Monday, June 30, 2008

Robots in Love in the Time of Chlorella; "Wanted": A Heart and a Brain


directed by Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”)
voice work by Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, others; funny cameo by Fred Willard

You don’t often hear the words “Disney” and “dystopia” in the same sentence. Not until now, that is. Leave it to Pixar to change that—and shortly after its return to the Disney fold, no less. Amusingly, and no doubt a bit harrowingly for the studio execs who negotiated the Pixar deal, “WALL-E” may be the most un-Disney movie to come out of the house that Mickey built. That’s not to say it’s lacking in cute protagonists, shiny visual treats, moral messages, or a happy ending: it has all these elements in spades. But what it does with them is very different from anything we’ve seen from the Magic Kingdom, or even, for that matter, from Pixar.

The year is 2700, and the film begins on an Earth that has turned into one vast, desolate landfill, so palpably evoked you can practically smell it. Flickering holograms, tattered banners, and other lingering signs reveal the decline of human society from dominance by a Wal-Mart-like corporate empire to uncontrollable profusion of consumer-generated trash, to the eventual escape of humankind to floating space-station communities that offer all the 24-7 pleasures of a cruise ship. The sole remaining Earthling is a rusty, scrappy (in all senses) robot called WALL-E—short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class—who bears more than a passing resemblance to Johnny 5 from the “Short Circuit” movies and who dutifully labors, day in and day out, to compress the seemingly endless supply of garbage into compact little squares and stack them into towers that dwarf all other remains of humanity. WALL-E is also something of a pack rat, as well as a sentimentalist: from the detritus of a lost civilization, he plucks random objects (which furnish some of the film’s best, nonverbal jokes) and brings them home to decorate his robot pad, ranging from festoons of Christmas lights to kitchen utensils to cheap cigarette lighters and a Rubix cube. His most prized possession is a videotape of the movie musical “Hello, Dolly!”, which he watches over and over again, every night before going to “sleep.” His daily dose of singing, dancing Technicolored love seems to assuage the loneliness of his existence, otherwise relieved only by the companionship of a cockroach he’s adopted as a pet.

The roach proves as loyal as it is indestructible, but WALL-E plainly yearns for a deeper emotional connection. Enter EVE, a sleek, silver-white egg-shaped robot dispatched from the mother-cruise ship to Earth, on a targeted mission that does not concern or include WALL-E. (Hint: her name stands for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator.) WALL-E, nonetheless, is instantly smitten and courts the exotic lady with indefatigable gallantry, despite the fact that her attention is clearly focused elsewhere. When EVE finally accomplishes her objective, shuts down and returns to the mother ship, WALL-E follows and finds a world run by robots catering to a population of soft, blobby, overpampered humans who have literally forgotten how to walk and how to see anything that isn’t on a screen before them. He doesn’t seem to notice the blobs, though, so fixated is he on getting EVE to pay attention to him. Fortunately, all ends well as he wins her love and, in the process, helps her save humanity.

The horrors that go unremarked by WALL-E are likely to register more strongly with the audience, though the implications may be lost on younger viewers. I’m not sure, in fact, that “WALL-E” is an ideal movie for very small children, notwithstanding the cuteness of the robots and the chase scenes late in the movie that culminate in a somewhat rote climax. After all, the first half is practically a study in solitude and largely one-sided attempts to communicate, unbroken by any dialogue other than robot beeps, while most of the humor in the second half is of a pointedly satirical nature that’s obviously tailored to appeal to liberal, ecologically minded adults. In fact, from its dark projections of the unchecked corporatization of human society to its skewering of modern man’s dependence on machines, the film’s vision of the future has all the bleakness of classic dystopian sci-fi flicks.

While that’s not a bad thing in itself, if “WALL-E" has a weakness, it's how heavily it borrows from these earlier films, including “Blade Runner,” “Idiocracy,” “Alien,” “The Matrix,” and, perhaps most directly and nakedly, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” There’s a fine line between paying tribute to and cribbing from a classic, and for the most part “WALL-E” stays on the right side of it. Still, one of the distinguishing features of Pixar productions up till now has been how self-contained they are as narratives and how little they depend on any specific cultural references outside the context and universe of the film at hand. It’s hard not to look back, for example, to last year’s “Ratatouille,” which was built on themes as ageless as any in “WALL-E,” yet managed to be a true original in almost every way. It’s also hard not to notice—particularly in light of Steve Jobs’s connection to Pixar—how comfortably the visual design of EVE's world could fit into an ad for the Apple Store. This super-subtle form of product suggestion, if not placement, casts the movie’s indictment of excessive consumerism in a somewhat ironic light.

