Monday, July 21, 2008

155,000,000 is the lucky number

The Dark Knight completed history over the weekend--though not by much at all. Box Office Mojo's "actuals" place DK at $155.3 million for the weekend frame, enough to eclipse Spider-Man 3's previous record by a little over $4 million. Estimates over at Movie City News are, as usual, a little lower--DK comes in at $153m over there, still enough for the record, but by an even slimmer margin.

Once the actual Actuals drop sometime today or tomorrow, we will have a better idea of precisely how much history was made this weekend...but no matter what the number and no matter how slim the margin, history was made.

On a much more minor scale, Mamma Mia! set a record this weekend as well--highest opening weekend for a musical film. The ABBA musical's $27.6m beats out Hairspray by the slimmest of margins. This has to be seen as a coup for the marketers over at Universal for two very obvious reasons:

1) Opening as Dark Knight counter-programming was a bold move that paid off in spades, and
2) The film sucks like a Hoover...but more on that soon enough...

In other box office news...

Hancock's legs are longer than anyone could have predicted going in, thereby completely stifling the film's thoroughly undeserved critical bashing and further solidifying the power of Will Smith as an American Movie Star Icon. There are still no easy predictions of how much the film will make...three weeks on the chart and it still comes in at a strong #3 with $14m...a $191m cume thus far means that it will most likely end up with somewhere between $205 and $215 by the end of next weekend, and could possibly angle for $250m by the end of its run.

WALL-E will have to fight hard to overcome Kung Fu Panda's current status as "highest-grossing animated film of the summer." Panda is winding down mightily, but will end up with around $210m once all is said and done. After 4 weeks in release, WALL-E has raked in $182m and is still chugging along relatively strong. That combined with the fact that it is still the highest quality film out there right now should make for some decent legs in the coming weeks. It will certainly break $190m by the end of next weekend. Then it will have to turn on the after burners to try and glide just a bit past the Panda, somewhere in the next 3 or so weeks.

More than ever, it is apparent to me that this summer is becoming the Summer of Inches. Dark Knight secured the opening weekend record--by mere inches. Mamma Mia! now owns the musical record--by a hair. WALL-E will likely end up taking the animated box-office crown--but only by a tiny bit. Indiana Jones may even end up filling the spot most thought it would easily fill--as a higher grosser than Iron Man--but if it does, it will be by a fraction of an inch. In what is the most amusing news--and certainly the most disheartening for the studios involved--is that The Incredible Hulk, which currently has $131m in the bank at the end of this weekend frame, will most likely accomplish its goal--out-grossing Ang Lee's Hulk--by next weekend. But it will likely accomplish it by grossing less than one million more...and by that time it will be dead. In a Summer of Inches, this new Hulk movie will have to use centimeters to accomplish a goal they arrogantly figured they'd easily secure by a mile.

At this point, however, it would seem like The Dark Knight has "highest-grosser of the summer" locked up...and not just by a few million. So go figure.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Single-Day Record for 'The Dark Knight'

Movie City News estimates $64.8m. Box Office Mojo estimates $66.8m. Somewhere in there lies the record for highest one-day gross in box office history.

This is not, by the way, meant to distract from the real discussion on The Dark Knight...our two reviews are below...

She Said: The Dark Knight


We waited (in the front) of a long snaking line for an hour and a half just to procure a "prime" seat to view the latest Batman film, and then we sat in the darkness  for nearly 3 hours, sandwiched between people in a completely packed house. Was it worth it?

 You bet your ass it was.

If you have limited gas, snack, or ticket funds and have to decide where to throw down your cinematic dollars, well folks, go spend it on the epic that is The Dark Knight. You get no better Batman flick, or "superhero" tale than this one. The film unfolds with enrapturing yet methodical pacing. It strives (and achieves) to weave a more complex saga, one that allows a full arc of character development and nuanced themes. Typically, when a character goes 180 degrees into the light or into the dark (whichever the case),  audiences are left scratching their heads or wondering why the "bait and switch." The Dark Knight, in the more than capable hands of Memento director Christopher Nolan (and his co-writer brother, Jonathan), spins enough breadth and depth to make you believe every dark, visually stunning moment and to feel invested in the moral complexity of its tale.

The Dark Knight achieves what Spider-man 3 could not. Both films have their fair share of "villains" and of story arcs, but  Spidey 3 reminds me of a kid who couldn't decide between the snacks offered and gorges until on the verge of bawling and vomiting. On the other hand,  The Dark Knight crafts the story lines until we have the next great crime saga. This film is not just for those who like the caped crusader, its for any person who enjoys crime drama and elegantly mosaic expensive film shooting.

The only negative for me is that with such ample and well played  screen time and depth doled out to Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent, Gary Oldman's Lt. James Gordon, and Heath Ledger's The Joker, there is very little time left for the title character, Batman himself. Christian Bale, arguably the best actor of our time, gets only a few brooding moments (albeit beautiful), a few raspy utterances, and far too few intimate moments. The title really is misleading, for this film does not belong to him but to the entire gi-normous ensemble cast. In a way, that was a pity, for I cannot get enough of Christian Bale.  

Even Maggie Gyllenhaal's, Rachel Dawes, slices off room to stand out in a film which, like all other "hero" movies, relegates its women to the sidelines. Does she shine like the men, of course not; what male director takes the time to ever really develop women in such a manner? Answer: none, but the point here is, under either Gyllenhaal's presence or the writing for Rachel, this male love interest is allowed to have depth and to exist as important to the tale's structure and message of sacrifice.

Stealing the screen from Bale (a feat I never knew could be accomplished) is the indescribably incredible Heath Ledger with his clever, cunning, merciless Joker. Never have we had such a delightfully creepy villain as we do with Ledger's Joker. He reduces Nicholson's version to, well, a  cute "joke." Rarely do we get a glimpse of ruthless genius behind villainous schemes, but with this Joker, we get a sense that his brilliance is his motivation. Many critics have argued that he has no motivation, that his sinister, "lack of a reason" is what is scary about this Joker. I disagree. Everyone has a story, and for Ledger's Joker he is chillingly smarter than every single person alive, can relate to no one, and wants to matter to the Universe... even in if a decidedly chaotic, destructive way. 

I have heard others say the film tries to accomplish too much, its plot is muddled, and/or it fails to deliver what it could have, but I completely disagree. This mesmerizingly grand narrative kept me riveted and embraced in tension and beautifully moody tones for the full 2 1/2+ hours. Some critics have falsely called this movie, "loud," and it could not be further from the truth. Nolan knows when to steep the film in silence and he does so brilliantly and often. Finally,  The Dark Knight solidified what I have always thought true heroism to be even as every other "superhero" movie pretends it knows: selflessness and sacrifice.

