Thursday, June 30, 2011
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (2011)
There are quite a few reasons why Michael Bay's third installment of those giant mechanized talking alien robots based off the Hasbro toys works. Like most everybody else, I absolutely despised 2009's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." It was overlong, nonsensical, obnoxious and headache-inducing. This summer's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," however, brings us back to what made the original such a hit. It's still overlong and occasionally nonsensical, but it's a lot more fun, and the action is thrilling instead of agonizing.
This also marks the first -- and most likely last -- summer movie to use 3D technology well. The dimming still occurs, but the swirling action is excellently choreographed where it feels like the giant mechanical beasts are throwing themselves right at you. Some of the slow motion moments, especially, look remarkably stunning. The visuals effects as a whole are noticeably revamped since the last outing. The transformers in all their shape-shifting glory are more fully realized with clearer facial expressions and more detail to the point where blood-like fluids spray and wiry contraptions look a whole lot like tendons and spines when they get ripped out.
The movie backs itself with a bloated and unnecessary story about when we landed on the moon and attempts to tie in the history of Autobots and Decepticons with the space race of the 1960s. Cool in theory, bad in execution; it only goes toward adding an extra half hour to the running time. Beyond that, the Decepticons are up to no good wanting to annihilate Earth and transform it into their beloved home planet of Cybetron. And they start by completely leveling Chicago, and as before Optimus Prime leads the Autobots and the humans in rebellion against the attack.
Sam Witwicky is of course in the middle of the chaos, and it is apparent Shia LaBeouf has had an extreme tonal shift since the last time we saw him. He's more in sync with his character and actually seems to be caring about what he's doing, which definitely wasn't happening in "Revenge of the Fallen." He's enthralled, angry and throws in bits of temper tantrum humor that fuels the first act. There's more self-aware funniness at the start which balances out the slamming of self-seriousness we get served at the end. But it fits because the stakes are raised, and there's more human interest. The conflict between the bots doesn't feel completely isolated from human characters anymore.
The big news is that Megan Fox is gone. And thank goodness for that. Her replacement, Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley -- who you might assume is merely filling the vacant spot of female sex figure -- is light-years better than any level of acting Fox might've been able to produce. With her playing Carly, I actually cared about the relationship between her and Sam for about a second or two.
There is a strange variety of other actors including Frances McDormand as a stern government official, John Malkovich as Sam's whacked-out boss, Ken Jeong as a peculiar co-worker of Sam's whose connection to the Decepticons is unclear but deadly and, finally, Patrick Dempsey -- yeah, I was surprised, too -- as Carly's evil and manipulative boss. Not one of these actors I'd ever expect to be in a Michael Bay movie, but there they are. And, well, why not? I got a kick out of it.
So, back to the fate of Chicago. It gets used as the battleground for the movie's climactic finish, an hour-long action set piece that doesn't fail to impress. If you're looking for summer blockbuster spectacle, look no further. A scene involving a new transformer called Shockwave, who tunnels through a skyscraper like a worm and tears it to pieces, is phenomenally exciting. If we could just pretend that the second "Transformers" movie never happened and pair this one up with the first, then it really is a showcase of what Michael Bay does best. I never said it was intelligent.
My review of Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Sunday, June 26, 2011
"Cars 2" (2011)
This had better be the closest Pixar ever gets to selling out. Even more than the "Toy Story" franchise, "Cars" had the most opportunity for merchandising. With "Cars 2," it gets out of hand and becomes an obvious motive for making a painful sequel. The number of product tie-ins is staggering, and the verbal State Farm reference in the actual movie made me sick. 2006's "Cars" was the highest grossing Pixar movie but the least critically successful. So why did it warrant a sequel? Money.
