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Sunday, Jun 29, 2008
As part of a double dose of Disney Monday, Chris Barsanti looks at the recent release from CG savants Pixar.

During the expected pre-release hoopla leading up to the ultra-Disney-sized opening for the newest bit of Pixar CGI twee, Wall-E, director/writer Andrew Stanton swore up and down that the film was not supposed to have any sort of environmental message. In interview after mind-numbing roundtable interview (those modern stations of the cross for the entertainment industry to atone for their success), Stanton made it clear that it was a story about one lonely robot falling in love with another robot. Stanton told MTV News that the film was supposed to be “science fiction” and not “science fact.” That is of course true (unless the Disney Wall-E toy robot turns out to be much more intelligent than anticipated). It’s also the kind of statement that a creative person is almost honor-bound to make; one doesn’t sit down at the keyboard or show up to the set (or animation equivalent thereof) every day in order to make a statement. One wants to craft a story.


But, given the unalterably bleak vision of the future that Wall-Econtains, Stanton’s disavowal doesn’t quite ring true. It’s not as though one can simply take the film’s backdrop of devastation and either take it or leave it, as you could for, say, a sci-fi action film where a totalitarian future is nothing more than the excuse necessary to give its characters cool shades and a burning need to utilize high-tech weaponry at the drop of a hat. In Wall-E, the love story between the two robots only exists because of the dystopian vision that surrounds them. The two are inseparable, which is as it should be. One mark of great narrative art is that the setting, characters, and plot mesh together into a cohesive storytelling mechanism. So while Stanton was most likely telling the truth when he said that there was no “message” in the film, that should not be taken to mean that one can either take or leave the film’s quite loud and damning indictment of consumerism. That critique is just as much a part of Wall-E as is the moment when the two robots first hold hands. To say otherwise would be like claiming that the organized crime elements of The Godfather are really secondary to the main story, and quite beside the point.


Wall-E unfolds some seven centuries from now, when the Earth has undergone complete environmental collapse, a sort of fatal and global toxic shock. The planet is all dirt-brown vistas and dead cities, and not a living creature to be seen; like what one could imagine the world in Soylent Green looking like a few decades hence. Wall-E is a robot who’s spent untold centuries puttering around a poisoned Earth, busily compacting the mounds of detritus left by a big-box-shopping culture and turning them into neat little cubes that he then stacks into futuristic obelisks of waste. There’s no end of work for him to do, because as the film’s mostly silent opening makes clear, the humans that blasted off from the planet in 2100 were a frighteningly wasteful lot with plenty in common with those of us watching the film from cushioned stadium seating.


Amidst the rickety skyscrapers and crumbling overpasses, the film splatters everywhere logos for the ubiquitous, 7/11-esque Buy N Large corporation, which, prior to the human race blasting off into outer space in their cruise liner of an ark, seemed to have become the one-stop private/public business/government omnientity in charge of essentially all human activity. There are signs of elephantine big box stores with square miles of parking, and holographic advertisements still flicker up in Wall-E’s determined path from time to time. The message is clear and all the better for its utter lack of subtlety: This is a planet destroyed by overconsumption, aided and abetted by a sickening web of consumer-industrial-complex propaganda, where passivity is purchased by shoveling as much junk food and unnecessary purchases into humanity’s maw. Too much stuff for too many people who don’t need that stuff results in ecosystem-shattering levels of pollution and garbage; Earth is killed by shopping.

One of the perverse ironies of Wall-Eis that the surviving humans (there is no mention of what happened to all the people who couldn’t fit onto the admittedly huge Axiom cruiser) are then coddled into blob-like indolence by even more depraved levels of Barcolounger and Big Gulp-style creature comforts. Having been complicit in the destruction of the home planet, the human species on display in Wall-E is a swaddled band of babies, interested in little beyond the datascreens always plopped right in front of their jowly faces, much like the soulless entities inhabiting E.M. Forster’s prescient 1909 story “The Machine Stops.” It’s nearly impossible to behold these twin nightmares, the blasted Earth and the purgatorial shopper’s paradise of Axiom, and imagine that the film is anything but a clarion call warning of the environmental catastrophe to come. The fact that the robots at the film’s heart are more demonstrably human and brave than practically any of the homo sapiens lurching about, only proves the point more. This is not a species to be impressed by.


