Archive for the ‘Adventure’ Category
Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)
The last third or so, when shit gets real and they have to get out, is proof enough what a joke it is that he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Suspenseful to no end despite knowing how it’ll end up if you know the true story (clichéd to point that out, I know, but it still applies). I usually can’t stand when people in a movie theater applaud when the heroes prevail at the end, but I found myself waiting and wondering what everyone was waiting for when the plane got into the air, and was relieved when it happened. Pretty good sign of quality filmmaking from my point of view. There was just the right amount of screentime devoted to the Americans holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s home – not too much so that they’d develop, and be defined by, genre stereotypes, not too little so that they’d be nothing but macguffins. I just wish the movie as a whole didn’t rely quite as much on humor as it did…this is an amazingly improbable, ridiculous true story; that improbability and ridiculousness should speak for itself (plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a running gag get as old and irritating as quickly as “Argo fuck yourself” did).
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
Its perceived glorification of independence and the will to survive sometimes strays distastefully towards, instead, pigheaded obstinacy and an irresponsible shunning of outside assistance, especially when you’re dying, you know you’re dying, and your little kid’s gonna be alone in a fucking swamp when you’re gone. Despite that, though, you have a feeling that little Hushpuppy will be alright. Her father Wink can be a prick, can be hard and stern, but when living in said fucking swamp, that’s the father he needs to be. Putting aside qualms about the reasons Wink and the other Bathtub inhabitants so virulently shun the outside world, their methods of survival are fascinating and exciting to watch. Those titular beasts were stupid, though. Let this captivating setting, and the ability of this little girl to both tune out and adapt to/survive the outlandish challenges of that setting, speak for themselves, without the empty symbolism of imaginary, prehistoric animals.
Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012)
Moderately disappointing by Pixar standards, which still makes it better than almost everything, ever. My disappointment probably comes from the fact that the end didn’t make me outright cry like the last three fucking Pixar movies did, but the bear vs. bear fight was great, an exciting and fitting climax to the evolution of the relationship between Merida and her mother. Pixar’s technical and visual prowess just keeps getting more astounding (look no further than Merida’s hair), and putting a strong, self-reliant woman in the forefront was refreshing, and yet, things like the narrative being interrupted by a song and the 11th hour spell reversal happy ending (I regarded the end of this similarly to Marlene Dietrich’s famous “where is my beautiful beast?!” reaction to the end of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) made it seem like this was relying on Disney tropes of old. One step forward, one step back for the genre.
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
There’s Tarantino’s signature genre-mimicking, embellished here by the last third or so essentially being nothing but blood and gunfire, and then you throw in perhaps the most intriguing and motivationally complex character of Tarantino’s career in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, and you have a downright brutal satire of slavery (not so current) and racism (much more current). I didn’t even mind that the scene with the Klan’s misadventures in hood-wearing might’ve gone on too long and stretched the joke out too much, was still a well-timed instance of straight-up humor in a film of brutal imagery (i.e. the Mandingo fight…I’m still not sure what made me wince more, the fight itself, or Calvin’s hooting and hollering as he watched his property fight to the death. Was a challenge to not look away, and an absorbing challenge at that) and even more brutal subject matter…a laugh-so-you-don’t-have-to-cry kind of subject. To have comedy and atrocity mesh so easily and feel so natural together, you have to be one hell of a filmmaker, which Quentin Tarantino has again proven to be.
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)
Second-best film of 2012 featuring a character named Mr. Bilbo.
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
The raid was fantastic – perfectly filmed and edited, a textbook on how to hold the audience’s attention; the 80 hours preceding it were somewhat of a bore. Usually don’t consider it a very good sign when it’s so easy to spot an actor’s Oscar clip (when Chastain about chews Kyle Chandler’s head off, her neck vein about to explode).
It’s about a group of French convicts who escape from Devil’s Island to make their way to the motherland to fight the good fight against the Nazis, and the Captain whose ship picks them up and becomes sympathetic to their goal.
But oh, if only it were that easy. Instead of a relatively straightforward premise like that, we’re treated to perhaps the only instance I can ever remember of a film employing the dreaded flashback within a flashback within a flashback. It still isn’t that hard to follow despite that insanely unusual story structure, but the way the story just goes backwards, and backwards again, and backwards again, it stops being revelatory of characters’ motivations and what-not and becomes a “Memento”-esque gimmick, and even more egregiously, like four separate movies in four separate time periods, some noticeably less interesting than others. On the bright side, no pun intended, some of the lighting, especially in what I’ll call the boat chapter and the prison chapter, is simply spectacular. As Claude Rains’ Captain Freycinet interviews the escapees in a cabin on his small vessel following their rescue, the lighting of the cabin and each of the men is very hard and evocative, and the shadows distinct, so that the cigarette smoke is very, very visible and these men, whose motives and reason for being stranded at sea is still unknown at this point in the film, are shrouded in shadow and mystery, particularly Humphrey Bogart’s Jean Matrac, as Bogart’s mannerisms of a mysterious sadness and despair makes his character the one who really stands out, and not only because it’s Humphrey Bogart. In a similar vein, the prison chapter (the second of three consecutive flashbacks and third of four periods in the film’s backwards-traveling timeline, if you’re keeping score…), by far the most interesting and attention-grabbing portion of the entire film, is genuinely thrilling and suspenseful, most notably because the dank, Turkish-like prison is lit so evocatively, that at one point during a rather astonishing near-birds-eye tracking shot as we move from cell to cell in the isolation ward, when we come to Matrac’s cell and Bogart struggles to stand and look into the light, it was like that insanely amazing moment in “Frankenstein” where the creature looks up into the light. Yeah, it’s that impressive.
