Sunday, June 29, 2008

"Wall-E" another winner from Pixar

Continuing an enviable creative and commercial trend, Pixar has made it nine-for-nine with their latest, Wall-E. I already told you how critics nationwide were heaping praise on the post-apocalyptic robot romance as if it were the Second Coming. But sometimes a movie will connect with critics differently than with audiences, so last night Wendy and I put Wall-E to the "average moviegoer" test.

Let me start by saying that critics are right to say that you've never seen a movie like this. Yes, it has elements reminiscent of other sci-fi epics (like Star Wars or Aliens), yet it feels completely fresh and unique. As you have learned from the trailers, Wall-E is the last functioning robot left on Earth, and throughout the first 25 minutes or so of the movie, we learn about his lonely life compacting trash on a planet that has become overrun by it. While this section is certainly the least conventional, it is also the most engaging. Director Andrew Stanton's vision of a futuristic Earth equal parts magnificent and haunting, and Wall-E's survival in this world is fascinating.

To say that the rest of the movie is less-effective is probably unfair, since it contains loads more charm and imagination than almost anything else out there. Let's just say that as Wall-E's subsequent adventures become slightly less focused on him and his "directive" (which may or may not involve holding hands with a sleek and curvy visiting robot named EVE), the movie loses a bit of the warmth and simplicity that so successfully fills the first half.

I wouldn't say that this film is necessarily a "message movie" because it never feels preachy or agenda-driven. Having said that, the themes of environmental neglect and lazy human consumption are the critical backdrop of Wall-E's journey, and the indirect antagonist as well. Pretty heavy for a kid's film, right? The screening we attended was a late show and completely child-free, so I was unable to tell how children were reacting to the adventure. I suspect that they would have been a little antsy during some of the slower moments, but that they would have ultimately been won-over by Wall-E and his good-natured spirit to the point that they wouldn't think too hard about the darker underlying themes.

While the film predictably ends in a happy place, I couldn't help but feel slightly unsettled by the world that I had just seen. Though it is filled with cheery characters and amazingly inventive visuals, it's probably the most unnerving feel-good film I can remember seeing; I wanted to drive straight to the forest and take a deep breath of fresh mountain air.

The creative minds behind Wall-E have succeeded in telling a story that I won't soon forget. That it is a slightly less-satisfying film than some of Pixar's other efforts shouldn't take away from the fact that it is visually and emotionally arresting in ways that you wouldn't expect. I'm dying to hear what you think. (***1/2 out of four)

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Here are a few things I'm thinking about while being a girl's camp-induced single father:
  • CBS announced today that my favorite reality show, The Amazing Race, will return for its 13th edition on September 28. Though loved by the Emmys (it's the only show to win in the Outstanding Reality Competition category since it was introduced in 2003), it has never been as popular as other reality staples like Survivor or American Idol. Sunday is my least-favorite day on which it has aired (harder to turn into a social event), but at least it's coming back.
  • The reviews for Pixar's latest, Wall-E, have been nothing short of stellar. I already couldn't wait to see it, but some of these snippets have gotten me even more excited:
    • "Dangerously close to the sublime..."
    • "2008's first perfect film and one of the best Pixar projects of all time."
    • "A jewel of a film in conception, execution and message."
    • "Some day, there will be college courses devoted to this movie."
  • Wendy and I rented a few movies recently, none of which I have made time to formally review:
    • Fool's Gold is trashy and not nearly fun enough to justify its sleaziness.
    • Jumper is mildly exciting, with an interesting concept that could lead to a good sequel, but gets bogged down by wooden acting and too-little back story.
    • Cloverfield is the dizziest, dumbest disappointment I've seen in a looong time.
    • Lars and the Real Girl is probably the most unexpected delight we've stumbled upon in recent years; it's warm, quirky, and ultimately redeeming. (Don't worry about its kinky premise, it's not really what you think.)
  • Finally, I saw Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in theaters over the past couple of weeks. Iron Man, as you have probably heard, is energetic, witty, and a lot of fun. (Robert Downey, Jr. is perfect as Tony Stark.) Hulk, on the other hand, is perhaps even more disappointing than the 2003 art house version. It's louder, yes, but mayhem and explosions do not always a good movie make. It's really a joyless affair; sort of like a less heartfelt version of King Kong. That's twice that Universal/Marvel have gotten money from me to see the big green fellow destroy things and twice I've felt cheated. If this movie makes its money back and the studio makes another (which at this point is unlikely), it's going to take some supernatural powers to get me to give it a third try.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pregnancy pact?

TIME magazine is reporting that a group of Massachusetts teenage girls--some as young as 15 years old--have entered into a "pregnancy pact" to get pregnant and raise their children together. Read the whole article, originally reported last week, here.

I find the whole debacle to be horribly disturbing. It would be easy to blame the teen-pregnancy epidemic on the teens' parents, who should be playing a larger role in the sex education and moral foundation of these children. I suppose part of the blame could be on schools, many of which refuse to teach about abstinence. And of course the girls should bear the largest burden of guilt--they do, after all, have at least some education and intelligence.