Another irony of Wall-E, and one that has rightly been widely noted in the blogsophere, is that the filmmakers participate quite avidly in the same consumerism that their film blasts away at with such heat. By dint of all the thousands upon thousands of plastic Wall-E and EVE toys that Disney will be trucking into the marketplace for this year and (they hope) many more to come, the Pixar boys become part and parcel of the same hypocrisy.


But, then, we all are, of course.


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Sunday, Jun 29, 2008

One really does have to feel bad for the Romantic Comedy. It’s a genre that’s life support system is more or less irretrievably broken. Of course, part of the problem lies in the two categories it contains. By its very nature, big screen humor has been running on empty for almost a decade. Besides, it’s hard to find love inside a stratagem consisting of tawdry gross out gags and juvenile Jokes from the John. And then there’s the ‘Moon/June’ part of the picture. In 2008, we no longer comport to the ‘love and marriage’ ideals of relationships. Instead, like the rest of our overcomplicated lives, we want to micromanage affection, leaving it less like a sunny summer sentiment and more like an emotional wash. Leave it to this past February’s Definitely, Maybe to try and revive the flat-lining film style. That it almost works is a testament to the category’s - and creator’s - staying power.


Former political consultant turned ad executive Will Hayes should have a wonderful life. His career choice has found him working on high profile campaigns for former President Bill Clinton, and now he’s a big success. He’s also got a precocious little daughter named Maya who just adores him. But when it comes to his love life, Will is always on the losing side. On the verge of a divorce from his wife, he is confronted by his inquisitive child, her questions framed around his seemingly failed romances. Agreeing to explain his past, with one small exception (he will change the women’s names), Will begins by outlining his exploits, starting with college sweetheart, Emily. After he moves to NYC, he finds himself embroiled in elections, and an affair with the idealistic Summer. Finally, he hooks up with April, an ambitious copy girl who seems to challenge his very purpose. It’s up to Maya to put together the clues, and discover who her mother represents…and if there’s a chance to save her freefalling family.


All throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Hollywood was convinced that the only way to make love stories truly work was to dress them up in outrageous, high concept fantasy. Unless you were Woody Allen, Tinsel Town thought you needed otherworldly help in creating something quixotic. Be it literally bewitched gals pining for a ‘mortal’ man, or angels desperate to connect with their humorless human charges, real people just can’t get together anymore. Instead, certain types - either freakishly fictional or meet cute manipulative - have to be devised, and then their escapes framed around a certain narrative device (frequently fashioned after an old school cinematic tearjerker) to get dates to dish out the dollars. Happily, Definitely, Maybe (new to DVD from Universal) avoids some of these pitfalls, instead hoping that a post-modern nostalgia guides the audience’s affections.


Thanks to the capable direction of Adam Brooks and a stellar cast including Ryan Reynolds as the put upon Will, Abigail Breslin as his daughter Maya, and a trio of charming fantasy gals - Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher - this fluffy piece of celluloid cotton candy has a tad more heft that your average heartstring strainer. By using the unique (if slightly wonky) narrative device of presenting all three ladies as possible partners, we get a much more viable view of how love and loss works. Even better, the political backing and time warp realizations (this is the early ‘90s, when grunge is still a novelty and Bill Clinton represents the future of America) aid in our sense of recognition. Unlike other RomComs that rely on ancient concepts of companionship to meter out their meaning, Definitely, Maybe tracks a more contemporary, quasi-ironic bent.


Most of this is done on purpose. As part of the full length audio commentary offered as part of the digital package, Brooks defends the whodunit like story structure, arguing that it helps sustain a focus as well as a certain likeability rooting interest in what is going on. One of the reasons the film functions so efficiently is that we see where Will made his mistakes, as well as the pain they caused. There is also the genuineness generated by Breslin. As one of the best child stars of her generation, she creates a kind of psychic sphere of influence, her perception reflecting our own take on the material. Through her, we sense the sentimentality in her father’s predicament, and hope for the genre-mandated happy ending.


