Friday, June 27, 2008

Robots with heart and a movie with none

SUMMARY: "Wanted" is a movie that richly deserves to have what's known in the trade as a "target" audience. That's because the movie scores many hits, executing its mission so quickly and skillfully that some are bound to view this super-violent speedfest as entertainment. I did - but only up to a point."WALL-E," the latest animated film from Pixar, deserves cheers for tugging at the heartstrings rather than splattering blood.


It came down to this: I didn't want to die during a preview screening of "Wanted," a viscerally charged movie from director Timur Bekmambetov, who holds the distinction of having directed the highest grossing films in Russian history: "Night Watch" and "Day Watch," pulsating affairs that were longer on action than coherence.

Here's what happened. About ten minutes before "Wanted" ended, Bekmambetov's first Hollywood outing was interrupted by a fire alarm. Along with everyone else, I trudged out of the theater. It was a false alarm, but I didn't return for two reasons: I already had a pretty good idea about the movie's virtues. It's a fast-paced mixture of hyperactivity, violence and breathless narrative. I thought the movie was technically interesting, but, frankly, I couldn't have cared less about how it was going to conclude. I never really bought into either the characters or the story.

I've since been filled in on the movie's ending, but encourage you not to take this as a definitive review. Know, too, that a number of estimable critics enjoyed the ride. (As of this writing, "Wanted" had earned a rating of 64 at Metacritic, an aggregate review site.)

The movie, which stars James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, deals with a secret group of assassins that descends from an organization founded during the Middle Ages. Presumably, these assassins take out only those who deserve to die. Kill now, save lives later: That could be their motto. To figure out who's next on the hit list, the assassins consult something called "The Loom of Fate."

Based on graphic novels by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, "Wanted" defines its characters with a familiar array of superhero ploys: A nerdy guy (McAvoy) acquires master-level powers; a cool and apparently unattainable woman (Jolie) sports multiple tattoos; and a sagacious old dude (Freeman) runs the show. Freeman's Sloan evidently is the only one who can read "The Loom of Fate," not to be confused with Fruit of the Loom, which suggests an entirely different direction.

Early on, McAvoy's Wesley Gibson -- a guy so lame his best friend has no compunction about stealing his girlfriend -- is recruited by an organization called "The Fraternity." The Fraternity wants Wesley to avenge the death of his long-lost father. In preparation for fulfilling this new-found destiny, Wesley is beaten to a pulp by those who train him. If he survives this massive application of sadism, he'll have learned a variety of violent techniques. Included among them: The ability to fire a bullet in a curved trajectory.

Say what? Bullets that don't travel in a straight line? It's all in the mind. Say your target is holding someone in front of him. That's no excuse for not completing your mission: You concentrate; you exercise your intuition; you fire the bullet and it curves around the hapless patsy and hits the bad guy.

"Wanted," which evokes memories of "The Matrix," comes equipped with a high "wow" factor, and if a big bloodshed quotient and Jolie's cool sexuality count for anything, it's likely to score at the box office. And, yes, I enjoyed some of it: There's some early-picture kick, for example, in watching McAvoy make the transition from dweeb to highly trained killer, a guy who stops taking guff from his boss, a portly woman who gets what she so richly deserves. He also has enough comeuppance left to take care of his supposed best friend.

The plot veers away from totally predictable scenarios, but the movie isn't really telling a story; it's jetting from one set piece to the next, kicking your teeth in as it goes. I'd already had enough of a pounding when the fire alarm sounded. I kept going. I followed the movie's advice. I used my intuition. I knew that what was pending: more blood, more speed, more bullets bending around more curves, all of it inching me one step closer to a migraine -- but a skillfully induced migraine to be sure.


Here's what WALL-E stands for: Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class. Knowing that, you can understand why Pixar chose to use the acronym, which if you stretch the point, sounds a lot like Wally -- friendly, approachable and unthreatening.

As it turns out, WALL-E is a pint-sized robot that functions as a mobile garbage compactor, collecting refuse on Earth. The movie's earliest and best scenes tell us that Earth has been abandoned by humans who basically turned the planet into a giant dump. The humans have departed on a massive spaceship; they won't return until signs of life appear.

Meanwhile, WALL-E dutifully beeps and putters through mountains of debris, a kind of downgraded take on R2D2. As if to emphasize the kinship, director Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo") has hired Ben Burt, who created R2D2's sound effects, to do the same job for WALL-E, who has big eyes and metal hands that fold one into the other. He's cute, has a personality and may be a trifle lonely. After a hard day's work, WALL-E relaxes by popping a video tape into a player and watching "Hello Dolly!," perhaps a sign that he misses humanity. WALL-E's only friend: an equally indestructible cockroach.

The opening scenes of "WALL-E" are beautifully conceived by Stanton and his team. These scenes have a wistful -- even mournful -- quality that reminded me a bit of Steven Spielberg's unfairly derided "A.I." The feeling of isolation is further accentuated by an absence of dialog in an environment in which the trash piles as high as the vacant skyscrapers. How does WALL-E keep on ticking? His battery is solar charged. Each morning, he awakens and allows himself to be renewed in the sunlight.

I wish, in a way, that the whole film had been silent -- or at least devoid of human speech. I think kids might be the perfect audience for "silent" movies, and it would have been ingenious of Pixar -- not to mention super-courageous -- to expose them to a contemporary version of "pure" cinema. As it stands, the movie may represent a challenge for little ones and may not make a powerful connection with the massive and eagerly sought teen audience either.

If the movie deserves any criticism, it's for a plot that could have used a little more battery power. Look, you can't spend an hour and 45 minutes watching a robot collect trash, which presents a mild script problem: The movie -- which brims with Pixar creativity -- eventually must get around to telling a story. Enter EVE, which stands for Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator and all the additional metaphoric weight you want to add. EVE's a sleek robot, sort of a cross between Casper the Friendly Ghost and a portable swamp cooler. She has been dispatched by the mother ship on a mission of discovery. She's supposed to determine whether the Earth can support new plant life.

The courtship between WALL-E and EVE is uneasy at first, but the movie eventually unites them in a common purposes, which they discover when the plot transports them onto the spaceship where Earthlings (grown fat and useless) are amusing themselves to death. They float around in big chairs, slurping down drinks and gobbling up snacks, sort of like...well... the average movie audience. Humankind evidently has spent thousands of years allowing muscles and will power to atrophy.

If Stanton has satire in mind, it's satire with the edges filed down. The movie doesn't drub you with its eco-message. Besides, the scenes on board the spaceship allow for amusing references to previous sci-fi movies, as well as for some faster-paced action.

The story runs a bit longer than it should, but there's no point knocking Pixar's work, which maintains an extraordinarily high standard, boasting a preference for unusual concepts (the rat chef of "Ratatouille," for example) and demonstrating admirably high levels of execution.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style of course