Following that, we’re treated to a rather suspenseful, step-by-step escape, but that’s right around the end of where I was tuning all-in to this movie. Surrounding the 15 or so minutes of gorgeously-lit prisons and boat cabins and Great Escapes and a very, very cool naval battle is 135 minutes of poorly-written, archetypical characters looking out into the great blue yonder with a gleam in their eye extolling the virtues of patriotism and fighting for freedom while saying Vive la France a lot. At least Curtiz, et al seem to make an attempt to disguise their propaganda as a well-made action/adventure/thriller picture, which this is, but despite anti-Nazi propaganda maybe being the most worthwhile of all propaganda, this was still pretty eye-rollingly lame when everyone outside of Sydney Greenstreet’s cowardly and mutinous Major Duval is preprogrammed to sacrifice everything for country and to tell everyone else why it’s so important to sacrifice everything for country. “Casablanca” had a similar message but managed to conceal it rather well, but Curtiz just misses the mark in trying to repeat that success in his big follow-up. And that leads to what might be my biggest problem with “Passage to Marseille,” and that’s that Bogart is just all wrong for the main role, at least for a good chunk of it. In so many films, from “The Maltese Falcon” to “The Big Sleep” and even “Casablanca,” he’s a rugged, hardened cynic, and yes, he sticks his neck out for no one. That’s why the flashback-within a flashback-within a flashback, when we see him as an anti-war, revolutionary journalist on the lam with his girl, just seems so false and out of character for him. He’s Bogart for god’s sake, the ultimate cynic…it just felt completely wrong to see him so nationalistic and devoted to a higher cause. Later, when we move forward in time (a couple of times…) and Matrac’s been hardened and sapped of his willpower from his experiences in prison, that’s more like the Bogart we all know and love…hell, the wrinkles on his face actually seem more accentuated than usual with how bitter and toughened his character’s become. But that was too little, too late, when everyone else around him by that point is thoroughly established to be as shallow as they are. Above all, though, this film as a whole just felt wrong somehow. It felt wrong to see Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, four great, great actors, all sitting in the same shtunky cabin with other character actors reciting lame lines when each of them has the acting chops to carry a scene all by himself, it felt wrong to be force-fed the notion that country is the most worthwhile and virtuous thing to live for, it felt wrong that just when I’d start to really get interested in the story, there’d be another flashback to a point in the story whose tone was completely different than what came before (the transition from the gritty brutality of Devil’s Island to Matrac’s backstory, which feels an awful lot like the lovey-dovey flashback from “Casablanca,” couldn’t possibly be any more awkward), and it felt wrong for a Bogart character to actually care about something besides his own well-being. This was exciting for a moment or two, but eh, I guess I’m just not the patriot that Matrac is .
Laaaaammmmeeee ending, but everything else was awesome. Sexual tension (girl taking the arrow to her shoulder and shrugging it off, then Monty Cliff nonchalantly sucking the poison out = badass, from both parties), homoerotic tension (rivalry between young gunslingers Monty Clift and John Ireland in an ‘i’ll show you my gun, you show me yours’ scene where phallic implications abound, but sadly that rivalry never really comes to fruition) and that turns out to have reflected real life, John Wayne’s best performance that out-nuances his job in The Searchers any day…starts off as typical John Wayne brave western do-gooder, subtly changes over the journey until he’s a bitter, gray haired, crazed monster…very nice and unexpected turnaround from ambitious hero to obsessed villain (hell, after he’s banished by his fellow herders, they dare not even speak his name lest he sneak up on them and blow them away). And even old Walter Brennan does a nice job in comic relief as the old codger and longtime confidant of Wayne’s who’s constantly bickering with his Indian lackey. He’s a silly character, but his difficulty in having to decide whether or not to continue standing by his old friend who’s descended into madness and putting his men in peril was still touching. Overall, other westerns will say they’re epic, but this one actually felt epic, and not just because the journey that all the herders go on is vast in distance and impossibly difficult in terms of keeping 9,000 heads of cattle under control (as seen in the showstopping stampede scene, that’s begun with a scene of great and agonizingly quiet suspense and descends into all-out chaos). It’s epic because of the Shakespearean – hell, the Biblical – relationship between John Wayne as the stubborn man who built his cattle empire from the ground up and Montgomery Clift as the kid he raises as his heir, and son, and how that deep relationship is tested when father goes mad and the son must betray him to protect the legacy that the mad father thinks is being stolen from him. They love each other, even as Wayne vows to kill the kid, but the best thing about what transpires is that that doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t kill the kid, so you still worry that something terrible’s gonna happen, and the relationship is all the more dynamic. Great tale of obsession and pride and tension, climaxing with one of the best lead-ups to an inevitable Western showdown I’ve seen, that’s unfortunately marred by a horrendous resolution. Otherwise, that’s all I gotta say…umm, great cinematography? It’s no Ford in terms of looks, but still some great wide shots and intimate, gritty closeups…you really feel like those bulls’ll trample ya. This is going straight to my list of 100 favorite films, which was the last thing I expected to do going in. Epic, and unexpectedly great
My budding film snobbery and disdain for action movie clichés be damned: “Star Trek” was awesome. Do you need to have at least some knowledge of the show to ‘get’ it? Probably…otherwise the subtle references to the show’s campier elements, from Scotty’s “I’m giving her all she’s got, Cap’n!” to Bones’s “I’m a doctor, not a physicist”, to Chekhov’s accent, to Spock’s “fascinating” (at a most inopportune moment, I might add), to Kirk’s tryst with Ms. Green skin, to Leonard Nimoy, would go right over the newbie’s head. Even so, this is a damned exciting and fun and wacky spectacle. The opening battle, where a captain makes a sacrifice to save his crew, sets the tone for what’s to follow by being a special effects orgy, but is surprisingly moving and dignified as well. I really, really liked this movie because it has everything you could want out of a fun blockbuster where you can leave your brain and critical eye at the door: slapstick humor (that should be infuriating, but works because of some great chemistry between Kirk and Bones), the big showdown where the hero faces off against the villain as the other good guys do what they need to do via parallel editing, a scenario where things work out perfectly even though everyone has to be here, here, and here now, now, and now, a nefarious uber-villain bent on black hole-related Armageddon, and a completely unnecessary chase between Kirk and some huge beast that’s the telltale sign of an event film that knows it’s being silly, and doesn’t give a shit. As a matter of fact, that’s why “Star Trek” works so well – it is silly as hell and makes no sense whatsoever (Red Matter, black holes, time travel, transporting onto a ship moving faster than light, skydiving onto a giant drill and fighting off Romulans with kung fu and samurai swords, and on and on…), and knows it and doesn’t care. And other than Karl Urban as Bones, the cast really wasn’t really trying to impersonate their 60s counterparts, instead making Kirk and Spock and Scotty and Uhura and Sulu and Chekhov new identities for the obviously youthful, post-2000 target audience.
