Yes, it's deja vu all over again: Another blockbuster movie season, another Pixar gem that emerges as one of the leaders of the cinematic pack. Ranking the animation studio's 10 feature-length gems in order is akin to ranking the 10 best Beatles singles or the five best martini cocktails -- to each his or her emphatic own -- so let's just say that Up won't be leaving viewers feeling down. It's merely one more winner for an outfit that refuses to compromise its high level of quality, to say nothing of its artistic integrity. Unusual for any Hollywood movie (animated or otherwise) in that it centers on a senior citizen not played by Clint Eastwood, Up tells the story of Carl Fredricksen (voiced by 79-year-old Ed Asner, in his best role since Lou Grant all those many moons ago), a 78-year-old balloon salesman who, after the passing of his beloved wife and faced with eviction from his longtime home, decides to hook said abode to thousands of helium-filled balloons and drift off to an uninhabited part of South America, where he plans to park his home next to a waterfall that holds a special meaning for him. The launch goes smoothly enough, until he discovers that he has an unwanted passenger in the form of 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer member Russell (Jordan Nagai), whose boundless ener gy wears out the curmudgeonly Carl. Nevertheless, the senior citizen pushes upward and onward, only to encounter a plethora of unexpected developments once they reach their destination. Up kicks off on a high note -- specifically, the absolutely delightful short (Partly Cloudy) that precedes the main attraction. As for the feature itself, in addition to providing the requisite thrills (those afraid of heights will tense up during the exhilarating climax), it's as emotionally involving as we've come to expect from our Pixar pics, with themes of longing, loneliness and self-sacrifice coursing through its running time. In fact, its PG rating alone hints that this is one of those toon tales that will resonate more powerfully with adults than with kids, and never more so than in the early sequences between Carl and his wife Ellie (did we really just witness a miscarriage in an animated film?). Of course, this wouldn't be a family film without some colorful sidekicks to provide added entertainment value, and while the number of supporting characters proves slim (a far cry from, say, Cars or Finding Nemo), the picture does provide one keeper in Dug, a happy-go-lucky dog who's been equipped with a device that allows him to speak (he's voiced by co-director Bob Peterson). In fact, if there's a minor complaint to be directed at the film, it's that it doesn't include enough of Dug or the other (fiercer) canines operating under the auspices of an eccentric explorer (Christopher Plummer) living in the South American wilds. Here's a movie that could have gone to the dogs -- literally -- and it still would have deserved two enthusiastic thumbs up.
Drag Me to Hell
The face of horror in modern cinema is, sad to say, torture porn, where sadism is exhibited with alarming regularity (most notably by the filmmakers) and imagination is only employed when the scripter conjures up gruesome new ways for characters to die. Because of this lamentable trend, it's an effortless task to sing the praises of Drag Me to Hell, a funhouse freak show that's more interested in delivering old-fashioned chills (it's even rated PG-13 rather than the expected R) than in wallowing in misogyny, masochism and mutilation. The story is so thin that the entire screenplay could have been written on a bubble gum wrapper, yet the end result is so delirious in its desire to delight that moviegoers willing to be jerked around won't mind. Sam Raimi is best known these days for helming the Spider-Man franchise, but his most notable achievement remains 1983's The Evil Dead, merely one of the best gore flicks ever made (the sequels aren't bad, either). Raimi regains the playful prankster attitude he exhibited back then, crafting (with brother Ivan) this yarn about sweet-natured loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who, in an ill-advised attempt to show her boss (David Paymer) that she's able to make the "tough decisions" that might land her that promotion at the bank, denies20the elderly, half-blind Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) a third extension on a home loan, thus leaving her homeless. Angered, the gypsy woman places a curse on Christine, a jinx that will expose her to three days of supernatural hauntings before she's ultimately ... well, check out that title. Drag Me to Hell isn't really scary -- the gotcha! moments and incessant use of loud noises don't exactly build suspense -- and the climactic twist, straight out of a vintage EC Comics horror publication, is telegraphed far too early in the narrative. But Lohman is ideally cast as a basically decent person who nevertheless must occasionally make some hard calls if she wants to survive (animal lovers, be warned), and the brothers Raimi get a lot of mileage out of Mrs. Ganush as a formidable adversary. Forget Jason and Freddy and Jigsaw -- it's the thought of this old woman gumming me to death that might make it difficult to turn out the lights.
What's this? An inspirational sports flick whose every step doesn't lead up to the climactic Big Game in which the underdog hero must score that touchdown/hit that home run/kick that goal/deck that opponent? Is such a movie even allowed anymore? Apparently so, because here's Sugar to upend all of the expected clichés and offer a refreshing look at what it really means to be an athlete with all the odds stacked against you. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the husband-and-wife writer-director team behind the indie hit Half Nelson (the classroom drama for which star Ryan Gosling was Oscar-nominated), are too busy trying to learn what makes their characters tick to be wasting time on stale plot mechanics; here, they hone in on a promising young baseball player and end up with a movie that's less about the sport and more about the immigrant experience. As such, it continues a strong trend in this mini-genre that recently birthed The Visitor and Sin Nombre, and yet it's markedly different than either of those pictures. A nonprofessional actor by the name of Algenis Perez Soto makes an impressive debut as Miguel "Sugar" Santos, who's plucked (like so many others) from a training facility in the Dominican Republic and sent off to the U.S. to take a lunge at that elusive American Dream. The ultimate prize is, of course, fame and fortune as a star player in the major leagues, but first, Sugar has to work his way up from the minors. He ends up with playing for a Single-A outfit in Iowa, where he's reunited with a former chum from back home (Rayniel Rufino) and becomes friends with a Stanford-schooled hot shot (Andre Holland). But despite the kindness of those around him, including the elderly Christians who serve as a host family (and, being baseball nuts, dissect his performance after every game), Sugar feels isolated, frustrated with the language barrier and missing his family back home. It's at this point where a typical movie might start to focus more on each game's scoreboard than on its central character's inner journey, but Boden and Fleck chart Sugar's odyssey on such a credible trajectory that the third act unexpectedly heads off in a completely different direction than that which we've come to expect from our sports sagas. It would be churlish to reveal how the movie plays out, but suffice to say that nobody strikes out -- least of all the filmmakers.