Baghead (Not A Story Of A Trooper York 3AM Date)

There’s some well-worn ground in the new little flick Baghead. Four actors who long for bigger and better careers are inspired after watching a (amusingly pretentious) low budget film to go into a cabin in the woods to make their own picture. The sexual dynamics between them are ambiguous on the one hand, and on the other, one of them dreams of a man with a bag over his head, and turns them down the road of making a horror movie.

Until Baghead starts making his presence known and they start disappearing one by one…or do they?

So we have a relationship movie about guys making a movie, that’s also a horror movie about guys making a horror movie.

It works pretty well. Someone on IMDB compared to the Coen Bros., but this is no Blood Simple. That said, it’s not bad.

Our characters are: the handsome one (Matt, played by Ross Partridge), the nebbishy one (Chad, played by Steve Zsiss), the older-and-wise blonde hottie (Catherine, played by Elise Muller), and the new blonde hottie (Michelle, played by Greta Gerwig). Matt and Catherine are “beyond labels” in their relationship, while Chad is crushing on Michelle. Michelle, of course, is crushing on Matt, which pisses Catherine off. Chad is resentful of Matt, who he thinks gets all the girls, but Matt isn’t doing too well, apparently, since he broke up with Catherine.

Somebody shoot me.

This stuff’s all right. There’s a lot of drinking. And scheming. But it’s a bit slow.

It’s also a bit familiar. I kept wondering if I knew these actors or I just knew a lot of people like them.

Baghead livens up the proceedings but the movie sort of plays with being a horror movie without ever actually being a horror movie. That’s not necessarily bad, except for me finding that, when they finally commit at the climax of the movie, I was curiously unimpressed. I didn’t buy it whole hog. The filmmakers didn’t convince me that they would actually allow the things to happen that I was seeing.

Part of this is the limit of low-budget-ness. The camera’s at a pretty removing distance most of the time. Part of it is the limit of the story, though, too. There’s a sleight-of-hand that’s not very convincing even when it’s all laid out at the end.

But, all-in-all, not bad. Short. Fairly thoughtful. They do manage a few good scares, though I would hasten to point out that that’s a relatively easy task compared to making an effective full-on horror movie.

Nonetheless, no point in critiquing it for not being what it’s not trying to be. It does what it tries to do fairly well. So, good work to the Duplass brothers who wrote and directed.

The Dark Knight Consterns

Batman Begins has the distinction of being the first Batman movie that isn’t even a little camp. The Batman has a particularly checkered past–which is saying something in the comic book world–including the rather famous TV series, which itself was reflective of the late ‘50s/early ’60s era of Dark Knight comix. (I mean, really, his outfit was done in a variety of pastels for one issue.)

The 1989 Tim Burton blockbuster proved that, given a big enough budget, you could create a good enough rendition of Gotham that people would line up to see it, even if you had no understanding of comic books, no insight into Batman, and fell back on camp in any mildly serious situation. (Burton’s Batman is positively casual about killing people, though only the Joker’s death is shown.)

Also, the 1989 script was just gawdawful. “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” That’s up there with “Don’t feed them after midnight” in the world of screenwriting.

Far worse was the follow-up with The Penguin and The Catwoman, where Burton makes it perfectly clear, he has no concept of comic book heroism. (Seriously, dude: Was there ever a comic book movie that had, as its overriding message, “We’re all victims”?)

After that, they just sort of gave up. Joel Schumacher publicly apologized for the fourth one, if not the third.

By contrast, under Chris Nolan (Memento, Insomnia), the Batman is starkly real and almost entirely humorless. There’s no camp to be found, which is good, but there’s also an unrelenting grimness, which is not so good. As severe as the first movie was, the new movie, The Dark Knight, is far more so.

The first movie used a stylized Gotham–not as heavily stylized as Burton’s movies, which took place primarily on sound stages and a small area inside the WB lot, but still obviously not any real city, and particularly fake in the ghetto where the fear drug was released. The new movie uses Chicago, without changes, and looks entirely different, and entirely real as a result. Also, The Batman himself is less stagey, appearing in full light from time to time.

