WALL•E

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Yes, the first half of WALL•E is as good as everyone says it is. It’s essentially a silent comedy, built out of scrap metal, consumer cast-offs, and a forbidding end-of-the-world landscape — New York City as a far-future archeological dig. Our hero is a plucky bucket of bolts who sees through binocular eyes and burbles like R2D2 as he makes orderly piles out of the refuse left by the erstwhile Earthlings who fled their ruined planet hundreds of years before for the machine-assisted comforts of a distant space station. Their absence is what makes WALL•E’s Manhattan so charming — the irony is that these miserable, junk-strewn environs are attractive to the old-school WALL•E, who busies himself by collecting and categorizing — a Rubik’s Cube here, a light bulb there — the detritus of civilization. It’s not until EVE, a sleek, iPod-styled girl robot shows up on the scene that WALL•E becomes aware of his own loneliness.

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Link Dump #4

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How desperate does Hollywood have to be to vandalize its own movies?. According to the usually reliable projectionist crowd over at Film-Tech.com, Deluxe sent out film prints of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that had the audio tracks deliberately fucked up as part of some monumentally misguided plan to catch pirates down the line by tracing the audio glitches in their pirated recordings. (The audio tracks of bootlegged movies are often of much higher quality than the video, since pirates have figured out how to tap directly into theatrical sound systems.) The mob at boingboing reports what seems like a high occurrence of anecdotes about screenings of the film where the soundtrack fell back to analog — or dropped out entirely. If this is true, it’s a massive “fuck you” to moviegoers, much worse than those annoying orange dots that serve the same supposed anti-piracy function. My local theaters have a hard enough time maintaining the integrity of picture and sound without the distributors making their lives even more difficult. Just unbelievable. (Via Movie City News.)

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Beowulf

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There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is,

the last 20 minutes of Beowulf contains maybe the best, most

spectacular action scene of the year — it must be the most excitingly realized

man-on-dragon beatdown in the history of fantasy filmmaking. The bad news is

you have to sit through the rest of Beowulf to get to it. It’s not

all terrible — the story by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman is an exceptionally

playful reworking of the source material — but there’s a tension between the

film’s epic ambitions and its awkward, dead-eyed, computer-generated-zombie

protagonists that’s only resolved when it kicks into full action mode. Director

Robert Zemeckis adores the freedom of his virtual camera, sending it swooping

and zooming vertiginously through the animated world at the slightest provocation,

but — like the 3D gimmick — the technical grandstanding only distracts momentarily

from the film’s problems. Happily, the voice performances are first-rate, and

Crispin Glover’s weirdo performance as the monster Grendel deserves some kind

of special Oscar consideration. C+

This review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.

DVD Traffic Report: November 6, 2007

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Ratatouille (Disney)

Sometimes I feel like all this writing about movies — coming up with reasons to dismiss movies I dislike, articulating elements I think could have been handled better and enumerating the problems in script, casting and execution — has turned me into a curmudgeonly freak who’s incapable of enjoying a great Hollywood entertainment on its own terms. And then I see something like Ratatouille, which plasters a dumb smile on my face for the majority of two hours and runs over and over in my head for weeks and months. Look, critics don’t really enjoy sitting through dross, even if it means they get to exercise their fickle fingers for a few minutes by typing a clever slag on the new popular blockbuster or critics’ (the wrong critics) darling and slapping a C-, or a D, or even an F at the bottom of the review. Those reviews can be fun to read. But they’d destroy the soul if there weren’t reviews of movies like Ratatouille to go along with them. A-freaking-plus, man.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Ratatouille or Ratatouille [Blu-ray]

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Sicko (Weinstein Co.)

Of all Michael Moore’s qualities, the most underrated may be his skill

as a storyteller. For better and worse, his strategy has always

involved forcing his political arguments to fit a strong narrative

structure. In those terms, Sicko, his documentary about the American

health-care system, is a doozy. This film’s stories are heartbreaking;

many of its characters are already dead — victims, Moore argues, of

for-profit HMOs that seek to deny as many insurance claims as possible.

