Archive for May, 2013

WALL-E

Year of Release: 2008     Directed by Andrew Stanton.  Voices of Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight.

Have you ever been in love with a film as a work of art?  A film that not only entertains you, but challenges you, inspires you, and takes you on an adventure to another world, giving you what seems to be a glimpse of Heaven?  Every time you watch it, you notice something new which only increases your admiration even more.  If so, you will forgive this review euphoric rave, because WALL-E is one of those films for me.

The very first shot of WALL-E instantly begins the transportation to another world.  The camera pans across an animated shot of the universe, with breathtaking clarity and beauty, looking every bit as realistic as an actual photo, making the viewer feel as if he is truly admiring the night sky.

Unfortunately, the wonder and beauty of the universe in the opening gives way to the mountains of garbage that have taken over the earth.  All human beings abandoned the world seven hundred years ago, leaving the Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class (WALL-E) robots to clean up the planet.  Now the titular robot is the only one left.  As he goes about his daily work, compacting the trash into squares, he saves small, simple treasures that he finds: a Rubik’s cube, bubble wrap, Christmas lights, a Frisbee, a paddleball,  a toaster, an incandescent bulb, the box of a diamond ring (not the ring) and a VHS of the 1969 film, Hello, Dolly! to name a few.

Simultaneous with the opening shot of outer space, a voice sings, “Out there, there’s a world…full of shine and full of sparkle.”  That voice belongs to Michael Crawford from Hello Dolly!  Director Andrew Stanton said he selected Hello Dolly! because he played one of the leads in his high school production of the musical, but the choice is surprisingly appropriate, especially given the two songs that WALL-E most frequently watches: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment.”

WALL-E’s own adventure will mirror the adventures of Crawford’s character in Hello Dolly! which begin and conclude with those two songs.  When WALL-E goes “out there” to outer space, he will find a world “full of shine and full of sparkle.”  On his adventure, he meet will make surprising friendships: giant robots of himself, an OCD cleaning robot, and several whimsically malfunctioning robots.  The screen literally sparkles during a dance through the cosmos fueled by the foam from a fire extinguisher, which may be my personal favorite sequence in any film ever.

However, the more striking use of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” inversely reflects the trajectory of the people whom WALL-E meets onboard the spaceship during his journey.  When WALL-E first boards the spaceship, these people are unaware of any world outside the virtual reality that computers have substituted for actual reality.  Needless to say, like WALL-E, they will discover another world out there and full of beauty.

In Hello Dolly!, “It Only Takes a Moment” refers to the love which blossoms between Cornelius and Irene (his beloved) at the end of the story.  WALL-E quickly discovers that type of love when he first meets EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), but this song metaphor also goes much deeper as well.   WALL-E (the film) is all about the small moments that make a difference.  Those moments are first reflected in the opening sequence as the viewer admires the natural beauty of the world, and are then continued as WALL-E (the robot) finds simple joys in his daily work.

As with the previous song, “It Only Takes a Moment” also refers to the journey of the people whom WALL-E encounters.  Simple things that occur in an instant, such as an accidental collision, a service delay, or tampering with electronic equipment irrevocably alter the outcome of several story lines.

The adventures undertaken in WALL-E are foreshadowed through hommages to one of the greatest space adventures, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  When WALL-E first enters outer space on the outside of the rocket, The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss forms the underscoring; it also underscored the first outside shots of the spaceship floating through space in Kubrick’s masterpiece.  The computer that jeopardizes the mission has the same red eye that HAL 9000 has.  At a crucial moment, WALL-E’s soundtrack uses the dramatic opening of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which 2001 made famous.

Thomas Newman’s original music works just as well as the classical music.  The repeating staccato melody captures the whimsical and inquisitive nature of WALL-E as he goes about his daily work, always alert as he browses the dump for valuables.  The descending arpeggios suggest the vast expanse of garbage in which WALL-E lives alone, as well as the tragic state of the earth due to poor stewardship.

Those who see the film as a preachy, environmentalist message film have completely missed the point, and unfortunately I know quite a few people who do.  The film does say that mankind needs to be good stewards of the earth, which is completely in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church.  It says nothing about global warming or climate change or whatever it’s called now.  According to the film, the best way to become good stewards of God’s gift of the environment is to savor the simple moments that awaken one to the encompassing beauty of the world, which can be found anywhere: in the midst of a heap of garbage to a network of computers to the vast night sky.

