PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Andrew Stanton, 2008, Pixar
This new Pixar CG animation extravaganza is a wonderful movie. WALLE is a longtime Pixar science fiction comedy project about lovable little robots, written and directed by Andrew Stanton -- the filmmaker who gave us that oceanic delight, Finding Nemo -- and this movie likewise ignites our sense of play and of wonder. Even if you're way past childhood's end, the film has some of the dreamy intoxicating effects of the Disney feature cartoons of the late '30s through the mid-'40s, that fantastic run from Snow White through Bambi.
WALLE is a huge, high-tech project, involving hundreds of filmmakers, actors and film workers. But even with all those people milling around, it has a heart-lifting buoyancy and wit, an entrancing screwball sense of fun. I'm sure audiences love it, not because the filmmakers made the right financial calculations and pushed the right buttons, but because the Pixar guys seem to have genuinely loved WALLE as they made it -- and also because these moviemakers are so great at what they do. Their movie, charming and entertaining as it is, also has serious themes that engage and provoke us more deeply.
One of the great gifts of childhood is that priceless ability to anthropomorphize toys: to turn them into living beings infused with what a kid owner sees as heart and soul. That's part of what Pixar has done with its star characters here: two small but very resourceful robots named WALLE (for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth Class) and EVE (for Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). WALLE lives in the big city on an earth devastated by waste, greed and probably warfare, in a barren, burned-out New Yorkish place where time is out of joint and where some of the skyscrapers are piles of compacted waste that little WALLE (who resembles, but improves on, the cute robot No. 5 in Short Circuit) has been gathering and piling up for the past 700 years -- ever since he was accidentally left behind when humankind blasted off in survival ships from their dying earth.
EVE, by contrast, is a sleek white and black, flying, ovular-looking robo-chick, with a deadly laser blaster that demolishes men and cities. A visitor to WALLE's city and a stranger in a strange land, she comes from and lives aboard a spacecraft, the Axiom, in a hothouse on-board world loaded with other robots and with the remnants of humanity and the dispossessed -- who have evolved into somnolent, pleasure-loving tubbies and space merchants, lazing in a couch potato world where they're indulged by flying easy-chairs and mechanical servants -- all run by a sinister robot computer with a very familiar circular red light and bossy disposition, whom we instantly recognize as the double of 2001's psychotic computer, HAL-9000. That ship has dropped EVE on the urban ruins on a scouting expedition to learn whether earth has become habitable again. She -- somehow we know EVE is a she and WALLE a he -- runs into him, who has exactly that proof, a delicate little leafy plant he found amid the rubble.
Boy robot meets girl robot -- and Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics aren't enough here. He's about to lose her -- but, when she reboards the ship, with the stars her destination, he follows her -- there to discover the weird vegetative state into which humanity has evolved, or devolved, and the psychotic machines that want to keep it there, flying forever, like the unknowing passengers on the ship of Heinlein's Universe. There are Slan-like battles and chases, jokes and gags -- everything you'd expect in a child's cartoon adventure fantasy. And there's a happy ending, where the good robots become, in their way, human, or more than human.
Partly they're inspired by what seems to be the sole fragment of human culture left in New York and in WALL-E's hands: not "Guernica," or Hamlet, or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or Don Quixote, Lord of the Rings and Huckleberry Finn, but a little tape of a musical number from Gene Kelly's 1969 movie of Hello, Dolly! -- and not even the Barbra Streisand or Louis Armstrong numbers but the Yonkers babble-ballet, "Put on your Sunday Clothes," and the love ballad, "It Only takes a Moment," sung with leaping naiveté by Michael Crawford.
It's a nice touch: that sweetly goofy suggestion that art is valuable not just in its noblest or most prized-by-the-elite manifestations, but because of those pieces of humanity, if only scraps, that it preserves. Some may scoff at the end when the little robots touched mechanical fingers. Old sentimental human and citizen of the galaxy that I am, that touch of the hand touched my heart.
