Saturday, June 28, 2008

Review: WALL*E

Starring (voices): Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Sigourney Weaver, Fred Willard, Jeff Garlin
Director: Andrew Stanton
Release Date: June 27, 2008
Running Time: 103 min
MPAA Rating: G
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios

I have always said that the computer age is ruining the way people communicate with each other. Not that long ago when people wanted to interact they had conversations, either in person or over the phone, and if geography dictated, people even hand wrote letters to one another. Crazy. Now everything is email, text messages, instant messages, picture messages, MySpace comments, Twitter updates, and so on. For all of the “advances” in communication that have been made in the last 20 years, the very syntax of our language has deteriorated so much that people that grew up at any point without the internet or cell phones will potentially have a hard time keeping up. And it’s only gonna get worse.

Wall-E takes place in the year 2815. Earth, as we know it, no longer exists. It has been cannibalized unrecognizably and covered in trash. With nowhere else to turn, humanity has abandoned the planet while thousands of WALL-E units (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) were left to convert the garbage into disposable form. Sponsoring the Earth’s exodus is the Buy n Large Corporation, a global company that essentially controls Earth, in the form of space station resorts called Axiom, where people are waited on hand and foot. And when I say every comfort is afforded, I mean every comfort. Unlimited food and drink. An endless supply of anything one could ever dream of, everyone has gorged themselves worthless. Even that pesky nuisance of walking has been eliminated as everyone hovers around on devices designed to eliminate the need to do so. The plan was to get everyone off Earth for five years, allow the WALL-E units to clean up, and then return when living conditions had improved. That was 700 years ago. Over time, all of the units were deactivated. Except one.

WALL-E spends his time doing what he was created to do — compact and organize trash. He has his method down to a science and has his science down to an art. Compacting and stacking trash high enough to form a new skyline, he continues his routine without interruption. He gathers items he finds interesting to take back to his home each night. His only interaction is that of a cockroach that follows him around while he works. If no other event had taken place, I imagine WALL-E wouldn’t have even minded, not knowing a whole other world exists. That is until…

EVE is a robot sent from the Axiom to find plant life. A plant would mean Earth was capable of sustaining life and the inhabitants of the Axiom would be allowed to return home. WALL-E immediately falls for EVE, even after being repeatedly almost blown to bits. He follows her around like a lost dog and the two eventually become friends. WALL-E shows EVE the plant he found working one day, she immediately stores the plant and shuts down awaiting deportation, according to her directive. When they come to pick her up, WALL-E stows away and goes back to the Axiom and into a world that he has never been accustomed to. Where EVE’s directive is to get the plant back to the Axiom, WALL-E’s directive is to get back to EVE.

This is the part of the movie where you will make your decision as to whether or not you liked it. The first half will be almost unanimously regarded as classic, playing like a great silent film, devoid of almost all dialogue. We simply watch the minutiae of WALL-E’s existence and get a real sense of his personality. But it is in his interaction with other life forms that make the film brilliant. Two recent movies dealing with character isolation come to mind: Cast Away and I Am Legend. If you have any complaint about either of these movies, it is the third act — when they are finally forced to re-insert themselves into some kind of interaction beings other than themselves. They both fail in this regard because they couldn’t figure out how to close the story after showing the characters by themselves for the majority of the movie. WALL-E is not only unafraid of interaction, he welcomes it, he forces it. He cannot be bothered by the insecurities of meeting a stranger. Those meetings are merely stepping stones to a greater cause: finding EVE.

Movies satirizing the dysfunction of the industrial world consuming itself in the name of advancement are nothing new. The last place I ever expected to see that message, however, was in a Disney/Pixar movie. This is the 9th feature film from Pixar and with each movie, they find a way to advance the art of computer animation by such leaps and bounds that it is hard to imagine what they will look like five years from now. But WALL-E is exponential growth, both in story and animation and design. Writer/director Andrew Stanton impressed us all with the physics of believing you were really under water in Finding Nemo. If you thought that was good, wait’ll you get a load of this. He has taken his love of personifying inanimate objects, mixed it with the common Pixar themes of love, loyalty and friendship, and set it against a dystopian landscape for some of the most scathing social commentary in years.