If you go see no other film this summer, The Dark Knight is the one to see!



He Said: THE DARK KNIGHT


Upon a single viewing of The Dark Knight, I will say this much: it is great and grand. Just how great and grand, I'm not quite sure yet. As big and powerful and expensive and stunt-laden as the film obviously is, it is still a brooding, interior experience; I am still chewing on it...still thinking it over. Make no mistake, this is massively effective picture. It is grandiose. It is beautiful. It is more ambitious than any film released this year (and it will likely be the highest-grossing film of the year as well). But it is a giant film with giant themes, one that is deliberately muddy in its storytelling and character portrayals. Stuff this complex just can't be fully digested in one viewing.

Not everything crystallized for me at last night's 10:00pm screening. Unlike the two other great films (and let's be clear: this is a great film) of summer 2008, WALL-E and Hancock, The Dark Knight is not as clear-cut in its screenplay. Whereas the former two films were perfect and near-perfect journeys into the heart, films that felt very complete and wholly satisfying in a single viewing, The Dark Knight is a relentlessly complex journey into the soul by way of the psyche, and it is not such a complete experience. While the wonders of WALL-E and Hancock invite subsequent viewings to get a fuller grasp of the films' subtleties and to bask in their greatness more and more, The Dark Knight is a film that outright demands to be seen at least twice before it can be fully processed. In the coming days I will return to the film, and perhaps bring more of my thoughts to the table once they form in greater detail. But for now, I have plenty to stew over...

The Dark Knight is, as K referenced in her review, the film that Spider-Man 3 wishes it could've come close to being. Both films attempted to be more serious, more intimate, and more expansive in themes, in action, and in storytelling than any previous cinematic incarnation of their respective comic book characters. But whereas Spidey was a bloated, increasingly-ridiculous, teary-eyed mess, The Dark Knight is like an addendum to the catalog of great American epic crime sagas. It is Heat. It is Scarface. It is The Godfather. This is no longer a comic book series...it is a 70s-inspired epic of moral ambiguity that happens to feature a guy in a batsuit.

The filmmakers' intentions are very clear, and the result of their vision is very dark, muddy, and very intentionally, very beautifully messy. Christopher Nolan, his brother and writing partner Jonathan, and co-writer David S. Goyer place The Dark Knight in a completely different filmmaking pantheon than a comic book adaptation has ever been placed before. There are no standard acts of heroism, no easily-solved conflicts, and not a single element of flash--this is not a film that comic lovers can go laugh, holler, and clap for. There are obviously clear-cut villains, but the notion of a 'hero' is the messiest, most complex theme in the film. The Dark Knight features no easy rooting interests. This is a long, sprawling ensemble piece, at the center of which are four men who inhabit very different, very contradictory molds of "hero" and "villain," "innocent" and "guilty."

The four men in question are Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham police Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and the scary, anarchic Joker (the late, great Heath Ledger). In a year of films featuring superheroes whose deeds are not viewed with prototypical hero worship by the public they serve (a la Hancock and Hellboy), Batman is perhaps the most feared and hated of them all. One of the film's most effective themes is the dual role of Batman: is he a hero or a villain? Bruce Wayne himself isn't so sure, and he's also not sure he cares. Moreso than ever before, this cinematic Batman is not one whose primary protocol is to defend the common good; it is, rather, to exorcise his psychological and emotional demons. The more public, more accepted, more traditional hero in Gotham City is Eckhart's Dent, who has not only become a more effective crime-fighter than the Caped Crusader, but has also wooed the affections of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Batman Begins' Katie Holmes), Bruce Wayne's eternal love interest. Dent reluctantly begins working with the Bat through Lieutenant Gordon, who has come to have as intimate a relationship as one can with the mysterious hero. Together they work to stop the stunningly indestructible Joker, who infiltrates the city's leading mafia clan to become the ruthless, soulless, archvillain of Gotham.

The Joker, as conceived and written by the Nolans and as played, in one of the great, otherwordly, already-legendary performances by Ledger, is not simply the most evil character in The Dark Knight, he's also the smartest and the most magnetic. He bursts onto the Gotham City crime scene without any introduction, any motive, or any identity; he is a being who, it seems, exists solely to enact cold-blooded evil. But he is also the most unfettered and unconflicted character in the film, which, as I'm sure Nolan and Co. intended, is what makes him so damn effective in the face of such brooding, conflicted "heroism." Bruce Wayne comes to respect Harvey Dent for his heroic dedication to the city but resent him for his perceived stealing of Rachel's affection. At the same time, Wayne starts to wonder if the role of "hero" is even one he should atempt to play anymore. Dent's noble passion plays directly against Wayne's/Batman's sheltered insecurity, leaving Oldman's Lieutenant Gordon in the middle of their personal and professional push-and-pull. It becomes Gordon's mission to provide the city with the hero it "needs" rather than the one it may "deserve," a theme which becomes more prominent as the film unfolds.

The Dark Knight is clearly the best of the seven big-budget Batman films, and it is also clearly the most realistic version ever put to screen--even moreso than this film's predecessor, 2005's Batman Begins. This Batman exists in a real world with real crime and real intrigue even among the "good guys." The screenplay harkens clearly to the work of 70s giants like Coppola, and the filmmaking, singular as it is, also comes from the work of Coppola, of Michael Mann, and as most crime sagas do, from the work of Scorsese. But even as it attempts to be one of the grand crime sagas of our time, this film is touched with the intimacy and the subtlety of Christopher Nolan's direction. Apart from the intrigue of the story and the deep psychology of the characters, it is the quiet, poetic, and powerful visual moments that truly revealed The Dark Knight's greatness to me. Moments that cannot be adequately described...Batman standing atop a skyscraper roof, contemplating his place in the world with the dark, brooding sky in the background; the Joker riding in a police car, his body handing out the window, basking the glee of his evil anarchy; Bruce Wayne standing in his underground lair, staring back at the iconic black suit that both defines him and tortures him. That kind of potency can be inspired--and surely it is--but it cannot be faked or imitated.

It has taken writing this review to help me grapple with my thoughts coming out of the theater late last night. And the verdict is, this is an immensely powerful piece of filmmaking on every level. But it is still one that lingers in my mind as a very intricate, very layered, very deliberately complicated experience, one that won't adequately settle until I see the film again. I do look forward to seeing it again. And once I do, maybe it will become a little clearer as to where this film stands among the great films of the summer, the great films of the year, and where it truly wants to be ranked, among the great crime epics of all time.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

THE CINEMA SQUARED JUKEBOX

This is a site where readers can expect many up-to-date reviews of films currently in theaters. These reviews range from the dumbest summer blockbuster to the most intelligent art house film. I always intended this site to be a variety of things, but one of its main purposes is to be an outlet for strong criticism and analysis of current film.

