From the Archive — WALL-E

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Although I’m optimistic about Incredibles 2, I long for the days that Pixar evinced nothing but the barest interest in sequels. With rare exceptions, the studio consistently strove for vivid inventiveness with each new effort, as if the especially lengthy and intensive process required to deliver feature-length computer animated films mandated each one have a true sense of purpose. When WALL-E was released, ten years ago, the philosophical shift could be spied on the horizon. Only one of the eight Pixar films that preceded it was a sequel. Three of the next five films revisited previous characters. I remain more lukewarm on WALL-E than most, but I have great nostalgia for it as part of a bygone time for a studio that once admirable approached auteur status.

Those Waste Allocator Load Lifter – Earth-Class units are certainly durable devices.

The new film WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton’s follow-up to Finding Nemo, is concerned with the lonely longings of one of those robots some 700 hundred years in the future. Earth is vacant of human life, the population having long since fled when the towering skyscrapers of refuse made the planet inhospitable. WALL-E, it seems, is the last of his kind, a little boxy robot with at least some level of sentience, going about the daily toil of crunching piles of garbage into tidy cubes. The first chunk of the film follows WALL-E as he works his job with dedication and, like so many blue-collar ‘bots, wiles away the evening hours watching old musicals with his cockroach cohort. His routine is pleasantly disrupted by the arrival of a hovering robot called EVE. She scans the ravaged cityscapes for an indeterminate prize, and quickly captures our hero’s circuitboard heart.

This portion of the film is presented with minimal dialogue, Stanton making every effort to let the visuals handle the duties of the storytelling. Great care has gone into all of these scenes leading to a clarity entirely unharmed by the bold choice. I thoroughly admire Stanton’s approach even if I have to concede that I wasn’t completely caught up in it.

Similarly, when the action shifts to the distant spacecraft holding the human race — now grown bloated and slow-witted by centuries of pampered lassitude — I appreciate Stanton’s decision to inject some satirical social commentary even if I still feel distant from the product. He’s engaged in the same sort of frustrated futurecasting that Mike Judge offered in Idiocracy, examining American society’s current indulgence in unhealthy lifestyle choices and taking it the the logical, if extreme, conclusion. Throughout the cold war, the bleakest future we could imagine involved a scorched landscape populated by mutated marauders fortified with nuclear nourishment. Now our worst nightmare seems to be more of ourselves, our faultiest societal tendencies enhanced to the most unattractive degree. Today’s morning show segment laced with clucking condemnation will be our undoing tomorrow. Our new post-apocalyptic landscape has Twinkies in it.

I do like WALL-E, but I find my opinion far enough removed from the critical consensus ready to anoint this a new pinnacle for Pixar that I wind up dwelling on why it doesn’t quite work. Why, despite its evident artistry, did it leave me entertained but unmoved? Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on it. (My partner-in-all-things made a strong case about how the science of groundwater completely undercuts the ending.) The clearest, most concise point I can make is that WALL-E himself doesn’t really come together as a character. He’s perhaps too central to the film to be largely defined by the things he wants. We know WALL-E by what he’s not, what he doesn’t have, which makes his aspirations more dull than sweet. The surrounding, supporting robots may be more narrowly conceived in some ways, but they’re also more compelling. I was far more interested in EVE and her programmed protectiveness and lightning-quick temper (manifested as laser blasts) or even little M-O and his compulsive adherence to his one purpose in electrical life.

Again, these reservations are finally more slight than they probably seem here. It remains a Pixar offering and comes bearing all of the characteristic strengths. The directing is sleek and inviting, the plotting is tight and smart, and the countless hours spent on those humming banks of computers have yielded a lustrous look that remains light-years ahead of what’s programmed together by the other studios cranking out computer animated features. Even if the digitized dreams aren’t quite as moving as I’d like, I’m still grateful I got to share in them.

From the Archive — Hellboy II: The Golden Army

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As means of congratulating the highly deserving winner of this year’s Best Directing Academy Award, I will excavate one this review of an old Guillermo del Toro film, which I believe stands as the final such writerly relic that can be transferred over to this digital space.