I was never really a fan of any of the shows, only watching them occasionally, so I don’t think I’m too biased here or was too blinded by nods to the original show that started a cultural phenomenon, but somehow this movie managed not to defy convention or cliché, but actually embrace them, all while just assuming you’ll accept warp drive and planetary drills and black hole devices and Romulans and Vulcans and huge starships as things that’re just plain commonplace in this world (the fact that the asinine technology and the function of Starfleet and the Federation is just there and never commented on or explained to us for the sake of the Star Trek virgin is probably thanks to Abrams and his screenwriters assuming that most of their viewers will be fans of the show, but still, I liked how they didn’t feel the need to justify this stuff to you, which made this world seem more legitimate and fully-realized, and helps you feel more at home in it). But who cares about that, ‘cuz in the end, alotta shit gets blowed up outer space, and monsters eat other monsters, and the acting captain and medical officer and chief engineer of the finest sharship in Starfleet doing their Moe, Larry and Curly routine, and you’ve got fistfights and hot chicks in their underwear and bad guys with facial tatoos and ray guns ‘n shit…isn’t that all that matters? In this age of sequels and exorbitantly-profitable blockbusters, at least one sequel, if not more, is inevitable, and I just gotta say kudos to J.J. Abrams for adding another chapter to a long-running franchise, all while setting the stage for a new one as well.
A while back I said that John Ford’s “The Hurricane” might’ve worked better as a silent film; that its portrayal of the life of native South Islanders already had enough moments of stagy, exaggerated expressionism that it might as well have just gone for broke and given up the contrived plot and performances and just focus on those faces and those actors in dynamic sculpture-like poses in a full-on expressionistic silent film. Well, in “Tabu,” F.W. Murnau basically granted my wish and gave me that silent film (other than a few instances of singing in the soundtrack) about forbidden love and the exotic customs and locales of the South Islands, and it turns out I basically had no idea what I was talking about, because “Tabu” is for the most part an absolute bore. The story, involving pearl diver Matahi’s prohibited love for the girl Reri, who’s seen as something of a human deity by the tribes of the South Islands, and the pair’s attempt to escape from the islands and tradition to be with each other, is melodramatic, and therefore practically made for silent cinema, and had tremendous promise. And indeed, a select moment or two of “Tabu” is wonderful to look at, and represented Murnau in his prime (ironic, since this was his final film before dying far too soon, and far too deep into his prime as a filmmaker, in an auto accident). There’s that moment during the big tribal dance, when Matahi butts in and does his show-stealing dance with Rari (who’s smile is to die for, by the way), and the tribal elder, in close-up, has the sternest look you can imagine. It’s a face that tells you that his rage can barely be contained, and only shows a deep disdain for this punk who dares to defy tradition by falling for Rari. And later, Matahi and Rari make their escape and try to make a life for themselves on a French colony, only for Rari to discover that the tribe has discovered their whereabouts. While the blissfully ignorant Matahi is off living the life of a full-on hedonist, we cut to Rari’s face – a face of deep, solemn disappointment that this life of happiness must inevitably end, but also a face of regrettable understanding of the system. The old man’s face and Rari’s face fit perfectly into the formula of expression-driven silent cinema, as do select shots here and there like the second one I posted above – and props to Murnau for not taking the easy way out with a tacked-on happy ending – a fate he regrettably couldn’t avoid in “The Last Laugh.” It’s an incredibly bleak ending that seems to suggest that tradition’s a dangerous thing that almost has an iron grip on love and individuality, or something like that – either way, it came out of nowhere and brought me out of my bored stupor, so kudos to the film for that at least. But these moments that scream ‘Murnau’ are way too few and far-between. One moment, the film wants to be documentary-like, showing tribal life in all its glory, and later, it wants to be completely plot-driven once Matahi and Rari encounter hardships as penniless fugitives living in paradise. When we see documentary-like realism, I wanted to know more about the protagonists – I thought they weren’t fleshed out enough. And when those protagonists finally do have the spotlight, it’s contrived – a romantic story that had already been well-treaded in just 1931, and other than those damned interesting faces I mentioned, ho-hum acting that for once doesn’t have much of Murnau’s visual flair to hide it. Where’s the exuberant energy and zeal for life that made “Sunrise” and “City Girl” so downright joyous? Where’re the attention-grabbing angles and lighting, practically perfect but never too attention-grabbing, that made “Nosferatu” and “The Last Laugh” such visceral experiences? Here we get bits and pieces of fine expressionism, sprinkled amongst footage of natives hunting and dancing that might as well be shown on the Discovery Channel, rather than fleshing out a tale of forbidden love. “Tabu” has two ways of telling a story that clash with each other, and neither one is all that successful. From my point of view, Murnau was in a lose-lose situation – a sad way for one of the finest talents in the history of filmmaking to so abruptly and tragically end his career.
