved the way for Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and The Avengers – now people are treating him like he spat on their grave. I don’t know when people decided Raimi never made a good Spider-Man movie. Was the third one that traumatizing? It was confused, sure, stretched thin across so many twists, villains, and heroes, but awful? Now people say all three films are bad. They’re too corny. Too old-fashioned. They didn’t take Spider-Man seriously enough. Since when do we punish filmmakers for kidding themselves?

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