I guess this is good. I have mixed feelings. I think reality is over-rated.

But realism is the watch word. The story concerns the highly corrupt Gotham as a few good men Bats, along with Gordon (Gary Oldman) and D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) try to pull an Elliot Ness and bring down some mobsters. Mixed in to this is Heath Ledger’s psychotic Joker, whose sole purpose in life is to bring down the Batman, and to bring chaos into the world. (This, actually, is not so different from Ra’s al Ghul in the first movie, though the Joker is supposedly less well organized, a premise which isn’t really sustainable given the things he pulls off.)

The primary struggle in the movie is how the three men, and Rachel Dawes (with Maggie Gyllenhall filling in ably for Katie Holmes) deal with the threats to their lives, their loved ones, and to civilization.

Heady stuff.

This aspect of the movie works fairly well. Gordon’s approach is different from Harvey Dent’s–and Aaron Eckhart’s performance has been, but shouldn’t be, totally neglected in favor of Ledger’s. The problem is with the Batman himself. And it’s something not easily retconned.

Two thing are apparent in the hyper-realism of this movie: It would be impossible not to kill bunches of people as a vigilante in the mold of Batman. The somewhat weak attempts made here to disguise the fact that all kinds of people, innocent and otherwise, would be killed during the caped crusader’s hijinx, breaks rather hard. Secondly, it’s just stupid for The Batman not to kill the Joker.

The Batman’s code–famously not to kill people, though he used to bump people off pretty casually in the ’40s–just doesn’t make sense in the context presented in the movie. The Joker even points it out: Batman will let lots of people die rather than do what needs to be done.

This has been a kind of running gag in Batman for decades, with Frank Miller providing the ultimate answer in his iconic The Dark Knight Returns.

Powerhouse acting–when your supporting crew is Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, you know you’ve got dramatics to spare–reasonably good action scenes, some suspense, and a little mystery, all combined with some pretty heavy drama, and you have yourself a good summer flick.

Althouse reports hating it. Heh. The Boy approved. And, really, so do I, but I think two things are certain:

1. It’s really not the greatest film ever made, whatever 125,000 IMDB users think.
2. Heath Ledger’s peformance is good, maybe even great, but his death is probably the main reason people are talking Oscar.

Batman was off-and-on my favorite comic as a kid, but to be honest, it was the “little” stories. Probably as a reaction to the series, the Batman of my youth were quiet little mysteries, often featuring ordinary people in a more Sherlock Holmes-like setting. Even pitted against the Joker, the setting was intimate. He seldom had more than a rope and grapple in his belt, and certainly he was not bullet-proof.

You couldn’t make a summer movie out of that, these days. It’s something PBS or the BBC might do.

Oh, well.

Top 10 Post Apocalyptic Movies and TV Shows

Good Post Apocalyptic movies are rare. Every dime store wannabe Roger Corman (including Roger Corman) makes a post-apocalyptic movie because it’s cheap. All you need is a handful of actors and a desolate shooting location and, voila, it’s the end of the world as we know it (and I’m not feeling so good).

I didn’t count the Terminator movies since they actually take place, for the most part, in the pre-apocalypso. I also don’t count Planet of the Apes, since for all intents and purposes it takes place on a different planet. The same goes for Time Machine. In other words, if it’s so far post-apocalyptic that there’s nothing left of the original civilization, it doesn’t really count.

You won’t find that first serious post-nuke movie, On The Beach, on this list, because two hours of “Waltzing Matilda” makes waterboarding seem humane by comparison. And it’s really “mid-apocalyptic” like The Day After. And, for the record, Glass’s Einstein on the Beach defines “inane”.

So, the basic rule is there has to be a complete breakdown of existing society, but enough time for some new form of rudimentary society has to have risen that recalls and clings to the old but is fragile and primitive. Scope is usually large and time is usually from ten to a hundred years or so, but that’s not necessary (see the list).

Anyone remember Ark II? It was largely forgettable SatAM moralizing about the environment but I never did actually forget it, because the Ark itself was parked in a lot visible from the 101 as you head downtown. Also, they had a jet pack.