But the movie has something more: a real sense of the fragility of humankind and the horrors that may face it, inspired by futuristic nightmare movies like 2001, Alien and Blade Runner. WALLE is partly an ecological fable, as you'd expect. WALLE's earth has been devastated, turned into a planet of demolished men and cities in flight by pollution and by the all-enveloping greed of a long-vanished multinational corporation. Now, ashen heaps of waste and blighted landscapes stretch out around little WALL-E, who keeps piling up those skyscrapers in a routine enlivened only by his cockroach pal, by those snatches of Hello, Dolly! and by the arrival of EVE. This is Stanton and company's obvious comment on the mess we're making right now.
This political-social theme has already send the same right-wing TV commentators who went nuts over the global warming message in Happy Feet into more of their loud nasal tizzies. But, like all apocalyptic warning fantasies, from H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, to Orwell's 1984 to Arch Oboler's Five to Ray Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains to The Twilight Zone's "Time Enough at Last" to the recent adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend starring Will Smith, this one affects us strongly because we know the nightmare is built on specks of plausibility. We suspect that we will pay the piper somehow, and that the foundation and empire may crumble. This is just one extrapolation.
Technically, WALLE is a typical Pixar corker. Computerized animation has rarely been used, even by Pixar, with such verve, wit and imagination. From those early visions of the devastated city to the vast metallic stretches of the luxury spaceship to the many little aside, allusions and jokes (Strauss' Kubrickian "The Blue Danube," the little R2-D2s, and the Rubik's Cube that WALL-E keeps and EVE easily masters.) Even the voices are ingenious. The ones we can recognize are Jeff Garlin as the blobby ship's captain, Sigourney Weaver as the computer, Fred Willard (voicing himself) as a fatuous TV announcer (excuse me, as the Bush-y CEO head/president) and John Ratzenberger and Kathy Najimy as two other Axiom-bound humans, John and Mary. The ones we don't recognize belong to WALLE's legendary sound designer Ben Burtt and Pixar's Elissa Knight, electronically distorted into something more suitable for cute robots.
Stanton, producer Jim Morris, executive producer John Lasseter, production designer Ralph Eggleston and the whole Pixar company deserve the touch of our hands here. But we should also mention the movie's great prelude and its socko aftermath. The show starts with just that opener we used to love and expect: a short cartoon, here called "Presto," which presents an egotistical magician, a bottomless top hat, a wascally wabbit and lots of high-energy gags worthy of Mike Maltese and Chuck Jones.
The movie ends with a wow of a credits sequence: a grand progression from caveman drawings through great painting (Impressionists and all) to today's omnipresent computer images, climaxing with a little love-blip of WALLE and EVE. I was moved also by these credits: with the suggestion art keeps evolving and growing again in many forms, just as we humans do, or can. Bravo, Pixar. (Extras: Digital copy, featurettes, games, deleted scenes, short, interview on Pixar.)
France; Abel Gance, 1919, Flicker Alley
In the years right after World War I, the pacifist classic J'Accuse by Abel Gance -- whose later battle scenes in the epic 1927 Napoleon are among the cinema's greatest -- devastated audiences. This restoration and re-release from Flicker Alley, the Nederlands Filmmuseum and France's Lobster Films, renews that impact and fills a crucial space in film history. Its not the masterpiece that Napoleon and Gance's La Roue (1923) are, but it's a powerful work that still excites, dazzles and saddens.
J'Accuse begins as a more conventional antiwar drama with psychological undertones -- a triangle romance between the aging, brutish Francois (Severing Mars of La Roue), the beautiful young Edith (Marise Dauvray) and the sensitive poet Jean (Romuald Joube). War intervenes, the triangle explodes, and the filmmaker's ripe romanticism and technical genius fully assert themselves. But, at the end, Gance does something remarkable: He stages a great, spooky set-piece, using actual French World War I soldiers (many of whom would later perish on the battlefield) as extras: the nocturnal march of the war's multitude of dead, come to life to reproach the living. It had a shattering effect and still does.
