Monday, June 30, 2008

WALL-E

Pixar is an embarrassment to the moviemaking industry.

By that, I mean that every other studio in Hollywood should be embarrassed that Pixar consistently outshines them.

Rival studio executives hoping for a little schadenfreude at Pixar's expense will have to keep on waiting—by every conceivable measure, WALL-E, Pixar's latest offering, is a huge success. It racked up a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 93% on Metacritic. It earned 63 million dollars in its first weekend—easily outgrossing a film whose trailer prominently featured Angelina Jolie's unadorned back. It currently sits at #6 on IMDB's top 250.

I'm here to tell you that these metrics all undersell it.

If you haven't already heard, WALL-E tells the story of its titular robot, a trash-compacting droid still plugging away on Earth hundreds of years after humans—and pretty much all other forms of life—have left. Starved for company (aside from his pet cockroach), WALL-E whiles the day away picking up trash, compacting it into tight little cubes, and stacking these cubes miles high. When Eve, a plant-sensing robot hundreds of years more advanced than WALL-E, arrives on the godforsaken Earth, WALL-E looks past her apparent indifference to him (and the fact that she could easily destroy him) and attempts to befriend her. Just as his persistence begins to pay off, WALL-E shows Eve a plant he found, causing her to snatch it from him, stow it, and go into a dormant mode until she is picked up by a spaceship. WALL-E, not allowed to let his one friend disappear without a fight, stows away on the spaceship in hopes of rescuing Eve.

Of course, that little plot summary does the film absolutely no justice.

Pixar has long made a living creating characters that are adorable without being sickening, and flawed without being irredeemable. WALL-E ratchets up the adorable while still adroitly avoiding the sickening—probably because he's so much more than that. He's clever, he's dogged, he's inquisitive, he's resourceful, he's hopeful, he's loving, and he's refreshingly unconcerned with himself. He'll also probably go down as one of the most memorable characters of this decade.

Pixar has never really shied away from putting small social messages in their films, but they probably make their boldest statement here. Not only is the Earth left completely uninhabitable by human consumption, but the humans out in space do nothing but consume, converse, and coast around in these neat little hover-chairs. Their every whim seems to be catered to by a conglomerate called "Buy-n-Large"—a not even remotely veiled swipe at Wal-Mart. (And in what I understand is the first appearance by an actual human in a Pixar film, the inimitable Fred Willard plays the CEO of Buy-n-Large at the time of Earth's evacuation.) That said, the environmental and consumerist warnings are delivered with enough of a wink that they at no point seem preachy.

WALL-E does all of what Pixar does best. It's gorgeously rendered. It features a subtle but incredibly efffective score. It uses non-human characters to remind us what it means to be human. But WALL-E outstrips its Pixar predecessors in a number of key ways as well. While all Pixar movies take us deep into the psyche of a three-dimensional main character, WALL-E takes us there with barely a shred of dialogue. While all Pixar movies offer a new way to see the world, WALL-E goes further by offering a whole new world to see. But where WALL-E really blows away the competition is in its contagious, infectious, intoxicating sense of discovery. It's enough to turn even the most stone-hearted viewer into a state of wide-eyed wonder.

I don't know what more to say. WALL-E made me laugh. It made my eyes well up. It made me cheer. It filled me with hope. It did everything you'd ever want a movie to do, and only my extreme hesitancy to use the very top number on our belov├ęd scale is keeping WALL-E at a 21.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

There are few things more pleasing than when a film surprises you with how damn competent it is, especially in this day and age when we've seen everything. There are several reasons this happens, including poor promotion, but it seems more impressive when it happens against poor speculation towards it's prospects, ala The Bourne Identity. That's why it was so pleasing to get a double-surprise of Ed Norton returning to form as a leading man in Hollywood, and to do it via a star/producer/co-writer vehicle in The Incredible Hulk.
Norton stars as proto-geek Bruce Banner, the man with the most conspicuous anger management problem on the planet. The film begins with a credit sequence that refreshes people on the "familiar"* origin of the Hulk in about a minute and a half (THANK YOU. This is how origins should be dealt with), and moves on to show Banner hiding out in Brazil, working as a janitor in a bottling plant, and studying with a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu master to defend himself and control his anger. What? I know, right? Not your typical superhero fare. This early sequence of the film showcases the honestly beautiful cinematography in the film (most notably a shot of the crowded city that circles up.....and up.....and up.....), and showcases Banner's plight in hiding, the consequences of not being able to maintain absolute control, and the general tragedy of being the Hulk very vividly. Meanwhile, General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt, phoning it in) is determined to catch the Hulk, and use him for his original purpose: as a bio-weapon, with the assistance of Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). The crux of the plot revolves around Banner's determination to find a cure for the Hulk aided by the mysterious "Mr. Blue," and how his quest is opposed by Ross and his obsession with the Hulk.
Much has been made of the maligned (and rightfully so) 2004 Hulk film, and people were wondering if the franchise was cursed. How does this new version compare to the Ang Lee version? The answer is, very, very well. French director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter 2, Unleashed) handles directorial duties nicely, in a fast-moving, funny, and thoughtful popcorn film that makes it very easy to care about the protagonist. The script by proven Marvel adapter Zak Penn holds up well, especially the Norton-added references to the Hulk's universe, and a hard-to-miss reference to Captain America via the Super-Solider Serum. BUT, the easter eggs and references never get in the way of the plot, or story.
There was a lot I liked about this film that I hated about the first one. The Hulk gets his powers from gamma radiation, not sea-cucumber splicing. The Hulk talks. The Hulk fights a super-villain, not the Army the whole time, which leads to one small caveat: how stupid are these guys anyway? They spend millions of dollars pursuing the Hulk, and yet they can't figure out he's bullet-proof, so maybe they shouldn't waste any ammo lesser than, say, a Stinger missile on him? If I were a taxpayer in the Marvel Universe, I'd be pretty pissed off that they were spending all that money going after domestic "problems" like the Hulk, instead of Dr. Doom and his weapons of mass destruction. Screw diplomatic policy.
All in all, it's been a great year for comics at the multiplex. While not quite as good as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk pretty much lives up to its name. I give it a 15 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Initial Reaction: "Whew!" (reaches for tissue).

