MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Toy Story 3, The Killer Inside Me, The A-Team and Marmaduke

Toy Story 3 (Four Stars)
U. S. Lee Unkrich, 2010

Toy Story 3 is just what we’ve come to expect from Pixar: a brilliantly conceived and immaculately animated knockout of a family show: witty and scrumptious, moving and marvelous, and something that parents can enjoy every bit as much as their children undoubtedly will.

Bravo! Again.

Directed and co-written (story) by longtime Pixar hand Lee Unkrich; co-produced and written (story again) by Pixar head John Lasseter, who started it all; with a script by Little Miss Sunshine’s Michael Arndt, another batch of super-nifty songs by Randy Newman, and another great unimprovable cast, this movie deserves every “hurray” and “kai-yai-yippie“ it can field.

The best film trilogy wrap-up of any kind I’ve seen since The Lord of the Rings — and that was a picture which, after all, had the advantage of being adapted from a classic — Toy Story 3 ties up the tale of youngster Andy’s faithful toys: that beguiling bunch led by indomitable cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), and stalwart sidekick-spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). It ends the three-part saga in ways that are both powerfully entertaining and eminently, emotionally satisfying. I laughed and smiled all the way through it, and brushed away some tears at the end, and I bid these old friends a fond farewell. Just as the Pixar gang wanted me to

Many of the Toy Story 1 & 2 bunch are back for the farewell party: including courageous cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), the finicky Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), jolly dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn), frugal piggy bank Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and the resourceful Slinky Dog (Blake Clark). And there are plenty of new arrivals, including a fancy clothes horse of a Ken Doll (Michael Keaton), who’s a patented mate for Andy’s sister’s blond fashionista Barbie Doll (Jodi Benson), as well as a terrific new villain: a pink, squeezable, folksy tyrant, who looks like an ursine Barney, smells of strawberries, and is named Lotso Huggin‘ Bear (voiced with perfect genial scariness by Deliverance’s Ned Beatty). There’s even a terrific enforcer for bad Lotso, the silent, but infinitely menacing Big Baby.

Toy Story 3 shows us what happens to them all (especially the old pals left from 1995‘s Toy Story and 1999’s Toy Story 2) when college-bound Andy finally packs to leave home. Apparently, he’s outgrown his old playroom pals, marking them all (except Woody) for the attic, and by accident, almost throwing them all away (except Woody) in the trash. That catastrophe is eluded by sheer toy pluck, but the near garbage apocalypse alienates all the toy gang (except Woody), and they choose instead to be sent off to a seeming toy paradise nearby, the Sunnyside Daycare Center, a place with plenty of tots anxious to play with new and pliable playthings.

Unhappily, the paradise has some snakes. It turns into a living, screaming toy hell, a prison and toy torture chamber run by Beatty‘s Lotso, a homespun dictator who suggests a sadistic variation on Will Geer‘s Grandpa Walton, as he might act with a 44 Magnum in his overalls. Luckily, Woody is still around outside, determined to save them all.

Of course, you can pretty much predict what happens — though you may be a little surprised by the dark psychological roots of Lotso Huggin’ Bear‘s evil, which are rendered in flashback. But so what? Great fairytales or children’s stories are usually a bit predictable, which is part of why they work so well.

The Toy Story movies are all classic American pop-film mixtures. They‘re sentimental family fairytales, but they’re also hip satiric comedies, deeply emotional parables of friendship and community, Randy-dandy musicals, and pulse-racing adventure movies packed with cliffhangers and breathless chases. The toys are always being saved from impending doom and loss, just as toys sometimes are in real life.

And Toy Story 3 has the most ferocious cliffhanger climax of them all. The gang not only has to escape from Sunnyside, in a jailbreak that irresistibly reminds you, as did Nick Park‘s Chicken Run, of Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough busting out in The Great Escape. But they have to survive the hellish, fiery threat of trash compactors and incineration, shown to us in terrifying toy’s-eye views. I don’t think the movie is too exciting for most kids, but some adults should probably be forewarned: the final action scenes in Toy Story 3 are more exciting than anything in The A-Team or From Paris with Love.
Mostly that’s because we actually care for these little animated toys, which, along with the studio’s consistent technical genius, is the true secret of Pixar. The Toy Story movies use both invented toy characters (Woody, Buzz, Jessie) and real mass-market toys (Ken and Barbie, Slinky), and the mish-mash creates the kind of haphazard play-world with which a real kid might populate his or her fantasy-world. The toys come alive and talk when they’re together and away from their human household. But when Andy appears, they flop down inanimate, and wait to be played with.

