Archive for June 2008

WALL•E

June 28, 2008

Even a robot can become human by watching old movies. Specifically old musicals in which people dance and hold hands. WALL•E, a determined little trash compactor on wheels, diverts himself all day finding bits of debris left behind by the humans who departed Earth 700 years ago. But really all he wants is someone’s hand to hold. WALL•E is a thoroughly charming and intensely moving film about loneliness and devolution, and how both conditions can be corrected. I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece; what I do know is that it is perfection. The movie has a strong simplicity that rivals, and sometimes equals, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. It’s E.T. for the iPod generation.

WALL•E’s routine is broken one day by the arrival of EVE, a sleek robot who looks like a first-wave iMac crossed with an owl. EVE zips around the barren planet, scanning for signs of organic life. WALL•E shows her a plant, which he’d found still miraculously alive inside a refrigerator. (Between this movie and the fourth Indiana Jones film, wherein Indy rode out a nuclear bomb blast inside a fridge, it certainly is the season for this heretofore unheroic appliance.) Her directive is to take the plant back to the massive spaceship Axiom, where bloated humans suck up liquid meals and are catered to by machines. By then, though, WALL•E has already fallen hard for EVE. She nearly kills him a few times, of course, but eventually she calms down and is intrigued by this skittish, humming little packrat.

Directed by longtime Pixar animator Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), WALL•E gets a lot of mileage from slapstick but is just as capable of almost indescribable beauty. Consider the sequence in which WALL•E and EVE float in outer space. He’s propelled by a fire extinguisher; she zooms around on her own power. Earlier, in WALL•E’s cramped hidey-hole, they try to dance along to the musical playing on WALL•E’s videotape but can only manage a clunking, floor-shaking parody. Here in weightless space, their dance becomes a pursuit-and-retreat mating ritual, and when they face each other on opposite ends of the wide frame it’s like the old scene with lovers running towards each other across a field. Stanton suffuses the movie with love of movies, and love as seen in movies. It’s a true all-around valentine.

Some have called the satire of oblivious, hapless consumers — and the corporation that dictates their lifestyles — a bit heavy-handed. I didn’t find myself noticing it much; I imprinted on lonely little WALL•E early on and never lost his emotional thread. Once he sees EVE, nothing will keep him from her. This faceless robot, with camera eyes that tilt upward in despair or wistful hope, is the most expressive character we’re likely to see at the multiplex this summer. Veteran sound man Ben Burtt is the voice of WALL•E, ringing endless joyous or crestfallen variations on one or two words; he’s matched beautifully by Elissa Knight, who as EVE manages to invest a word like “Directive” with volumes of regret and apology. I can see why some people will prefer the first third and grow weary of the more conventional hijinks aboard the Axiom; perhaps it’s because WALL•E and EVE are so magically right together that one wouldn’t mind turning the entire 97 minutes over to them cooing and bleeping at each other.

Movies by their very nature are manipulative. WALL•E comes honestly by the tears it earns, not just in the sad moments but in the moments of bliss. Past a certain point I’m not really qualified to review the film as an adult, since I quite readily regressed to about six years old through most of it. I can tell you that the six-year-old laughed and cried and was with WALL•E every step (or roll) of the way. But the adult also found things to love. Among other things, WALL•E is a testament to the human ability to improve and transcend: even 700 years after Earth became too toxic to sustain life, there’s still hope. And if you’re a stinky little trash compactor on wheels who just wants to hold someone’s hand, there’s hope for you, too. WALL•E is the most generous and romantic vision to hit mainstream movies in a very long time.

Wanted

June 27, 2008

wanted-movie-posterBack in the days when Mad magazine was still a comic book, they ran a great piece called “Book! Movie!” It contrasted the plot of a seamy, scandalous bestseller with the shiny, homogenized movie adaptation. I thought of it while watching Wanted, a shiny, homogenized adaptation of Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’ seamy, scandalous comic book.

