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Monday, June 29, 2009

12 Rounds (**)


In 12 Rounds, John Cena plays John Cena, a "freakishly large" New Orleans beat cop who manages to capture the world's most super duper master criminal, played by Aiden Gillen. After breaking out of prison, Gillen returns to the Big Easy and takes revenge on Cena in the most ludicrous manner possible: He kidnaps Cena's girl (Ashley Scott, The Rock's love interest in Walking Tall, who seems to be making a career out of being the WWE Films moll) and forces Cena into a game of 12 Rounds, where Cena has to perform stunts across the city causing untold millions of dollars in property damage. 12 Rounds started out pretty decent, but watching Cena race across New Orleans grew tedious even before the signature action set piece where he stops a runaway trolley from exploding. Later, Scott reveals a previously unmentioned skill as a helicopter pilot and, when Cena leaps onto the skids to save her from Gillen, she decides to take the chopper on a joy ride across the city while her boyfriend gives Gillen an attitude adjustment instead of just landing the chopper. (Thank goodness for convenient hotel pools on rooftops.) The monosyllabic Cena shows little of whatever it is about him that's so captivating to 11 year old WWE fans and 15 year old girls. Cena maintains his wrestling character's invulnerability in the movie, such as when a house explosion blows him across the street into a parked car and he gets back up and brushes himself off. Gillen, so good as Mayor Tommy Carcetti in The Wire, apparently had the help of Macauley Culkin from Home Alone in rigging New Orleans into a deadly obstacle course. The only character who actually has an arc is the black FBI agent who didn't care if Cena's girl lived or died as long as he caught Gillen, but had a change of heart and joined the Chain Gang by the end. 12 Rounds is directed by Renny Harlin, who was once an A-list action director but has fallen on such hard times he now has a movie executive produced by Vince McMahon to his credit.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Reader (***1/2)


Not an easy film to summarize in a few pithy sentences. Powerful, multi-layered story of - it's not quite a love affair, is it? -both a kind of love and hurt set against the unforgivable sins of Nazi war crimes and the Holocaust. Very moved by several aspects of the film: the affair in the first act, the war crimes trial Kate Winslet's character endures, the moral debates during the trial, the reveal of the secret Winslet was so ashamed of she was willing to spend life in prison for her role in the Holocaust to hide it, and the sequence where older Michael sent her tapes of books he read to her. No quarrels with Winslet's Best Actress Oscar win. If there's a weak link, it's Ralph Fiennes; the flaw not being in his performance but in the choice of casting him. Fiennes will never go hungry playing thin-lipped and stiff-assed, but doesn't quite line up with David Kross' performance as young Michael Berg. The lesson The Reader imparts might be best summarized by the stripper who once offered the following sage advice to Michael Scott in The Office: "Secret secrets are no fun. Secret secrets hurt someone."

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen The IMAX Experience (**1/2)

June 24, 2009

More than meets the eye. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen says to go ahead and lose the last four words of the previous sentence. More is the operative word here. More robots, more lowbow, backwater "comedy", more forehead-slapping absurdity, and more movie - 157 minutes of mostly nonsensical heavy metal Michael Bayhem. If you liked the first Transformers in 2007 (I did), there's more heaping helpings of everything. Eat up. Ultimately, I would call this super sized junk food meal a bit much to swallow and I'd say the first movie was the better one overall. Still, I continue to have nothing against this franchise. I ask little of Transformers and (to some lament) they deliver above expectations in every regard.

Might as well get the full disclosure out of the way: If I were to break down why I showed up for a second Transformers movie into simple percentages, it would go something like this: 22% giant robots, 78% Megan Fox. There is much more Megan Fox in this sequel, so in that regard, I can't be unhappy with Revenge of the Fallen. I got what I paid for. That percentage breakdown also reflects how the base interests of adult me overwhelm the base interests of 11 year old me who still wants to see Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons. No, I mostly came for the girl, the greatest girlfriend a guy who giant robots from outer space want to murder could ever have.