Top 10 Post Apocalyptic Movies & TV Shows
(With The Caveat That I Haven’t Seen More Than A Few Minutes Of “Jericho”)

1. Road Warrior: Mad Max 2

Can there be any doubt? The ‘80s were the glory days of action, and this movie spawned a horde of imitators. Italian teens in grungy armor running through warehouses and crap like that. But it’s a solid story, with action that really holds up.

The first Mad Max was so-so–make sure you don’t watch the version where Mel Gibson and the other Aussie-accented ones are dubbed–and the third one (Beyond Thunderdome) was pretty good, and arguably should be included on the list.

2. Wall-E

You know, you don’t get a lot of family-oriented “post apocalyptic” movies. “I know! Let’s make a movie for the kids about how the world has come to an end!” This is a unique accomplishment discussed twice on this blog already.

3. A Boy and his Dog
This is probably the only movie based on a Harlan Ellison work that actually captures the guy’s cynical, misanthropic, but highly amusing attitude. A young Don Johnson cavorts around the wasteland with his telepathically linked dog, until he’s given a chance to rejoin society, a weird midwestern small town ca. 1935 that happens to be underground. Jason Robards co-stars. The end features the worst pun in movie history.

You can watch this or download it free online here.

4. The Matrix

Over-rated and seriously tarnished by the two sequels, which played like movies done by people who had read and believed all the great things other people were saying about them. Nonetheless, a watershed action film that holds up well over time.

This is a somewhat dubious entry as post-apocalyptic because there is obviously a new order; it’s more “alien invasion” in a lot of ways. But the underground life of the surviving humans is very typical of post-apoco movies, and the Matrix itself assures that the previous civilization is never forgotten.

5. 28 Days Later

Return of the Living Dead did it first, but director Danny Boyle made fast-moving zombies fashionable. Bonus points for animal rights terrorists causing the end of civilization. Actually, probably the only film on the list that’s got a plausible post-apocalpytic story, made possible I think because it’s only a month after the end of the world.

Yes, I know, it’s only the British Isles that end but, while global apocalypses are the norm, any isolated area where civilization’s ability to intervene is highly limited can also work. (See #9 below.) You could argue, for example, that Lord of the Flies is post-apocalyptic, in a way.

6. Dawn of the Dead

Speaking of zombies, Romero’s second zombie film is still pretty funny and fast-paced, despite the heavy-handed social commentary that’s as dated as a tie-dyed shirt.

Night of the Living Dead–probably the grandfather of modern horror–is mid-apocalypse (and they don’t even know it). Day of the Dead and later movies get increasingly heavy-handed, resulting in things like the ludicrous Land of the Dead: A good movie with a ridiculous premise that we should learn to co-exist with zombies.

Nonetheless, Romero makes a good movie every now and again, mostly about zombies. (Knightriders is a solid picture, often overlooked.) And Dawn of the Dead is easily one of his best.

7. The Last Man On Earth

Vincent Price in the original rendition of Richard Matheson’s tale, later to be remade with Charlton Heston as Omega Man, and again with Will Smith under its actual title, I Am Legend.

Omega is way too hippie, though. It has become camp over time. I Am Legend is a typically facile modern remake done up big budget with lots of CGI and not a lot of heart, riding on Smith’s charisma. And I’m sure I’ll feel that way even after I see it.

Yes, the Price version is very low budget, stagey and a little slow. I still prefer it. Make your own damn list if you don’t like it.

8. “Day of the Triffids” (1981 BBC TV mini-series)

Low budget, shot on video, but remarkably effective telling of John Wyndham’s story of alien plants run amok. Previously made in America with Janette Scott in a not very good movie, immortalized by the theme from Rocky Horror Picture Show.

9. “Twilight Zone” (various episodes)

TZ rocked so hard that they could have the pre-apocalypse, apocalypse and post-apocalypse in one episode. You know what I’m talking about: Burgess Meredith and his famous glasses. But there were other good pre-, post- and mid-apocalyptic shows. Arguably, the very first episode is post-apocalyptic. Then there’s “Two” with, I think, Elizabeth Montgomery. Etc.