Actually, the Millar-approved script (by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan) sort of does for action movies what the original Wanted did for superhero comics. In the comic, wimpy office drone Wesley Gibson learns that he’s the son of a famous supervillain, destined to join a group of supervillains who have already wiped out all the superheroes. The rest of the world doesn’t know this because they’re not supposed to. The premises of both comic and movie have been aptly summed up as Fight Club meets The Matrix, the two 1999 odes to breaking out of deadening Ikea conformity with ejaculatory, cinematographic violence.

Here, Wesley (James McAvoy) discovers his heritage connected to an ancient order of assassins who determine their targets based on the “loom of fate,” or some such thing. In the comic, Wesley was drawn as a dead ringer for Eminem; the difference between the comic and the movie is essentially the difference between Eminem and James McAvoy. The punk-rock fuck-you spirit of the comic pops up in the movie intermittently, but for the most part director Timur Bekmambetov uses the basic premise to indulge in computer-enhanced showstoppers, such as when a speeding car meets a moving train with about as much tenderness as Hollywood meets a graphic novel.

All that said, this Wanted is amusing for what it is; it’s pop nihilism (as opposed to Millar’s more genuine nihilism, which ended with the hero literally bending the reader over), but it’s agreeably slick pop nihilism, getting a kick out of its own excesses. A too-skinny Angelina Jolie turns up now and then as Fox, the hot mama who teases and browbeats poor Wesley through his training; he’s supposed to be preparing to kill the Bad Guy who murdered his legendary-assassin dad, though twists are in store. Jolie slinks through the movie with a self-satisfied smirk curling those famous lips, knowing she’s being used as fanboy femme-fatale shorthand, and quite content to let herself be used (she has said she was itching to do something light and brutal after emptying her tearducts in films like A Mighty Heart and Changeling). Morgan Freeman, as the imperious interpreter of the loom, serves as similar shorthand, doing his godlike-authority specialty. All the creative thought has gone into the stunts and setpieces, which add the curve-the-bullet visual to the action-flick lexicon.

Making his English-language debut after the geek-cherished Night Watch and Day Watch, Timur Bekmambetov doesn’t seem to have much on his mind or in his heart except a gallery of viciously cool visual possibilities. He loves to slow things down so we can get the sharpest look at the carnage, and he does interesting things with Wesley’s enhanced senses, which Wesley thinks are just anxiety attacks. (Finally, cubicle jockeys have a wish-fulfillment explanation for their Zoloft prescriptions.) Bekmambetov may not develop into a major visionary, or even a minor one, but he can put a hyperkinetic sheen on the usual bang-bang. That’s not nothing. But it’s not everything either.

Get Smart (2008)

June 23, 2008

In Get Smart, Steve Carell plays the new Maxwell Smart as a sort of genius of compassion. Max has been passed over for field work for years, possibly because he used to be 150 pounds overweight; leaner now, he’s an expert at listening to and decoding terrorist “chatter.” Max’s insight is that “bad guys are people too” — he doesn’t mean that in a touchy-feely way, he means that in order to predict what they’re going to do, you can’t forget they have real, motivating problems. In the world of espionage and counter-espionage, this practically makes him a visionary. Kinder and gentler, yet willing to use deadly force if absolutely necessary, Max is perhaps — dare I say it? — a hero for the Obama generation.

Get Smart is an affable pile-up of action-comedy climaxes, spoofing the same ground that the old Don Adams show (1965-1970), created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, covered. It also spoofs newer spy movies (it gets considerable mileage out of the obligatory negotiating-through-a-laser-protected-room scenario); by now, we’ve had dozens of secret-agent adventures for Max to send up, as opposed to the relative few extant during the show’s run. It used to be that Austin Powers owned this side of the parodic street, but that series got more smug and unfunny along with Mike Myers, and it’s poetic justice that the humbler Steve Carell turned out to be the Myers-killer when Get Smart opened opposite Myers’ The Love Guru and made over three times as much money.

