Monday, June 30, 2008

Robot Love and Assassin's Revenge: WALL-E, WANTED, and RIP to Michael Turner

- Back again after a fun weekend that took me from Woodland Hills to Beverly Hills. The main thrust of this entry is going to be two big movie reviews - WALL-E and WANTED. So keep reading for my take on two of the summer's biggest blockbusters thus far.

- Fiirst, however, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of Michael Turner, one of the true icons of the comic book industry throughout the last several years. Turner's battle with cancer has been well-documented, and by all accounts, Turner fought the disease valiantly, still drawing, making appearances, and going out of his way to meet and mingle with fans despite his weakened condition. In fact, Turner would go through prolific spurts where it was easy to forget that he was constantly fighting for his health. His distinct art seemed to be everywhere over the last few years, with memorable runs on all manner of comics and a number of stints as cover artist, for high-profile series like Identity Crisis. As an artist, Turner was one of those guys who took flack for his liberties with anatomy, but his style was fun, and most importantly cool. Along with guys like Jim Lee and J. Scott Campbell, Turner was one of the artists who really blended traditional American comic art with a manga influence, to create a sleek and highly stylized look. It was a look that became closely associated with Turner's signature series like Witchblade, Fathom, and Soulfire, and a style that rendered versions of all the big icons, from Superman to Batman to The Flash to Wolverine. Turner helped make comics cooler than ever, helped to bring them into the 21st century, and as a professional did so with class and grace. The loss of Turner is a true loss for pop-culture, and his art will be missed.

- Okay, onto the reviews ...

WALL-E Review:

- With Wall-E, there can be no doubt: Pixar has done it again. The prolific studio's latest is a tour de force of animation and imagination, a fully-realized future universe that not only stands as one of the most visually impressive movies ever created, but also as a stunning science-fiction fable that will make a lasting impression on children and adults alike.

To be honest, at this point I am a little weary of the worship at the altar of Pixar. In the last few weeks alone, I've heard the glassy-eyed Pixar fans dutifully rank each of their films in order of preference, talk about Toy Story like it was the second coming, and eagerly analyze Wall-E's box office potential in comparison to the likes of Finding Nemo and Ratatouille. To this I say: enough! Pixar is an amazing studio, no doubt, but its most fanatical fans have a way of driving the rest of us insane with their uncritical praise and obssessive devotion. It's almost enough to drive me to look at a movie like Wall-E with a more-critical-than-usual eye, just to prove that Pixar is not, as the hype would suggest, infallible.

And yet, with a movie of the caliber of Wall-E, such pointed criticism is difficult to unleash. The movie has every bit of Pixar's typical intelligence and ambition, and yet, it's also an out-and-out crowd-pleaser. It seems to win over its audience with an unusual power that elicits comparisons to canonical greats like E.T. and Bambi. I mean, you simply can't help but be won over by Wall-E, the character. He's like E.T., Charlie Chaplin, and R2-D2 rolled into one by way of the robot from Short Circuit. Visually, Wall-E is an amazing creation. Much has been made of the fact that the film contains little to no spoken dialogue throughout its first half. Wall-E himself never "speaks" beond a few blips and beeps and mechanical words. And yet, the animators at Pixar have made the robotic Wall-E more expressive, more relatable, more *alive* than most big-screen protagonists. And obviously, that's part of the point. Thematically, Wall-E is about exploring that very phenomenon - how can this artificial lifeform be more "human" than the actual humans that we later meet? Whereas in this dystopian future, humans have fled earth and settled into a lazy and conformist and emotion-deprived existence, Wall-E, who was programmed to live exactly in that manner, transcends his pre-programmed routines and finds higher purpose, drive, and even love. Not only that, but he flexes his eyebrows with more comic aplomb than Groucho Marx, is more of a hopeless romantic than Seth Cohen, and more of a sentimental collector than John Cusack in Hi-Fidelity. Whereas the Replicants in Blade Runner were "more human than human," Wall-E is pretty much an average joe, almost an android Woody Allen, who happens to have a ViewFinder for a head.

While many will get wrapped up in the central romance between Wall-E and the sleek n' shiny fembot known as Eve (apparently in the future all robots are made with vaguely male or female yet semi-androgynous traits?), what elevates the film beyond being simply a quirky tale of robotic love is the thought-provoking futureverse which serves as its backdrop. Disney kept a lot of this aspect of the film under wraps in its marketing, so I think many were surprised to find that Wall-E is actually set in a fairly bleak and disturbing vision of the future. In this world, 700 years in the future, earth has become a junk-filled wasteland, with a small colony of humans fleeing the planet and living in oblivious lethargy in a decked-out spaceship. The people there have devolved, becoming bloated and balloon-like as they float around in personal people-movers, eyes affixed to monitors at all times, rather than each other. On their makeshift world, consumerism is religion - a computerized, omnicscient voice tells the ship's denizens to try wearing blue as opposed to red, and suddenly, in a mass behavioral shift of unquestioning conformity, everyone shifts colors so as to be one with the hive-mind. Where once the quest to make earth habitable again was a driving quest, it was now a mere afterthought - why risk the unknown when civilization could exist in a perpetual state of stagnant comfort? It is this strange new world that Wall-E navigates on his quest to reunite with his robotic soul-mate Eve. And if it seems like quite the weighty backdrop for what is on the surface, as I said, a quirky love story, well - that's because it is.

