Sunday, June 28, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (dir. Micheal Bay, 2009)

Lets get one thing straight: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn't a film. It isn't even entertainment. It's a two and half hour commercial for General Motors and the US military. It has all the depth of a trailer, and all the plot of a porno. It's a series of loud, predictable fight scenes strung together with sex-ploitative shots of Meagan Fox, knocks on Obama and diplomacy, and arguably racist characterizations (the two "black" transformers - complete with gold teeth - are little more than illiterate, violent, and buffoonish minstrel stock characters). It is, hands down, some of the laziest, most manipulative film-making I've ever seen. It had so many continuity errors that my wife and I caught at least five in a first viewing. Sitting through this abomination was one of the most serious tests of my patience in quite some time.

Revenge resembles a trailer to such a striking degree that at first I didn't even realize that the film had started. It opens with a prehistoric hunting party approaching a spaceship that has just landed in their territory. A Don LaFontaine-esque voiceover explains the images with cliches like "the dawn of man" and "worlds collide" while Transformers emerge from the ship and proceed to destroy all of the humans. We then skip to the present: 11:24PM, Shanghai, China (where it's still light outside somehow). The US Military and several transformers hunt down one of the few remaining Decepticons, causing all kinds of havoc in the city and forcing a massive media cover-up. Afterwords, during the debriefing, a special presidential envoy, suspicious of the transformers, challenges Optimus Prime (the most powerful of the transformers) and threatens to pull the plug on the whole team. Later on in the film, that same envoy will attempt to appease invading Decepticons while referring to it as "diplomacy." Wow, it's exactly what John McCain said Obama would do!

Shia LeBouf reprises his "role" as Sam Witicky, the great grandson of explorer Archibald Witicky who had unwittingly re-activated the frozen Megatron during an exploratory expedition into the Arctic circle. Conveniently, we again find Sam possessing another map that the Decepticons need (seriously, did this film even have writers, or did they just substitute names and locations from the last script and give it a new title?). A chip from the All Spark, the energy source destroyed in the first film, causes Sam to have visions of symbols, which we eventually learn from an aging rogue Decepticon are clues to the location of the "Matrix of Leadership" (no, I'm not making this up). Sam and his girlfriend Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox, who I've been promised is NOT a porn star) are in race against my patience to find the Matrix before the Decepticons can use it to the destroy the Sun.

A pubescent horn-ball and his unfortunate girlfriend sat at the end of our row. In between slurps of his girlfriend's saliva, he would loudly proclaim his approval for the film with insightful one-liners like "Why he talk like that?", "Shit! He ripped his fuckin' ass out!" or my personal favorite, "Damn, you see those robot's balls? HA HA!!!" Normally I would have been annoyed by interruptions like these, but I eventually came to appreciate these quips. I realized that this is exactly the emotional and intellectual level that Transformers caters to. I was, however, slightly disturbed by the large number of adults in the crowd apparently deriving the same mindless pleasure from the film that our socially-engineered homunculus enjoyed. And since a film like this leaves no room for narrative invention, I had plenty of time to ponder the fate of a society that continually rewards our entertainment industry for vomiting such bilious tripe.

Final Thought: If you enjoy explosions, PG-13 sexual situations, and shiny objects, you'll love Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.


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Monday, June 22, 2009

Finding Nemo (2003, dir. Andrew Stanton)

Coming soon to the Pixar Directrospective at InReviewOnline

For my money, Finding Nemo is simply the best in the Disney/Pixar cannon. It's that perfect mix of adventure, laughs, and emotional depth, layered with transcendent moments of discovery. Plus, Ellen Degeneres is hilarious.

Disney films are notoriously preachy, and in a way, Nemo is no exception. Children will learn to believe in themselves, parents will learn how to let go, and we'll all learn the meaning of trust and perseverance. And while most Hollywood films would parlay those trite themes into a predictably stodgy family vehicle, Nemo manages to imbue them with genuine sincerity; writer/director Andrew Stanton ineffably delivers a film greater than the sum of its parts (a feat he'll manage again 5 years later with WALL-E).

