Friday, June 27, 2008

WALL-E: True heart

WALL-E (2008) • View trailer for WALL-E
Five stars (out of five). Rating: G, although perhaps too rough for very young viewers
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.27.08
Buy DVD: WALL-E • Buy Blu-Ray: Wall-E (Two-Disc and BD Live) [Blu-ray]

Now I get it.

All John Lasseter's efforts since his humble origins with 1984's The Adventures of Andre and Wally B — all the hilarious short subjects and increasingly accomplished feature films — have been part of a calculated plot.
Whatever else he does during an average day of scavenging and trying to clean
up the hopeless mess that has been left on planet Earth, the little robot hero of
WALL-E must charge his solar cells via some direct exposure to sunlight. This
will become a serious issue, when events propel the resourceful 'bot into an
adventure that takes him far, far away from good ol' Sol.

The entire American viewing audience has been positioned, as a result of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and the rest, to expect nothing but greatness from Pixar. We expect classics every year. Indeed, we've known for months that WALL-E was one of this summer's few sure bets.

And now, recognizing that we're all properly primed, Lasseter & Co. have made their move.

Because WALL-E is far from an ordinary Pixar flick.

Oh, sure: It has the same gorgeous animation, the same meticulously detailed character work, the same aw-shucks cute touches that we've come to expect from Pixar.

But WALL-E includes something else — something extra — that we've never seen from Lasseter's crew.

This one has teeth.

Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) and co-writers Pete Docter and Jim Reardon clearly are fans of cautionary science-fiction, because they've made a Silent Running for the early 21st century. Utilizing Pixar's masterful storytelling skills — and they are considerable — Stanton has produced an unflinchingly savage indictment of corporate greed, wasteful human behavior and our unwillingness to be better stewards of planet Earth ... and wrapped it all up in the irresistible saga of a forlorn little robot cursed by having developed a personality.

You think it was tough, when Bambi learned of his mother's death? You think it was hard, when Pinocchio got swallowed by that whale, or when Dumbo was rocked gently to sleep by his shackled mother?

Such scenes pale when compared to the first 10 minutes or so of WALL-E, as we realize that this little robot is the last sentient being on a garbage-strewn Earth ... not counting his mute, apparently indestructible cockroach companion. (I always knew they'd survive anything.)

And WALL-E is lonely.

Oh, my goodness.

One of the saddest moments I've ever experienced is the final scene from Steven Spielberg's A.I., as we realize that the sentient robot teddy bear — having faithfully followed Haley Joel Osment's young android protagonist through a series of dangerous adventures — is prepared to wait forever for a friend who'll never wake up again.

The dawning awareness that WALL-E has endured 700 years of such isolation is a similar kick to the chest.

(If you're scoffing over the notion of getting sentimental about lifelike teddy bears or boxy little robots, the heck witcha. You ain't got no soul.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wanted: Not so much

Wanted (2008) • View trailer for Wanted
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and relentless violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.08
Buy DVD: Wanted • Buy Blu-Ray: Wanted [Blu-ray]

The good news: As hoped, coupling Timur Bekmambetov's adrenalin-fueled, hyper-stylized flourishes with a reasonably linear script results in a movie that's somewhat more approachable than the Russian director's absurdly over-praised Night Watch and its sequel, Day Watch.
While Fox (Angelina Jolie) watches impassively, Wesley (James McAvoy, left)
accepts a pistol from The Gunsmith (Common) and tries to believe — to really,
truly believe — that he can make bullets "bend" around obstructing objects
after having been fired.

The bad news: Wanted ain't that much better.

Fans of The Matrix and its mystical, too-cool-for-the-room characters probably will devour this stuff and nonsense, and fairness demands that I acknowledge having found portions of Wanted amusing and occasionally clever. But the physics- defying CGI stuntwork and perpetual gunplay become tiresome, as do Bekmambetov's crazy-quilt visuals.

This guy makes movies for people who find MTV's smash-cut editing a bit too leisurely.

The other potential problem concerns the fact that screenwriters Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan have screwed around with the plotline as presented in the Mark Millar/J.G. Jones graphic novel on which this film is based, and not to the property's improvement. Arrogant scripters who insist on leaving their own leaden footprints do so at their own risk: Chances are, the original writer(s) did just fine on their own, thank you very much.

And by so drastically mutating the character dynamic, Brandt & Co. have completely compromised our ability to identify with some (all? none?) of the players in this highly warped fantasy.

The result, therefore, is more comic book than the original comic book. Bekmambetov does pretty well with sheer momentum — he's particularly adept at that — but the vehicle sputters and eventually sinks beneath the weight of its own metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

None of which can be blamed on the cast members, who give it their all. Star James McAvoy, in particular, holds things together far longer than the film deserves; he's a perfect nebbish who blossoms into a fully credible reluctant assassin.

Angelina Jolie is similarly ideal as one of McAvoy's mysterious mentors; she has the smirky, amused superiority that this film desperately needs ... a sense that she knows this is all over-revved nonsense, but she's game for a good time, and we should do no less.

And, for awhile, the invitation is tantalizing.

McAvoy stars as Wesley, a cubicle-dwelling drone who pushes papers in some insignificant office, where he's harassed on a regular basis by a tyrannical boss (Lorna Scott, wonderfully dreadful) who throws her considerable weight about while terrorizing everybody under her command. Wes gets little relief at home, where his skanky girlfriend seizes every opportunity to do the nasty with our hero's office mate and supposed best friend.

