Wall-E, one of Pixar's best films, is a romantic space odyssey. Elsewhere, a documentary memorializes Hunter S. Thompson's crazy life, Aimee Mann gets even sadder, and we look at the summer's most notable indie films.
A long absence on my part means a whole bunch of movies (and one good album) to talk about. There’s stuff here for every taste – and in the case of Wall-E, something for any taste.
Wall-E (Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios)
It might not be as fun a debate as Beatles/Rolling Stones or Nirvana/Pearl Jam, but which Pixar filmmaker do you prefer: Andrew Stanton or Brad Bird? Bird gave us The Incredibles and Ratatouille, two expertly crafted entertainments. Stanton gave us Finding Nemo and Wall-E, two perfect emotional experiences, layered and complex. There’s no need to diminish either director, but in my heart of hearts I’m a Stanton guy, more sap than fanboy, more love-conquers-all than whiz-bang-yay. Of all the ways Wall-E is amazingly gutsy – its nearly silent opening act, its dark dystopian undercurrents, its preference for robots over the human race – here’s the one people aren’t taking into consideration: This is an enormously sappy film. Tragically unhip, the movie’s story of a lonely trash-compacting robot and the probe droid he loves is perhaps the most nakedly romantic in a film since … what? Beauty and the Beast? Against such powerful sentiment, Stanton places a despairing message about the future of a civilization perhaps not worth saving. Truth be told, my biggest complaint with Wall-E is that I didn’t want Stanton to bother redeeming humanity. We’re a lazy, slovenly, self-centered group of individuals, anyway – better to let Wall-E and Eve and those of their kind carry on without us. I loved this bold vision so fully that it made me a little sad that Wall-E’s second half couldn’t match the sheer genius of its first half – subplots and a strained eco-friendly message gum up the works. But much is redeemed by a perfect ending – one I saw coming and one I could not wait to have happen.
The Visitor (Overture)
I have a lot of respect for writer-director Tom McCarthy's follow-up to The Station Agent. He dives into material that's just begging to be laughed off the screen: An educated white man's middle-age angst goes away once he learns to embrace the plight of minorities who, added bonus, happen to be illegal immigrants. McCarthy comes to his bleeding-heart intentions honorably, but The Visitor is saved by two important factors. The first is Richard Jenkins, who plays his unhappy character with enough low-key depression that his need to find purpose rings true. (Rarely has an actor's lack of fame been so crucial to his role – you keep looking past him even as he's the star of this film.) The second is the movie's resolutely muted, minor tone. On some level, McCarthy knows that he's one more liberal guy from Hollywood talking about 9/11 and brotherly love and disastrous foreign policy, so he counteracts the sermon with several quiet moments that are nicely underplayed. And he also knows that his educated, middle-aged white man can't save the world or even himself entirely. Such humility makes for a film that’s less self-righteous than awfully sad, thank goodness.
The Edge of Heaven (Strand)
When citizens of different cultures crisscross in coincidental ways in your movie, you’ll have to hear the Babel comparisons. But Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven easily bests that overrated drama because as a filmmaker he’s subtler and also, as New York’s David Edelstein wisely points out, he’s less sure what he wants to say. Usually, that’s a problem, resulting in stories without a clear point of view. But The Edge of Heaven, which traces the intersections of a few families of Turkish or German decent, isn’t concerned with being about any overt topic – frankly, it’s the sort of film that inspires many strong reviews, even if none of us can decide what it’s “about.” My weak stab is that, like his debut film Head-On, The Edge of Heaven means to show how people are a perfect mix of where they’re from and who they want to be. But even that doesn’t hit at what Akin just about achieves here – a mysterious, poetic take on random lives connected (mostly) by interesting narrative intersections. Like Head-On, it doesn’t add up to a completely astounding experience, but the moment-to-moment incidents are tantalizing, hinting and hinting and hinting. And since I’ve already referenced Edelstein, let’s allow him the final word:"The Edge of Heaven is powerfully unsettled—it comes together by not coming together."