It would be misguided and hypocritical of me to issue a blanket statement about the benefit of letting directors follow their creative instincts without reservations. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that I watched a full day of work from a director who is routinely allowed such unchecked leeway and the phrase “subjected myself to” is central to any description of that experience. So allow me to be more precise. Letting Guillermo del Toro fully loose on a film, his imagination untethered, his vision washing across the screen like spilled juices or flung blood…this is a good thing.

In between helming the first film depiction of Mike Mignola‘s cult favorite comic book character and this sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, del Toro ushered the splendid Pan’s Labyrinth into the world, and the dark artistry of that grim fairy tale informs this new work. Del Toro is still delivering a story that feels like it comes from a corner of the superhero-jammed film-verse that increasingly anchors national multiplexes. The difference is the readily apparent glee taken in filling the screen with wonderful warped monsters and all manner of tactile gruesomeness. There is still action, there are still set pieces that feel well-constructed enough to please those who insist summer movie fare quickens their pulse with rigid regularity. The flavor of them, however, is unmistakably shaped by del Toro’s bump-in-the-night sensibilities more thoroughly than any of his previous outings that involved hefty studio budgets and commensurate box office expectations. After the surprising (and gratifying) success of Labyrinth, there’s a welcome willingness to let del Toro take this franchise material wherever he pleases.

And why not? After all, this devil-hued do-gooder is enough of a known commodity by now that purchasing a ticket is tantamount to a unwavering commitment to suspending disbelief. If you can accept a big, thick, demonic crusader with forehead horns tamed and flattened by a belt sander and a conveniently misproportioned right hand made of punch-friendly stone, then a plant creature several stories tall or a battalion of Barbie doll sized nasty beasties with a taste for human bicuspids should be equally easy to swallow. It’s hard to fathom what would finally cause a Hellboy II attendee to lean back, cross their arms and say, “Oh, now, that’s too much.”

The plot feels extremely familiar, the characters are put through flatly delineated paces rather then given the chance to develop (to such a point that a move of personal defiance at the close of the film has only the most tangential connection to anything that’s come before), and the thudding wit tends towards the unnecessarily juvenile. But none of that prevents the film from being very fun. The director is clearly having the time of his life, finally able to play with every toy he con conjure up in his slightly skewed noggin, and that rumbling joy is mighty hard to resist. In many ways, del Toro has crafted a movie that properly captures what traditional comic books are supposed to be: audaciously inventive with a soaring, intoxicating disregard for the physical constraints that make our normal earthbound adventures look less colorful in comparison.

From the Archive — Happy-Go-Lucky

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As this slightly worrisome Oscar season continues to shower precursor awards on the problematic film about mass advertising on the outskirts of a small community, spare a thought for the fleeting front-runners from earlier in the cycle. Barring a major surprise in my continuing catch-up on 2017 releases, I remain firmly on Team Saoirse for any and all Best Actress in a Leading Role trophies. Even so, I have tremendous affection for the work Sally Hawkins delivers in The Shape of Water. Of course, I also thought she should have been a contender about a decade ago.

In his best films, Mike Leigh’s unique approach to crafting characters and a story is surprisingly invisible. Leigh famously builds his art by bringing actors together, giving them softly defined roles and working through improvisations until he finds his way to what he wants. He embraces the collective to reach the personal. This isn’t apparent in the meticulous poignancy of Secrets and Lies or the tightly plotting of Vera Drake. In lesser hands, these films would be as freewheeling as a half-baked Judd Apatow comedy. Leigh makes them focused and pointed.

His new film Happy-Go-Lucky, on the other hand, seems like a product of an extended exercise in playfulness. It’s loose and shambling, prone to anecdotal meanderings and just scattered enough that it sometimes feels more like the first episode of a loopy television series, introducing the characters that will each get their turn in coming weeks. It plainly doesn’t hold together, and that absence of cohesion makes it slight. As it turns out, that’s a pretty good thing, too.