The famous Billy Mumy episode, “It’s a Good Life”, where little Billy wishes people into the cornfield, actually fits pretty well into the post-apoco category. The town is completely isolated and the order is sort of a mockery of what it was.

Tie:
10. Wizards

Wildly uneven, hippy-tastic, cheaply made and crude, Wizards is still one of my favorite films. In a post-apocalyptic world, the forces of good, represented by a magic wizard, hot faerie chicks and asian looking warriors, do battle against the forces of evil, represented by mutants and technology and lots of Nazi stuff.

Ham-handed? Sure. But it’s also ridiculously accurate about the desire of some for a world where magic makes technology unnecessary.

Besides which, it’s fast, funny, and–where it’s not terribly hard to look at because it’s so cheap–very fun to look at.

10. Death Race 2000
Sharing 10th place with Wizards is the campy ’70s flick Death Race 2000 with David (heh, put “Bill” there originally) Carradine and Sylvester Stallone as racers in a future where glory comes from a cross-country road race, where points are assigned by the number and kind of pedestrians you hit.

Paul Bartel’s film is not aging all that well, again having that sort of ham-handed hippy-esque anti-America feel, but maybe, for what it is–a $300K film with a relatively interesting premise made in the high ’70s–it’s aging pretty well after all.

Paul W.S. Anderson (whose Resident Evil series didn’t make the top 10) is remaking this movie as Death Race with Jason Statham and Joan Allen. ISYN.

Honorable Mention: Korgoth of Barbaria

There’s only been one episode of this funny, funny show, but it’s well worth watching if you can find it, and lack any sort of good taste. It’s basically a high fantasy setting, but it’s post-apocalyptic (ike Wizards, which it rather resembles) and has plenty of modern references for humor and plot reasons.

This brain child of Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Clone Wars) and Aaron Springer (Spongbob Squarepants) features over-the-top violence, dumb jokes and plain ol’ slapstick. Somehow, it all works.

Why Didn’t I Hate Wall-E?

I saw Wall-E again, and was wondering to myself why I didn’t hate it. (This actually triggered a long rant on the nature of multiple viewings, but it’s such a mess I can’t bring myself to publish it.)

Anyway, conceptually, this Pixar movie contains pretty much all the elements of the crappy enviro-dystopic children’s “entertainment” of my youth, which may have something to do with my current hobby of deconstructing post-apocalyptic scenarios.

I mean, look at it: Wall-E posits a future–just 100 years away, mind you–where we’ve consumed and disposed of so much that we’ve actually destroyed the planet, and covered it with so much trash that we have to keep it in the cities that we lived in. And there’s enough to make cities with itself.

People have no sense of the scale of this planet, it’s just too big for people to grasp. We throw trash on the ground and weep like a fake Indian, but the impact is personal and aesthetic. (Likewise, the planet cares not whether it’s warmer or colder.) It is not “global”.

At the same time, we have an alternate utopic dystopia, if that makes sense, on board the Axiom. All human needs are taken care of, to the extent that humans themselves are totally incompetent. Yet despite this, the market structure seems to be unchanged. In other words, in a world where robots do all the work, people are still “buying” stuff somehow, and there’s an implication of exploitation, even though there’s nothing to actually exploit.

Meanwhile, the ship itself jettisons massive amounts of garbage out of itself–but from where is all the raw material for this garbage coming? Given that energy seems to be no problem, why wouldn’t this solution have worked on earth?

We won’t even talk about the whole babies thing. None of the people seemed to actually have ever had any physical contact with each other, and there are no children on the ship, only adults and babies. This suggests that the babies are gestated in some mechanical fashion and raised by machines until adult. I’m pretty sure this would create psychopaths.

Did I mention that a group of humans who were so physically underdeveloped and so conditioned to a trouble-free life would have zero chance of fixing anything? I mean, seriously, they’d have no hip sockets! (I bet you didn’t know that we’re not born with hip sockets, we make them by crawling and walking!)

Actually, they’d also be insane. If you’ve never noticed this, as society removes more and more real survival problems from people’s lives, they get crazier and crazier. Did you ever hear of a neurotic barbarian? Neuroses are a luxury of civilization.

