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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Simpsons Movie (****)


Family Matters

Why is The Simpsons Movie exxxcellent? It marks the first time in the series' 18 year-plus history that the all-star team of ten writers assembled for The Simpsons Movie (whose "names you should memorize", chided Homer during the credits) successfully maintained a complete 90 minute narrative. (The longest continuous story in the series' history previously was the "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" two-parter in 1995. The Simpsons Movie was twice as long as that.) The Simpsons Movie's runaway box office success is a wonderful validation for the incredibly talented team of writers, producers, animators, and the voice talent lead by Dan Castelanetta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, etc. It couldn't happen to a better, more deserving group of people. (And they'd be the first to agree.)

More importantly, The Simpsons Movie is a loving tribute to the Simpson family. It's been many years since the Simpsons' family unit was itself the focal point of the story. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie are here on the big screen in all their glory and lovable imperfections, and we're given the most caring and complete glimpse at all of their emotional cores since the early days of the series.

When Homer watches his wedding video and "Close to You" by The Carpenters plays, longtime fans remember it as Homer and Marge's song, going all the way back to when they were in high school. (The episode where Homer falls for Marge as a teenager remains one of the sweetest in the series' venerable history.) Bart's struggle to reconcile his growing attachment to Ned Flanders with his disappointment in Homer reminds us that while he should be 28 years old in real time, Bart is still a ten year old boy who needs his father. Lisa's awesome budding relationship with the Irish new kid in town, Colin, brings back memories of her failed past relationships with Nelson Muntz and Ralph Wiggum, as well as her doomed future relationship with Hugh Parkfield. Lisa's subplot of meeting a boy who likes her (who isn't Milhouse) might be the best in the entire movie. And Maggie probably is the best accident of the three Simpson children if you count how many times she's saved her father's life.

It is regrettable that in order to protect the main narrative and keep the focus on the Simpson family, some of the very best of the show's unbeatable supporting cast didn't get to have their moment. Just about everyone who has ever lived in Springfield got to have some face time, but in terms of speaking roles, the Springfield Elementary cast got shafted. Principal Skinner never said a word, nor did Superintendant Chalmers or Groundskeeper Willie. No Rainier Wolfcastle, but that is understandable considering the presence of President Schwarzenegger. No Sideshow Bob at all! (Maybe in the sequel, if they listen to Maggie's first word, and judging from the opening weekend box office, it's assured.) It's a shame Mr. Burns only got two quick scenes and Smithers never said anything. 

On the other hand, Chief Wiggum and Ralph Wiggum did extremely well for themselves and Ralph probably has the best line in the entire movie. Moe, Lenny, and Carl got some business, and Krusty had some great lines. Nelson set the record for "Ha ha!"s guffawed, while Martin finally took revenge for 18 years of bullying from Jimbo, Kearny and Dolph, as well as learning a valuable lesson for why a bully bullies at all. I wish the movie were longer and they could have given everyone some business, but then there's always the show itself. 

The Simpsons Movie is for everyone. For us, the die hards who've grown up with the show (two decades, almost, and counting!) and for anyone who's ever laughed out loud at any of its past 400 episodes (and counting!). Watching The Simpsons Movie was pure joy, the movie itself a magnficent balance of the show's irreverent humor and ability to tug at the heartstrings with genuinely sweet and tender moments. It's safe to say you'll never forget the sight of naked Bart's doodle as he skateboards through Springfield, or Homer giving everyone double middle fingers, or Marge yelling "Throw the goddamn bomb!" 

The moments I loved included Homer still calling Jesus "Jebus", Bart calling Flanders "sister" and his "Oh my God!" when he drank Flanders' cocoa, the writing on the pig crap silo ("Return to Homer Simpson. (No Reward)"), Tom Hanks loaning the government his credibility, Colin insisting his father isn't Bono, Milhouse's line "Global warming is a myth! More study is needed!" before taking a Nelson punch to the gut, Bart drunk on whiskey ("I'm troubled"), the looks on the animals' faces when they watched Homer and Marge rock the casbah, the EPA drivers bemoaning Homer's misspelled road signs (SOP), and Homer's line to Spider-Pig, "Maybe we should kiss to break the tension."

For me, the callback of all callbacks was near the end of movie, after Bart and Homer jump Springfield Gorge on a motorcycle: There's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of an ambulance crashed into a tree. It's a simple callback, not drawing attention to itself but there for those with quick eyes and long memories. In season 2, "Bart the Daredevil" 17 years ago(!), Bart tried to jump Springfield Gorge on a skateboard and Homer saved his son's life by inadvertantly taking his place. Homer missed the jump and hilarously crashed down the mountainside. Then in a stroke of comedy genius, he is airlifted into a waiting ambulance that crashes into a tree immediately. Homer's gurney rolls out of the ambulance and he falls right back down the mountain. 

