Review: Wall-E

 

 

  • What’s Good: A touching and at times timeless story. The robot Wall-E is a legend. Johnny Five is dead! 
  • What’s Not: The human segments hurt the film. I couldn’t get into the spaceship-set scenes. 
  • Food Equivalent: rust and twinkies
  • Made Up Hacky Peter Travers Quote: A short circuit fun blast that sends sparks flying from the heart. Wall-e sizzles the circuits!   

Never thought I would describe a supposed children’s film as a blend of “Idiocracy” with “I Am Legend.” Pixar’s latest is set in a post-apocalyptic and post-human world where a lonely, obsessive compulsive robot toils away making endless stacks of trash cubes and collecting trinkets. After a series of priceless robot antics involving the processing of trash into cube-like poops, a cannibal existence where Wall-E reuses parts from his formerly working pals, and the bot’s touching relationship with a resilient roach, Wall-E encounters Eve, a survey robot sent to earth by the powers that be to determine the state of things. Soon after a disastrous first encounter where Eve tries to evaporate a shivering but stalking Wall-E, the two hunks of metal begin to bond as they enter into an intergalactic journey to humanity’s central hub. Sounds light and fluffy except this is Pixar’s edgiest and most aware film to date. The majority of the film contains no dialogue which, for those weaned on “Shrek”-like vomit dialogue, may find frustrating. And assuming the soccer-Mom Disney contingency with faded W stickers on their SUVs figure out what the film is actually saying, they may be turned-off by the overt jabs at consumerism, capitalism, and environmental wasters (“Cars” this is not).  

 

So are we ready for an American animated a film that espouses big ideas (literally and figuratively)? I sure am. Ruled and ruined by a Wall-Mart like corporation, humans have long abandoned the trash heap known Earth. Hundreds of years later and they still live in a luxury spacecraft light years away. It is here that logic, reason and body mass have been jettisoned in place of comfort and ease. Scene involve the blob-like captain of the ship raising his hover chair –and straining at that– for a sip of coffee while a chair accident tosses a human blob on he ground, prompting robots to tell them not to panic because other robots are going to be there to pick them up. Tee-hee. This sad, giant strip mall in space is of course a robot supported bubble where bots “serve” humans by giving them drinks, back rubs and spinal support. The film, then, is about not only Wall-E’s quest for synthetic connection but mankind rejoining the human condition after years of stasis. Containing trite dialogue (“I never noticed the stars before” a blob says after finally looking beyond her computer screen thanks to Wall-E’s intervention into this horrific ecosystem or, rather, eek-o-system), mostly forgettable characters and a lot of obvious plot details, the sci-fi space ship segment of the film, sadly, keeps this adventure from the masterpiece status it may or may not deserve. Personally, I wanted more Wall-E on earth because, here, actions play out like a blissful silent movie serenade set on a scorched earth. Really, this is should be the little guy’s story to tell; as is, he’s more of a passive participant or indirect catalyst in grand(er) cosmic matters.  

 

Now, there’s a few bits of extratextual (though not extraterrestrial) irony at play. First, the film is critiquing big business and the fascist state of America where corporations serve as our Slurpee pushing overlords that have great interest in keeping the populist fat and stupid and all-consuming. So here’s Disney, a mind-controlling big business if there ever was one, selling a product that goes after big business practices that will lead to our eventual destruction. Irony, no? Also, Pixar is selling this product to, well, fat blobs slurping on soda and nachos in the theater. Funny, yes? Another strange dilemma is the film’s insistence upon crafting a synthetic heterosexual relationship. Wall-E is a clunky, out-of-touch (yet all about touch if you know what I mean) utilitarian male robot that swoons over the sleek and curvy female in the form of an egg who hums around chirping the accusing yet classic line “Waaaaall-E!” every two seconds. Oh, and Eve also stores precious plant life (seeds) found on Earth in her robot womb. Yikes. Strange. So why do hunks of metal have to be soooo… gender specific? Because this is Disney/Pixar and while they may be able to tinker around with Middle American values by poking fun at them, they’re not going to remove the safe relationship! Fine, there’s no way around such arch normalizing of things… but at least the film plays with gender roles by making Wall-E a born romantic that watches musicals while Eve carries a laser blaster and is clearly the driving force in both the plot and Wall-E’s lovelorn life. Wall=E = passive, Eve = proactive. Either way, what we are dealing with here is a classic set of characters that are iconic (yet never ironic) and rich. As rich as any movie human I’ve seen this year at least. The result is a strange brew of a film that’s cute for kids and cunning for adults. 