It’s Andy who brings them alive and who gave them their personalities, and though they’ve somehow achieved an independence that lets them confab and soar and race all over town without him, it’s Andy (played here in youth by Charlie Knight and, college-age, by John Morris) who probably triggers their stories, which is why the savvier Woody is so faithful to him.

The toys, and not just Andy’s gang, symbolize the crucial elements in all three Toy Story movies: the power of art and dreams, and of empathy. If you can’t empathize with your playthings, and with the stories and dreams they evoke, you may not empathize much with people either. If you can’t weep or at least feel bad for a little, lost, cast-off toy (who was once your faithful friend), you may not be all that concerned about, say, a loyal animal pet, or about other human beings, or even about the whole interconnected, living, breathing planet. The hell with them, you may feel. They’re just plastic too. Toss ‘em out. Burn ‘em. Get new ones. Tough little stud or cookie that you think you are, you may be more worried about clean-up time, and about “grown-up” tea party stuff: taxes and money and the loot that will buy you grown-up toys that probably won’t talk back.

John Lasseter, who conceived the Toy Story movies, and wrote and directed the first one, and worked and was a driving force on the next two, really created a wonderful, heartfelt modern pop myth when he dreamed up Woody and Buzz and all their buddies, which is why audiences responded to it so strongly. In that myth, we get something to treasure. We discover that all our long-ago, long-vanished toys and dreams and friends are not really gone. They still care about us and miss us as well, and, with all their toy-strength, toy-brains and toy-courage, they will try their damnedest to come home and return to us. Like all myths, this one can comfort us and reclaim a world that is lost.

But, since this is a farewell party, Toy Story 3 says something a little different as well, something about growing up (Andy) and about being part of a community (the toys). I won’t reveal it, of course, but that new twist is what made me brush away that tear.

You see, I had toys as well, small, very inexpensive but infinitely precious playthings that my mother bought me long ago, when I was four or five, before school started, even though she could barely afford any extras or non-essentials. They were a grand company of little play farm animals, and they included three intrepid adventurers named Horsey, Bully and Colty, who went on heroic quests together and had a wicked nemesis, named Mrs. Cow.

I was the enthralled and happy witness to all of this trio’s (or quartet’s) adventures, or at least the ones they had when I was watching. Later, I drew and wrote crayon-colored comic books about them. They’re gone now, of course: accidentally thrown away or left behind long ago. But I still miss them, even bad old Mrs. Cow. And I’d like to think, for a moment at least, that they’re fighting to come back to me, battling cars and trucks and trash collectors and evil teddy bears and incinerators, to make their way hone.

That’s why Woody the cowboy is one of Tom Hanks’ best roles, and one of the parts he should be proudest of. And Buzz is one of Tim Allen’s, and Jessie one of Joan Cusack’s. And ditto for everybody else, especially Ned Beatty, the meanest Goddam teddy bear you‘ll ever see and hear. How much empathy and art does it take to bring all those toys alive — both for the actors and for the brilliant company of technicians and artists who brought them all home? Lots, I bet. Thank you, Pixar.


The Killer Inside Me (Three Stars)
U.S.; Michael Winterbottom, 2010

All these years, ever since it first appeared as a paperback original in 1952, a possible movie of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me — the first-person deep-noir tale of a smooth-talking small-town Southern deputy sheriff and murdering bastard named Lou Ford — has been a masterpiece waiting to happen.

It’s an absolutely terrific book. As you read it, you’re transported by Thompson‘s terse, ice-cold-blooded sentences, flawless chopped rhythms, unsentimental yarn-spinning and all-seeing laser eye into a believable but dangerously off-kilter world. The centerpiece: a portrayal of pure, unrepentant evil that can leave you drained. Stanley Kubrick loved this book; it’s the reason he hired Thompson to write the scripts for The Killing and Paths of Glory. Although Thompson allegedly wrote it in two weeks (for the money, of course), The Killer Inside Me is as perfect a prose piece as anything by Truman Capote, whose classic study of murder In Cold Blood doesn’t chill the blood as much or get evil near as right as Thompson.

