Saturday, July 26, 2008

Flash Movie Reviews!

Hellboy II:
Guillermo del Toro has injected his deep and tenacious imagination into the Hellboy world-- but this world-making has a dearth of storytelling. It's strange; the plot points are there, but they simply occur rather than unfold, and you know all along which characters are expendable and which are going to ride away into the sunset.

The Dark Knight:
It is usually hard to justify spending over $150 million on the production of fleeting entertainment memes, but I definitely have no such problem such a budget here. It is art, rather than pulp, executed in a grand way. All the success is deserved.

The Wackness:
A good coming-of-age story. The references to early 90s pop culture are a little much at times, played for unnecessary laughs, but that's okay. Successful universality.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe:
If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like. This film plays like an extended episode of the series, but doesn't hinge on the murky mythology. A little sluggish at times, and a turn in the third act should have been foreshadowed just a little more, but its an altogether enjoyable return to the characters--- if you enjoyed the characters in the first place.

Bonus Older Movies!!
Eyes Wide Shut:
Stanley Kubrick makes his version of Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, but with the addition of a mysterious orgy cult. How complicated human sexuality is, especially within the confines of monogamous marriage! says Stanley. Sure. Very interesting but ultimately not fully satisfying, because you become more interested in the cult than Kubrick wanted you to. I really like the lighting though (the blue light bathing the backdrops, contrasting with warmer interiors, and the omnipresent Christmas lights).

Empire of the Sun:
Helluva an epic movie, there's no question about it, but unfortunately it never adds to a satisfying sum. It suffers from the typical problems of big novel adaptions: episodic, in that years occasionally pass in blinks when you don't expect them to, with an ending that is a little surprising, a little unexpected, and not completely satisfying, but likely faithful to the source material. Nonetheless, absolutely worth watching. And 12-year-old Christian Bale is a hell of an actor.

Monday, July 14, 2008

WALL-E as a didactic fable, or not

Sometimes green is just a color.

There has been a surprising amount of the press regarding Wall-e as a 'green' film with a didactic message of environmentalism. But the film's writer and director, Andrew Stanton, has expressed his reluctance towards making a film with an agenda. Then, does it have a message?

There are, at first, very critical messages towards consumerism, mega-corporations, and globular humans. Wall-e’s world was been literally taken over by a Wal-Mart-like chain of stores, Buy N Large; as a result, the Earth was completely covered in trash and humans fled the planet. Little Wall-e is the first wave of a recovery mission to compact the trash, to prepare the planet for eventual human re-habitation. The film’s protagonist is the last running robot on the planet and pursues his job with complete devotion, unaware of the futility.

Clearly there are strong environmental lessons being taught here, yes? We must limit our consumerist tendencies and save the planet! Wall-e is the new Al Gore! Well, sort of.

Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter’s original idea started with just the last robot on Earth doing a futile job– the little, adorable, lone robot trash-compactor gazing at the stars, longing for more—and the pollution aspect of the story was reverse-engineered to create the scenario. The trash arose as a functional story element, rather than to preach to children about littering. Of course, the origins of a storyline don’t negate the presence of preachiness, but understanding the original intentions is valuable.

Then, what of the fat, round humans who float around on their Jetson-age recliners and exist solely in digital screens? Well that’s a little more poignant, but the original intentions, again, are very compelling. During the film’s first couple years of development, the humans were green jelly blobs (very similar to the alien characters in the short ‘Lifted’ that preceded Ratatouille). Eventually it was to be revealed in a sort of Planet of the Apes fashion that they were human all along (!), and that the microgravity aboard the spaceship caused total bone loss. The kingdom of the space jellies was, as Stanton said, “too silly.”

The human characters were then changed into large, infantile creatures. This clarified and streamlined the story, and perhaps made them more likeable. But what’s important to realize is that it was the microgravity that degenerated the bodies of the humans aboard the spaceship Axiom, rather than increasing sloth. But, ah, it is still more complicated.

The human characters are essentially all good-natured and good-intentioned, but they have completely sacrificed individuality for the sake of convenience. They converse with neighbors via computers, they were what they are told is fashionable, they eat what they are told is good to eat (cupcakes in a cup!). Yes, this is quite satirical towards the way many of us live. I know I personally had more email exchanges than actual conversations today. But who is at fault in such a society? Is Pixar trying to tell us that we’re all hopelessly lazy slobs? Is there, altogether, a ‘message’ in Wall-e?

Why, yes, and has nothing to do with littering or global warming: do not let complacency dampen ambition. The humans have become so comfortable, so complacent, that they don’t even turn their heads to talk to one another. It’s just easier to go online instead. It’s also easy to drink liquid food rather than eat, to sit rather than stand, to die slow rather than live fast. I should heed this advice, and you probably should too.

What of the captain? Why return to the razed planet? He doesn’t want to return to Earth so that he can clean it, or to undo the wrongs of a mega-consumerist society, he wants to return because of the possibilities of what might be and for of the excitement spawned by new challenges. His complacency was rooted in his ignorance, as it was for all the humans. Wall-e’s plant is the catalyst that illuminates the significance of ambition, or the humans’ lack thereof.

Wall-e the robot’s experiences mirror this: he is relatively complacent in his daily work and hobbies but somehow knows there’s more to life. Eve’s arrival enlightens him in just the same way the plant enlightens the captain. For Wall-e, the unknown element he has been longing for is love. It is his purpose in life beyond function. For the humans, it’s purpose in life at all, of which they were previously ignorant of. Complacency has been so easy that they never had to consider why they bother living.

