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6.27.2008

Nine for Nine: WALL•E Review

My reviews of Pixar movies are nearly always the same. I explain how the first trailer looked horrible, the second looked better, and the movie was awesome. Same deal here.

This story takes place over 700 years in the future. Earth has been long abandoned by the human race after having been covered in garbage due to excessive consumerism. A fleet of robots designated WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load-Lifer Earth class) was left behind to clean up the mess. By the time the film opens, however, there is only one WALL-E unit still functioning. In the first twenty minutes or so, we get a look at his “life.”

Sometime during those 700 years of cleanup, WALL-E developed a personality. He is intensely curious about the junk he finds lying around and saves the most interesting knick-knacks including a Rubik’s Cube, an iPod, and a VHS tape of the musical Hello, Dolly! From these items he learns a bit about humans or rather the way humans used to be.

What humans have become is an altogether different matter as WALL-E discovers after a space ship lands on Earth delivering a shiny white robot named EVE (I’m not going to explain the acronym as that would give away plot details). WALL-E’s curiosity soon transforms into love, but EVE is beholden to her programming.

I was relieved and surprised that the love story was sweet and touching. It could have very easily been awkward and stupid like, say, the “love story” between Ann Darrow and King Kong, but WALL-E has so much heart that it works. It also helps that they’re both robots.

I’m going to stop telling the story here lest I give something away. I’ve known the basic premise for about a year now and even though it wasn’t a surprise, the beginning was the most delightful part. Since WALL-E is fairly incapable of speech, it almost functions like a silent movie. The visuals tell the story. You learn about the character by watching him. Film is a visual medium and, like good writing, it works best on the principle of “show, don’t tell.” It’s not that the rest of the movie is bad; it’s that WALL-E is such a great character that it’s somewhat disappointing when the plot begins to dictate that other characters must crowd the scene.

I must take a moment to say something about the amazing visuals. Pixar has one-upped themselves yet again. An awesome amount of work must have gone into this movie. The locations are amazing and vast. The animation itself is complex and there’s a lot of it. It’s beautiful.

WALL-E himself is a great character with a lot of heart. He’s the most human character which is an infectious trait. Beyond the obvious cautionary messages about the dangers of excess is the real message of the movie. Excessive consumerism is driven by selfishness and the antidote to selfishness is sacrificial love. WALL-E’s curiosity, innocence, and selflessness give him the ability to love and he passes that knowledge on to directive-focused robots and self-absorbed humans alike.

Unfortunately, the very end of the movie keeps me from giving it five stars. Without giving anything away: too many movies have a strictly happy or sad ending. WALL-E nearly found that sacred middle ground called bittersweet, but they slapped me and my personal preferences in the face with a cheap movie trick instead.

That’s my biggest gripe. So while WALL-E is not a five-star dish like last year's Ratatouille, it’s an above-average Pixar movie and is certainly the best film I’ve seen this year… so far.

Highlights: stunning visuals, WALL-E’s characterization, Oscar-worthy sound design
Disappointments: ending uses trite movie trick, unnecessary usage of "Also sprach Zarathustra"
Best Line: “I don’t want to survive. I want to live!”
Recommendation: If you tend to like Pixar movies: see it. If not, what’s wrong with you?

6.26.2008

(Mostly Portal Inspired) Flash Games

Valve's recent puzzle game, Portal, has really shaken up the gaming world. If you don't know anything about it check out the trailer.



This innovative puzzle mechanic and sense of humor have inspired many other developers. Check out some of the free Flash games I've found. Many of them take hints from Portal while others put new spins on old classics.


Portal: The Flash Version

It is what the title says. Being Flash, it's 2D, of course, but the essential gameplay is the same as the 3D version. It's quite fun, challenging and addictive. Unfortunately, there's no GLaDOS. Oh well. Can't have everything for free.


Shift & Shift 2

Another Portal-esque puzzle game. Although the puzzle solving mechanic is different, it shares Portal's dark sense of humor. Check it out.


Gravitee

Golf meets Super Mario Galaxy. It's golf - in space - with strange physics. Basically you hit the ball from a tee on one planet trying to get it through a wicket on another. Planets have gravitational fields which you factor into your shots. Might sound hard, but it's very, very fun for a golf game.


Tactical Assassin & Tactical Assassin 2


Guns don't kill people. Kids who play violent video games do. So grab your sniper rifle and try out Tactical Assassin. Read the mission briefing and take out the correct stick figure. It's simple, but quite fun and satisfying. Be advised: there is blood.


Contour

You know those marble rolling games where you have tilt the board to get the marble in the hole? Contour is sort of like that. You don't control the ball, you control the course. You have to mold and shape the floor tiles so that the ball rolls into the goal. It's quite challenging.


