A brief thought about the Toy Story franchise.

I hadn’t planned on exposing my kids to Pixar so early in life — why not wait until they can “appreciate” it more, I figured — but the other kids at church today were watching Toy Story 2, so what could I do.

Then, tonight, while watching the Oscars with my family and some friends, I saw the clips from Ratatouille.

Gadzooks. What incredible leaps Pixar has made in nine years.

I’m curious now to see if Toy Story 3, which is currently slated for release in 2010, will represent yet another massive leap forward in animation technology, or if the Pixar people will feel obliged to go “retro” to keep the new film more-or-less consistent with the first two films — both of which, you will recall, were produced way back in the previous century, back in the ’90s, back in the Clinton era, etc.

It’s kind of like how Steven Spielberg has insisted the new Indiana Jones movie will avoid the newfangled digital techniques wherever possible and stick to the visual-effects techniques that the first three films used back in the ’80s, back in the Reagan era, etc.

But the Indiana Jones movies have always been retro — each film is set about 50 years in the past, and each film is modeled after the cheesy B-movies of those distant eras — so I imagine it would be kind of okay if the new one didn’t feel like the most modern thing around. The Toy Story movies, on the other hand, have always taken place more-or-less “today”, so it could be kind of odd if the new film felt like it wasn’t on the cutting edge any more.

I’d like to think that it’s the story that matters, more than anything else; and I’d like to think that audiences would appreciate an aesthetic decision in favour of the more old-fashioned look. But you never know.

Why the Oscars just don’t “get” foreign films.

The problems with the Academy’s Best Foreign Language Film category go way, way deeper than the fact that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar this year. Robert Koehler, who sometimes writes for Variety, explains why in an informative rant that went up yesterday at FilmJourney.org.

The Muslim Jesus film and apocryphal gospels

A few days ago, ABC News posted its own story on Jesus, the Spirit of God, the Iranian film and mini-series that tells the story of Jesus from a Muslim point of view. The story is a Q&A; with director Nader Talebzadeh, who reveals that the film is based partly on sources other than the Bible and the Koran:

LS: So, when it comes to Jesus, the message and the reverence are there.

NT: Yes.

LS: But the virgin birth, the crucifixion…

NT: The virgin birth was the same. The difference in the Koran, God says Jesus was saved. Instead of having him hung and crucified, the person who betrayed Jesus was crucified. This is how the Koran sees it, through the Gospel of Barnabas.

LS: So, you gave the alternate ending.

NT: Yes, two endings. I thought, the Christians, when they see it, it’ll be important for them. [In the Koran] God says, emphatically, he was not crucified. Somebody was crucified in his stead. In the Gospel of Barnabas, there are explications of this. The majority of [Muslims] say the one who betrayed Jesus [was crucified]. . . .

LS: What is your hope for the movie?

NT: The film is an excuse to sit down and talk. Iran is so consistently demonized. Once an American visits Iran, they know it’s a different story. So, how do we export our thinking? It’s the movies. This is a film for students and for practicing Christians, for people to become curious, and go investigate more.

My hope for the movie was, and is, and will be, to make people think about how God sees the prophets, how God talks about Jesus in the Koran. What was the main message of Jesus? And what was censored out of history? Part of the message of Jesus was censored out, which was the coming of the next prophets.

If you listen to what Jesus said, Jesus talked about the Prophet Mohammad, many, many times. And it was eliminated in the Gospels and the Bibles that [made it through] history. In 325, the Council of Nice was out to destroy all the other Gospels. One of those Gospels was the Gospel of Barnabas, which I used in great detail.

LS: And what did that say that was left out?

NT: It had a lot of sermons of Jesus that you do not see in the Bible; miracles, and at least a hundred references to the Prophet Mohammad, about his coming. It’s one of the biggest censorships of history. So, I thought somebody should say this, and then others might disagree, say, “Ahhh, this could not be! This is blasphemy!” But it’s OK — this is the 21st century. It’s time for information. It’s time for communication. They can go check it out.

The ABC News story is accompanied by a one-minute video, which also states that “there are actually two endings to the movie: one from the Christian Bible, and one from the Koran.” What this means, exactly, I am not sure. Is the film being released in two versions, each with a different ending? Or does the standard version of the film show one ending and then rewind to an earlier point in the story and show an entirely different ending?

As for the Gospel of Barnabas, I know very little about it, but if the article at Wikipedia is correct, it would seem to be a forgery created at some point in the 1500s, with perhaps some earlier materials blended in. So, colour me skeptical.