After opening in 17,000 BC with a riff on 2001 where cavemen in Africa make first contact with the Transformers, Revenge jumps forward to present day. Two years have passed for us and for Sam, Mikaela, Optimus Prime, and the rest. The Autobots have formed an alliance with the soldiers from the first movie and strike against Decepticons hidden across the globe. After laying waste to Shanghai in a fun opening sequence that re-established the badassery of Optimus Prime, we check in with Sam Witwicky, on his way to college without his blazing hot girlfriend or his amazing robot car.

From there, a whole lot of whateveryousayMichaelBay (and some truly horrible, unwatchable "comedy" with Sam's parents) kicks in involving a shard of the Allspark Cube from the first movie downloading alien symbols into Sam's brain, Sam meeting a geek squad in college, sitcom-level misunderstanding about whether Sam is cheating on Mikaela with what turned out was a really hot fembot played by really hot Isabel Lucas, Sam getting captured and operated on by the Decepticons, and a noble sacrifice by Optimus that spins the rest of the story into second gear. This involves the secret of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership (the mere mention of those words in that order can't help but bring forth a little geekgasm), culminating in all-out war at the Pyramids of Giza for the fate of the sun, no less. (Since the beginning of time Decepticons have dreamed of destroying the sun...)

As for Sam's college, I may be mistaken, but it looked suspiciously like Marshal College, the venerable institution where Indiana Jones used to teach archaeology. There was that strong sense of deja vu seeing Mutt Williams in the old stomping grounds, only without his gay Marlon Brando leather and his perpetually combing his ducktail. Even funnier was how the search for the ancient device that could destroy the sun hidden in the Temple of the Primes (whatever) lead them to Petra in Jordan, the very same cave where the Grail Knight guarded the cup of Christ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If the Grail Knight really was there at one point, he's now long gone, and I guess he never noticed the giant robot skeletons hidden behind the fresca on the wall.

What I most enjoyed in the first Transformers was the triangle of the boy, his girl, and his car, which was a robot pledged to protect him as they find themselves in the middle of an alien machine war. Revenge of the Fallen does away with that happy triumvirate for really no good reason. Bumblebee becomes an afterthought, shafted aside for much of the movie, and is instead replaced with a new, whiny, annoying human sidekick for Sam. I never caught his name, but I know I hated him. So did Sam, Mikaela, and John Turturro, back again as the disgraced agent from the first movie. Mikaela also gets a sidekick of sorts in the form of Wheelie, a Decepticon who undergoes a trademark change of heart, decides to become an Autobot (the Autobots themselves are never informed of this), and commemorates his newfound Autobotity by humping Mikaela's leg. (At some point in the last act, Wheelie is forgotten altogether. He doesn't appear in the final battle and is never mentioned again. But who really cares about Wheelie.)

Joining Wheelie as new robot characters are a whole bunch more robots. I caught some of their names. Jetfire shows up as a cantankerous old Autobot coot who needs a walking stick, doles out wheezy exposition, and spent centuries asleep transformed as a stealth fighter plane (no mention of what he hid transformed as in the millennea on Earth before fighter planes were invented.) There was Arcee, the female motorcycle Autobot (although there was a second one of those too; no idea if they were both Arcee). Soundwave was reinvented as a satellite, which makes a whole heap more sense than him as a cassette player like in the cartoon. There's also Rampage, who was renamed from Ravage from the cartoon for no good reason. (No Laserbeak, sadly). The Constructicons (not identified as such or as individuals) show up and merge to form Devastator, the Transformer with the biggest set of testicles (seriously, big brass balls. A worse visual than when Bumblebee peed on a human in the first movie).

