WALL-E (2008)

One of the things that the geniuses over at Pixar do better than anyone else is to give life to inanimate objects. They did it first with *Toy Story*, imbuing toys with the personalities, emotions and souls that kids knew they had all along. They did it too with *Cars*, and they've done it again, and best, with *WALL-E*. I'll admit I'm a robot sympathizer -- the thought of little Mars Rover up there on the red planet, all alone while the lights go out, breaks my heart. But *WALL-E* just might make robot rights activists out of us all. Asimov knows where he can put his Three Laws of Robotics.

Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-class) is a dented, rusty, steadfast little robot who performs the same task, day in, day out. His job is picking up trash, which he compacts into neat cubes, which he then stacks into spiraling skyscrapers. The trash is so deep it forms karsts and mountains, all but obscuring whatever natural features Wall-E's planet once had. As his name reveals, he performs this sisyphean task on Earth, 700 years in the future, when the planet is so hopelessly trashed that mankind has abandoned it to the cockroaches, and to one lonely little robot, the Mars Rover of Earth, Wall-E.

Amid all the trash, Wall-E finds treasures, artifacts of a lost civilization: Zippo lighters, egg beaters, an iPod, a beloved copy of *Hello Dolly!*, from which the little bot learns to dance, and to love. There's no one left to love except his faithful sidekick, a playful cockroach. Then a spaceship arrives and drops off a sleek, clean, egg-shaped robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). She's a curvy, streamlined beauty, although quite trigger happy, with a tendency to blow things up.

The first half of *WALL-E* is a charming, Chaplinesque lark with a melancholy darkness around the edges, and sweet, curious Wall-E at its heart, lightfooting around a bleak landscape, finding fun, beauty, art, and love amid the ruins. For a guy without a face, who speaks in bleeps, he's remarkably expressive and soulful -- and therein lies the genius of writer-director Andrew Stanton. It's one thing to breathe life into a doll that looks like a cowboy and sounds like Tom Hanks. It's another thing altogether to create a little person out of a rusty, dented, squeaky box of nuts and bolts, but like the replicants in *Bladerunner*, Wall-E is, it turns out, "more human than human." By the time Wall-E leaves Earth and finds humankind living on a massive intergalactic cruise ship, reduced to infantilized, technology-dependent blobs, it becomes apparent that the last bot on Earth was really the last man on Earth.

There are references aplenty to other dystopian sci-fi classics in *WALL-E*, including *2001: A Space Odyssey* and *Brazil*, but also to Chaplin's Little Tramp and especially *Modern Times*, to the lonely little bot on the moon in *Wallace and Gromit's A Grand Day Out*, and to the aforementioned *Hello Dolly!* *WALL-E* is awash in pop culture, sharing Wall-E's fascination with and affection for the culture and artifacts (some might say the trash) of late 20th and early 21st century human civilization. At the same time, the movie is a cautionary tale, following the human love of gadgetry to its logical conclusion: a world in which we are helpless to do anything -- even go to a movie -- without technological appendages (you know who you are, Mr. Answers-your-cellphone-during-the-movie). If our post-human future looks bleak, there's a ray of hope in little Wall-E. The movie is, after all, partly a sweet romance -- a heartwarming tale of how Wall-E woos and wins the heart of the new girl in town, a sophisticated beauty who is definitely out of his league. *WALL-E* also playfully explores a theme familiar in science fiction, and especially tales of sentient robots: the possibility of robot rebellion against technocratic repression. Can Wall-E and Eve transcend their programming and think for themselves, or are they hard-wired to follow orders? Do robots have free will? Finally, *WALL-E* is an ecological fable, a tale of a consumer society gone haywire, of a planet trashed by overconsumption and careless disposal, and of a species done in by the same, having evolved into lazy, blobbular couch potatoes who don't do anything but eat, talk, and follow orders to do more of the same.