But there is a vast, endless vault of films out there...classics, cult classics, ignored masterpieces, and overpraised stinkers. We do not just watch current film...there is too much wonderful cinema out there to simply zero in on the here and now (though the 'here and now' is still very important).

As a result, I vow to do two things. One is to try my best to continue the 'Video Picks' posts I started a few weeks back but have never continued. The other is a new invention:

The Cinema Squared Jukebox.

Here is how it will work: Once each week, I will put up a new post labeled "Jukebox" and the week in question (for example, next week could be "Jukebox: Week of 7/14"). There will be pretty much nothing written by me...it will be an open forum for any of you wonderful readers to select what films you want to see reviewed, for whatever reason...kind of like a jukebox. You pick the title, and we spit the review back out for you. 

Maybe you haven't seen a film but want to know what we think. Maybe there is a personal anecdote behind your selection. Maybe it's just a film you really love (or really hate) and want to hear a few words on it. Whatever the case, and whatever the film, let the selections fly...pick as many as you want, but realize that we can only do so much in one week's time (so maybe hold some of your requests back for subsequent weeks).

As the selections roll in, we will try to get some thoughts out there in a timely fashion. Hopefully it will go week-to-week: you make some suggestions, and then by the time the next week's Jukebox rolls around, there will be some reviews of the previous week's selections.

There is pretty much nothing else to say. You now know what to do. Think about what you want to see reviewed on this site. Some of you won't have to think too hard...others will. But whatever the case, let your requests fly...the Jukebox is now operational.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Slick and Shiny...and that's about all


There is true punk rock and then there is poser punk rock. Wanted is a souped-up poser; it knows the attitude but not the music. There is lots of cursing, plenty of bloodshed, and a lot of ironic voice-over to lull the audience (and apparently many major film critics) into buying the film’s cheap brand of iron-archy. But to probe even one inch into the film’s content, one will find a lot of empty hatred aimed simultaneously at everything and nothing; it’s like the filmmakers just like the idea of being hipster assholes.

Wanted is actually pretty audacious: never have I seen one film so blatantly lift from both Fight Club and The Matrix while posing smugly as if it created something fresh and new. Credit for that should go, I suppose, to director Timur Bekmambetov, a Russian-Kazakh import who specializes in hyper-violent gore-fests and slick gratuity. Perhaps we can be thankful that he didn’t completely humiliate the participants in the film’s few energetic sex scenes, but on the other hand, sex doesn’t seem to be Bekmambetov’s preferred brand of porn…ultra cool slashings, gunfights, and beat-downs are.

Atonement golden boy James McAvoy stars in the Keanu-Norton role, playing Wesley, who suffers from frequent panic attacks, hates his Office Space-esque desk job, has no money in the bank, has a girlfriend who is cheating on him with his best friend, and who can barely stand to get up in the morning. Wesley narrates the film with a heightened sense of irony, as if he is fully aware the audience is listening. I prefer the cold detachment of Edward Norton’s Fight Club narration, which this film is clearly chasing in the wind, but while Wanted can muster the same four-letter words, it can’t come close to matching the meaning behind them.

Wesley is mysteriously recruited by a secret society of assassins called The Fraternity, which is led—as all secret assassin societies should be—by a grizzled Morgan Freeman, who stands on the sidelines—or more to the point, in the shadowy corners—and lets his elite team do the dirty work. The elite team is headed—as all elite teams should be—by Angelina Jolie, but she is not in Lara Croft/Mrs. Smith mode here; she is instead so emaciated that it seems one kick in the gut would break her in half (lucky that never happens to her during the film). Strangely, Jolie is relegated to a pretty small supporting role in favor of McAvoy, whose Wesley whines and screams his way through the film’s first few action sequences before undergoing the inevitable Transformation Into Gun-Slinging God. The training sequences go on forever and get bloodier as they go—this section also starts the film on its more serious “hero origin story” path, which does not coalesce with the smug jokiness of the film’s first half and which only serves to prolong the boring hyper-violence of the film’s last half.

McAvoy is a good actor and he is pretty good here, almost in spite of his mildly annoying character. Freeman has some fun spinning his usual gravitas with some barbed toughness…and he doesn’t chew as much scenery as one might imagine (though that might have been pretty fun, too). Jolie is basically wasted—I think she speaks about 20 words throughout the entire film. I’m not sure what drew these actors to this particular material, other than the fact that slick comic book adaptations (Wanted is based on a series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones) are currently en vogue, and maybe the arrogance of the film’s winking irony appeared half-way intelligent on the page. And Bekmambetov was probably seen as a pretty hot commodity in Hollywood, after his Night Watch and Day Watch films became cult sensations for their kinetic action and remarkably gratuitous gore. But I have news for them, and for you: Night Watch wasn’t all that great, and Wanted plays on the screen like boring action-porn.

Nailed it...by that much


Five minutes into Get Smart, I kinda hated it. By the time the end credits rolled, I had a good time. The film’s ability to navigate its way from incompetent disaster to mildly enjoyable summer fun owes a lot to its cast, which shines through even the most tired gag.

Steve Carell stars as Maxwell Smart, an analyst for CONTROL, a secret spy agency arm of the U.S. government. After CONTROL’s headquarters is infiltrated by an unknown entity and all of its active agents have been exposed, Max gets to live out his greatest desire—becoming an agent. As Agent 86, Max is joined by a new partner, Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who has undergone massive reconstructive surgery in an attempt to mask her identity. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays Agent 23, CONTROL’s former go-to man of action, and Alan Arkin plays the Chief. That is about all the set-up one needs going into the film; the story unfolds in an array of spy sequences, witty dialogue exchanges, and out-of-nowhere slapstick, elements that are occasionally punctuated by an action sequence. It is not a particularly original formula, but what makes it work is the unmistakable goodwill of the film’s humor, which ranges from silly to sharp, yet always maintains a certain kindness and cheer. The ever-lovable Carell is a natural fit for material like this, and his effortless goofball charm makes the material all the better.

The opening section of the film is its rockiest. It doesn’t seem like the filmmakers really know how to properly introduce the film’s many tertiary players, nor are they sure what kind of comedy they are working in. As a result, we get some stilted character intros and positively inane slapstick banter. But as the film settles in and gives the main characters some room to breathe, Get Smart moves away from being a one-joke time-suck and becomes a fun, good-humored ride. Carell and Hathaway develop much more chemistry than would seem humanly possible, The Rock gets to effectively play on his tough guy persona, and Arkin is positively sublime as the Chief of CONTROL. Also, the filmmakers did themselves proud by casting the veteran Terence Stamp, recently a go-to guy for dry comic villains, as the film’s most visible villain, and Borat alum Ken Davitian as his henchman.

