Ice Age

Gen X review of Ice AgeThe new computer-animated film Ice Age is surreal, funny and wonderfully weird – and it’s not just for kids.

The film predictably takes place just before the last ice age, when huge herds of creatures lumbered, slithered, crept and skittered on the Earth. Life is tough in this thing-eat-thing world, especially for those unable to defend themselves against more ferocious beasts.

When fast-talking sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) unwittingly antagonizes a pair of rhinos, he tries to hide behind a wholly mammoth named Manny (Ray Romano). (Sloths, you see, are pretty annoying weasel creatures that could convince Gandhi to try a sloth-tender meal.) Manny doesn’t want anything to do with Sid, but when the pair discover a baby human child, they decide to slick together long enough to get the infant back to his or her father.

Unfortunately a pack of saber-tooth tigers have taken a dislike to humans and their leader sends his right-claw man, Diego (Denis Leary), to retrieve the child from Manny and Sid. Diego is clever enough to know he’s no match for Manny and bides his time while trying to convince the mammoth and sloth to accept him as a friend.

The unlikely group begins to bond as they face peril after peril along the frozen wasteland. Accompanying them – as a prolonged teaser – is Scrat, a kind of emaciated-looking squirrel thing who tries to protect one lone acorn from being destroyed or stolen. The Scrat storyline is very funny and I would have enjoyed an entire feature based on this character.

The computer animation is good enough to make you forget the army of pasty-faced tech-heads who put it all together. The animals are expressive without being overly exaggerated (with the exception of Scrat, who embodies tortured frustration and angst) and although the humans are a tad too blocky, the little baby is less irritatingly cute than “Boo” the seamless cliché from Monster, Inc.

The moral message doesn’t interfere too much with the story, thank Zeus. There’s nothing worse than being lectured by a computer-generated simulacrum about the value of human life.   
The ethical focus of Ice Age is diversity. In a world of startling difference, animals, like people, tend to cluster in packs or herds that exclude those not like them. The film presents two ways of envisioning the group and then suggests a utopian third.

A pack feeds off of other groups, devours others for food or simply kills them for pleasure. Diego’s pack is brutal and heartless, a representation of gang culture with its cronyism and macho posturing. Focused by a despotic leader, it is dangerously exclusionary, killing anything that is not part of the group: A thing is a friend or food and there’s no gray area separating these categories.

The migrational herd, on the other hand, is so large, with so many different species, that difference ceases to matter. The characters are lost in the migration of dinosaurs, their unique identities erased by the sheer vastness of the population. The goal of Ice Age is to create a new model of group dynamic that allows difference while embracing the uniqueness of the individual.   

The new herd rejects the bloodthirstiness of the wolf-pack (and its tooth and claw philosophy) as well as the indifference of the migrational herd, where small animals are trampled, bullied or left behind indiscriminately. Manny’s herd is like a family, where difference is accepted as a natural component of individualism. “We’re the strangest herd I’ve ever seen,” Sid says, but he would have it no other way.

Like Shriek, Ice Age isn’t afraid to play on adults’ understanding of contemporary issues. Some of the dinosaur pair bonds are clearly “nontraditional” and characters discuss Veganism, homosexuality and single-mom as though they were meeting at a single’s club. “All the sensitive guys gets eats,” quips one hair-tree sloth to another as Sid turns his back at a mud salon. Later they discuss how difficult it is to find a male sloth that likes children.

The film’s hip ‘90s sensibilities jive well with its weird aesthetic. Ice Age evokes the same kind of irrational emotional reaction as a good Roadrunner cartoon. It’s difficult not to recall Willey E Coyote’s as poor Scrat rushes thorough an endless expanse of frozen tundra chasing the elusive acorn. The world is unpredictable, even hostile, and Scrat is just lucky ACME safes won’t be invented for another 20 thousand years or so.

Ah, the Poor Scrat thing: Tortured, desperate, a fetishist of mythic proportions. The one thing he wants is the only thing that is absolutely forbidden him – Safety. He doesn’t want to eat the acorn, he wants to protect it and keep it safe. The object represents competition to the wretched creature – it is the world in genesis form, pure potential.

This is why it’s such a hoot when he’s unable to keep hold of it. We’ve all felt that goofy, stupid, unreasonable hunger for things that are, after all, just silly baubles.

Ice Age will appeal to both adults and children. Kids, like the stinky, fidgety, loud one abandoned next to me, will howl at the poor Scrat as it’s frozen in a block of ice, inches from his precious acorn. Adults, like me, will wax philosophical about the Freudian meaning of the acorn and then howl at the Scrat’s poor misfortune with a stupid Homer Simpson voice, “Bwah, look at his eyes! Hehehe! He really wants that acorn!”

What greater recommendation can a reviewer give?


Monster's Ball

Gen X Review Monsters BallHave you ever watched someone chain smoke a pack of cigarettes down to their filters? Is there anything more desperate and sad than the smell of burning tobacco? It’s mesmerizing to watch the ash-end of each cigarette burn.

Monster’s Ball is fascinating in just this kind of way. Essentially the story of lonely people trying to find a way to connect to each other, Monster’s Ball is a powerful – and very disturbing - depiction of life coming apart at its edges. 