Simply put, Wall-E is Pixar Animation Studio’s magnum opus. It is the most beautifully drawn and wildly romantic movie I have seen in many years. The deeper message may be lost on kids but make no mistake, six months from now we will still be talking about this as one of, if not the best movie of the year.

And there’s the rub.

* * * * out of * * * *

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

DVD Review: John Adams

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, David Morse, Stephen Dillane
Director: Tom Hooper
DVD Release Date: June 10, 2008
Running Time: 501 min
Distributor: HBO Films

“It is no small thing to build a new world, gentlemen.” – Ben Franklin

“I am determined to control events, not be controlled by them.” – John Adams

John Adams, the HBO miniseries based on David McCullough’s bestselling biography, accomplishes something that John Adams, the man, attempted to do for the better part of his political life, speak of his accomplishments, a feat which is achieved here in grand fashion. Most of our knowledge of John Adams is only that he was the 2nd President of the United States, but this miniseries tells a much broader story spanning more than 50 years, showing events before, during, and after his presidency. And what a fascinating story it is.

John Adams is the story of a man more complex than history would allow him to be viewed. John Adams (Paul Giamatti) was a stubborn little man whose moral foundation was built on strong principles far greater than most of those he surrounded himself with. His honesty and outspoken nature were among his best and worst characteristics. Beginning with his unpopular decision to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre in the name of the law, a foundation he held very close, most of his decision making prowess came in the form of counsel by his wife, Abigail Adams (Laura Linney). Some of his decisions made in her absence have been widely and rightly condemned as being poor. She was his voice of reason any time he was to let his emotion blindly drive him into doing or saying something out of turn. The movie plays very well as a love story between the two. Separated for the better part of the first 14 years of their marriage, she stood by her man through every adversity encountered in the name of chasing his dream.

The sacrifices made by Adams were greater than those involving his wife and his family. The friendships of the men we came to know as the Founding Fathers were also strained as the country declared its independence and moved forward with the revolution. It was interesting to watch men and their alliances transform as the differing views of how to run a country’s government began to take hold. There was no blueprint for success, there were no definition of boundaries and title; they were making it up as they went along. We now look to our country to guide us but there was no history telling them how things should be run. They simply did what they thought was best as determined by the collective majority of those put into power.

Watching John Adams is like discovering our own history for the first time. I found myself feeling very patriotic. More times than not when we get a movie that involves a part of our American history, it is told in a self aggrandizing manner. John Adams told the story from a much different perspective. It was not afraid to show the trouble these men had in making the decisions that eventually shaped our country into what it is today. It showed each man less God-like than history has made them out to be. It wasn’t easy and mistakes were made. For that I think we should all be more thankful knowing they were ordinary men with extraordinary dreams and the fortitude and drive to realize them regardless of what obstacle stood in their way.

You cannot watch this film without being in awe of the multitude of great performances. Giamatti and Linney were the backbone to be sure, but the supporting members of the story provided a depth that would not have been able to be achieved if it weren’t for the great acting. Tom Wilkinson plays Benjamin Franklin as a man wise beyond his years and just as crazy. Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson is a sophisticated southerner as headstrong in his ideals as the next, and David Morse as General and President George Washington not only bears an uncanny resemblance to our nation’s first president, he commands attention every time he is on screen.

Toward the end of the series, after another bout of frustration with how his legacy is to be upheld, Adams tells his wife that he should have followed his father’s course and been a farming, shoemaking, deacon so as to have avoided what he deemed to be only headaches left in the wake of his political career. The fact of the matter is that when a man makes sacrifices as John Adams did during his life to realize a dream that he may not even live to fully realize, that shows a selflessness of immeasurable proportion that we cannot fully grasp in our present state of affairs. History may not have allowed him to be as iconic a figure as the rest of the Founding Fathers, but for all his shortcomings he had something most of the rest of them lacked. He was honest and driven, yet fallible. That he made no apology for being any of these things made something far more important than any character trait he may have possessed: human.

And there’s the rub.