Wes' life, in short, is an unrelenting nightmare of brow-beaten insignificance.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Kung Fu Panda: Panda-monium

Kung Fu Panda (2008) • View trailer for Kung Fu Panda
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and quite pointlessly, for harmless martial-arts mayhem
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.6.08
Buy DVD: Kung Fu Panda • Buy Blu-Ray: Kung Fu Panda (Two Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

The concept is too silly for words, which is precisely the point.

You can't even glance at Po, the corpulent hero of Kung Fu Panda, without laughing.
Shifu (right), the kung fu master, can't imagine how he could ever transform the
corpulent Po into a martial-arts fighting machine ... until an epiphany strikes:
The oversized panda will do anything for food ... and that includes fighting
with impressive skill.

In lesser hands, this film might have gone no further than childish farce. But credit a stable of writers — Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger — for a script that cleverly blends ancient Chinese tradition with American geek culture, and credit directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne for maintaining a snappy pace. (So nice to see a film that gets on the stage, tells its story in an economical 92 minutes, and then gets off.)

Mostly, though, this film owes its success to its gorgeous animation and sublime voice acting.

I mean, really: Dustin Hoffman as Shifu, an itty-bitty critter that happens to be a kung fu master?

The only thing funnier than that is the notion that Oogway, Shifu's master — and the apparent inventor of kung fu — is an ancient, slow-moving tortoise.

Hoffman is notorious for his adherence to "method"; I fondly recall Laurence Olivier's comment, during the filming of Marathon Man, when Hoffman prepared for a particular scene — one that called for his character to look whipped because he hadn't slept for days — by actually not sleeping for two days.

"My dear boy," Olivier is reported to have said, "why don't you just try acting?"

I can't imagine what Hoffman might have done to prepare for this role, but the effort clearly paid off. More crucially, the animators give Shifu's face a wealth of expressions that perfectly match Hoffman's palpable intensity. That all this should emerge in so diminutive a character ... well, that's just icing on the cake.

(Actually, trying to determine Shifu's species is surprisingly difficult in a film where all the other creatures are so easy to identify. He looks like a tiny cross between a possum and a raccoon. Hoffman has claimed, during interviews, that he's "a rare small red panda." Which I guess makes sense.)

The setting is ancient China, more or less, although the country is occupied not by people, but by animals. Ordinary citizens are the more vulnerable forest and barnyard creatures: bunnies, pigs and various birds. Po, the only panda in sight, sticks out like a sore thumb ... all the more because he seems to have been "adopted," at some point in the distant past, by his fussy father, a goose named Mr. Ping (James Hong).

Dad's sole hope in life is that his son will embrace the family calling and become a famous noodle chef.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

You Don't Mess with the Zohan: A true mess

You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008) • View trailer for You Don't Mess with the Zohan
Zero stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, which is a total crock, for nudity, profanity and unrelenting sexual vulgarity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.5.08
Buy DVD: You Don't Mess with the Zohan • Buy Blu-Ray: You Don't Mess With the Zohan (Unrated + BD Live) [Blu-ray]

Goodness, such a wealth of options...

In his race to the bottom, Adam Sandler has done what I wouldn't have believed conceivable: He has bested Eddie Murphy, Rob Schneider and Will Ferrell.
Having abandoned his career as an Israeli Mossad commando, Zohan Dvir (Adam
Sandler) winds up in New York, embracing his secret passion to become a hair
stylist. Needless to say, his past catches up with him.


Impossible as it sounds, Sandler actually has made the most wretched film of his career. It's almost as if he indulged in a contest with himself, to unleash something even more unspeakably dreadful than Little Nicky and Mr. Deeds.


I should have known that any movie with a substantial speaking appearance by Mariah Carey would be a dog.


You Don't Mess with the Zohan may not be the year's worst movie ... but it'll do until that one comes along.

Let's go with No. 4.

I have no pity for Sandler's fans, who at least know what to expect. But the notion of unwary mainstream patrons across these great United States — even one unsuspecting naïf — innocently paying good money with the expectation of enjoying some goofy slapstick, is enough to make me cringe.

Demanding their money back won't be sufficient compensation. Hell, they should get Columbia pictures to pay them ... and on a sliding scale: an exponentially larger payoff for every additional minute spent enduring this train wreck.

I'd like to think it could be possible to center a comedy around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; humor has a way of bridging even the most entrenched cultural divide. But Zohan is so poisonously tasteless, so unrelentingly vulgar and racist, that I can see it becoming one of the bullet-points in the next peace talks. ("You execute Adam Sandler, and burn every copy of that Godforsaken movie, or we don't even come to the table!")

Its status as an unredeemable turkey aside, Zohan also has the distinction of proving, once and for all, that the idiots who work for the MPAA are just messing with us. I've long felt their ratings were arbitrary and temperamental, but this is ridiculous. They really do indulge big-studio productions while unfairly reserving their "real" scrutiny for indie pictures.

Granted, this tawdry flick doesn't contain any F-bombs or bare breasts — plenty of naked male butts, though — but otherwise it's the most mercilessly vulgar production I've seen in quite awhile ... and yes, I'm even comparing it to what the Farrelly brothers unleash. The notion that this crude trash could skate by with a PG-13 is simply insane. It's not just wincingly awful; it's lose-your-lunch awful.