The film is based, of course, on the popular 1960s TV series. As television adaptations go, it is nowhere near perfect, but considering that most TV-to-film translations are abhorrent, Get Smart is one of the better entries. It is a comedy first, but also has a mind to soup up the humor with some ‘Michael Bay Lite’ action sequences. Surprisingly, the film is pretty successful at following the basic story outline and paying homage to the series’ classic moments while also opening the film up to its own blend of dry wit, slapstick, and action. Sharp tonal mixtures are among the most difficult filmmaking high-wires to walk, and to its credit, this movie does it pretty effectively.

Get Smart was directed by Peter Segal, a veteran of a couple of the still-witless but slightly more ambitious Adam Sandler comedies. As a filmmaker, Segal seems confident and assured but lacking in the competence that is required to make a tenuous screenplay like this soar. A more skilled director could have developed much more interesting sequences, both comedically and dramatically—and I’ve seen more accomplished spy agency sequences in a random episode of Alias. But as in his Sandler efforts, Segal is giving his all here—an effort that not only breeds some stylish sequences, but also shrewdly allows the actors to carry the show. That is the smartest directorial move Segal could have made—let these wonderful talents take the material and make it something solid and fun. They do…and in the end, Get Smart is.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

You look awful!


The Incredible Hulk is a turgid mediocrity, one that looks ugly, plays boring, and feels like the lame also-ran that it so clearly is. Watching the film, I could feel the filmmakers straining to load every frame with as much mindless drivel as they could, in the hopes that some of it would be entertaining.

Of course, I have talked to death the real reason this film exists: as an antidote to Ang Lee’s more artful 2003 version. And I suppose this film was well within the rights of the filmmakers, and was certainly within Marvel’s rights—after all, as Jean-Luc Godard once said, “The best way to criticize a film is to make another one.” That’s true, and that’s fine: but what if the film you are criticizing was strong, and your only method of critique is to make a soulless action picture?

Like Ang Lee’s film, The Incredible Hulk boasts a stellar cast. Edward Norton stars as Bruce Banner in "Hulk: Attempt No. 2," and you know the basic story: Banner is a scientist who was the subject of gamma rays gone awry and now turns into a giant green beast when he becomes angry. Liv Tyler plays Bruce’s love interest, Betty Ross; William Hurt plays Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross, Betty’s father and the possible culprit of Banner’s condition; and Tim Roth plays Emil Blonsky, a maniacal military man whose rage leads him to undergo scientific procedures similar to Banner’s, thus becoming a bigger, uglier, more ridiculous monster dubbed "The Abomination"—voila, a super-villain is born.

There is surprisingly little drama to this version of Hulk. Bruce must control his heart rate in order to avoid transforming into the big green thing, a plot point that makes for a couple humorous jokes but no legitimate drama. Bruce and Betty have some sort of forbidden puppy love thing going on throughout, and that relationship is never challenged or hindered by anything other than the screenplay’s arbitrary decision. Betty has a strained relationship with her father, but again, there is neither consequence nor payoff to their friction. The basic plot elements are present in this film because they are supposed to be—after all, they worked for the comic book, didn’t they? Roth brings a psychotic zest to his role that makes him the most magnetic presence in the film, and his character likewise takes the most interesting and transformative journey of any of the film’s characters.

The Incredible Hulk Version 2.0 is directed by Louis Leterrier, a French filmmaker best known for directing The Transporter 2, in which he pretty much mimicked the style of the original. But at least that calling card film fit Leterrier’s signature style, which apparently consists of rapid-fire bursts of action and sudden shifts into and out of slow-motion, like a skateboard video. Trying his hand at a gargantuan-budget superhero adaptation, the director appears completely out of his element. His style seems strangely out-of-place in this kind of film, and while he does a decent job handling the film’s countless visual effects, the effects themselves are so ungainly and unattractive that his skill level hardly matters. The Hulk is no longer so much green as he is an ugly brownish swampy color, one who looks dirty and evil—with the exception of his pearly white game show host teeth. Similarly, the entire film seems stained by a dank visual palette. Most summer blockbusters are referred to as “eye candy,” but The Incredible Hulk is like “eye grease.”

The biggest sin of all involved in this enterprise—from Leterrier to Norton to the screenwriters to the newly-minted production unit at Marvel—is the self-righteous supposition that this is all really good…or at least some sort of major improvement on something that was once broken. But for all the shit Ang Lee’s Hulk has taken in the past five years, it was ambitious, intimate, and original, three adjectives not even close to this film’s vocabulary. The most frequent adjectives that come to mind when thinking of this latest version are “boring,” melodramatic,” and “Hulk Smash!” 

The Incredible Hulk is a glaring bit of sub-standard filmmaking on every level in a surprisingly solid summer.

Ski-doosh


Kung Fu Panda is just plain fun. It is silly, funny, occasionally hilarious, a pleasure to look at, and has a lot of heart to boot. This is not a world-beating masterwork like WALL-E—it exists purely to entertain. But it certainly accomplishes that goal, and one thing it does have in common with Pixar’s brilliant film is this: it is one of only a few truly worthy family films to be released in the first half of 2008.

With a film like this, the plot isn’t the first thing one concerns him or herself with…this is mainly a film about beautiful animation and big laughs. But there are some solid surprises in this otherwise simple pleasure, even within the predictable framework of the film’s screenplay. The film centers on—you guessed it—a Panda bear who is mystified by the art of Kung Fu. Po (voiced by Jack Black) has dreams of becoming a legendary Kung Fu master…he just happens to be lazy, out-of-shape, and a slave to his endlessly effervescent father’s noodle shop. Through zany machinations of the screenplay, Po unwittingly finds himself at the center of an ancient prophecy that allows him to study martial arts under the legendary Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and fight alongside his idols, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross).

Obviously the film contains the typical bumbling training sequences when the clumsy Po seems as if he will never become a Kung Fu master, but in this film there is enough originality within each situation to freshen the clichés. And of course, Po eventually reaches beyond his potential and becomes the most unlikely of martial artists, but once again this screenplay has more than a few pleasant surprises up its sleeve. The plot concerns a somewhat labyrinthine prophecy involving Po and his mortal enemy, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), but the way each conflict is resolved is simple in the most refreshing and honest of ways.