Yeah, the story and the characters aren’t the deepest and most complex you’ll ever find (the movie’s only an hour and 10 minutes, so there ain’t exactly much room to flesh these guys out as they find themselves stranded in a desert oasis…), and the acting’s pretty damn hammy (Boris Karloff, as the humorless worrywart of the group, takes the cake…he’s like a bad, extremely hammy Shakespearean actor who has no business doing Shakespeare in the first place). But all that be damned, because this movie was fucking awesome, man. Proof’s in the pudding…
A W E S O M E
Truth is, who fucking cares that there’s not enough character development, because this…nothing but a lost patrol in World War I Mesopotamia trapped in an isolated oasis, surrounded on all sides by an unseen Arab enemy, is tension defined. Yeah, the oft-jolly music as this man or another does something goofy can be grating, but when that music suddenly comes to a sudden halt and a goofy man suddenly becomes a dead man, struck by an unexpected bullet, that’s incredibly disturbing and unsettling if you ask me. Much, if not most, of the dialogue isn’t plot-driven, but rather indirectly goes into the men’s backstories – not completely, but just enough to give us a taste of who these guys are and what their motivations might be. It’s all very off-handed, in the moment, and genuine – even charming. I couldn’t identify a single character by name if you held a gun to my head, but boy did I like ‘em, even as the tension, mistrust, and desperation grew, and the bodies started piling up. And tension there is. The patrol’s Arab enemies are unseen and can kill from practically any range from practically any invisible vantage point. It defies all logic, but that just makes this unseen menace all the more terrifying and nerve-wracking for the patrol. The sound of a bullet (the bullets that almost never miss) is short, with no echo or reverberation – quick, to the point, remorseless, just like whoever’s firing the gun. The cinematography’s pretty much remarkable, the small men in a vast desert under a vast cloud-covered sky underscoring the feeling that the enemy really can be anywhere. The paranoia and anxiety amongst the men hits you like a ton of bricks, especially considering how relatively carefree the feel of the film is early on, even as they’re being hunted – the desperation is real, and you really feel like these guys are going bat-shit crazy (which is where Karloff’s performance actually starts to work), exactly as men in a situation as intense as this one should. The Arab villains are portrayed as anything but realistic, and indeed pretty much super-human, but hell, that pretty much makes our heroes even more vulnerable, and worthy of our worry, and human.
fucking Karloff, man No wonder his claim to fame was a flat-top head, bolts on his neck, grunting, and a mix of fearsomeness and child-like innocence
Well, here it is. If you don’t count “King Kong” and its combination of lousy acting and occasional shot or two of the monkey, “The Thief of Bagdad” is the effects-soaked spectacle that began all effects-soaked spectacles. Alright, so maybe “King Kong” does still hold that illustrious (or dubious depending on your type of movie) title, but seven years later, “The Thief of Bagdad” went above and beyond the unrequieted love-laced metaphor and cheese factor of “King Kong,” throwing its chips all in and going for straight, mindless spectacle. It’s mindless, it’s cheesy, some of the effects are hideously outdated…but I liked it. Sure, to say that I’ve seen films that are “deeper” is the understatement of the 21st century, and the effects-soaked spectacles of today are garbage, but maybe it was the novelty of “The Thief of Bagdad” that drew me to it…like looking in an old, dusty textbook on film technique, to see how effects that were taken for granted even in the 1960s were done for the first time. But most of all, it doesn’t even try to be anything deep, not like King Kong’s heart-wrenching death throes atop the Empire State Building. It’s just a cheesy romance, a dastardly villain, and a young hero the kids will love who goes on a grand adventure. I’m not even gonna give my typical “it’s a bad movie, but it’s innovative and set a precedent, so I have to appreciate it” excuse. It is a good movie, because it’s the spectacle it set out to be, and it’s the mindless entertainment it set out to be…and the kids will love it, and who better to judge a fun little fantasy like the kids, right? Stupid kids, haha…
The story, and many of the performances, are terrible. John Justin as the usurped prince and June Duprez as the princess he falls head over heels for are nothing more than eye candy staring like sheep into the camera, talking in monotone. That’s the bad cheesy, but just about all the rest of the cheesiness is good. Conrad Veidt of “Casablanca” fame really seems to be enjoying himself while playing Jaffar, the Arabian equivalent of Snidely Whiplash, and 15 year old Sabu, as Abu the Thief, has all the energy as a hero that his counterpart the prince doesn’t. Just like the Michael Bay-ish blockbusters of today, “The Thief of Bagdad’s” plot is irrelevant – it’s just an excuse to get the prince out of the way and for Sabu to get shipwrecked and find the genie and get into wild adventures, and it’s table dressing to show off what in 