Monday, June 30, 2008


Leave it to PIXAR to make a message movie that neither panders down to the audience, nor outright insults its intelligence. In a nutshell, WALL-E is about how humanity gave up it's responsibilities to it's own creation. The movie itself tells the story of how humanity decided to take responsibility for itself, and the robot that led the way. Now, when it's put that way, it sounds like the kind of science fiction you'd see from Kubrick or Tartovsky, but WALL-E is certainly that kind of science fiction. 

You've all seen the trailer a dozen times. For 700 years, Earth has been abandoned while robots attemt to clean up all of mankind's garbage. Now, only one robot remains, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth class), and after years of collecting and storing garbage day in and day out, he's developed an endearing personality. Smartly, this is all that the trailers tell us. It was crucial for us to get acquainted with WALL-E early, since large portions of the film go by where there's no dialogue whatsoever. For me, this was no issue, but then I'm not the average moviegoer. But the bigger picture is so much more nuanced and layered than even Ratatouille. And while we're talking about other movies, I can't help but notice some striking similarities to Mike Judge's Idiocracy (particularly the massive, city-sized department store).

So yes, WALL-E is similar to 1970s social sci-fi like Silent Running and Soylent Green. But it's also, perhaps more importantly, a very charming love story between WALL-E and a robot named EVE. Even though a good portion of their story plays out almost entirely through actions, I'm amazed how well they were able to convey such a wide range of emotions using nothing but eye motions and each others names. It's enough to make question whether the script for Titanic was so bad in the first place.

WALL-E is yet another film from PIXAR that kids will find adorable, while their parents, or any discerning adult, will take away something a little deeper.  That's what PIXAR's been doing since Toy Story, and WALL-E does nothing to break that tradition.  It's PIXAR's best movie since The Incredibles, and only time will tell whether it's their best period.  While we're talking hyperbole, I also believe this to be one of the best science fiction films of the decade, if not quarter century.  I'm eager to see WALL-E again, if only to catch everything I'm certain I missed last time.  You owe it to yourself, your family, and the box office to see WALL-E in theaters.

5 stars (*****) out of five.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Timur Bekmambetov's English language debut is something of a schizophrenic monster. On the one hand, the movie is a showcase of some of the most kinetic action sequences seen on film in the past few years. On the other hand, the movie's plot is in turns predictable and sometimes nonexistent. If you like your action to stand in for narrative twists and turns, Wanted is probably the ride you're looking for.

The film opens with an amazingly executed shootout that sets up the style that you're gonna get for the next 110 minutes. Then, we're introduced to Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), a geeky accountant who hates his life about as much as Edward Norton's character in Fight Club. He's quickly drawn into a secret organization of assassins, populated by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie, and Konstantin Khabensky (star of the director's Russian Night Watch films). There, Wesley learns the ins and outs of his abilities as an assassin for The Fraternity, including the ability to curve a bullet's trajectory.

And that's where the movie begins to unravel. Once Wesley agrees to become an assassin, the film becomes a seemingly nonstop barrage of training montages. Granted, these montages are a lot of fun to watch, but it seems like Bekmambetov is aware that his script doesn't hold much water. There's not much plot in the middle sections of the film, or at least not much plot that we don't already know.

Morgan Freeman is one of the few actors alive who can spin crap lines into cinema gold. Half of his dialogue in this movie is testament to that. McAvoy does a good job as the everyman schlub, and it's fun watching him go from weakling to quasi-superhero in the space of two hours. Strangely, the weak link here is Angelina Jolie, who seems way too high profile for what she has to do here. 'Menacing stare' and 'entrancing stare' are her only real contributions, and I can't help but think that the role would have been just as good with a Rose McGowan or Summer Glau.

But anyway. If you're willing to indulge the movie its many wacky excesses, Wanted is at least a pretty fun time. Timur Bekmambetov definitely knows how to direct action, with some impressive stunts that I have to believe were done practically (and am thankful for). The last 20 minutes have some pretty great payoffs as well (All I'm going to say is that you'll never look at rats the same way again). If anything, Wanted is proof that Bekmambetov deserves more work in Hollywood, because the action that he weaves is some of the most fascinating action in movies today.