It makes me want to grab veteran Pixar director John Lasseter by the shoulders, give him a good shake and demand, "Why?!" Some say this marks the first time Pixar has come out with a bad movie. For me that was the original "Cars," but now its sequel makes that look like a masterpiece. Lasseter is the man who directed the original "Toy Story," the crowning gem of Pixar animation. Now he's gone and directed the studio's low point, a rusted blemish on an otherwise nearly spotless record. It really is depressing if you think about it; a year wasted for Pixar.
All of your favorite car characters are back from the original -- barely. Instead, the movie introduces a new cast of cars to intermingle with the two leads, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his bumbling simpleton rust bucket tow truck of a best friend, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). McQueen has just got back from a racing tour when he's whisked off to face against the cocky Italian F1 racecar Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) in the brand new World Grand Prix taking racers from Japan to Italy to England. The race is sponsored by Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) who has invented a new alternative fuel that will make oil gasoline obsolete. A message is begging its way through here, but it comes off as a misdirected and bizarre anti-"WALL-E."
This premise has little to do with the original's theme about small town American values and knowing your neighbor. It's replaced with international intrigue and a convoluted spy tale in which Mater gets completely swept up while McQueen is off racing. I don't know whose decision this was, but once a sidekick, Mater gets heaved to the front of the action. Thank goodness there are the welcome additions of the British intelligence Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) to offset what becomes the Mater show where it's all Mater all the time. After sitting through his constant so-called comic relief, I never want to hear Larry the Cable Guy's voice again in my life.
"Cars 2" manages to escape everything Pixar is about; that is, elevating animated and children's films to something much more, something every age group can embrace and admire with slack-jawed awe having the realization that you've witnessed something really special, a feeling that only Pixar can create. They've given us deep character development, charm, humor and emotion. This sequel does nothing in terms of that and actually depletes the relationships created in its predecessor. And as was the problem then, a world with only cars and no humans is hard to get invested in, so that's still that strike against it here.
The one Pixar quality that does make it through is technical proficiency in terms of sound and visuals. The music is sizzling from composer Michael Giacchino, the locations are exotic and lush with detail and the cars are shimmering smooth. The fact that it's great to look at does save it from being unwatchable.
The problem is that had "Cars 2" been made by any other animation studio, it'd probably be considered pretty good. But it is Pixar, and they've created a higher standard for themselves that -- unfortunately for them -- they're expected to uphold by this point. With the non-sequel "Brave" being released next year, it looks as if this studio is already on its way to redemption. Maybe John Lasseter was just out to have some fun, but it just didn't work. What did work was the "Toy Story" short preceding the feature, "Hawaiian Vacation," which was nostalgic and hilarious.
Friday, June 24, 2011
"Bad Teacher" (2011)
Sometimes it's fun to watch terrible people do terrible things. That's the core appeal of this next movie in a long string of R-rated comedies we've seen this summer. "Bad Teacher" stars Cameron Diaz in her most outrageous and raunchiest role in years. She plays Elizabeth, a seventh grade teacher who has no regard for the educational system. She shows her class movies like "Stand and Deliver" day after day while nursing hangovers at her desk and doesn't bother to learn any of her kids' names. How she landed a teaching position to begin with is beyond me. And just when she thinks she can leave it behind thanks to scheming off her rich fiancé, she gets dumped and has to return for another school year.
A charming and well-mannered substitute teacher with money, Scott (played by Diaz's ex Justin Timberlake), enters the picture and gives Elizabeth a new goal. She needs to raise 10 grand for a boob job so she can attract the new guy and get him to take care of her. Elizabeth is so absorbed with this task that she completely ignores the crudely playful and likable gym teacher, Russell (Jason Segel), who's an almost too obvious match from the start.