All of the voice actors are clearly having a ball with their characters and the material, and Jack Black is unquestionably the only possible choice for Po, a character that will become a favorite to legions of kids (my son’s Po action figure still graces the window sill of our TV room). Kung Fu Panda is simultaneously the embodiment of what summer entertainment should and shouldn’t be: it’s light, breezy, and loads of fun, but it doesn’t numb the mind, it doesn’t assault the senses, and even amid the zaniness there are solid messages to take home with you.

Stilted Life


The Life Before Her Eyes basks so intently in it own beauty that it forgets how to tell its story in a powerful and compelling way. There are a lot of powerful themes at work in this undeniably sumptuous film, but they are all couched in languorous visual subtext so thick that it suffocates the strong underlying ideas.

The film tells the fractured story of Diana, who on the surface appears to have a perfect life, but harbors an increasing sense of guilt and dread deep within. There are plenty of flashbacks at play here, but to the film’s credit they feel inherent to the story. Both the teenaged and adult Dianas are central to the film’s gradually-unveiled story. Diana is played by Evan Rachel Wood as a teen and by Uma Thurman as an adult; both actresses immerse themselves in the emotion of the character they play—though the characters are strikingly dichotomous in spite of being two distinct stages of the same person. Wood’s younger version is vital and risky, almost destructively selfish in her immaturity; Thurman’s grown-up is shaky and fearful, and is perhaps the victim of a deteriorating mental state.

Obviously there is a trauma at the center of this character shift, and it is a harrowing one—a high school shooting made to look even more intense and bloody than the Columbine tragedy. The incident is replayed ad nauseum during the film, with the intent that each incantation reveals slightly more than the last. But the shooting sequence is so meticulously compiled that it becomes tiresome after a while—not once does the situation feel scary or even chaotic, it just feels forced. Similarly, the worsening psychosis of the adult Diana becomes so overstated that after a while it would make sense for the film’s twist to reveal that Diana is an undead zombie killer. Thurman throws herself into the performance and does what she can, but the very deliberate depiction of her character as a jittery nut-job betrays any effort Thurman could make to turn the character into something believable. By the time the big reveal happens near the film’s end, it sort of does a serviceable job of explaining adult Diana’s weirdness, but at that point the whole enterprise has become so tiresome in its overcomplicated structure and its relentless fixation on splendiferous detail that an explanation is the last thing the audience wants.

The Life Before Her Eyes was directed by Vadim Perelman, who is absolutely the right director for this material. He is a very singular and ubiquitous artist, one who appreciates the beauty of images and the importance of a strong thematic subtext. His first film, 2003’s House of Sand and Fog, was a masterpiece of spare, haunting visuals and layered storytelling. Striving for the same evocative feeling this time around, Perelman oversteps by centering on the visual element to such a degree that there is almost nothing else for the screenplay to lean on other than images with dual meanings. I love ambitious visual filmmaking as much as anyone else, and I will admit that Perelman has not lost a step as a creator of meaningful images. But in this film, while the visuals are overloaded with content, the screenplay is sorely lacking. House of Sand and Fog felt like a tragedy where the filmmaking enhanced the story’s purpose. The Life Before Her Eyes feels like an overwrought, underwritten film where the only tragedy is that the script can’t support the weight of the filmmaking.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Sex and the City Conundrum


The biggest problem with Sex and the City is that it is not really a natural continuation of the series. The series, as it was, ended the stories of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte about as perfectly and—this is key—true to the characters as it possibly could. The filmmakers then face a unique challenge: people love these characters and love how their lives turned out, so in making a feature film, do they rock the boat or just give the fangirls (and fangays) (and me) what they want?

The obvious answer—the only answer that would result in an honest, surprising film that truly expanded on and enlightened the lives of these wonderful characters—is “rock the boat”! The answer that series executive producer and film writer/director Michael Patrick King went with is: a little of both.

Not even Carrie could have her cake and eat it, too.

Word is that King had an entirely different draft written when the initial plans were to shoot the movie right after the series ended in 2004. Perhaps that would have been a more natural flow for the story and characters back then than this current film is now. But after the project faced more setbacks than Carrie and Big’s tumultuous relationship, King was forced to rewrite the script for a film that could logically take place four years after the series closed. And there are perfectly good roads to take these characters down…it’s just that King seems hesitant to take them there—a decision that is deadly for the film’s dramatic structure.

King, who was about as good as it comes as a short form writer, is just that—a short form writer. As a feature writer, he doesn’t really have a clue how to tell a long story with true forward momentum. Each segment of the film plays like an episode or piece of an episode—a central idea is introduced, then it is paid off a few minutes later. There is connective tissue among these vignettes—the overarching theme of the picture is, as the advertisements indicate, “forgiveness”—but King can’t adequately weave them all together in a seamless, naturally flowing way.

Or perhaps King is a fine long form writer whose biggest err is pandering to the series’ legions of fans. Because for all the central narrative issues this film has going on, nearly all of them exist for one nagging reason: they are redundant for these characters. Miranda has an emotional wall; Charlotte wants a baby; Samantha is tempted by hot men; Carrie wants commitment from Mr. Big…these are the central conflicts these characters face in the film, with one or two slight tweaks (that I will not give away) that are supposed to make the issues interesting, but still cannot make them original. King pits these conflicts as epic challenges to each woman’s soul (save Charlotte, who really doesn’t do anything other than smile and show support throughout the entire film), but in reality they are just broken-record retreads of the characters’ biggest hurdles throughout SATC’s six seasons—and on the show, when these conflicts were given room to breathe, they actually made emotional sense. Even with a 2-hour 15-minute running time, Sex and the City still manages to short-shrift each woman’s story—even Carrie’s, if only because she is given about three different story arcs to navigate. So not only are the conflicts on recycled autopilot, they are also so quickly and busily rushed together that they don’t work as drama.

On the positive end, the actors are all truly wonderful. Even when their stories aren’t working, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall, and Kristin Davis shine both together and apart. And it’s great to see almost all of the major recurring actors from the series—David Eigenberg, Jason Lewis, Evan Handler, Willie Garson, Mario Cantone, and of course, Chris “Big” Noth—on the big screen. Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson joins the cast as Carrie’s assistant, and she brings her usual sassy energy to the film. Of course, the acting was never going to be the issue for this movie—the performances are usually the last thing to go wrong with any motion picture, and would never cause problems with actors this good. Everything that is wrong with Sex and the City: The Movie lies at the script level. And of course, with a writer as good at witty dialogue and as familiar with the characters as King, there are some truly sterling moments in this film, from beginning to end. But the core of the story doesn’t allow any of the characters to truly learn anything new…to truly grow.

