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Thursday, October 19

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WALL-E

My, oh, my. If this were a perfect world, you would be able to walk into the new Pixar/Disney animated splendor without ever having seen a frame of footage. I remember how thrilled I was to see something like five extended scenes from WALL-E at Butt Numb-a-Thon last December, but now that I've seen the entire finished film, I wish I'd never seen those clips. The more oblivious you are to what WALL-E is about, what it has to say about humanity, the earth and technology, the better. I was watching the "Ebert & Roeper" TV show last weekend, and I was stunned and disappointed that they were giving away key plot points about this little trash-compactor robot's adventure in space. It's not like the film has unexpected twists, but part of the job of discovering the film is witnessing what has become of humans after 700-800 years of not having to do a thing for themselves. I don't care if Disney did supply the clips to go along with the discussion; these are elements that should be kept as secret as possible and any critic that ruins it is a bona-fide tool.

What's safe to say is the little Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Class (WALL-E) is the last of his kind on an Earth that has been overrun with garbage. We see the corpses of other run-down robots like WALL-E all over the place, but our hero has been smart enough to fix any broken part of himself with parts of other robots. He's existed for hundreds of years making stacks of cubed garbage that rival in height and magnitude of the skyscrapers in the city where he lives. WALL-E is also a collector. Anything he finds curious, he throws into his chest plate and deposits in his makeshift "home." The first half-hour or so of the film is done without any conventional dialog, which doesn't mean that the film isn't communicating with us constantly. One of the many things on which WALL-E has become fixated is a worn-out VHS tape of Hello Dolly, in particular the image of two lovers holding hands. Without realizing it, WALL-E discovers there is something crucial missing in his life.

When a spacecraft lands on earth depositing a shiny, sleeker robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), WALL-E's dormant emotions are set loose and suddenly all that lovey-dovey stuff he's seen in movies and heard in the film's songs means something to him. This robot courtship is one of the most romantic and humorous things you will ever see. It will warm your heart like few films in Disney's or anybody else's film libraries have done before. Director Andrew (Finding Nemo) Stanton has done a mind-blowingly astonishing job making every nuance of WALL-E and EVE convey feeling even when they are incapable of changing their facial expressions.

When EVE stumbles upon something on Earth that could make a significant difference to human existence, she is whisked away back to space with WALL-E hot on her trail. To him there is no difference between Earth and space; all that matters is the connection he's formed with his lady friend. I don't want to discuss what WALL-E finds in space beyond a big-ass spaceship, but again credit to the filmmakers for pushing science fiction in a direction I've never seen it go before, especially not in a film that many young children will want to see. Even as a non-child, I was a little stunned at the direction the film takes. It's nothing disturbing (well, maybe a little) or gross or scary (well, maybe a little), but it is unexpected. I did like expanding the robots' world and watching WALL-E interact with strangers.

I could probably spend a couple of paragraphs citing other science fiction books and films that are similar to what WALL-E is going for in terms of tone and atmosphere. But to do so implies that Stanton & Co. have borrowed from other sources to make this film. That simply isn't the case. WALL-E is its own sentient being with its own set of wonders to discover and influence future sci-fi works, so to haul out references to Silent Running or 2001 is simply unfair. What might make a little more sense is comparing WALL-E to the best Chaplin and Keaton films. I suspect Modern Times will be name dropped by people discussing this film, and that's perfectly understandable.

At its core, WALL-E is about the salvation of the human race (nothing heavy or anything, right?) and how this little, insignificant 'bot plays his part in doing just that. I haven't really discussed the animation, but it's the most realistic and beautiful Pixar has ever created. I'll have to see the film a couple more times to confirm my feelings on this, but I'm pretty certain this is my favorite Pixar film to date. The look of the film embodies every concept and design that I loved seeing in sci-fi films growing up. We do eventually get voices from human characters and some other sources. I particularly liked Sigourney Weaver's take on the ship's computer—part seductress (or maybe that's just her) and part cold machine. Jeff Garlin, Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy and a bizarre appearance by Fred Willard all add to the fun of WALL-E. I walked out of the theater after seeing this film in a kind of stunned silence. Why could I not remember any other film I'd seen all summer? All year so far? Could this be the best film I see all year? With half the year gone at this point, this is my favorite movie so far. Prepare yourself for something deceptively simple, thought provoking and devastatingly marvelous. I've run out of great things to say about WALL-E; just go see it.