It was the breakthrough moment of the series to date, the bit people were talking about at the watercooler the next day. That segment was the series' first classic comedy moment. And in The Simpsons Movie, when Bart and Homer together make the jump Homer failed to complete way back when, we see that the ambulance is still there. That was a great little treat for the longtime fans, those of us who've been there since the beginning, who remember. Moments like that are why I love the show and why I love The Simpsons Movie.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

July 26, 2007
I'm not planning on spoiling a thing for anyone still reading, about to read, or just waiting for the movie.
My copy arrived from Amazon Saturday morning. It was waiting for me when I woke up. I don't have a secretary or appointments, but if I did, I'd have told her to cancel all my appointments and sent Pam home. I had some reading to do. Now, I'm notoriously not a fast reader, I usually take my sweet time and can take weeks to finish a book, but by Sunday night, I'd read 690 pages, including the pivotal reveals that not just this book but the events of the whole series hinged upon. (And I was happy at how I right my guesses were, made two years ago in a head to head with Rob.)
Only 69 pages left. The most important 69 pages of the saga. The big finish. I put the book down Sunday night. Waited three days and finally dived back in.
Having concluded the saga of Harry Potter, it's taking effort to wipe the smile from my face. The ending is everything it needed to be. It's wonderful.
Honestly, for much of the first half of the book, I wasn't digging it. I was impatient and growing annoyed with J.K. Rowling's storytelling choices. What I expected to see happen as set up in Half-Blood Prince wasn't what she was giving us. The answers I was looking for weren't there. I felt strung along, even bamboozled. I began to wonder if I was going to be betrayed. I still feel there are flaws and problems, but then how could there not be? One person was crafting an intricately complex web, tying together myriad characters and events. Human error was to be expected. But did Rowling know what she was doing? Did she know where she was taking us? Did she still have the magic?
Yes. She was just warming up.
I said to someone recently in defense of the Harry Potter films that I prefer Harry in the movies as played by Daniel Radcliffe to the Harry in the novels as written by Rowling. I always felt the movie Harry was less whiny, more heroic, a superior portrayal. I went onto to say that I couldn't give a fuck if the Harry in the book died but I'd be ripshit if the Harry in the movie died.
Rowling astounded me. In my mind's eye, she gradually and deftly in the course of Deathly Hallows merged her Harry with the Harry in the movie so by the end the end, Harry was the best of both mediums. The Harry I enjoyed watching in the movies was the Harry at the end of the book facing Voldemort for the last time (that's not a spoiler.)
And then she laid all the cards on the table. All the mysteries solved. All the answers revealed. She had to deliver and she delivered. She delivered it all.
Now that it's over, I'm satisfied. Totally satisfied. Like I just ate a great meal. I was told a great, epic story and it was worth the years and thousands of pages read and re-read. It's not the greatest story ever told, or the most original, or one that will shape the rest of my life in any way. It was simply excellent. Most importantly, like every great story must, it had a great ending worthy of what came before.
Harry Potter is over, but the best part is, it still isn't. Two more movies to go, and I can't wait to see the Deathly Hallows movie. I can't wait to see those actors play these parts, to see the battles brought to life and the answers to all the questions dramatized, to see the end of the circle on the silver screen. Lots of the book will likely have to be excised, nothing new there, but the parts that matter, the sequences that beg to be filmed, will have to be there. I can't wait to see that finish play out.
I'm happy. "All is well."

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Sunshine (***)


You're Not The Only One Staring At The Sun, Afraid Of What You'll Find

I like starships and phasers and Klingons and Jedi and giant transforming robots more than the next guy, but sometimes I crave a story set in space where none of the humans wear colored pajamas and swing lightsabers to fight aliens with bumpy foreheads. Every now and then, I get my wish.

With Sunshine, Danny Boyle's first foray into science fiction, he broke the pattern of my liking every other one of his pictures. His previous film, Millions, is one of my favorites, and now with Sunshine, he's two in a row with me, delivering one of the better sci-fi films I've seen in recent years.  

Sunshine is not a space opera like 2001 or a metaphysical think piece like Solaris, but contains elements of both as well as Alien and 28 Days Later. It's a great story written by Alex Garland, with interesting characters, an intriguing premise, terrific music by John Murphy and Underworld, ideas both big and small, and a bravura visual style. Sunshine overreaches a bit in its third act and adds an element of horror that seems to be at odds with what had come before, but the foundation for it was sufficiently laid out and it's used as a vehicle to portray the light and the darkness of the spiritual element of the story.

Fifty years from now, the sun is dying. Earth is caught in a solar winter. The human race is on the verge of extinction. An international assemblage of eight scientists on board the Icarus II spend years in space hoping to deliver a payload that will detonate into the sun and cause a new star to be born inside the dying one. Imagine spending years in space with the same seven people, hoping against expectations that your mission can possibly succeed when there are no guarantees it would. Meanwhile, the specter of the previous Icarus mission, which failed and was never heard from again, hangs over our astronauts. 