Many scenes are shown reflected in WALL-E’s eyes to remind the viewer that the film is his adventure, and ours as well, provided that we can adopt his wonder, awe, and simple acceptance of the beauty surrounding him.  When a major event happens in the first half of the film that disrupts WALL-E’s routine, the impending arrival of that event is shown through a reflection in his eyes.  At the most significant moment of that event the camera cuts to a shot through WALL-E’s eyes, so the viewer can experience the moment as WALL-E does.  Other shots that make brilliant use of this technique are WALL-E admiring his collection of treasures or seeing the universe for the first time.  The shots reflected in WALL-E’s eyes reinforce the idea of seeing the world from a new perspective and appreciating the simple, natural beauty of the environment.

WALL-E provides a dazzling and heartfelt perspective of the world, a perspective that is too often forgotten in the frantic rush that can predominate our culture.  Stepping back and appreciating even the simplest things can make one see a transformed world, redeemed and “full of shine and full of sparkle” as God intended it.  When one sees this world, the best response is to echo WALL-E’s “Whoa!”

Content Advisory: Mild Peril.                                      MPAA rating: G

Suggested Audience: Kids and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Full Metal Jacket

Year of Release: 1987     Directed Stanley Kubrick.  Starring Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Arliss Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Kevyn Major Howard.

Being a fairly large fan of Stanley Kubrick as a director, I was eager to see Full Metal Jacket, even if it earned less than stellar reviews from other Kubrick aficionados.  Admittedly, the film does have its share of admirers, but in my experience the detractors seem to be the larger group.  Having seen Full Metal Jacket for the first time, it is definitely Kubrick’s weakest film (barring the four I haven’t seen), but I think it is impressive he pulled this off as well as he did, and it has more merit than its critics generally seem to give it credit for.

The film has two distinct parts.  The first is training base for future members of the Marine Corps.  The sadistic drill sergeant (R. Lee Ermey) relentlessly works his cadets, cursing at them, demeaning their manhood, and humiliating them when they fail as a way to motivate them.  The second half of the film shifts to the war in Vietnam, following one of the Marines from the first half, Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine), as he experiences even greater horrors and loses his ideas of the noble glories of war.

The transition between the two halves is jarring and rough, but what Kubrick does to connect them is impressive.  His use of tracking shots, when the camera consistently follows a moving object, gives the film most of the unity it has, which is its strongest asset.  As the marines run around the training base and as they investigate Vietnam, the camera follows them at a completely square neutral angle, reminding the viewer of the similarity between the way the soldiers are treated at home and the way they are treated in Vietnam.  Both halves also end with the death of an unexpected assassin, witnessed both times by Pvt. Joker, the ramifications of which are deeply unsettling.

As the film shifts stories from America to Vietnam, it takes time for the storyline to regain its momentum.  Some of the battle scenes do drag out as the movie meanders, unsure where the storyline is going.  I have heard it argued that this was a deliberate choice to recreate the tensions and the lost sense of direction of the Vietnam War.  However, since the film is trying to connect and compare the treatment of the soldiers in wartime at home and in Vietnam, the lack of focus in the second half seems out of place compared to the very focused first half.

Kubrick did provide decent and challenging food for thought about the effects of war on soldiers, both in training and in combat.  From the first scene in the marine base, the idea of heroically annihilating the enemy is questioned; by the film’s end the unsettling effects of lionizing killing are fully dramatized.  Despite its unevenness, the film is nowhere near the disaster it could have been in the hands of a lesser director.

 

Content Advisory: Many harsh obscenities, a scene of sacrilegious dialogue, occasional profanity, disturbing scenes of gruesome violence, a suicide, sexual dialogue, and references to prostitution.   MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B

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Chicago

Year of Release: 2002     Directed Rob Marshall.  Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly.

I have always been disappointed to see the number of Christian movie critics who dislike this film.  Admittedly, the tone of the film is fairly dark, and nearly all the characters revel in various forms of immorality; however, the film carefully examines a world that enables such behavior.

The film is set in prohibition era Chicago among the jazz nightclubs and liquor joints.  Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) idolizes the showbiz lifestyle and dreams of becoming a star performer like her idol Velma Kelly (a phenomenal Catherine Zeta-Jones).  In order to get an inside connection, Roxie is sleeping with an acquaintance who promises to get her started in show business by speaking to his friend about her talent.  Once Roxie discovers that her lover has no connection in show business, she shoots him in cold blood and lands in the Cook County Jail.

While in prison Roxie meets Velma, who is also under arrest for the murder of her sister and husband, whom she caught cheating on her.  Both women hire Chicago’s best lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to get them acquitted.  With his aid, they lie, manipulate, and swindle the justice system, the media, the public, and one another.

