Archive for June, 2008

WALL-E

Monday, June 30th, 2008

walle

Movie review by Greg Carlson

During the sensational opening section of Pixar’s “WALL-E,” the last functioning Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class robot dutifully fulfills a daily routine of mashing piles of garbage into small cubes and stacking them until they reach monumental heights. Against the backdrop of a dusty, desolate landscape that recalls Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky” video (among several other post-apocalyptic visions), the soulful WALL-E either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that no human beings are around to appreciate his efforts. WALL-E’s only companion is a scuttling cockroach who tags along while the indefatigable bucket of bolts engages in his Sisyphean task. Wordless and haunting, the purely visual exposition emulates the poetic narratives of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, whose work director Andrew Stanton has claimed the moviemaking team studied intensely.

Blending a classic love story with a less effective environmental message, “WALL-E” is at its best when expressing the title character’s ardent desire to hold hands with another robot willing to reciprocate his unlikely emotion. Stanton’s clever use of a couple of songs from “Hello, Dolly!” gives the tired musical a brand new life, and it is rather easy to speculate that the next generation of moviegoers will not be able to hear “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” without filtering them through WALL-E’s consciousness.

Resembling Number 5 from “Short Circuit,” WALL-E is a marvel of character animation. With “vocalizations” provided by legendary sound designer Ben Burtt, who brought the voices of R2-D2, Chewbacca, and many other creatures to life in “Star Wars,” WALL-E finds himself in good cinematic company. As one has come to expect from Pixar, the movie teems with visual quotations, in this case touching on many Hall of Fame science fiction films, from “Metropolis” to “Blade Runner.” Pixar fans will also find multiple references to previous movies from the studio’s formidable oeuvre.

“WALL-E” is composed of three sections, and the first two are vastly superior to the third, which loosens its grip on the robot protagonists long enough to let a mothership of obese interstellar travelers drive home a nearly tedious gag about fat Americans. Jeff Garlin voices the captain of the floating city Axiom, a gorgeously designed spacecraft that looks like something out of John Berkey’s beloved fantasy painting. Garlin is surely a talented performer, but the movie is infinitely more engaging without the unnecessary chatter of explanatory dialogue. This is a minor complaint, however, as “WALL-E” pretty consistently delivers the goods.

The middle section of the movie is the likeliest to appeal to the youngest members of the viewing audience, and some might quibble that a sequence involving a collection of malfunctioning, “rogue” robots panders to kids whose attention spans might be tested by the rest of the film. Fortunately, WALL-E’s relationship to his soul-bot EVE is wonderful enough to silence all but the crustiest of critics (despite the considerable number of times EVE pleadingly pronounces the hero’s name). In one glorious scene, WALL-E and EVE share a zero gravity dance together that echoes the breathtaking outer space ballets choreographed by Kubrick in his masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For this, and many of its other stunning compositions, “WALL-E” is one of the few must-see titles of the summer movie season.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/30/08.

Get Smart

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

getsmart

Movie review by Greg Carlson

While it might have sounded marketable on paper – Steve Carell filling the telephonic shoes of Don Adams in a big-budget version of “Get Smart” – the resulting mess is a hodgepodge of mostly unfunny physical comedy supplemented by a smattering of reasonably clever one-liners. Older fans of the original television series that ran from 1965 to 1970 might smile at some of the movie’s half-hearted efforts to revive beloved gags, but younger viewers with no frame of reference will be more likely to unfavorably compare the film to James Bond movies. Strangely, “Get Smart” spends nearly as much time attempting to pull off the breathless action that propels the Bond franchise when it should be a daffy send-up.

Carell is no Don Adams, but given the current roster of deadpan television performers adept at playing nerdy and clueless, he was a good choice for Maxwell Smart. The movie re-imagines Smart as a deskbound “chatter” analyst for CONTROL, even though the man dreams of passing his field agent exam in order to attain some of the glamour that virtually emanates like a cloud from the hyper-masculine Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson). The Chief (Alan Arkin, doing the best he can with an almost shockingly flavorless screenplay) knows that Smart is better utilized in a cubicle, but relents following an attack by KAOS that jeopardizes CONTROL’s entire operation.

Naturally, Smart is quickly paired with the luscious Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), but unlike the relationship of the small screen version, she initially finds Smart anything but attractive and brusquely tells him so. Hathaway’s 99 is a brittle scold and absolutely no fun. The resulting screwball-style bickering between the mismatched leads wears thin almost immediately, even though Carell manages embarrassment and humiliation like a champ. The main problem with this Smart, though, is that he is far too competent and self-aware to earn the kind of huge laughs that Peter Sellers managed as Inspector Clouseau.

