Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Best of the 2000s: WALL-E


4.5 Stars

WALL-E is one of the best films of the Science Fiction genre and a triumph for animation as a medium. Pixar was, without a doubt, the most valuable player of the 2000s, so far as studios were concerned, and WALL-E is another part of its ongoing string of successes.

WALL-E follows WALL-E (Ben Burtt), a robotic Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-class. WALL-E is cute for a robot, like a cross between a trash compactor and a Mars Rover. He, the movie leaves little doubt about gender, inhabits an abandoned Earth where he is tasked with collecting, compacting into cubes, and organizing the piles of refuse left behind by humanity. He appears to be the last of his kind, his fellows having succumbed to disrepair in the decades and centuries since humanity abandoned the Earth, and, in his isolation, he has begun collecting treasures from our past: an old video of Hello, Dolly!, a rubik’s cube, a spork, and even a plant – apparently the last surviving (or the first revived) of its kind. He stores all these treasures in his home, the robot world’s answer to Ariel’s grotto, that he shares with his pet cockroach, but his world is rocked when a new robot, EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator – voiced by Elissa Knight) comes looking for the plant!

I was always going to like WALL-E as a character. Come on, he’s a romantic little robot with a taste for movie musicals – clearly, a robot after my own heart. But even setting aside my own biases, WALL-E is magnificent. It is incredibly emotionally compelling, even though most of the film consists only of the words “WALL-E,” “EVA,” and “Directive.” The animation is stunning, beautiful – even the parts that are supposed to be ugly are granted a sort of big box store version of elegant decay. This movie is so charitable that it even finds time to grant positive attributes to a cockroach. (Actually, between WALL-E and Enchanted, 2007-08 proved to be a peak time for pro-cockroach depictions at the Walt Disney Co.).

The music is spectacular, sampling Hello, Dolly!, La Vie En Rose by Louie Armstrong, and an original tune by Peter Gabriel in addition to a beautiful score by Thomas Newmann. With music, WALL-E also pays tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that also appears to influence the film’s antagonist. Other science fiction greats get evoked throughout, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Nevertheless, WALL-E remains a thoroughly engaging and original work.

That said, it’s not without a few flaws. When I first saw, WALL-E, back in 2008, Fred Willard’s line, “Stay the course,” felt like an out of place pot-shot at the Bush administration. It’s not that a movie taking a political stand is inappropriate; rather, this particular shot seemed so out of place that it took me out of the world of the film. It distracted me. That said, with eight years of distance from the politics of its day, that particular moment no longer stands out quite as strongly. In fact, WALL-E’s politics have perhaps become more relevant as western governments have begun to discuss climate and environmental policy with much more force and frequency than before. Other flaws include WALL-E’s pet cockroach. If there are no plants, and no other life, what does the cockroach eat 800 years from now? The wall-to-wall carpeting wasn’t quite done.

However, the single biggest flaw in the picture is its depiction of humans. When WALL-E begins, the humans are actual humans (Michael Crawford and the cast of Hello, Dolly! appear on screen), but as the film progresses, the humans become animated. This is, I think, supposed to be a visual metaphor for how we lose our humanity by turning our lives completely over to automation and computers (a curious stance for a bunch of computer animators to take). However, the animated humans that arrive in the last third of the film fit seamlessly within the visual spectrum of WALL-E. That is, they look no less real than WALL-E or EVE. It is Michael Crawford and Fred Willard who look out of place. As a result, I don’t think the visual metaphor holds up, and the switch from real humans to animated ones is simply visually confusing.

All the flaws are minor. They do not hardly diminish the experience. WALL-E is a triumph. It is no wonder that it was named one of the best films of the 2000s by 6 of 37 critics and named the best film of the 2000s by TIME’s Richard Corliss.

Next on my search for film classics from the last decade, Pan’s Labyrinth.