Sunshine is not a live action cartoon like Armageddon. Boyle and Garland have far more realistic ideas about how such a desperate mission of traveling millions of miles to re-ignite the sun would turn out. Sunshine presents an overwhelming problem to the survival of the human race and makes it damned clear that Bruce Willis isn't here to make you feel good about it.  I almost wished one of the characters was shown watching a DVD or whatever they'll use in 50 years of Armageddon, so they'd feel even worse about how screwed they are. The harsh reality of Sunshine was the polar opposite of funny Owen Wilson and Steve Buschemi in cracking wise in space and Ben Affleck playing with animal crackers on Liv Tyler's stomach while Aerosmith blasts the soundtrack. 

The crew of Icarus II, played by an excellent cast lead by Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis and Michelle Yeoh, are not necessarily the best of the best with the Right Stuff. They're all intelligent but flawed people who are presented with a series of obstacles where they are forced to make difficult choices that inevitably result in death and tragedy. Their performances are all layered and effective, but the standout here is Chris Evans as Mace, the ship's hotheaded engineer. As the Human Torch, Evans was one of the few bright spots of the Fantastic Four movies but in Sunshine, he shows he's a better actor than he's been allowed to be in his rotten comic book movie franchise. Evans exhibits genuine leading man qualities. If they'd just listened to Chris Evans, things might have gone better for the Icarus II. But they didn't.

In the course of the choices the Icarus II 's crew makes and the events that happen to them, they gradually discover an unforeseen element that is sabotaging their mission and trying to kill them, which directly relates to what happened to the crew on board the Icarus I . When the villain is revealed, the horror element introduced is jarring and seems out of place, but I understood why this choice was made and I liked it the more I contemplated it. 

The spiritual element and questions raised are intriguing. The sun dying becomes an allegory for whether God has decided that Man must die. By using our science and attempting to re-ignite it, can Man defy God? In the face of the sun's overwhelming heat and light, can Man see God's face and touch Him? 

Sunshine is exactly the kind of "hard" science fiction film I like. It's smart and stylish, it makes you think and makes you feel, and it's bleak . Sunshine holds you at bay, then creeps under your skin and fills you with awe and dread. It's flawed and sometimes difficult but Sunshine's the hot shit.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Condemned (**1/2)

Stone Cold! Stone Cold! Stone Cold!

Jim Ross claims he saw The Condemned three times in the theatre. If that's true then by God, that ol' Okie must be in love with his good friend Stone Cold Steve Austin. It's a shame then that even Good Ol' J.R.'s repeat business didn't stop The Condemned from becoming the lowest grossing WWE Film at the box office. The Condemned's failure sank the fledgling WWE film division and relegated any future WWE productions to go straight to DVD. Thing is, The Condemned is the best of the WWE Films. That isn't saying much; See No Evil and The Marine are pretty shitty, but The Condemned is surprisingly watchable and enjoyable as a pure action B movie.

By now, after seemingly thousands of commercials, every WWE fan knows the basic plot of The Condemned: On a remote island, ten death row inmates, eight men and two women, all killers, are forced to fight to the death. The sole survivor wins his freedom. The entire sordid affair is broadcast as "" live over the Internet for profit by Breck, a slimey producer out to exploit the "reality" of people killing each other for a fortune in pay per view Internet dollars. On the surface Breck is a stand in for Vince McMahon, but he didn't father a bastard leprechaun, and he's as much a commentary on someone like Girls Gone Wild maven Joe Francis and sleazy network producers as he is a riff on the beloved Chairman of WWE.

The first thing I found interesting was that the burden of carrying the movie doesn't fall on the shoulders of Stone Cold Steve Austin, which is the fatal mistake The Marine did with John Cena and See No Evil did with Kane. Austin ostensibly plays the lead role but the movie takes a minimalist approach to how much Austin is on the screen. He pretty much appears only when he's needed and spends a considerable amount of time off screen. Austin wisely doesn't try to do or say too much and doesn't veer very far at all from his bad ass wrestling persona. Even when he manages to call his girlfriend back in the States to tell her he's still alive, he keeps the mushy stuff to a bare minimum. 

The filmmakers make every moment Austin appears on the screen count. Stone Cold's performance isn't stunning by any means, but as the default hero of the story he's pretty solid. (Still, I think I'd have preferred seeing the heel Stone Cold of 2001 who liked singalongs, needed hugs from Vince McMahon, and was terrified of eating his wife's cookies. Maybe if there's a sequel...) The main thrust of the action on the island is handled by Vinne Jones, who plays a damn good heel, especially when he's not wearing a fake muscle suit, a toilet bowl on his head, and screaming, "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!"

