WALL·E, Meet Dave, Then She Found Me, The Orphanage

WALL·E, Meet Dave, Then She Found Me, The Orphanage

Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
for Expats.cz

What an achievement: Pixar´s WALL·E, directed by Andrew Stanton, is the second straight rousing success from the company (following last year´s Ratatouille), a captivating animated film that manages to tell its story (mostly) without dialogue. It’s also a wonderful physical comedy that recalls Chaplin and Keaton and Jacques Tati. And a disarmingly affecting romance about love between two robots. And a pretty good piece of sci-fi that both kids and adults can enjoy, to boot, thoughtful and charming from beginning to end.

WALL·E
Rating:
Directed by Andrew Stanton. With the voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, MacInTalk, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver. Written by Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon, from a story by Stanton & Pete Docter.
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WALL·E is a trash-compacting droid robot living on a desolate post-apocalyptic future Earth (the year, if my math is accurate, is somewhere around 2800 A.D.) Something happened 700 years ago, and the planet is devoid of any traces of life save for a friendly cockroach that accompanies WALL·E (I wonder how the cockroach managed to survive when all traces of plant life are gone, but I´ll grant the film this one). WALL·E doesn´t seem to have much of a game plan; he wanders around compacting trash into small cubes, which he then stacks into huge, looming skyscrapers. If he comes across any interesting garbage, like a light bulb or an eggbeater, he saves it. At night he comes home to his trailer full of collected oddities and watches an old VHS tape of Hello, Dolly!. One day he finds a lone plant growing inside a fridge.

Enter EVE, a sleek new bot sent to Earth to find signs of life; at first WALL·E is apprehensive of her raw power, but he soon becomes smitten with her.  Slowly, the two robots seem to, I suppose, fall in love. However, when WALL·E shows her the plant he´s found, she immediately shuts down and awaits to be transported to back to the cruise ship that has been floating around space for 700 years. There live (presumably) the last remnants of humanity, who have been waiting around for Earth to become inhabitable again: they´re now fat automatons that have suffered “bone loss” from generations of travelling around on hovering chairs. WALL·E, of course, follows EVE back to the ship. And causes all sorts of trouble once he gets there.

If there´s one negative about the film, it´s the presence of the humans, who provide unnecessary reaction shots and feel a bit too ‘human´ than their depiction might otherwise suggest. And what about the infants? I presume they´re bred artificially and raised by machines, but perhaps I´m putting too much thought into this. Key scenes revolve around the fate of humanity, but frankly, I didn´t really care, as long as the robots were OK.

The robots are delightful; I would have never imagined feeling so much compassion for artificial creatures – let alone animated ones – but here they are, tugging at my heart. WALL·E is ‘voiced´ by sound design whiz Ben Burtt, who performed similar duties on Star Wars with R2D2. Fittingly, the voice of Auto, the film´s equivalent of HAL-9000, is provided by MacInTalk.

It´s difficult to put into words how magical this film is; like classic silent comedy, it transcends borders of age and language and anything else you might imagine would hinder one´s enjoyment of a movie. Here´s a film, I think I can safely say, that everyone will like.

Note: film is screening in a Czech-dubbed version on most Prague screens, but it´s playing in English (with Czech subtitles) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům and Villages Cinemas Anděl. But 90% of the movie is told without dialogue, anyway; you´ll still enjoy the film if you don´t speak either language.

***

Meet Dave
Rating:
Directed by Brian Robbins. Starring Eddie Murphy, Elizabeth Banks, Gabrielle Union, Scott Caan, Ed Helms, Kevin Hart, Mike O’Malley, Pat Kilbane, Judah Friedlander, Marc Blucas. Written by Rob Greenberg & Bill Corbett.
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A middling, meandering Eddie Murphy comedy, at least Brian Robbins´ Meet Dave is reasonably inoffensive and family-friendly; a nice change of pace from the star´s recent flicks of the Norbit/Nutty Professor variety. But while Murphy is (as usual, it seems) given multiple roles to play, neither showcase his comedic talent – as a human-sized alien spacecraft and it´s stoic, Captain Kirk-like commander, the actor is unusually restrained. Dave´s exploration of humanity is fitfully amusing for awhile, but there´s absolutely nothing new here.

On a mission to destroy Earth (I think – any semblance of plot is largely ignored here), a crew of miniature humanoid aliens track a rogue meteorite to New York City, landing next to the Statue of Liberty in their convenient Eddie Murphy-shaped spacecraft. Remember that scene in Woody Allen´s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex where a miniature Tony Randall and Burt Reynolds pilot a man through a sexual encounter, culminating with the deployment of Woody as Sperm #1? Great as a ten minute skit, not so ideal when stretched out to 90-minutes and devoid of anything as interesting as a sexual adventure. There are endless, tiring jokes about navigating the arms and legs and what happens to these miniatures when the vehicle eats or drinks or visits an amusement park (yes, the movie is really that strained).