From Out in the Void,

Steven

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Best of the 2000s: Amelie


5 Stars

I so loved Amelie - both the film and the central character it’s named for.

Amelie tells the story of Amelie Poulain (Audrey Tatou), a shy and mischievous waitress working in a restaurant frequented by a group of eccentric customers. Amelie also has a highly active imagination that almost doubles as an ability to see and understand others impressionistically. When she finds a box containing the toys and mementos of her apartment's previous tenant, she begins to use that imagination, and her tendency toward mischievousness, to intervene surreptitiously in the lives of the people around her.

Amelie, though, does not succeed because of its plot. It succeeds because of a beautiful fusion of character and tone. Amelie is a singular creation, an eccentric girl, fully formed, self-possessed, romantic, deeply flawed, and completely absorbing. As embodied by Ms. Tatou, she looks at the camera, not because she is aware of the audience, but because she treats the camera as her beloved imaginary friend and co-conspirator (in this way, Amelie may have presaged both Pushing Daisies and House of Cards). She invites us to see her world the way that she does, and in the process, gets us to re-imagine our own lives. Are we as strange and abnormal as the oddballs who frequent her restaurant? If we are, are we as wonderful as they? How would Amelie Poulain see us?

Nevertheless, Amelie is never weighted down by its circumspection. Instead, the film mimics the breezy optimism and impishness of its heroine. Amelie finds the magic in the ordinary, the fun in the extraordinary, the adventure in the peculiar, and the romance in the most unlikely. Amelie loves simple pleasures, and Amelie is certainly one of them.

I often say that we have to leave just a little room in the world for magic. If we don’t, where’s the fun? Amelie embraces a very similar worldview, daring us to see the world better through our imaginations. It is done beautifully, artistically, and so thoroughly life affirmingly that I can easily say that Amelie is exactly the kind of movie I was looking for when I began this project last year – a film that can be enjoyed over and over, and a classic that makes us feel good.

Amelie finds itself on this list because 6 of the 37 critics agreed with me and listed it among the best films of the 2000s. I’m surprised the number was so small. Nevertheless, it shares that honor with the next film on my list, Wall-E.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Best of the 2000s: Children of Men



3 Stars

The second entry by Alfonso Cuaron on the best of the 2000s list, Children of Men, is set in London in 2027 amidst an ongoing mass infertility crisis that has led to the collapse of most nation states. England, under an authoritarian government, “soldiers on.” Refugees from the rest of the world have rushed to England leading to an immigration crisis. On the day after the youngest person on earth dies, Theo (Clive Owen) is contacted by his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore). Julian leads a human rights organization/terrorist cell known as “the Fishes” who fight for the rights of refugees. She needs transport papers for a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and she needs someone she can trust to obtain them. It’s a spoiler, but Kee is pregnant - the first pregnant woman in almost 20 years. Children of Men follows Theo’s quest to bring Kee from London to the coast where they hope to make contact with “The Human Project,” a nearly mythical secret society of geniuses who might cure the mass infertility.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that Children of Men is a futuristic gloss on the Nativity Story. A young woman, carrying a child that could save humanity, escorted by a man (not the child’s biological father) through a world where powerful forces seek to control the child for their own purposes of varying degrees of nobility.

However, where the nativity story expressly makes hope come from the divine, eternal resurrection and salvation, it’s clear that Children of Men is a humanist piece. Hope does not fall from on high in Children of Men it is birthed from our loins. The hope that our children and our children’s children will have it better than we do, Children of Men argues, is what animates humanity as a species. I find that argument depressing. Surely we are more than our ability to pass on our genetic material.

Nevertheless, Cuaron’s bleak, pessimistic future is breathtaking. I liked the small touches. In 2027, people dote on their pets because they have no children to spoil, and the animals all seem to really like Theo. The young adult population appears less healthy than adults Theo’s age or older, hinting that the infertility crisis manifested slowly through increasing rates of birth defects. The music choices, with lyrics like King Crimson’s “Lullaby in an Ancient Tongue” were thematically appropriate, if a bit on the nose, and, of course, Luzbecki’s cinematography is as perfect as ever.