Nope, Wall-E makes no sense, structurally. On top of that, it’s a story about robots with feelings, and there are few premises I find more annoying.

So, why didn’t I hate it?

First, it’s Pixar. Which means that it was executed at the highest level of artistic quality. You don’t hear talk of Lasseter retiring Pixar into the Disney brand; I think it’s clear that “Pixar” is going to maintain the premium brand.

Second, it’s Pixar, which means that there is a whole ‘nother movie’s worth of interesting, entertaining and funny details.

Third, it’s a kid’s movie. Director Stanton (A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo) makes kiddie movies, and he does so very well, by simplifying and streamlining things. Wall-E reverses the trend of kiddie movies getting longer and longer, so we can forgive him not showing the electro-re-programming machines that turn angry, psychotic teens into passive consumers. (Compare this to Brad Bird of Ratatouille, The Incredibles and Iron Giant, whose work tends to have a hard edge.)

Fourth, it’s very gentle, steering strongly away from the misanthropy that usually characterizes such films. The theme isn’t “evil humans destroyed the earth” so much as “we got kind of carried away and let things go, but it’s up to us to fix it”. The former message is a pretty crappy trick to play on kids, the latter a reminder to look at the real world once in a while, and to take care of it.

Finally, and this became apparent on a second viewing, Wall-E is first and foremost a love story. Like a Charlie Chaplin movie, the social commentary frames the story without changing it from boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl.

The two robots are the most human characters in the movie. And again, I have to fall back on the “Well, it’s Pixar!” thing again. These are the guys that make you care about toys, bugs, rats, and a freakin’ lamp. There’s the triumph of animation that can bring life to everything–and indeed, we find all the robots have personalities, even the poor, doomed security robots, this movie’s “stormtroopers”.

It would be odd to tihnk of the robots as not real, living beings.

So, I guess, on the scale of things, while it’s a message movie, the message is way more abstract than, say, Toy Story 2, which basically told your kids they were soul-destroying monsters for giving away their toys.

And I love Toy Story 2, too.

Trumbo: First Blood Part II

Trumbo! Ed Driscoll does a video commentary on the new documentary, pointing out that the movie never says whether Trumbo actually was a member of the Communist party. In its defense (sort of), it implies very heavily that he was, as were the others, because “it was the most liberal thing around”. He runs down the lengthy list of movies on the McCarthy era, and searches hard to find a few paltry counter-examples.

There actually isn’t anything like “Trumbo” on the other side. Refuseniks, for example, features no celebrities. Andy Garcia’s The Lost City was basically buried, and it was about the relatively small awfulness of Cuba’s “revolution”. Most of the anti-commie action films of the ‘80s were essentially anti-Nazi films with upgraded hardware.

There’s a remarkable wealth of material and ideas that Hollywood simply leaves on the floor. Imagine a movie with a religious hero, where a corporate executive saves the day, where a communist rounds up dissenters and kills them, and so on. Wild, eh?

As for Mr. Driscoll, someone will have to explain to me why he says he’s in a movie lobby when he’s clearly in front of a green screen. And also whether his suits are too big or his head is too small.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Director

I’ve liked Guillermo Del Toro since the dubious but strikingly visual Mimic. Directors who make more of the material than is actually there impress me, like Gore Verbinski. But where Verbinski seems to have gotten a little drunk with big budget pirate movies, del Toro takes on the comic book genre to produce one of the best and most original approaches to date. He even managed to bring back John Hurt in a flashback sequence to when Hellboy was about 10.

I like the young Hellboy, too.
Die his hair brown. He’ll totally look 30…40…wait, how old is he supposed to be?

In this installment, Hellboy–played by the inimitable Ron Perlman because Del Toro insisted–must fight to stop an elf prince from awakening the invincible Golden Army, built in some lost era when men and elves and goblins fought battles on the earth. The trio of Hellboy, Liz (Selma Blair), and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) is rounded out by an “ectoplasmic” German fellow, Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), who walks around in a sort of space suit and is something of a stickler for protocol. Returning is Jeffrey Tambor (who must soon be cast in “The Dr. Phil Story”) as the agency’s front-man with a difficult relationship with Hellboy.