Elizabeth's foul and shallow way of life is created strictly from greed, and Diaz has a blast playing it up. It's hard to root for her and the cringe-worthy actions that come with, but we must -- just check your morality at the door and chuckle along. There are a handful of pretty good laughs, especially in the moments between Elizabeth and her doormat of a co-worker played by Phyllis Smith of "The Office" who casts aside under-her-breath mutterings of dry humor. It's only her and Segel performing in the realm of normalcy as every other character is a caricature, especially Timberlake embracing idiocy and proving to be a great comic actor. This also includes Elizabeth's competition, the prim and obnoxiously chipper Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), the centerpiece of the thin plot presenting a much lesser image of female rivalry than last month's "Bridesmaids."
There's not a lot for these actors to work with considering the screenplay from "The Office" alumni Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg. It's a mish-mash of scenes without a lot of fluidity and hampered by its own potential of what it could've been in the hands of a more capable director (as opposed to Jake Kasdan of "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"). Think more Alexander Payne in the vein of "Election." Even so, the scenes -- like a collection of puzzle pieces that don't quite fit -- are fitfully amusing and crude.
Best of all, "Bad Teacher" cannot be scolded for trying too hard to push the envelope of raunchy à la this summer's "The Hangover Part II." The most you see of Diaz is during a scantily-clad and water-soaked car washing fundraiser scene. The movie's most outrageous and single best bit contains sex, yes, but no nudity whatsoever. Figure that one out. What's unforgivable, however, is the ending which tries to squeeze a happy ending out of a chronicle of despicable behavior.
A bad, bad decision indeed.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
"The Tree of Life" (2011)
Three years in the making from writer/director Terrence Malick ("The Thin Red Line, "The New World") and the winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, his long-awaited new film "The Tree of Life" will be regarded as the towering cinematic achievement of the year. Although it is not a perfect film by any means.
It's frustrating and maddening, perplexing and challenging, exasperating and mystifying and, finally, it asks tough questions that other filmmakers wouldn't dare approach. It's a manic, impressionistic, metaphysical visual poem contemplating nothing less than mankind's relationship with the universe. Defining pretension and catapulting itself headlong into viewers' minds with all of its glaring flaws, the flashes of brilliance within are hard to ignore. And in a film with such soaring, unconstrained ambition shooting for the stars, taking in the bad to appreciate the good has never been so easy.
The film opens with a meditation on two contrasting sides of life experience: nature and grace. The way of nature sees mostly struggle while the way of grace embraces love. This is explained to us in a whispered voiceover from Jessica Chastain who plays Mrs. O'Brien representing grace. Speaking of whispered voiceovers, get comfortable with these because the movie is fueled by them giving us each character's individual thoughts. Mr. O'Brien embodies nature and is played in a career-topping performance from Brad Pitt as the unrelenting, powerful and fierce disciplinarian father. The parents of this suburban Texas 1950s family are named Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien and are addressed by their children as Mother and Father. That's just the way it was.
The heart of the story--or what there is of one--lies in this family, and a hefty midsection focusing on it hits a home run. Long summer days idly pass by as Mother exudes forgiveness and kindness onto her boys as Father demands control and respect, especially from his oldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) who bears the burden of his father's own inner turmoil. A hard shell and heavy fist cannot hide the vulnerability lying within. These scenes of summer arrive to us through the memory of Jack reflecting back on his childhood as a grown man (played by Sean Penn). In the present day he's injured and has inherited his father's anger to create a somber figure surrounded by the steel and glass of an office building.
The first thing you'll notice about "The Tree of Life" is the eccentric and fascinating way it is shot from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Using a handheld camera, he graciously swoops in and out of the action much like how he did in "Children of Men." It resembles a fever dream or, more accurately, an altered state of perception--seeing life in a completely different scope. It also astoundingly evokes the feel of faded and fragmented memories of which the portrait of the 1950s family is made up. Some moments are potent and witnessed in full while others are flashes, skewed and altered moments that flicker by.