But it’s my unhappy duty to report that director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran’s movie of The Killer Inside Me is no masterpiece, even though the filmmakers (perhaps a little too much) actually treat it as one, and try to render it as faithfully as they can — and even though they have a good cast and a really good Lou Ford in Casey Affleck. Affleck plays it honey-tongued, boyish and secretly brutal, and he makes it all work. He isn’t as right for this part as the Robert Mitchum of Cape Fear would have been — Mitchum was a longtime front-runner in any Lou Ford dream-casting sweepstakes — but he does make us comprehend some of the depths of murder and small town hypocrisy.

In Thompson‘s tale, which Winterbottom gives us straight up, Ford has been crippled inside for years by a bent boyhood. But he doesn’t discover his real core of depravity until he‘s asked to put some fear into a local whore, Joyce (Jessica Alba), who’s been screwing the rich and worthless Elmer Conway (Jay R. Ferguson), son of the city’s main man Chester Conway (Ned Beatty, not quite as scary as he is in Toy Story 3, but almost). Unfortunately, Lou discovers that he liked having sex with hooker Joyce, and worse, that he likes beating her up, and even worse, that she apparently likes it too. (The beating scene here will make any decent person’s flesh crawl.)

This dangerous liaison ultimately unravels the whole town, since sweet-talking Lou has an affable façade and a talent for killing and lying, though not as big a talent as he thinks. Among the other flawed souls caught up in this mess: credulous Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower), suspicious investigator Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker), glib mouthpiece Billy Boy Walker (Bill Pullman), cynical labor guy Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas), a drunken bum who saw it all (Brent Briscoe), and Lou’s other girlfriend Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), for whom Hell hath no fury. That’s quite a twisted gallery, and anybody who thinks Thompson is libeling the dear hearts and gentle people of this Texas small city, forgets that Thompson was an Oklahoma-born newsman with no fear and a first-class eye. He did drink, of course. Who wouldn’t?

Ford isn’t an easy part to play. You have to literally not give a damn what an audience thinks of you, as Mitchum didn’t when he played villains (and as two other potentially great Fords, Robert Ryan and Kirk Douglas, didn’t either). But Affleck gives us Southern bullshit and genial macho with a vein of ice running underneath and his only scene that didn‘t work for me was the last one, which is played too operatically. That didn’t work in an almost ruinous way though.

The movie errs though in not giving us enough of Thompson’s voice and the killer‘s voice. It’s not hard. It’s all there on the page. Waiting. Winterbottom‘s film errs in not having bad Lou narrate more; it’s Lou’s voice that chills you to the bone in the novel. And there‘s another mistake in subjectivity. Though this should have been one of the greatest of all neo-noirs, and though noir is hard-boiled, high style, the movie lacks the visual style that noir and neo noir need. The Killer Inside Me would have been much better if it looked like a Coen Brothers movie (like No Country for Old Men), or like a Polanski movie, with more of Polanski’s eye-level, subjective Repulsion or Chinatown viewpoints.

Talking about the ending though, let me give you some of what Thompson wrote on his last page. (You can buy it in a Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition.) The movie would have been twice as good, or more, if Affleck had read these lines, and many more like them. I suppose I need a Spoiler alert, so…


Yeah, I reckon that’s all, unless our kind gets another chance in the Next Place. Our kind. Us people.

All of us that started the game with a crooked cue, that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad. All us folks. Me and Joyce Lakeland, and Johnnie Pappas and Bob Maples and big ol‘ Elmer Conway and little ol‘ Amy Stanton. All of us.

All of us.


What a writer. What a voice. Jim Thompson. The Killer Inside Me. Too bad the movie doesn’t live up to them.


