This is shaping up to be a tip-top weekend for mainstream movies, with a new Pixar and a new Sam Raimi self-described “spookablast” all at once. In fact, I’m more excited about either of these than I am about any of the big-studio releases in the entire month of June.Up: I almost don’t know what to say about Pixar movies any more. They’re virtually always amazing. Cars was an exception that still managed to outshine most other American cartoons of the last ten years. In fact, Cars was only Pixar movie I’ve ever not included on my year-end ten-best list. So odds are that Up, which is about an old man and a young kid going on adventures in a balloon-floated house, will be pretty great. There’s something serene about Pixar’s greatness — the sense that even the most high-strung geeks don’t need to fret about whether they’ve botched it or not. You can just sit back and enjoy the stories and artwork; in a way, Pixar is contributing to the purity of moviegoing. The only question is where this one will fall in the Pixar continuum from very good to mind-blowingly wonderful. My personal favorites among favorites: Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, and Wall-E.
Drag Me to Hell: Sam Raimi takes a break from Spider-Man to go way back to his roots; at this point, he’s made far more normal movies than wacked-out horrorshows, which makes this genre exercise, about a young bank employee who gets slapped with a vengeful demon’s curse, even more intriguing. Purists may protest that it’s not rated R, but then much of Raimi’s splattertastic Evil Dead trilogy isn’t actually so much about the gore (which becomes so voluminous in Evil Dead 2 that it doesn’t really register as proper viscera, and is relatively absent in Army of Darkness) but the go-for-broke nuttiness and energy. So it shouldn’t much matter that Alison Lohman and Justin Long are the lowest-wattage stars Raimi has worked with in years and years; hopefully they’ll fit the scrappy smash-grab-zoom aesthetic just fine.
Departures: Hey, it’s this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film! The one that confounded prognosticators when it defeated whatever the obvious choice was! It’s about a Japanese man who gets a job preparing dead bodies for their final departure and, presumably, learns about life.
What Goes Up: How little does whatever company behind this movie care about its fate? It’s going out on the same weekend as a new Pixar movie that shares part of its title. Having actually seen this one, I get the indifference: this is a terrible, terrible movie, shot with stunning incompetence, to the point where I’d even say it wastes Hilary Duff. Duff plays an extremely vaguely defined teenager who makes friends-or-more with a shady journalist played by Steve Coogan. Also, it’s all set, confusingly enough, in the aftermath of two unrelated suicides and in the run-up to the Challenger disaster. Techniques this indie movie fails to master include common pitfalls like voiceover, using digital video effectively, and juggling many characters, as well as more filmmaking 101 stuff like, you know, editing (there are cuts in this movie that manage to obscure the geography of a classroom). Put it this way: I’ve seen more than my share of Hilary Duff movies, and this one may be the worst one she’s ever been in. Except maybe The Perfect Man. Maybe.
Pontypool: This weekend’s other horror offering is an indie zombie movie with some kind of linguistics angle. I don’t care how brainy your zombie movie is: do not call it Pontypool if you want anyone to notice it (I only feel a little bit ashamed about ignoring several screening invitations assuming it was a low-budge documentary on the order of Trumbo). You don’t need to call it Radio Zombie or Rocking Zombietown or whatever, but Pontypool is possibly the last exciting zombie movie title ever conceived.