One of the major complaints from the fanboys (who care nothing for humans and want a Transformers movie to be about the robots) is that too much time was spent with the humans in the first movie. In Revenge of the Fallen, despite the presence of way more robots, it's even less about them and more about the humans. Most of the Autobots have little to say and are remarkably content to follow along with whatever the human soldiers order them to do. The Decepticons are even worse as there are even more of them and only Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave, and the Fallen have any dialogue or personalities. The many questions we might have about the Transformers' social structures, culture, and the nature of personal interactions (even something as simple as how the Autobots spend their downtime when they're parked as cars in a hangar - are they sleeping?) go unanswered.

The humans complain at one point about how the Autobots have not shared their technology or weaponry, but human tanks and missiles seem to work just fine against the Decepticons. Humans even have a super laser weapon called a Rail Gun that can take out the biggest Decepticon. Meanwhile, Transformers can kill each other by ripping limbs off or stabbing each other, yet Megatron can have half his face ripped off and still be perfectly operational. Some Transformers can be shot several times and die, others withstand getting shot the same amount of times and keep going. There's no explanation behind anything.

The Worst New Characters in Movies award goes to the two twin Autobots who were racist chararicatures of blacks. Everyone remembers the jive-talkin' black Autobot who Megatron ripped in two in the first movie. This time, an even worse black stereotype is shoehorned into a Transformers movie, complete with Buckwheat teeth. Ten years after Jar Jar Binks, sci-fi popcorn blockbuster tentpole movies have set a new low standard. Weesa learned nothing, bombad Michael Bay. I don't know if it's supposed to be a consolation or not that the Twins weren't destroyed by Devastator, but I know I took no solace in their survival.

New human characters include the welcome presence of Glenn Morshower, who played "General Morshower". Why not just rename Sam "Sam LaBeouf" and Mikaela "Mikaela Fox" while they're at it. Or John Turturro's character "John Turturro" because virtually no one in the audience, even after two movies, remembers his character's name is Agent Simmons. There's also a hardass new Secretary of Defense character who wants to kick the Autobots out of America. He claims to represent the President, which it later turns out via news report is Barack Obama. I guess the Autobots' costly, property-destroying incursions in other nations have been giving Barack some real headaches.

Megatron is quickly resurrected (despite how in the first movie, his body was dropped in a trench specifically because the water pressures would crush him - nope, didn't happen) but the first thing he does is fly off to one of Saturn's moons where Starscream has been hiding out in Deception City. Once there, we find Megatron isn't quite the Big Bad we thought he was. No, he's the apprentice of an even Bigger Bad, the Fallen. That's his name, the Fallen. He was named that because he used to be one of the Primes that Optimus is descended from, but he went evil and was kicked out of Primehood by the other Primes, so now he's the Fallen. He seems to be okay with being the Fallen. Trouble is, the Fallen is a big bitch. He just sat around for thousands of years while the other Decepticons did his dirty work. Only a Prime can kill him; when Optimus was killed, the Fallen comes to Earth finally, but he doesn't do anything. Then Optimus comes back to life and promptly kills The Fallen. The Fallen sucks. I don't know what Megatron ever saw in that loser.

Yes, in a page straight out of Transformers: The Movie, Optimus Prime dies. He dies pretty well, heroically fighting off three Decepticons to protect Sam no matter the cost, before Megatron stabs him in the chest. With Optimus Prime out of the movie for well over an hour, Sam's story becomes about finding a way to bring him back. Optimus' eventual resurrection (to light their darkest hour, sort of) was a moment that demanded Stan Bush's "The Touch" playing in the soundtrack, but those of us who are Transformers: The Movie diehards have to settle for playing it in our heads while we watch.

Not content with one major character death and resurrection, Revenge of the Fallen adds a second one, with Sam himself finally killed by Megatron as he tries to get the Autobot Matrix of Leadership to Optimus' robo corpse. This leads to the most emotional moment of the movie (or closest approximation of emotion) where Mikaela finally says the "L word" to bring Sam back to life, paying off their big relationship issue. Listen, those two are made for each other. Sam's affable, manic everyguy charm is perfectly matched by Mikaela's detached, blistering hotness.