3 stars (***) out of 5.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Seven Days of PIXAR: Ratatouille

Here's the seventh, and final, part of my PIXAR retrospective. I hope you've enjoyed them as much as I have.

Last time I said I had a theory as to why some PIXAR movies feel more...cliched, I guess...than their other films. Their more recent cycle of films demonstrates this perfectly. By most accounts, Finding Nemo is one of PIXAR's more kid-friendly releases. Simple characters, simple themes, simple story. Next, they released The Incredibles, a far sight more complex and skewing a bit older in the demographic department. After that, they go back to a more simplistic film (some might say too simplistic) in Cars. Again, the film is geared more to the younger set. Finally, Ratatouille deals in themes and plot points that are probably lost on most kids.

The pattern appears to be "younger kids movie, older kids/adults movie". Of course, WALL-E is probably going to smash all of that. But whatever. I think compared to Cars, Ratatouille feels like visionary storytelling. It's only been a year since the movie first came out, and since then I've seen it maybe four or five times. Like every other PIXAR movie before it, it represents a big step forward in animation.

Of course, I didn't always think that way. Way back when Cars first came out, the first teaser for Ratatouille was attached to it. I can't say I was thrilled, especially after seeing Cars. The last thing I wanted was another movie about anthropomorphic anything. I remember thinking PIXAR had just pissed away all the creative goodwill they'd accrued with The Incredibles. Color me surprised with I finally saw the movie. It was considerably more nuanced and thoughtful than I was expecting, and quickly became one my favorite movies of 2007.

Finally, the most interesting thing about Ratatouille is the character of Anton Ego. Now, the villain is usually the most interesting character, but I don't necessarily mean it that way. Ego is interesting because he's a critic, and he's the first thing that movie critics latch onto or slam when they review the movie. Ego dared Linguini/Remy to impress him with a perfect meal, and seeing that sort of put me to shame, because I was essentially doing the same thing to the movie. I dared it to impress me because I had low expectations based on what had come before.

And, just like Ego, I was ecstatic to be proven wrong.

I don't know if I'll have a post for you tomorrow, but I promise to have a review for WALL-E up by the end of the weekend.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Seven Days of PIXAR: Cars

Here's the sixth part of my seven-part series looking back at the films of PIXAR studios. Enjoy...

It's been two years since I first saw Cars in theaters. That was also the only time I saw the movie. Now, just because I think Cars is PIXAR's worst movie doesn't necessarily mean I think it's a bad movie. But, in my opinion, it's by far their weakest effort.

Mostly, my problem with the movie all boils down to the logic of a world populated by nothing but cars. Where did the cars come from? Who builds the cars? If there are male and female cars, do they make baby cars? (Which brings up another issue: did they need to sexualize the female car?) More importantly: WHERE ARE ALL THE PEOPLE?! I could go on and on, but the point is that for a studio who prides itself on making the unbelievable seem believable, especially with regard to their characters, Cars seriously drops the ball.

On the other hand, one of the few things that Cars does very, very right is it's voice cast. Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Tony Shaloub, Larry the Cable Guy, George Carlin, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Keaton, Cheech Marin, Richard Petty, and a whole bunch of other stock car drivers that NASCAR fans would be able to identify easier than I could. The point is that they really pulled out all the stops to get the best talent they possibly could. Typically, animated films will cast famous names more for the screen credit rather than their vocal talent. Here, everyone does a pretty great job, especially Paul Newman. It's a real treat to hear Newman still kicking around, even if it's from within a soundproof booth.

I think it's interesting that what John Lasseter essentially did was to trick us all into watching a sports movie. Deep down, Cars owes a lot to movies like Days of Thunder, Breaking Away, etc. The movie's pretty deeply rooted in not only sports movie tropes, but American iconography as well. Lasseter's said repeatedly that Cars is meant to be a love letter to the American highway. And in that regard, the movie works. Everything else, though, feels like stock PIXAR going through the motions. More on my theory behind that next time.