Then again, this wouldn’t be the first film to “enhance” a biblical story with non-canonical material taken from medieval or modern texts; just think of the Catholic mystics whose visions were dramatized by Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

APR 5 UPDATE: Matt Page has discovered a month-old CNN video that includes several clips from this film, including the scene where Judas is transformed so that he looks like Jesus.

Can Matt Damon really be Bourne again?

In a long-ish article on recent developments at Universal Studios, Variety lets slip the news that Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass have agreed to make a fourth Bourne movie. But what kind of story could they possibly tell?

The whole premise of the series is that “Jason Bourne” is the alias of a rogue secret agent who has no memory of his earlier life — but by the end of the third film, both Bourne and the world at large have learned too much about his earlier life to keep that gimmick working. Indeed, he kind of knew too much about his earlier life already by the end of the second film, which is why the first two-thirds of the third film take place before the end of the second film. In a nutshell, he isn’t really “Jason Bourne” any more.

What’s more, all the corrupt government officials who went after Jason Bourne in the first three films have already been vanquished. Indeed, the filmmakers had to invent a brand new set of evil government agents in the third film because there was no one left to chase him by the end of the second one.

So … what kind of story could they possibly tell now?

Is Knocked Up more “pro-life” than Juno?

Nearly three months ago, I began my review of Juno by charting a progression across three of last year’s films — Waitress, Knocked Up and Juno — in which the protagonists get progressively younger while the characters’ reasons for keeping their babies get increasingly, for lack of a better word, “pro-life”. The protagonist in Waitress barely gives abortion a second’s thought; in Knocked Up, friends and relatives tell the protagonist to get an abortion, but for no explicitly articulated reason, she decides against it; and in Juno, the protagonist actually goes to an abortion clinic, fully intending to terminate her pregnancy, but she encounters a pro-life activist outside who plays no small part in changing the protagonist’s mind.

Today, however, a thought occurred to me, and before I can say what it was, I have to address a certain terminological issue. Many pro-lifers are prone to saying that pro-choice advocates are “pro-abortion”, but I don’t think that is entirely fair, nor do I think it is accurate; people can grant others the right to make all sorts of choices in life, with regard to food and drink and drugs and sexual practices and, yes, even abortion, without necessarily approving of the specific choices that are made. But it would also be erroneous to say, as some people do in defense of the pro-choicers, that no one is ever “pro-abortion”.

For an example of what a “pro-abortion” person might look like, we need only turn to Knocked Up and the scenes in which Katherine Heigl’s mother and one of Seth Rogen’s friends both tell the prospective parents to get rid of the baby. These secondary characters do not simply respect the right of Heigl or even Rogen to “choose” what they should do; instead, they passionately and insistently advocate a particular choice — and no, they do not advocate choosing life. So it is all the more remarkable when Heigl and Rogen choose to keep their baby, because they make that choice in the face of a certain amount of hostility.

The protagonist of Juno, however, never really encounters a “pro-abortion” perspective, at least not that I can recall. She lives in a culture where the right to choose is taken for granted, and where some of her friends casually assume that they can and should get abortions in case they ever become pregnant. But when Juno decides not to get an abortion, everyone who knows her is pretty supportive. You might say that everyone in Juno’s immediate circle of friends and family is truly “pro-choice”, because they let her choose life and they don’t try to talk her out of it.

So, if we’re looking simply at the reasons characters give for keeping their babies, the clarity of Juno may trump the more enigmatic motivations lurking behind the protagonist’s decision in Knocked Up. But if we’re looking at whether the protagonist is choosing life in defiance of social expectations, then Knocked Up may trump Juno.

If they win the Oscar, will they thank me?

No Country for Old Men — the top-grossing film ever produced or directed by the Coen brothers, beating Bad Santa (2003) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) respectively — is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Picture this Sunday. So I would just like to note that, for the past few weeks, the Miramax Films ‘For Your Consideration‘ website has been linking to a blog post of mine on that film, under the category ‘Notes on the Ending’. Who knows, maybe my musings helped influence some member of the Academy to vote for this film and not some other one. Granted, the Miramax site got the name of this blog wrong — they called it “Film Catch Blog” — but hey, I’ll take the extra traffic just the same, and it’s always good to be grouped with critics like Glenn Kenny, Matt Zoller Seitz and my CT Movies colleague Brett McCracken.