Again, it’s the performances that support our attention. Reynolds, who can be a bit too jock cocky in his mannerism, finds a perfect balance between machismo and melancholy. Though he never comes across as lame, he’s definitely a leading man in training. As for his female co-stars, all create the necessary sense of boy/girl balance. Weisz in particular seems an expert at both the seduction and the send-off, while Elizabeth Banks’ Parker Posing could be toned down a bit. After an introductory sequence where she discovers the particulars of sex (it’s part of her school’s new educational regime), Breslin isn’t given much more to do. But thanks to the aforementioned openness in her expressions, we instantly forgive the limits.


Oddly enough, when viewed as a whole, Definitely, Maybe isn’t all that impactful. In fact, the reason Allen’s name gets tossed into the mix is that, with films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, the American auteur managed to mix humor with heartbreak in a way that seemed to resonate on a more universal, communal level. Even those of us who never lived a day in an uptown loft understood the pleasures and problems his characters were going through. Brooks is clearly no Wood-man, but he’s also not one of the numerous hacks who hopelessly exploit the inherent value of a screen kiss to contemplate all manner of middling to miserable contrivances. There are a lot worse things for a post-millennial RomCom to be besides ‘enjoyable’, and yet that’s an apt description of this film’s pixie stick commerciality. It may not be a dense, delectable treat, but while it’s around, Definitely, Maybe is pleasant enough.


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Sunday, Jun 29, 2008

True fans of cinema generally hate dubbed foreign films. Not only do they miss the beauty of the native language, but every rerecording job seems to feature Western actors misinterpreting the onscreen emotions to screech poorly scripted words to impossible to match lip movements. No matter how well done the final attempt is, or how much it complements the original’s intent, something seems to be off, a vibe that’s as visible as those misjudged mouth inflections. For his first film in English, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046) has created a vignette oriented road picture following one lonely woman as she casts off the shadows of her prior life (and lover) and looks for redemption and rebirth along the byways and backwaters of the US. And just like those inexplicably unsettling translations from one idiom to another, something just doesn’t feel right.


Smarting after being dumped by her boyfriend, a dark and brooding Elizabeth stumbles into the NY café run by bubbly Brit Jeremy. Looking for a sympathetic voice, and maybe a slice of pie, the two strike up a curious friendship. One night, Elizabeth up and leaves, running off to Memphis to escape her ever-present heartache. There, she finds an alcoholic policeman named Arnie who refuses to give up on his cheating wife, Sue Lynn. Sadly, their feelings can’t transcend a relationship in freefall and a couple in deep denial. Later, our heroine finds herself in Reno, working in a casino and befriending a lying young card sharp named Leslie. When a poker game goes sour, both girls head to Vegas to connect with Leslie’s dad. What they discover there has Elizabeth wondering about who she is, where she’s comes from, and those “Blueberry Nights” with Jeremy.


As with any film that divides up its narrative into more than one section, My Blueberry Nights (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) lives or dies by the effectiveness of these pieces. If one fails, or fully overwhelms the others, the whole sensation of the movie can be thrown off. In the case of Wong Kar Wai’s contemplation upon the meaning of love and all its painful complications, the internal elements are far more intriguing than the set up and resolution. During the two middle acts of the narrative, we learn about addiction, obsession, denial, and youthful rebellion. We see how one man’s inability to stay connected to his slut styled trophy wife leads to a battle with the bottle, while a cocksure daughter demands her father accept her on her own, indirect terms. With excellent performances by David Straitham, Rachel Weisz, and Natalie Portman, these moments manage to soar.


But the wraparound story, featuring Jude Law and Norah Jones is nothing short of ordinary. Aside from the performance aspect, which finds the singing sensation putting on her acting garb for the first time (and only partially succeeding), we never understand the deeper connection between the two. As they swap stories and symbolic rituals, comparing how life has left them both in the lurch when it comes to companionship, we never see the supposed smoldering chemistry. So when Jones’ Elizabeth heads out on the road, leaving Law’s Jeremy to wonder where his nightly pie pal has disappeared to, we aren’t moved, but confused. It makes the later actions of both characters - her writing lovelorn postcards from parts unknown, his incessant calls to all the bars and cafés in Tennessee - seem meaningless.