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (or Scaphandre et le Papillon) is based on a true story of the man Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do), the editor of Elle magazine who in 1995 suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with "locked-in syndrome." Essentially, this means that while he was cognitively fully functioning, he is unable to move or speak at all. In the film, Jean-Do wakes up from a coma after this stroke and learns that he's paralyzed from head to toe. The movie wastes no time with exposition, because the situation lends itself beautifully to introduce the story and the characters.

This is a French film directed by American Julian Schnabel who won best director at Cannes Film Festival. It stars Mathieu Amalric who was praised for his role as Jean-Do. While there was nothing lacking in his performance, I have to say that I'm not quite sure what could be so amazing about playing a guy who can't move at all. (I was curious about how they got his lip to droop, though.) The only thing that Bauby can control is his left eye, and with help from the hospital staff he learns how to use this to communicate. The amazing thing is that through this method of communication he is able to write his book, the memoir that the film is based on. The rest of the characters, including Emmanuelle Seigner as Celine, Marie-Josee Croze as Henriette, Anne Consigny as Claude, and Max von Sydow as Papinou (among others) made so much of their characters. I loved how genuine and understated their performances were. Even though this script has the potential to be a drama-filled weep fest, it didn't go there at all.

Another way that this film was honest with us was in the actual character of Jean-Do. While I can't say that the story's representation of Bauby is completely accurate, it didn't attempt to make him a hero or a sacrificial lamb. From the very beginning we hear his internal monologue as he lives through the experience, and he is a complete person with all his bitterness, sarcasm, grief, and fear. An example of this is when he first sees himself in the reflection on a window, the same point at which we first see him. He is taken aback by the face staring back at him, and so are we, because all we've been aware of is his youthful, healthy voice, the voice he himself is used to hearing. As he looks at the reflection, he bluntly says to himself "I look like something from a jar of formaldehyde."

This was not a film I'd recommend for pure entertainment value. It's a difficult movie to watch, not only for the reason you think. It is filmed from Jean-Do's perspective, so the majority of the movie is what he is seeing or experiencing. As a viewer, this doesn't conjure up pity as much as empathy. Rather than looking at this pathetic creature bed-ridden and unable to do anything himself and thinking "Aw, poor guy, that sucks," we're looking out from his eyes and thinking "Hey, you there! On the outside! This sucks!" The way that director Julian Schnabel achieves this is through some very creative, unusual camera work. We literally are in Jean-Do's head, the cinematography reflects this realistically and seamlessly.


Rating: 16

This film is much more of an experience than a story. We get to experience the horror of locked-in syndrome, but also the simplicity and hope of life newly-realized. While I give credit to a great movie where credit is due, it was a bit difficult to watch, and so my enjoyment of it went down a smidge, which resulted in a 16. What a wonderful tribute to a man and his incredible story.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Baby Mama

Tee-hee, procreation is funny.

But seriously, a huge part of creating comedy is finding the amusing in the everyday. Something that might not seem funny to you can be given a whole new spin in the hands of a skilled comedian. Now, I’m not saying that we should have comedies about the Holocaust or suicide bombings; some things are just out of bounds. But most of the good comedy movies would work nearly as well as serious dramas. Melinda & Melinda explores this idea more thoroughly, but that review is for another time. In this one, we’re talking about Baby Mama, and whether or not it worked.

The answer to that question is, “for the most part.” It wasn’t all giggly moments, which I appreciated, but some moments fell flat, and others were just plain not funny. The story involves a 37 year-old woman in Philadelphia named Kate (Tina Fey), whose biological clock is telling her she needs to have progeny. Since she’s married to her career, the traditional method of getting pregnant isn’t really an option, so she tries other ways, eventually settling on having her eggs fertilized and placed in a surrogate. That lucky lady is Angie (Amy Poehler), a Dr. Pepper-drinking party girl just a step above white trash. Kate works for a health food company owned by a whacko sketch-monster named Barry (Steve Martin), and lives in a posh apartment building with a ghetto doorman (Romany Malco).