But presenting consciousness and inner monologue isn't Malick's only goal with this film. He doesn't stop there and shows us the birth and expansion of the universe in sequences with God-like and awe-inspiring visuals set to a playlist of classical music. We're shown vast planetary expanses all the way down to microscopic organisms and evolving species with everything in between like gorgeous landscapes, mountains and sparkling waterfalls. With such, there come dinosaurs--yes, dinosaurs. So, we all came from the Big Bang millions of years ago, and after all this progress here we are today. And it begs the question, as Malick so ethereally puts, what now?
At its most basic, "The Tree of Life" marks the most impassioned philosophical and overtly religious mainstream film in recent memory. Referring back to the two contrasting modes of viewing human existence--that of nature or grace--Malick is optimistic and wishes for a return to grace, a promise of peace and understanding that spreads beyond the bounds of the universe. In such, he presents a version of the afterlife that is an expanse of smooth sand and fresh beach water bathed in warm sunlight with a beautiful bright sky.
Friday, June 10, 2011
"Super 8" (2011)
Thank goodness for "Super 8." J.J. Abrams' ultra secret sci-fi thriler--one of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer--is this year's "Inception" not in terms of content or tone but simply in reminding and reaffirming what summer blockbusters are all about. This is a huge action flick, but you may not even recognize that at first; there is an absorbing human drama letting us never forget that among the enormous explosions and chaos, there are families, a group of friends and a small town to be concerned about.
Written and directed by Abrams, this is also a heartfelt throwback, a retro and nostalgic look back at what made old-fashioned summer blockbusters so appealing--those directed by the likes of Steven Spielberg. Produced by Spielberg, the film borrows heavily from the director's older movies such as "E.T.," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and even "Jaws." Abrams' borrowing isn't without reason, however, because his film is a love letter to the Spielbergian movies that inspired him. And, what more, it's a love letter to the classically American genre of the B-movie and to the pure joy of filmmaking and moviegoing.
The irresistible story takes place in 1979 and follows a group of middle school-aged boys making an 8mm zombie movie to be entered into a youth film festival. What makes this feel so authentic is that Abrams was 13 years old in 1979, so the details are all there. Just as Abrams is nodding to Spielberg, he's even more so reminiscing on his own childhood and the Super 8 monster movies he made as a boy. In watching a group of kids passionately make a zombie flick, we become aware that we're watching a movie created by a grown-up kid in the same spirit--one that is exquisitely well-made, thrilling and wonderful.
While filming a pivotal scene for their movie, the kids witness something terrifying and spectacular. A train unexpectedly derails right before their eyes in one of the most elaborate and magnificently colossal train crashes ever to grace the big screen. This accident creates a string of intrigue and mystery that gets a shady military presence involved. Strange occurrences threaten and overwhelm the small town, and it all escalates to a full-scale evacuation. The tropes of the sci-fi genre are there, but they're being played with in our favor.
Take for example when the demanding director of the young production played by Riley Griffiths--who is a great supporting player and acts like a pubescent Orson Welles--mentions how the hero of their movie needs a wife, so audiences will care if he dies. They recruit the elegant Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the role, and by the same token, we're given the extremely talented and divine Elle Fanning as the butterflies-in-your-stomach first love to Joe (15-year-old novice Joel Courtney). He is the sensitive yet strong lead of "Super 8" who is experiencing the grief of having lost his mother.
The young cast is the film's shining gem and brings with it a playful and gentle tone with perfect humor even when things get creepy and the atmosphere turns dark. The adult cast gives fine support, especially two prominent figures: the town's deputy played by Kyle Chandler who's also Joe's hard-loving father and Ron Eldard as Alice's conflicted and unstable father.
There is so much heart and so much fun contained in J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" with the type of innocent storytelling and eye-twinkling awe we rarely see anymore. And there's a beautiful message to boot telling us that--extraterrestrial or not--we all want a place to call home.
Friday, June 3, 2011
"X-Men: First Class" (2011)
What makes "X-Men: First Class" more sophisticated than any other superhero movie coming out this summer? Its lack of 3D. Sure it could've been in 3D; there were easily plenty of moments within the rather dazzling special effects where the technology would've popped--countless more moments than "Pirates" and "Thor" combined. But instead, the filmmakers valiantly opted out of the dimming technology and went for substance over spectacle.