Happy-Go-Lucky follows Poppy, a British schoolteacher whose relentless cheerfulness is perfect for guiding young children in constructing bird masks out of paper bags, and equally effective for ribald nightclubbing, contentious driving lessons and the general murky travails of life. There are friendships to value, potential romances to cultivate and the cheery busywork of afternoon dance classes or trampoline exercise sessions to beam through. Challenges arise to be met, but not necessarily resolved. Leigh’s narrative is relaxed in its open-ended quality, as if Leigh is asking his audience to adopt Poppy’s conviction that everything will turn out all right. The proof of that doesn’t exist in tidy culminating scenes, but in our own optimism.

This film may also contain one of the purer manifestations of Leigh’s methodology in a performance. Sally Hawkins’ zippily wondrous turn as Poppy could easily be one sharp note, a comic conceit with no soul. Instead, Poppy is fully developed with layers that belie simplistic impressions of how this character should operate. Poppy’s character is built from the inside out with reserves of compassion, insight and intelligence that can get obscured by her regular bursts of cheeky laughter. Hawkins could have easily coasted on a spirited twinkle to play her. Instead, she has thought through every bit of her and the thoroughness makes everything richer.

I’ve seen the seams in Leigh’s work before, in the charmless maneuvering of Career Girls or the buckshot quirk of the acclaimed Life is Sweet. This time, it’s not a problem. Indeed, the metaphor needs revamping. Instead of seams, it’s the framework that Leigh has willingly put on display. This is one of the instances in which seeing the framework is just a reminder that the structure is sturdy.

From the Archive: Smart People

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When I was reviewing films for a weekly radio show, I had to see practically everything that came through our modest little college town. In the few years after I had a diploma and no regular responsibilities for writing about the latest titles to grace the multiplex, I still saw nearly every major release that hit theaters. After that I was far more selectively, which sometimes leaves me wondering why I saw a particular film while it played in first-run theaters. I believe the outing that led directly into this review was because our household briefly — and occasionally to our unexpected benefit — decided we were going to follow Ellen Page anywhere.

Sometimes a film is filled with characters so consumed by their personal animosities that the film itself begins to feel angry, as if it will start barking complaints at the moviegoers about how they’re sitting too close or munching their popcorn too loudly. In Smart People Dennis Quaid’s literature professor character is angry about his deceased wife and any number of perceived slights from his academic institution, and his students are angry that he doesn’t remember their names. Sarah Jessica Parker plays an emergency room physician he encounters after a bad fall from the top of a chain link fence, and she’s angry about having to deal with him and other combative people. Ellen Page plays his daughter, angry that her S.A.T, preparation is disrupted by this medical emergency, and Ashton Holmes plays his son, who’s angry for no discernible reason. Perhaps its just some mood-based invocation of the “when in Rome” principle. The only one who regards the world with any degree of sympathy is the ne’er-do-well adopted brother played by Thomas Haden Church.

That relentless cynicism is okay by me as long as it’s accompanied by some inventive storytelling and depth of character. That’s where Smart People is really lacking. Mark Poirier’s script has a point of view, but little to express about it, and director Noam Murro films it with dutiful efficiency. There’s a grim outlook and a narrative destination point where the mandates of character development insist somewhat on the outlook lightening. The process of getting there is haphazard and poorly thought out. Characters make choices with no compelling drive to do so. You can reasonably puzzle out Page’s disgruntled exploration of the wilder parts of herself or Parker’s circling of Quaid as a love interest, but the film doesn’t provide much reason to believe in these developments. The film is barbed and clever, peppered with the intelligence that the title promises. It’s also rarely believable or built upon recognizable emotions, which makes it feel empty.

From the Archive — In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale and Jumper

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As is usually the case with Bad Movie Night posts, I had a lot of fun writing this — it originally appeared at my former online home — but, being honest, the only true necessity on this page is the hyperlink found within the sentence “No amount of typing can describe it adequately.”