In her review, K pretty much covered the conflicted role of fan vs. critic as well as it could be covered, so I have tried my best to stay away from being too repetitive. But as a die-hard fan of the series, one who anticipated this film more than any other summer release, and one who truly came to know and love these characters, I will steal K’s sentiments directly: it was wonderful to spend time catching up with old friends. Truly, truly wonderful. And for that, I loved the film. But as one who understands and appreciates the art of writing, who cherishes the craft of storytelling, and who knows—as most SATC fans likely do—the innate challenges and progressions these characters could (should) face, I must view the film as just another enduring keepsake of the series, one that holds the characters in stasis, thereby not creating any new drama and keeping them from any meaningful growth.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Forthcoming Onslaught

Kung Fu Panda
The Life Before Her Eyes
The Visitor
The Incredible Hulk
Get Smart
Wanted

and maybe, Sex and the City

Saturday, July 5, 2008

At Long Last....


I have been sitting on my thoughts on Indy 4 for a long time now...have wanted to post them, if for no other reason than to get it out of the way, but for some reason, I have never gotten over the hump. So, finally, here we go…

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is…decent. I liked it…sort of. Many have pointed out the weaknesses in the script, and I would have to agree with that criticism, even though I like what many dislike about the script: its unbelievability. I mean, 98% of the film is absolutely ridiculous, and probably 96% of that is out and out unconscionable. But this is Indiana Jones…that’s part of the serial fun.

In many ways, I have to stand back and snicker with admiration that Spielberg, Lucas, and Co. have turned this film into what is really—I think I can say this without giving too much away—the ultimate synthesis of the two filmmakers’ blockbuster careers. I also can appreciate how, in the grand tradition of Indiana Jones films, Crystal Skull’s wacky mythology actually ties into the reality of American history…at least, as much as it can. It definitely appears that Spielberg and Lucas had a lot of fun making this film, which is refreshing.

But that “fun” aspect is simultaneously what gives Crystal Skull its goofball charm and what makes it feel like a lighter-than-fluff—dare I say insignificant—film experience. It just doesn’t feel like there is much going on in this film other than the surface zest. Not only is that disappointing, especially given the 19-year wait for the damn movie, but it is also disheartening that the years Indy 4 spent in development hell while Spielberg/Lucas/Ford waited for “the right script” have now resulted in a film that is “mildly fun enough.”

Also discouraging is the fact that this is, make no mistake, Steven Spielberg’s worst overall directorial effort in a decade or more. There are obviously many wonderful moments--the motorcycle chase in the first act, and the logic-defying chase through the jungle later on--that was a given. Spielberg can deliver classic moments in his sleep. But there is something about the visual element of Crystal Skull that feels remarkably ho-hum, like Spielberg was on autopilot for the duration of the shoot. Missing are the brilliant visual flourishes that have become commonplace in Spielberg films, and for perhaps the first time ever, Spielberg’s love of heavenly-white lighting seems stilted and unattractive.

The performances are fine. It is great to see Ford in the weathered fedora once again, and he brings his usual dry charm to the role. Ray Winstone has fun with his shifty character, though it is sort of a waste of such a great actor. Cate Blanchett is the best thing the film has going--she is  absolutely brilliant playing the nefarious, indestructible female ultra-villain Irina Spalko, and Karen Allen, returning to the iconic Marion Ravenwood role, is equally fantastic. One shocking bit of curiosity is Shia LeBeouf’s casting as Indy’s young protégé, Mutt Williams. It would seem a natural choice, but the usually wonderful LeBeouf is a more natural fit for a geeky hero, and seems a little ill-at-ease tackling a tough-guy greaser like Mutt.

Overall, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a mild...very mild... entertainment. There are plenty of fun moments and the path of the screenplay is, as I mentioned, fun in a snickering, inside-joke kind of way. I enjoyed the film while it played, even though I still took issue with many of its aforementioned flaws. But finishing this review now, having gained a lot of distance from the film, it is simply not going to be a highlight of the year. It is not, strictly speaking, a BAD film...but after this long wait, after this much hype, after the supposed care that went into all stages of its production, it is ultimately a blockbuster dud.

Friday, July 4, 2008

She Said: A Few in a Row

My husband does not know how to be brief, and frankly, its the only way I have time to review movies, so let me be to the point on the last few movies I have seen.

Wanted: Flashy and way too self absorbed to be worthwhile. You want flash and depth? See last year's Smoking Aces! Besides, Jolie's once ravishing body has been ravished, by anorexia it looks like. Stay tuned on iKonoclast for a post about body image and the Hollywood star.

Wall-E: Delightful and a "timeless" love story. My heart broke right there in red velvet seats as Wall-E held an umbrella out for a hybernating EVE.

Hancock: Way better than what nearly any critic is giving it credit for. Way more depth and nuance than most superhero movies, but still, at the end of the day, it is a superhero movie. With it getting such low approval rating, its easy to see how my husband could go so crazy for it and sing its praises a bit too hard. Excellent popcorn summer fun, but if you want more substance look upward to Wall-E or down my list to the next three.

Get Smart: I thought this movie would either be wildly entertaining or a big fat dud. Thankfully, it was the former--a 'dumb' hoot a minute. Steve Carell really is the funniest male actor working today.

The Incredible Hulk: Entertaining and more interesting than Ang Lee's version. Ang Lee is at his best with serious subjects as depicted in Brokeback Mountain, not as much in comic book terrain. This green monster? A fun popcorn flick.

Son of Rambow: Funny, original, and sweet. Child actors can grate or transcend. These british boys amaze and capture audiences with their earnest honest acting.

Then She Found Me: Truth telling in cinema: love is messy and often times ugly. What a gift to have a truly good female centered, female voiced film.

The Visitor: Brilliant, lovely, humane. This is what filmmaking is for... to provoke, to move, to enlighten, to teach.

The Happening: Utterly ridiculous. If he sold this movie as camp, it might have been ok, but the movie comes off as camp masquerading as a serious movie. I had come to the theater ready to ignore all the critics, but they were right. This movie might just end M. Night's career.

Indiana Jones: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: This movie is one of those weird experiences that while in the theater, I had fun, but as I walked out, I could not remember why. It reminds me of gorging on some tasteless food and then discovering I am still hungry because I really had nothing "meaty." The best summer blockbusters strive to fill you up but do so with substance. This film failed to truly deliver, but who can live without saying they have at least seen the fourth installment of Jones? Not many.

I think this short list catches me up what we have seen since my Sex and the City review. Go buy some tickets!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Grappling with Greatness


Here’s my original logline: Don’t even buy into the negative hype among 70% of film critics out there. It’s all bullshit. But perhaps that’s burying the lead, so let me just say…

Hancock is one of the two best studio movies of the summer, and will almost assuredly go down as one of the best and most beautifully ambitious experiences of the year.