This is a great silent movie by a too-often neglected master of cinema -- the peer of giants of silent film spectacle like Griffith, Lang and Eisenstein. (Silent, with English intertitles and a new symphonic score by Robert Israel. Extras: Two short French war films from 1915-16; booklet with essays by Kevin Brownlow and others.)
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Monty Python Holy Trinity (A)
U.K.; Terry Jones/Terry Gilliam, 1975, 1979, 1983, Sony
This six-disc set delivers priceless film humor from the greatest team of deadpan satirists and silly-ass-skewerers in British history: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam. Includes Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Jones, 1975, A), Le Morte d'Arthur mortified; Monty Python's Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979, A), kitschy biblical movie spectacles crucified; and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones/Terry Gilliam, 1983, A), life's meaning discovered and fondled.
The Monty Python Collector's Edition Megaset (A)
U.K.; Terry Hughes/Ian McNaughton, 1971-72 (A&E)
This 21-disc set offers absolutely all Python TV tomfoolery, plus or minus a silly twit or two. The Margaret Thatcher nude scene is not included. Note: The same skits are available in the less-pricey A&E edition, The 16-Ton Megaset. (Extras: Documentaries.)
OTHER RECENT OR RECENT RELEASES
Tropic Thunder (B-)
U.S.; Ben Stiller, 2008, DreamWorks
Ben Stiller's big hip satire of war, movies and war movies, almost looks like a great comedy when you watch the trailer. But, as the '80s proved, trailers aren't movies, and this is likewise the case with Tropic Thunder.
Still, how can this one miss? Consider the material: the perils and snafus of a big malfunctioning Vietnam epic, kind of like Apocalypse Now squeezed though Missing in Action. Caught in all that action, filming that mega-budget battle extravaganza that later suddenly, supposedly turns into a cinema verite shoot with hidden cameras and a missing director (but really doesn't) is a dream team of current movie comedy. Ben Stiller as Tugg Speedman, imitating Sly Stallone as Rambo! Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, or Russell Crowe imitating Fred Williamson! Jack Black as himself, imitating maybe Will Ferrell or possibly Dom DeLuise! Nick Nolte playing both Strother Martin and L. Q. Jones!
There's more. Steve Coogan is the director Damien Cockburn, a skinny Francis Coppola -- or maybe a tweedy Michael Bay. And, the piece de fucking resistance of the entire movie: a bald Tom Cruise boogying in a fat suit, playing.... Who? Joel Silver? Louis B. Mayer's illegitimate grand-nephew? Harry Cohn crossed with Dick Cheney on steroids? Does anybody really know? (I'm sure some blogster has doped this one out.)
Stiller's Speedman is a sub-Stallone type, fresh from a disastrous Forrest Gumpish sweet idiot Oscar troll, who's now trying to make a more formulaic war movie with big stars, but endowed with phony significance. Black is Jeff Portnoy, a big-league comedian (and complainer) unhappily trapped in the movie, and Downey's Lazarus is an Oscar-happy star, such a brilliant actor that, De Niro style, he's made himself over for the role by medically altering his pigmentation.
Downey cracked me up during the trailer for this one -- and he has the intonation, the rhythm, the attitude, down just right -- not for a real black actor, but for an incredibly clever white mockup. In the trailer, he looks and sounds fabulous, and he does for most of the movie too.
That's the problem. Tropic Thunder has a preview that's really better than the movie. (Pineapple Express also has a great trailer, but the movie's just as good.) And the main reason Tropic falters, for me at least, is the faulty premise.
How can we accept three superstars so dumb they can't tell whether they're really shooting a movie, even during a drug battle with local smugglers? The whole art of screwball comedy or satire lies in making loony premises acceptable, or in putting the audience in such a giddy state that they'll accept almost anything. Tropic Thunder never had me in that state -- and little things kept annoying me all the way through. For example, even though the fate of Coogan's Cockburn is a great fast gag, it's over too soon and has the bad effect of robbing the rest of the movie of Coogan. And, seriously, the picture could use more women. Weren't Cameron Diaz or Janeane Garofalo available?