Stuck in the rear with the gear too long, Max isn’t especially skilled in the field, so of course he’s assigned to the older, more experienced and impatient Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway, whose character’s youthful appearance is explained away by plastic surgery). Their mission is to stop the usual megalomaniac — KAOS mastermind Siegfried (Terence Stamp) — from assassinating the President with a nuclear bomb. (James Caan gets his Dubya on as the Prez, saying “nucular” and introduced reading a kiddie book to a classroom.) There’s also Agent 23 (a smoothly self-satisfied Dwayne Johnson, whose future most likely lies in comedy), the Chief (typically exasperated Alan Arkin), and a pair of tech geeks (Nate Torrence and Masi Oka) who supply Max with gadgets more dangerous to himself than to the agents of KAOS.

This is probably the highlight of director Peter Segal’s underwhelming resume (which includes three Adam Sandler comedies); he doesn’t let his cast get lost in the action or the slapstick. I do wonder, however, why the movie builds up Max’s particular skill set and then turns him into a stock action hero. He does use his insight to defuse a hulking assassin (wrestler Dalip Singh Rana, also in Segal’s The Longest Yard, here again playing the Richard Kiel role), but when he treats a plump Russian lady to a dance — a nicely empowering moment in itself — nothing comes of it (I expected her to show up again and be more integral to the resolution), and in the end he’s left hanging from a speeding SUV and tackling an elderly man. Still, the action scenes do pack more tension than many another blow-out this summer, and the cast has ample charisma. And any movie that finds room to include a cameo (a literal cameo, only his face visible in an oval) by a comedy legend — a cameo that seems to spoof the whole concept of cameos — is welcome at the summer-flick table anytime.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

June 15, 2008

The best parts of The Incredible Hulk unfold in Brazil, where the fugitive Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) keeps a low profile, keeps his pulse rate even lower, and is overqualified for his day-labor gig at a soda-bottling factory. Bruce even has a personal trainer, who instructs him to breathe out his anger from his abdomen. He seems to lead a livable, if grungily modest, life here; the sequence was actually shot in Rio de Janeiro, so it has a bustling authenticity, with the buildings piled high and the people densely packed in the streets. It’s a credible hiding place for a scientist who turns into a gigantic green creature of rage when something upsets him. The city must calm him down, too, since we’re told he’s gone well over a hundred days without an “incident.”

Most of the film’s remainder was shot in Canada, where it gives itself over to anonymous backdrops in front of which computer-generated mayhem will be inserted later. The Incredible Hulk, as you may have heard, is a stripped-down-for-action reboot of this franchise, which got off to an idiosyncratic and unpopular start with Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk. I found the Lee film fascinating and unstable, a psychologically thick meditation on repression and daddy-hatred. Many fans would’ve settled for more “Hulk smash,” and in the new film they get it. Directed by Louis Leterrier, who got into similar territory with Jet Li in Unleashed (Danny the Dog overseas), The Incredible Hulk has a more interesting and committed cast than its predecessor. Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth: in just about every case this is an acting upgrade.

Yet we see the writing on the wall here: this is the second Marvel Comics movie adaptation actually to be produced by Marvel, after Iron Man, and both films pack exactly as much personality as their actors bring with them, and eventually collapse into CGI footage of behemoths pounding each other. The Incredible Hulk goes farther than Iron Man, which at least gave us several scenes of Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges parrying verbally before they climbed into their respective battle suits; here, I don’t recall Edward Norton and Tim Roth acting opposite each other at all. Roth plays Emil Blonsky, a hard-bitten soldier hired by the Hulk’s nemesis General Ross (Hurt) to find and capture Bruce before he hulks out. Looking as though he’s still carrying some resentment from being so brutally manhandled in Funny Games, Roth moves through the film like a bullet, keeping Blonsky away from stock evil and grounded in a simple desire to fight one last great fight before his body gives out.