The summer of 2008 has been pretty good overall, with occasional glimpses of greatness (can you say Speed Racer?) even in the traditionally schlocky studio fare. There have also been some truly wonderful independent films out there, if you have been able to find them (The Visitor, Son of Rambow). But in terms of breaking new ground--and even more powerfully and significantly, taking old ground and giving it never-before-seen depth and poignancy--there have been two amazing journeys into the heart. Both have been unexpected, both have shockingly come from major studios, and coincidentally, both opened within mere days of one another: WALL-E was the first….and now, Hancock.

Like WALL-E, Hancock is a film in which the joy of the unknown leads not only to splendid, unexpected surprises, but to an uncommon complexity and remarkable depth. The story director Peter Berg weaves is surprising, sneaky, and moving when you’d least expect it. It is not necessarily a “perfect” film like WALL-E is, but in its rough-and-tumble style, it finds grace and elegance…its own sort of perfection.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you know the set-up: Hancock (Will Smith) is the world’s only superhero, but he is not the welcomed, lovable presence of a Superman or Spider-Man. Instead, he is a drunken jerk who causes more damage than he ultimately prevents, and who is more of an annoyance to the people he saves than a venerable hero. The world doesn’t like Hancock, and Hancock doesn’t like the world. Enter Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a struggling PR man who has a very true desire to make the world a better place. When the drunken Hancock saves Ray’s life in the latest of his cataclysmic “heroic exploits,” Ray sees an opportunity to give this misunderstood superhuman a much-needed makeover.

Hancock’s slow and reluctant image transformation fills the film’s first 2/3, and is treated with a very Berg-ian edge in its photography and content. Smith plays Hancock as a tortured soul who is truly baffled about the nature of his identity, and who has subsequently reverted into a shell of alcoholism and self-loathing. Bateman fills Ray with his signature wit and good humor, but also brings a unique soulfulness to the character that reverberates for the duration of the film. The Smith-Bateman relationship is what drives the film’s first two acts, an interplay that is very funny and also sets up powerful arcs for both characters later in the film. Lurking in the background is Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron), who does not think very favorably of Hancock being in her husband’s life, and who seems unnerved by the superhero’s very presence.

The first 50 or so minutes of Hancock are wildly entertaining on every level, and slowly unveil the intimate details that allow us to fully understand who Hancock and Ray are, and why their relationship works. The final 40 minutes of Hancock, however, not only expertly cover the standard “origin story” of this mythical superhero, but also take powerful and unexpected turns that make the experience of the film positively stunning. I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion of the film’s intricacies, but I do want to analyze the themes that begin to form, so here is the inevitable warning…

***SPOILERS AHEAD***SKIP TO THE END OF THIS SECTION IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM***

Okay, for those who have seen the film, you are fully aware of what happens. And the beauty of revealing Hancock’s true origin, his mythical, centuries-old relationship with Mary, and the ultimate power of his discovery is what puts Hancock over the top and into greatness territory. Here is a character who is not at all comfortable with his superhuman powers, basically because he doesn’t even know how he obtained them. When we learn of his tumultuous history with Mary, of their almost cruelly antithetical cosmic relationship, it closes the book on Hancock’s confusion but opens the door to a new, even more complex challenge. Now that he understands who he is, where he came from, and what he has to do (which basically means deciding to accept his role as an immortal superhero or stay with his cosmic lover and become susceptible to a very finite mortality), he must choose between sacrificing his true love and sacrificing his unique power. 

Obviously, it is a very messy, very complicated decision to make, and Hancock cannot ultimately make the full circle from ignorant, reckless anti-hero to full-fledged superman until he is fully aware of his purpose and fully aware of the reality of his existence. He is meant to save people, but that lot is a solitary one. Once he comes in contact with Mary, both their powers subside until they are fully human—fully mortal. And when death is staring him in the face, with the knowledge that not only will he die but so will his cosmic life mate, Hancock knows what he must do…go away from Mary, and accept his role as one whose purpose is to serve humanity. It may not be his true desire, but it is what is right for Mary, for Ray, for the world, and for Hancock himself. It is a powerful transformation and a sobering realization, one that beautifully weaves the lives of these characters into a film about love and sacrifice.

***END OF SPOILERS***READ ON***

Hancock, in essence, is about a superhuman learning to be human, an immortal in search of his mortality. The minutiae of the character’s fascinating mythology does not permit for much of a mortal life, but the true journey of Hancock, the beautiful transformation he must make, is to fully discover the how’s and why’s of who and what he is, and to truly accept his eternal place in the world. It is a challenging and rewarding journey for a character to make, and in Hancock the filmmakers have created the rawest, most emotionally complex superhero ever put on film.

Back in May, I gushed over the delights of Iron Man, and I stand by what I wrote—the film is just pure fun, one that knows precisely how to please the crowd and does so in spades. But in the realm of filmmaking and storytelling complexity, Hancock blows Iron Man out of the water. It is, in fact, exactly the kind of film Iron Man should have been. Both films are centered on flawed characters and both films track the rise of selfish men as they shed their anti-heroic shells and fulfill their destiny as true heroes. But where Iron Man is all surface giddiness, Hancock runs much, much deeper. Not only does Peter Berg know how to bring a relentless sharp edge to his rough-and-tumble visuals—much as I love Iron Man, there is more intimacy and intensity in each single frame of Hancock than the entirety of Iron Man—but he is also strikingly adept at cutting right to the core of his characters; Berg is a director who understands and explores the dark elements of the human (and superhuman) soul, and who appreciates the intimacy of humanity. Both Hancock and Tony Stark are selfish pricks at the beginning of their stories, but where Tony Stark is portrayed as a lovable louse, even an enviable louse, Hancock is strictly a jerk. Berg makes no bones about allowing the biggest, most likable movie star on earth appear drunken, lazy, selfish, and downright offensively rude. It is this no-nonsense portrayal that makes us truly see the tortured soul of Hancock—and what makes his ultimate transformation all the more powerful.

Another of Hancock’s brilliant twists on our expectations—and this just came to me as I wrote the previous paragraph—is that it starts where a simpler superhero film would end. Whereas Tony Stark’s arc is becoming Iron Man, Hancock begins his journey with his powers fully intact. It is learning how to use them, how to treat others, and how to understand himself that make his journey complete. Every detail of Hancock exists on a more nuanced, complex level.