Wanted

Ever wanted to have your ass kicked so hard by an action film that it's knocked off your backside and handed it to you on a silver platter? That's pretty much Wanted in a nutshell. Wanted may not be a great film, but then again maybe it is. However you choose to evaluate it, you will not be able to deny that it is some of the most decadent fun you'll have in a film all year. If we lived in a world where adrenaline was pumped into the water instead of fluoride, you might begin to understand the plane of existence this film lives on. Based on the graphic novel series by Mark Millar, the movie spends almost as much time evaluating the world of us normal humans as it does these talented killers who can shoot the wings off flies, aim a bullet between moving 'L' cars and curve bullets with a flick of the wrist.

With every action scene hyper-realized by master Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (the Night Watch series), Wanted tells the story of lowly cube dweller Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) who is recruited by a centuries-old coven of assassins known as the Fraternity led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman) to avenge the death of Wesley's father, whom he thought had been missing or dead since he was an infant. When he is approached by the beautiful Fox (Angelina Jolie, looking scarily thin but still wildly sexy) in a pharmacy, he's buying anxiety medication to help him avoid frequent panic attacks that occur when his ghastly boss yells at him. Soon a battle breaks out in the drugstore when the man who supposedly killed his father opens fire on the pair. It takes a bit of convincing, but Wesley eventually agrees to leave behind his miserable job, cheating girlfriend and backstabbing best friend for a life as a trained killer.

And how about that training, which is nearly as compelling and bloody as the job itself. Wesley is routinely beaten, cut and broken as part of the regime, but the assassins have a cure-all spa treatment of some sort that speeds the healing process to a couple of hours. Some of the film's more far-fetched elements are guaranteed to generate a laugh or two from audiences. For example, these assassins are also master weavers who get their assignments from code imbedded in the stitching of what is essentially a loom of fate. Yeah, okay. Still, the elaborate loom makes for some great visuals, especially near the end when it all comes crashing down and forms a massive web. Bekmambetov never misses an opportunity to maximize his visual palette. He tracks a bullet backwards from a target's brain matter back into the gun blocks away. And then there's this train crash set piece that will reach deep into your lungs and pull the breath right out.

Shot primarily in Chicago (around the time Dark Knight was in town as well), Wanted takes great advantage of some of the city's best-known features as well as a few lesser-known, but no less beautiful landmarks. I particularly liked the car chase through Lower Wacker Drive and the way Jolie and McAvoy ride the tops of the aboveground trains as part of their training and eventually as a means to drop a target.

Wanted's double- and triple-crosses get a little obvious and old after a while, but not enough to ruin the fun time I had watching this kinetic ball of violence. Make no mistake, the film earns its R rating with enough blood splatter, knife gashing and head trauma for 20 movies. But unlike other films that treat violence as some sort of regretful last resort, Wanted relishes and wades waist deep in its glorification of blood and guts. It's actually refreshing. The camera flies through the action like it's on wings, and I got caught up in the energy of this aggressive, defiant whirlwind of a film. If you have a strong stomach and don't get headaches too easily from constant onscreen movement, Wanted will blow your tushy right through your seat. Who doesn't want that?

OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies

This fairly amusing and uniquely French take on '50s and '60s spy movies relies a great deal on the elastic face and dead-pan wit of its star, Jean Dujardin, with his almost blindingly wide smile, chiseled good looks, and near-perfect comic timing. The film has more in common with Austin Powers than James Bond as we follow the adventures of Agent OSS 117 (actually, he might be the French's answer to Maxwell Smart) as he blazes a culturally insensitive trail through Cairo in search of the killer of another French agent. Posing as the head of a poultry conglomerate, OSS 117 seduces beautiful women with his inflated ego and slightly dim-witted sensibilities. He's not a particularly smart spy but he is ridiculously lucky. Along the way he ruins diplomatic relations with several nations, offends the Muslim people, and alienates those who would help him. The film has a visual flare that is colorful and exciting, and Dujardin spins through the proceedings with a great deal of gusto and humor. From what I've heard, the character of OSS 117 has been the subject of dozens of books and quite a few films between 1956 and 1970. I doubt any of them took this approach to the material, but I had a lot of fun watching this fairly lightweight film that has a lot more going for it visually than most comedies. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

My Winnipeg

Canadian experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin's work has become more popular in recent years. I'm not sure if his movies have become more accessible or if the world has just caught up to his style of movie making. His latest is the second in a row (after Brand Upon the Brain!) in which he examines memories of his past as a weirdly effective autobiography filtered through a strangely fantastical eye. Maddin still clings to his silent-film visual style, while his soundscapes become increasingly more frenzied and interesting. In My Winnipeg, he remembers his childhood growing up in the city with the highest suicide rate per capita in the world. He mixes historical information about the city with personal remembrances about both his own life and the way the local government royally—and repeatedly—screwed the people. In many ways, the film acts as a royal kiss-off to the town, but it's clear that there are elements of his upbringing that Maddin truly misses.