He gathers anecdotal evidence about universal, government-paid health

care in Canada, France, the U.K., and even Cuba — where he’s able to

secure no-questions-asked care for a group of ailing 9/11 rescue

workers. Moore once again skirts anything resembling real debate,

failing to engage with dissenting views on more than a superficial

level, but his questions are effectively pointed. If universal health

care is the boondoggle its opponents claim, why is Moore able to find

so many happy testimonials from non-U.S. citizens? And what are the

moral implications of a system that refuses care to people who are

desperately in need? Impressively, Moore maintains a sense of humor,

keeping Sicko from becoming pointlessly shrill or completely maudlin

— instead, it’s absorbing, occasionally infuriating, and thoroughly

entertaining.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Sicko (Special Edition)

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The Ossuary and Other Tales: Jan Svankmajer

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If you have a real interest in animation, sooner or later you need to make the acquaintance of the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, one of the last true surrealists working in the cinema. There are several DVDs collecting his short films, but this newest one, from a Brooklyn-based outfit called Kim Stim, may be the most rewarding. The title film is a 10-minute black-and-white documentary shot in Czechoslovakia’s forbidding Sedlec Monastery Ossuary, which contains the skeletal remains of some 40,000 people. Amazingly, the mountains of bones were sorted and rearranged as sculpture by a live-in artist at the end of the 19th Century. “The Ossuary” is not animated, but Svankmajer’s approach to the material includes graceful camera moves, surprising jump cuts, and an occasional rapid-fire montage that brings his subject to visual life. His great, wry humor is evident in another short, “Historia Naturae (Suita),” which illustrates the food chain in a series of vignettes, set to jazzy music, that involve anatomy and mastication. But the funniest, and most recognizably capital-S surreal short here has to be the clay-animated masterpiece “Darkness Light Darkness,” a comedy about the human body — the hand with eyeballs and the butterfly made of ears are only the beginning.

Originally published in the White Plains Times, October 13, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

74/100

In the near-future science fiction world of A Scanner Darkly, narc agents are polymorphous detectives, wearing “scramble suits” that cycle, both visually and aurally, through scores of identity fragments to avoid detection by face-recognition systems. It’s a striking idea in literature, and in film even more so — especially in this film, which places a layer of abstraction between its cinematography and its audience, retracing the filmed images of easily recognizable actors as moody, moving line drawings. When the technique was used for the movie-length freshman-dorm-room conversation that was Waking Life, it felt precious and gimmicky. Applied to a more downbeat brand of existentialism, like this free-flowing, almost meditative version of Philip K. Dick’s classic novel about the tactics of drug police and the personal costs of addiction, it’s a kind of genius.

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Howl’s Moving Castle

88/100

There’s a jarring, hallucinatory effect to the sudden appearance, midway through Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated fantasy, of vivid images of war. Airborne battlecraft fly low over thickly populated villages, trailing streams of bombs behind them as they move deliberately through the air. Fiery red explosions dot the cityscape below. The imagery is fantastic and chilly, evoking simultaneously the firebombing of European cities during World War II and the surreal television footage of bombs exploding over Baghdad captured during the first Gulf War. But the most obvious referent is the current war in Iraq, where ancient cities have been decimated by heavy explosives and civilian casualties are staggering by nearly any count.

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Spirited Away

Spirited AwayIn spite of my own tendencies, I’ve come to regard films with a cult following with some suspicion. As personal and extraordinary as many of them are, others seem to have gathered fans up in a single-throated horde like the unthinking masses heading to a fundamentalist rally or a Bon Jovi concert. The European horror genre, for instance, which is regarded with great fervor by a significant population of cinephiles, is home to a number of wonderful films, but also some of the grandest, most misogynist and misanthropic howlers ever committed to celluloid. Japanese anime is another one, a niche market of films that are regarded very highly by some very smart people but has largely failed to excite my interest, despite good-faith efforts to see highly lauded examples of the form in the movie theaters where they belong.

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