Finding Nemo's narrative threads two parallel stories; Nemo, a young clownfish, gets captured by divers on his first day of school. He winds up in a dentist's aquarium in Sydney, Australia, but has only days until he'll be given to the dentist's niece - a notorious fish-killer. Meanwhile, his father Marlin (Albert Brooks) journeys from the reef to Sydney, enlisting the help of Dori (Ellen Degenerous), a regal tang suffering from short-term memory loss. We jump back and forth between these two stories throughout the film, building tension as both Nemo and Marlin race against time. We also meet several memorable supporting characters along the way, most notably Willem Defoe's performance as Gil, the escape-obsessed leader of the aquarium.

On its own, this multi-layered narrative would already make for an exciting family adventure, but Stanton isn't content with mere storytelling. On Nemo's first day of school, he rides through the reef with his classmates on the back of Mr. Ray, their manta-ray teacher. Ray sings one of his many impromptu science lessons, and his friends catch up on their gossip. Nemo ignores them all; he's seeing the reef for the first time. The camera gracefully pans away from the class, sweeping across the reef. The song and chatter fade, and Thomas Newman's Oscar-nominated score subtly swells. And for a time, we forget about the story and experience Nemo's discovery, the awe and the majesty of the reef. The simplicity and transcendent beauty of moments like this transform Finding Nemo from a delightful family adventure into something much less common in the Hollywood arena: cinema.

As much as I love this movie, I have to admit that without Ellen Degeneres's performance, the entertainment aspect of this film would have seriously suffered. She steals at least half of the film's quotable dialogue, and her delivery is impeccable, playing comic foil to Albert Brook's straight man. Looking over her filmography, I'm shocked by how much her talents have been underutilized. She hasn't made any films since Nemo, and it seems that her largest film role before Nemo was playing the reality-TV producer in the mostly unwatchable EdTV. What gives, Hollywood? Throw this woman some roles!

Final Thought: Nemo miraculously juggles a multi-threaded narrative, a large supporting cast, and dangerously trite themes into an oft-hilarious and surprisingly sincere film.


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Moon (2009, dir. Duncan Jones)

"Wait, what movie did you see," my wife asked me. "Moon," I answered. "Oh right. That looked like the bastard child of Solaris and 2001," she replied. If that had been the case, I might have enjoyed myself. A metaphysical love story sprinkled with cognitive dissonance could have been fairly interesting, if derivative. Unfortunately, in a conscious attempt to avoid any direct comparisons with either of those masterpieces, Moon falls flat. Like a magician who shows us the card up his sleeve, writer/director Duncan Jones reveals Moon's twist early in the second act, trading mystery and suspense for relatively prosaic illumination and little narrative development.

It's the near future, and Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the sole astronaut manning a helium-3 mining station on the far side of the moon. Lunar Industries Inc. is the only provider of helium-3, and a commercial by the company at the beginning of the film informs us that the non-radioactive element has saved the Earth from its energy crisis, providing clean energy to people all over the world. Sam is nearing the end of a three year contract, and his time alone there has visibly taken its toll on his mental and physical well being. A malfunctioning com-sat has kept him from having real-time communications with his wife and child for his entire duration, forcing them to send taped messages back and forth to each other. His only companion has been GERTY, the station's artificially intelligent computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey), manifested not as an omnipresent red eye, but as a series of emoticons, recognizable by anyone who has ever instant messaged. Gee, I wonder why Sam is going a little crazy?

At this point the film is still promising. You'll be asking yourself several questions, like why the company would place one single human in charge of a mining station providing the Earth's sole energy resource, or why the company couldn't repair a single com-sat in the entire three years of Sam's contract. Unfortunately, Sam soon discovers that he's not alone, and it's not long before the helpful computer tells him the truth about the station. Which will leave you about an hour and half to wonder exactly what else this movie has to offer.