I have heard complaints that in Chicago the guilty live happily ever after while the innocent are punished and are losers in general.  That is true, because the entire film is shot from Roxie’s perspective and is meant to showcase her obsession with the razzle dazzle façade of show business.  She also lives in a society that shares her fantasies; consequently, the media and the public have no interest or sympathy for the virtuous.  Well behaved people do not sell newspapers, make headlines, and are too boring to waste the time defending.  However, the darkness and shallowness of a world that defines success by the veneer of fame and celebrity is bitingly satirized over the course of the film.

To emphasize the fantasy of Roxie’s obsession, the musical numbers are shot as an imagined stage performance, complete with stage lights, sexualized nightclub costumes, as Roxie looks on or participates with awe and wonder.  The frequent edits cut from performer to performer as Roxie absorbs the scene, never stopping to examine the squalor that is at the heart of this world that she admires.

At one point, as Roxie dreams about her future as a famous Chicago vaudeville stage performer she sings, “The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be Roxie…They’re gonna recognize my eyes, my hair, my teeth, my boobs, my nose…”  Roxie views herself as an object whose value is determined by her celebrity status.

The opening number, “And All That Jazz,” along with director Rob Marshall’s choreography, perfectly sets the tone for the film.  It is the only song not filmed in the fantasy world of Roxie’s imagination.  Instead she looks on with envy as Velma performs the famous showstopper.  For one note, the film cuts to Roxie performing the song in her imagination, and then returns to her affair, the sole purpose of which is to promote her stage career.  Velma’s dance moves even mirror the motions of Roxie as she begins to make out with her lover.  All of Roxie’s actions during this number are meant to propel her into the world of all that jazz.

Although Chicago is filmed from Roxie’s perspective, the film does not condone it.  The film draws the viewer into Roxie’s fantasy with topnotch production numbers, but via the quick edits from fantasy to reality, the film makes one seriously consider how Roxie is achieving her goals.

When Roxie does receive a warning to the consequences of her actions, she chooses to recede even further into deceit and theatrics.  Perhaps she has trapped herself into this world, or perhaps the celebrity worshipping public has forced her there.  Either way she masters perpetually performing in order to beguile the public.  As Roxie sings at the end of the film, “You can like the life your living, you can live the life you like, you can even marry Harry, but mess around with Ike.  And that’s good isn’t it? Grand isn’t it?  Swell isn’t it?  Nowadays.”  As long as she maintains her swell performing status, nothing else matters to her.

There are many elements of humor in the film, but the humor does not arise because the immorality is funny.  Instead the satire presupposes a moral compass that the actions of the characters are wrong and absurd.  If killing one’s husband by firing a warning shot that happened to go into his head, because he popped his gum too loudly was acceptable, the murderers’ rationalization of their actions would not be humorous.

Two scenes really stand out to me in Chicago.  One is “We Both Reached for the Gun,” when Billy and Roxie manipulate the press, who in turn manipulates the public, into believing her sob story about repentance and self-defense.  The marionettes of the press and Roxie, all controlled by Flynn, perfectly shows how the obsession with celebrity allows people to believe whatever they want to be true.  At the end of the performance to emphasize Flynn’s good nature he gulps down a glass of milk; it is the prohibition after all.

The other scene is “The Cell Block Tango.”  Why is that?  It is the most risqué number in the production, and seemingly the most morally problematic.  The lyrics are a celebration of moral relativism and celebrity-worship carried to an extreme.  As a result, I think it is the number that ties the entire musical together, reinforcing the major flaw of all the characters.  If the purpose of life is to put on the best possible show by whatever possible means, then these murderers certainly have succeeded and are not wrong.

As dishonest and smooth talking Billy Flynn sings, “What if your hinges all are rusting?  What if, in fact, you’re just disgusting? Razzle Dazzle them, and they’ll never catch wise.”  Through Marshall’s quick and careful editing, the movie does catch wise, critiquing any worldview that places fame above all else.

 

Content Advisory: A semi-explicit sexual encounter, several highly suggestive dance sequences, skimpy costuming with partial nudity, some smoking, vulgarity, and brief violence.          MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Disconnect

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Henry Alex Rubin.      Starring Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Andrea Riseborough, Frank Grillo, Colin Ford, Jonah Bobo, Max Thieroit, Alexander Skarsgård, and Paula Patton.