Last night we found ourselves we a quick-witted guest, a hearty supply of good beer and a few spare hours. In our household, that’s an irresistible invitation to wallow in some choice cinematic ineptitude. After steeling ourselves with a dinner of lamb steaks, Guinness-battered onion rings, and country-style potatoes, we gathered anxiously for Bad Movie Night.

While we have a ready supply of DVDs standing by for just such an occasion, we decided it was worth a last minute check of the battalion of movie channels that come clattering through our satellite dish. After all, most of them favor less accomplished fare (number of showings of P.S. I Love You scheduled on HBO channels in January: 17). Perhaps there might be some options suitable for the evening’s theme.

This is how we found our way to our first ever Uwe Boll film.

Boll is a notoriously bad filmmaker, often cited as the worst working today. At least he’s considered the worst working with regularity, sizable budgets, and some amount of studio support. Knowing little more about the film than Mr. Boll’s reputation, we began the evening with the cumbersomely named In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (Uwe Boll, 2008). If that title makes you think of a certain fantasy epic that snared a record number of Oscars a couple years ago, then the marketing brigade has won. The association is clearly coveted. This fantasy film is rife with creatures and battle sequences that look as if they were retrieved from the Weta Workshop discard bin. Based on a video game (a media source that has never been wise for Hollywood producers to plumb), the film is a standard-issue parade of sword-and-sorcery nonsense, rendered breathtakingly awful by Boll’s ineptness. Distant establishing shots (taken from crane, helicopter, far-off mountain peaks, and, perhaps, spacecraft) are inserted nearly randomly. Scenes don’t build and conclude, flowing into the next. They just end suddenly, like dropped eggs. It’s hard to tell if Boll doesn’t really know how movie scenes are supposed to be shaped or if he prefers they reflect some sort of personal mental restlessness. It would almost be better is he announced “I’m bored now” on the soundtrack before cutting to the next bit of inane business. At least there would be a discernible reason for the shifts.

There are so many beautifully bad elements at play in the movie: the hackneyed mechanics of royal lineage with cackling duplicity and surprise heirs, the mystical race of women who control forest greenery and come yo-yoing out of the treetops like barbiturate-addled Cirque du Soleil performers, and, when things seemingly can’t get any more absurd, the sudden appearance of springy ninjas tumbling through the air to fight side-by-side with the armored warriors. For all that, it is the casting that is most giddily, grandly disastrous. There’s Matthew Lillard bugging out his eyes and contorting his face as a villainous schemer. There’s Ron Perlman, gruffly disinterested as a cohort of our farmer hero. There’s Leelee Sobieski, looking so shell-shocked as a proto-feminist princess soldier that it’s easy to imagine that she spent the entire production with “I was once in a Kubrick movie, I was once in a Kubrick movie” echoing desperately in her brain. There’s Ray Liotta, sneering wildly in the midst of late-eighties music video effects as some sort of evil sorcerer dressed in a Matrix-knockoff leather jacket that looks like it was purchased online. And, in arguably the most telling indicator of the film’s quality, Burt Reynolds as the besieged king. What’s that like? No amount of typing can describe it adequately.

After that, the comparatively tame failings of Jumper (Doug Liman, 2008) were somewhat anticlimactic. That doesn’t mean the movie was good. It is still a blatant franchise grab with Hayden Christensen as a teleporting twenty-something who discovers that he is not unique, but is instead part of a whole class of people known as Jumpers who are being hunted and destroyed by a group calling themselves Paladins, led by Samuel L. Jackson with all-purpose flour rubbed into his hair. It would take a director of uncommon wit and creativity to forge something watchable from these raw materials, and Doug Liman, no matter how much the first Bourne movie may have inflated his reputation, doesn’t meet those qualifications.

You’d have to engage in quite a hunt through the least loved corners of the DVD rental emporium to find another film that so positions itself for a sequel. Pilot episodes of television series have more closure than this thing, with every character properly positioned to easily step back into the fray should the movie gods be so cruel as to actually let Jumper 2 come to fruition. If it does, maybe Liman can turn the second installment over to Uwe Boll. Burt Reynolds would make a fantastic Jumper general.