I recognize that Children of Men is a good movie, well above average, but I think it’s also going to be somewhat forgettable. It reduces humanity to our urge to reproduce as a way of taking our hope away from the divine and giving it back to us. Unfortunately, this process deprives us of what I think humanism depends on – that we matter because we are human, and that’s true regardless of whether or not we have the ability to pass on our humanity to the next generation.

My favorite scene occurred early and almost hit upon this theme. In the scene, Theo visits his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) to request transit papers for himself and Kee. Nigel is a high ranking official in the Ministry of Culture, and apparently spends his life rattling around in a museum of rescued (plundered?) treasures: Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, something that looks like a Banksy. Theo confronts Nigel and asks him why he preserves all these pieces of art. Humanity will be over in a matter of decades. Nigel replies, “The truth is, Theo, I just don’t think about it.” I’m not sure Cuaron has completely thought it through either, but he wants us to, and that’s something.

Children of Men finds itself on this list because 6 of the 37 critics surveyed named it as one of the ten best films of the 2000s, an honor it shares with the next film on my list, Amelie.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Best of the 2000s: Memento


3.5 Stars

I have a sort of annoying habit as a film reviewer where I will give a film a relatively high rating, but then give it a mediocre review. In general, I would say that this habit comes out most prominently when I am reviewing films that I think just missed the mark of greatness or films that I think were overpraised.

Memento, hailed as a visionary expansion of the thriller and neo-noir genres in 2000, falls into the second category. It is wildly overpraised.

Memento centers on Leonard (Guy Pearce), an insurance investigator who suffers from anterograde amnesia – which means that he is unable to form new memories – brought on after he was injured when he and his wife (Jorja Fox) were attacked and she was raped and killed. The police believe the assailant was also killed, but Leonard thinks otherwise and has embarked on a quest to find and kill the man who raped and murdered his wife. He is assisted by Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and, most mysteriously, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who Leonard shoots and kills during the opening credits of the movie.

So, now I get to use fancy words. Memento is most celebrated because of its unique sujet (structure) as opposed to its fabula (narrative). It is composed of two sets of scenes, a black and white story told chronologically from beginning to end, and scenes shot in color, which are shown in reverse chronological order. I should clarify that, the action in each individual scene is viewed from start to finish, but the scenes are shown in the reverse chronological order relative to each other. The chronological, black and white scenes alternate with the color reverse chronological scenes. According to every film reviewer and psychologist this approach simulates the perception of individuals who suffer from anterograde amnesia.

That’s all great, but amnesia is an ineffective hook for a film. Amnesiacs might be interesting to psychology students, but, as characters, they aren’t very compelling. Teddy actually explains this to Leonard a couple of times. He knows who he was, but he doesn’t know who he is. Consequently, neither do we. As a result, Memento’s resolution isn’t really emotionally satisfying. Emotionally, the high point of the movie is actually a story within the story that Leonard relates regarding the fate of another person with anterograde amnesia, Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) and his wife (Harriet Sansom Harris).

In some ways, Memento is the film that put Nolan on the map, but it’s also a film that presaged a couple of his more annoying tics as a director, most notably, making films inspired by the notes in the margins of his little brother Jonathan’s psych class notebooks. The mystery at the heart of Memento is simply not that compelling when viewed in chronological order, which you can do if you have the special edition DVD. Consequently, this is a film that is all about its sujet, while neglecting its fabula. As a result, Memento isn’t a classic. On a second viewing, its story becomes much more clear, but it becomes clearer still that all Memento really is is a slick, serious minded update of the 1994 Dana Carvey vehicle Clean Slate.