Encounters at the End of the World (THINKFilm)
One of my main stumbling blocks with Werner Herzog’s documentaries is Werner Herzog. With his thick German accent, his serious voiceover declarations about humanity can be taken as pretentious, scholarly or self-mocking. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels uncertain about how to react to them: When I’ve seen Grizzly Man and his new film, Encounters at the End of the World, audiences seem equally divided between giggles and somber reflection. Encounters finds Herzog venturing to Antarctica to study the cobbled-together civilization of mechanics and scientists who live at the South Pole. Herzog isn’t after a definitive portrait but rather a mishmash of observations, colorful interview subjects and gorgeous photography of the landscape. It’s a little bit of everything – paean to the planet, satire of Man’s need to leave his footprint wherever he goes on the Earth, travelogue, nature film – and while I enjoyed all of it, I wished he would commit himself to a tighter focus.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster (Magnolia Pictures)
Boy, did I think I was in for it early on. Documentaries may have lost a little of their commercial momentum lately, but that doesn't stop people from making their little first-person odysseys in the hopes of being the next Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. Bigger, Stronger, Faster starts off the same way – Christopher Bell wants to tell us about his quaintly odd American family and how he and his two brothers grew up idolizing bodybuilders. But just when you're sure it's going to be another "I'm just a regular Joe" personal documentary, you discover how serious Bell's intent is. Bigger, Stronger, Faster manages to meld several different popular strands of documentary – the family portrait, the hot-button topic, the America-as-cultural-sickness discussion, the passion project. Churning and questioning and relentlessly going after his subject – America's desire to do the right thing while ruthlessly committed to getting ahead at all costs – the film is a surprisingly thoughtful look at the steroid debate while segueing seamlessly into other areas of discussion: what constitutes cheating, our fixation on medication, hero worship. Even better are Bell's interviews – his gets are repeatedly surprising, and his slightly nervous but earnest style allows for some great moments. I don't think Bell has a jerk bone in his body, but that doesn't mean he's not smart and tough with the people he questions. I wish some things were trimmed out – elements that feel inserted into the material because someone decided a modern-day documentary must have comedic bits to keep an audience interested. But on the whole, this thing is pretty impressive and moving and thoughtful. And, hey, he changed my opinion about steroids in sports.
Gonzo (opening July 4, Magnolia Pictures)
I haven't seen Taxi to the Dark Side yet, but I have seen Alex Gibney's Enron film, and this is what I said at the time: "surface-y and breezy, telling its sad story in an overtly entertaining, bam-bam-bam way. You'll feel the proper emotions at the right times ... but it's a little too packaged and processed to feel really riveting or authoritative. You'll learn stuff, but all to a soundtrack that never stops picking the most obviously manipulative song cue for every moment." Gonzo is the same way – its breeziness is understandable, and there are some nice parallels made between Hunter S. Thompson's Nixon and our Bush (although by this point, they're easy), but the overall tone is fun-fun-fun, highlight-highlight-highlight. And because it covers the '60s and '70s, here comes the CCR and Bob Dylan and Stones on the soundtrack. Thompson is an inspiring figure, I was never bored, and the film made me reevaluate my problems with the Fear and Loathing movie. But this is a fan piece with great talking heads – and nothing closely resembling authoritative.