Condensed version of what I had actually wanted to say but didn’t quite articulate: it’s just a robot love story and all of the elements exist in support of the story.

I just really liked it.

Friday, July 04, 2008


After some positive critical reception, my interest crested and broke and I went and saw Wanted. Positive critical reception is probably an overstatement; some reviewers felt, at least, that it is an inventive and intense action movie with a knowingly dumb back-story. A thousand years ago a group of weavers (seriously) founded a secret league of assassins, and now Morgan Freeman as Sloan is directing the deadly order. They work under the belief that their killings are for the greater good.

Indeed, such a plot couldn't take itself less seriously, though it's all delivered stern and straight. And indeed, there are abundant 'holy shit' moments, especially in the first act of the movie. The chase sequence with Angelina Jolie as Fox, driving a Dodge Viper with her legs while she lies on the hood of the car and has a shoot-out with a rogue assassin, I thought, outshone the action in the following two thirds of the movie, despite an increase in scale, until train cars are being thrown about on screen by over-eager digital filmmakers.

Really over-the-top stuff, and I couldn't get caught up in it, as much as I 'Wanted' to... (yay fun with words!). I expected to be impressed the same way I was taken aback when watching 'The Matrix' for the first time. I wanted to ask "how did they do that?" but the intricately carved and curving bullets that Jolie effortlessly sent flying about like little bumblebees out of hell were always so perfect and digital that the visceral wonder was lacking. Ultra-slow-motion blood-spatter in Gaeta-esque bullet-time shots too, were lacking that visceral imperfectness that comes with practical effects. Such is a flaw with many popcorn movies these days: there is no limit to translating imagination into images with the use of modern technology, and we, as viewers, don't really care.

A stage magician can impress because his or her feats seem physically impossible. You saw an empty top hat, and yet, a bunny was pulled from the ether. An assistant was sawed in half. A car disappeared at the wave of a wand. As cynical as we all are, these sorts of practical tricks can impress us because we can't understand how they occur.

But in a movie, when a talking polar bear walks on to screen and starts to breakdance, there is no wonder. We know the bear does not exist, and only skilled storytellers can make us care.

When Keanu Reeves as Neo, in 1999, dodged bullets on a rooftop, with the camera gradually panning around him, I knew it was a physically impossible shot and yet it was not digital. Yes, the set was (though it wasn't evident), but Reeves was not. And so I was amazed. John Gaeta's visual effects team had done something I didn't understand at the time, like a magician convincing you that levitation is possible. The embracing of digital actors, in part, detracted from the sequels. There were no longer any 'how did they do that?' moments.

Jump back to 'Wanted'. In this film, say, perhaps, a train car is sent careening down a preternaturally deep ravine while the world's deadliest assassins battle inside. We know there is no train, there is no ravine, there is no silver bullet whizzing about. How impressed can we be when we know it is all in the mind's eye? Perhaps if we really cared about the characters it would matter.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


In 1995, people were asking if an audience could tolerate a feature-length film of computer-generated images. Members of the press literally asked if it was possible to watch a CG movie without getting motion sickness. I was ten years old and knew it was a dumb question. I saw Toy Story, thoroughly enjoyed it, but didn’t think much of its implications towards the direction of movie animation. 2D was dead; long live 2D.

Rather, after a string of poor and under-performing traditionally animated films, the Powers That Be deemed computer animation to be the way of the future. Of course, CG imagery is just a tool and doesn’t make bad movies good. "Computer generated" is itself a misleading term – as if a few clicks and taps of the space bar conjures up the digital computer god to make a movie from nothing; it takes an army of engineers and artists with computers as their sometimes-tool to make a CGI movie.

I recently watched Toy Story again for the first time in many years, and was surprised by how good it is. The technological limitations of 1995 computers did nothing to limit the story and vision of the film, and most of all, its characters. It holds up to repeated viewings and I can now see the subtle homages that were far over my head in '95. Most of all, Buzz and Woody and their friends have been inducted into the Disney pantheon of heartwarming characters.

The years have gone by, my cynicism has ebbed and flowed, the world has changed, and yet Pixar has virtually owned American feature-length animation for thirteen years. I say that from a critical perspective, rather than with box-office performance in mind. Money has been made by many.

With the studio's newest film, WALL-E, directed by the company's ninth employee and Nemo-helmer Andrew Stanton, not only do they continue to dominate, but they are reinventing what an animated film can be, and, possibly, are changing the perception of animation as a mere child's genre into the film medium that it is.

WALL-E needs to get a nomination for best picture of the year. Not just best animated film. I was just astonished the entire time. In that there is such sparse dialogue is it unique, in that there is such heartfelt emotion is it a success, in that it makes no compromises to mainstream pop-culture animation is it a Pixar film. And, in between a dozen layers of universal appeal, it perfectly captures the difficulty of being a romantic geek in a very big world. Not that I would know anything about geekiness.

Just go watch when you get a chance. It's about robots and love and the faults of consumerist-driven humanity and I don't care to say more or less than that. The opening short Presto alone is worth the ticket.

If you want to hear about the film's faults, its weakness is really any time WALL-E is not central to the narrative – the other characters are never quite as interesting or endearing as he, and so you can't help but wait until he returns to view. But he's never off-screen for too long.

Nonetheless, Pixar has a new badge, Disney has a new character, and the film vaults will long hold this one dear and safe. I, myself, will return to WALL-E repeatedly, in the theater, and over the years.


the end of something.