The Murphy spacecraft, named Dave Ming Chen (Captain: “quick, what are the most common names on Earth?”) hooks up with single mom Gina (Elizabeth Banks) after she hits him with her car, and the film starts to veer towards some kind of improbable romance. Conveniently, her son had the Earth-destroying meteorite that Dave has been after, which now needs to be retrieved from the school bully. As the miniature aliens interact with humans, they begin to change, becoming (yawn) more human themselves, and there´s another romance between the Captain and his 2nd in command (Gabrielle Union, who´s often the best thing about the film). Meanwhile, a couple of cops played by Scott Caan and Mike O´Malley track down the Murphy spacecraft, which left a faceprint next to the Statue of Liberty.

Bland and cliché and a very long hour-and-a-half, this is nowhere near a good film, though I appreciate that it didn´t plumb the depths of Murphy´s other recent work. What happened to that wonderful comedian from Saturday Night Live who starred in 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places?

***

Then She Found Me
Rating:
Directed by Helen Hunt. Starring Helen Hunt, Colin Firth, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Lynn Cohen, Ben Shenkman, Edie Falco, Janeane Garofalo, Tim Robbins. Written by Alice Arlen and Victor Levin and Helen Hunt, from the novel by Elinor Lipman.
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A sometimes affecting comedy-drama, actress Helen Hunt´s directorial debut Then She Found Me succeeds best as lightweight sitcom-level fare; when heading down deeper dramatic territory, however, it simply doesn´t come off. We never quite believe in or care enough for these characters, whose actions feel more motivated by the pens of the writers than of their own volitions. Film is best taken as something akin to Hunt´s popular 90´s sitcom Mad About You.

Hunt stars as school teacher April Epner, adopted daughter in a highly religious Jewish family, desperate to have a child of her own. In quick succession: her husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) leaves her, her adoptive mother dies, and her biological mother (Bette Midler) storms into her life looking to strike up a relationship. She also strikes up a relationship with Frank (Colin Firth), the single father of one of her students. Much of this is established within the first fifteen minutes, leaving us with a movie about April´s interactions, conflicts, and resolutions with these three characters.

Movie is efficiently directed and never wears out is welcome; while never laugh-out-loud funny, it´s quietly amusing throughout. Director Hunt mishandles key dramatic scenes, however, using a point-and-shoot method that hangs her actors (usually herself) out to dry. There´s nothing in the film that suggests the material should live outside the world of TV dramady.

***

The Orphanage
Rating:
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Starring Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla, Geraldine Chaplin. Written by Sergio G. Sánchez.
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Juan Antonio Bayona´s The Orphanage is a first-rate thriller/ghost story that survives a plodding midsection by providing an eerie, Hitchcockian atmosphere throughout. Film follows in the tradition of Guillermo Del Toro´s The Devil´s Backbone and Pan´s Labyrinth, minus the political/historical backdrop (Del Toro also served as co-producer here).

Laura (Belén Rueda) moves with her husband and young adopted son to the house where she grew up as an orphan: a creepy old orphanage complete with hidden rooms, mysterious visitors, and an assortment of ‘ghosts´. Son Simón (Roger Príncep) makes some invisible friends that Laura feels may not be as invisible as they should be. Strange social worker (Montserrat Carulla) drops by one day to ‘check up´ on Simón, who is HIV positive (oddly, Simón´s disease has nothing to do with the rest of the film). During a party at the orphanage, Simón goes missing. After police fail to locate him, Laura turns to other options, including a psychic played by Geraldine Chaplin.

Though superbly crafted, there´s a distinct lack of any developments relating to Simón´s disappearance for most of the film´s midsection; while we´re taken on a tour of odd goings-on, the film begins to drag for most of the second act. Also, characters aren´t immune to those old thriller clichés, like walking into a dark tool shed alone in the middle of the night after hearing strange noises, or leaving you´re half-crazed wife alone in a haunted house for the night. Still, it´s miles ahead of Hollywood product in the same genre, and provides a few genuine scares along the way, too.

Best aspect: the ambiguity that allows the viewer to take away from the film what they want to. This can either be a realistic thriller or a supernatural ghost story. Or a bit of both.

Note: film is playing in Spanish, subtitled in Czech on Prague screens.


Jason Pirodsky

Hailing from Syracuse, New York, Jason Pirodsky made his way to Prague via Miami and has stuck around, for better and worse, since 2004. A member of the Online Film Critics Society (www.ofcs.org), some of his favorite movies include O Lucky Man!, El Topo, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Hellzapoppin'. Follow him on Twitter for some (slightly) more concise reviews.

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