Spotlight On: Up (2009)

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On this “special day,” it seems appropriate to write about one of the best love stories of recent years…even if it ends tragically within the first ten minutes. Nevertheless, “Up” portrayed a better love story in this opening than a lot of movies can do in a full run-time. There were at least three other films I could have shined the spotlight on for 2009, but “Up” is too brilliant, too heartwarming, and too sincere to skip on.

Within these first ten minutes or so, we’re introduced to Carl at a young age as he meets Ellie, who he immediately develops a strong bond with that grows into a romance. This romance blossoms into a lifetime of happiness, as Carl and Ellie live their years together in seemingly perfect harmony, getting married and growing old together. Under the surface, though, it’s apparent Carl feels some sort of guilt. As they grow older, Carl realizes he hasn’t fulfilled a promise he made to Ellie all those years ago as kids. The promise was to go on an adventure to the lost land of Paradise Falls in South America, and every time they’d raise money they’d have to spend it on something else. Time passes, and before Carl can fullfil his promise, Ellie passes away.

Sounds like a full-length movie, right? Like if Amour was toned down for kids. Well this is only the beginning, and it’s done in an extremely touching way. The majority of the opening is silent, with Carl and Ellie’s years flashing by in a cheerful but ultimately heartbreaking sequence. What follows is an adventure that introduces us to characters we can love or love to hate, and one that will test Carl’s dedication, spirit, and heart.

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Carl’s not the easiest guy to like at the start of the film. Understandably so, since he just lost the love of his life after nearly 70 years. It takes a young boy named Russell (trying to get an Assisting the Elderly badge), a talking dog named Dug, and a strange, rare, giant bird named Kevin to make him see the brighter side of things, let things go, and find acceptance. Upon being harassed to sell his house and move to a retirement home, Carl lifts his house from the ground with thousands of balloons to finally sail to Paradise Falls. Unknowingly, Russell hitched a ride. Adventure ensues that pits Carl and his new friends against his childhood hero (and his army of talking dogs), who’s trying to capture Kevin for himself.

I said before that the love story “ends tragically” in the beginning. That’s not exactly accurate. The love story never ends. Everything Carl does throughout the movie is for Ellie, even after she’s gone. She might pass away early on in the film, but she feels like a main character throughout, because she’s always there with Carl. It’s not until towards the end that Carl realizes he has to let go of some personal things to really embrace what Ellie would have wanted out of him, and he does her proud. The film comes full circle at the end, as Carl and Ellie’s house ends up atop Paradise Falls, where they always wanted to be.

“Up” is one of those films that might make you the happiest, saddest person at the same time, but it’s never short of amazing. It’s a true testament to the power of love. As the Academy Awards draw closer, you’ll be hearing a lot of “Amour,” the foreign film nominated for best picture about an elderly couple living out their last days together, and the drastic lengths one will go to in the name of love. If “Amour” is the love story that tests our will and commitment of 2012, then “Up” was the family-friendly version of that story in 2009. It’s got that Pixar charm that can rarely be topped.

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Spotlight On: The Dark Knight (2008)

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“You’ve changed things. Forever.”

That line is uttered by the insanely villainous Joker, played with unpredictable perfection by the late Heath Ledger, to Christian Bale’s Batman during the celebrated interrogation scene of “The Dark Knight.” And just as Batman had changed things in Gotham, so too had this film changed things and set the bar for comic book movies.

“The Dark Knight,” putting aside some minor head-scratching instances, is a near-perfect film. Christopher Nolan returns to his ultimate Batman saga after “Batman Begins” successfully revitalized a franchise and character tainted on the screen by Joel Schumacher and Bat-nipples. “The Dark Knight,” however, is in a league of its own. Where “Batman Begins” successfully kick-started reboot trend in Hollywood, “The Dark Knight” changed the game in a way that no one could have seen coming. You can likely attribute Hollywood’s interest in making their super hero films more “dark” and “gritty” to this movie (which as we’ve seen doesn’t always work), or even the Academy’s decision to increase the number of Best Picture nominees to ten, which, coincidentally or not, happened the year after “The Dark Knight” was snubbed.

More so, the film put aside cliche super hero movie gimmicks in order to tell a much more dramatic, themed story that works as both a comic book movie and a serious crime drama. As a middle entry in a planned trilogy, the film doesn’t have the challenge of revamping the origin story that “Begins” had, nor does it face the challenge of ending the beloved trilogy in a satisfying way, as “The Dark Knight Rises” did. “Begins” was already a success. A lot of the pressure was off. All Nolan and Co. had to do was make a movie that didn’t suck. A movie that lived up to the promise that “Begins” made. “The Dark Knight” was all this and more.

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Much of the success of the film can be attributed to Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker (which was only elevated by his unfortunate and unexpected death in 2008 before the movie released). Sinister, calculative, impressive. Ledger’s performance was nothing short of art. I remember at the time of his death hearing someone say that Ledger “wasn’t a celebrity, he was an actor.” It’s tragic that we weren’t able to witness what would have happened with the rest of his promising career.

It is true that the Joker is a strong pull for the movie. He’s Batman’s most recognizable and most resilient adversary. The film points this out in a great way come the climax, proving that neither of them will ever kill each other and are destined to do this “dance” forever. But the Joker is more like an animal. A “dog chasing cars.” He’s never really given any characterization or progression apart from his commitment to proving that any one can be corrupted with just a “little push.” With Batman’s willpower fully tested, the clown targets Gotham’s “white knight,” the counter hero to Batman, Harvey Dent. Unlike the dark knight, Harvey is respected by Gotham’s citizens, and his transformation into the vengeance-seeking Two-Face is the final act in the Joker’s violent play to destroy what hope Gotham had.

This is what the film does extremely well: centers a carefully orchestrated story around its main themes (vigilantism, anarchy, corruption), leading into a climax that tests every single one of them. The characters are truly pushed to their limits, and the ones that are left standing are the ones that pass the test. The film’s finale sets up a final act in the trilogy perfectly, and people in theaters across the nation could not wait to see what happened next.

The film isn’t so much a super hero story as it is a crime drama, but Batman’s mythology and purprose sets the table. The Joker is the star of the show, but the symbol that is Batman is still the focal point. While the film lacks a bit of characterization for the man behind the mask (apart from his romance with Rachel), no story on the big screen has really focused on Batman as a symbolic figure quite as well as “The Dark Knight” did. Sure, “Begins” introduced this notion and ” Rises” really cemented it, but “TDK” made us believe that Batman is more than just a man. He’s the hero Gotham deserved, but not the one it needed. But this is the film we both needed AND deserved, and we got it.