Epsilon

Portals, wormholes, time manipulation. This one's hard to describe. It takes the Portal concept in a bit of a different direction and adds other elements to it. The result is one of the most satisfying puzzle games since, well... Portal. It looks daunting at first, but the difficulty curve is just right and the game length is just right as well.

6.24.2008

Surgery

I had my wisdom teeth removed yesterday. Now I look like a former prizefighter who took one too many fists to the jaw. I'm on Vicodin for the pain...I thought that stuff was supposed to make you feel loopy or something, but so far all it's made me do is vomit. So, nothing to look forward to there. Frankly, I was a little disappointed that the Vicodin didn't live up to its stereotype, but I suppose it's good to not turn me into a druggie.

That's all for now from my end; I have some posts in the work, and I know I've been silent for a while, but right now I don't feel like doing much on the computer. Time to go watch television.

6.13.2008

"Viva La Vida" First Impressions

Ever since I heard "Violet Hill" I've been anticipating Coldplay's strangely titled new album "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends" which loosely translates to "Long Live Life! or Look at us, we were trying to be clever with our album title."

The questionable album art represents "Lady" Liberty leading a bunch of dirty peasants to victory during the French revolution (and we all know how well that turned out.) That indicated a revolutionary tone to the album which was definitely backed up by "Violet Hill" containing lyrics like:
"When the future's architectured by a carnival of idiots on show, you'd better lie low"
Nevertheless, I really, really liked "Violet Hill." When the second single "Viva La Vida" was released, it took a decisively different tone not to mention drastically different instrumentation, but I still dug it.

A few days ago, I got an email that said you could listen to the WHOLE ALBUM on Myspace... unless you lived in the US or a few other countries. Great. Thanks for setting me up for the fall. But - wait! - "folks in the US can listen at Iheartmusic.com." Yippie!

So, naturally I immediately clicked on the link and was greeted with a "launch player" style site. Not a good sign. The long and short of it is that I can only get the player to load in Internet Explorer 6 (yes, I tried Firefox, Opera, and even Safari before IE) and even then it takes forever. Try your luck with it here.

Why couldn't it have just been on Myspace? It's an awful site, yes, but Iheartmusic is even worse. Plus it offers you several minor annoyances once you finally get the thing to work, namely ads for "Ice Road Truckers" (what a dumb idea for a TV show.) Oh yeah, once you're done listening to the album, it begins playing a completely different artist (in my case, "Young Jeezy") that I expressed no desire to hear. Bleck.

Ok, let's get to the actual album now.


Up front I'm going to explain that my first impressions of music are rarely my lasting impressions. I thought "X&Y" was a rather lackluster alt rock album the first few times I heard it, but now every song (with the exception of "What If") warrants at least a four-star rating in my library. Even more astounding, the first time I heard Jars of Clay's "If I Left the Zoo" I liked one song and that was it. I now count it as one of my favorite albums and the one song I initially liked isn't even close to the best on the album. Basically, my opinion may change drastically as I listen over the course of this summer, but I thought it would be interesting to write out my initial impressions and see how they compare to my final analysis.

The album opener "Life in Technicolor" (odd to see a British band spelling color without a "u", but Technicolor is a brand name) is an instrumental cut. I really wasn't expecting an instrumental piece from Coldplay. It's a nice intro, but nothing to write home about. It's got a pleasant sound but won't get you excited like you would by listening to other album openers like "Don't Panic" or "Square One."

"Cemertaries of London" has an oddly Western feel. You might not notice it at first, but that's what it is. The tune is like an American Western folk song, but the instrumentation is decidedly alt rock. Interesting cut. Cryptic lyrics, but then again, they told us they would be.

The title "Lost!" for whatever reason really intrigued me. It sounded like like it would have a very interesting message, but honestly, I don't get it. Musically, it sounds like it might have been recorded in a cathedral complete with an organ and effect Arcade Fire fans (Josh) will be familiar with. It's very atmospheric, but somehow in a different way than Coldplay's previous atmospheric songs. As I'm a fan of "big" sounding songs, I am obliged to like it.

"42," yet another reference to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by the band (see also, "Don't Panic") disappointed me only because with the Hitchhiker's reference, I wanted the song to be awesome. It's kind of a two-part song. It begins as one of those insanely cookie-cutter sad piano songs. It's ok, but kind of slow. At the half-way point, the song drastically changes tone. Percussion and electric guitar takes over and turn it into a pretty rockin' song.

