All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)




WALL·E (Andrew Stanton)

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm. -- WALL·E BN-JMN, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," 1940


For a film as fundamentally simple as WALL·E, there are myriad ways to begin discussing it. Perhaps one entry point, and a key distinguishing feature from other Pixar films, is the fact that it actually integrates live-action material. The taped messages from Fred Willard's Shelby Forthright, president / chairman of Buy 'n Large not only provide a filmic texture distinct from the rest of the film; they represent a critical "outside" to the post-apocalyptic robot world and the flabby parahumanity supported by it. Typically feature-length animations are praised for their successful creation of an all-enveloping universe, and certainly WALL·E is no slouch on that score. But the decision to allow small traces of our ordinary world to trespass on the trash-compacted magic means that the film retains an unusual formal correlative to the overt critique of the plot and themes. When we spend the first thirty magnificent minutes of WALL·E in near-total silence, with WALL·E and his cockroach pal roving the massive detritus of the Western world, we perceive more than recontextualized Igloo coolers and jumper cables, although the nods to the great silent comedies are clearly there. More than this, WALL·E is setting up millennial distance and environmental catastrophe as a form of aesthetic distance or enframing, and we're pulled into that world as its reluctant outside, the opposite against which it must be judged.


This dual action means that WALL·E actually transcends topical cuteness or look-at-that computer animation awe-inspiration, and actually has the necessary grounding that allows it to function as a satire. Even in its final act, which admittedly treads on dangerously trite, hackneyed territory, WALL·E never relinquishes its concrete connection to the lived material world its audience occupies. The return to Junkyard Earth certainly lacks the pathos one would and should expect, but it also marks the beginning of the humanoid's actual connection with the soil, both in terms of gardening and in actually standing erect. (These blobs are like the 2001 Starchildren, supersized and gone horribly wrong.) So, when EVE knocks over a row of abandoned freightliners like mammoth iron dominoes, in the meticulously rendered equivalent of a "long shot," there is an unnerving solidity to this moment, one that grabs the body with its grinding sound design, one whose dalliance with the industrial sublime recalls both the Iranian film Iron Island and Peter Hutton's recent At Sea. But more than this, it conveys the full uncanny power of our world doubling as an epic ruin. Likewise, WALL·E's alternation between the grand scale -- skyscrapers of baled trash, disused commuter trains, B'nL ghost town Costcos -- and WALL·E's own hovel, with its tilt-a-whirl museum of the discarded, operates like a classic Benjaminian "dialectical image," the emptied spaces and lost objects of a society revealing histories and supplying accidental, revelatory critique in the midst of their unanticipated juxtaposition. The massive and the miniature hold out the hope, respectively, for reimagined post-utopian public life and the retrieval of the intimate, the rediscovery of the very ability to care. To survive, potentials at every level, which have been lying there like a deep core sample, will need to be excavated, and fortunately everything has in one form or another remained, has been patiently tended to against all odds. WALL·E is, in the truest sense, humanity's custodian.




-All Through the Night (Michael Robinson) [v/s]

[SPOILERS, ACTUALLY] One of Robinson's newest works, All Through the Night is also one of his oddest. It's his shortest film to date, clocking in at a brisk four minutes. But it's also in some ways his most difficult to grapple with. This isn't to say that All Through the Night is Robinson's most complicated film, certainly as compared with textural brain-busters like The General Returns and Victory Over the Sun. It's actually rather transparent in certain respects. Structured as a palindrome, the video uses a fragment of Cyndi Lauper's title song as a quavering, high-register sonic passage that breaks apart into jagged dollops. The visual track is a study in the textures and capacities of video black. We open on white static against the black frame, in three distinct sheets at differing depths of field. From the interference we are shot out onto an open sea, processed video haze lending the image the stippled quality of a colored-pencil illustration from a children's book. A silhouetted sailboat rapidly overtakes the foreground, and a figure becomes visible on the mast. This shot, with its turbulent crackling video noise, is Robinson's rapid, surreal but oddly diegetic portal for sending us into another realm, and in its direct visual echoes of Light is Waiting, drops a vague hint that All Through the Night might best be read in the context of Robinson's larger body of work. Light zeroed in on aspects of early video art, and Night appears to layer deep black hues atop tracking shots, aerial images of oceanside cliffs, and architectural fragments of exaggeratedly receding corridors, resulting in glistening multicolored lines describing artificial forms in the darkness. Their motion generates a hovering 3D action reminiscent of certain experiments by Ken Jacobs. This space is presided over, in a way, by Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen, who speaks of forgetting all beauty while she coaches a rather androgynous Kay on the manipulation of the crystalline forms of the troll mirror. [The footage, I just learned, is from a 1957 adaptation of the story, and in fact I failed to make the connection to the Andersen story, with which I wasn't familiar. Thanks to Jeff Lambert for the reference.] Robinson's "night" is a sort of fortress of solitude wherein all the dense spaces that the video image "forgets" -- the dark registers it cannot contain -- become a subterranean realm for optical spelunking. And, almost as quickly as we've gotten our bearings, we're pulled right back out again, with the Queen raising her arms in a maelstrom of white light, the ship shooting back out into the distance, the snow field enveloping the window / screen. The scene fades to absolute black, and the one piercing note -- Lauper looped beyond recognition into a gestural, atypically feminine minimalism -- finally folds in upon itself.


