Friday, June 27, 2008


Meet WALL-E, short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-class. WALL-E is a waste management robot - he and thousands like him, were tasked with compacting the overabundance of garbage into cubes and neatly stacking them into towering structures in an effort to clean up what had become an Earth inhospitable to life. After 700 years of diligent effort, WALL-E is the last of his kind, and along with his pet cockroach, Hal (as in 'Hal Roach' - and if you don't know who Hal Roach was, I suggest you look it up or you'll miss a great inside joke), as far as one can tell, they are the last "living" things on the planet. The curious thing is, after all the many decades, garbage is not the only thing that WALL-E has 'picked up', hence the pet roach. WALL-E has developed a unique personality, an insatiable curiosity and a fondness for collecting things. One of his most prized possessions is a VHS copy of Hello Dolly, which he watches nightly upon his return from work and, at some point, through the development of his personality, his interactions with the garbage and the many viewings of his single movie, WALL-E has discovered the most telling indicator of his sentience: He's lonely, painfully so, and he yearns for more. However, WALL-E continues his daily duty, partially because that's what he was designed to do and, primarily because his curiosity wouldn't allow him to do otherwise - oh, and there's also the small fact that he's proud of what he does. Now, after hundreds of years of doing what he does and becoming who he is, WALL-E is suddenly confronted by new and exciting possibilities with the arrival of an exploratory robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), with whom he is instantly enamored. As his internal circuitry mirrors that which the Tin Man most desired but always possessed, he sets forth on an adventure that, unbeknownst to WALL-E, has taken him 700 hundred years to prepare for.

WALL-E is, in a word: Stunning. I'll admit, I went into this movie expecting to enjoy it, but I was caught completely off guard by what I experienced; in other words, I was happily overwhelmed. When I wasn't laughing at the obvious (and not so obvious) humor or being touched by the poignant desires of WALL-E, I was sitting with mouth agape at the sheer spectacle of such a multifaceted and profound storyline. I've become quite accustomed to Pixar's movies dealing with darker issues just below the surface of the conspicuous, kid-friendly plots (Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles come immediately to mind), and I've become equally accustomed to Pixar's directors and writers rarely, if ever, acknowledging the existence of these underlying currents, however, this was the first of their films to integrate multiple eddies subtly intermingling like shifting sands on a desert planet, while the director continues to reaffirm that this is merely a love story. Perhaps that's where Pixar's, and by default, WALL-E's, genius truly resides: in the ability to tell a fun, heartfelt story with fundamental moral principals that everyone of all ages can enjoy, while surreptitiously blending notions of deeper meaning and thought for anyone who might take the time and put forth the effort to gaze a little deeper into the picture placed before them. Think of it as a splendidly animated Rorshach ink blot test: You can look at it and say, "Butterfly!", and be content, or you can take your time, delve deep into the crevices and see a flowering meadow alive with nature under a cerulean sky at the height of Spring. Either way, you're right.

Another amazing aspect of this film, in conjunction with the story, is the manner in which it is told. There are only a few actors involved and, for the most part, they don't really turn up until the second act of the movie and even when they do, the robot characters, communicating through sound effects and a handful of synthesized words, are still the center of the story. And when I say "characters", I mean that in the most complimentary way possible because the robots (especially WALL-E) have more personality and can convey more emotion, even though they lack a vocabulary, than most people I know. Watching the first act of the movie, in which the only characters were WALL-E, Hal and, later, EVE, was pure unequivocal animated poetry. Throughout the film, I was constantly reminded of my annual New Year's resolution to strive to talk less but say more; it was refreshing and reassuring to see so much being said, feel so much emotion, without the hassle and clutter of talking. Granted, the credit for "acting", the emoting, the "heart" and overall striking appearance of the film rests with the spectacular photo-realistic animation. Not only were life-like robots able to believably display longing and wonder, but desolate cityscapes, dry, dusty and barren of life for hundreds of years, were presented with a captivating beauty rife with loneliness juxtaposed phenomenally with the vivid colors, expansive star fields and clean line aerodynamics of future space travel, all while paying homage to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton as well as classic science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Alien. Quite a stupendous achievement and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised, when the Academy Awards roll around, to see this movie forgo the Best Animated Picture category and head directly for the Best Picture Oscar.

Obviously, I was very impressed with this film and a majority of the credit must go to the main character, WALL-E. One of Pixar's outstanding qualities is the ability to create rich characters with whom an audience can readily identify and, not surprisingly, I had felt an affinity to WALL-E upon seeing the first teaser trailer that simply showed him gazing up into the starry night sky. I was intimately acquainted with that look. The more I saw, leading up to the release of the movie, the more I liked and the more I recognized a kindred spirit, so I was predisposed to, at least, enjoy certain aspects of the film regardless of the overall product, however, as I've previously stated, the overall product is astounding. Again, that's just my opinion - I don't expect everyone feel the same connection that I did, but I do expect the average person to thoroughly enjoy this movie and I definitely think that WALL-E is more than worthy of a theater viewing (or two).