Stiller's movie is about how Hollywood wrecks art and vice versa. And it's about the follies of war, the gung ho mentality that makes a near-myth of carnage, and the follies and pitfalls of big-budget moviemaking. I'm ready to laugh at all that, but Tropic, despite an excellent production (cinematography by John Toll), never seems really on target until we get to Cruise in another of those asshole roles at which he's really, really good (as in Magnolia). Grossman makes sense, while the boys' behavior in the jungle is on the Three Stooges level of plot mechanics. (As a matter of fact, this is perfect material for Larry, Moe and Curly. Or even Shemp.)
But I don't mean to be a killjoy. Millions laughed at Tropic Thunder, and it deserved every last titter and guffaw. Maybe it even deserves Tropic Thunder 2 (the boys, or their identical sons, go to Iraq and bump into Ferrell as George W. Bush and Chris Rock as Condoleeza Rice.) As for Downey, he's on a roll. Let's just hope he doesn't pull a Kirk Lazarus on us.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (C+)
U.S.; Sanaa Hamri, 2008, Warner
If Tropic Thunder is a very good male-bonding comedy, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 -- a sequel to the 2005 hit based on Ann Brashares' teen novel -- is a pretty good female-bonding comedy-drama.
I hope it doesn't look as if my gender is skewing my tastes here. I like female-bonding movies -- from Stage Door and Old Acquaintance to Thelma and Louise and Fried Green Tomatoes to the current salty Sex in the City trend of increased sexual candor and female empowerment.
I just think half of Sisterhood 2 works fine and the other half stumbles and gets schmaltzy. As in the first movie, we focus here on the four separate (and sometimes intertwined) stories of four young women: school-age buddies who share the magical reassurance of a pair of decorated jeans that passes from hand to hand and mysteriously fits all of them. This quartet includes angry young filmmaker Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), dedicated theater lover Carmen (America Ferrera), family-troubled archeology student Bridget (Blake Lively) and broken-hearted artist Lena (Alexis Bledel). All of them are well-cast, and all but Bridget have man problems, ranging from possible pregnancy to broken vows.
Don't worry. Everything works out peachy-keen -- for the sisterhood, if not necessarily their pants. The two sequences that work well are the ones with Tibby (an affecting look at a relationship crisis) and with Carmen (a neat little post-All About Eve tale of backstage jealousy and triumph anchored by another pungent, right-on performance by Ferrera.) Less successful are the stories with Bridget and Lena -- though Bridget's has the advantage of an appearance by the luminously stage-stealing Blythe Danner (who can spark up any movie) and Lena's ends with Greek scenery that knocks your eyes out.
Even if my gender is blinding me here, I've gotta say that half a good movie is better than none.
Encounters at the End of the World (B+)
U.S.-Germany; Werner Herzog, 2007, Image
In Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog interviews men and women who live and work in the most seemingly inhospitable of habitats: Antarctica. In this great, cold, mystical film where snow and ice are the world and the light always seems a little gloomy, Herzog tells us that he hates sunlight, in both film and life -- and you briefly see his point. But it doesn't matter if he's a little melancholic. We need the dark, cloudy side too.
Up the Yangtze (B)
Canada/China; Yung Chang, 2007, Zeitgeist
Up the Yangtze is an often beautiful chronicle of a sad event: the flooding of China's legendary Yangtze River for a hydroelectric project, the displacement of a peasant family who live along the old banks and a last boat trip on the river. The movie has the same great subject and theme as Elia Kazan's Wild River and Elem Klimov's and Larissa Shepitko's Farewell, the beauties of the past and simplicity, the perils of progress and government. Director Yung takes us on that last boat ride and shows us plenty of interesting sights along the way -- enough to make you mourn for the death of the great river. (Chinese, with English subtitles.)