Now I hate to be a prude--I love a good movie or an addictive TV show as much as anyone. But isn't there also a measure of blame that should be directed toward Hollywood? Though movies like Knocked Up and Juno have tried to show the issue in a humorous and semi-truthful light, I can't help but wonder if they are partially responsible for glorifying premarital sex (particularly unprotected sex). More disturbing is the list of shows that pass for teen entertainment like Gossip Girl or pretty much anything on MTV or VH1. Why isn't there more of a desire from producers to address these issues in a more responsible way?

Hollywood defends itself by saying that they aren't evangelizing sexuality; they are simply reflecting the society in which we live. I suppose there is a measure of truth to that, but it's a chicken & egg type of scenario that really absolves everyone of any responsibility.

Obviously I'm not saying that we should boycott Hollywood, or even blame them for the world's evils. But I do hate to think of a world in which Lily won't be able to enjoy any mainstream entertainment simply because it glorifies behaviors that disagree with our values. So what's the solution?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Special effects legend Stan Winston remembered

I was saddened to hear that Stan Winston, special effects wizard and multiple Oscar-winner, passed away on Sunday. Winston created some of film's most memorable and innovative effects, and was as skilled with unique make-up effects as he was in creating incredibly realistic animatronic creatures. Though you probably didn't know his name, you'll undoubtedly recognize some of his impressive body of work:
  • The giant alien mother that battles Sigourney Weaver in Aliens
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger's robotic alter-ego in the Terminator films
  • The creepy/ugly title monster in Predator
  • Johnny Depp's intricate claws in Edward Scissorhands
  • The groundbreaking dinosaurs in 1993's Jurassic Park
  • The Goblin Valley creatures from Galaxy Quest
  • Some of the fairy tale images from Big Fish
  • Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man suit
His effects have peppered some of my all time favorite movies, and who knows how many other cinematic visions we'll miss out on because of his passing. It's people like Stan Winston that can make movie-going a magical experience...he will be missed.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Vatican bans "Angels & Demons" production

From the Associated Press: "Rome's diocese said Monday it has barred the producers of "Angels & Demons" from filming in two churches for the prequel to the "The Da Vinci Code," the popular book and film that angered many Catholic leaders." Read the full story here.

This news doesn't surprise me at all. While the book of Angels & Demons doesn't necessarily paint as poor a picture of the Catholic Church that The Da Vinci Code does, it does address several of the themes that made Da Vinci so controversial, such as the Church's ultra-secretive ways. Without spoiling the story to those of you who haven't read Angels & Demons, the plot does surround some mysterious murders that may or may not have been orchestrated by people high up in the Church's leadership.

This sentiment by the Catholic Church isn't new to this franchise. When filming 2006's The Da Vinci Code, producers were denied access to the interior of the Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris (the church that supposedly contains the fabled "Rose Line"). As an alternative, producers filmed those scenes in a computer-generated virtual set. Producers of Angels & Demons have made no formal comments about the current ban, but will undoubtedly move forward with filming at another location, virtual or otherwise.

Dan Brown's novels have been a double-edged sword to the Church and to several other famous European destinations, such as the Louvre. While Brown's theories have been widely discredited, swarms of fans, anxious to walk in Robert Langdon's fictional footsteps, continue to visit these locations each year. Case in point: when in Paris with friends in 2006, Wendy and I visited Saint Sulpice (as seen above) with no other intention than to view the fabled "Rose Line." If it hadn't been for the book/movie, we would have never seen this magnificent church.

And how does Saint Sulpice greet its Da Vinci Code guests? With a prominently-placed flyer, disputing many of the book's blasphemous claims.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Worst sitcom ever?

I've had a hard time choosing much to blog about this week. I found a really exciting early draft of the screenplay that could (and should) have become Indy 4, but I figured that most of you have Indiana Jones fatigue. Then I thought about blogging about So You Think You Can Dance, but I was mildly bored by it last night, so I didn't have much to say.

Finally I stumbled upon this link, which ranks the 25 "worst" sitcoms of all time. I don't agree with the complete list, and don't even recognize some of the shows, but laughed when I saw their choice for #1: the cheesy late 80s girl-robot "comedy" called Small Wonder.

I can't explain exactly why we used to watch this as kids...even back then we knew that the acting was terrible, the sets were cheap (how many times did Vicki the robot punch through a paper-thin door or wall?), and the premise was ridiculous. Don't even get me started about the terribly obnoxious laugh-track. The show even had one of those corny introductions at the beginning where the actor would be doing something (like eating a sandwich) and then suddenly look at the camera and smile while their name shows up on the screen. The only "small wonder" here is why anyone watched it long enough for it to last four years.

What would be your choice for the worst sitcom of all time?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Keira Knightley in "My Fair Lady" remake?