At the center of the film's overwhelming success is its director, the aforementioned Peter Berg. In just five films—the bizarro Very Bad Things, the goofball blast The Rundown, the hard-hitting Friday Night Lights, the perceptive and powerful The Kingdom, and now Hancock—he has transitioned from actor-slash-director to full-fledged auteur. His visual style has become a signature that is plagiarized at least three times a year. His command of storytelling is just as challenging and edgy, which has translated into relatively small box-office and tepid reception of each of his films--save The Rundown, which was too fun to be universally hated, and Friday Night Lights, which caught on as a critical darling. With Will Smith headlining his latest work, Berg is sure to celebrate his highest-grossing film yet, but true to form, the film packs much more punch—both emotionally and intellectually—than the average summer fluff-goer expects. As a result, the film will surely have some audiences walking out confused, disappointed, or downright angry. Already the film is running a 36% on Rotten Tomatoes, which shows how even film critics—those special beings who are supposed to appreciate complexity in the films they see—are washing their hands of this “mess” (which is probably the most frequently occurring word in most print reviews I’ve read).

This ridiculous outrage underlines what is wrong with film criticism today: it has stopped becoming about celebrating film and more about fulfilling prescribed expectations. When a film like Iron Man or Indiana Jones delivers on the perceived promise of glossy thrills, critics can’t contain their joy. When a film like Hancock appears to be another cog in the summer blockbuster machine but instead aims higher and twists not only expectations, but the very nature of its blockbuster genre, it is too much to take. Critics can only praise a film for being audacious and powerful if that is what they expect going in. If they expect the same old-same old, anything that comes close to rocking that boat gets rejected automatically.

I applaud Berg for sticking to his convictions with this very intriguing material—certainly with full knowledge that it would create a stir. And I applaud Will Smith for continuing to seek out projects that make us think, feel, and discuss. Here is the biggest, most consistently profitable movie star in the universe, and his last two films consist of a post-apocalyptic zombie film that was more quiet and introspective than it was an action blow-out (the sublime I Am Legend) and now an edgy superhero movie in which the “hero” is a drunken stooge, but that is merely the surface set-up for an intimate, keenly-observed tale of sacrifice, humanity, and love. Kudos also to Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman, both of whom also continue to take chances on important projects with brilliant results.

Greatness can be difficult to deal with, as evidenced by the way Hancock struggles with his own prolific power. Hancock is a great film that many find difficult to wrestle with. But it is one of the most unexpected and rewarding cinematic experiences you will see all summer.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

WOW-E


Below is my review of WALL-E. Yes, I know I have been promising many reviews of films that have opened well before WALL-E, but I reserve the right to post reviews in any order I want, and there is no more important film for you to know about than this one...


WALL-E is an extraordinary masterpiece. It is one of the most perfect films I have ever seen, which is in many ways different than simply calling it a “great” film. I analyze films constantly, and make films when the time and money come along, so even in the greatest of films, I can usually spot something I would do differently, however slight. But in 2007, we have seen not just one, but two shining examples of filmmaking perfection. The first is Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (review forthcoming), and the second is WALL-E. I would change nothing about WALL-E, from the beautiful opening shot to the miraculous, heart-rending closing image of the film’s end credits. Yes, a credits sequence can be heart-rending; this film is capable of unthinkable wonders.

The film is the latest from the brilliant minds at Pixar, for whose minds there are apparently no bounds. And now, after last year’s wonderful, sophisticated Ratatouille announced itself as the best Pixar release ever, now we have WALL-E, which is an even bigger step forward in Pixar’s sophistication ascent, and which is an even greater cinematic accomplishment. Here is a film that is about 80% silent by traditional standards and a film in which two lead characters barely speak ANY words at all apart from each other’s names, and yet this is one of the purest, most heartfelt and emotionally honest films I’ve ever seen…and one of the greatest modern love stories of our time. Yes, that’s right.

WALL-E is set over 700 years in the future, and tells the story of, well, WALL-E, or “Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class,” a futuristic trash compactor who is the sole survivor of an unseen apocalypse that rendered the earth’s surface unlivable and obliterated all organic life, with the exception of a select group who boarded a ship called the Axiom and have been living a fully automated life (in more ways than one) in outer space. WALL-E lives among the wreckage, and has spent the last several centuries fulfilling his “directive”—a word that takes on very diverse and unexpectedly powerful meanings throughout the film—which is to rid the earth’s surface of all refuse. The curious robot has, as his memory chip has processed so much of earth’s spoiled remains, formed a personality of sorts, and has compiled a vast collection of interesting trinkets during his journey. He has especially taken a liking to the film version of Hello, Dolly, which speaks to the lonely, undying romantic inside WALL-E.

WALL-E’s world changes when the Axiom sends a probe-droid named EVE (“Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator”) to search for any sign of organic life. The very sleek, very modern EVE instantly attracts the clunky WALL-E, and so begins the most unlikely but most breathtaking love story of recent years.

To describe the details of how the plot unfolds would be to spoil the sheer joy of moment-to-moment unknown. The cinema has the power to hold us in its grasp as we stare in wonder, waiting breathlessly for what will happen next. WALL-E does just that; it is one of the most creative, surprising, and stunningly complex films to be released all year. Its script is easily the most layered and tender of the year, and will most likely be one of the film’s most underappreciated assets. After all, there are very few words of dialogue in the film…but the story this film weaves is one of the benchmarks of modern screenplay writing. Explaining the film’s inner workings would be downright cruel, but individual moments are important to note: moments like WALL-E’s selfless care for EVE while she sits in a computerized hibernation; the moment where the humans on the Axiom awaken to the reality of their life in space; and the film’s most brilliant sequence, a dazzling and absolutely beautiful dance through the stars that WALL-E and EVE share.

The film also packs a powerful and unsparing vision of the future, one that holds humanity accountable for its actions. While the robots WALL-E and EVE share an emotionally honest love story, the humans lay on floating orbs drinking soda. They are the fat, lazy destroyers of the planet who now have no initiative and who have no clue as to the ramifications of their past actions, nor the inevitable path they are headed on (again, I am tip-toeing around spoilers). But in WALL-E, the emotional depth and unwavering resolve of the inorganic proves that somewhere, the same emotion and the same resolve must still exist in humanity. That underlying message makes WALL-E not only brilliant and subtle in its sub-textual storytelling, but also uncommonly poignant and intimately moving.

Many filmgoers and even many critics very often draw a clear line between “real films” and “family films/animation.” Yes, WALL-E is a G-rated animated film, but it is more mature in its message, more sophisticated in its storytelling, more accomplished in its visual style, and more complex in its underlying themes than any “adult film” I have seen all year. This is a film that will shake your soul and move you to tears if only you open your mind...and especially your heart. This is a film that will stand as a classic for years to come. This is a film you need to see. Now.