 

Unlike most of Pixar’s cannon, this film is not altogether condescending (though it turns into that in the last act). It is, for the most part, a smart and demanding, yet totally rewarding for the passive viewer and mindful watcher alike. The film lover in me geeked on blissful homages to “2001: A Space Odyssey” (the antagonist is a Hal-like robot that’s intent on keeping humans ignorant), “Hello Dolly” musical numbers and of course silent film mechanics that make a empirical case for children’s films, nay, all films, relying less on canned dialogue and more on visuals, heart and ideas.

grade: B+

Review: The Happening

“The Happening” may be the strangest and most detached studio horror film to come out since Paul Schrader’s version of “Exorcist: The Beginning.” It manages to touch upon genre films like “The Signal” and “The Day After Tomorrow” while down right stealing plot elements from the superlative Steven King novel “Cell.” Yet unlike those busy films, here is a vision where nothing happens-which is totally strange considering the title. Actions scenes go as such: People stop. People die. The wind blows. Mark Whalberg winces and looks constipated. scene

M. Night Shyamalan, as we all know, got lucky, er, I mean found success with “Six Sense.” Since then he has reverted deeper and deeper into a self absorbed realm of pseudospiritual dementia. Post “Unbreakable” (a film I love and the last time things worked out for the director), every “a film by…” title has suffered from Night’s myopia (here is a director that takes zero input from the industry… and fans) and his off-putting insistence that he’s brilliant and destined for greatness. This is storytelling, here. Except the stories suck. Be it straining too hard to throw in heady plot twists that everybody seems to expect of this one hit wonder plagued by his ghostly twist to end all twists (“The Village,” “Signs”), trying too hard to be profound (see also: every film he has ever made!), or trying too hard to be timeless, mythical and Jesus incarnate (“Lady in the Water”). A narrative throughline is that the antagonist in each and every picture is not the spooky supernatural happenings that linger, loiter (narratively speaking) and seem to manifest themselves through fate, but Night himself. The writer/director has become such an amateurish storyteller that he makes George Lucas look like a team player. Theses days, pen strokes hit Night’s pages like a knife strokes. And this knife has a nasty habit of hacking (emph. on hack) into the heart and integrity of whatever shit story he may be telling–pardon, crafting.

I’m getting off track. Oh well, no hurry, right? “The Happening” takes end-of-the-world tropes and mixes them with subtle elements of paranoid horror and environmental revenge. Is this wave of mutilation that befalls the east coast a result of Government experiments? Global warming? God punishing us for popularity of “The Hillz?” Either way, the “monster” or, more accurately speaking, force is as invisible as Night’s plot structure; this makes “The Happening” the first in the silent fart horror genre. I wont spoil the cause of this soon-to-be pandemic demise except to say that it’s NOT the monster from “Cloverfield.” I will however say that at one point in the film, the pervasively passive voiced protagonist stops and begs a house plant not to kill him. If ever there was an anti-twist in a movie, “The Happening” is it. Night does everything he can to resist expectations except, in the process, he also resists making anything interesting. Actually, I’m wrong, the most interesting thing about “The Happening” is how uninteresting and un-engaging it is (I’m 100% serious, too). Speaking of passive, I’m not sure if it’s interestingly atypical or deadening that no character in this film is in a rush. The supposedly ominous killer drifts through New York like a John Carpenter “Fog” or Frank Darabont “Mist” and causes a wide-scale evacuation in the first act. A subsequent scene takes place at train station and the vibe is as leisurely as the Apple Store on a slow day. It’s like Werner Hertzog got his hands on the actors and extras and told them to react to such events as if comatose.

Feeling the bad vibrations (get it?), high school science teacher Marl Whalaberg is introduced talking to a class about the phenomenon of missing bees. He says there is no known causes for such a cataclysmic bio-anomaly , except, uh dummy, there is and it’s cell phones. But if Night posited that theory then he would surely bee sued by Mr. Steven King’s estate. Instead, the film deviates from King’s cellphone-made-zombie premise and enters into a plot that’s far more standoffish and lackadaisical. As a protagonist, Whalberg is at his most infantile and whiny. And this is coming from a Marky Mark fan! When accused of thuggery by a crazy old lady he reacts in a stoner’s whisper, saying “heeeeey nooooo” like the old bag just stole his Flaming Hot Cheetos. Along for the countryside journey to nowhere is his self-described emotionally stunted wife (Zooey Deschanel, because, yeah, the one thing this film needs is less personality) and a mute little girl whose father (John Leguizamo) just abandoned her. A potential argument on behalf of the film is that this isn’t about the end of the world but, rather, the creation or birth of a new family bond. Except… no, the family in question here is so shallowly drawn that going with this argument would do more harm than good to the film in terms of intentionality and quality. So, where does the family go and what do they end up doing? Nothing and nothing. Okay, then how do they react to the constant sight of death? Well, let me just say that this is the first apocalyptic film in which the lead characters are more annoyed and put off by the turn of (non)events than horrified. That makes two of us.

grade: C

Note: it’s really more like a hard-D in terms of quality but I’m going kinda easy on the film because it stridently and stubbornly rejects any SIGNs of plot conflict and genre expectations. Also, the kid from The Kid makes a cameo. And finally, Mark Whalberg is so blitzed out that his performance is a (I Am Not) legend; watch for the jaw droppingly (more like droopingly) strange big emotional climax where he tries to make his wife jealous by describing an even in which he “almost” bought, like, a six dollar bottle of cough syrup from a pharmacist because she was hot.