*WALL-E* is a rousing, touching, sweet, funny, thought-provoking, thematically rich and complex film that gives you something to ponder while you're slurping your gallon of movie soda from the convenient armrest cupholder and munching on that mega-tub of movie popcorn -- was it really such a bargain to supersize it for fifty cents more? Can we, like our little robot friends, transcend our programming?


Get Smart (2008)

Like so many movies adapted from vintage TV shows, *Get Smart* is meant to evoke just enough nostalgia to get moviegoers into the seats with some vaguely remembered sense of having found the TV show mildly diverting once upon a time. *Get Smart* accomplishes that much, but takes enough liberties with the mid-60s, Cold War era spy sitcom (created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry) to buff up the veneer and make it mildly diverting for the masses who don't remember the sixties, either because they lived through them, or because they were born long after them.

As mildly diverting entertainments go, *Get Smart* is, well, rather mild. The bumbling Maxwell Smart, the role originated by Don Adams, becomes, as played by Steve Carell, the dull but quite competent analyst who longs to be a field agent. Carell's Smart, aka Agent 86, is actually smart, and he has allies among the eggheads (Masi Oka and Nate Torrance) of CONTROL, the super secret government spy agency that employs him. Carell plays Smart straight, unlike the stand up comedian Adams, who read every line like he was waiting for a rimshot. Carell's deadpan melancholy rubs the rough edges off the character -- he's a sincere guy, and a better spy than anyone knows, and has a backstory -- he used to be a fatty -- that explains why he's not as confident or smooth as super suave spy guy Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson). He's also got a pretty partner in super competent Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway, in the role originated by Barbara Feldon). Back in the day, there was a bit of feminist humor in the fact that 99 was always a much better spy than her male counterpart. That angle has definitely lost its acuteness, so the new *Get Smart* features a soggy romance between 86 and 99 that serves the plot, but not much else.

The movie, penned by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, features a plot with a few contempo details like a dim-bulb president (James Caan) who can't pronounce "nuclear," a nasty vice president, and some business involving yellowcake uranium. Terrence Stamp turns up as a vaguely European, vaguely menacing villain named Siegfried, who heads up the terrorist agency KAOS and employs a vaguely ethnic-looking giant (Dalip Singh) as a henchmen. 86 and 99 traipse about the former Soviet Union looking for Siegfried, fighting off the giant, jumping out of airplanes, blowing things up, and doing secret agent stuff like driving sports cars and crashing black tie parties. There's a touch of slapstick, a bit of farce, and a smidge of satire in *Get Smart*, but the laughs are really pretty tame and inoffensive. Tame and inoffensive are somewhat odd qualities for either a spy movie or a comedy, and it's not exactly the perfect combo for a spy comedy either. There's nothing particularly bad about *Get Smart*, and it meets the minimum requirements for movie entertainment: it's a competent film with a serviceable plot and an appealing cast. That it's rather bland and unsurprising and not all that smart is, I suppose, beside the point, since it isn't aiming for much more than the minimum.


Up the Yangtze (2008)

Among the more controversial projects underway in the rapidly modernizing China is the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. It is the world's largest hydroelectric power plant, a miracle of modern engineering, and one of the biggest projects undertaken in China since the construction of the Great Wall. It will change forever the landscape of China, eventually flooding over 240 square miles, displacing millions of Chinese citizens in the process.

As the waters slowly rise, a parasitic industry has emerged. Luxury cruise ships carry tourists, many of them Westerners, up and down the Yangtze River on "farewell cruises." Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang takes one of these cruises, and documents the lives of the dispossessed on the river's banks, as well as the hardworking young people employed by the cruise ships, in the fascinating, moving documentary *Up the Yangtze*.

One of those displaced by the rising river is Yu Shui, a 16 year old girl who dreams only of going to high school. Her parents are illiterate subsistence farmers for whom daily life is a constant struggle. The family lives in extreme poverty in a handbuilt shack on the banks of the river -- a temporary patchwork home they occupy until the waters force them to move once again to higher ground. Yu Shui must put off high school so that she can work to support her family. Ironically, she is employed by the cruise line that regularly steams past her doomed home. In the eyes of her employers and coworkers, she's a country bumpkin. To her family, drowning in poverty, she's a lifeline.