The final stumbling block that many will have to manage, aesthetically, is Wong Kar Wai’s visual choices. There is a heightened neon candy colored sense to the cinematography, the greens and reds shimmering like jewels amongst a dark Manhattan/Memphis backdrop. As he states in the extras found on the DVD, the director considered his first “American” film a chance to create a love letter to the city and state of mind he knows all too well (his wife’s family is from New York City). You can really see that care and attention in the way the sprawling Southwestern landscapes of Arizona and Nevada cascade past the lens. Such an attention to detail even translates down to the actors. Their close-ups are held within a concept of glamour shot respect - even when the sentiment inside a scene fails to mandate such glitz.


Yet there’s that ‘stranger in a strange land’ attempt at a cultural connection that doesn’t quite gel. Wong Kar Wai may think he knows how humans interact (and his past efforts prove this out), but having to translate said approach from East to West just can’t cut it. Characters in My Blueberry Nights tend to modulate between cutesy cliché and biting realism. At one moment, their hearts are clearly on their sleeves. The next, they are dead inside, the result of a life spent in pursuit of a personal passion that has left them hallowed out and hopeless. Straitham has a moment revolving around AA chips that is breathtaking, while Portman’s entire performance feels like a borderline breakdown. If there is promise to be found here, Wong Kar Wai buries it in a baffling blurred camera trickery that tends to turn everything into an overly arty advertisement.


Still, for what it strives to accomplish, for the stunning way this filmmaker moderates his vision and design, for the backdrops that betray the frequently infantile emotions of the characters, My Blueberry Nights must be considered a success. While it’s a shame that this DVD didn’t include the additional 20 minutes that Wong Kar Wai cut after the film’s disastrous Cannes premiere (especially in a format that allows for the retention of a director’s original vision), what remains is a strong statement of one man’s cinematic station, a viewpoint that, at least in this initial English outing, requires a little fine tuning. There is no denying the creative capabilities present. But just like other talent transplants, something here is not quite right. It’s still fascinating to watch it almost fail, however


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Saturday, Jun 28, 2008

Tom Slee, the author of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (highly recommended), complains about The Long Tail in this post, noting all the effort wasted in debunking an idea that was, in his opinion, never much more than a hypothesis.


Face it. Chris Anderson now has people at Harvard Business School of all places spending their valuable time following up his idle speculations. He comes up with a half-baked idea, has basically no data to support it, and yet here are academics - smart people, with tenure, real jobs and things to do - actually spending their time following up these idle daydreams; acting as his research assistants. What a waste.


Slee links to this Harvard Business Review essay by Anita Elberse that examines Anderson’s notions and finds that serving the long tail won’t make much money for any businesses, and that the economics of superstars still reigns supreme. No one is going to start a winning business selling obscure goods to the handful of people who are interested in them. More likely, I would think, those interested people will find a way get the obscure goods free from one another, if they are digitally distributable—especially since difficulties in securing rights clearances can inhibit many of these goods’ distribution for sale.


But despite the data, it’s hard for me to give up on the long-tail idea. It has a certain romantic appeal, as Elberse notes:


How much enjoyment is derived from obscure versus blockbuster products? We can all easily imagine the extreme delight that comes from discovering a rare gem, perfectly tailored to our interests and ours to bestow on likeminded friends. This is perhaps the most romanticized aspect of long-tail thinking. Many of us have experienced just such moments; they are what give Chris Anderson’s claims such resonance. The problem is that for every industrial designer who blissfully stumbles across the films of Charles and Ray Eames, untold numbers of families are subjecting themselves to the likes of Sherlock: Undercover Dog. Ratings posted by Quickflix customers show that obscure titles, on average, are appreciated less than popular titles.



It may be that we’re allured by the notion that deeply individual tastes will be nurtured by the entertainment economy of the future, that the dream of having perfectly idiosyncratic taste will be fulfilled for everyone. And there will be a perfect marketing plan individually tailored for us all that will be so suited to us that it won’t even seem like advertising. It will just seem like our wants being anticipated, the desired goods brought to us right on time. Such is the fantasy of individualism for its own sake, in the field of consumerism. With our identity riding on what we consume, we come to believe that there’s something valuable about having unique tastes, but we don’t actually pursue such a course in practice. When it comes to pop culture, for better or worse, its popularity alone is part of what makes it enjoyable, consumable. When the obscure good is consumed, it is usually an equally shallow effort to enjoy obscurity for its own sake, to use it as a badge, rather than because there is something compelling about the obscure thing itself. (This explains probably 75 percent of my record collection. That Terry Knight and the Pack record is not something I enjoy for the music.) Most of the time, what we want to consume in pop culture is the potentiality of participation in a public sphere that consists to a large degree in recognizing the same set of entertainment touchstones.