That said, “WALL-E,” at its core is as much a love story as it is a cautionary parable of human development. And at its best, the romance has a charming Chaplin-esque quality that plays deftly between the comic and melancholy shades of WALL-E’s devotion. There are points, however, where it veers close to being overly cute. Romantic love has never been the central theme of a Pixar film before, so the tonal shakiness may just be a matter of adjusting to that framework. Or it may just be an effect of the contrast between the lilting sweetness of the courtship and the sobering, near-grotesque futuristic setting in which it takes place. Still, the film is organic enough that the happy ending feels emotionally earned at both the micro and macro levels of the plot, which is as much as anyone jaded by years of rom-com and sci-fi letdowns can reasonably expect. If I expect more from the Pixar wizards, it’s only because they’ve proven, time and again, that they can exceed my expectations.


Also saw:


directed by Timur Bekmambetov
starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman

Was I just criticizing "WALL-E" for being derivative? Well, maybe I shouldn't have been. You want derivative, go see "Wanted." But don't take the kids to this one.

The director behind the Russian blockbusters "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" (haven't seen 'em, but I have a vague idea they were about "Underworld"- or "Blade"-style vampires) makes his American debut with this jacked-up action thriller starring current It Guy James McAvoy as the insignificant, put-upon Nobody who becomes Somebody and Angelina Jolie as a recruiter from a circle of top-secret, supercompetent assassins who take their hit orders from a textile loom (I kid you not) presided over by our favorite actor-cum-deity, Morgan Freeman. The result is flashy, splashy, shallow, hyperviolent, and dumber than a box of rocks.

I haven't read the graphic novel(s?) on which "Wanted" is based, so I have no idea whether anything was lost in translation. All I know is that as adapted by Bekmambetov et al., the narrative plays like a cross between the "Fight Club" fantasy of re-masculating the bloodless white-collar male through bone-crunching violence and "The Matrix" fantasy of eroticized guns and superhuman powers of mind-over-matter. The difference is "Fight Club" and "The Matrix" actually managed to get us invested in the characters to at least some degree. Here, McAvoy's unlikely hero is such a whiner that even though that's the point, and even though he ultimately turns into a surprisingly convincing badass, his search for an identity is so perfunctory it's hard for us to care what happens to him. Jolie, of course, is badass personified (though she could stand to gain a pound or twenty), with her coolly amused gaze and her catlike half-smile, and she does get a back story that makes her assassin somewhat more interesting and sympathetic than McAvoy's. Ultimately, though, both of these paper-thin characters take backseats to the real star of the show, which is the nonstop relay of special effects-enhanced action sequences, each one more preposterous than the last. It's entertaining, all right, but it's all empty cinematic calories. Eat your popcorn and have a nice day.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Mad Men"'s Moment

I'm supposed to be working today, but I had to take the time to share this lovely cover story from the Sunday New York Times on one of my favorite TV shows:

"Mad Men" Has Its Moment

A lot of it reads, curiously, like a persistent attempt to psychoanalyze the show's creator, Matthew Weiner (who sounds a bit, um, difficult to work for), but since "Mad Men" pretty much springs Athena-like from his brain, maybe that is the right approach. Not many crumbs for those looking for spoilers, but still a most tantalizing teaser.