Having said all that: I'm completely at a loss as to why a sequel is scheduled for release in 2012. From the entire PIXAR catalog, was the Cars universe really the one with the most sequel potential? I'm thinking not. In the years to come, we're going to see some original movies that sound, for lack of a better word, fascinating (Up, newt, and The Bear and the Bow). To then revisit the franchise that most people agree was the least successful just doesn't seem like a smart choice. But hey, I'm not one to argue with PIXAR. They've proven me wrong more often than not, so I'll give Cars 2 a chance.

Oh, and I want to leave you with one last thought: Don't the cars in Cars remind you of those terrifying cars from those old Chevron ads?

Come back tomorrow for the final entry in my PIXAR retrospective...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Seven Days of PIXAR: The Incredibles

Here's part five of my week-long look back at the PIXAR catalog...

The Incredibles is sort of the turning point for PIXAR. It's not their first to deal with deceptively adult issues. That's been going on since Toy Story. However, it is their first to break from the traditional 'PIXAR style'. Instead, the film...

Hang on, I'm just reviewing the movie all over again. Yes, The Incredibles is an excellent animated film. I expect nothing less from Brad Bird, not to mention PIXAR. Yes, the film is one of the most intricately plotted superhero films ever made. And yes, it's hands-down one of the most fun movies of the decade. The Incredibles is, for all intents and purposes, a masterpiece.

Yet, for some reason, the movie gets a bit of a bad rap. A lot of people seem to think the movie is too weighty, that the subject matter is too adult. Some parents think it's too violent for a kids movie. To that, I say: It's no less violent than any other superhero movie. Maybe it's symptomatic of the fact that The Incredibles is probably not for children, just like most superhero movies these days aren't really for kids. Sure, they're marketed to kids, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're appropriate for kids. I probably wouldn't show The Incredibles to my kids until they're probably nine or ten.

But why is the film so different? Well, find me another cartoon that deals with issues of mid-life crisis, domestic problems, and litigation regarding superheroes all in one. Find me another superhero movie where the henchmen aren't outright idiots. Find me another cartoon that fuses the James Bond aesthetic of the 1960s with the Fantastic Four sense of teamwork. Find me another superhero movie featuring Samuel L....actually, nevermind. He's in a bunch of 'em these days. Thanks to The Incredibles.

But anyway. So far, Brad Bird's made three great animated films (I'll get to Ratatouille on Thursday). The Incredibles shows that Bird's got the guts to tackle a radically different visual style from film to film. That's something I hope he can carry over to his next movie, which is supposedly going to be live-action.

It's kind of hard to talk about a movie that's only four years old, especially when it's one of your absolute favorites. For my money, The Incredibles is PIXAR's best film, and one of the best superhero movies ever made.

Come back tomorrow for my thoughts on perhaps PIXAR's worst film...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Goodbye George

Goodbye Rufus

Goodbye Cardinal Glick

Goodbye George Carlin

Seven Days of PIXAR: Finding Nemo

Here's part four in my seven-part retrospective of PIXAR. Enjoy...
I remember seeing Finding Nemo in theaters and instantly falling in love with it. The story was very well constructed, the animation gorgeous (the water effects!), and it was very, very funny. I had some problems with the voice cast (Ellen Degeneres in particular), but for the most part, Finding Nemo represented another giant step forward for PIXAR.

And it's popularity is obvious. $864 million worldwide gross, Academy Award for best animated film, ranked #10 on the American Film Institute's Top Ten Animated Films of all Time. For my money, it's easily one of the three or four best films of 2003.

Over the years since its release, my opinion of it has cooled. I still admire the film enormously, but it's a bit harder for me to just sit back and enjoy it. Maybe the problem is that the general public, kids specifically, absolutely love Finding Nemo. I haven't met a kid who couldn't quote some line from that movie. Which isn't really a problem, I'm not saying it's bad that everyone likes the movie. But when everyone likes a movie, it starts to get a little old. Suddenly kids everywhere see a flock of birds and start shouting, "MINE? MINE? MINE? MINE?" Every fish in every fishtank is suddenly automatically Nemo, regardless of whether or not it's actually a clownfish.