Meanwhile, Breck is the center of all of the drama regarding the ethics and morality of broadcasting the deaths and even rapes happening on the island. A couple of Breck's crew members, including his hot girlfriend, actually have a conscience and attempt to put a stop to what they're doing, while the rest of his crew are as amoral as their employer. The movie even point blank accuses the audience (our culture at large) of being the problem for watching and considering watching people die entertainment. The moralizing is heavy handed and as blunt as a steel chairshot to the head. But fuck, I was pretty surprised it was there at all. The movie's ethical position plays full force when Stone Cold and Vinnie Jones force the tables to be turned on Breck and his crew and they're forced to pay the piper for the roles they played on the show.

The action isn't filmed with any great panache but the filmmakers wisely kept the fighting realistic. It's a pretty fucking violent movie with people getting shot, stabbed, beaten, run through with arrows, and exploding. Probably half of the "condemned" die by explosion. If you want to see people get blown up real good, this is the DVD for you. When one of the "condemned" is raped by Jones and his little Japanese sidekick, the movie wisely doesn't show it but makes its occurence the lynchpin for moral outrage. The breakdowns of when the condemned attack each other, what they're after, and when and why some of them forge alliances were well thought out. Again, there's a level of thought in design and competency of execution on display in The Condemned that was unexpected and commendable. Especially from a movie bearing the credit "Executive Producer Vince McMahon."

While I don't need to see The Condemned ever again, I had fun and I'm not sorry I saw it, which I can't say for Cena or Kane's movies. And that's a big get. Although whoever picked the song that closes the movie needs to take a Stone Cold Stunner and a beer bath. When I think of the music to represent the Texas Rattlesnake, the Bionic Redneck, the Toughest SOB in WWE, I don't think Nickelback.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (***)


July 14, 2007

If you have the option, IMAX 3D is the way to go. The 3D is excellent, amazing. The final scenes in the Ministry of Magic including Dumbledore's Army vs. The Death Eaters and Voldemort vs. Dumbledore are in 3D. You're completely immersed in the experience. It was much better than the Superman Returns 3D last year, where it seemed like Superman was actually farther from you. With Harry Potter, the 3D characters just about leap off the screen.

July 11, 2007

New Order

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix effectively marches the Harry Potter saga one step closer to its inevitable conclusion yet manages to bring the Harry Potter film series an unfortunate step backwards. To be sure, Order of the Phoenix maintains the level of quality present in all of the Harry Potter films. It's as good as, and often far better, than the initial two installments, The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, directed by Chris Columbus.

But compared to the amazing filmmaking on display in the back to back triumphs of Prisoner of Azkaban by Alfonso Cuaron and Goblet of Fire by Mike Newell (in that order of quality), David Yates' workman-like effort gets the job done but falls far short of the Cuaron's greatness and Newell's near-greatness. There is nothing in Order of the Phoenix to rival the sheer joy of Cuaron's third act time travel sequence or the fun and teen drama of Newell's Yule Ball sequence. Nor is there anything as imaginative and haunting as Newell's underwater encounter with the mermaids or rivaling the action found when Harry battled the dragon in the Triwizard Tournament.

There's still plenty of magic in Order of the Phoenix, but then again, in the final analysis, it's not all there, is it? This is not a comment on how true the movie is to the novel but an observation of how the movie didn't quite deliver everything it could have. In screenwriting, the same rules apply as they would if you were attending a party: get in late, get out early. Many scenes in Order of the Phoenix suffered from 'getting in late, and then forgetting how to get out altogether.' Order is the shortest of the Potter films at around 2 and a half hours, but it never finds a consistent structure or tone and many scenes wrap too quickly without getting all the oomph they needed. The most grievous failure of the film is how the death of Sirius Black is handled. It happens too quickly and completely fumbles how the most significant death in Harry Potter's life up to that point in the saga should have felt for him and for the audience. How can it be that the death of Cedric Diggory in Goblet of Fire is presented as more heartbreaking and terrible than the murder of Harry's beloved godfather?

What annoyed me most is how much of the best stuff that happens in the book, the turning of Hogwarts school into a police state run by Delores Umbridge, is played for humor and gags. The sinister events at Hogwarts, how Umbridge gains control of the school and institutes a totalitarian reign of fear and repression, is rushed through in a cheery montage. In fact, much of the second act of the film was practically one giant montage of half-scenes, including how Umbridge becomes Hogwarts High Inquisitor, her inspection of the professors and attempted expulsion of Trelawney, and the marginalizing of Dumbledore as Headmaster. Most disappointing is how the core story of Harry, Ron, and Hermione forming Dumbledore's Army with their fellow students and secretly training in the Defense Against the Dark Arts is rushed and lacking in proper weight and impact.

The heart of Order of the Phoenix is teenage rebellion, the students fighting the power - the evil that has infested their school from within - and taking matters into their own hands. While the spirit of the rebellion is touched upon, mostly through Hermione's behavior, the story of Dumbledore's Army is mostly presented through a series of training montages that Trey Parker could rewrite the South Park montage song for.