The investigations begin at an auction house invaded by evil “tooth fairies”, move to the “Troll Market” and ultimately wind up in Ireland. (Actually, I think the whole thing was filmed in Eastern Europe, to make it possible to accomplish with a “mere” $85 million.)I’m not sure what part of this comes from the comic books, but it looks completely Del Toro, stylistically. The “tooth fairies” remind me a lot of the fairies in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Not sure what she'd make of the tooth fairies, tho'.
The Flower still hasn’t seen this film (2016). I think she’d like it.

Incidentally, Pan in Pan’s Labyrinth was also played by Doug Jones, who has two other roles in Hellboy, as the Angel of Death and the Chamberlain. He also played The Silver Surfer in the recent Fantastic 4 movie (but not the voice, which is Larry Fishburne) and all the imps in the Doom movie. I guess the mime training paid off. However, in the first movie, as was readily apparent to anyone who had ever watched even a single episode of “Frasier”, Abe Sapien was voiced by David Hyde-Pierce. For years, this has been driving me nuts, since it was so clearly his voice, yet–at Hyde-Pierce’s insistence–only Jones receives a credit. I only recently confirmed the truth. I do think however, Jones provides the voice for Hellboy 2.

Del Toro is quite masterful at moving between rather realistic modern settings to high fantasy, and at least one critic complained that there’s so much to see, that the movie’s main flaw is that it doesn’t give you a chance to stop and look at it. I can empathize, but it is a superhero movie after all.

This movie is fast, funny, touching and epic. It could have–and this is something you know I don’t say often or lightly–even been longer than the two hours it supposedly runs. (I imagine there’s about 20 minutes of credits, though.) And we saw the midnight show, and I was really tired.

Seriously.
Actors who spent five hours in makeup every day for 8 weeks don’t want to hear about how tired you were.

In short, this is a good summer movie. Take that Chris Nashatawy!

Update: Text reformatted and pictures added.

Riki Tiki Trumbo

For a brief shining moment in the ‘50s, anti-communist groups ran rough-shod over the Constitution and engaged in ineffective attempts to identify and rout out the massive Soviet infiltration of the government, education and entertainment industries.

This was a great moment for, well, the useful idiots that the USSR cultivated so carefully because they would forever point to it as vindication of all their beliefs. Other things, like the historical murderousness of their idols and the direct correlation of their ideals with the failures (indeed, destructions) of societies where they were employed, tend to garner less attention then the ten screenwriters who were blacklisted.

Also seldom mentioned is the fact that Hollywood, which routinely congratulates itself for its bravery and social advances, powered the blacklist, extending what might have been a relatively minor aberration. (The blacklist officially ended in the ’90s! what a profile in courage!)

Caught in this collusion of stupidity was one of the great screenwriters, Dalton Trumbo. A truculent, principled man who refused to cooperate with the fumbling bullies of the House Un-American Activities Commitee, and who paid dearly for not playing ball.

That said, a movie that is part biography and part actors reading Trumbo’s letters had a chance to be very, very bad indeed. I was a little concerned at first, since the first thing up is an absolutely horrible quote from Johnny Got His Gun. This may work better if you are more familiar with the story, but out of context, if you hear it it sort of sounds like, “Hey, yeah, that guy was a Commie!”

The rest of the movie is better, though, as Trumbo wasn’t a simple person. Too smart to demonize his enemies, but not so sublimely serene that he was above ripping them a new one. The movie excels when it focuses on the personal, how he dealt with the oppression, letters he wrote to his family, and a high point when Paul Giammati relates two letters he wrote to the phone company.

Other readers include Joan Allen, Michael Douglas and Liam Neesom, while Kirk Douglas is interviewed, and a lot of archive footage is used, as you might imagine, since most of the principals are long dead. All things stemmed from the HUAC’s abuse of power (and the shocking acquiescence of the Supreme Court), but with the exception of jail, the worst the family endured seem to come from what you might call freelance assholes: The movie studio blacklist, the publishers blacklist, the local school groups, realtors, etc.

The left tends to look at this and go “See!?!”, to the point where they’ve basically done the same thing to the right for the past several decades (created a de facto blacklist of those who disagree with them).