This prequel and, consequently, full-blown reboot of the X-Men franchise from Marvel returns after the failed attempt of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" in 2009. Director Matthew Vaughn, who helmed last year's uproarious and irreverent "Kick-Ass," takes full control of shaping a brand new origin story for newcomers and fan boys alike that is crowd-pleasing in both respects. (Watch for an awesome cameo that acknowledges the existence of the other X-Men entries while also claiming, "Hey, we can do it better!") It's crisp, polished and solid entertainment in large part thanks to inspired casting and real acting.
If while watching the original "X-Men," "X2" or that last one people like to forget, 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand," and ever wondered to yourself how Magneto (originally played by Ian McKellen), Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his fighting team of mutants came to be--or even how Professor X got himself confined to a wheelchair--then worry no more. "First Class" answers all these questions and more. Don't believe the Cuban Missile Crisis fits into the lore of the X-Men comics? Believe it. It's all explained here with what has to be a record-breaking number of location and date lines for any superhero movie ever. It's expansive all right, and you won't feel like you didn't get your summer blockbuster's worth.
James McAvoy as the younger Professor X, or Charles Xavier, and Michael Fassbender (recently seen in this year's "Jane Eyre") as Magneto, or Erik Lehnsherr, are a fantastic pairing as the sworn enemies who were once allies. Charles isn't a stolid philosophical man just yet, but a new professor and a cocky British lad who happens to have the power of telepathy. Michael is a more sinister form of cocky with an ever-evolving power of magnetism. He's harnessing his powers to avenge the death of his mother who was killed at the hands of an evil Nazi doctor. Despite their emotional differences, Charles and Michael are two suave, charismatic and mysterious men played by actors who both exude masculine star power.
The young cast features Jennifer Lawrence in her most prominent role since "Winter's Bone" as the transforming blue-bodied Raven/Mystique. She's the actress to watch right now, especially since she's been cast as Katniss in the upcoming "Hunger Games," and she doesn't disappoint. With her is Nicholas Hoult as Hank/Beast and Lucas Till as Alex/Havoc; the like of these fresh faces give the prequel an animated life and energy. They've hardly hit the learning stages of their powers, so they're reckless and unpredictable.
Rose Byrne plays a compassionate CIA agent who discovers Charles for government use, and January Jones of "Mad Men" plays the femme fatale blond bombshell Emma Frost who competes against Charles in the world of telepathy. She's the sidekick to the first-class villain Sebastian Shaw--remember the evil Nazi doctor? He's played by Kevin Bacon, a performance which can't be considered anything but campy. He almost single-handedly sends the movie into unintentionally laughable terrain.
Like the original X-Men comics, placing the action in the midst of the 1960s Cold War is a compelling and unique backdrop; the look and feel of the era is nicely captured. Matthew Vaughn and his crowded group of co-screenwriters make the connection vastly convoluted, but it boils down to watching how a team of mutants--just beginning to connect with their true identities and purpose--save us from the brink of nuclear war in a showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It goes toward proving the mutants' benefit to mankind and setting up the X-Men team only to be divided, a split among the group that is demonstrated quite profoundly in the film's affecting final act.
The X-Men movies have always done an admirable job of infusing a message of acceptance and equality, and "X-Men: First Class" is no different. This comes through in the interactions between Raven who's ashamed of her blue scaly skin and Hank who hides his beastly feet, and their scenes bring a level of tenderness and sorrow. You can't deny a gay rights subtext this time around--certainly when Nicholas Hoult as Hank rewords the phrase "don't ask don't tell," which works as a nod and an inside joke to us. And considering Hoult's recent involvement with the work of Tom Ford, the wry humor is certainly warranted.