As usual, Norton expresses a furtive intelligence; whatever backstage drama he allegedly caused was worth it. He sells decency effortlessly, as when Bruce sees a female bottling-plant coworker cringing under the unwanted attention of a lout, almost walks away — afraid that the guy will start a fight and trigger a hulk-out — and then goes in to rescue her anyway. Norton also brings out the best in the usually uneven Liv Tyler, as Bruce’s true love Betty Ross (the general’s daughter). Tyler plays a lovely scene with the Hulk, in a cave under a thunderstorm; the way she advises him to watch his head when he ducks into the cave has a surreal tenderness. It’s a fine, moody sequence that just about outdoes the overwrought entirety of Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

The movie is fun enough, and it satisfied me as a lifelong Hulk fan (there are many in-jokes to tickle the fans, from a Bill Bixby cameo on a TV to Bruce looking askance at an oversized pair of purple pants). I think I prefer the Ang Lee version, which took the premise to bizarre and unexpected places; Lee, rather quixotically, tried to make art out of it — he didn’t quite realize he was supposed to make a commercial for Hulk toys. Louis Leterrier is more of an action man, and when Blonsky becomes a dark mirror on the Hulk — the Abomination — the vehicles fly up in the air and fireballs chase pedestrians up and down the streets of New York. It’s a comic book writ large, all right. But I still wished I could see more of Bruce in the Hulk and vice versa, more of Edward Norton beneath the CGI. Maybe next time.

Kung Fu Panda

June 6, 2008

Jack Black is the premier enthusiast in American comedy. Whatever it is — heavy metal, lucha libre wrestling, music trivia, remaking movies on a cheap camcorder — he throws his considerable bulk into it, unbowed by reality or even physics. In Kung Fu Panda, an amusing and gorgeously designed kiddie fable, Black is the voice of Po, a rotund panda who slaves over noodles in the family restaurant but yearns to be a kung-fu master. In his head, Po destroys thousands of enemies, blinding them with the glare of his “awesomeness.” Jack Black has never been one to skimp on the elaborateness of his fantasies — part of the joke of Tenacious D was that Black and Kyle Gass were playing dinky acoustic sets in bars, but in Black’s mind their thunder was drowning out Thor himself. Po is the perfect match for Black’s eager, bottomless devotion to all things bad-ass.

Adults might find Kung Fu Panda a bit on the thin side. It’s lightweight, to be sure, and hammers on its believe-in-yourself theme a tad too much. Without Jack Black’s optimism, the movie probably wouldn’t work. Po is somehow chosen as the Dragon Warrior, the legendary defender of the peaceful against the forces of evil and rage. He doesn’t really know much about kung fu aside from the occasional glimpse of his heroes, the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). Their master, the diminutive Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), can’t believe he’s stuck training this unpromising lump of panda flab. And there isn’t much time to prepare Po for battle, because Shifu’s old student-turned-nemesis Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a snow leopard driven by fury and resentment, has escaped from prison and is headed for Shifu’s Jade Temple.

Sometimes when I see an animated film like this, with a cast of veterans and hipsters, I wonder what kind of live-action movie could possibly support the same cast. David Cross alongside Angelina Jolie? Jack Black trading lines with Dustin Hoffman? In truth, the Furious Five get disappointingly scant screen time and a paucity of dialogue — I think Jackie Chan has a handful of lines (the idea of casting him as a voice in a kiddie kung-fu flick is more entertaining than what he actually does; he can’t do with his voice what he can with his body and expressions). There are two exceptional action sequences, both having to do with Tai Lung — his escape from captivity, and a brawl between him and the Furious Five on a suspension bridge. The core of the movie, though, is the relationship between two self-doubters, Po and Shifu, and Hoffman, muttering balefully to himself, delivers the gravitas of a master while hitting each laugh with an old pro’s precision.

Everything comes together at the finale, when Po, having learned that his technique is based on his appetite, faces off against Tai Lung, who actually seems to have a point when he growls that he was groomed to become the Dragon Warrior his whole life and was devastated to learn it wasn’t his destiny. Ian McShane brings an authentic darkness to Tai Lung — the disappointment, the pride that has flipped so easily into spiteful rage. McShane’s work on Deadwood was sometimes called Shakespearean, and here, in a summer action farce for kids, he invests what could’ve been a plastic Happy Meal toy with Swearengen-esque perversity. Up against him is Jack Black, the baby-demon rock parodist who once sang about the importance of fucking one’s woman gently. (In another song, he promised “With karate I’ll kick your ass,” which deserves to be this movie’s remixed theme song on a YouTube mash-up.) I’m sure all of this will go over kids’ heads, but I wonder if they’ll look back years from now and marvel at how truly weird the casting of their favorite animated films really was.