Post-apocalyptic Big Brother-controlled hive-mind societies of balloon people? In a Disney movie? Yep, it's all here, and Pixar pulls it off seamlessly. They are careful to keep all of these speculative sci-fi concepts in the background, however. And while their striking imagery stays with you, some of it will likely go over the heads of kids, and that's probably how it was intended. While the sci-fi fan in me would have liked a deeper, darker dive into all of this, the real magic of Pixar is probably that they can weave all of this stuff into a family-friendly film in such a palatable manner. They've crafted WALL-E in a way where for many, the robot love story is what will immediately affect them, but long after that initial rush has worn off, the bigger concepts begin to really sink in. I think that's why so many seem to find it hard to talk about the film until it's been fully digested, so to speak. It is certainly multi-layered, multi-tiered, with all kinds of ideas to absorb above and below the surface. From an oddly unsettling live-action appearance by Fred Willard, to the commentary on consumerism and modern malaise, to Jeff Garlin's spirited turn as the captain of the earth-colony ship, there's tons here on the periphery of the plot to examine and to take in.

Again, visually, this is Pixar at the peak of their powers. On one level, the sheer detail and texture of the CGI animation is unparallelled. Surfaces gleam, reflect light, and show age in a way we've never seen before in an animated film. On another level, this might be one of the best "directed" animated films I've ever seen. I say "one of" because, in movies like Cars and Ratatouille, Pixar continually raises the bar in this area. But here they've outdone themselves, with stunning shots of Wall-E roaming through the post-industrial wasteland that is earth, of him careening through space, and of the colorful legions of robots aboard the colonial spaceship. This is the kind of movie that will be a showcase for hi-def TV's and Blu-Ray players for years to come.

When it comes to grading this movie, I'm a little bit torn. There's no doubt in my mind that it's a landmark film, one that will be watched, analyzed, and enjoyed for a long time. At the same time, there are certainly some things that bugged me about it. The purist in me wishes that the movie, which mostly seems grounded in a harder sci-fi reality than most animated films, had a logical explanation of some kind for how these robots experienced emotion in the first place. Thematically, the reasons are obvious, but logically, it doesn't make sense. I've read reviews where the reviewer throws in their own explanation for this phenomenon, but I don't think the movie ever really addresses this. I didn't like that a movie with such an anti-consumerist message featured some pretty blatant call-outs to Apple. And I felt like there were moments in the movie that got a bit too schmaltzy, a bit too sentimental. In a movie that goes to such unexpectedly dark places, there were moments where I felt like there was a concious decision made to pull back, hit the brakes, and play it safe - to be a crowd pleaser rather than to fully explore some of the weightier concepts at play to their limits.

But the fact is - with a movie like this, the kind of complaints that I leveled above are of the type that can only really come about after viewing a truly great and monumental movie. And I don't want any annoyance with the rabid Pixar fanbase to cloud my review, because this movie is too good for that. It's often been said that the mark of true art is that which can spread its message not just to a select few, but to the masses. And it's a testament to Pixar and WALL-E that the film exerts its power over a mass-market, family audience, while still operating at a level of sophistication and depth that's uncommon for the family genre. And I think that that's what is really at the heart of my conflict over Wall-E. Because as much as we film geeks like to claim these movies as our own, the fact is - they are kids movies. Yes they have a mass appeal and an uncommon depth, but at the end of the day, if they don't appeal to children then they haven't done their jobs as films. As a twenty-something film-goer, I can find fault in a movie when it's viewed on the same plane as other adult-oriented fare. But with Wall-E, its greatness is realized most when looked at from the perspective that yes, this is a family film, but wow - its ability to filter all of these substantive ideas and concepts through that family-friendly lense - that is what's truly remarkable. The fact that I as a 25 year old can discuss and analyze and enjoy Wall-E at this level is a testament in and of itself to Pixar. I don't know if we could have that kind of discussion with even some of the older Disney classics. To that end, I can't help but give Wall-E the highest possible recommendation.

My Grade: A

- And one more ...

WANTED Review:

- Man, as great as Wall-E was, after seeing it I was squarely in the mood for something nasty, brutal, and hardcore. And that's exactly what I got with WANTED - a balls-to-the-wall comic book adaptation that features over-the-top violence, imaginatively-staged action, and a sadistic, nihilistic premise that breaks the mold of watered-down action flicks. This movie positively revels in its R-rating, holding nothing back and going for broke.