The A-Team (Two Stars)
U.S.; Joe Carnahan, 2010

Some movies are so fast and choppy and violent they become almost boring, and, for me, The A-Team slipped over that line time and again. A would-be-bang-up movie version of the 1983-86 Stephen Cannell TV Show — which was about four ex-Vietnam special forces fugitives, led by cigar-chomping wise-cracker John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), who hire themselves out as free-lance commandoes — the movie crashes and smashes and keeps blowing up in our faces.

The A-Team commandoes and their combatants defy all laws of physics and sanity as that destroy trucks, blast each other with machine-guns, chase each other through raging infernos, crash and drop out of skyscraper windows, turn a tank around as it falls out of an airplane, and, at one point, accidentally set fire to millions of dollars and watch it burn. (An analogue for the movie itself?)

What’s going on? The movie A-Team is all about a plot, hatched by mercenaries in Iraq and other miscreants, to steal U. S. treasury plates and forge billions of dollars. And it’s jam-packed with CGI and elaborate action sequences that spare no expense and often don’t make a lick of sense.

The movie opens with the introduction of the new A-Team, the four characters we remember from TV, recast: sage plan man Hannibal (Liam Neeson), horny con artist Face (Bradley Cooper), crazy pilot “Howling Mad” Murdock (Sharlto Copley), and the ferocious Mohawk-haired driver/gunner B. A. Baracus (Quinton “Rampage“ Jackson). They’re all Army rangers here, this time starting off in Iraq instead of Vietnam. They’re also darlings of the U. S. military, but they get framed fro a messed-up robbery of those money plates, and sent to the slammer (or , in “Howling Mad’s” case, the Cuckoo’s Nest). Then, as before, they break out, this time in order to save their reputations and retrieve the plates from the evil mercenary, Pike (played by co-writer Brian Bloom), one of those slick fiends who likes to taunt you before he kills you. From then on, it’s the business as usual, double-crosses and all hell breaking loose every ten minutes or so.

Technically, there’s never a dull moment. But often it seems dull, mostly because the moments don’t string together that well — and because the director (Joe Carnahan) and his editors (Roger Barton and Jim May), seem incapable of holding onto a shot longer than a second or two.

Midway though, for want of anything better to do, I start counting the length of the shots in the new improved movie blockbuster A Team. Most of them lasted about a second or two, with the exception of one love scene (between Cooper and the very comely Jessica Biel as his relentless pursuer Charisa), which had a shot lasting all of 20 seconds. Watching nothing but a barrage of one-second-long shots, however much it may sometimes suggest the action editing pace in some scenes in Kurosawa, in Sergei Eisenstein‘s Potemkin or in Sam Peckinpah‘s The Wild Bunch, can actually play havoc with your concentration, conjuring up a disposable world where anything can happen, but nothing really works.

Anyway, now I know why Sam Peckinpah inserted slow-motion scenes, in between his own fusillades of short shots. He needed them to keep the right rhythm, and to temporarily relax his audience. We never relax in A-Team, and in a lot of the new movies. And that means the non-action scenes, or the supposedly human dramatic moments don’t seem emotionally different from the action ones.

The original show, which also starred Dirk Benedict as “Face,” Dwight Schultz as “Howling Mad,” and Mr. T, the hot-tempered villain of “Rocky III,” as Baracus (the roles played here by Cooper, Copley and Jackson) — was a tongue-in-cheek mix of Mission Impossible, The Fugitive and The Dirty Dozen. And it tried for comedy and even, sometimes, sentiment as well as action. So does this movie, much less often.

The TV version, at least what I caught of it recently, was a slower, cheesier but funnier show than the movie. And since Cannell (who co-wrote 97 A-Team shows with Frank Lupo) is also the producer of the film there are plenty of echoes of and little nudges toward the past, including the characters of Gen. Morrison (Gerald McRaney) and Hannibal-hunter Lynch (Patrick Wilson), not to mention Hannibal‘s omnipresent cigar, B. A.’s mohawk, Face’s horniness, and Murdock’s rest periods in the madhouse.

I never watched the TV show at the time, but, while mulling over the recent complete series DVD release (packed in a toy version of Baracus’ truck), I was surprised to see that the pilot episode, called “Mexican Slayride,” was actually a knockoff of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. You only wish the people here — Carnahan (Narc, Smoking Aces), co-writer/supporting actor Brian Bloom and Cannell himself, would set their sights on Kurosawa or Peckinpah today, rather than Michael Bay, and the “Video games? Video games? We don’t need no stinking video games!” crowd.