From the Archive: Changeling

When I started reviewing films on the radio, in 1990, Clint Eastwood was still larger considered a movie star who occasionally directing movies, almost as a hobby. That consensus view was understandable, but also needlessly dismissive. Within the first few months of our radio show, Eastwood released his fourteenth and fifteen features as a director, one terrific and one atrocious. Now eighty-six years old, Eastwood has acted only twice in the past ten years. Including 2006, he’s directed ten films, and in three of those years he’s had two separate offerings released as the same calendar hangs on the wall. 

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Clint Eastwood is a director who resolutely, rigidly adheres to the material he’s chosen. He has a fine visual sense, to be sure, and is an effective storyteller, but he’s not going to pull a film together by bringing his passions, sensibilities and personal inspiration to bear on the project. He’s a seasoned factory worker doing his part to get the car built. In the end, it may be a sturdy piece of craftsmanship, but it’s easier to see it as admirable construct that a piece of vivid art. That’s one of the reasons screenwriter Paul Haggis has been a well-suited collaborator on recent films. Haggis leans on cliches, finding small ways to tweak expectations in the process. It’s given Eastwood familiar narrative angles that play to his strengths and allowed just enough freshness in the fringes to compel some amount of forgiveness for the pieces that stand out as worn-out movie moments. Million Dollar Baby may be manipulative melodrama, but it’s gripping manipulative melodrama.

The screenwriter of Eastwood’s latest film, the wrenching drama Changeling, is J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski’s most notable prior work has been highly episodic in nature. Those writing habits manifest in the script as it builds to multiple climaxes instead of rolling out a single cohesive story. Eastwood, ever dutiful to his script, doesn’t smooth that out, giving the film a bumpy feel.

That unyielding solidity of Eastwood’s approach–an old school stodginess almost–is as much a strength as it is a weakness. Based on a true story, the film centers on the anguish of Christine Collins, whose son disappeared in the late 1920’s. After several months, the Los Angeles Police Department reported they’d found him, but Christine insisted the boy they presented to her was not her offspring. Her efforts to convince the authorities of their mistake and to force them to continue in the hunt for her son were met with outright hostility and even persecution. Eastwood has a sure hand in depicting this. The lives of Christine and her son are laid out with unfussy care and the escalation of her woe is palpable. The thematic points about the casual sexism of the era and the ways in which fear of negative public perception drove the decision-making of the authorities is embedded rather than overt.

It helps immeasurably that Eastwood has Angelina Jolie in the central role. Jolie is inescapably a star, but, placed in the right film, she is a shrewd, graceful actor of the highest capability. She makes a choice that seems especially honest given the cultural time and the circumstances of the film: She plays Christine with a greatly tentative nature. Even as she’s pushing against the system, she’s quick to acquiesce to the powers that impatiently knock her back down. Jolie’s star power largely emanates from a fiery personal authority and sexually-charged fearlessness. When she coasts on that, it can be pretty boring (admittedly, I can also be a pure sucker for it). When she channels it into a more tightly focused performance that draws on different shadings of personality, as she did with last year’s A Mighty Heart and as she does here, it’s immensely rewarding to watch.

In fact, Jolie’s richly realized performance gives the film a cohesion that would otherwise be absent. The script brings in several different elements–there are many stories connected to Christine’s–to a point where it occasionally threatens to become unwieldy. She develops her character–her personal growth, her tenacity, her intellectual fortitude–with an thoroughness that the scattershot narrative story structure can sometimes undercut. But even when the film drifts away from Christine for too long, Jolie’s performance looms as a promise. It heightens what works in the film and obscures what doesn’t. It’s just the kind of performance that Eastwood needs, and he deserves credit for his collaborative work with Jolie to get it to the screen. The old hand may not be infallible. It may seem more like work than art, but you can still look at it and see his influence, the unmistakable marks of fine craftsmanship.