Presto (Doug Sweetland) [s]

It's been a while since Pixar produced a short film that didn't make me want to claw my eyes out. Needless to say, Boundin' was a particularly low point. But Presto is lovely, just a really clever one-joke riff that harks back to classic Chuck Jones. Magician, rabbit. Two hats, one a portal to the other. When brought into close proximity, a minor spatial dislocation results, causing extreme, slapsticky befuddlement and good old fashioned squash-and-stretch for the magician. But really, it's a story about treating your underling with the appropriate respect, and therefore, a labor parable.


-SkateBang (Damon Packard, U.S. / U.K.) [v/s]

Essentially a one-liner with a very good punchline, this new trifle from Packard can hardly stand up to his magnum opera but it doesn't really need to. It's a British gallery commission (note the rapid-fire opening, a pitch-perfect parody of the Europudding logo run) that almost immediately took on life thereafter as a YouTube clip and underground film festival programmer, and that alone means that Packard is performing some healthy bridgework. And speaking of bridgework, these skaters are going to need a few false teeth after these calamitous head-first encounters with the dual action of punishing concrete and covert terrorism. I mean really, why did it take so long for someone to think of this? There have been skater wipe-out reels as long as there have been skate videos, and yet nobody thought to employ the simple Kuleshov Effect of having somebody pick them off with purpose. Packard, unsurprisingly, throws some other stuff into the overall soup of SkateBang. There's Packard, looking vaguely Will Oldhamesque in his black-trash, cord-and-cable power suit. (A random nod to Jean-Luc Godard as "Prof. Pluggy" in King Lear?) He and his thrashed-out post-Mad Max Sid and Marty Krofftoids seem to be in a Larry Clark world, intercut with British news reports about the tubeway bombings. But it doesn't really add up to much. Packard's brand of social commentary isn't given to the drive-by style. It's more like a slowly accumulating slag heap. Nevertheless, when Packard shoots, he always scores. [SkateBang can be viewed here.]




-Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson)

I must admit, just when I think the Jack Black persona has run out of Gass (Pick of Destiny; that sad 'dramatic' turn in Margot at the Wedding), he finds another vehicle perfectly suited to his strengths. (Well, this and the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards.) Nothing much tops the opening dream sequence, which sounds like it's based on classic Jables improv ("foedacity!"), but Po the Panda's blend of anarchic energy, can-do spirit and melancholy actually makes for a creature who's a well-rounded character in more than ass alone. Beyond that, not too much to recommend, really. Given that actual martial arts films are dazzling precisely because of their feats of gravity-defying physicality, and that animation allows you to do pretty much anything, KFP doesn't show much imagination along those lines. And, as per usual with the DreamWorks Animation bureau, there was more concern with lining up a phalanx of A-list celebrity vocal talent than, say, developing the secondary characters or filling out the story with depth or grace notes. The Furious Five (where's Grandmaster Flash?) are, indeed, 2D. David Cross kind of breaks through the din as Crane, and Angelina Jolie's Tigress juts forward as a generic ice queen. But Rogan, Liu, and Chan are squandered. (Frittering away Jackie Chan in this context is particularly insulting, no?) It has a nice look, sort of jagged and kinetic in the Chuck Jones-to-John Kricfalusi lineage, but Osborne and Stevenson also frequently use that kineticism as pure incoherent mishmash to disguise a dearth of ideas. This is a low 6, a shoulder-shrugging "Hey, at least it ain't Shrek."




-The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan)

[MAJOR SPOILERS] Okay, everybody, let's all just calm down a bit. Clearly this is a very bad film, one that does not even remotely succeed at what it ostensibly sets out to do. For a scenario in which the planet's flora are declaring war on the virus that is humankind, The Happening is rather comically hellbent on making its principal characters look like plant life. Mark Wahlberg squints and grimaces and attempts in vain to wrap his South Boston enunciation around Shyamalan's preposterous science-class tongue twisters, while poor Zooey Deschanel spends the entire film imitating a kewpie doll getting goosed on the subway. And although there is some slight promise to Shyamalan's Gaia-hypothesis eco-horror premise, he simply has no idea how to take it anywhere at all, besides staging a series of suicides and suicidal aftermaths, ranging from the merely gross to the outright hilarious, and to which we the viewers become increasingly inured in any case. But I knew all this going in. So why see The Happening at all? Well, lots of critics delight (I think) in Shyamalan's fast-tracked fall from grace, since he's never been one to conceal his egotism and everyone loves seeing a narcissist brought low. But I find it hard to give up on the guy, and the near-total failure ofThe Happening clarified for me both the problems I have with this filmmaker, and the frustrating promise I still somehow can't help seeing within him. Shyamalan is what my old friend, the late composer Herbert Brün, used to call a "self-appointed moron." Shyamalan is not like the tens of hundreds of third-rate DGA numbnuts running rampant through the Hollywood system, but he isn't the maverick he or his publicists would have you believe, either. What he is, in fact, is a talented director who desperately wants to be a hack. He'd love nothing better than to hammer out cheap, bottom-line dialogue, juice the audience in the cerebral cortex with a music sting at the proper moment, tell ultra-basic stories that call up primal archetypes which themselves perform all narrative heavy lifting. But unfortunately, he's got an almost reflexive concern with composition, pacing, rhythm, offscreen space, all these aspects that can only hold a Hollywood clock-puncher back. So a film like The Happening sucks because it's made by a guy at war with his own best and worst impulses. It would be one thing if, say, he were really trying to forge some unholy union between Spielberg and Bresson. We could all just note that it doesn't work, and never, ever will, but praise the limitless nobility of the pursuit. But I don't even think Shyamalan knows that he's caught up in this struggle. Instead, he just finds himself constantly making all the wrong choices, presumably seeing them come together in his head as some meaningful whole that the rest of us will never see.