Every day their spells get a little bit better 
To show it all would take too long 
We need a montage! 
A wizard training montage!

It just doesn't resonate like it ought to have. Yes, Order a dense story with a great deal of material to convey, but I wish they'd slowed down and given us complete proper sequences. They also rushed through the revelatory flashback when Harry learns through Occulemcy that his father wasn't the great man he always believed him to be after he sees the way his father bullied Snape as teenagers. 

Order is also the Potter film that most requires an intimate familiarity with the novel. The film practically needs the audience to have read the novel in order to fill in the blanks of the various story points. (For instance, Sirius Black's house elf Kreacher makes it into the film but doesn't serve a need in the story as he does in the book. It's never clear when Harry dreams Sirius is captured and tortured by Voldemort whether it is just a dream or was actually happening like the attack on Mr. Weasley. And if you can't tell the difference between Apparating and materializing via Floo powder, the character reveals and staging of a lot of the action in the climactic battle scenes won't make much sense.) New characters like Tonks, Grawp (the CGI here was terrible), and Kingsley Shacklebolt, are introduced but only half-heartedly, with returning characters like Mad Eye Moody, Lucius Malfoy, and Cornelius Fudge being given the bare minimum to work with as characters.

One of the biggest changes made for the film was how Harry and Cho Chang's ultimately doomed relationship is resolved. They share a kiss but there is no ill-fated date in Hogsmeade as there is in the novel, and Cho's jealousy over Harry's close relationship with Hermione is fleetingly touched upon when Harry blows her off and runs off with Hermione and Ron to see Hagrid. In the film, Cho is revealed to be the traitor who is forced by Umbridge's cadre of Slytherin students to give up Dumbledore's Army and her friendship with Harry is swept aside as the story rushes headlong and checks off all of the necessary points to get to the end.

Despite all of these problems, there is much to like about Order of the Phoenix. 

Harry in the film continues to be more heroic than the Harry in the novel. The depth and scope of what Harry is up against, both externally and within his own mind, is one of the most effective things about the film.
The relationships, camraderie, and rapport between Harry, Ron and Hermione (and between Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) continues to be wonderful. They have one of the best moments in the whole movie together when they share a laugh after Hermione explains what wide range of emotions Cho is going through and Ron can't fathom how anyone could feel so much.

Hermione effectively assumes the role of Harry's consigliere in Dumbledore's Army and she's even more thoughtful and on her game; all throughout the movie as Umbridge lays out her plans for Hogwarts, you can all but see the wheels in Hermione's mind turning as she's strategizing counter attacks.

The young actors are again well complimented by the great veteran actors like Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Michael Gambon. Helena Bonham Carter chews the scenery nicely as Bellatrix LeStrange. She'll have even more to do in the next film.

I thought the newest member of Harry's extended group of classmates, Luna Lovegood, came off really well. She's different from how she's written in the novel. The film's Luna is more ethereal and thoughtful, less an object meant for ridicule. Luna had some interesting and effective scenes with Harry throughout, while Ginny Weasley got some nice action beats but not a lot to say.

Certain moments in the novel were vividly reimagined and made more cinematic for the film, such as the opening sequence where the Dementors attack Harry and Dudley Dursley.

I liked the decision to have all of Dumbledore's Army tortured by doing lines in their own blood in the same way Umbridge tortured Harry. This lead to a really nice little moment where Fred and George Weasley comfort a crying underclassmen, showing a previously unrevealed compassionate side from the twins. And of course, I loved the Weasley twins declaring war on Umbridge and blowing out of Hogwarts in a blaze of glory.

The final battle sequence in the Ministry of Magic was as exciting as it needed to be, with Dumbledore's Army holding off and inevitably falling to the Death Eaters until they are saved by the Order of the Phoenix. The epic battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort was pretty awesome. 

Order of the Phoenix, however, saved its best trick for last, after Voldemort decides to retreat. When he possesses Harry, outwardly transforms him, and they mind meld, the film enters a whole new level when Harry fights off Voldemort and tells him he feels sorry for him. This is a truly great moment and gives us the first real inkling at how Harry will be able to defeat Voldemort (well, if he does. We'll know next week when "The Deathly Hallows" comes out.)