**** out of ****

Review: Kung Fu Panda

Starring (voices): Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross
Director: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Release Date: June 6, 2008
Running Time: 92 min
MPAA Rating: PG
Distributor: DreamWorks Animation

A decade on from the release of Toy Story, the new car smell of the age of computer animated feature films is gone. Nowadays it is difficult to justify liking something simply because it looks good. I’m afraid that ship has sailed. No, now we assume the film will look great and so we look to the story to work in conjunction with the animation to make a great film. These days, our assumptions and expectations have been heightened by the success of so many computer animated feature films, but sadly there are few really great ones. But the good news is that it is time to clear a spot towards the top because we have a new member of that illustrious circle.

Kung Fu Panda is the story of Po (Jack Black), a gentle, lumbering beast of a panda who works for his father (who just happens to be a goose) in his noodle shop. He daydreams of kung fu but he is not what you would call a pillar of physical fitness. No, he is as clumsy as you imagine a panda bear would be at such a skillful art as kung fu. Or at waiting tables. Or at walking stairs, up or down. Po idolizes the Furious Five, a group of supremely skilled martial arts warriors trained by their master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), so much so that he talks to their action figures in his bedroom window upon waking up each morning. When an ancient master has a vision of an imprisoned evil warrior Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a former student of Shifu, escaping and returning malice to the Valley of Peace, he calls for a formal ceremony so he can determine who is the mightiest of warriors and name that one the Dragon Warrior.

Po heads to the ceremony, overwhelmed by the prospect of being able to see in the Furious Five in action and in person: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). He lumbers up an infinitely long flight of stairs to get to the stadium only to realize it has taken him so long the doors have closed, leaving him outside with no clear line of sight. As the ceremony unfolds inside and the Furious Five perform, he finally devises a plan to make it inside to see the action. Only he falls in from the sky just as Master Oogway chooses the Dragon Warrior. Who do you think he picked?

This much and the rest of the story is devoid of any real surprises from a narrative perspective, but the writing is not lazy either. It’s just pretty modest martial arts fare. So what makes the movie so good? I can’t really say it’s any one thing over another - the story is a perfect blend of action and humor. My only complaint is that the characters of the Furious Five weren’t as developed as the rest of the cast. It would have made the story longer and probably resulted in a loss of steam, but I would have liked to see more of them. And I know I just got through saying it doesn’t count but it is worth mentioning that the animation is really spectacular. DreamWorks Animation really stepped up their game from their previous films. Not only is it beautifully drawn and colorfully vibrant, the action scenes are extremely well choreographed. You can definitely tell a lot of care was put into making them as artistic as possible.

The more I think about it, the best part of the film is none of the things I mentioned - its more what this movie is not. The original idea for the film was to make it a parody and a spoof of martial arts movies. But co-director John Stevenson disliked the idea and decided instead to give the film an epic feel while blending in light comedy so it could stand tall beside the films he was modeling it after rather than making fun of them. Mission accomplished.

Now there’s your secret ingredient.

And there's the rub.

*** ½ out of ****

Monday, June 9, 2008

Review: You Don't Mess With the Zohan

Starring: Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui
Director: Dennis Dugan
Release Date: June 6, 2008
Running Time: 113 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: Columbia Pictures

My appreciation of the career of Adam Sandler has been a tumultuous affair. It started with Billy Madison. With every bone in my critic and non-critic being, I know it to be an atrocity of a movie. But I still like it. Happy Gilmore paid it forward and then Bulletproof came along. I didn’t like it, but I appreciated the departure from his brand of stupid comedy. Then he went back to his stupid brand of comedy for a few films, then Punch-Drunk Love came out and blew everybody away. Then he went back to the well, then Spanglish. The well. Reign Over Me. The well. And so on. Whether it works or not, every time he tries something different he follows it up with a few old stand by’s. You almost have to admire his tenacity.


You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is Sandler swimming to the bottom of the well. For that he makes no apology. From the time the movie starts, there is no mistake that this will be a huge dish of Sandler pie with all the fixins. The title alone is ridiculous and the premise is nothing short of insanely stupid. Zohan Divr (Sandler) is the top agent for the Mossad, the Israeli secret police, who grows tired of the fighting between the Israel and Palestine. He decides to fake his own death and move to New York City to realize his dream of becoming a hairdresser. People who will see this movie will see it because they want to with the knowledge of the title and the premise in hand before doing so. Anyone that willingly sees it with that kind of ammunition will enjoy it.