The niche products that retailers can stock (but rarely sell) may have nothing but an alibi function—they make us feel bnetter about consuming mainstream junk because we also know that we could buy something weird and idiosyncratic. As Elberse notes, “the tail is likely to be extremely flat and populated by titles that are mostly a diversion for consumers whose appetite for true blockbusters continues to grow.” Consuming niche goods every once and a while serves as a palate cleanser for the popular stuff we have truly integrated into our social lives. A Godard of Fassbinder film now and then licenses a lot of Indiana Jones and Lost episodes.


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Saturday, Jun 28, 2008

Filmed back in 2004 but for some reason only trickling out into indie release now, Take Out is a video verite snapshot of a day in the life of a hapless Chinese delivery man trying to come up with hundreds of dollars to pay off a rapacious loan shark. While never trying to overdraw on the meager funds of this simple premise, the film contains a rich wealth of acutely observed sociological detail layered behind the pay-up-or-else storyline. There is no music, very little in the way of a script, and not much hope for a big payoff. Nevertheless, Take Out still stands as more of the more exciting indie releases of the year, inexplicably delayed though it may have been.


Co-written and -directed by Sean Baker, a former writer for Greg the Bunny, Take Out is cast entirely by nonprofessionals and was shot in surprisingly crisp video at a real Manhattan takeout joint up on 103rd and Amsterdam that the filmmakers rigged with microphones. The rhythms of the day are well observed, the opening and closing of the heavy iron shutters, the lunch and dinner rushes, and the endless haggling with customers trying to chisel just a little bit more (“I thought you said it was $3.25, not $4.25;” “Can I get more duck sauce?”).


Having been woken up earlier by the loan shark’s goons who left a warning in the form of a bruising hammer blow to his back, Ming Ding (a moon-faced Charles Jang) borrows over $600 in a couple frantic hours, but is left with a day’s work to make the final $150. After a friendly co-worker lets him take all the deliveries in order to maximize tips, Ming spends the day biking through rain and traffic, delivering to businesses, the projects, luxury apartments, and tiny walk-ups. After a half-hour or so of this, the average viewer will be reduced to Ming’s tunnel vision, eagerly watching every dollar that the customers give out, grimacing at the constant slights (“No speakee English?!”) and overwhelmingly thankful for the tiniest glimpses of human warmth.


For Ming, life in America is all about the looking in, usually just a glimpse of another crowded New York apartment (some elegant, many not so). Amidst the squalling traffic and relentless rain, even the claustrophobic restaurant—the kind of place where the faded photos of all the dishes are on display, and they also serve fries and chicken wings—with its tight-knit band of workers seems like a harbor in the storm. Having put his parents in debt to get to America, leaving behind a wife and a son born after he left, Ming has nobody but these fellow immigrants (most of whom seem to be illegal) to look out for him and no real connection to this raging, squalling, honking city but the money.


At some point Ming may become like the assured pair of cooks who spend the film expertly flinging food in and out of their woks—the filmmakers keep a journalist’s eye on the workings of the restaurant, particularly the voluble Big Sister (effortlessly scene-stealing Wang-Thye Lee) who runs the counter and phone like a master conductor —or he may easily fall the other way, into destitution or deportation. The lack of any safety apparatus or backup plan whatsoever is never spelled out but looms there nonetheless.


There are some who will say that they will never think the same way about ordering Chinese takeout after seeing this film. These, of course, are probably just people who have never had to take minimum-wage (or less) service industry positions in life, and so need to be prodded by something like this film to even consider the lives of those who serve them. But carping about class issues aside, there is something to the idea that Take Out does a service by taking its viewpoint from the outside. Here, the aliens are those strange people who open up their doors for the deliveryman and sigh impatiently as he counts out their change, griping out getting chicken instead of beef or how long the delivery took. Some will at least think twice about welshing on a tip after seeing Take Out, which is more effect than many films with one thousand times the budget have on society.


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