Memento is well made, but not visionary. Nevertheless, Memento finds itself on this list because it was selected as one of the ten best films of the 2000s by 6 of the 37 critics surveyed by Metacritic, an honor it shares with the next film I shall review, Children of Men.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Best of the 2000s: United 93


4 Stars

United 93 depicts the events of September 11, 2001 from the point of view of the passengers and crew of the ill-fated eponymous flight, as well as the points of view of the various civil air and airport and military authorities. It is undoubtedly a great film, but I have reservations about naming it a classic from the first decade of the new millennium because United 93 is so different from most other films I've seen that I find it difficult to classify.

The first major difference between United 93 and other disaster films (even those based on actual events) is that United 93 abandons all pretense at ordinary narrative devices. The standard grammar for a disaster film is to pick a protagonist and establish that protagonist in the ordinary course of their lives. The two police officers central to World Trade Center (also about September 11th) are established not in the ordinary course of their duties - on patrol. United 93 does not really establish its characters. In every scene, the camera is merely a fly on the wall, collecting video of events as they happen rather than depicting or explaining them. As a consequence, none of the passengers on Flight 93 are generally called by their names. They are strangers to each other, do not know each other's names, so they are rarely if ever used. There are no flashbacks to their ordinary lives to give meaning or context to their actions on the plane. They simply arrive, treat each other with courtesy, and, over the course of a few hours, band together courageously in hopes of saving their own lives and the lives of their countrymen. The same is true for the civil air authorities, airport, and military personnel. They are not introduced to the audience, simply observed by the audience going about their day in the crisis.

In the opening hour of United 93, my critic brain speculated that this was possibly going to hamper the film's ultimate emotional impact, but it doesn't. The scenes of the effectively unidentified passengers calling home to tell their loved ones goodbye is heart wrenching. The cast, of mostly unknown or little known actors, is very, very good.

The second difference between United 93 and other films like this is that many of the civil air, airport, and military personnel appear as themselves in the film. They are not so much portraying what happened on September 11, 2001 as they are reenacting their parts in the events of that one horrible day. In this way, Greengrass blurs his fictionalized narrative with the reality of the memories of those who were there. Again, it's incredibly effective, but I'm uncertain what its effect is.

In the end, United 93 joins a list of films that are noteworthy for their uniqueness like Brokeback Mountain (unique at the time of its making for the portrayal of a homosexual romance) and 2014's Boyhood (unique because the film's narrative was filmed over twelve years following the actors as they really aged). All three films have rightly been praised for expanding the medium and being excellent. That said, the question that looms after observing unique films is: If ten films like this were made, would this be the best one? In the case of United 93, I'm not certain it would be. It's certainly a great film, but I can't say that it's the classic I've been searching for. I'll continue to look for that classic when I watch the next film for this project, Memento.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Best of the 2000s: Far From Heaven

5 Stars

Todd Haynes' exquisite Far From Heaven is obviously a conscious attempt to mimic and update the style of Douglas Sirk (especially All That Heaven Allows). Set in the 1950s, Julianne Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, an affluent housewife in Suburban New England, whose perfect life is rocked by her husband’s (Dennis Quaid) dawning acceptance of his homosexuality. As her life falls apart, she develops a tentative relationship with her gardener (Dennis Haysbert) which is complicated by the fact that he is black. Haynes pulls no punches in this film. These characters all carry secrets that are deadly to their happy lives in suburban Connecticut in 1957, and when those secrets are exposed they have the force and power of an atomic bomb.

The cast is superb. Julianne Moore, always great, is at her absolute best here. She has the hardest part to play – a woman falling in love, but not showing it; a woman falling apart, but not showing it. Quaid gets the showiest role, delivering some of the most powerful moments in the film with a performance so finely tuned that it hardly seems like melodrama at all. Haysbert, as the final member of this tragic trio, is also great, and thanks to Haynes, his role is well crafted. He has an inner life and purpose, rather than simply being the inspiration for a white character’s arc.