You could almost excuse the abuse of power if it had been effective, but the government messed with all these people, and we’re still awash in communism, in our schools, in our entertainment, and in our government. (Nationalization of oil companies, anyone?)

But instead, an ineffective government task force wasted tax money to destroy people they didn’t like, while doing nothing to actually solve the problem. And they picked some bad targets to have as enemies, probably making the situation worse.

What was especially cool about Trumbo is that you get the idea that he was standing up for something worth standing up for, and that he wouldn’t (and didn’t) turn around to be a tool for some other political viewpoint.

The Boy liked it as well, though he added, “Not enough of that John Adams guy.”

Pixar Conquers The Universe

The real problem with Wall-E is that it can’t possibly live up to expectations, can it?

Maybe. Right now, this latest flick from Pixar is hovering in IMDB’s top 10 of all time. I assume this will settle over time. I’ve already said how excited I was to see this film.

The Flower had earned herself a trip to the movies and she picked this over Get Smart. (She’ll have to work hard to get back to the movies before Get Smart leaves our preferred theater, though.) I don’t blame her, though.

I mentioned in the last review that the Laemmele has a 2-for-1 deal for certain movies. They also have a Wednesday $4 deal, so the four of us getting in was $16. Even with $12 for refreshment, that’s a pretty good deal.

Andrew Stanton, whose previous works are considered both among Pixar’s weakest (A Bug’s Life) and Pixar’s strongest (Finding Nemo), tackles a whole bunch of trite and dystopic clichés in this movie of a little garbage-bot who falls in love with a probe-bot on a trash-laden, dead Earth.

I mean, I grew up on environmental catastrophe movies, and the Earth-is-so-toxic-it’s-unliveable thing is was old even when I was a kid. (Ark II anyone?) The earthican population is living in a nearby space station (2001 on steroids), though they have grown fat and infantile over the centuries as their robots do everything for them. (There are babies, intriguingly, but it’s made pretty clear that humans never come into physical contact with each other.)

Actually, I got a serious Brave New World vibe off of it.

This really shouldn’t have worked. Everything I know about kiddie-enviro flicks is that they’re all preachy and about how bad Man is and so on. But it does work.

First of all, Wall-E and Eve are sort of–well, you know that lamp at the beginning of each Pixar movie? The Pixar mascot? This is them saying, “Yeah, we could make a whole movie starring that lamp and it would pwn!” This is basically a very good silent movie, though I don’t think it’s on a par with City Lights, necessarily.

The other reason it works is that it’s so, so gentle. Humans have forgotten what it’s like to be self-reliant. They aren’t inherently lazy or bad, just, well, things happen. Granted, Wall-E and the strangely attractive Eve (? how is that possible?) are the most, eh, human characters in the show, apart from the increasingly deshiveled Fred Willard, but there’s a kindness mixed in with some gentle slapstick that makes us root for the humans.

So, while we have the typical messages about rampant consumerism, pollution and–if I’m not mistaken, there are no polar regions left–global warming, the movie doesn’t try to be about those things, and surely doesn’t bludgeon you with them.

Thomas Newman provides a typically distinctinve score (called it in the first five minutes) that is both distinctly the work of the guy who did Finding Nemo and The Green Mile, and very unique to this film.

To top it all off, the movie comes in at 97 minutes and features a hilarious Pixar short at the front. And, of course, it’s breathtaking, with hyper-real looking shots of Wall-E’s garbage collecting and Hubble-worthy scenes of outer space.

John Ratzenberger and Kathy Najimy play the first two humans to wake up, with Jeff Garlin as the heroic captain who overcomes his tiny baby limb-limitations. As a special treat Sigourney Weaver–who played the crazy ship’s voice in an episode of Futurama–plays the voice of the ship’s computer in this film as well.

The Boy was curiously restrained in his approval at first. By the time we got home, though, he was asking about seeing it again, and when would it come out on DVD. There is no higher praise.