I'm biased against this next song, not because I hate Japan or love, but because I hate slashes in song titles. If you can't decided on a title, then don't put it on the album! As it turns out, "Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love" is actually two songs stapled together into one track. I also hate this trend. What if I like the first song, but not the second or vise-versa? I have to skip to the part I want to hear. Just make them two separate tracks! Why not? Once again, I think it is due to "art for art's sake." The song(s) itself is ok but really ought to be cut into two. I like "Lovers in Japan" alright, but "Reign of Love" is kind of unnecessarily slow. It's a good lullaby, I guess. But I don't want to hear lullabies, I want to hear Coldplay.

Can you believe they did it to us twice? "Yes/Chinese Sleep Chant" is yet another sewn together song although this one doesn't need to be separated. It's all good. "Yes" briefly introduces us to the strings which will be playing a big part in the next track before... well, getting weird. The tone is so different from anything previously on the album that it's immediately attention grabbing. The vocals are especially unique for Coldplay. Most of the time Chris Martin is in the low registers which we've rarely heard before. At first you wonder why "Chinese Sleep Chant" is named so. This bit is a sort of lullaby like "Reign of Love," but this time it's awesome and has electric guitars and percussion. Oddly, this instrumentation turns out to be relaxing and pleasant like a nice spring afternoon nap... oh wait a second... it's Coldplay. That's what they're known for.

I saw a commercial for this song last week. I had never seen a whole commercial for a single before. "Viva La Vida" is driven by constant lyrics and bouncy strings. In fact, there's not much else to it. It's good though. A nice change of pace to be sure.

As I said before, I really, really like "Violet Hill." It's one of the best songs on the album although, sadly, it isn't very representative of it. None of the other songs are as driving. It is also the only song that seems to justify that "revolutionary" tone the album cover presents which makes it seem terribly out-of-place with the rest of the songs. Especially when it's adjacent to...

"Strawberry Swing." This is a pretty mellow cut. Very mellow, in fact, but not in a good way. It's probably because it is right after "Violet Hill," otherwise I might not be so indifferent to the track. Album ordering still matters even in the digital music age.

"Death and All His Friends" is the final cut (except for the "secret" track that everybody knows about). It's pretty unimpressive though I have a feeling it'll grow on me. There's nothing special about it. It's pretty typical alt rock.

"The Escapist" is almost equally unimpressive. Fairly bland, really. It's basically an excuse to fade out the album.

Overall, "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends" is a departure from Coldplay's previous work, though not a revolutionary departure as one might expect from the blasted album art (I know I keep harping on that). They aren't rapping yet: it's still alt rock, and though I can't pinpoint it, there is something different about this release. Perhaps it is more ethereal; more hazy; more cryptic. At times it feels like Coldplay is merely doing things for the sake of being "artsy" rather than following their own stylistic leanings. Perhaps that explains all the slashes in the song titles, the "filler" nature of some of the songs and that unnecessary album cover. Nevertheless, there is definitely more good than mediocre here; plus these are merely my impressions. My first impressions.

The album is already out in some countries, but we Americans have to wait until the 17th perhaps as punishment for not having completely adopted free trade. I can't think of any other reason Coldplay would hate us so much.

6.09.2008

Movie Anticipation

I found this "special preview" of the upcoming Pixar movie WALLE. I've been most curious about this movie ever after I saw the first teaser last year and trailers have been increasingly better since. It's certainly clear that WALLE is Pixar's most odd film to date. Early reports have stated that there is no speaking at all during the first 30 minutes and that it all plays out almost like a silent film. If that is truly the case, I wonder how audiences will react. In a wasteland of sequels and remakes, it looks as if Pixar is once again offering something fresh and different. Watch and judge for yourself.

To anyone that cares: I saw Indiana Jones weeks ago, but still haven't gotten around to posting my review. Sorry about that. Hopefully I'll have it up soon.


*** UPDATE ***

Since Disney apparently thinks the best way to promote their movie is to remove their own promotions from the internet and I cannot seem to find the clip anywhere else, I suppose I'll have to describe it for any interested parties.

The scene began with WALL-E and EVE (that's the Apple-white "girl" robot from the trailer) on a huge spaceship or space station called the Axiom. WALL-E accidentally gets shot out of an escape pod which has its self-destruct mechanism activated. WALL-E looks frantically about the cabin for an escape hatch. EVE goes into space after WALL-E only to see the pod explode a moment later. Of course WALL-E is fine and comes floating out of the debris being propelled with the use of a fire extinguisher which is a pretty interesting effect.

The thing that most interested me about the preview was the robots' "speech". They don't with the usual computer voices like HAL, rather they communicate with single words in correspondence with action. And they aren't actually synthesizing words, but creating them out of pitches in the same way that WALL-E says his name in the trailers. It's very interesting sound design by Ben Burtt who also created the "voice" of R2-D2. I'm looking forward to more of this in the film.

That's basically where the clip ends. Maybe you just had to see it. I'm looking forward to seeing the whole thing on the 27th.