When “Get Smart” pulls out staple jokes, they bomb hard. The “Would you believe?” routine ends with a lame Chuck Norris punchline that was kind of funny when it bounced around the web a few years ago. “Missed it by that much” pops up a couple of times, and yields zero laughter. As seen in the trailer, Carell’s intense shouting about the best day of his life is pretty good, although the “Cone of Silence” loses its physical Plexiglas charm in a transformation to a run-of-the-mill CG effect. Ditto for the multiple security doors that Smart navigates at CONTROL headquarters.

“Get Smart” is designed as a showcase for Carell’s comic acting, but most of the veterans stuck in supporting roles struggle with wooden dialogue. In addition to Arkin, Terence Stamp’s KAOS leader is a discarded afterthought. A Richard Kiel-esque KAOS henchman gets more screen time and character development. David Koechner is a boorish Larabee, and James Caan is completely miscast as a W-like idiot commander-in-chief. Johnson, like Carell, is willing to do anything for a laugh, but Agent 23 functions almost entirely as a plot device rather than a character. “Get Smart” has not been as poorly reviewed as “The Love Guru” (which opened less successfully on the same day) but it is hardly worth seeing as a replacement.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/23/08.

The Incredible Hulk

Monday, June 16th, 2008

incrediblehulk

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Significantly better than Ang Lee’s tortured and torturous 2003 “Hulk,” the current re-do fixes many of its predecessor’s problems. In the end, though, the computer-generated green giant lacks the heart and soul that only a human being can provide. Sure, one could argue that the central character, when transformed into a raging, destructive behemoth, is not exactly human. Even so, the presence of a pixel-constructed monster has the drawback of never effectively interfacing with the flesh and blood actors who struggle to touch something that isn’t there or make eye contact with empty space. The newest Hulk looks better than the last one, but not by much.

While Lee’s mournful take on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s riff on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Frankenstein,” and “King Kong” labored over the origin story, director Louis Letterier’s “The Incredible Hulk” covers that turf during the opening credits, which pay tribute to the popular 1970s television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno (who makes yet another cameo as a security guard and provides the Hulk’s vocals). Other inside references for fan geeks pop up here and there, but Letterier mostly sticks to the basics of the summer superhero playbook, which means little introspection and lots of smashing and bashing.

Edward Norton, who reportedly clashed with powerful, suit-wearing types over the final shape of the movie, is serviceable as Dr. Bruce Banner, but Zak Penn’s script leeches any potential thrill from the Freudian fever dream of unleashing fury and losing control (until the final close-up that alludes to future installments). Banner makes it clear that he sees his condition as a disease-like burden, and emphatically exclaims that he doesn’t want to control it, he wants to get rid of it. That sentiment precludes the opportunity to explore some of the more fascinating dimensions of Banner’s unique ability.

The depiction of Banner’s relationship with Dr. Betty Ross, now played by Liv Tyler, is another place where “The Incredible Hulk” tops the Ang Lee version. While Tyler might not be considered as accomplished as Jennifer Connelly, she is thankfully not called upon to spend the majority of her screen time weeping over the traumatic events that unfold whenever her old flame’s heart rate passes a particular threshold. Tyler’s more imaginative Betty initiates some romance despite the dangers that come with Banner’s quickened pulse. Betty and Bruce spend a chunk of time with one another and the simplicity of the movie’s structure as an extended chase is one of its chief pleasures. Betty’s eagerness to be on the run with Bruce propels the movie until it reaches the inevitable climactic battle.

While “The Incredible Hulk” relies on images of goliath versus military machinery in many of its action sequences, the movie deserves points for several of its cleverly used sets and locations. The parkour-style pursuit through the Brazilian favela where Banner has hidden himself from government pursuers has plenty of energy. Additionally, the first sequence in which Banner goes bonkers in full-on Hulk mode is done mostly in shadow; it generates a fair amount of suspense and postpones some of the disappointment that comes with seeing the emerald colossus in broad daylight.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/16/08.

Son of Rambow

Monday, June 9th, 2008

sonoframbow

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A largely winning and occasionally beguiling friendship yarn from moviemaking team Hammer & Tongs, “Son of Rambow” applies liberal doses of British eccentricity and charm as it crafts the story of two unlikely pals who forge a creative moviemaking partnership. While it certainly cannot hold a candle to “Rushmore,” “Son of Rambow” respectfully takes up with its nearly adolescent protagonists after the fashion of Wes Anderson’s contemporary classic, allowing the audience to relate to these kids from the inside out. Viewers who give in to the movie’s imaginative tone will be transported to the emotional heart of childhood, a time when fantasy and escapism counteract the indignities of having little control over one’s own daily life.

“Son of Rambow” fires up an opposites attract dynamic in its opening scenes, introducing viewers to Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), a rail-thin elf protesting the sins of cinema with his religious clan, and Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a scruffy rebel who happens to be pirating the goods with a bulky camcorder in the smoking balcony. The film in question is Ted Kotcheff’s “First Blood,” and it ends up becoming a key ingredient in the oddball collaborative relationship that will form between Will and Lee. Will is forbidden by his family to watch movies, but once he sneaks a peek at Sylvester Stallone’s heroic killing machine, all bets are off as he is seized by production fever.