The Flower was quite pleased as well, as was Grandpa, who accompanied us at The Flower’s request. Curiously, an older lady asked The Boy and The Flower what they liked, and I gather she didn’t like what she called “the crazy parts”. I was curious as to what those were, but whatever they were seemed to put her off so much that I didn’t want to offend her by not knowing what (obviously!) they must have been.

It worked for us, though. I’d recommend it for anyone who didn’t need dialogue in a movie. I do sort of pity the next Pixar flick–but I think that’s going to be Toy Story 3, so it probably doesn’t need my pity.

Go, Live and Become

We were going to try to hit the free showing of Live and Become at the locale Laemmele but it’s basketball season again for The Flower and that tends to cut into the movie nights. The games are great, though.

We were itching to see something, though, and The Flower called dibs on both Wall-E and Get Smart, so we went down to Encino to see Live and Become there. The Encino theater is both more expensive and smaller than the West Hills theater, and the staff is a little more standoffish (though still a billion times more alert than most theater chains around here), but we do venture down there at night because the local Laemmele has its last show in the 8pm range.

Extra bonus: Live and Become was the designated “movie of the week”, so one ticket paid for both of us. Cool.

Anyway. Live and Become (Va, vis et deviens) is a French-ish film directed by a Romanian and featuring predominately French, Hebrew and Amharic languages (with a smattering of Yiddish), about an Ethiopian boy raised in Israel. I had more occasion than I cared to muse over this since the subtitles were all too frequently white-on-white.

During the ‘80s Ethiopian–have to struggle not to type Ethernopian, after “South Park”–famine, Jewish Ethiopians, the Falasha (children of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, I think) were allowed to escape into Israel. When a Jewish woman’s son dies, a nearby Christian mother sees an opportunity for her son to escape.

Once in Israel, the Jewish mother also dies, and the boy (“christened”, heh, “Schlomo”) ends up orphaned and forced to carry his secret alone.

The movie follows Schlomo from here to his adulthood, and manages to have a truly epic feel. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, it actually felt much faster than the slightly shorter Mongol.

We see the amazing country of Israel, generous enough to accept Ethiopians and petty enough to start little witch hunts to route out the fake Jews, or to treat the blacks badly out of fear of AIDS, an oasis in a truly forbidding desert, but not simple.

And the people are not simple, either. We see good and bad in the same people, though even when the bad comes up, there’s a strong sense of family.

Most fascinating, however, is Schlomo’s journey from ostensible Christian to Jew. He goes to schul (?), has a bar-mitzvah, enters into a formal debate about the color of Adam’s skin in front of the community and rabbis (“the controversies”, they called it), and yet constantly feels like a fraud. And he constantly yearns for his mother while puzzling over her last message to him: “Go, live and become”. But become what?

He tries on several occasions to tell the truth, but somehow it never works out for him.

His journey takes him in several directions, and all three actors (a child, a teen and a young adult) carry the role well. (The teen and the adult didn’t look that much like each other to me, but it was only momentarily disturbing.)

There’s a recurring theme with the moon, which the NYT reviewer calls mawkish, but which I thought were appropriate for the character’s age. Schlomo talks to the moon, and whenever something personal emerges, it’s in the form of one of these monologues. He even incorporates it (inappropriately, I think) into his debate. I rather liked that because, as children and teens, especially that’s what we tend to do: Put things that resonate with us out in public thinking everyone will relate to them.

Also, the same review (which is quite good and more focused than my usual rambling) refers to the movie not diving into Schlomo’s internal struggle enough. Again, I’d consider this a positive attribute. Rather than have him wail about his conflict, the conflict emerges, often in ways even Schlomo doesn’t clearly understand.

What’s particularly interesting about this struggle, at least to me, is Schlomo’s sense of being a fraud. There can be no doubt that from the get-go he studies Judaism with a passion and never once can be seen as just going through the motions. (His Christianity seems to be something he learned by rote.) But by virtue of being in Israel on false pretenses, he never feels right.

And that, along with the struggle to understand (in his heart, surely intellectual he quickly grasps) his mother’s actions, is what gives the movie its focus. I love this aspect of the film: It isn’t about the Falasha in Israel, it’s not about racism and politics, it’s about one person, and how he creates and comes to terms with who he is.

The Boy approved heartily.