Ultimately, Order of the Phoenix is good enough, but after five movies in six years, for the first time I look to the future of the Harry Potter films without a boundless sense of optimism. We went from good, to better, to GREAT, to almost as great, back down to good/better than good. I fear we've leveled off, the sky's no longer the limit for these films. David Yates and his penchant for overusing wide-angle lenses are rumored to return to direct Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I don't like this new order, I want the old order back. I'd much prefer to have Steve Kloves back writing the script and someone else, Cuaron, Newell, or an equally visionary filmmaker, behind the camera. The Harry Potter film saga deserves nothing less than the best. "Good enough" just isn't good enough for Harry.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More Than Meets The Eye

More Than Meets The Eye
July 10, 2007

It pains me to admit this but have to say, at this point in summer 2007, Transformers is my favorite movie so far. Of course, I know it's a really dumb movie and there are a lot of better movies out there. And I can't even really say I love or even like all of Transformers.  I've seen it twice and second time around, I was twice as bored at all the Pentagon scenes and just about everything in the movie that didn't have an Autobot, Decepticon, Shia LeBeouf or Megan Fox in it.  Despite all of that, and the numerous things wrong with or dumb about Transformers, it's my favorite so far because of Sam, Mikaela and Bumblebee.  I just love the scenes with the three of them.

When I read the leaked Transformers screenplay last year, I thought all of the moments where Bumblebee uses pop songs to "humorously" play off Sam trying to hit on Mikaela were terrible.  I'd have bet the farm it was a shitty idea in what read like a shitty script and it would never work.  Which is why I was stunned at the way those moments did work.  Sure, it's dumb comedy, but it plays and it's entertaining. Shia makes the scenes work, all the way through to his dropping her off at her house, telling her she's "more than meets the eye" and browbeating himself for saying such a stupid line.  But the best stuff came later, first when Mikaela and Sam collide and they both get inside Bumblebee for the big car chase with Brawl.  The fact that they were both terrified and screaming, "We're gonna die!  We're gonna die!" was right on.  That's exactly how they should be reacting.

Even better was after Sam and Mikaela beat Frenzy the evil Microsoft Word paperclip and looked up in awe at Sam's car, which was now a 20 foot tall robot.  That moment, which is Spielbergian in origin and in execution, was kind of just about brilliant.  It might even be the best moment I've seen so far in a motion picture this year.  They got the sense of wonder of that moment exactly right, including Sam's speech as he asks Mikaela to get in the car with him (The Call to Adventure, says Joseph Campbell).  And then getting her to sit on his lap as Bumblebee drove himself.

At that point, Sam Witwicky was the single luckiest boy in the world.  He somehow fulfilled the two greatest wishes an adolescent boy can have: to have your own car and to have the girl of your dreams.  Plus the best bonus ever: his car can transform into a robot.  He has his own robot.  And that robot took him and his gorgeous girl to meet even more robots.  Even the musical choice underlining the scene was well chosen.  (Yeah, it's The Goo Goo Dolls, sure, but it works.)  It gets even better for Sam when Mikaela calls his car crap -- Bumblebee kicks them out and then redesigns into an even cooler car.  Holy Christ, how lucky can Sam get?

I'm not so old nor am I at all so curmudgeonly that I don't remember being seventeen and having my first car and my first girl.  Hell, I wrote a movie of my own about it.  I remember what that was like.  I knew what Sam wanted and I wanted the same thing.  In a way, I was Sam.  My car was even yellow.  But it sure as fuck didn't transform into a giant robot.  Still, car, girl, robot, these are the dreams of an adolescent boy (hell, they're still the dreams of the 30+ old single man) and Transformers makes them real.

All the rest of Transformers that works, the robot fighting, Optimus Prime, Sam saving the world, the nice piece of business I'm glad they gave Mikaela in the final battle where she heroically drove the damaged Bumblebee so they could destroy Devastator, it was all icing on the cake for me.  Even all the stupid shit in the movie, and there's a lot of it, none of that matters to me.  Transformers gets a pass despite it all.  To me, the scenes with Sam, Mikaela and Bumblebee carry the entire movie the way Bumblebee carried Sam and Mikaela at the end as they made out on his hood while Optimus, Ratchet and Ironhide watched.  Those Autobots are pervs.

And that's why I loved Transformers.  Also, Megan Fox is ridiculously hot.  I can't wait for the DVD so I can skip past all the crap and just watch the good stuff.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Transformers (***)

July 3, 2007
Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons

"No matter what happens, I'm really glad I got in the car with you," says Megan Fox to Shia LaBeouf before the giant robot shit hits the fan in Transformers. I know exactly what she means. The line is callback to an earlier scene after LaBeouf's beat up yellow Camaro is revealed as the walking, not talking, transformable giant robot called Bumblebee and he says to her, "Fifty years from now, do you want to look back on your life and wonder, 'why didn't I get in the car?'"  I asked myself that same question, and if it were me, I'd get in the car. At that point, I decided that Transformers was working. As ridiculous, loud, dumb, goofy, and bizarre as it is, Transformers still manages to seriously entertain, hitting the right buttons while blowing and smashing obscene amounts of shit up.