1940 were mind-blowing special effects. Some of those effects, like some of the first use of blue-screen to show a grand city behind a crowd, or the now-age old perception trick to make the genie seem hundreds of feet taller than Abu, stand up pretty damn well. And the colors (and I wasn’t even aware color movies were around in 1940) are MAGNIFICENT. Other effects, like the princess’ man-child father riding a toy horse through the clouds or the genie flying (and suddenly turning into an action figure )…not so much. And that spider Abu fights on the giant web – was that plaster of paris covered in fur? – ain’t exactly Shelob from the Lord of the Rings movie. But even when this movie’s age spots are at their most prominent, there’s something endearing about all this. Something about Abu berating a genie a hundred times his size like it were his dog, or cautiously slinking through an ominous cave, or Conrad Veidt sleazing it up trying to seduce the princess, or a 2 mph carpet ride over a bluescreen Bagdad – something about all that that brings a goofy little smile to my face. It’s a time capsule, showing how a bevy of directors (another unfortunate legacy of “The Thief of Bagdad” on today’s blockbusters – special effect after special effect drowning out any relevancy the director might have as an auteur) tried to make something grand out of nothing (and with this shit screenplay, I really do mean nothing ). Where would today’s special effect powerhouses and the jaw-dropping blockbuster business be today without the lousy bluescreen and toy-spider-hanging-on-a-string and flying genie doll and huge-sets-made-out-of-styrofoam of “The Thief of Bagdad” (all you blockbuster haters / minimalist lovers, don’t answer that)? So why can’t I like such an empty, outdated effects-fest? Do I need an excuse? It’s fun to make fun of how outdated it is…it brings out the kid in me…the sets are pretty…some of it is genuinely exciting…Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola really like it, so I should too…I just like it, do I need a reason? Fuck you, get off me!
It’s James Bond bringing a ruckus to the ladies (who instinctively fawn over him like he’s giving off pheromones or something), and delivering some terrible puns every time he dispatches a bad guy, and watching a gypsy belly dance set piece that’s just sexy runtime filler, and brawling with an Aryan’d-out Robert Shaw in a train car, and dueling with a biplane North By Northwest style, and cruelly playing with Ms. Moneypenny’s libido, and going to the ends of the earth with pretty Russian double-agent with a heart of gold for some typewriter or something. AND it features – and I make absolutely no exaggeration here – the full orchestral arrangement of the famous James Bond theme…as Sean Connery walks into his hotel room and picks up the telephone.
And other than the Sean Connery-less first 15 minutes that just had some baddies talking about Mother Russia and stupidly incomprehensible plans for world domination and politics and other outdated Cold War shit, it was all AWESOME.
I’ve done dual entries before, namely with remakes (like “Scarface” vs. “Scarface” and the original and remake of Nosferatu), and even taken liberties like including “Shadow of the Vampire” in my “Nosferatu” remake special. But now Chaplin’s “Modern Times”…and “WALL-E”?!?! Obviously one’s not a direct remake of the other, and after watching both I realize that there are less direct similarities between the two than I was originally banking on. But here we are, at the dual-entry I was planning all along, so allow me to explain. I saw the trailer for “WALL-E” in front of “Indiana Jones,” and even that little 2-minute trailer had me in awe, for the incredible visuals, for just a glimpse of the incredibly expressive title character, and his zany antics and run-ins with futuristic things way out of his league. That was the only glimpse I had of “WALL-E.” The only glimpse I had had of “Modern Times” was the one scene from the beginning of that movie, where Chaplin wreaks havoc, and wonderfully so, as an assemblyline man in a terrifyingly industrial factory. Chaplin wreaks havoc in a factory, WALL-E wreaks havoc in a factory. I looked at these two images and thought hey, why not watch the two and act all smart in critically analyzing the similarities between the two, how “WALL-E” is a postmodern take on the modernist “Modern Times,” and an update on “Modern Times’” theme of capitalistic and machinistic dehumanization using similar slapstick technique.
Well fuck that.
OK, that’s rough, because all of that is certainly there, but after actually, you know, WATCHING these movies from start to finish, It’s plain as day that both of these movies are so much more than that. ”Modern Times” goes WAY beyond the satirical yet one-dimensional feel of that first segment in the factory, eventually churning out a story and narrative that rivals the great “City Lights.” And “WALL-E”…well, I’m gonna concentrate most of what I have to say here on “WALL-E” and how profoundly it affected me, but that’s coming up soon. First, of course, I have to give the classic “Modern Times” its due and at least devote a paragraph or two on what was supposed to be nothing more than my own little personal homework assignment leading up to “WALL-E”, but ended up as something damn near great.