While scoping out sites for a new store the company wants to open, she runs into Rob (Greg Kinnear), a small-business owner/ex-lawyer who runs a clone of Jamba Juice, who becomes her significant other. Things proceed as normal, except that Angie has all the motherly instinct of a sledgehammer, and she and her skeezy boyfriend (Dax Shepard) have a secret. Fey is all right as the straight woman, but I like her better when she’s playing the sardonic jokester, as she did so often on Saturday Night Live. Poehler, another SNL alum, really gives it her all with Angie, and the result is a very funny character, with moments of seriousness amidst the levity, both of which she does quite well. She has a knack for ridiculousness and flamboyance.

But, as with all ensamble comedies, the real gems are the supporting characters. Kinnear is splendid as Rob, with surprisingly good comedic timing. He’s a great match for Fey’s kinda buttoned-up control freak. Malco is the shiz as Oscar the doorman, though he plays largely the same character as his 40 Year Old Virgin gig, the only other film I’ve seen him in. Maura Tierney plays her role as the sensible sister competently, though she seems a little out of place. Sigourney Weaver even shows up as the weird and kooky head of the agency where Kate has her surrogacy done. And Siobhan Fallon provides several guilty giggles as a birthing instructor with a massive speech impediment.

Baby Mama had plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but nothing was too out of the ordinary, with the exception of a very odd scene where Angie is getting pregnant with Kate’s eggs. Let’s just say it was a sex scene like no other. This movie had an all-star cast, though nobody really stole the spotlight from anyone else. Though the story mostly centered around Kate and Angie, each of the minor characters had their moment (or moments) in the sun. I also appreciated the happy ending, even if the movie was a tad sentimental before then.

Michael McCullers (an SNL writer sitting in the director’s chair for the first time) does a good job of balancing humor with weight, though the flow of his narrative leaves something to be desired. The dialogue is a little stilted, especially for someone who wrote for SNL. But I might have been spoiled rotten forever, since Arrested Development. I could also pick on his directorial and editing style, but this is his very first movie, so that seems a little hard-hearted. And the message of the movie seems to be that in this age of so many new ways to become parents, there is one thing that never changes: love. This gets it a lot of points in my book.

In general, Baby Mama is a fun lark, though it need not be watched on a theater screen; DVD will do just fine. It was released at a pretty inopportune time, what with Indy 4 and Iron Man still running, but it’s worth the ticket.

Iconic Lines:
“Yeah, I just don’t like your uterus.”
“Congratulations, Kate. Now, I’m going to reward you with 5 minutes of uninterrupted eye contact.”
“I’m gonna bang all your friends! Consider them banged!”

22 Rating: 8

Particle Man

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

27 Dresses

Is it just me or did Pythagoras make this film? That was pretty much my reaction to 27 Dresses. This movie “starring” Katherine Heigl and James Marsden, follows the typical chick flick formula. Jane (Heigl) is someone who is always a bridesmaid and never a bride. She seems to hold down two jobs: a full time assistant to a man that she is in love with and a doormat who people use to plan their weddings. However, they don’t pay her for her services, and all she gets to do is be a bridesmaid. She is perfectly happy with this life until her sister comes into town and falls in love with Jane’s boss and becomes engaged to him. This throws Jane into a tailspin as she must plan her sister’s wedding to the man they are both in love with. Enter Kevin Doyle (Marsden). He comes into Jane’s life and refuses to leave it. In the beginning he tries to get on her good side to get the dirt on a story he is currently writing, however, as anyone could predict, he falls in love with her, sees the error of his ways, and becomes a better person.
Well, now that I am done throwing up I can continue with this review. I would just like to say that this movie was so formulaic that it could have been written and directed by mathematicians. I do apologize to mathematicians EVERYWHERE for this offense. We as film viewers do understand that we do not go to a chick flick to be mentally challenged, but c’mon, use some originality, morons! I could predict what was going to happen even before it happened in the movie. I am not psychic or intuitive or anything, it was just the film seemed to not progress beyond the storyboard aspect of development. On top of the horribly unoriginal plot, there was the acting. NOTHING in this movie made me care for anyone. I didn’t care what happened to the characters; they could've fallen down a sewer for all I cared, and I blame this on the terrible acting. I know that it was probably hard to get any emotion out of this math problem of a movie, but they didn’t even try. It was completely ridiculous.
Some people (myself included) have said, yeah, it was not a great movie, but it had some cute points. Does that mean you would go and watch an autopsy if it had cute parts? My answer is no! There is nothing cute or precious enough in this film to even remotely save it. This film gets a -12, and I should consider some shock therapy as a way to forget this movie.