Season 2 premieres about a month from now - Sunday, July 27, at 10 pm on AMC. Newbies, I recommend checking out season 1, which will be available on DVD as of July 1. I'm sure AMC will be doing reruns, too, before the new season.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Summer Movie Doldrums

First off, a belated salute and farewell to Cyd Charisse, aka "Legs," the inimitable dancer who lit up musicals like "Brigadoon" and "Singin' in the Rain" simply by being at once breathtakingly elegant and drop-dead sexy. The Siren has written a tribute as no one but the Siren can, well worth reading even if you missed out on CC's heyday.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I can't help but reflect that the timing of Cyd's passing seems only to emphasize the total absence of her particular brand of grace and sex appeal in the movies currently cluttering theaters. "You Don't Mess with the Zohan," "Kung Fu Panda," "The Incredible Hulk," "The Happening," and now "Get Smart," "The Love Guru," and "Kit Kittredge," really? Is this the best Hollywood has to offer? Remakes of comic book movies from less than ten years ago, dreadful exercises in self-indulgence by wannabe horror auteurs and comic geniuses, movies filled with puerile sex jokes, movies based on a line of dolls, and animated movies that manage to make pandas (some of the cutest animals in creation) as unappealing-looking as possible?

Ok, maybe I'm just a bit cranky because I liked Ang Lee's "Hulk," can't stand M. Night Shyamalan and his inflated sense of self-importance, and am disappointed that Mike Myers has fallen so far from the brilliance that was the first "Austin Powers." And I'm aware that "Kung Fu Panda" actually got decent reviews, and will admit that the "American Girl" movie looks sweet and innocuous and that I have a sneaking desire to see "Get Smart," tepid reviews notwithstanding. But I can't get away from that dispiriting feeling, which I usually assocate more with spring, of "Is this all there is?" After the relative abundance of May, June is proving to be a bone-dry month for the discerning moviegoer...Even indie/foreign films seem to be languishing, too, though I do want to see "Reprise", a Norwegian film that piqued my interest at Sundance last year but wasn't able to see then. With my luck, though, it will disappear from L.A. theaters just as I'm gearing up to go see it.

As for Hollywood mainstream fare, here's hoping Pixar will provide some much-needed relief with next week's "Wall-E." After that, I may have to wait until "The Dark Knight" to get a decent popcorn fix. Chris Nolan has never yet disappointed me as a filmmaker, and he doesn't look to start anytime soon.

Speaking of popcorn fixes, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that that's largely what Entertainment Weekly is settling for in its latest feature on the 100 Best Films of the Last 25 Years, part of a special 1000th issue on the 100 best movies, TV shows, albums, books, etc. of the last quarter century. True, no one ever deemed EW to be an arbiter of highbrow culture. But any "top 100" list that includes "Titanic" (yack, gag, ugh!) as freakin' NUMBER THREE and then plops "L.A. Confidential" (which should've won the Oscar for Best Picture that year) down at #59 just automatically loses all credibility with me. The rest of the list ("Pulp Fiction" and the Lord of the Rings trilogy sitting at #1 and 2) doesn't offend my sensibilities as much, yet any self-respecting cinephile won't fail to notice a striking dearth of foreign and independent movies - apart from the occasional obvious nod to David Lynch, Baz Luhrmann, Ang Lee, and a few others. I'm no arthouse snob - far from it - but even I find the bias towards American Movies that the Average [Plugged-in] American Has Heard Of pretty glaring.

That said, there are a few surprises that I can approve, such as the placing of "This is Spinal Tap" at (appropriately) 11 and "A Room With a View" (one of my favorite movies of all time) at a surprisingly high #24. But where is Kieslowksi's "Trois Couleurs" trilogy? Where is "City of God"? And why for crying out loud is "In the Mood for Love" all the way down at #95? And...but I'm sure I won't be the only one bitchin'. This list has no more credibility than the AFI Top 100, and just points to the absurdity and subjectivity of trying to make such lists. I just wish EW had at least explicitly limited the list to top 100 AMERICAN movies, and trimmed accordingly. As for whether the rest of their top 100 lists are any more credible, I will leave that to my more knowledgeable fellow critics to determine.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"Sex" and Familiarity: The Romance is Gone, but the Friendship Remains


directed by Michael Patrick King
starring the old gang - Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, all the boy toys - plus Jennifer Hudson

News flash: Movies targeted at adult women can be HUGELY profitable! Stop the presses! (Does that phrase even mean anything anymore?)

The fact that “Sex and the City” had an enormous opening weekend, and the high probability that it will continue to show legs at the box office, should come as a surprise to exactly no one. And yet the dissection of why, how, and what it means has already begun. What it means, folks, is that women, like men, will pay to see movies that speak to their personal experiences, desires, frustrations, and, yes, fantasies. And what it further means, sadly, is that there aren’t that many movies out there that fill that need for women.