Wanted is an adaptation of the comic book series written by Mark Millar, who has a unique style that is an almost perfect match for Hollywood sensibilities. Millar tends to write books that grab you with an audacious, high-concept premise and keep you glued to the page with a violent, plugged-in, punk rock sorta attitude. While the film strays pretty far from the graphic novel in terms of plot and character, it maintains the same sort of hard-hitting, in your face attitude.

Still, if anything can be faulted with WANTED, it's that the plot can get a bit wonky. The initial premise is solid and draws you in - it's the story of a bored and depressed twenty-something office drone. Played with a great everyman quality by James McAvoy, out hero goes about his mundane life with a droopy numbness. He never speaks up to his pushy boss, never reveals to his asshole best friend that he's well aware that the guy is hooking up with his girlfriend behind his back, and never has much ambition aside from surviving each boring and thankless day. Then, one day, Angelina Jolie shows up in the kid's life, tells him that his father, whom he thought long dead, was actually living a secret life as the world's greatest assassin - until yesterday, when he was killed by a rougue member of a secret league of killers with an axe to grind. Jolie, aka the sultry assassin known as Fox, recruits McAvoy to this secret brotherhood to replace his father and eliminate his killer. The brotherhood, led by Morgan Freeman, aka Sloane, is actually part of an ancient order that subscribes to the questionable philosophy of "kill one, save a thousand."

All well and good so far, but the movie goes on to spend a bit too much time on all kinds of random seeming exposition about looms of fate and mystical weavers. I guess if anyone is fit to monologue on all of this wackiness, it's Morgan Freeman. But still, there are points in the movie where you can't help but roll your eyes a bit, even keeping in mind the suspension of disbelief levels that a movie like this requires. It's a bit like the director's earlier effort - Nightwatch - where one mind-spinning piece of backstory after another was introduced in increasingly awkward fashion. But again, this is Morgan Freeman at the helm, he could make the phonebook seem interesting.

And the good news is this: the above is really my major complaint with Wanted, but on most accounts the movie handily kicked ass. Like I said, James McAvoy was great in the lead role, and had some absolutely killer moments, especially towards the beginning of the film when he's gaining the confidence to finally tell off his boss, his friend, etc. Can we please get the petition started now to cast McAvoy as Yorick Browne in Y: The Last Man? This movie proves that he's got what it takes to play the everyman forced into an extradordinary circumstance. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman, although it's tons of fun to see him seem to revel in his villainous character, in his chance to play the mean-talkin', take-no-$%#*, grizzled old badass. Angelina Jolie - please, this is the kind of part that she was born to play. Sure, as Fox she doesn't exactly get to stretch her acting ability, but Jolie has the sultry badgirl role down to perfection - if anything it's remarkable to note the similarities between her role here an in the just-released Kung Fu Panda. I mean, geez, while I'm on this track, who's with me that a Jolie turn as Catwoman in the next Batman flick could instantly erase all memories / nightmares of Halle Barry in the part. Christopher Nolan - make it happen. In addition, WANTED's Brotherhood of Assassins is filled out by all manner of crazy supporting characters that feel like sub-bosses in some whacked-out videogame. Not since Kill Bill have we been introduced to such a motley crew of over-the-top, psychopath villains.

Visually, Wanted pours it on. There's all kinds of crazy, eye-melting tricks, from long erverse tracking shots, to curved bullets, to time-bending action scenes that shift from ultra slo-mo to sped-up fast forward with wild abandon. Headshots and shattered glass have rarely been so elequently filmed. I will say that at times, the action gets so busy that it walks the line between kickass and Michael Bay-style overdone. But mostly, the choreography is a lot of fun and there are a lot of pretty brutal battles and more than a few "holy crap" moments.

And even though I ragged a bit on the plot, the dialogue is actually pretty razor-sharp during a lot of the character moments. Some of the exchanges had a real fun edge about them, with some of the best/funniest/sharpest use of profanity in any movie in a while this side of The Big Lebowski. Suffice it to say that Mark Millar's Scottish penchant for well-timed curse words seems to come through just fine in the transition from page to screen.

In the end, WANTED is pretty much just what the doctor ordered in this summer of movies that try to be all things to all people. This is a movie that starts and ends with a bang, and succeeds in its clear mission to knock you upside the head and never let up. The deeper moral and philisophical questions at play are for largely skimmed over, but that's mostly okay, because we're still left with a knockout punch of an action movie, and one that shows that there's plenty of great, outside-the-box comic book material that's ripe for adaptation. So bring on Preacher, bring on Y: The Last Man, bring on The Sandman. After Wanted, I'm ready for Hollywood to embrace the dark side.

My Grade: B+

And that's all for now -- cya on the flipside.

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