I could continue to ramble on concerning my opinion of this movie but, for your sake and mine, I'll refrain, although I will leave you with one final thought: Several years ago, I read an interview with Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, referring to the summer of 1967 when he and the rest of the Beach Boys and some friends were all taking a break, staying together at a large beach house and basking in, not only in the glow of the California sun but, the glow of their perceived musical accomplishments, as well. According to Wilson, while in town buying groceries, one of the members had picked up a copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album having been released just that day (which would have been June 2nd, I think), and brought it back to the house for a listen. After hearing the album from start to finish, Wilson said he realized that the Beach Boys had accomplished nothing. Now, everyone would pretty much agree that Wilson was being much more critical and demanding of the group than anyone else would ever attempt to be based on what the Beach Boys had contributed to music up to that point, but in his eyes and by his definition of 'accomplish', they were extremely far behind. After seeing Pixar's WALL-E, I can't help but wonder how many animation executives, directors, cinematographers, sound engineers and studio brass are thinking the same thing.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Happening

It's apparently an average day, like any other; weather is happening, people are working, playing and doing all the things that people do on an average day. In New York's Central Park, people are taking breaks, walking, relaxing and carrying on conversations with their friends, until, without warning, the act of communicating becomes difficult, disorientation sets in and then, by whatever means are available, everyone starts to kill themselves. Word of the event begins to spread and the initial assumption is that New York has suffered some type of chemi cal terrorist attack. In Philadelphia, high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and the rest of the school's faculty are notified of the tragedy as classes are canceled and children are sent home to be with their families. Elliot and his math teacher friend Julian (John Leguizamo), decide to get their families together and take a train to the Pennsylvania farmlands until more information is learned and the possibility of further attacks has been reduced. Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), who are obviously going through some type of strain in their relationship, meet Julian and his 8 year-old daughter, Jess, at the train station and, after learning that Julian's wife is late and will have to take the next train, they head out. Once on the train, news of more attacks reaches the occupants and after hearing increasingly grim reports, the conductors stop the train, due to no communication from any of the stations, and basically, because of fear and self preservation, tell everyone they're on their own. Now, in a small town in the Pennsylvania countryside, Elliot, Alma, Julian and Jess are faced with limited options. It has become obvious that the attacks are affecting smaller and smaller areas of human population and even though Elliot is beginning to understand what is happening, he's also beginning to see that there may be no such thing as a safe place.

This movie falls comfortably into the area of classic apocalypse, as in, something has happened/ is happening, we're not really sure what, but there's a good chance a significant percentage of humans (if not all) could end up perishing. Similar to how apocalyptic films of the 50's capitalized on the fears of the atomic bomb and the effects of radiation, this movie, at first, makes use of the terrorist threat fears, and then moves into an entirely different, but not completely unexplored, realm. Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan has stated that his goal for this film was to create a current, well made "B" movie - much like those films of the 50's - and in that respect (and in my opinion), he easily achieved, and surpassed what he set out to do. The main difference between Shyamalan's film and the 50's versions is that rather than waste time on dialog involving pseudo-science and explanations that would become laughable in six to eight months (like much of the radiation hypothesizing of the 50's), The Happening looks for solutions based on common sense logic but never attempts to provide a definitive answer, relying instead on the notion that, as much as humans like to arrogantly think we're the be-all end-all of intelligence, there are just some things that we don't know and even when we think we have it figured out, we don't. That's my favorite aspect of the film: Humanity getting caught with their complacent pants around their chubby ankles.

Keeping with the "B" movie notion, rather than create the large (and expensive) spectacle of the world in danger, the story ultimately focuses on a few individuals who's purpose is to emotionally convey the vastness of the situation from the viewpoint of a mircocosm, and, for this particular story, Wahlberg, Deschanel and Leguizamo, along with a few others, do that incredibly well. Wahlberg and Deschanel are able to show the overall fear that such an event would induce while simultaneously displaying the emotional gamut of a couple suffering relationship strains as they try to assist friends and perfect (and imperfect) strangers through the course of an unprecedented event. Leguizamo is representative of the people in traumatic events who try to be brave for others as the fears concerning the fate of loved ones continually erode their internal supports. I've decided that Leguizamo should take more dramatic roles.

I didn't think this was a great movie, but I definitely believe that it was good and is worth seeing in the theater, especially if you are in any way a fan of the apocalyptic style of storytelling. This movie may not have major action or a spectacular budget, but the intense scenes when the event takes place more than make up for that. Shyamalan's ability to subtly film a sequence with an underlying intensity that lingers long after the initial scene has passed is uncanny. That alone is worth the price of admission or rental.

Oh, and one word of warning: If the notion of seeing someone intentionally inflict injury upon themselves intending to bring about their own demise bothers you, by no means should you see this movie. Seriously.