Recount

June 3, 2008

They asked for too little. If the people in Al Gore’s corner had requested a statewide recount in Florida after the 2000 presidential election, Gore may well have won. As it is, Team Gore only asked for a recount of four counties, and the process took so long — stopped at various points by court orders, and delayed by Republican operatives objecting to any Gore-favoring ballot they could — the clock finally ran out. The rest is history; infamy, some would say.

The new HBO docudrama Recount digs into the machinations on both sides of the conflict, the strategies that worked or didn’t, the small victories and large defeats, the fortunes rolling in and out like the tide. The movie — which could’ve been Sydney Pollack’s swan song as a director, except that he was too ill at the time (he stayed on as an executive producer, and passed away literally the day after the movie premiered on HBO) — is the work of two people not generally known for political drama: director Jay Roach (of the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents/Fockers films) and writer Danny Strong (best known for playing Jonathan, one of the Nerds of Doom on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). What these former laugh-makers have wrought is a fleet-footed, conversational study of potentially very dry material well-covered by the media of the day (hanging chads! Jews for Buchanan! Brings it all back, doesn’t it, whether you want it back or not).

Kevin Spacey, who stars as Gore operative Ron Klain, has said in interviews that Recount “plays like a thriller,” and that’s about right. Early on, after Team Gore bulldog Michael Whouley (Denis Leary, typically acerbic) discovers that the numbers might be leaning in Gore’s favor, it becomes crucial to stop Gore — who has already called George W. Bush to concede — before he goes to make the official concession speech. The episode is staged as a near-parody of the clichéd thriller climax in which someone with a bomb must be halted before reaching Yankee Stadium during the World Series. The one person who could be reached at the time, Gore aide David Morehouse, had to chase Gore down, limping on a hurt knee, and finally physically block him from entering the plaza. Great material, and it actually happened.

Make no mistake: Recount is a partisan movie, with noble (if sometimes suicidally noble) Democrats and corrupt Republicans. The participants in the infamous “Brooks Brothers riot” which successfully shut down the Miami-Dade recount are portrayed as barking thugs (some of them were later rewarded with primo gigs in Bush’s White House). So the movie isn’t “fair and balanced,” but then neither was the election. The villain of the piece is clearly Katherine Harris (Laura Dern), Florida’s Secretary of State (and co-chair of Bush’s Florida campaign), who in the name of “the rule of law” did her best to block the recount. Playing this woman who said (in 2006) that “if you’re not electing Christians then in essence you are going to legislate sin,” Dern turns in a performance as darkly complex as anything she’s done for David Lynch. Her Katherine just wants to be liked; when reporters fire skeptical questions at her, she’s crestfallen.

The movie comes down to a battle between two princes with their armies of assistants and gofers. On the Republican side is James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), who has played this game longer, and knows when to punch and when to stand still and make the other guy look bad for punching back. Baker, we learn in one of the film’s few nods to Republican humanity, was a Democrat for decades before a certain prominent GOP member took him under his wing during a rough spell in Baker’s personal life. The cronyism, the essential corruption of all politics and its roots in emotion and loyalty rather than reason, snap into focus. When the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in with their verdict, the film identifies each judge and the administration that appointed him or her. (Indeed, the film is so packed with players that people are still being introduced with onscreen titles a full ninety minutes in.)

More entertaining than it should be, given the stakes involved and the consequences thereafter, Recount takes liberals back to the brief period when it seemed that their man might actually go the distance, and takes conservatives back to the day when their man, freshly minted and with his wretched failures still in the future, could say in his acceptance speech, “I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation….Whether you voted for me or not, I will do my best to serve your interests and I will work to earn your respect.” Now that the great uniter has sunk not only his nation but very possibly his party, I wonder if James Baker and his team regret fighting so hard to enthrone him.


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