I’m not sure what I expected but I am surprised by how much I didn’t hate it. I keep avoiding saying out loud that I liked it, because it’s almost shameful that I did. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is the kind of movie that you have every right to despise but you can’t find a reason to do so. Not a good one anyway. The movie is stupid, but it generated enough laughs to keep me entertained. Even if the political message got a little heavy-handed towards the conclusion, it was handled with such a “can’t we all just get along” approach that it doesn’t get weighed down. The plot doesn’t really surface until oddly late in the film, but it is only there to drive the action. The movie is really just about a military super-agent that wants to cut hair. If there was any question at all, after the first five minutes you knew that Sandler and Co. were only out to do one thing – entertain themselves and hope everyone else got the joke.

The story is ridiculous but it is so over the top you can’t even use that as an argument. It reminds me of the final battle at the end of 8 Mile. Rabbit knew exactly what weaknesses his opponent would try to use against him so he defended himself by using it first, leaving them only one response:


And there's the rub.

*** out of ****

Monday, June 2, 2008

Review: The Strangers

Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
Director: Bryan Bertino
Release Date: May 30, 2008
Running Time: 90 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Rouge Pictures

The idea of being terrorized by strangers is nothing new to the horror or thriller genres. Exponentially, the idea of being terrorized by those same strangers within the confines of your home should be scarier. The idea of someone forcing their way into your house threatens the belief we have that we are safest in the sanctuary of our own home. The Strangers attempts to weave that idea into a story, which it does pretty well. It then attempts to sustain that idea for the length of a two-hour movie, which it doesn’t do very well.

The Strangers opens with a narrative voice-over explaining that the film is inspired by true events. Oh, this old gag again? I get it and all, and for a story steeped in simplicity, the concept of building atmosphere before we even get started is pretty vital, but idea of tagging everything with this disclaimer is getting a bit tired. So for everyone keeping tabs, we have: being terrorized by strangers (scary), in your own home (scarier), in a story based on true events (yatzee!).

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, true story, scary scary, yadda yadda yadda… Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) leave a friend's wedding reception to spend the evening at the Hoyt summer home. We know this because it is explained in the opening narrative along with all that “true story” business. When the film actually starts we see the two of them leaving the reception and arriving at the house. The house has been prepared for the arrival of a newly-engaged couple, but for reasons untold, the night didn’t turn out as planned. There is some of the reserved, awkward banter you would expect from a couple who has just not gotten engaged. Then comes a knock on the door.

Not just a knock. A bang.

A woman comes to the door asking for someone named Tamera. They tell her she has the wrong house and send her on her way. She comes back later - with friends. They are all wearing a different type of mask and begin eliminating all forms of communication and all methods of escape. They make noises, appear out of nowhere then disappear again, write cryptic messages and generally display the kind of creepy behavior you would expect from a group of masked folk messing with people at 4:30 in the morning. The anomaly here is that just about the time things are starting to pick up, everything falls apart.

Tyler and Speeman are fine (yes, “fine” is as good a compliment as I can muster) as the leads and for what they are tasked with, they accomplish it well enough. They just aren’t given much to work with. I like the simple approach to the story and the setup, both direct and implied; I just didn’t like the execution. It is hard to place all the blame on first-time writer and director Bryan Bertino, who seemed to have every intention of making a good movie. On one hand, his direction, at least in the first half of the movie, shows promise. He accomplishes quite a lot in terms of tension and atmosphere with very little to work with. On the other hand, that very little to work with bit comes back to bite him since he provided the material in the first place. Instead he is forced to use tired, stock ideas such as people and faces appearing out of nowhere and having the soundtrack as the fourth intruder. It’s as if he used up all his good ideas during the first half of the film and then realized he had an hour of movie left to make so was forced to use them all over again.

And again.

And again. I guess the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And there’s the rub.

** out of ****