Maddin's finest work is arguably The Saddest Music in the World (coming in a close second would be his haunting take on a ballet about Dracula), but his two most recent works are profoundly moving exercises as well. The sequences with his family (all played by actors, including one playing Maddin) are both funny and terrifying, while the ones dealing with more general information about Winnipeg are prime examples of what Maddin does best: finding the absurd in the everyday while giving us a deftly moving cinematic creation. His films might not always make sense, but they stick with you like the ghost of someone who doesn't realize they're dead yet. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Finding Amanda

Now this is a strange little monster that has done a great job keeping under my radar until about a week ago. What I thought would be a throwaway bit of tripe turns out to be an amusing and sometimes-fascinating look at different types of addictions, what makes us kick them and what makes us slip back into them. I can pretty much watch Matthew Broderick in anything, even complete garbage (and, boy, has he done a bit of that over the years), but in Finding Amanda he plays television sitcom writer Taylor Mendon, who is on the verge of getting fired for butting heads with the show's star Ed Begley Jr. (playing himself). We learn early on that Taylor once had a alcohol and drug abuse problem that he's managed to kick for a couple of years and replaced with a gambling addiction (he loves the ponies). His worn-out wife (Maura Tierney) asks him to front the money for her niece Amanda to go to rehab at a posh Malibu clinic, but when she finds out Taylor has lied to her about his gambling, she threatens to leave him.

With the hope of winning back his wife's favor, Taylor goes to Las Vegas vowing to avoid the tables and search for the missing niece (a nice turn by Brittany Snow), who, at the tender age of 20, has turned to prostitution. Strangely enough, any real reason for her to go to rehab was lost on me, since she doesn't really do drugs or drink much. Did I mention that this film is a comedy? And, it's a fairly good one thanks to a better-than-average script by director Peter Tolan, creator of the FX show "Rescue Me."

What the film lacks in insight into the world of a television writing or prostitution, it makes up for by truly showing a little dark comic spine about addiction. What Taylor truly seems hooked on is lying. It almost seems like his preferred method of communication with everyone around him, like a knee-jerk reaction to any question posed to him. Broderick hasn't been this good in a while, and his rapid-fire delivery and pinpoint sense of comic timing is dead on here. But the real shocker in Finding Amanda is Snow's turn as the hooker with the heart of gold. She truly is a good person with a slightly warped perception of what the perfect life is. She's making a great deal of money, enough to buy an immaculate home and a sweet sports car, as well as keep her good-for-nothing boyfriend (Peter Facinelli) living pretty well for a deadbeat, verbally abusive shitbag. Snow's performance is incredible. There's a sunshine that emanates from her, but she can talk about the details of her work without batting an eye of embarrassment. When her facade shows signs of cracking, Snow handles Amanda's slow, steady breakdown with a great deal of maturity. Snow has been good in more one-dimensional roles prior to this outing (Hairspray and the recent Prom Night remake), but she's never been close to this good before.

While Finding Amanda is passable as a film, Broderick and Snow rise above the material and add a real depth to their characters and the movie. I also liked a fun supporting turn by Steve Coogan as a casino worker who tries to work with Taylor to make sure he pays his debts to the establishment. His two-faced performance is surpassed only by the inevitable moment when he turns into a complete bastard when Broderick fails to come through with the money he owes. I may sound like I'm on the fence on this one, but I'm recommending it for the two main performances. This is the first time Snow has impressed me to this degree, and I'm looking forward to see how she will surprise me next. It's also nice to see Broderick come close to returning to form, and I hope he continues down this path. If not, he can always fall back on his wife's Sex and the City money for a few years. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Monsieur Verdoux

One of the greatest revivals we're likely to get this year is this lesser-known, latter-day Charlie Chaplin film from 1947. In this brand new 35mm print, the film is about an ice-cold but still quite funny "Bluebeard" (Chaplin), who seduces rich single women (often widows), marries them under an assumed name, gets them to withdraw all their money from the bank and then kills them, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. Based on an idea by Orson Welles, Chaplin trades in his Little Tramp for the more sophisticated Msr. Verdoux, a serial killer with a heart of gold, if ever there was one. Despite the fact that he's murdering (always off camera) all these women, we still root for him, especially when we find out a bit of his backstory. The comedy comes in swinging with the introduction of Martha Raye's lottery-winning American character, a loud-mouthed party girl who loves Verdoux but distrusts him just enough to make us realize she's not as dumb as she acts.

Monsieur Verdoux has some of the darkest edges Chaplin (who also directs) has ever visited, but that makes the film all the more vital and wicked. His performance is masterful as he sweet-talks and fast-talks these women like Casanova with a knife between his teeth. If all you know and appreciate about Chaplin are his silent works, you've got a lot to learn, and this is a brilliant place to start. The film opens today for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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