The Wackness (opening July 3, Sony Pictures Classics)
Writer-director Jonathan Levine was born a year after me, his pre-college summer coming in 1994. The age comparison is important because The Wackness – which tells of an NYC pot dealer who’s an outsider in his school, a white boy in love with hip-hop – is supposedly inspired by Levine’s memories of the era. In the press notes, the filmmaker argues that ’94 was hip-hop’s peak, and it’s a defensible assertion, especially with hometown heroes like Nas, Biggie and Wu-Tang Clan representing. But a good soundtrack and some nice period details – the Nintendo, the pagers – do not a movie make, and The Wackness is really just one more anti-coming-of-age indie. The film is structured about the same as the typical teen melodrama, except the tone is more sarcastic and knowing, as if to assure us that the early-30s filmmaker isn’t too nostalgic for his childhood. The Wackness subsists almost entirely on odd left turns in its plot – Ben Kingsley’s psychiatrist best friend is a horny, loony coot; all the teen characters’ parents are failures or emotionally shut off; the love story is an exercise in thwarted expectations. It doesn’t quite hang together, and even the love for urban hip-hop youth culture – this was also the era of the far grittier Kids, by the way – feels like decoration, not any sort of sociological observation. But Olivia Thirlby is superb as the tantalizing, forever out-of-reach love interest. But on the whole, I’d rather just listen to Illmatic and supply my own memories.
My Winnipeg (IFC Films)
When I plunked down the extra bucks to catch the live-orchestra-and-narrator version of Brand Upon the Brain!about a year ago, I was pleased: All movies are gonna be $25 soon enough, and at least this one was engaging and interesting. But it wasn't perfect: Guy Maddin's mother issues and camp tendencies can be as precious as any art-damaged individual's. Without the extra bells and whistles, My Winnipeg is a lesser achievement, one where you spend most of the slim 80 minutes stuck between a cringe and a smile – admiring what you're watching but actively indifferent to it as well. (Or maybe that's just me – a lot of my colleagues love it.) A pseudo-documentary about Maddin's Canadian hometown narrated by the filmmaker with heightened theatricality that suggests he both means it and doesn't, My Winnipeg brings together a collection of odd trivia about the city that's so fantastical we're supposed to wonder if it's true but then say, oh wait, factual truth isn't what matters. The movie is more of a moodscape or a mindscape, and in bits and pieces, it's captivating. Maddin's usual tricks – silent-movie techniques, ghostly black-and-white imagery – conjure a dreamworld that's eerier than his stories of his past, the city's past, and his mother's odd ways. But unlike Brand, this one never quite transcends its gimmicks. Nice place to visit, Maddin's Winnipeg, but I wouldn't want to live there.
Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers (Superego)
You don’t approach a new Aimee Mann disc wondering if it’s going to be a downer – really, you just want to know how much of a downer it’s going to be. Even when she attempts to strike a hopeful note, it comes out cockeyed in a song like “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas” from her last record, The Forgotten Arm. And after trying a concept album, she’s back to doing what she always does: well-manicured chamber pop about sad people riding off into the sunset of their miniscule lives. If that description sounds dismissive or smug, it’s entirely my fault and not hers – as is becoming increasingly clear, she loves these hopeless cases to such a degree that it’s understandable when interviewers ask her how she’s doing. Age isn’t making her bitter but, rather, more reflective and her arrangements more passively beautiful. @#%&*! Smilers isn’t quite as depressive as her greatest bum-out, Lost in Space. But it’s close.
Funny Games (Warner Independent Pictures)
If you go in to Funny Games taking Michael Haneke at his word – that his film is an indictment of Americans’ penchant for violence – then that’s all you’ll see. And, really, that’s fair – if the writer-director tells you of his intentions, shouldn’t the film be judged based on those stated objectives? Definitely, but Funny Games is one of those rare films that I think is more interesting and thought-provoking than its creator allows. I have yet to see his 1997 Austrian original, which this English-language version reportedly reproduces shot for shot, so I can only assess the current film, but to me it’s an upsettingly rendered nightmare scenario of the happy family under siege by the irrational madmen waiting out there beyond our locked front door. The subversion of horror movies and torture porn are smart to a point, but what really made me shiver was Haneke’s slow stripping away of “polite” society until all becomes a madhouse worthy of Stanley Kubrick. The arthouse crowd knows that Saw and Hostel aren’t the things to fear – those movies are fantasies geared to kids trying to prove their coolness by enduring them. Nope, the rest of us worry about the real-life horrors, and Funny Games is full of them.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.