Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Wreck-It Ralph

The Best Movies of 2012, Part 1

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The Raid: Redemption

Note: For an explanation of some of this list’s more glaring omissions, please see here.

10. The Raid: Redemption. In a year in which the issue of media violence returned to dominate the national conversation, this was the most violent movie of all, with more than an hour and a half of the most graphic combat and bloodshed imaginable. Yet it’s curiously thrilling, a member of a long line of martial-arts movies that space out scenes of bonecrunching combat with the regularity of dance numbers in a musical. At times, it’s more exhausting than exhilarating, with huge reserves of energy and invention devoted to the barest of B-movie storylines, but it still finds time for displays of old-fashioned charisma—in the form of future superstar Iko Uwais—and even a cops and gangsters plot with a few satisfying payoffs. There’s an American remake on the horizon, but I’ll only see it if they cast all the principal parts with the stars of The Departed.

The opening titles of Skyfall

9. Skyfall. It isn’t quite on the same level as Casino Royale, which remains the best of all the Bond movies, but director Sam Mendes still manages to assemble the most striking series of images around the idea of Bond that the series has ever seen. Its major weakness is its villain, who is introduced in memorable fashion but whose plan turns out to be depressingly uninteresting, and it fumbles a number of big moments, notably the revelation of Naomie Harris’s true identity. Still, this is a big, satisfying entertainment that finally completes the most protracted reboot in recent cinematic history, and even as it ties a bow on the franchise, it honors its past, thanks in large part to its dynamite opening credits and theme song, which I find myself humming on a daily basis.

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom

8. Moonrise Kingdom. One of Wes Anderson’s greatest strengths has always been his insight into the inner life of children—or of adults who behave like overgrown kids—and in twelve-year-old Sam and Suzy, he’s finally found the perfect pair he’s been seeking for his entire career. None of the adults, aside from Bob Balaban’s narrator, are drawn with the same level of vividness or affection, but perhaps it doesn’t matter: I see myself in these kids, and it’s clear that Anderson does as well. As always, his work is lavish with gags and visual puns, but what sticks with you is its tone of melancholy sweetness, and I won’t soon forget the image of those three brothers, in their pajamas, gathered around a Fisher Price turntable to listen to The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. (It also has my favorite line reading of the year: “Where’s my record player?”)

Richard Jenkins, Amy Acker, and Bradley Whitford in The Cabin in the Woods

7. The Cabin in the Woods. Of the two films from Joss Whedon’s miracle year, I suspect that this one will last the longest, since it’s the kind of movie that seems destined to be rediscovered by successive generations of passionate fans. It’s a savage deconstruction of slasher clichés—and arguably pursues the “zombie redneck torture family” trope a bit too monotonously—but also a love letter to the possibility of film, and reminds us how timid most movies really are. Above all, as a film that needs to be seen with as little advance knowledge as possible, it’s a short object lesson on the nature of surprise, and on how mechanical shocks have largely taken the place of the real thing. It’s likely to become a movie, like Psycho or Citizen Kane, in which the twists have passed into cultural currency, so if it’s still unspoiled for you, you owe it to yourself to see it now.

Wreck-It Ralph

6. Wreck-It Ralph. Far more than the wretched Brave, which is a movie I dislike all the more as time goes on, of all recent animated films, this is the one that makes me hopeful about the future of the medium. It’s an unabashedly mainstream movie, designed to appeal to all quadrants, with jokes that alternate between ingenious and obvious, but it’s also fun, colorful, tremendously appealing, and blessed with a script that keeps surprising us on the levels of both plot and character. Like Toy Story or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it takes a premise that could easily have turned into a commercial for itself and transforms it into something touching, weird, and undefinable. And it’s even better when paired with the wonderful short Paperman, which blends traditional and computer animation with a sense of grace that points the way forward for an entire art form.

Tomorrow: My top five movies of the year.

Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2013 at 9:50 am

Let’s twist again, like we did last summer

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Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense

Let’s face it: surprises are no longer very surprising. These days, with every thriller and horror movie and serialized drama required to deliver a mandatory plot twist or two, it’s hard to react to any but the most unexpected developments with more than a yawn—or, at best, a mental ranking of how the twist stacks up against the best of its predecessors. Twists aren’t necessarily bad in themselves: it can be fun to watch a show like The Vampire Diaries pile up one implausible plot development after another, and very occasionally, you still see a twist with real impact. (This usually happens in a genre when you aren’t expecting it, which partially explains why the most pleasing twist I saw all year was in Wreck-It Ralph.) But it’s no wonder that audiences have become jaded. We’ve all seen television shows bump off major characters in the middle of the season, or movies that reveal that the victim was the killer the entire time, and by now, we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Once surprises become obligatory, they start to feel like mechanical impositions from the outside, when the finest twists arise organically from the material, or at least should seem like they do.

At first, it might seem that the best way to surprise the audience is for the author to surprise himself, by a development that arises unexpectedly in a work already in progress. If the writer doesn’t see a plot twist coming, the logic goes, the reader isn’t likely to anticipate it either. There’s some merit to this argument, and in fact, each of my own novels contains a major plot point that I didn’t foresee until I was halfway through the first draft. In The Icon Thief, this involves the murder of a major character who was originally going to die in any case, but whose ultimate fate ended up not only affecting the novel’s ending, but the rest of the series. City of Exiles surprised me in a somewhat different way: I’d written the first half of the book on the assumption that one of the characters had an important secret. When the time came to actually write it, however, I found that I couldn’t make it work. Consequently, I had no choice but to dig through the cast of characters I’d already developed to see if someone else was available to play this particular role. The result surprised me a lot, and because the first half of the novel remains largely as it was originally written, I’d like to think that it surprises readers as well.