In a film with essentially only one actor, it's no surprise that the success of the film depends largely on that actor's performance. And although Sam Rockwell is perfectly up to the task of playing a crazed but likable astronaut, Moon also calls on him to portray an intensity and animosity that he just isn't capable of. Though even had he been able to pull off that bipolar emotionality, I'm not convinced that it would have saved the film from its serious narrative failings.

Final Thought: A good magician never reveals his secrets, but a good film knows when to trade the mystery for forward development. Moon is in desperate need of some magic.


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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cars (2006)

Published in the Pixar Directrospective at InReviewOnline

What if the whole world were devoid of humans, and only talking cars existed? Um, okay. That's weird. Where did the cars come from? Who makes them? Why do they have seats and steering wheels if there are no humans? And so on.

Cars simply doesn't work. And yes, I understand the concept of "suspension of disbelief." If you haven't already seen it (in which case you're lucky), the film is about a champion race car, Lightening McQueen (Owen Wilson), getting lost in some hillbilly town a few miles off the main highway. The town's cop car imprisons him for speeding, then forces him to work off his crime by repaving the town's main street. Along the way, he learns important life lessons about slowing down, friendship, sportsmanship, etc. etc.

The official story is that director / Pixar CCO John Lasseter got the inspiration for the film after taking a cross-country road-trip with his wife and five sons. And there may be some truth to that. But the important part about that story is the fact that he has five sons. If he had five daughters, would we have gotten a car film? Unlikely.

Once upon a time, Disney had the corner on young boy entertainment. Way back in the "Davy Crocket" days. But somewhere along the way they latched onto the tween girl demographic and had such disturbing success ("Hannah Montana," "Jonas Brothers") that they lost touch with boys. Until Cars, that is. Commercially, the film did great. $461 million worldwide. Not bad at all. But that's pennies compared the merchandise they sold. $5 billion dollars! It turns out boys like cars. Now Disney has an entire team of anthropologists and psychologists researching the male 6-14 age bracket, finding what makes them tick and (more importantly) what they like to buy. And not surprisingly, Cars 2 is already in preproduction.

So where is this all heading? There are two futures for Disney/Pixar. One is creative. It starts with a great idea that has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with a story that we can connect with. The other path starts with a material goal (liking selling $5 billion in merchandise and cornering the male 6-14 bracket), then carefully crafts stories to facilitate that goal. The former promises wholesome entertainment and even art. The latter: money. In the past, they've accomplished both goals with the former category. Call me a cynic, but I'm not entirely hopeful for the future. At least we've got Dreamworks.

Final Thought: Cars isn't just a bad film. It's bad for film.


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Saturday, June 13, 2009

24 City (2008, dir. Jia Zhang Ke)

Published at InReviewOnline

Welcome to 24 City. Three generations of Chinese men and women want to tell you their story. Hold your judgments; hear them out. The oldest generation, mostly retired, wants to know that it all meant something. Their factory is being destroyed, relocated, modernized - the factory they poured their souls into. Factory #420. The one that built the airplanes during the Chinese battle against "US imperialism" in Korea, that helped the Chinese Army beat back the Vietnamese troops attempting to stop Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia. In its place, a real estate company is building a luxury apartment complex called "24 City" that they could never afford to live in.

The youngest generation wants a new life. Growing up, Su Na (Tao Zhao) never saw her mother working in the factory. She left home as soon as she turned 18, floating between boyfriends, jobs, apartments. One day she decides to visit her parents, but discovers she's lost the key to their home. She heads to the factory to find her mother; when she enters, she's shocked by the noise. It overwhelms her. Frantically she searches for her mother. All the employees look alike in their uniforms. In a corner she spots an old worker, doubled over, alone, sorting scraps of iron. It's her mother, but at first Su can't even tell if it's a man or a woman. She flees the factory, crying.