So I had to distance myself from the movie just so to keep everyone else from ruining it for me. Since it's theatrical run, I saw it maybe one or two more times. When you go to college at one of the top marine biology schools in the country, you hear a lot about Finding Nemo. And oh, did I ever... I don't think I saw the movie once in my entire four years at college. And if I had, everyone else might have ruined the whole movie for me. But about a month ago, Finding Nemo came on television. I drop right down into the sofa and start watching it. This time, I saw it for the somewhat serious story of parenthood that it actually was. The jokes were still there, but I was more invested in Marlin's journey than anything else.

And that's the sign of a great film. You can watch it once and enjoy it, laugh at it even. But years down the road, you'll see it again in a whole new light. That's Finding Nemo for me. It's PIXAR's most elegantly conceived film, and I look forward to seeing Andrew Stanton work this same kind of magic with WALL-E.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Seven Days of PIXAR: Monsters, Inc.

I don’t have too much to say about Monsters, Inc. I did see it in theaters with my family, and I remember it being one of the first movies that I absolutely had to have on DVD. Monsters, Inc., along with A Bug’s Life and Cars, is most often put into the category of ‘standard PIXAR fare’, which is a shame, because the film is mostly very good. Like I’ve said before, none of the PIXAR films are really bad, but some are easily not as successful as others. If I were to rank the films in terms of quality, Monsters, Inc. would probably land right in the middle of the list.

At the 2002 Academy Awards, Monsters, Inc. lost to Shrek in the first ever ‘Best Animated Feature’ category. While Shrek certainly deserved the award (though perhaps not over Monsters), time has not been kind to Shrek. Its wellspring of pop culture references, while certainly well-executed, is still subject to the same laws of aging that plague other parodies and satires. One has to wonder whether Shrek will still feel as fresh and smart in 20 years as it did seven years ago. My point is: time has been nothing but kind to Monsters, Inc.

One of the things that impresses me about PIXAR films is their ability to create endearing characters out of things that typically turn off kids and parents. Bugs, rats, monsters, etc. I’ve heard a lot of stories of parents taking kids to see Monsters, Inc., and the kids being terrified because it was a movie about monsters. Of course, once they see the film, they love it. PIXAR shows extraordinary care in creating characters every bit as interesting as the stories that surround them, and Monsters, Inc. displays some of their more unique character designs. Mike Wazowski in particular is a lot of fun to watch, and has a lot of comedic potential that they mine for all he’s worth. It doesn’t hurt to have the likes of Billy Crystal and John Goodman voicing the characters.

Of all the PIXAR films, I’m more eager to see further adventures with Mike and Sully than any other PIXAR characters (ok, excepting The Incredibles). The closest we’ll probably ever get are the short cartoon “Mike’s New Car”, and the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor show at Walt Disney World. In the end, it represents one of PIXAR's most bizarre films wrapped around one of their sweeter stories. I don't care who you are, it takes a black heart not to think Monsters, Inc. is at least a little bit adorable.

Come back tomorrow for a look back at one of PIXAR's most popular films: Finding Nemo...

Seven Days of PIXAR: A Bug's Life

Here's part two of my personal retrospective on the PIXAR catalog. Enjoy...

I never saw A Bug’s Life during its theatrical run. To this day, it’s the only PIXAR film that I haven’t seen on the big screen. I think everyone agrees that the film isn’t one of PIXAR’s strongest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still significant. It’s the first ever DVD release to come directly from the digital source instead of a film print. A Bug’s Life made $363 million dollars worldwide, over double the gross of another insect-themed movie, Antz, which was released a month earlier (and which I DID see in theaters).

What’s my experience with A Bug’s Life? Near as I can remember, I saw it on video sometime in the summer of 1999. My family had just moved to our current residence, and I didn’t have much to do aside from watching movies and getting to know Greensboro. I remember renting two movies that day. A Bug’s Life and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. I never got around to watching the latter, having opted to watch A Bug’s Life a second time instead, and to this day haven’t ever seen it.