The cast of The Cabin in the Woods

But there are limits to this kind of surprise, which is why, in Eternal Empire, I’ve taken pains to weave the twists more securely into the fabric of the story itself. A twist that occurs to the author partway through the story has the advantage of being unexpected, but it can also seem arbitrary, or like an afterthought. The very best surprises, by contrast, are implicit in the premise of the narrative itself. By now, the ending of The Sixth Sense has become a cliché, but we shouldn’t allow this to undermine our appreciation of what remains the most elegant of all modern twist endings. It’s an ending that forces us to reevaluate much of what we’ve seen before, casting previous scenes in a new light, and it more or less demands a second viewing of the movie to fully appreciate. This isn’t the kind of thing that you can make up on the fly. Love it or hate it, it’s compelling in a way that few such twists ever are, because it isn’t just the ending that surprises us: we’ve been set up for it throughout the entire movie. (And as much as M. Night Shyamalan seems to have fallen short of his own early standard, that’s more than I can say for J.J. Abrams, who seems to think that a surprise is something you create by pretending it’s there in the marketing materials.)

In short, as Lermontov says in The Red Shoes, “Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.” Good writing is based on paradoxes of craft, and just as an unpolished prose style is generally the result of painstaking work, and an apparently unstructured plot requires more planning than any other, a good surprise demands methodical work in advance. Like any form of sleight of hand, it hinges on making the result of careful preparation seem casual, even miraculous. And that sad part is that it’s unlikely to be rewarded. The best kind of surprise is one that makes us realize that we aren’t being told the story that we thought we were, which strikes a lot of people as something slightly unpleasant: as I noted in my review of The Cabin in the Woods, most viewers only like to be surprised when they’re told so in advance, not when a work of art deliberately frustrates their assumptions. A mechanical plot twist may feel like a surprise, but it’s really just fulfilling our expectations for the genre. This isn’t necessarily bad; I’ve been guilty of it myself. But it’s no substitute for the real thing.

Flight, Wreck-It Ralph, and the triumph of the mainstream

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At first glance, it’s hard to imagine two movies more different than Flight and Wreck-It Ralph. The former is an emphatically R-rated message movie with a refreshing amount of nudity, drug and alcohol abuse, and what used to be known as adult situations, in the most literal sense of the term; the latter is a big, colorful family film that shrewdly joins the latest innovations in animation and digital effects to the best of classic Disney. On the surface, they appeal to two entirely separate audiences, and as a result, you’d expect them to coexist happily at the box office, which is precisely what happened: both debuted this weekend to numbers that exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. (This is, in fact, the first weekend in a long time when my wife and I went to the movies on two consecutive nights.) Yet these two films have more in common than first meets the eye, and in particular, they offer an encouraging snapshot of Hollywood’s current potential for creating great popular entertainment. And even if their proximity is just a fluke of scheduling, it’s one that should hearten a lot of mainstream moviegoers.

In fact, for all their dissimilarities, the creative team behind Flight would have been more than capable of making Wreck-It Ralph, and vice-versa, and under the right circumstances, they might well have done so. Flight is Robert Zemeckis’s first live-action movie in years, after a long, self-imposed exile in the motion-capture wilderness, and the script is by John Gatins, who spent a decade trying to get it made, while also slaving away for two years on the screenplay for Real Steel. It’s a handsome movie, old-fashioned in its insistence on big themes and complex characters, but it’s also a product of the digital age: Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, whatever its other flaws, remains a landmark in the use of unobtrusive special effects to advance the story and fill in a movie’s canvas, and their use here allowed Flight to be brought in on a startlingly low budget of $31 million. At his best, Zemeckis is one of the most technically gifted of mainstream directors, and in some ways, he’s an important spiritual godfather for Wreck-It Ralph, whose true precursor isn’t Toy Story, as many critics have assumed, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Similarly, Wreck-It Ralph is the product of a canny, often surprisingly mature set of sensibilities that only happens to have ended up in animation. Along with the usual stable of Pixar and Disney veterans, the creative team includes Rich Moore and Jim Reardon, a pair of directors whose work on The Simpsons collectively represents the best fusion of high and low art in my lifetime, and they’ve given us a movie that appeals to both adults and kids, and not just in the obvious ways. It’s full of video game in-jokes that will fly over or under the heads of many viewers—a reference to Metal Gear Solid represents one of the few times a joke in a movie had the audience laughing while I was scratching my head—but this is really the least impressive aspect of the movie’s sophistication. The script is very clever, with a number of genuinely ingenious surprises, and there are touches here that go well beyond nerd culture to something older and weirder, like Alan Tudyk’s brilliant Ed Wynn impression as the villainous King Candy. (The cast, which includes John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, and Sarah Silverman, all of them wonderful, is a modern version of the Disney trick of recruiting old pros like Ed Wynn and Phil Harris to bring its characters to life.)

It’s tempting to say that it all comes down to good storytelling, but there’s something else going on here. Last year, I predicted that the incursion of Pixar talent into live-action movies would represent a seismic shift in popular filmmaking, and although John Carter was a bust, Brad Bird’s work on Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol indicates that I wasn’t entirely off the mark. This weekend’s top two movies are a sign that, at its best, Hollywood is still capable of making solid movies for adults and children that come from essentially the same place—from good scripts, yes, but also from studios and creative teams that understand the potential of technology and draw on a similar pool of skilled professionals. This is how Hollywood should look: not a world neatly divided into summer tentpole pictures, Oscar contenders, and a lot of mediocrity, but a system capable of turning out mainstream entertainment for different audiences linked by a common respect for craft. The tools and the talent are there, led by directors like Zemeckis and backed up by studios like Pixar and Disney. This ought to be the future of moviemaking. And at least for one weekend, it’s already here.

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