From the Archive: The Dark Knight

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For those heading out to theater this weekend to “just get this over with,” helping elevate the latest Zack Snyder joint to ludicrously triumphant box office numbers, I dig into the archive to offer the gentle reminder that it didn’t have to be this way. (To offer an important disclaimer: I have not seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and therefore cannot comment with first-hand knowledge on its quality. Perhaps it is exquisite and insightful, marked with startling moments of visual poetry that lays bare the duality of man in ways that will reshape our collective sense of self from this point forward. And my petty introduction will be exposed as foolish ignorance manifest. Perhaps.)

The famous Charles Baudelaire quote–made more famous to American pop culture consumers when it was appropriated by The Usual Suspects–“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” might be in for some modification. After seeing Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I’m prepared to say the devil’s greatest trick is making a pencil disappear. Invoking a 19th-century French poet seem a little heady for a discussion about a superhero movie? Maybe so, but Nolan’s steadfastly intelligent sequel to his own franchise-reviving Batman Begins inspires such aspirational acclaim. It is as big and explosive as its summertime release date implies, and yet the thing it’s most overstuffed with is ideas.

The screenplay Nolan devised with his brother Jonathan has so much story that there’s no time for recap. The film plunges into its Gotham City underworld machinations, civic intrigue and the caped crusader’s continuing efforts to purge his steely home city of crime and deprivation. Nolan seemingly feels no obligation to remind the viewers of Batman’s motivations or history. Relationships need not be remapped. Exposition is for the weak. Anyway, exposition can now be relegated to era the before the prior installment was available on DVD, through cable showing, via illicit Internet streaming and perhaps through direct download into your frontal lobe. This freedom affords the film a thrilling narrative immediacy. Maybe it would occasionally be a tad puzzling to someone largely unfamiliar with the iconic hero, but who would that be and how would they have found their way to this film in the first place?

Maybe curiosity over the final performance by Heath Ledger? It certainly an acting effort that deserves attention, even from those who find the genre of superheroes generally unpalatable. As the murderous villain the Joker, Ledger is a marvel of wicked invention. Clearly (and reportedly) drawing inspiration from the defining story The Killing Joke, Ledger’s take is informed by a riotous glee in inspired, improvisational mayhem and a swooning camaraderie with the costumed vigilante who hunts him. He is engaged in living life within the world he forges as fully and assuredly as the protagonist of some treacly, inspirational drama. That he expresses that love through concocting deadly anarchy doesn’t make it any less sincere, and Ledger ferociously locks into that verve and drive. The very rhythm of the Joker’s speech is disrupted by his sputtering, warring psyche. It’s a rich performance of many layers, each revelation of fresh nuance almost unbearably exciting.

It’s easy to start seeing the success of this film as entirely attributable to the success of the Joker. Even in the comics, the character has that sort of offhand dominance, casually making everything else seem comparatively pallid. Just as the resounding accomplishment of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman swamps out all memories of other elements of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (blessedly so, according to some), so too does Ledger’s performance threaten to truncate any talk of Aaron Eckhart’s solidly conceived Harvey Dent, Christian Bale’s continued assurance as the titular titan or, most regrettably, Gary Oldman’s further enrichment of the wearily stalwart Gotham City cop James Gordon. The political commentary Nolan interlaces through the film is interesting and commendable in its attempt to invest some genuine complication into the sort of story that can threaten to devolve into a basic good versus evil showdown, but it’s less compelling than the explorations of the dichotomy between Batman and the Joker.

Despite this, in the first flush of the film, it’s nearly undeniable that Nolan’s film labors mightily to fully engage the senses and the mind. The theatrical bombast of the action sequences occasionally swells into some mildly confusing muddiness, but that feels more forgivable because it’s more a byproduct of Nolan’s near compulsion to get as much into the movie as possible rather than an incapability to render sequences clearly. As enough comic characters infiltrate the movie landscape to make the local multiplex into the modern equivalent of the old supermarket spinner rack, Nolan demonstrates that an intellectually committed creator can make this sort of thing into something more than the latest product offered on the franchising assembly line. No matter its origins or box office expectations, it can indeed be art.