The last half hour of Revenge of the Fallen is an all-out battle where thirteen Decepticons descend on the outskirts of Giza and engage in loud, senseless violence with the human/Autobot coalition. By the end of the conflagration, we have no idea what the state of the Decepticons or Autobots are, how many were killed, etc. There's no sense of tactics or strategy, just guns firing, missiles launching, and lots of explosions. While all that's happening, the main plot point is Sam and Mikaela running for miles across the desert, avoiding Decepticons, so that Sam can get the Matrix of Leadership to Optimus. For no good reason, they decide to make this journey on foot instead of riding in Bumblebee. While all that's happening, Devastator is climbing up the Pyramid of Cheops and ripping off whole chunks of it to reveal the Decepticon Sun-Killer Machine. (It's really a rather awesome-looking spectacle in IMAX.) Somehow, no one ever noticed that thing was in the Pyramid. Did the Egyptians know when they built the Pyramid over the machine?

By the time Sam triumphantly stands side by side with Optimus on an aircraft carrier, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen guarantees a third movie in the franchise, if Megatron's breathless "You think it's over? It's not over!" threat can be believed. It seems like if there is a third movie, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox might not necessarily be part of it. Sam's destiny, which was first to find and safeguard the Allspark and later became to find the Matrix of Leadership and resurrect Optimus Prime, has been fullfilled. How much more can the Autobots ask of this kid? In the end, Sam gets settled back in college after his unexplained absence, secure that the world has been saved once again, and that he's in no danger of losing either of the hottest rides on the planet.

When it's all said and done, it's good to be Sam Witwicky.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (***)


Tragic, heartbreaking film about the friendship between a young boy whose father is a Nazi kommandant overseeing a Jewish death camp and a young Jewish boy living in the death camp. Really good performances from David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, and the young actors who played the children. Different and interesting to look at the Nazi side of World War II from the perspective of the moral compromises German families made in the name of Der Fuhrer and the German duty to the cause of the Fatherland. Even a precocious child's innocence has its cost.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Uninvited (**1/2)


Decent American remake of Korean horror film A Tale of Two Sisters, liberally incorporating elements of Hamlet, Fight Club, Girl, Interrupted, and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Worked better than it probably should have because of ripe, appealing leads in Emily Browning and Arielle Kebbel, who share a convincing camraderie. Elizabeth Banks, working against comedic type, plays an effective heavy but David Strathairn is wasted as Browning and Kebbel's distant (disappearing when convenient to the plot) father. The shocking payoff reveals at the end twists what the audience is told to believe but don't seem to entirely add up upon closer inspection.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (*)


Dreary, coated in viscera, for-fans-only prequel steeped in who-honestly-cares Underworld mythology, Rise of the Lycans is also a sweaty, screamy vampire-hearts-werewolf version of Romeo and Juliet. Rhona Mitra, daughter of vampire king Bill Nighy, loves Michael Sheen, the big bad wolf. The doomed lovers live in a questionable period of history where armored vampires live in some sort of mountain cave city surrounded by werewolf-infested forests. Between the loud, bloody battles between vampire and werewolf are loud, boring debates about vampire politics and loud, screaming arguments about vampire family loyalty. Meanwhile the werewolves plot for their interests against the vampires. What's never clear is why a human audience would be interested in any of it.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (**1/2)


Slick, perfectly-all right remake. Engaging thriller about a hostage situation on a NYC subway train is nearly derailed by some cringe-worthy subplots and totally gratuitous car crashes. The NYPD, en route to deliver the ransom money, inexplicably crash a motorcycle into stopped cars and have their money car smashed off a bridge. There was no reason to have the car crashes but the filmmakers probably felt all the radio talk between Denzel Washington and John Travolta wasn't thrilling enough. Didn't care one bit about the hostages, like the Man Who Couldn't Pee or the inane teen lovers' spat via laptop webcam. Denzel's boss started out hating him but that subplot got dropped. Travolta ranted and raved as the heavy but is about as menacing as Vinnie Barbarino. Denzel, my favorite movie star, didn't say "Muh man!" or kiss two fingers and then press them to the camera so that was disappointing. At least he remembered to bring home the gallon of milk so he wouldn't get an earful from the wife.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Son of Rambow (***)