Review: The Incredible Hulk

  • What’s Good: William Hurt phallicly munching on a cigar.
  • What’s Not: ARGH, GREG… BORED.
  • Food Equivalent: Green eggs and hammy acting.
  • Faux Peter Travers Quote: A thunder-clap of a good time. Hold on to your seats because this Green Machine is on the scene!

So they did a quasi sequel to Ang Lee’s quasi reviled “Hulk.” Fine. Whatever. Nobody asked for one but we got it anyways. And, yet, everybody involved in this hardly-hyped new version seemed to forget that what sunk the first Hulk’s hull was that ANGsty film’s tendency to overdramatize/overemphasize Bruce Banner’s mortal (and moral) struggle. I like story development as much as the next person but, with this particular brand in mind, I pay for a film bearing the title “Hulk” for one reason: to see a thing called Hulk. To see him angry. To see him turn. And to see him smash the holy green hell out of everything in sight. Okay, that’s more than one. Whatever the case, one reason I’m not particularly compelled by is the prospect of more Bruce Banner. This “Hulk” serves up Banner as a humorless scientist who goes all emo on us by bitching about his “power” and agonizing over his domestic entanglement with the General’s daughter Betty (played here by a never worse Live Tyler–all plumped lips, pouts and screeching). Huh(ulk)?!

In “The Incredible Hulk,” the enormous subject in the falsely stated “Incredible” part of the title is used more as a garnish than a central set piece. In fact, the first half of the film features only one sighting of Hulk! In the Green Goliath’s stead the film (probably under diva Ed Norton’s request) features the lifeless and constantly posing Norton as he researches, does push-ups in Brazil with his shirtless and bellydancing trainer (hum), learns Portuguese from a book, huffs and puffs out new age breathing techniques (yes, breathing is a main plot point in this film!), and checks a sports watch that is connected to his heart-rate because God forbid Banner allows himself to get angry and turn into Hulk–that might actually be fun. When the last Banner (an equally miscast Eric Banna… is everybody too dim to see that Jason Stathem is the best choice for the role?) described his mind/body transformation, the character’s famous quote is “I like it…” When this one transformed it is described by Norton as kinda sucking and feeling “like battery acid in my brain.” Hey, mine too! So, then, this film’s idea of “fun” is too many research montages (see above), too many close-ups of Norton’s beard (and that’s not a gay joke, although this film is plenty homoerotic–“I want what’s INSIDE you” he is told), too many stretchy pants discussions and shopping sprees in Mexico (I’m serious), waaaaay too many redundant chase scenes where the somewhat meek human form of Banner –a scientist no less!– is consistently able to outrun an elite military squad lead by Thunderbolt (a cigar chomping William Hurt), a and number of (though, this time, not too many) comic nerd-boy easter eggs surprises including appearances by Samuel Sterns (future villain?), Doc Samson (therapist to the Marvel stars) and Tony Stark (you know you’re in trouble when the best part of “Hulk” is Iron Man). Anything else? Oh, yeah, how could I forget the endlessly irksome and over-the-top puppy dog love glances between Banner and the heavily emoting Betty–I’m talking “Titanic” grade cheese here.

A final letdown is that the film doesn’t do much with the concept of a power hungry military apparatus willing to sacrifice its citizens to tap into the biological potential of this genetically altered human “weapon.” “As far as I’m concerned this man’s body is property of the U.S. Army” Thunderbold growls while making goo-goo eyes towards Banner and his rival. Which reminds me: the military acts as the central obstacle Banner must resist and, ugh, outrun, sure, but the real heavy (and I mean HEAVY) is Tim Roth as a Russian soldier… raised and trained in England… that’s now and American soldier… that’s now a exoskeletal hulk soldier/monster gone all Cloverfield in New York. Sure, it’s fun to see Hulk pound and get pounded by this scaly Abomination but the payoff comes too late in the picture, at a time when I’m too exhausted by bad storytelling, tepid acting (save Hurt) and a horribly generic musical score. By the time New York was reduced to rubble I didn’t even care that little if any attempt was made to make this Hulk topical given the politically charged climate because, well, first: this is no “Iron Man.” Second: the film is about as articulate as the Hulk himself when he grunts “Hulk… smash.”

I got to hand it to “Transporter” director Louis Leterrier and actor Ed Norton for producing a film in which I glanced at my watch as much as Banner did. The differences are twofold: (a) I was looking at the time instead of a pulse; and (b) there was never any danger of my heart rate going up.

grade: C-