Hardened death row prison guard Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) has his share of problems. He and his bigoted father Buck (Peter Boyle) and emotionally disturbed son Sonny (Heath Ledger) live together in rural Georgia. Sonny is a junior member of Hank’s team at the prison, but he’s obviously not emotionally prepared for the job and Buck is slowly dying from lung disease. Hank’s mother and wife are both dead and the three men’s lives are mostly filled with daytime television, executions, illness and isolation. 

Buck has educated his heirs on the meaning of masculinity, and they share (or appear to share) many of his racist, misogynist and prejudice beliefs. Without women to teach them love and affection, Hank and Sonny have become as emotionally distant and cruel as Buck. They are monsters: grotesque creatures stitched together by the worst male codes, horrible, twisted and deformed men incapable of really touching or being touched by anyone.

The family is trapped in a kind of waiting game, suspended in the unhealthy routines of Hank and Sonny’s executioner’s chores and Buck’s slow decline. Sometimes being a man means being terribly alone and disconnected, so sure of your prejudices and preconceived notions that the world seems frozen and dead.   

Although Sonny does not want to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, he doesn’t know how to break free of their grip, and as he prepares for his first execution he confides in his father his desire to try something new. Hank follows the example set by Buck and belittles his son into going through with the last walk, but Sonny falters at the last minute.

The execution goes on as planned but Hank rails at his son that he “ruined that man’s last walk.” Afterwards he confronts Sonny in a men’s room, abusing him both physically and mentally until the young man breaks down. Sonny later finds his own way out of the family.

Leticia (Halle Berry), the wife of the condemned man, is also caught up in repetitive cycles of abuse, anger and isolation. She abuses her overweight son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), even though he is all that grounds her to the world as she drifts from one dead-end waitress job to another, barely making ends meet. Her husband Lawrence (Sean Combs) has been in jail for seven years and there’s no real connection between them.

While he’s executed she sits quietly watching TV, chain smoking and drinking Jack Daniels. The only thing he has given her is their son, and she can’t even keep him safe. Her world spirals out of control as everything seems to fall apart. Her car dies just as an eviction notice is served, but worse still a car accident sends Tyrell to the hospital during a torrential rainstorm.
Hank, who had been driving aimlessly, sees Tyrell motionless on the sidewalk and stops to help them.  He drives the boy to the hospital, but it’s too late. 

Afterwards Hank drives Leticia back to her house. As he tries to comfort her his own pain rises to the surface and the two find their worlds unexpectedly colliding. Sometimes all that stands between people is a moment that has the power to transform everything: The moment when you say yes or no to the world. Hank and Leticia connect powerfully that first night in one of the best, most horrific and true-to-life sex scenes  ever.  

Love is great when it appears sex, but it’s harder to make things work in everyday life, especially when your only family members are pigs. Buck is the voice of prohibition, of racism and misogyny, of cold, icy machismo, but Hank has more than Buck inside of him. He has something of his mother in him, the old bag of snot complains hotly while sucking on a breath of air. And it’s true: Hank does have enough of his mother in him, enough to say yes to love, anyhow.

Monster’s Ball is about love, but it’s also hard and difficult, like life, so demanding, in fact, that I found myself muttering, “Pass the Prozac, I want out!” half way through the film. 
This film  is industrial gritty and realistic, despite the plot’s obvious shortcomings. Thornton is quickly becoming the definitive master of understated acting and he conveys a lot of emotion with very sparse dialog. You can see Hank’s wretched soul struggling to be free of all Buck’s hate in the way Thornton holds his body.

Berry, for her part, proves that she’s capable of greatness. There’s real poignancy to Leticia’s quest for a safe place and she makes the last scene of this film so lovely that I pardon her appearance in last year’s uber-dud Swordfish. She’s going to have to work very  hard to make me believe she’s not a world-class actress in the rough. 

Monster’s Ball takes place in a hard world, where nothing comes easy for anyone. The ugly urban sprawl that makes the boundaries between Hank and Leticia’s world is so ubiquitous that it could be anywhere, USA. This is a landscape peppered with used car dealerships, fast food restaurants, dry cleaners and all-night diners, an asphalt distopia where most people are walking around with a lot of themselves missing. 

Leticia is desire. She moves like a ghost from diner to diner, never really being noticed or appreciated. Her anger and frustration builds until she strikes out at those around her, but she’s really only responding to the world she finds herself in: A world where she’s not even allowed to leave a footprint and where everything she touches seems to disappear.

The prison where Hank, Sonny and Buck have spent a good portion of their lives is, in a sense, themselves. It is where they’ve had to create these monstrous ideas of themselves, where they had to deny women’s tenderness in favor of a masculine code that detaches them from everyone and everyplace.

But the world these characters live in is also the world they create, and Hank and Leticia have the power to transform themselves and each other through love. Sexual intimacy punctures their isolation, but true love is thornier, takes longer and is longer-lasting. Desperation and desire are powerful tools for change, and it’s never too late to leave the worst you have behind.

Smokers sometimes say it’s the last drag of a cigarette that’s the best.

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