Saturday, 27 December 2008

WALL-E (Vic's Review)

As you may know, I also write reviews for periodicals and websites, which generally do not appear on this blog. Over the next week, I intend to post the reviews I have written in the past year (and maybe older ones, if there is a demand). These reviews were not written for the blog, but are the original (pre-edited) versions of what appeared elsewhere.

The animated science fiction film WALL-E (one of the year’s biggest hits, directed by Andrew Stanton) opens with a tremendously evocative scene of a strip mall on 28th-century earth. It’s a polluted wasteland covered with trash, but we can still see all the ads for Buy N Large, the Wal-Mart-like chain of superstores that must have taken over the planet (or at least the U.S.) in the 21st century, offering every conceivable item and service, including the space ships which were used to evacuate the earth when the toxicity levels rendered the planet uninhabitable.

The ship was only supposed to be gone for five years while Buy N Large cleaned up the planet, but the clean-up proved too difficult. 700 years later, the cruise ship is still sailing through space and the only “life” on earth is WALL-E, a small clean-up robot who creates skyscrapers with his squares of compacted garbage.

With almost no dialogue, the first half-hour of this gorgeous intelligent film shows us how WALL-E’s daily routine (which includes watching old musicals) is disturbed by the arrival of a female robot. This is followed by a delightful romance and a journey to the space ship Axiom.

On the Axiom, people have been taking an endless cruise, with every need met and every super-sized food and beverage available for purchase and consumption. As a result, people have become so large they can no longer even stand. “Buy more, eat more and be happy” say the ads on the Axiom. It’s an obvious exposé of our 21st century consumerist lifestyle, a lifestyle that will make the earth’s inhabitants fat and lazy and eventually destroy the planet.

When WALL-E arrives on the Axiom, he disturbs the routine of its passengers, waking them up from their dreamlike stupor. “I didn’t know we had a pool” says a woman, seeing her surroundings with open eyes for the first time. But my favourite line comes from the captain, who, after “waking up”, tells the autopilot (patterned after HAL, the malfunctioning computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey): “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!” To me, the message is clear: Those of us living as slaves to 21st century consumerism are in a dreamlike state of survival; we have forgotten how to live.

Besides opening the eyes of the blind, WALL-E brings good news to the poor and oppressed, hangs out with those who have been marginalized by our corporate culture (after freeing them from captivity) and sacrifices his life to save humanity before being raised from the dead. Sound familiar? Like WALL-E, Jesus’ mission was to open our eyes to what is happening in the world around us and free us from enslavement to the Domination System which has created a world headed toward self-destruction. 2000 years after Jesus, his message and mission are as vital as ever. It’s up to those of us who want to follow Jesus in the 21st century to be like WALL-E, waking people up from their consumerist nightmare, protecting the environment and, of course, watching lots of old musicals.

That this film was made by Disney, one of the world’s great consumer-promoting corporations (which has no doubt sold millions of WALL-E robots to children), is astonishing. It is either a sign of hope or of the crassest cynicism.

Not that WALL-E is perfect. I hope those of you who have read my reviews of other children’s films will have picked up on the seemingly inevitable redemptive violence in the film. In particular, I was disturbed by the way the little red-topped robot “villain” was thrown off the captain’s bridge to fall to his “death” on the floor below, just like countless Disney villains before him. This time, because it’s a robot, children even get to see the body crash and die. But WALL-E and Eve are also robots. They, and many other robots, have been wonderfully humanized while the villains have been dehumanized so that we don’t care if they are destroyed. But what exactly are children to make of the way the security/police robots are destroyed by WALL-E’s new friends?

Still, the messages in WALL-E are so overwhelmingly positive and radical (for Disney), the film so beautiful and delightful (with grand sci-fi visions and scenes) and the allusions to 2001 (e.g. Also Sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube) so timely, that I am willing to overlook a few flawed minutes and give WALL-E my blessing as a marvellous film for all ages to watch again and again (but don’t forget to take the opportunity to talk to your kids about it; and pastors: there’s a whole 20-minute sermon in WALL-E).

When I walked out of the theatre after watching WALL-E, I found myself staring at a strip mall identical to the one in the film’s opening scene. Shivers ran up my spine. I could already see the barren wasteland, the empty world of “buy more, more and more”; all that ugly concrete surrounded by polluting SUVs reminding me that I am living in a nightmare and it’s time to wake up.