Really, was there ever a more life-affirming filmmaker than Charlie Chaplin? Of his work I’ve only seen the masterpiece “City Lights” and now “Modern Times”, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such consistently innocent, lovable, and indeed life-affirming work from one man. Even in the bleak industrial world of “Modern Times” resides the Tramp, clumsy and hilarious as ever…and also just as selfless. From the start, especially with the famous first segment in the factory, “Modern Times” is pretty much “Metropolis” lite. The first thing we see is a limitless group of sheep, which dissolves into a limitless group of lifeless workers headed for the factory. Well, there’s your lifeless workers from “Metropolis” right there, and indeed both that film and “Modern Times” deal mainly with the dehumanization of a capitalistic, urban, and machine-dependent culture. And while “Metropolis” is dead-serious with the god-like giant machine and the ravenous robot-turned-woman, “Modern Times” basically starts off as a face-off between the Tramp and the world around him in general. His dealings with the assembly-line (as machine-like as the machine itself) and a malfunctioning automatic feeding machine are wonderful and show Chaplin at the height of his physical and facial prowess as a movement-based comedian. But of course, “Modern Times” is more than just a criticism of industrial factories, and soon enough, after a nervous breakdown and wreaking all kinds of havoc in the factory, the Tramp is back in his signature too-small suit and bowler hat, being his clumsy self as he pretty much…goes places and ruins things. Chaplin was the master of being some homeless dude who goes places and ruins things, and I never thought he could make such a shallow character type so vivid each time out. This time, he and the “gamin” wreak havoc in a department store, in a shed on the outskirts of the advanced society, and at a sing-and-dance night club. Much of it is vignettes showing Chaplin’s incredible physical ability as he skates, dances, wobbles, and even SINGS (this being his first talkie…and naturally he sings gibberish) his way through varied situations, but like “City Lights,” all these situations are connected by a story and by a relationship.
I said before that the Tramp is one of the most selfless and innocent of all characters in cinema (look no further than what he does for the flower girl at the end of “City Lights”, in one of cinema’s greatest and most heart-wrenching endings), and there’s no exception here. In the midst of factories, department stores, and a culture that endlessly buys, here are the Tramp and the gamin, situating themselves on the outskirts of society itself, literally living in a shack that’s falling apart at the seams. And yet, they’ve made it into a home, not unlike the rundown house that’s unequivocally a home made out of love in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The relationship between the Tramp and this young girl is one of survival, but also one of utter innocence and friendship and finding value in one’s fellow human being in a society where that’s been drowned out by the value of objects. In such a soulless and stiff setting, it’s refreshing to see a figure as unstiff and unique and physically expressive as the Tramp.
Now did I say that the Tramp was expressive? Because put him next to WALL-E and he’s about as expressive as a guard at Buckingham Palace . Yeah, I just did a complete 180 by throwing Chaplin under the bus, and that’s not really a great transition to “WALL-E”, but after the wake-up call I got at just how unique “WALL-E” is from “Modern Times”, I don’t know if a smooth transition between the two was possible. Yes, there’s the Tramp’s antics in the factory, basically remade as WALL-E’s antics in the robot repair shop more than 70 years later, so of course a lot of “WALL-E” uses Chaplin-esque slapstick humor as a launching point. And it’s just that: a launching point, because “WALL-E” isn’t just an homage to “Modern Times” both in tone and message, but an amalgamation of so many great cinematic devices of the past used to perfection in one 90 minute animated film.
I went into “WALL-E” with just about the worst mindset I could possibly be in: looking for similarities to “Modern Times.” Well, five minutes in, I see a lonely little robot toiling to collect garbage in an abandoned metropolis. ”Hey!”, I thought, “this is just like 28 Days Later or I Am Legend.” I see long-abandoned video ads for a five-year luxury cruise aboard the Axiom. ”Hey!,” I thought, “this IS the off-world colonies of “Blade Runner,” promising a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!” When WALL-E finds his way aboard the Axiom, the “people,” uniform in appearance, hover around and buy things like “Blue” for the sake of buying. ”Hey!”, I thought, “this is just like the dystopic future of THX 1138!” My first impression about “WALL-E” was that it was the most un-original original movie I’ve ever seen. Or maybe the most original un-original movie. Either way, I mean that it’s incorporated so many visual and plot elements from many, many great movies of the past so that, in a way, you’ve seen much of it before. And yet, these elements, whether they’re simple homages or critical plot points, are used in conjunction with one another so creatively that it somehow transcends the status of homage into pure, unabashed creativity. ”Modern Times” is there, both in the over-his-head little robot WALL-E’s antics aboard the immense and awe-inspiring starship Axiom as well as the wonderful relationship with fellow robot EVE. I already mentioned the post-apocalyptic / class-based society influenced by “Blade Runner” ”Hello, Dolly!”‘s probably never had as much press as here, with a VHS of that musical being WALL-E’s prized possession. And nods to “2001″ are all over the fucking place, from the villainous red eye to the simply awesome images of space to the president’s secret video message to the corpulent captain’s moment of “glory” set to Also Sprach Zarathustra . All homages, yes, and some would criticize that as a lack of creativity, but I say, why not mention the best of the best that cinema’s had to offer?
Bottom-line, what Pixar has done for their latest effort was very brave and very risky. After the kid-friendly “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo” and the brilliant stories of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” here they are with a movie with very little dialogue, who’s two main characters speak in beeps and whistles, and a G-rated movie concerning, oh, just that little issue of the APOCALYPSE. The director and animators had the audacity of interspersing live-action footage of “Hello, Dolly!” and circa-22nd century snobs and president Fred Willard amongst the CGI animation. Already it had the makings of Pixar’s most mature film, and in a way that’s certainly what it is, but it’s also certainly for the little one’s with how lovable a figure WALL-E is. What started as risk becomes pure reward, and I have no reservation in saying that “WALL-E” is Pixar’s most universal movie, that can speak to children, adults, and everybody in-between.
A word must be said for the now-well known pro-environment, anti-corporation message that abounds throughout “WALL-E”, great for some, far too simplistic for others. There are those who loved the first segment of the movie, with WALL-E’s curiosity-filled isolation on an abandoned earth, only to lose that love once he jumps ship for the Axiom, filled with what remains of humanity: fat, lazy, hedonistic blobs with not a shred of individuality. Is it an overly-simple message to the viewer to get out more, to buy less, and to treat the earth with some respect? Of course it is, but I didn’t have a problem with that. C’mon, this is a G-rated movie geared toward the little ones, you can’t exactly have the intellectual complexity of a “2001.” It was straight and to-the-point, but it wasn’t exactly “An Inconvenient Truth” either. It was a simply moral of the story, set against the backdrop of an incredible setting and incredible story. No problem.