In the years since first seeing the film, I’ve rewatched it a handful of times, and have generally enjoyed it. It’s not as groundbreaking as Toy Story (nor simply as good), but there is some breathtaking animation at work, and the story is a classic example of what PIXAR is all about: simple stories that engage kids of all ages, even cynical jerks like yours truly.

Just a year ago, I ended up writing a ten-page essay on A Bug’s Life as influenced by the films of Akira Kurosawa (particularly as a remake of Seven Samurai). The week I wrote that paper, I ended up watching the movie three or four times, and at least twice in a row. I haven’t seen the movie since then, but I’ve got a good feeling that it’ll be like a warm blanket the next time I decide to pop it in.

In the PIXAR catalog, A Bug’s Life is probably the least remembered film, which is a shame, because it’s certainly not the worst. John Lasseter’s direction is refreshingly free of the kind of irony that plagues lesser animated films, and kids films in general. It’s definitely saying something to say that even the worst PIXAR film (which this isn’t) is still better than most other cartoons out there.

Come back tomorrow for my thoughts on Monsters, Inc.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Seven Days of PIXAR: Toy Story

It's T-minus one week until PIXAR drops their latest film, WALL-E, on an eager movie-going public. I, for one, can't wait. So I thought I'd take a look back at the PIXAR catalog, one film at a time. Today's entry is a post I wrote about Toy Story on my MySpace blog about a month ago. Hope you enjoy...

One of the most vivid movie theater memories from my childhood is Toy Story. It opened right around Thanksgiving 1995, I was 9, my brother was 7. If memory serves me, I ended up seeing Toy Story three times in theaters. Twice with my parents, because I'm positive I dragged them back out to see it a second time. But many months later (meaning probably sometime the next spring), my brother and I spent a weekend at my grandparents house. That weekend, my grandma wanted to take us to a movie. The three of us looked through the movie times and she had us pick what to go see. And at the second run theater a few blocks over (back then, Greensboro had a pretty decent second run theater), Toy Story was still playing. "THAT!"

My grandma didn't know that my brother and I had already seen it twice, nor would she probably have cared. If we'd seen it 15 times, she'd still have taken us. So we went. I remember we arrived a couple minutes late, the movie had already started. I also remember feeling a little bad that she didn't get to see the beginning, but I got over it.

To this day, my grandma talks about how much fun it was for her to take my brother and I to see Toy Story. I honestly don't know if she really remembers the movie that well (or even understood it in the first place), or if she just remembers taking her grandkids to see some movie. But for some reason, I remember going to see it this third time best of all. I have no recollection of seeing it the first two times, but I'm positive that they did happen. Whatever the case, my memory of Toy Story is pretty vivid. Like most kids in 1995, I was nuts about the movie. I mean, what's not to love?

Now that I actually think back on it, the single weirdest thing that the movie did to me was it made me want all the toys featured in it for some reason. Somewhere at home, I've got a Cowboy Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Slinky Dog, and a whole bunch of other characters (including a Mr. Potato Head, but then who didn't?). And now I've graduated from collge, and they're all probably sitting in a box in the attic. Which, in context of Toy Story 2 (and what I hear of part 3) is really kinda depressing. Point being, Pixar made up all these toys to populate the film, and then had them manufactured to populate kids' bedrooms / play areas. That's pretty screwed up, don't ya think?

It's 13 years later, and the movie is every bit as fantastic as it was when I saw it for the third time with my grandma. I'll be in my mid-20's by the time Toy Story 3 comes out, and I'll be first in line to see it. Now, I'm not entirely sure why the movie connected with me the way it did, but then that's not something that I need to understand. All I need to know is that it did, and I've loved every minute of it since 1995.

You might think I'm pulling out all the same analogies and descriptors for all the movies I used to love as a kid, and that's alright, because to a certain extent I am. My love for a lot of these movies is, for the most part, equal. While I'm a bigger fan of Star Wars than I am of Toy Story, it doesn't mean I like the latter any less. They both hold equal, yet very specific places in my heart. And if you gather anything from what I've written here, I hope it's just that I have a very particular memory of Toy Story as a kid, and I think that made all the difference.