Quantum of Solace

A sequel to one of the best Bond films ever (Casino Royale), Quantum of Solace had a lot to live up to. That it failed to do so comes as no surprise, which is why I don’t understand all the critics who panned this Bond outing for not only not living up to its predecessor, but for not being a stereotypical Bond film. Sure, I agree that Quantum of Solace takes itself too seriously and is missing some of the old Bond “fun” (Q, the countless one-liners, etc.). But it’s also missing some of the bad traits of previous Bond films (like horrible acting) and must be viewed as part of the ongoing attempt to bring Bond into the 21st century (which is probably why they brought in Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner) to direct).

Daniel Craig continues to make an excellent, if rather icy, Bond, and while Quantum does not give him a lot of dialogue, it nevertheless allows him to develop his character and makes him a more psychologically complex Bond than his predecessors. The other actors are also very good, with a strong female lead (Olga Kurylenko), Judi Dench as M, Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis and Mathieu Amalric as the villain. The locations are a highlight (stereotypically Bond!) and allow the film to venture into social commentary in a way that Bond films rarely do. There is a repeated emphasis on the plight of the poor in Latin America, attacks against certain powerful governments (the British foreign secretary says: “Right and wrong play no part; it’s all about necessity”) and comments related to the environment. And while there is, as usual, far too much violence, there is a consistent attempt (not always successful) to take the violence seriously.

Of course, you all know how much I dislike Bourne-like action, so its presence in Quantum is a major problem for me. Still, there are enough quiet and dramatic moments to partly offset this. The plot is rather thin, but that’s hardly unusual for Bond.

So, yes, Quantum of Solace is a flawed film in many ways. While Casino Royale ranked among my favourite Bond films, Quantum will rank somewhere in the middle. But that means I thought it was a very solid Bond outing, deserving *** and a mug still held in an upright position.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

December Films

Not a single review since August? My apologies, film fans! I was doing my itineration in North America in October and November and I was only able to watch one film during that time (Quantum of Solace – see separate review tomorrow). However, I have tried to make up for it in December. So here are some mini-reviews of the films I watched in the past two weeks:

The Duchess
Passable period drama about a famous duchess in eighteenth-century England. Keira Knightley is quite good as the daring duchess, while Ralph Fiennes is typically excellent as her husband, the duke, who is portrayed as pathetic while not eliciting either disgust or sympathy. The direction, cinematography and screenplay are all competent but generally uninspired. While I give the film ***, I recommend it only to those who enjoy this kind of film (or are Ralph Fiennes fans, like me).

I’m not a big lover of westerns, but it was fun to watch Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen and Jeremy Irons do some excellent acting in what is otherwise a fairly standard (as in old-fashioned, though somewhat revisionist) story. The relationship and witty dialogue between the two “buddies”, played by Harris (who also wrote and directed) and Mortensen, is the heart of this adventure and worth the price of admission. A solid ***, but again recommended mostly for those who enjoy westerns.

Burn After Reading
The latest offering by the Coen Brothers is a typical Coen film: quirky and funny, but also rather cold, very dark and violent. While there was a debate about whether No Country for Old Men was nihilistic, Burn After Reading leaves little doubt. This film does not really approach the quality of No Country for Old Men, but the acting is good and I’m a major fan of Coen quirkiness, so I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway. Another solid *** film, but it’s not for everyone.

Sean Penn is absolutely terrific as Harvey Milk, a gay activist in 1970s San Francisco. This is my favourite performance of the year so far and it drives an incredibly well-made and inspiring political drama based on real-life events. Directed by Gus Van Sant, this film gets **** and is almost certain to make my top ten of 2008.

In Bruges
I missed this one at the cinema (unfortunately!), but just watched it on video. In Bruges is a beautiful and unusual gangster film taking place entirely in the gorgeous city of Bruges in Belgium. Colin Farrell has never been better and Brendan Gleeson is fantastic, with Ralph Fiennes once again adding his brilliance in a lesser role. This is another “buddy” film, but far more subtle and memorable than most. I love films that constantly surprise me the way this one did. It’s violent and will not appeal to everyone, but I give it a very solid ***+.