Another new employee of the *Victoria* cruise ship is Chen Bo Yu, a cocky young man from a middle class family. He is one of China's so-called "little emperors," an indulged and self-indulgent single son, the product of China's "one-child" policy. Tall and handsome, with good English skills, he works on the upper decks while Yu Shui scrubs dishes in the galley below. *Up the Yangtze* offers a revealing picture of peasant life in China, as well as the emerging class structure -- the upstairs-downstairs life -- that has accompanied the rapid rise of capitalism. In the contrasts between Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu, one a child of poverty, the other a child of privilege, Chang explores the changes, both good and bad, that the future promises to bring for young people in China.

*Up the Yangtze* looks past the rhetoric and propaganda about the dam and views the collateral damage, the people like Yu Shui's parents, who will be left behind in the country's relentless march towards progress and prosperity. While Western tourists view the model homes supposedly occupied by the happily displaced, and tour guides paint a rosy picture of the blessings of modernization, the Yu family moves from one hovel to another. *Up the Yangtze* is a melancholy meditation on a world that is disappearing, not just in China, but everywhere that capitalism and globalization are changing lives and landscapes around the world. The Yu family's plight makes for genuinely engrossing drama, made all the more affecting and poignant because it is real. Chang could not have asked for a more engaging and heartbreaking subject than Yu Shui, a modest girl with modest dreams who gradually emerges from her shell with a giddy sense of possibility and opportunity. In her own way, she is a model of the new and rapidly changing China, while her parents remain trapped, by crushing poverty and lack of education, in an old China that is quickly disappearing.

*Up the Yangtze* serves partly as a quietly contemplative polemic on the Three Gorges Dam, but it is not so much a critique of China's paternalistic, top-down philosophy of governance as it is a revealing look at the way that system -- Mao's system -- is also giving way to Western ideals of individualism and personal success. But even as it looks at the larger controversy surrounding the dam, the film stays rooted in the immediate, apolitical, day-to-day concerns and struggles of ordinary citizens, and views the impact of the project through the eyes of the people left to sink or swim in the rising waters.


Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Po, like the rest of panda-kind, is a tubby fellow. But unlike your run-of-the-mill shirk-a-day bamboo-noshing panda, Po (voiced by Jack Black) dreams of great things. Specifically, he dreams of being a great kung fu warrior. His father Mr. Ping (James Hong), a goose (there's no mother goose, as is generally the case in this sort of fable), runs a noodle shop, and hopes one day his son Po will take over the family business. One fateful day, word comes down from the Jade Palace that the legendary Dragon Warrior is to be selected. Po is there (just barely -- there are a lot of steps, and he's a little out of shape) to see the excitement. Perhaps by accident, perhaps because it is his destiny, Po is chosen to be the Dragon Warrior by the revered Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). Oogway is an ancient turtle who happens to have invented kung fu, so he knows a dragon from a handsaw, although not everyone is so sure abut Po.

*Kung Fu Panda* hews to tradition -- kung fu movie tradition and animated movie tradition. On his hero's journey, the unskilled and unschooled Po must learn the ways of the kung fu warrior, and fast -- the fearsome and ambitious Tai Lung (Ian McShane, one cold-hearted snow leopard) is coming. And Po must dare (in spite of all the fat jokes) to be different, to go with the flow, to trust himself, to find his inner strength, et cetera. Bottom line is, he's a big panda, and he's got a big heart, and Black, normally a fairly rambunctious, oversized performer, brings unexpected sweetness to his characterization. The grumbling and grousing is taken up by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) the prickly, grumpy red panda who is Po's grudging teacher. Shifu discovers that the way to Po's warrior heart is (not surprisingly) through his stomach. Shifu's other students, the Furious Five, are all skillful warriors, but Master Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Snake (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), and Mantis (Seth Rogen), learn that greatness comes in all shapes and sizes, including fat pandas.