2013 has so far stood out to me as a year of cinematic good intentions.  While none of those cinematic good intentions has gone to the place where the road paved with good intentions goes, unfortunately most of those good intentions have been far from satisfying or rewarding.  Mama attempted to be a fresh horror film that relied on an atmosphere of suspense and tension to frighten the audience, but undermined itself by its revealing opening and predictable proceedings.  Side Effects wanted to be a clever murder mystery, but became too complicated for any satisfactory explanation.  Iron Man 3 tried to be a lighthearted and fun action flick with a twist on the villain’s identity, but became bogged down by copious plot holes and overall absurdity.  Disconnect is the latest cinematic disappointment with noble intentions.

The movie meant to showcase the horror and tragedy of isolation in our increasingly digitalized age, sexual exploitation of children, teen cyber bullying and suicide, and identity theft.  All of those concerns are a lot for one movie, and the script by Andrew Stern cleverly weaves the different storylines together for the most part.

There are three storylines, all focusing on characters suffering from isolation and a feeling of hopelessness and rejection.  Consequently they turn to online social media for connections instead of trying to build tangible relationships.  A teen Kyle (Max Thieroit) ends up as an internet sex worker, and news reporter Nina (Andrea Riseborough) has been employing him (as a sex worker) for a news story on sexual exploitation of children.  Socially awkward teen Ben (Jonah Bobo) is cyber bullied, tricked into sexting and then attempts suicide once his entire high school sees his nude picture.  Finally, couple Derek and Cindy (Alexander Skarsgård and Paula Patton) has their identity stolen and bank account emptied after Cindy visited support chat rooms to help her deal with grief.  Admittedly, identity theft is not nearly as tragic as the other two, and that does not help the movie’s attempt to connect the various stories.

(If that was depressing to read, it was also depressing to type.)

The links that are present among the three stories are tenuous and completely unknown to any of the characters, which underscores the isolated nature of their lives.  The father (Frank Grillo) of one of the cyber bullies is the detective who investigates the identity theft of the couple.  The father (Jason Bateman) of the bullied child is the lawyer who works for the news agency that is running the story on the child prostitution industry.  Both fathers are naturally completely clueless towards their sons’ troubles.

Towards the end of the film, as each conflict reaches its crisis, the storylines violently collide with very frequent cuts to each one of the characters as the explosions play out in slow motion so no one can miss the obvious message: isolation is bad and leads to destructive dehumanizing behavior from otherwise good people.

Which brings up another flaw of the film.  The film constantly shifts from the news reporter to the child internet prostitute to the cyber bullies to their victim to the lawyer and to the detective.  There are so many characters that the viewer does not have enough time to empathize with any of them.  The majority of time spent with each character is spent focusing on their flaws and destructive choices.

Whether or not one finds the characters’ responses to their tragedies believable is a good litmus test for how cynical one is.  The extreme measures, such as threatening to kill a child, exploiting someone to show the evil of exploitation, and breaking and entering only create more distance between the viewer and the characters.   Since there is practically no example of a decent decision from these characters, their portrayal comes off closer to Norman Bates or Alex DeLarge instead of Captain Willard or Travis Bickle.[1]  The only character that garners a remote amount of sympathy is the older sister (Haley Ramm) of the bullied boy, who is deeply concerned about her brother and disgusted with her parents’ cluelessness, but she is hardly the focus of the film.

The gratuitous use of close-ups removes a distancing objectivity to the depravity and tragedy.  While the close-ups do emphasize the isolation of the characters, director Henry Alex Rubin is quite literally rubbing the viewer’s face in the immorality on display.  The camera presentation and viewer distance is no different for acts of teenage prostitution or a sister reaching out to comfort her brother.

Disconnect does not condemn social media, but rather the way that people choose to use or abuse it.  At one point one character tells another, “They can’t get anything unless you give them permission.”  The dark nature of the film certainly will make any viewer think twice about what he puts online.  It also suggests disconnecting from media and reconnecting with people.  Unfortunately, these ideas are mostly lost amid the converging stories.

The film does end with a few touching gestures that suggest there is some hope for this isolated, internet addicted, sex and money obsessed world.  However, the final actions of the characters seem tacked on and artificial considering their prior actions.  Disconnect had many good ideas.  The dangers of abusing social media, child sexual exploitation, and cyber bullying could have made a harrowing and poignant film, but the intimacy with the tragedy and the lack of empathy for the characters only serves to disconnect the viewer from the film.

Content Advisory: Fleeting but graphic picture of full frontal nudity, themes of child sexual exploitation, an attempted suicide, several images of nudity, brief but explicit sexual content, teen drug use, several profanities and obscenities, and some intense violence.                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment.

Personal Recommendation: C-


[1] Main characters from Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, and Taxi Driver, respectively.

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