There's a whole lot going on in Transformers to distract from the fact that there really isn't that much at all to the story. The screenplay cuts between four major story threads that converge in the third act: Shia LaBeouf is trying to get Megan Fox to be his girlfriend and discovers his new used car is a giant robot. A bunch of soldiers in Qatar led by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese are attacked by Decepticons and need to get vital info back to the Pentagon. Cyber technicians working for the Secretary of Defense try to figure out what the hell is going on, while John Turturro, in charge of a secret government agency, chews the scenery as he hunts down LaBeouf and Fox and reveals the secret behind what the Transformers are doing on Earth and the device (the Allspark Cube) they are after.  

Transformers could have lost the latter two story threads, consolidated the details among the other two threads, and been a much better movie for it. Does anyone really give a rat's ass what the Australian woman and Anthony Anderson were doing and what happens to them? Every moment away from the Transformers or Fox and LaBeouf meant the movie was spinning its wheels. Transformers worked best when following LaBeouf and Fox around as they realize cars can become robots, there are good robots and bad robots, and they meet the Autobots and their leader Optimus Prime, who explains the details of the Transformers that any kid who grew up in the 80's (including me) knows by heart.

Though giant alien robots walk the Earth, dig underneath it, soar above it, and roll through its streets, Transformers isn't about the wonder of it all. These amazing machines receive little awe and only a modicum of curiosity. While the audience knowingly chuckles at being asked to swallow wholesale the premise of giant transforming robots called Autobots and Decepticons from the planet Cybertron, the humans in the movie are much more immediately accepting. What Transformers is mainly interested in is goofy robot comedy and hardcore robot fighting.

The goofy comedy was abundant. Bumblebee goes all out to help his new driver win his dream girl by playing pop songs and driving her to Makeout Point. When Fox calls Bumblebee a crappy old Camaro, he gets offended and instantly redesigns himself into the newest model. Then there's a long, drawn out, totally asinine comedy sequence where all of the enormous Autobots hang out in LaBeouf's backyard, "hiding" from his parents, and go completely unnoticed by everyone else in the neighborhood. Transformers also shows us a robot peeing on a human, which has to make some sort of AFI list or else there's just no justice in the world.

For comedy not involving giant robots (or, you know, any actual comedy), there's a running gag where everyone mispronounces "Witwicky" and there's Anthony Anderson as the loud black guy, complete with fat cousin and angry mama. They're just about topped by LaBeouf's mother, who prattles on and on during some painful "improv", including over the closing credits. John Turturro left teeth marks on the scenery and the robots with his bizarre secret agent character, although he had the best line in the movie when he assessed Megan Fox: "She's a criminal. Criminals are hot!"

The giant robots whaling on each other action was quite satisfying. Some of the best action scenes take place in Qatar as the soldiers attempt to defend themselves against a giant robot that transformed from a helicopter and another shaped like a scorpion that burrows through the sand. My favorite action sequence is late in the movie when Starscream, the Decepticon fighter jet, takes out the Air Force fighters by transforming back and forth and smashing the planes in mid air.

The biggest issues I have were that the movie waited until the third act to introduce most of the Decepticons, who were all grey, interchangable, and lacking discernable personalities, and that no time was taken to explain what special abilities or weapons they each have. It seemed like they all just shot missiles at each other, except for Optimus Prime, who had some sort of sword and a big ass gun, each of which he used just once. Except for Optimus and Bumblebee, all of the other robots looked too much alike and it was hard to tell them apart.

I was also annoyed that two major battles happen offscreen: we never see how Bumblebee defeats the police car Decepticon before he reveals himself fully to LaBeouf and Fox. Even more annoying, we end up not seeing most of the Megatron vs. Optimus Prime smackdown. We see their initial collision as they smash through a building, which was awesome, but the action cuts away and then suddenly we come back to see Prime on his back, beaten, leaving LaBeouf to save the day. Prime was also way too eager to commit suicide. Basically his plan to beat Megatron was to fight him for a while, knowing he'd lose, and then kill himself with the Allspark Cube, which would hopefully also take Megatron out with him. Transformers' theme, which we're beaten over the head with, is "No sacrifice, no victory", but Prime is a little too keen on the sacrifice part.

The robots are ugly and overdesigned eyesores. When they're in action, leaping, running, fighting, half the time I couldn't make out what I was looking at or what was going on. But, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the special effects were so convincing that I never once questioned the robots were real. The one failure was the human sized Decepticon who transformed into a CD player. A Decepticon that isn't several stories tall for the humans to fight is a good idea, but in a movie full of pug fugly robots, this one, which looked like the little paperclip in Microsoft Word that asks you if you need help crossed with a bunch of metal spikes and antennae, was the fug pugliest of all.

Still, I had a really good time watching Transformers, a much better time than I expected to have going in. The core story of a teenage boy getting his first car to impress the girl he likes, which turned out to be a giant transforming robot, won me over. In the middle of all the frenzied action, LaBeouf provided a central character who was believable and relatable for the audience. He also had the thankless task in act three of spouting lines like, "That's Megatron, the harbinger of death" and providing exposition on the Cybertronian Wars for the other humans in the room. The Autobots meanwhile had personalities pulled straight from the cartoons I adored as a child and outgrew once I hit puberty. Both the Autobots and Deceptions have charmingly simple worldviews, summarized by Optimus' line "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings", and by Megatron's "I'll kill you!!" (I'm paraphrasing.)