And anyway, that message played complete second-fiddle to me. I’ve seen that anti-consumer / industry, pro-environment message too much lately to care much. Yeah, “WALL-E” does it well, but what I zoned in on was what turned out to be two of the most emotionally-resonant and fully-realized characters I have EVER seen. It’s just too bad animated robots can’t get Academy Award nominations (I suppose the great sound editor Ben Burtt’s incredible work with WALL-E’s “voice” practically being a shoe-in for best Sound makes up for it ), because WALL-E and EVE form a bond that rivals any seen on-screen, including, well, the Tramp and the gamin in “Modern Times.” You can feel the child-like exuberance oozing from WALL-E as he shows the wary EVE around his hovel, and his glee upon putting on the VHS of “Hello, Dolly!”. You feel the desperation in the little guy to revive his new friend when she unexpectedly shuts down (and the same in her later on, representing the height of character maturation that you couldn’t even get out of a live performance). I mean, those big, reflective eyes are so expressive the kids watching the movie will fall in love immediately. And on the flip-side there’s EVE, so visibly angry at WALL-E for one clumsy, Chaplin-like mix-up after another aboard the Axiom, so visibly relieved to see her friend and dare I say, romantic interest, in one piece as they dance in the emptiness of space. In a setting where the biological humans are gelatinous shells of their former selves, it’s these two robots who are the most human figures this movie, any Pixar movie, and for my money any animated movie altogether, has shelled out. Conversations made up of nothing more than a computerized “EVAAAA” and “DIRECTIVE” contain as much emotional truth as each robot’s expressive eyes, movement and very nature, and as much love and humanity as your prototypical award-winning live performance, if not more. And THAT’s where I make the ultimate comparison between “WALL-E” and “Modern Times”: not in the slapstick humor in a mechanistic setting, but in the relationship of pure love and selflessness and innocence between first the Tramp and the gamin, now WALL-E and EVE: each time, two individuals more human than the uniform, soulless consumers around them. Yes, that environment and industry-related message is an important one, but the ultimate meaning that I got out of “WALL-E” involved learning how to be human, how to be selfless, and how to love, and it only took a couple of cute little robots to get that across.
You really gotta wonder how Pixar is doing this. ”Toy Story” had all the animated innovations and an incredibly clever script, “Finding Nemo” was unparalleled at the time with its beautiful visuals, “The Incredibles” turned out to be a brilliant satire disguised as an action movie, and maybe all of those were topped by the wonderful “Ratatouille.” And now comes “WALL-E”. The visuals alone, both with WALL-E’s isolation on a desolate Earth and then the awesome magnitude of space and the hedonistic, futuristic pleasures within the Axiom, are like nothing I’ve ever seen or will ever see. And the performances (yes, I feel totally comfortable calling the actions of animated robots “performances”) and story are more intelligent, more moving, and more appealing to any age group than in anything Pixar’s churned out before. Each of those Pixar movies that I’ve loved so much have revolutionized animation in the 21st century, but I truly believe that “WALL-E” has revolutionized cinema in general. In “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille,” Pixar created great, great movies. With “WALL-E”, they’ve done what not even I thought they could do: they’ve created a masterpiece.
Modern Times: 9/10
Leave it to my parents to be my barometer on what the pretty typical movie-goer’s gut reaction to a movie should be. Thing is, they think themselves to be movie experts with a little Hitchcock appreciation, while my dad basically thinks Shyamalan is something of a bold filmmaker, or some crap like that. So yeah, wannabe cinephiles. Jeez… Anyway, I saw this with my dad, and after we got out, he said something very interesting. He said this was a lot like “The Birds,” but Hitchcock had a much better grasp on the material. He thought this was pretty much “The Birds” without the subtlety. Now, when one thinks of “The Birds,” subtlety probably isn’t the first word to come to mind, especially regarding that movie’s second half when Tippi Hedren is just barraged by bluescreen seagulls for about 45 minutes. It was basically Hitchcock using every means at his disposal to physically abuse this poor woman in her feature film debut. But when I think about it, I realize that what my dad said was absolutely right, at least from a theoretical, if not necessarily stylistic, standpoint. The subtlety of these two movies (or lack thereof) comes in the don’t-fuck-with-mother nature theme, and when all is said and done, I don’t necessarily like to compare “The Happening” to a movie 45 years its senior if I can help it, but I don’t think I can help it. ”The Birds” was a masterful thriller with a subtle message, and “The Happening” is awkwardly paced, sprinkled with random death scenes from another movie altogether, and a movie who’s message is splayed out in front of you like a fucking public service announcement. That’s all there is to it.