Strange, bittersweet, fun little movie set in the mid-80's about two young English boys bonding as they make a homemade film inspired by First Blood. Both children come from troubled homes: Will, escaping to fantasy from a strict religious upbringing, and Lee, lashing out from absentee parents and an indifferent older brother. Both boys find freedom and exhilaration in their dreams (and dangerously reckless stunts) of making a movie. Really good 80's New Wave soundtrack used effectively. Not at the level of Danny Boyle's Millions, but curiously enjoyable and well-made, with touching performances by the two lead boys. The Son of Rambow movie they made wasn't too bad either for a couple of pre-teens. I'd say it was better than the last three M. Night Shyamalan movies.

Into the Storm (***)


Into the Storm is as classy and staid a piece of TV movie historical fiction as there ever was. Excellent performances all around, lead by Brendan Gleeson chomping at the bit as the old British Bulldog Winston Churchill. Immersive production values beautifully recreate Great Britain and other locales circa 1940-1945. Convincing makeup and performances by Aleksei Petrenko as Stalin and Len Cariou as FDR made their scenes with Churchill the most compelling of the picture. The largely un-reciprocated admiration Churchill held for Roosevelt and their mutual distrust of Uncle Joe Stalin were major themes that was handled particularly well. It's unfortunate that Into The Storm's running time presents a Cliff's Notes version of World War II from Churchill and England's perspective. History would have been better served if Into the Storm were a multi-part mini series. Enjoyed Into the Storm more than its predecessor The Gathering Storm overall, but I wonder if history actually records Winston Churchill gave Franklin Delano Roosevent a full monty?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Last Legion (*)


Even worse than expected, The Last Legion plays fast and loose not with actual history, but with the pseudo-history borrowed from other bad movies to create a patchwork quilt of bullshit. Follow along: In 480 AD, the last Caesar, a boy named Romulus Augustus Caesar (sure), watches Rome fall to the Goths, and is charged by his wizard mentor Ambrosinus, who it turns out is Merlin (of course), to find the sword forged for Julius Caesar, which turns out to be Excalibur (no kidding). Romulus, guarded by his loyal band of interchangable, stock Roman legionnaires and a hot Saracen chick, then head to Britannia to hang out at Hadrian's Wall and swipe from the King Arthur movie that came out a few years ago. All of that tripe can be swallowed if the movie were well-made and entertaining. The Last Legion has an abominable script with every character spouting blunt exposition and insipid one-liners, horrible direction, and schlock action edited so that you'll just have to take their word that whatever happened happened. The too-good for this cast, including Ben Kingsley, Colin Firth, and Kevin McKidd have good cause to fire their agents.

28 Weeks Later (*1/2)


Despite an excellent opening sequence, the chilling imagery of empty London post-zombie infection, and an intriguing setup of the US Military slowly repopulating London with ex-pats, 28 Weeks Later quickly falls apart from a story and logic perspective. The first 20 minutes of the picture are actually worth seeing, until the two kids discover their zombie mother, then the Idiot Plot kicks in full-charge. Characters behave in the stupidest manner possible in order to enable a new zombie outbreak, then the rest of the picture is run run run from the running zombies! The US military, despite being specially deployed and equipped to deal with the zombies, get buttfucked by the zombies in near-record time. The talents of Idris Elba, Rose Byrne, and Harold Perrineau are largely wasted. Meanwhile, Robert Carlyle as big bad daddy zombie seems to know what his kids will do before they even do it. The truly fantastic soundtrack by John Murphy is worth owning. The main lesson to be learned from 28 Weeks Later: Don't make out with your zombie wife. You turn into a zombie.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (*1/2)


Don't you hate pants?!