Liam Neeson is a much different Hannibal than Peppard was. (George Clooney would have been more in the Peppard mold, but you doubt he would have taken this role). But Neeson is also one of the few elements that holds the movie together. As in his absurd smash action hit Taken, where he hit France like the Luftwaffe, Neeson‘s gravity and rock-solid screen presence tends to ground the movie and its violent silliness, keep it from seeming too out-to-lunch. Where Peppard was constantly cracking wise and spouting playful jibes at foe and friends alike–reminding us always that what we were seeing was pretty ri-donk-ulous — Neeson tends to stare bemusedly and wryly at all the nonsense exploding around him. Unfortunately, that looniness tends to rush by too fast to be really enjoyable.

Neeson can’t totally save the movie though. Neither can Bloom, who surprisingly gives one of A-Team’s best performances, as the nefarious Pike. (Why didn’t he co-write lines as good for everyone else?)

I used to love action movies. But I‘m getting sicker and sicker of this modern Uzi-blasting “Fuck with the best and die like the rest” approach, where the moviemakers seem to think nothing but nonstop action scenes and crazed cutting tempos will keep the audience in their seats. So they keep trying to blast us out of our seats, blow the screen up in our faces, hit us with one-second punches. Zap! Zam! Powie! Ker-boom! I tell, I pity those fools.


Marmaduke (One and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Tom Dey (2010)

The long-lived comic strip about a big, sloppy Great Dane, which started way back in the ’50s, finally comes to the screen, with Owen Wilson doing the voice of Marmaduke, and George Lopez playing his friend Carlos the Cat.

How have we survived without them for all these years? There are also not one, but two love interests for the Marmster: Jezebel the ravishing Collie (Fergie) and Mazie the big-hearted mutt (Emma Stone). Kiefer Sutherland is up to no good once again, as Bosco the villain, Sam Elliott gruff-voices the wild dog Chupadogra, Lee Pace runs around madly as Marmaduke‘s frazzled owner Phil, there are lots of certifiably cute kids and William H. Macy disgraces the memory of Fargo by appearing as a tyrannical veggie/pet food tycoon. ( I kept hoping Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare would drop by to put him out of his misery.)

There is a surfing contest with the dogs, and a wild house-party with the dogs, and a cliff-hanging sewer blowup with the dogs, and a dancing jamboree with all the dogs whirling and twirling and shaking their booties. (Since Marmaduke has a propensity throughout to emit huge Great Dane farts at embarrassing moments, this qualifies the dance as a potential horror scene).

Worse, all of the animals (including Steve Coogan, for pity’s sake, as Raisin) continually deliver English dialogue which the humans can’t comprehend, while lip-synching words they can‘t hear. I don’t know about you, but if any of my dogs or dog-friends ever started lip-synching idiotic dialogue in my face (while barking, I suppose), or cutting the cheese while dancing, surfing or throwing wild parties, I would have immediately cut down on their dog chow.

Owen Wilson hit the doggie jackpot in the touching Marley and Me, where he played the loving, beleaguered owner. Here he tries a virtuoso switch, raising the possibility of a potential Owen Wilson Purina Chow-Chow Film Festival, or perhaps some new movie where Wilson plays both canine and owner, and where they switch personalities, opening the gates, I’m afraid, for some truly horrendous fart jokes.

Now, I could have ended all this woof-woof folderol by writing the obvious: that the movie is a dog, or that movies are going to the dogs, or that I had a dog of a time watching it, or “Who let the dogs out?“ Or I could have asked: Where is Rin Tin Tin when we really need him? Or even Deputy Dawg. But you’ll have to find those jollies in other reviews. (You will.) I have too much respect for the wit and intelligence of the canines I’ve known and sometimes loved, than to use them in a put-down of a turkey like Marmaduke. Besides I suspect that any of my old canine friends would have abandoned this arf-barf of a movie after a minute or two, and looked around for some puppy chow instead.

– Michael Wilmington
June 17, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon