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Wall-E (2008)

by Steve Habrat

Of all the Pixar movies that I have seen, my favorite one is without question director Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E, the film that I believe has the most heart and soul out of all the Pixar films. I absolutely love that this is a silent film for half the runtime, allowing us to get sucked in to actions rather than the words. It is very hard to not fall for the peculiar little robot that loves Hello, Dolly, has a cockroach for a pet, and is puzzled over a bra. You won’t be able to get enough of the moments where Wall-E discovers that he is in love with fellow robot EVE, mystified by her sudden presence in his lonely little world. I felt for him in his desperation for a friend, someone he could share all of his interests and chat with in his hysterical little robot blips and squeals. When Wall-E isn’t overtaking you emotionally, you will be shocked to see how intelligent this film truly is. With Wall-E, Stanton points out that big corporations control almost every aspect of our lives and have made us the overweight slobs that we are. They control fads, what we eat, drink, what we should fear, what we should see, etcetera. Tell me that is not thought provoking for a children’s film! And yet Wall-E still fills me with childlike wonder as it shows us how beautiful love can truly be.

Wall-E begins in the distant future, with earth having been abandoned by her polluting children and left to be cleaned up by a garbage-collecting robot named Wall-E. Wall-E has been by himself for quite a long time without anyone to connect with except for his pet cockroach. He spends his days working at a task that seems like it will never be finished and he spends his evenings watching Hello, Dolly and staring up at the stars, hoping for a savior to come and take him away from the mundane. One day, Wall-E sees an enormous spaceship land and send out a sleek robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), who is on the hunt for plant life. Wall-E immediately falls for EVE but she is so consumed with her mission on earth that she barely even notices the sweet Wall-E following her around. The two eventually connect but when Wall-E shows her a small plant he has found, EVE scoops up the plant and heads back out to space to the Axiom, an enormous spaceship that contains what is left of the human race. Wall-E chases after her but once he boards the Axiom, the lovable duo discovers a plot that would prevent the humans aboard the Axiom from ever returning to earth.

While Wall-E remains consistent its entire runtime, the first half of the film is such a breath of fresh air, it remains one of the crowning moments for the Pixar team. When you aren’t wrapped up in little Wall-E’s daily routine of compacting and rummaging through trash, you will be pulling for the little guy to find that spark with EVE. I absolutely love watching Wall-E discover a Rubik’s cube, car keys, and a fire extinguisher. He has grown bored with the monotony of his day to day, desperate to find something that will entertain him enough to forget about the tedious task of shuffling garbage. We also get to meet his pet, a cuddly little cockroach (Did you EVER think a cockroach could be cuddly?) that crawls around Wall-E’s insides, making him giggle and fidget. Watching the two get out of bed was a chuckler, Wall-E so groggy that he bumps into things as he tries to get himself ready for the day. When EVE shows up, Wall-E really perks up as he zooms after EVE, hiding out of bashfulness as he attempts to work up the courage to approach her. The two share a moment in Wall-E’s little house that is movie magic at its absolute finest.

The second half of the film is just as entertaining but it marches to a different beat. We get to meet tons of robots that prowl the Axiom while the humans all lounge around on hovering recliners. The humans are all obese slaves to a corporation called Buy N’ Large that announces over loud speakers what the current trend is in fashion (Keep an ear out for a voice cameo from Sigourney Weaver and an eye out for an appearance by Fred Willard). Buy N’ Large provides the humans with endless amounts of soda as they video chat into screens that obstruct their vision. Wall-E accidentally knocks out one human’s screen, a man named John (Voiced by John Ratzenberger), who discovers a world around him that he has been completely oblivious to. Wall-E and EVE also manage to short out another screen that belongs to a woman named Mary (Voiced by Kathy Najimy). John and Mary meet up and they quickly fall for each other, laughing over the quirky, love drunk robots that brought them together. Aboard the Axiom, Wall-E gets a bit preachy, a call to shake ourselves out of current fads and trends that are controlled by others and explore the world around us. We also get to meet the ships captain (Voiced by Jeff Garlin), who is clueless to what Earth is until he begins to research it. Wall-E comes equipped with a green message, wagging its finger at us for polluting the earth in addition to our brains and bodies.

Wall-E takes its good old time developing the love story between Wall-E and EVE, forcing us to emotionally invest in these little joys and I’ll be damned if the payoff isn’t overwhelmingly satisfying. Not one aspect of the film seems rushed, despite the fact that the film only runs an hour and a half. The standout sequence of Wall-E has got to be when Wall-E and EVE dance around in space, their love deepening with each spin through the air. The film does get a bit intense in the final moments as our lovable little hero gets badly wounded and barely clings to life. It falls on EVE and the captain to save the little guy AND the humans aboard the Axiom. Wall-E is such a pleasant film because it allows us to really get to know this little guy inside and out. His binocular eyes practically overflow with intrigue, curiosity, and wonder at the world around him. It is astonishing that Wall-E’s eyes are more alive than the eyes of the “human” characters found in most other animated offerings. In the multiple times I have seen Wall-E since it was released on Blu-ray, I haven’t been able to find a single thing wrong with the film, a rarity considering most newer films are far from perfect. Wall-E turns out to be a great cinematic love story and a masterpiece of animated filmmaking. Don’t be afraid to fall for this one!

Grade: A+

Wall-E is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Aliens (1986)

by Steve Habrat

After seeing the slow burner that was Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, you would never in a million years expect the follow up would be a breakneck action-thriller that refuses to let up. James Cameron’s Aliens is just that breakneck action-thriller, one that flaunts grand industrial style, chest-bursting thrills, and enough explosions that would make Michael Bay envious. Taking the world that was briefly seen in Alien, Cameron cleverly elaborates on Scott’s vision and delivers a world full of corrupt corporations, billowing doom, sleeveless masculinity, and hair-raising maternal protection (Both Ripley and the Queen!), all while strapping us in and sending us on a stomach dropping roller-coaster ride. Watch out, because you may get splashed with acidic alien blood! The true beauty of Aliens lies in the fact that, while most sequels resort to over-explaining everything, Cameron doesn’t explain, he just expertly expands the scope to give us a bit more breathing room.

Aliens begins with the rescue of Ellen Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), who is the only survivor of a horrific alien attack that left the rest of the crew of the space freighter Nostromo dead. Ripley goes before the board of her employer, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and explains what attacked the Nostromo crew. Her story is dismissed and as a result, she looses her space-flight license. To her horror, she learns that the planetoid that housed the strange ship and alien eggs is now home to a terraforming colony. After contact is lost with the colony, Weyland-Yutani representative Carter Burke (Played by Paul Reiser) and Lieutenant Gorman (Played by William Hope) approach Ripley about accompanying a unit of marines to investigate what has happened to the colonists. They tell her that if she agrees to accompany the marines and act as a consultant, they will allow her to have her flight license back. After finding the colony abandoned, the marines begin to search a nuclear-powered atmosphere processing station, where they believe the colonists are taking refuge. As their investigation continues, the marines begin making horrific discoveries within the station and soon find themselves getting attacked by seemingly endless hordes of bloodthirsty aliens.

Unlike Scott’s 1979 film, Cameron’s film isn’t as sly with its intellectual undertones and it quickly calls attention to aspects that should have been left to us to figure out. Aliens makes it very clear that the film is interested in ideas about motherhood and protection of a mother’s young. Ripley has to assume the role of mother and protector to a young girl who calls herself Newt (Played by Carrie Henn). I wish Cameron wouldn’t have thrown this aspect of Aliens in our face but sadly, he does. Early on, Newt begins calling Ripley mother and the two share an emotional scene where Ripley talks about a daughter she lost and then instantly claims Newt as her new daughter. Cameron also calls quite a bit of attention to the gender roles within the film, mostly playing with the idea of the tough guy marine who is all talk when nothing is happening but is revealed to be a coward when things get nice and violent. It is especially apparent in Hudson (Played by Bill Paxton), a mouthy marine who likes to talk big but is revealed to be a coward when attacked by the aliens. His character does begin to come around near the end, but he remains far from the hard ass he portrayed when we first meet him.

Cameron’s Aliens benefits from strong acting, mostly from Weaver, who ended up with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her work in this film. While Ripley doesn’t really reveal too much new about herself, her descent into protector is undeniably compelling. She is the toughest of all the flexing bad-asses around her. Her end confrontation with the Queen alien has to rank as one of the best movie showdowns of all time. She also gets one of the best one liners that science fiction has to offer: “Get away from her, you BITCH!” She is still the teeth-gritting feminist hero that she became in Scott’s Alien and here, she comes equipped with a bigger gun and flamethrower. While Ripley is all business 90% of the time, her quieter moments really resonated with me, especially when her eyes show a brief flash of a broken heart, one that I have to assume has made her the tough gal that she is.

As far as everyone else is concerned, Reiser is perfectly slimy as the corrupt Weyland-Yutani representative who has little regard for the human life around him. Michael Biehn punches in a perfectly measured macho role as Corporal Dwayne Hicks, who growls all of his dialogue but does reveal moments of vulnerability. I have to say that next to Ripley, Hicks has to be my other favorite character in Aliens. The young Henn wins us over as the adorable Newt, who salutes Hicks when he gives orders and quickly clings to Ripley. Lance Henrikson shows up as the android executive officer Bishop who has a hard time earning Ripley’s trust. Jenette Goldstein is another tough cookie as “smart gun” operator Private Jenette Vasquez, who shows just as much strength as Ripley. Paxton’s Hudson is the only character that I find slightly irritating and the one who gets the some of the worst dialogue in the film.

Aliens turns out to posses a large amount of the tension that made Alien such an prickly experience but it happens to be woven into white-knuckle action scenes. However, I wouldn’t be quick to call Aliens a horror movie, as there is more of an emphasis on action rather than scares. For all its palpable moments, Cameron still serves up a lean storyline that locks us in its icy grip for all two and a half hours. Cameron also offers up some heart-stopping sequences that are classic cinema moments as far as I’m concerned. I absolutely love the final fifteen minutes of the beastly thrill ride. I also have to say I am a fan of the marine’s first encounter with the aliens (shown through grainy camera footage shot by one of the marines) and a scene in which Ripley, Hudson, Hicks, Burke, Vasquez, and Newt await a slew of chomping aliens to attack will have your stomach doing somersaults. The downside to all of this is the fact that Aliens just isn’t as bright as Scott’s Alien, but you will be willing to forgive because Cameron does try his best to make this an intellectually rewarding experience in its own way. Practicing some remarkable discipline in the action department while also giving us exactly what we want, Cameron’s Aliens smartly builds upon Scott’s classic while leaving its own fingerprint on the Alien franchise.

Grade: A

Aliens is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Alien (1979)

by Steve Habrat

Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction/horror classic Alien is a film that truly understands how showing very little can scare us beyond belief. Taking place aboard the claustrophobic spaceship Nostromo, Scott terrorizes his audience by leaving basically no place for the crew to run, no place to barricade themselves in to wait out the sudden attacks by this slimy creature, and no weapon that can banish the beast to the fiery depths of Hell. While on the outside Scott has made a claustrophobic nightmare of narrow hallways and futuristic gunmetal wires, it is what Scott is doing on the inside that really gets under the viewers skin. Scott has made a film in which he reverses the sexual roles within the film. We don’t have some macho male hero to root for in Alien, one who resembles a bodybuilder with a buzz cut. Instead we have Sigourney Weaver’s feminist hero Ripley, a tough and stone-faced chick who finds herself being the last one standing against a goopy phallic creature that burst forth from a man’s chest.

Alien follows the crew aboard the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo, who are currently hauling twenty million tons of mineral ore back to good old Earth. The crew soon discovers what they believe to be a distress call from a nearby planetoid, causing them to take a detour to check out what exactly is the signal is. When they land on the craggy, windy, and gloomy planetoid, Captain Dallas (Played by Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (Played by John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Played by Veronica Cartwright) discover a strange ship that contains several bizarre eggs. One egg breaks open and the organism inside attaches to the face of Kane. On board the Nostromo, Warrant Officer Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Played by Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Played by Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Played by Yaphet Kotto) fear allowing Kane back on the ship, but Ash is excited about the discover of this new alien life form. As they begin attempting to dissect the organism, they realize they are dealing with something extremely dangerous. Without warning, a new life form bursts from Kane’s chest, fleeing into the ship and rapidly growing to a gigantic size. As the crew is bumped off one by one by the hungry creature, they have to quickly figure out how to get this bloodthirsty alien off their ship and make it home alive.

Perhaps my favorite trait that Alien possesses is the way Scott blends the alien in with the Nostromo itself. I always found it so eerie the way the alien would suddenly pop out, having been in plain sight but we the viewer oblivious to the fact that it was right in front of us. It gives Alien the feel that this twisting labyrinth of a ship is coming alive and claiming victims one by one. My two favorite sequences have to be when Captain Dallas faces the alien in a tight space, the alien’s arms shooting out of the darkness but appearing almost like a tangle of wires and hardware until we see its gaping jaw as it goes in for a penetrating kill. My other favorite scene is when Ripley is in the escape pod in the final minutes of the film, the alien crouched in the fetal position inside a darkened crevice. The creature’s phallic head resembling part of the ship until it suddenly moves and roars at Ripley. Talk about a neat effect!

The alien itself, conceived by artist H.R. Giger, ranks as one of the most iconic movie monsters in the long history of the genre. Show a picture of it to anyone and they can instantly identify what the creature is. The beast, which is kept mostly in the shadows throughout Alien, is a true marvel, one that is a skin crawling vision while also having a faint phallic look to it. The creature grows more horrifying with each small reveal that Scott places strategically throughout the runtime of Alien, revealing the entire beast at the climax but blasting it with strobe lights, a blue glow, and blurred camera angles to keep some layer of mystery to it. Scott doesn’t simply use the alien to scare us, but applies it as a thought provoking monster that is used to make comments on the male fear of childbirth (as a baby, it is flesh colored and vaguely erect, burst forth in a shower of gore fro Kane’s chest) and used to make a comment on the battle between the sexes. At the end, the empowered Ripley strips down to just her underwear and an ill fitting t-shirt as the phallic alien, with a stinger that resembles an erect penis shooting from its mouth, bears down on her. It’s a classic sequence that is both memorable for its events and the underlying subject matter, suggesting attempted rape and penetration.

Any discussion of Alien would not be complete without praising the work of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the empowered, no nonsense heroine who finds herself being the last woman standing in the battle between the crew and the alien. She is unrepressed and liberated, finding herself in charge of the ship in the wake of the deaths of the two men who ranked above her. Yet even from the first time she is introduced to us, she overshadows the men, all who seem slightly weak and unable to protect themselves from this monster bearing down on them. One male victim just stares in horror and disbelief as it shoots its erect stinger out of its mouth at the wide-eyed pile of flesh. Yet Ripley never falls apart, instead owning every scene she is in, even when she is placed next to Cartwright’s Lambert, who is reduced to shrieks and tears when the alien closes in. She is one tough broad and she is proud of it. Looking at the time in which Alien was made, released in 1979, right in the midst of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Ripley stands for tough and uncompromising feminism, looking this phallic monstrosity in the face and refusing to back down from it. She was a far throw from the female cliché that ran rampant in mainstream horror films at the time, the ones who ran away from the monster, the caricatures that Lambert appears to represent.

Alien is an incredibly powerful and thought provoking exercise in horror. It is an industrial mash-up of futuristic science fiction and dramatic slasher horror. Much has been made about the sexual undertones, many critics pointing out male fear of rape and penetration, the most recognizable being the fear of childbirth with the show stopping chest burst sequence, a scene that is glaringly obvious. Each and every scene has an epic gusto that tears right through it, yet each scene works in synch with the next, culminating in a strobe-like burst of seething feminism. The cut-off feeling, soggy claustrophobia, and lack of a thorough explanation of the alien all make Alien a classic among the science-fiction horror genre. Alien ultimately turns out to be B-movie material approached with an A-list touch and an extreme confidence in itself. This is an intelligent must-see horror masterpiece from the heyday of the genre.