There are few surprises in *Kung Fu Panda*. Instead, the story is full of mostly gentle humor, Yoda-style faux-Zen wisdom, useful life lessons, and chopsocky fight scenes that, thanks to fine computer animation, really take flight. There's also a genuine sweetness to the story -- screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger have dared to write a sincere and snark-free movie, one that embraces the storytelling traditions and conventions of martial arts movies and animated films instead of mocking them. That's not to say that Po and company don't get their noggins bonked with comedic regularity. Master Shifu's dojo is a school of hard knocks, big bounces, and belly flops.

The story is charming, and so is the animation, which nicely evokes ancient China, and has the luminosity, transparency and fluidity of a watercolor painting. Computer animation has advanced so much that lousy animation is the exception rather than the rule nowadays. *Kung Fu Panda* features lovely and lively animation, mixing photorealistic details with stylized flourishes. The action scenes are fast-moving and imaginative, and make creative use of the different ways that the characters, from monkey to mantis, move. Fans of martial arts films will recognize Monkey, Crane, Mantis, Tiger, and Snake as familiar, deadly kung fu styles in the movieverse -- we can now add the gentler but still highly effective Tubby Panda style to the arsenal.


The Visitor (2008)

The visitors in *The Visitor* are many. There's Walter Vale, a bored, aloof economics professor and widower who lives in Connecticut and goes through the motions of daily life. He's a quiet man who dabbles in music lessons, teaches his classes, and attends departmental meetings, but doesn't engage -- he's a reluctant visitor in his own tedious life. When he grudgingly goes to New York for an economics conference, he discovers that his infrequently-visited apartment has been surreptitiously rented to a pair of unexpected visitors: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a drummer from Syria, and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira), who makes and sells jewelry. In an unexpected act of compassion (or is it loneliness?), Walter lets the couple stay after figuring out that they've been the victims of a rental scam.

Thus begins an awkward friendship. With Tarek as a tutor, Walter (Richard Jenkins) discovers that he's got rhythm, and starts bouncing to the beat of an African drum. Everything is groovy in a multiculti melting pot kinda way, until Tarek is unexpectedly arrested and gets mired in the Kafkaesque post-9/11 immigration system. Turns out Tarek and Zainab are illegal immigrants, a fact that turns *The Visitor* from a breezy, heartwarming fairy tale into a nightmare.

*The Visitor*, written and directed by Tom McCarthy (*The Station Agent*) is quietly, charmingly low-key, which is how it manages to sustain a sense of plausibility in a story that is fairly improbable. It is also helped tremendously by Jenkins, whose pitch-perfect performance is as unflashy and modest as they get. It's an understated and moving performance, full of sad looks, funny sighs, and quiet desperation. Jenkins eloquently conveys the slow waking of a man who has been sleepwalking for years, suddenly roused both to the pleasures of life and friendship, and to a newfound political awareness and sense of outrage. *The Visitor* depends as much on Jenkins's natural performance as *The Station Agent* depended on Peter Dinklage -- McCarthy cast both pictures impeccably well, and lets his actors set the storytelling pace, which gives the movies a kind of natural ebb and flow that moves over and around potential problem areas.

*The Visitor* is two entertwined stories -- on the one hand it's a life-affirming fable about the unexpected rewards of compassion and generosity, and the healing power of music. There's nothing unexpected there, yet the film is still charming, and still manages to pull off a few surprises. On the other hand, the movie is an effort to agitate for a more rational and humane immigration policy, one that treats people as individuals rather than as generic suspects. Bringing these two very different agenda together is tricky business, but *The Visitor*, in its offbeat and quiet way, manages to do it thanks in part to engaging, unfussy performances and in part to McCarthy's deft, intelligent storytelling.