It was just announced that the Oscar-winning classic, My Fair Lady, is in the process of getting a big-screen remake. You'll remember that this was a role made famous on stage by a pre-Mary Poppins Julie Andrews, who was then jilted by movie producers, who picked Audrey Hepburn for the 1964 film. (Andrews got her just rewards when she beat out Hepburn for the Best Actress Oscar that year for Poppins.) Hepburn, of course, was devastated when she ended up being dubbed for the songs throughout the movie. She's been known as Audrey Epburn ever since. (I made that last part up.)

Apparently Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride & Prejudice) is being courted to take on the role of Eliza Doolittle in the remake. Now we know she can fence, and we know she can play soccer, but can she sing? Or will she follow Hepburn's example and end up being dubbed?

Some of you can't stand Knightley, who tends to purse her lips more than is generally accepted to be healthy. I personally think she's a great actress, and think she's a very interesting choice for the role. I can't wait to see how this develops. What do you think?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Oliver Stone's "W" biopic begins filming

Oliver Stone is a liberal and almost always controversial director. He has created some films that are widely respected (Platoon, Wall Street), others that are divisive (JFK, Nixon), and some downright bombs (Alexander). He's also a very vocal critic of the current Bush administration, and has decided to make a "comedic" biopic about George W. Bush and his presidency. Read about the movie and its impressive cast here.

I'd really be more interested in the film if it came from someone determined to tell the story from a more objective point of view. But regardless of how you feel about our current POTUS, you've got to admit that a movie about Pres. Bush is probably ripe for some occasionally humorous storytelling. Let's take the movie's initial poster, for example, which includes some classic Bush-isms (click on the image below for a larger view):You can't read them very well, but I think this is my favorite: "Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream." It's my sincere wish that all of our wings will someday take dream.


Some of my female fans have requested a full-body shot of me. (I can't blame them.) So here it is, without further ado...a candid snapshot of me doing one of my favorite pastimes. Any similarities to Olympic wrestler Rulon Gardner are purely coincidental.

That's me in the middle.

This picture actually stemmed from a conversation at work where I revealed that in second grade, my parents put me into super-cub wrestling. As I remember it, I cried every Saturday morning before a match because I really really REALLY didn't want to get into that ugly and skin-tight singlet. Apparently the thought of my chubby person in a singlet was too much to resist for my Photoshop-skilled friend, Brandon, who whipped up this delight.

For the record, I think an actual shot of me in a singlet would only be slightly more flattering.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

First chapter of "Breaking Dawn"

How much do I love my diverse and loyal readers? So much so that I realize that there are many of you who couldn't give a flying rip about hobbits or Indiana Jones. Just to keep myself safely on your good side, here's a link to an excerpt from Stephanie Meyer's upcoming Edward-the-vampire sequel, Breaking Dawn, which is scheduled for release in August.

Ms. Meyer has become the real-deal lately. Her most recent sci-fi thriller, The Host, is tearing up the bestseller lists. To those who are making it through the confusing first 100 pages or so, the book is gaining fans on an Edward-type level. Not bad for a stay-at-home mom who didn't plan on being an author in the first place.

Do stunningly chaste vampires and romantically parasitic aliens do anything for me? No. But don't tell me I don't know what my legion of fans is clammering for...

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Chat transcript with "The Hobbit" creators

Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, co-creators of the upcoming film adaption of Tolkien's The Hobbit, participated in an online chat last weekend with fans of the LOTR films and books. The chat is lengthy and detailed, but you can read it here.

Though filming on the upcoming movies doesn't even begin until next year, the two filmmakers are beginning the process of writing the scripts. Among the highlights I gleaned from the chat:
  • Of the second film being made which will bridge the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, del Toro said this: "Unequivocally, every single actor that originated a role in the Trilogy will be asked to participate and reprise it." This comment assumes that they find a way to tie in these characters, but it's encouraging to think that we may see some of our favorite LOTR characters on-screen again (Jennie, your crush on Legolas may soon be rekindled...)
  • Obviously, it won't make sense to have the elderly Ian Holm reprise his role as Bilbo Baggins for a story that involves a much younger Bilbo (although Holm may appear in the second film); the filmmakers are mum about which actor they would like to see play the younger Bilbo. Rumors on the web are saying that James McAvoy (Atonement, the first Narnia movie) is a front-runner.
  • Guillermo del Toro has some really interesting ideas about Smaug, who you might remember as the talking dragon from the final third of the book. While he didn't come right out and say that Smaug will actually have an audible voice, he did say that Smaug will speak (unlike Peter Jackson's version of Shelob the spider, who was voiceless in the film). I can't wait to see what he has in mind.
It was nice of the two men to take some time to show some love to the fanbase that made their previous films such successes. I hope that they'll keep the communication open throughout the film-making process. In the meantime, we've got until 2011 before we'll really get to see how they will interpret The Hobbit. I can't wait!