I'd like this to be an ongoing series of entries. Not reviews of why I love some of my favorite films, but rather my recollections of seeing them in theaters and their impact on my own childhood/life, a lot like my review of TMNT last year.

Come back tomorrow for my thoughts on A Bug's Life.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

The ultimate legacy of Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk will be found in how well Marvel Studios builds from this to give us films like Thor, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers. As a stand-alone experience the film is pretty light, and would be forgettable if not for the cast stepping up to give their characters the depth that they deserve.

Now, any discussion of this film isn't complete without mentioning the gigantic elephant in the room, and that's Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk. Personally, I think it's one of the better comic book adaptations out there, at least in terms of direction and performance, though I know a lot of people find that film far too slow and equally dense. Of course, these are the same people who wanted more "HULK SMASH" and less psycho-babble. This year's film gives those people exactly that. Everything that people hated about Ang Lee's film is gone in Louis Leterrier's film, which, as it turns out, was exactly what made the earlier film interesting in the first place.

As The Incredible Hulk begins, we see an intricate flashback sequence that tells the uninitiated everything they need to know. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) undergoes a gamma radiation experiment that ends up turning him into the big green guy, and injuring Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and her father (William Hurt), an army general who's particularly interested in Banner's research. Those who know comics inside and out will be rewarded with even more backstory within this segment.

Right off the bat, one might think this Hulk won't stray too far from the style established in the 2003 film. But alas, things begin to break down not long after the opening credits. I'm not saying the film's style is bad, because the film doesn't really have much of a style to begin with. Louis Leterrier's roots are in action sequences, and it's in those scenes where his direction comes alive. All the connecting tissue plays out very simplistically, with none of the comic-book flair that made Ang Lee's film so much fun to watch.

One of the things that this film does very right is it's central villain. Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) is a soldier committed to taking down the Hulk at all costs, including submitting himself to increasingly excessive "super serum" injections. The way Tim Roth plays Blonsky, you almost want to root for him to catch and stop the Hulk. Roth plays him as a man who not only wants to understand what he's gotten himself into, but also wants to take full advantage of that kind of power. It's a character that gets considerable mileage for his limited screen time.

Outside of Tim Roth, the rest of the cast feels - for lack of a better word - problematic. Edward Norton does fine as Bruce Banner, and he does a good job at channeling Bill Bixby, but Liv Tyler and William Hurt feel underutilized. Neither actor takes the time to really make the character their own, especially Hurt, who simply cannot hold a candle to the controlled fury of Sam Elliot's performance in Ang Lee's Hulk. Additionally, Tim Blake Nelson appears late in the film as a slightly wacky scientist eager to help Bruce cure himself. It's roles like this and Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky that give life to an otherwise dull cast of characters.

But is the action any good? Oh, definitely. The three faceoffs between Blonsky and the Hulk are tense, kinetic, and simply fun to watch. The second showdown in particular is staged very wisely, and displays the kind of smart action that made Iron Man so much fun. Not only does the Hulk get a lot to destroy, but General Ross' troops get some very cool weapons to play with as well.

Overall, The Incredible Hulk is standard action fare that fits in nicely with Iron Man, and whatever Marvel Studios is cooking up next. On it's own, however, the film simply isn't enough to sustain a franchise.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of 5.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Two Years to the Day

Here's an odd memory that occurred to me today.

June 6th, 2006. It was a Tuesday. The remake of Richard Donner's excellent The Omen came out that day. Despite terrible reviews, I was itching to see it, mostly because the release date was too good to pass up. Come on, how often does a movie about the son of the devil come out on 6/6/6? Instead, I was stuck at my job at a GameStop that night.

By the time I got off work, it was still 9 o'clock in the evening, but my interest had already faded. I had a better plan. I'd found a copy of the original film on the store's DVD shelf (way back when they still dealt in movies), and used one of my employee perks to borrow it for the night.

So instead of seeing the remake (which, it turned out, WAS god awful), I ended up watching the original in the confines of my own dark bedroom. It was a thoroughly spooky experience, and one I'm glad I had, if only so I could say I saw The Omen on 6/6/6.

And what did I see today? Kung Fu Panda. That review will be next time.