Because I'll watch anything if it's on HD cable (Blake Lively being in it doesn't hurt.) Excruciating sequel about four BFFs who don't seem to like each other or themselves very much. When not yelling at each other while in each others' presence, each girl goes off to have her own generic subplot including pregnancy scares, parental abandonment issues, and copious heapings of general bitchiness. They all struggle and fail to find meaning or happiness in what to the casual observer would seem like otherwise ideal situations, until reuniting in Santorini and jumping off a cliff magically solves all their petty little dilemmas. America Ferrera is incredibly unpleasant here, scowling at everyone with an enormous chip on her shoulder. Meanwhile, Amber Tamblyn is determined to wrest the crown of Queen of the Harpies from Ferrara. The other two, Alexis Bledel and Blake Lively, sure are pretty, especially Lively with the hair and the boobs (xoxo). The magical pair of jeans themselves are an afterthought. My theory is the pants were actually trying to get away from these broads.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Defiance (***)


A cross between Schindler's List and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Defiance is the true story of the battlin' brothers Bielski. They saved the lives of 1200 Russian Jews by shepherding them out of the ghettos, outlasting the Nazis for years in the forests. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell play the three Bielski brothers. Everything they do, they do it for Jews. When Craig romances Alexa Davalos in the forests, I half expected to hear the Bryan Adams song. Joking aside, Defiance's screenplay feels sloppy and unfinished. Numerous times, subjects are pointedly mentioned, telegraphed, and then hammered home immediately: Pregnancy is forbidden in the camp, so a character quickly is discovered to be pregnant. An elderly scholar teaches the children in the camp the story of Moses - right before the camp is attacked by Nazis and Daniel Craig has literally act like Moses and lead the survivors across the Red Sea/green swamp. The conflicts and changes of heart of the main characters are so predictable, at one crucial point Schreiber might as well have looked right at the camera and announced he would save the day right when he's needed the most. Though earnest and well-meaning, Defiance looks and feels like a TV movie that just happens to star James Bond and Sabretooth.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Hangover (***1/2)


The Vegas movie for everyone who's grown tired of the ultra cool Ocean's Eleven crew breaking every bank on the Strip. The biggest surprises were the coherent story that held the Vegas gags together and how likable and relatable the four leads were. Bradley Cooper's reaction shots to everything Zach Galifianakis said and did were especially funny. The Hangover is a hilarious all-inclusive checklist of everything a gang of buddies would and wouldn't want to happen during a Vegas bachelor party: Marry a stripper, wrangle a tiger (no). Hang out with Mike Tyson (yes). And yet The Hangover surprises with a very nice message about friendship and loyalty between the four leads. The picture slideshow over the credits filling in the blanks of what actually happened that night were worth the price of admission on their own.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Queen of the Damned (*)


The Vampire Lestat awakens from his coffin and decides to conquer the world as a douchey goth vampire rock star. Somehow, Lestat's douchy goth vampire rock music awakens Akasha, the Queen of the Vampires (or something) and she decides to make sweet undead music with Lestat. The douchey goth humans in the movie decide this isn't a good thing and try to stop them in a conclusive confrontation where I didn't understand what the hell was going on. Or give a damn. As long as the movie ended. Stuart Townsend made me miss Tom Cruise in his poofy blond wig but the late Aaliyah was pretty hot slinking around in her vampire getup.

30 Days of Night (*)


Shitty. Vampire violence descends upon an isolated Alaska town in the middle of their month-long night. It's the opposite of the circumstances of Insomnia starring Al Pacino, except with vampires instead of Robin Williams. The latter is more terrifying, though not as soaked in viscera. Danny Huston, a great actor, slums it as the head vampire while Ben Foster plays the exact same nutjob he played in 3:10 to Yuma and no one seemed to notice. Here's a fun exercise: count the number of times you can actually see squinty Josh Hartnett's eyeballs during the movie. (It's like counting sheep and you go right to sleep. It works. Try it. Spare yourself having to watch the whole movie.)