In the end, the Transformers came to Earth to smash and to entertain, both of which they succeeded at in abundance. Transformers 2 was suitably set up before the credits rolled out. Bumblebee chooses to remain in disguise as LaBeouf's car, allowing, probably even encouraging, LaBeouf to have sex with the very hot Fox on his hood. The movie essentially closes with a bizarre implied three way with a robot car, his driver, and his driver's girl. That is one kinky alien robot. There should have been a closing scene where Bumblebee asks Optimus, "Why was I programmed to feel aroused?" I have a feeling Optimus would rather roll out than tackle that one.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard (**1/2)


July 1, 2007
I'm an old school Die Hard fanatic. One of my fondest moviegoing memories is watching the original in the theater with my dad when I was 13. To me, the first Die Hard, along with Lethal Weapon 1 and 2 and Robocop, set the standard for action movies during the 80's that only Terminator 2 met and exceeded in 1991. Nothing else calling itself an action movie since has been in their league. Certainly not Live Free or Die Hard. The first 30 minutes or so, it didn't feel like a Die Hard movie at all. Remove the physical presence of Bruce Willis and I might as well have been watching Enemy of the State or some other fast edit, jump cut cyber-thriller. It really didn't help matters that the choice of desaturating the color so that the movie looked like Underworld or Minority Report is all wrong for a Die Hard movie. Len Wiseman can't direct for shit, the movie was poorly edited, and either Wiseman doesn't know how or just didn't bother to spend the time to build the appropriate dramatic tension during the action scenes so the audience gets drawn into it as opposed to shit just blowing up one after the other like they're trying to win a race.
It wasn't until the action sequence where John McClane launched the car into the helicopter that it started to feel like a Die Hard movie. When McClane came out of that action sequence all bloodied up and hurt, I thought to myself, "There he is! There's John McClane. Finally, this is Die Hard." And then I wondered how he'd survive the next two hours when he was already so injured. The answer: this newer, older, bald John McClane (why couldn't he have worn a wig like in The Sixth Sense?) is a Terminator crossed with Wolverine. He heals superfast and never stops coming at you, even telling Timothy Olyphant several times he was coming for him. Then Terminator McClane fights Maggie Q, his own Terminatrix, who can survive being hit head on by an SUV at high speed through several walls and shake it off. Then McClane fights a harrier jet with a semi truck, survives a fall and explosion that should have not only killed him but smashed him into pieces and burned those pieces into char, but he gets right up immediately, perfectly fine. In fact, Live Free or Die Hard reminded me a whole lot of Terminator 3 -- it felt like fan fiction cribbing on the name and reputation of the original, doing just enough to barely scrape by with enough credibility to call itself a part of the franchise.

The story was equal parts preposterous but still kind of cool and fun, and the movie did get better as it went along. Bruce Willis I thought was inconsistent; his physical presence aside, sometimes he was like a stern faced robot but occasionally, flashes of the old John McClane we know and love would come through, just not enough or often enough. Justin Long started off annoying me something fierce and had a really bad "comedy" scene where he tricks OnStar into starting the car they had stolen, but he also became more sympathetic and likeable as the movie continued. He actually had the best character arc in the movie and was the only one who understood what the cyberterrorists were doing and genuinely felt bad about it.. Timothy Olyphant couldn't hold a candle to Alan Rickman or Jeremy Irons, but he also got more interesting as McLane fouled up his plans. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an actress I find very attractive and appealing. She didn't have a whole lot to do as Lucy McClane except require rescuing but her character arc and performance did just enough to evoke that she is indeed the daughter of John McClane.

Overall, I liked Live Free or Die Hard well enough. I was expecting a total piece of crap initially. It was entertaining enough and I enjoyed it, but it falls far short of the bar set by the original Die Hard.

I spent Wednesday and Friday of this past week working freelance for a market research company hired by FOX to do instant audience polls for Live Free or Die Hard. We gave out hundreds of surveys and I was pretty surprised at how positive the feedback was, overwhemingly "excellent" or "very good.". But that was nothing compared to what really amused me: By far, the strongest positive reaction to the movie came from women between the ages of 45-65. Even more than teen boys or adult males. In fact, I lost count of the number of middle aged women who told me personally that they were there to see Bruce because they "just love Bruce!" When they came out of the theatre, the most common thing those same women said to me was "It was excellent! I love Bruce!" So there you go, middle aged women love the Bruce. It makes perfect sense since those are the women who've liked him since Moonlighting. Obviously, Bruce won't be drawing the teen girls to the theatres. But boy, do their moms love him.