Grade: A-

Alien is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Cedar Rapids (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Comedian Ed Helms is such a talented guy, it’s hard not to just love him. The guy can sing, dance, play instruments, and do comedy with the best comedians out there. Take 2011’s Cedar Rapids, an uproariously funny comedy decked out in earth tones and Dockers. Cedar Rapids is Helms’s first starring comedy that truly does his talent justice and doesn’t demand he resort to a string of dick jokes like The Hangover asks of him. This project also proves that Helms can do the heavy lifting and lead a film from beginning to end. A much smaller film than his Hangover franchise, Cedar Rapids is a smaller and downright friendlier project that, yes, still has the same old bawdy jokes, but it is much more earnest and cordial, with direction that is much more mature and almost old fashioned. With Cedar Rapids, Helms comes out with his pride still in one piece and in the process, we learn that he has serious chemistry with man-baby John C. Reilly, leaving us begging for another project where the lax Reilly can torment the uptight Helms.

Cedar Rapids picks up the small, sleepy town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, where we meet mild mannered Tim Lippe (Played by Helms), a sheltered and uptight insurance salesman. We learn that Tim has never really left his hometown and ventured out into the real world. He is pre-engaged to his 7th grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (Played by Sigourney Weaver) and he dedicates himself fully to the small insurance company he is employed at. When Lippe is given the opportunity to travel to Cedar Rapids to represent his company, Brownstar Insurance, at a regional conference and bring how the coveted Two Diamonds award, he graciously accepts and prepares for his trip to the big city. When he arrives in Cedar Rapids, he meets party animal Dean Ziegler (Played by Reilly), sexy red head Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Played by Anne Heche), and monotone Ronald Wilkes (Played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.). As Tim begins to lighten up and have fun, pressure from his boss Bill (Played by Stephen Root) begins getting the best of Tim, Bill demanding that Tim bring home the Two Diamond award any way he can. But Dean soon brings new information to Tim, sparking the group to suspect how honestly the Two Diamond awards are won.

The running joke of Cedar Rapids is the idea that Tim is an insurance salesman who refuses to take any major risks. He stays on a straight, safe path and if anything disrupts that order, Tim becomes a heaving, stammering mess who refuses to curse. He is always at odds with the nothing-is-off-limits Dean, who urges Tim to lighten up every chance he gets. When Tim does cut loose, he over compensates for living such a sheltered existence. He parties with a free-spirited prostitute Bree (Played by Alia Shawkat), doing hard drugs and heavy drinking. He also sparks up a romantic relationship with Joan, who has a secret of her own. Most importantly, Tim learns he has options, something that never revealed itself until he steps out of his safe zone, Brown Valley. It is also when Tim is shaken out of his naivety that the true colors of those around him sweep through their out shells.

Is it too much to ask that we get a sequel to Cedar Rapids? Every single member of the cast seems to be at home in their roles. You’ll die laughing when Dean makes Tim squirm out of discomfort. You’ll howl when Ronald babbles on about The Wire and does his impersonations. And how about Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat playing a bad girl prostitute with a wild streak? I wanted more of the romance between Tim and Joan, an onscreen couple who go together like peanut butter and jelly. It is always a treat when the director knows that their cast has great chemistry and he lets them go. Director Miguel Arteta allows his cats to guide the film, making his job almost effortless. Arteta does make Cedar Rapids into a bit of a celebration of the little guy. He mirrors this in his choice of the little guy Helms, who always seems pushed to the supporting role. Yet his film is a round of applause for the small, family owned business, the small, sheltered hero, and the rag tag group who has to pull together to prevail.

Even though Cedar Rapids is a smaller film, it never falls victim to the “Garden State syndrome”, ya know, the one where the film features crude illustrations for the opening credit sequence, there is Napoleon Dynamite style humor sprinkled throughout, and there are countless indie rock bands (The Shins, Belle & Sebastian, etc.) strumming their acoustic guitars on the soundtrack. While Cedar Rapids maintains its indie cred with the small scope and a slew of offbeat actors, you never feel like you need to be wearing horn rimmed glasses and skinny jeans to really appreciate it. You never get the sense that the film gives off the vibe that it is too cool to be viewed by you. In fact, Cedar Rapids in almost dorky! This makes falling for this film even easier, because it lacks all the glitz and glamour of a mainstream comedy. It really is the comedy next door.

Grade: B+

Cedar Rapids is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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