Which is why I’m mostly rooting for “SATC”’s success even though it isn’t a particularly good movie. I liked the show a lot, but as a matter of principle I’m skeptical of any efforts to transfer a television series to the big screen. A series is just that: it’s serial, giving the audience time to become acquainted with—and invested in—the characters and their arcs of growth and interaction with one another. And while some series also build a larger narrative arc over the course of a season or several, others (especially comedies) are structured around the themes of each stand-alone episode. The longer-term development is of character dynamics, not plot. This structure is difficult to adapt to the format of the two-hour movie, and the strain shows in “Sex.” While it follows something resembling a big-P Plot (two and a half plots, really) and runs almost 2 1/2 hrs long, it relies heavily on preexisting goodwill towards its four protagonists and too often ends up feeling caught between the comic rhythms of the show and the larger-scale dramatic demands of the screenplay—without capturing the essence of either.

That’s not to say it’s not watchable—it is, and will go down as easily as a well-mixed cosmopolitan with most fans of the show. Even after the intervening years of swirling rumors, soured negotiations, and expectations raised, dashed, and revived, the reunited fab four successfully recreate their old chemistry, armed with enough cocktails and couture to satiate even the most “Sex”-starved viewer. The film picks up some years after the events of the series finale, with Carrie (Parker) and true love “Mr. Big” (Chris Noth) happy together but not yet married; Miranda (Nixon) and Steve (David Eigenberg) married but no longer happy together, mainly due to a lack of sex (New York law firm hours and raising a kid’ll do that to you); Charlotte (Davis) and Harry (Evan Handler) happily married and raising an adorable adopted daughter; and Samantha (Cattrall) happily bedding and managing actor-lover Smith Jerrod (Jason Lewis) but not so happily chafing against the confinements of monogamy in L.A. Without giving away the plot, suffice to say that in their search for lasting love the quartet confronts and survives betrayals, estrangements, temptations, and disappointments, all thanks to the healing salve of their friendship. Just like an episode of the old show—only not quite.

Something’s just a little off. It’s not that there’s an undertone of greater seriousness, even melancholy, to the movie than was ever present in the show. That’s an inevitable (and not unwelcome) reflection of the foursome’s shift from hopeful thirtysomething singletons to battle-tested fortysomethings trying to maintain committed relationships. The problem is that the changed tone isn’t accompanied by convincing character development or self-discovery. All of the characters’ soul-searching feels perfunctory and unsatisfactorily resolved, and in at least two cases the resolutions rest on underexplored assumptions about whether the women are to some degree responsible for the less-than-exemplary behavior of their men. And one of the four gals never goes through any self-examination at all, though she also unexpectedly ends up being the most enjoyable character in the movie. Still, I’d have preferred more time and angst with her in place of the total waste of Jennifer Hudson as Carrie’s assistant, whose underwritten character comes perilously close to Magic Negro territory—or would, if she weren’t so completely superfluous.

These flaws could be more easily overlooked if the movie retained more of the show’s playful wit. While it was the core friendships that gave "SATC" its heart, what made it entertaining was its sharply satirical eye for the rituals of urban dating and mating, as well as the passing trends and fixations of Manhattan’s smart set in all their ephemeral silliness. Alas, too little of that sly social observation makes its way into the movie. It’s telling that the only jokes I remember are the kind the Farrelly sisters would make if the Farrellys had sisters, involving pubic hair, bodily functions, and a randy dog. Oh, and one absolutely priceless line, pricelessly delivered by Charlotte to Big at a critical moment. But apart from that, there’s really not much to laugh at, and that’s a real loss. The fans may not notice, if they’re sufficiently dazzled by the montage of gorgeous designer bridal gowns Carrie tries on—or sufficiently distressed by the pain one of the characters suffers after a particularly heartrending breakup. But the uninitiated will, and are unlikely to see anything in “SATC” that will win them over or reveal the value of films centered on women older than 35. It’s a pity, really, given that the lack of quality product in that category is only going to focus more attention on this one movie than it merits. A good movie made for mature women isn’t an oxymoron. If you build it, they will come.