Mongol

If it turned out that Mongol had been made in the 12th century, I wouldn’t be altogether surprised. Like early country and rock-and-roll musicians, warrior-kings all seem to have very similar backgrounds, and Genghis Khan is no exception. His biography’s like a checklist: After running through a series of hurdles after his father’s assassination—slavery, betrayal, having his title stolen and wife raped—the-man-who-would-be-Khan beats an army bigger than his own and takes his place in the history books. But his place in the history books is that of a ruthless conqueror; in this movie, he’s made to seem ethereal, superhuman, and (absurd as it sounds) Christlike with his long, stringy hair and unkempt beard.

No attempts are made to give Temudjin (his birth name) personality and Tadanobu Asano, the Japanese actor who plays him, is tall and stiff and speaks in platitudes. (Following a tired, clichéd characterization shortcut, Temudjin doesn’t show any affect as a pudgy-faced child, either; the nine-year-old doesn’t flinch when a sword straddles his throat.) He shows some wan passion with his wife, Börte (Khulan Chuluun), and plays with his kids; but he’s otherwise a cipher—probably so that the Russian director, Sergei Bodrov, could shower him in hokey mysticism. When he chooses his equally ascetic wife at age nine, they are lovers and devotees at first sight—even though neither seems like much fun to be around. And each time Temudjin prays, a wolf comes by to pay him a look-see. But, aside from his strategic acumen, the movie gives no explanation for why the gods (or the audience) should show this particular warlord any favor. The filmmakers seem to be lauding him for his so-called noblesse oblige, but do codifying a primordial legal system and sparing a monastery and the life of a friend really redeem him from his record of pillaging and bloodshed? (Perhaps he’s a such an ideal honcho because he believes that “Mongols have the right to choose.” But what happens when that comes into conflict with his edict to “Never betray your Khan”?) I didn’t come out of the movie liking or disliking Genghis Khan any more or less than I did when I had come in; I simply didn’t care.

There’s good news, though. The recreation of the Steppes and their culture helps to keep up one’s interest, and the battle scenes are staged creatively enough to keep them above the level of bloody humdrum. Bodrov has a penchant for point-of-view shots in the heat of conflict; masochistic as it sounds, one is drawn in when a spear is pointed right at one’s face, and on the big screen the effect is amplified. To credit the cinematographers, Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov, for their good work may be superfluous; if we didn’t have the regal portraits of Temudjin amidst the vast Middle Eastern landscape, the movie would be a complete sham. But they produce some truly memorable images: the profile of Börte, aged 10, with the mist forming a nimbus around her head; and Temudjin, after a defeat, lying weak and vanquished on the ground with the bald, fire-lit head of his captor—and friend—Jamukha (Honglei Sun) beside his own as Jamukha pleads Temudjin to grovel for mercy. Sun, an actor from China, makes his character—Temudjin’s blood brother and later rival—far more interesting than Asano’s. Jamukha sports a faux-hawk and an earring of sorts and casually cracks his back; he also laughs uncontrollably when he sees that Börte has slit the throat of a captor. Sun gives this movie a much-needed eccentric performance, and it’s delightful and poignant. One wishes that this Silk Road hipster—this Mongolian metrosexual—had been the one who’d made it into the history books instead.

(Endnote: The funniest moment of this film accompanies the ending credits. The score makes a transition from Mongolian-aboriginal to heavy metal.)

WALL-E

WALL-E, the new Pixar animated film, is as much revered as, or perhaps more revered than, any of its predecessors. It has components of classical “family entertainment”—breezy, (somewhat) optimistic spectacle with charming, hand-holding lovers, skillful importation of elements from more “grown-up” sources, and, of course, a “wholesome” message—and uses them in a way that’s seldom cloyingly square or irksomely “adult” (like Shrek). But WALL-E, beyond the strength of its narrative, the detail of its execution and the genuineness behind its homily, is also a bit of a thermometer—and the weather isn’t entirely sunny.

As my brother-in-law put it, WALL-E is “the ‘liberal’ media at its best.” (It’s important to note that he’s skeptical of both the media and the specious accusation that it’s thoroughly “liberal.”) WALL-E plops us down in the dingy 28th century—on a post-human Earth. WALL-E is a wheeling trash-compactor unaware that his creators had turned their entire planet into a dump and subsequently jetted away from it on cosmic luxury liners. Everything in this lonely landscape bears the logo of an apparently all-encompassing, Wal Mart-inspired conglomerate; if the filmmakers had dwelt on this monopoly any more than they have (rather than leave their evidence in the background), the movie would’ve become a chilling modern update of 1984. But this is a kids’ movie, right? Whatever one’s age, one is typically more inclined to be more absorbed by the good-natured scavenger (whose treasures comprise what appears to be the world’s last surviving plant and a V.H.S. copy of cheery Hello, Dolly!, which teaches the machine the virtues of naïve love), and his longing for Eve—a hovering, next-generation iPod deposited on Earth to scout for evidence of photosynthesis—than one is by undertones about corporate oligarchy. The robots’ relationship starts to bloom, and the bashful box-bot shows Eve his plant; but she (I assume WALL-E’s a “he” and Eve’s a “she,” unless this movie’s also into promoting gay rights) immediately enters hibernation mode and dispatches her mother ship.

WALL-E, following Eve, hitchhikes on his beloved’s space pod and eventually becomes a stranger in a strange land: one of the luxury liners, a gargantuan, interstellar shopping mall peopled by self-absorbed blobs on mobile recliners. The ship, christened knowingly by the filmmakers as the Axiom, is in perpetual Disney-cruise mode, and its inhabitants are all coddled to such a degree that they seem to lack self-knowledge or even free will. The same mega-corporation that has littered the Earth into a consumerist trash-heap seems to have sponsored the Axiom, but the company’s employees are long gone—their vocations replaced, it appears, by legions of nifty robots that pamper the portly people. Even the captain (voiced by Jeff Garlin) seems to be occupying a superfluous post; in one of the film’s cleverest bits of satire, we are treated to a wall of captains’ portraits whose subjects got successively fatter as time went by. Eve delivers the little plant to the captain, and it activates an ancient company directive to return the vessel to port—if flora can subsist on Earth, it should be safe now for fauna, too.

Unfortunately, WALL-E, Eve, and the captain are confronted by robots programmed with a secret counter-directive: The conglomerate eventually determined that Earth was no longer salvageable, so the villainous robots (one of which has HAL-9000’s red camera-eye) are compelled to maintain the status quo—to keep the humans pigs in space. (The bad guys’ actions seem to have been inspired by those of the malevolent android played by Ian Holm in Alien. In both movies, a corporate commandment makes both human life and liberty secondary.) But here’s where the pedagoguery kicks in: The captain, upon learning about the plant, has caught learning fever! He’s sick of being a complacent blob and wants to try new things like, say, self-determination. In taking a stand against the mutinous machines, he literally takes a stand—lifts his ass up off his floating wheelchair. Apparently, his idealism is unanimously echoed by all of his passengers. (For creatures seeking control of their destinies, they’re rather indistinct as individuals, and almost creepily willing to follow their captain’s lead.) Thanks to the help of WALL-E and Eve, the day is saved; the Axiom lands on barren Earth and the human pioneers have suddenly metamorphosed from insular consumers to agrarians more willing to be self-sustaining than a commune of hippies. And, of course, WALL-E’s wish is fulfilled: like the lovers in Hello, Dolly!, he and Eve finally hold hands.

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