Both boys are fatherless to some degree, and when he is not illegally taping movies, Lee dreams of winning a BBC-sponsored moviemaking competition. After establishing the unlikely partnership between Will and Lee, the film’s script makes certain that their skills are much stronger when working together. The arrival of an outsider, humorously embodied by a tragically hip French exchange student named Didier (Jules Sitruk), threatens both friendship and production. The movie within the movie provides many opportunities for self-referential comedy (not unlike Max Fischer’s elaborately staged dramas in “Rushmore”), and is one of the chief pleasures of “Son of Rambow.”

Writer-director Garth Jennings, who forms Hammer & Tongs with producer Nick Goldsmith, apparently based some of the crude moviemaking experiments of the main characters on his own exploits. He previously helmed the execrable big budget adaptation of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and while that film had its supporters, “Son of Rambow” is a much stronger piece of moviemaking in every way, despite the colossally different price tags. The quaint stereotypes might be a bit broad, but the intimacy of the village and school are preferable to the vastness of giant studio sets.

“Son of Rambow” exuberantly identifies with the thrill of childhood imagination, which knows zero limits. Will illustrates the margins of his books and a bathroom stall with detail-rich landscapes reminiscent of Henry Darger’s intricate scrolls. The movie often asks the audience to suspend its disbelief, as the boys arrange shots for their movie that end with gravity-defying catapults and other dangerous stunts. It asks again when the entire school caste system is inverted by filmmaking delirium that turns the nerds into the cool kids. “Son of Rambow” errs too often on the side of sentimentality, but for anyone who has ever been gripped by the desire to make a movie, it reflects familiar emotions.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/9/08.

The Visitor

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

visitor

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director (and regular actor) Thomas McCarthy follows his strong debut “The Station Agent” with “The Visitor,” a warm, character-driven showcase for veteran thespian Richard Jenkins. Like McCarthy’s debut feature, “The Visitor” adopts an unhurried pace to spin its tale of a middle-aged academic whose intellectual and spiritual malaise are obliterated by an unexpected encounter. “The Visitor” mirrors “The Station Agent” in several other ways as well, including an emphasis on thoughtful, carefully considered interactions among central characters who are emotionally guarded and more than a little bit leery of opening up to others. While some viewers will find that the movie embraces a piety that creeps close to sanctimoniousness, others will enjoy the director’s well-crafted variation on opposites attracting.

“The Visitor” introduces the viewer to the dour, taciturn Walter Vale (Jenkins), a professor of global economics whose career has stagnated since the death of his pianist wife. Pressured by a colleague to deliver a paper at an NYU conference, Walter returns to a rarely visited apartment he still rents in the city and is startled to discover that a young Syrian musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) have been swindled into renting it by an opportunistic con artist. As expected, Walter eventually invites the illegal immigrants to stay, and they cautiously renegotiate their living arrangements as they slowly warm up to one another.

Walter’s longtime passion for music migrates from classical to Afrobeat when he hears Tarek’s nimble drumming. With the encouragement of the accomplished and easy-going Tarek, an inspired Walter begins to practice regularly. “The Visitor” might have continued quietly along this path, but McCarthy abruptly changes gears to explore a social-political dimension of post-9/11 immigration policy when Tarek is arrested and held in a sub-contracted detention facility to await deportation. The filmmaker’s indignant attitude moves front and center, but the fortunate dramatic byproduct of this choice is the arrival of Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass), who breathes life into every scene in which she appears.

Jenkins, who has appeared in multiple movies by the Coen Brothers, the Farrelly Brothers, and David O. Russell, has developed a cult following, and “The Visitor” provides him with an opportunity to anchor nearly every scene in the film. No matter what his role, Jenkins has always conveyed a fierce intelligence and a wicked sense of humor, and while opportunities for the latter are largely absent from “The Visitor,” viewers will not be disappointed in his work. McCarthy’s script transforms Walter from a stiff classroom presence into a passionate enthusiast of African rhythms perhaps too smoothly, but Jenkins is never less than compelling, and his cast-mates are uniformly wonderful.

“The Visitor” juggles several thematic concerns, and some are handled with more subtlety than others. A tentative romance that develops between Walter and Mouna might have been a movie all by itself. McCarthy’s high-minded moralizing, which manifests in Walter’s growing outrage and frustration at the government’s treatment of Tarek, hits several sour notes, and is only salvaged by the film’s postscript. With the exception of one brief flicker, Tarek remains cheerful, patient, and optimistic during his confinement – hard to believe considering that he faces being expelled from his adopted country. Even so, “The Visitor” remains thoroughly watchable.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/2/08.