Somewhere in between lives a middle generation. They've raised (and lost) families at the factory. They're too old to start over, but still young enough to dream of another life.

Jia Zhang Ke's film 24 City organically blends interviews of actual factory workers with scripted interviews with actors. Neither sentimental nor political, it's simultaneously his most emotional and most mature work to date. More than the chronicle of a factory's destruction, it's about a people experiencing the end of Chinese socialism and the birth of Chinese capitalism. With several subjects, it takes some time for their story's real meaning to come out. But it's well worth the wait. Their memories and pains tell us so much about a country that seems to defy definition.

Shot in high-def digital video, the gray factory, mammoth machines, and perpetual smog threaten to engulf us with their detail. Whereas his last HD film Still Life embraced the beautiful wash of colors that the medium seems uniquely capable of producing, 24 City's cinematography vividly articulates the alienation and loss that connects the interviews. Director of Photography and Zhang Ke regular Yu Lik-wai (Still Life, The World, Platform) seems more comfortable with piercing close-ups than in Jia's other films. He hides little from us; we see their tears, scars, wrinkles. Even the run-down, pock-marked factory takes on a life of its own, telling its own story.

Final Thought: "The earth shall rise on new foundations; we have been naught, we shall be all." A group of old women crow L' Internationale while a demolition crew destroys their factory. Welcome to 24 City.


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Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Brothers Bloom (2009, dir. Rian Johnson)

Published at InReviewOnline

I'm confused. Did I just watch a long con, an existential meltdown, or a roarin' twenties period piece? Rian Johnson, the director of The Brothers Bloom, probably hopes I saw all of the above, but all that remains for me are a few poignant moments scattered among an overlong caper flick with a dramatic identity crisis.

The film opens with the young orphaned brothers Stephen and Bloom (played by Max Records and Zachary Gordon) bouncing between foster parents unable to deal with their peculiar mischief making. It's not long before Stephen, the oldest, discovers that he has a gift for the con, and that his younger brother has a knack for lying. Their first scheme - swindling their well-to-do peers out of their cash with an elaborate story involving a cave and fairy - causes the younger Bloom to wonder what he was giving up by assuming his role as a trickster. Fast forwarding 25-years, Bloom (Adrien Brody) finally decides that he desperately wants an unwritten life, and tells Stephen (Mark Ruffallo) as much. Of course, Stephen can't give up the game, and in short order he's roped his brother back into gaining the confidence of the rich recluse Penelope (Rachel Weiss).

Although the idyllic small towns, cars, and families at the beginning of the film all fit neatly into 1970's USA, the brothers dress, talk, and act as if they're straight out of the roarin' 20's - right down to their small black bowler hats. Adding to this general aesthetic confusion is Nathan Johnson's soundtrack, consisting of through-composed gypsy jazz jarringly punctuated by classic rock.

The Brothers Bloom is not without its charms. Rachel Weiss's performance as the quirky, multi-talented recluse solicits both hearty laughs and genuine pathos, though her hijinks are too often offset by Brody's dour demeanor. Robbie Coltrane, probably best known for his role in the Harry Potter films as Hagrid, the half-human, half-giant groundskeeper, briefly injects some mood-appropriate levity into the story when he fills an essential role in the con.

Caper flicks work because we get wrapped up in the fun and excitement of them. We escape into their world, living vicariously through the daring of the characters and the suspense of the job. They don't bog us down in the emotional murk that so closely mark our own lives. And here's where The Brothers Bloom fails. For it's neither a doomed heist nor a map-cap caper. It's an existential crisis straight-jacketed by cutesy narration and hopelessly buried beneath a convoluted con. And even through the underlying narrative weaves it's way throughout, the film seems afraid to pause long enough to give it life, breath, as if the film would lose a magic spell that it never really had in the first place.

Final thought: An aesthetically confused caper flick that's too concerned with form to let it's dramatic narrative shine though.


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