Far From Heaven rips the veneer of civilization off of American suburbia in the 1950s. He makes the right choice to set Far From Heaven in the fall in New England when New England is beautified by the natural changing of the leaves – and seems to be on fire. As the film progresses, the trees become completely bare, mirroring the devastation wrought on his characters.

One of the greatest aspects of Far From Heaven, though, is its score. Poignant, powerful, and serving the emotional resonance of the story and acting, Far From Heaven was the last film scored by the great film composer Elmer Bernstein. Moreover, there is something poetic about Bernstein, who was called by the House Un-American Activities Committee (and later effectively blacklisted), getting his last credit in a film that exposes the revisionist history of the 1950s as exactly that.

Far From Heaven is a unique film to list as one of the best films of the decade. It is so mannered, so consciously of a different time, so actively at odds with everything else that I have watched for this project that it stands out – as if it were the only film in color. I suspect that long after I have moved on to other films, I will remember Far From Heaven. I heartily recommend it to you.

Far From Heaven finds itself on this list because five of the 37 critics’ lists compiled ranked it as one of the ten best films of the decade. It was also selected as the best film of the decade by Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly. If you’re watching along with me, the next film I’ll review will be Paul Greengrass’ take on September 11th in United 93.

From Out in the Void,

Steven

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Hateful Eight


3.5 Stars

Anyone familiar with my tenure on the Void Zone Podcast will know that I have soured on Quentin Tarantino since the 1990s. So imagine how surprised I was to find that I genuinely liked The Hateful Eight. I’m serious. I really liked it. I think it’s good.

The plot briefly. John “the Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter, is transporting his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the town of Red Rock, Wyoming. With a terrible storm hot on their heels, they encounter another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the new Sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Unable to make Red Rock before the storm hits, they take shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a tavern and cabin along their journey. When they arrive, the proprietor Minnie is nowhere to be found, and in her place they find Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). Ruth and Warren are union veterans. Mannix and Smithers are confederates, and, in the close quarters of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the tensions of America in the Reconstruction Era nearly blind them all to the real threats they face inside the cabin. It’s one part Western, one part “Old Dark House” Whodunit, and thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end. Aided by a stellar cast, and a script that seems incredibly relevant to our modern times, The Hateful Eight is my favorite Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction.

Despite my occasional misgivings about Tarantino, one thing I always appreciate is his film literacy. His films are always referencing, quoting, or deconstructing earlier films, often obscure titles. He paints in bold strokes, but with great regard for the masters, and I like that in a filmmaker. Tarantino demonstrates his respect for the greats in The Hateful Eight by bringing the revered film composer Ennio Morricone (The Dollars Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West) to score The Hateful Eight, and it was the right decision. The Hateful Eight has the absolute finest score and soundtrack of 2015 (and that’s saying something in a year when a Cameron Crowe film was released too).

However, Tarantino’s obsession with the craft of film making also occasionally leads him astray. He occasionally crams something extraneous into an otherwise great film that takes me out of the dazzling, highly specific, and frequently self-referential film world he’s created. In The Hateful Eight, it was his decision to craft the movie as a “road show” film complete with overture and intermission. I didn’t see that version. I saw the ordinary standard cut where there was no actual intermission, just a sudden and jarring tonal shift where Tarantino’s voice comes on and begins reciting narration that would only be appropriate after an actual intermission. I think that the narration would have fit a little better if it had been done by Ms. Leigh.

Over the years, Tarantino has embraced his identity as a provocateur. He’s also reacted against any critical disdain by becoming more self-referential to the point of being nearly masturbatory in his film making. I have frequently suspected that his movies were made only for him, and meant to be reviewed only by him (Sample dialogue from Inglorious Basterds includes: “I think this may be my masterpiece”). However, in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has crafted a film that tells a story, builds suspense, provides great moments for its characters, is beautifully photographed, and (thanks to Morricone) sings. I recommend it. See the road show version if you can.

From Out in the Void,

Steven