In Theaters


Wall-E unfolds some seven centuries from now, when the Earth has undergone complete environmental collapse, a sort of fatal and global toxic shock. The planet is all dirt-brown vistas and dead cities, and not a living creature to be seen; like what one could imagine the world in Soylent Green looking like a few decades hence. Wall-E is a robot who’s spent untold centuries puttering around a poisoned Earth, busily compacting the mounds of detritus left by a big-box-shopping culture and turning them into neat little cubes that he then stacks into futuristic obelisks of waste. There’s no end of work for him to do, because as the film’s mostly silent opening makes clear, the humans that blasted off from the planet in 2100 were a frighteningly wasteful lot with plenty in common with those of us watching the film from cushioned stadium seating.

You can read the rest of my piece about Wall-E and its blatant and dead-on critique of consumer culture at PopMatters‘ blog Short Ends & Leader.

New on DVD

What does one do, or even say, about a film that is, by any measurement that matters, perfect? When considering Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s finely etched animated adaptation of Satrapi’s two-part autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Tehran during the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, the problem (if one could call it that) becomes particularly acute. By compressing into this film the myriad of themes that it handles, from religious oppression to teenage rebellion to cultural dissonance and war, the filmmakers could have easily encumbered it with a weight that would have outweighed its many sharp delights. But by some strange and fortunate circumstance born out of vision, patience, luck, and sheer unmitigated talent, they have managed to incorporate each of those weighty topics into a work of art that’s light as a feather, in the manner of the true masterpiece.

Persepolis is now available on DVD. You can read the full review at filmcritic.com.

New on DVD

If David McCullough, and everyone behind HBO’s impressive seven-part miniseries adaptation of his book on John Adams is correct, than the founding father and second president of the United States of America was perfectly well aware that he was doomed to be consigned to history’s dustbin. It was inevitable, perhaps. George Washington was the towering war hero and model of humble rectitude. Ben Franklin had the genius intellect and rascally wit to ensure that if he wasn’t lionized for the one, he’d be toasted for the other. Thomas Jefferson’s talent for self-promotion and moralistic stances made it almost inevitable that he would be remembered as the stalwart gentleman-scholar he seemed to believe himself to be. Then there was John Adams.

HBO just released John Adams as a 3-disc DVD set, and it’s well worth the renting. Read the full review at PopMatters.

New on DVD

To say that most early- and mid-’80s sitcoms resembled processed cheese is, on reflection, an insult to processed cheese. Even Velveeta may have tasted fine at one point in time. But there’s just no nutrition or joy to be had on catching up with Facts of Life in adult life. Fortunately, the same can’t be said for Square Pegs, a little sitcom about misfit teenagers that ran for about 19 episodes in the 1982–83 season. Looking at the show now over a quarter of a century later (in a long-overdue DVD release), it may not stand to be counted among television’s great shows, but for a show that premiered in the same season as epic, youth-skewing cheese like Knight Rider and Silver Spoons, Square Pegs is practically Playhouse 90 by comparison.

The complete run of Square Pegs was released on DVD last month. You can read the full review at PopMatters.

In Books

It’s not to say that the selections contained in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 are, as a rule, without merit. To make that sort of claim would defy critical logic by pretty much any acceptable manner of measurement. After all, you have the works of Alice Munro, Ha Jin, and Steven Milhauser contained within these estimable pages. But it would also defy logic to say that the book subtitled “The Best Stories of the Year” displays the kind of writing that is going to send readers dashing to their desks in the dead of night to pound out prose in a hopeless attempt to somehow match the deathless stories they have just themselves read.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 edition is in stores now. The full review, as often is the case, can be found at PopMatters.

In Theaters

It’s surprising that Hollywood has taken until 2008 to come up with Kung Fu Panda. Taking your factory-issue period-piece martial arts plot — wherein schlubby protagonist finds his inner warrior as a means of expressing filial piety and ensuring the harmonious survival of his village — and combining it with supercharged computer animation, PG-friendly combat, and a flurry of cute animals just makes good business sense. One could argue about the logic of surrounding Jackie Chan (voicing a monkey who’s also a kung fu master) with a Hollywood stew of A-list talent eager to scoop up some easy voice-actor money, but when the film’s star is an overweight panda voiced by Jack Black, such kvetching is almost beside the point.

Kung Fu Panda opens today and is truly awesome. Read the full review at filmcritic.com.

In Theaters

It’s not hard to understand what gave Liev Schreiber the idea; sure he’s an actor and filmmaker but still human like the rest of us. While prepping for production on Everything is Illuminated in 2004, Schreiber caught an MTV segment about Muthana Mohmed. A 25-year-old Iraqi film student whose school had been reduced to rubble, Mohmed seemed like a bright-eyed kid with potential that was being wasted in a war-torn city. Knowing that working on a film set would be a dream for any film student, much less one whose country was in the middle of civil war, Schreiber and one of his producers set Mohmed up in Prague as an intern on Everything is Illuminated. Documentarian Nina Davenport started hanging around to chronicle Mohmed’s transition and work. Operation Filmmaker is her chronicle of how things went so horrendously wrong.

Operation Filmmaker opened today in limited release after playing a number of festivals. The full-length review is at filmcritic.com.