Poor M. Night. It’s obvious that the man is trying so hard to make “The Happening” as subtle as possible, but really, other than a select few scenes, he fails miserably. He even tries making his patented Hitchcock-esque cameo overly-subtle, reduced to a voice on the phone. Turns out, I thought this was a movie that couldn’t decide what it should be. So much of it involved Marky Mark and friends just…traveling, the threat of a suicide-inducing neurotoxin far in the theoretical background. And yes, some of this worked. I didn’t buy into the whole thing with Marky Mark and Zooey trying to rebuild their marriage…I was bored by that, but what I did buy into was leaving the threat from afar up to our imagination: how news of mass suicides along the eastern seaboard aren’t seen, only presented to us as they’re presented to our heroes: as news. It’s a fascinating device, depicting a wide-spread disaster solely from the point of view of a few, who deal with it in an area that’s not ground zero, and it’s been used before, both effectively (i.e. “Night of the Living Dead”) and near-disastrously (Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”). Although, things basically spiraled into the outright silly when groups of refugees started running from the fucking wind. It reminded me of that South Park episode where they’re all running from global warming . And it’s too bad the star-power couldn’t live up to an interesting enough concept either. Marky Mark…what a monotone, wet noodle he was here. Where was the unbelievable energy and gift for acting he showed in “Boogie Nights” or even “The Departed?” And god bless the beautiful Zooey Deschanel, she of probably the most stunningly beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen, but the woman can’t act her way out of a paper bag. Leave it to John Leguizamo of all people to pick up the slack, especially in a wonderful send-off scene .
I can’t help but wonder whether this would’ve been a better movie if Shyamalan just stuck with one idea, one style, and just followed the main characters from beginning to end. Clearly the point is to put ordinary people in an extraordinary situation that they don’t understand, so that we see things as they see them, and only as they see them. But why not stick with that, M. Night? Even Spielberg (the great filmmaker Shyamalan was supposed to be the heir apparent to once upon a time…I think that’s gone by the boards a few duds later ) stuck with that concept for “War of the Worlds.” That movie was lousy, but at least Spielberg stayed consistent. So many times in “The Happening,” we interrupt our regularly-scheduled programming to bring you a gruesome death or two. Now, I’m not saying the involuntary suicide scenes by the random populace are a complete disgrace, because I do have to admit that some of them are wildly imaginative and even exhilarating (the deaths involving lions in the zoo and later a huge lawnmower really tickled my sadistic side, I must say ). On their own, the blood ‘n guts and the sheer gratuitousness of the deaths are frightening, blunt, and they work because they stick with you. But then put it in the context of everything else, and they’re like scenes out of another movie entirely. It’s like “Final Destination” disguised as a message movie. Sure the use of increasingly creative ways of showing people offing themselves makes for a thrilling watch, but for what point? I was more thrilled and entertained watching the main characters, running from something they can’t identify or explain or even see, and wandering aimlessly. A simple, low budget-feeling movie like that is a good idea. A grand romp featuring incredibly imaginative death scenes is good for a laugh or two. Put them together, though? You’ve got chocolate-covered caesar salad: a bit of a mess of a movie that can’t decide what it is and can’t get out of its own way.
I said that subtlety is the name of the game when comparing “The Happening” to one of its obvious predecessors, “The Birds.” If you want subtlety, like I said, my dad was right: “The Birds” is a masterpiece of that, while “The Happening” very nearly crashes and burns, for a couple of reasons. First of all, look no further than the explanation for the disaster. Hitchcock and his screenwriter Evan Hunter gave you no explanation whatsoever for why the birds of Bodega Bay gang up on the humans, and it was an ingenious device. That allowed for a purely human focus on the characters, as we became one of them, with no more knowledge than they as to why this extraordinary phenomenon was happening. ”The Happening”, though…does the dumbing down of American movie audiences in the decades since the glory days of Hitchcock absolutely call for an iron-clad explanation as to why something extraordinary is happening? Clearly Shyamalan tries to be “subtle” about an explanation in showing debate amongst the characters as to where the toxin is coming from…terrorists, plant life, nuclear power plants. But let’s face it, about 10 minutes in the movie’s basically decided for you which explanation is most appropriate, and everything that happens after that revolves around that explanation that’s not technically set in stone, but…fuck it, it’s set in stone, who am I kidding? Hell, even “Cloverfield” was better at leaving the explanation for a city-wide disaster up to character and audience speculation. The “speculation” part of the explanation for the disaster in “The Happening” is almost non-existent and pretty much becomes a farce, even though Shyamalan wants you to think there’s speculation.
That explanation gives way to what really ground my gears, and that’s the don’t-mess-with-nature moral of the story. OK, maybe not the moral itself since I consider myself a pretty big environmentalist and fully buy into the idea that we’re fucking up the planet at an unprecedented rate. What got me was, again, how unsubtle Shyamalan made that message. Going back to “The Birds,” there’s no explanation for what’s going on, just a look at how a few people are dealing with it, so that movie’s completely similar message concerning nature fighting back is a subtle as can be. Hitchcock banks on his audience actually being smart enough to figure that out. Today, though, we have the Michael Bay generation of movie-goers who couldn’t figure out the moral of a story if their lives depended on it. They need their hands held and guided to the destination like fucking toddlers in a day care center, so naturally Shyamalan obliges. From the first scene where Marky Mark practically preaches the importance of bees to the ecosystem to the ending where we all pretty much get a slap on the wrist and are told to leave nature alone lest we suffer the consequences, it’s all there, laid out for you like clothes are laid out for a little kid by his or her mom the night before. It’s an important message, a powerful message, but one that’s been presented in ways so much more effective in the past. In the end, “The Happening” is a daring film with a daring albeit completely asinine premise and even more daring execution, and it is a better movie than the utterly lousy “The Village” and “Unbreakable”, but it’s scattered in so many directions I felt like I was going to become disoriented and violently commit suicide . Just as this movie couldn’t seem to find its way, I have a feeling that M. Night, former wunderkind and “the next Spielberg,” is coming dangerously close to losing his way too.