Monday, June 29, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Grade: F
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Kevin Dunn
Director: Michael Bay

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – A racist (boom) sexist (blam) piece of juvenile paraphenalia (whhhhhhhhhh-puuuuuuu) mixed with explosions (mushroom cloud). Eight-year-olds in schoolyards will hold detailed and meaningful discussions about why the film is so unrealistic. Even the action, choppy and shot far too close in, is poorly done. When the 40-foot racist caricatures show up, just hope by then you’re too numb to care. Sure an evil Transformer plot to explode the sun sounds terrible. But if it takes all copies of this thing with it …..

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Whatever Works

Whatever Works [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr.
Director: Woody Allen

Whenever a new Woody Allen film arrives, I meet it with a certain discomfort.

No matter how eloquently or ineloquently he handles his favorite ongoing theme –the role of chance, fate, luck in the universe –you know it is a 90-minute attempt to escape culpability for that most infamous romantic episode in his life. What? Leave my partner for her teenage daughter? It’s just random chance. Woody Allen, victim of the Cosmos.

If this is so true, if it is all such a random act of blameless chance, then why feel so guilty and defensive about it? Why make movie after movie about something that happened 20 years ago? To convince others you’re right? Or because you can’t convince yourself? I mean, you’re not the first artist with an eccentric sex life. Occasionally Edgar Allan Poe wrote things that weren’t about his 13-year-old cousin.

Even if Allen returns obviously and directly to this situation with Whatever Works, featuring a May-December romance between the balding Larry David and the perky teen with the lousy southern accent Evan Rachel Wood, it works because its’ the funniest Allen film in years. For once, Allen lovers won’t need to twist themselves into mental Pilates to find reasons to praise it.

Whatever Works refers to tangled farcical trysts that develop among its characters – primarily Boris Yelnitkov, a genius physicist with a mean mouth and a suicidal streak and the young Mississippi belle with more spunk than intellect. He fills up her bubble brain with string theory and pessimism. She cooks, cleans and exudes sunshine. He lets her in on the secrets of the universe. She gives him a reason to enjoy life. Soon their world extends to her repressed mother, a hunky Australian actor and a few other random figures.

The film plays off of two films from the sixties – My Fair Lady, in which professor Henry Higgins turns a street urchin Audrey Hepburn into a proper lady; and Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, with the lively Anna Karina teaching the overly serious poet about living life rather than overthinking it. I’ve never thought about comparing those films. There’s something to do on a lonely Sunday.

Whatever Works has Allen’s sharpest wit in ages. He lightens the touch with his self-martyrdom, handles the Allen surrogate more honestly than usual, and even questions the whole chance thing. He’s helped tremendously by David’s perfect deadpan delivery and the upgrade that Wood represents over Scarlett Johansson. In fact in its intellect, its positive female presence, and its interest in films past, it serves as an antidote to much of the “comedy” that exists today.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, Luis Guzman, James Gandolfini
Director: Tony Scott

There are two going theories about Tony Scott.

The first is that he’s the world’s most offensive hack action director, polluting the cinema with shallow flash and dismal MTV tendencies only to produce generic action drivel. The second view – held by approximately nine of us, warmed at night only by the virtue of being right – is that Scott has evolved into a classical auteur, a director who uses the dominant studio visual language of his age to express his artistry.

In the latter view, two of his last three films (Man on Fire, Domino, Déjà Vu) are unfairly condemned acts of genius (although the nine of us never agree which two). This theory mainly leads to Internet message board clashes, usually ending in intense disagreements over whether the brilliantly anarchic Domino is a misunderstood masterpiece or completely unwatchable.

So take the police motorcade from Scott’s re-make of the seventies Walter Matthau thriller The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. A police car and eight motorbikes hustle through traffic as they carry millions of dollars in ransom money. Scott unleashes a series of unfortunate collisions upon these dutiful public servants. Is he engaging in action scene overkill? Or is he satirizing the movie motorcade that never seems to have trouble zipping through traffic? Or is he toying with time and chance, as he seems to be doing at other points in the film?

I could be wrong, but I don’t expect this film to settle the enigma of Tony Scott. While it toys with some of the themes he has been exploring in recent films – time, chance, cultural dystrophy, technologically fractured perspectives – it seems much more straightforward than his most recent work. It doesn’t share the intensity of Man On Fire or Domino. It’s even drowsy at times, although it’s quite involving at others. Worst of all, Luis Guzman never takes off his hat and shades to reveal his beautiful face.

It does have Scott’s muse, Denzel Washington, in an affecting square-off with super-baddie John Travolta, who has hijacked a subway train and stranded it in the middle of a dark tunnel, setting off an old-fashioned New York hostage crisis. Washington plays Walter Garber, a train dispatcher who becomes the go-between for Ryder and the police. Travolta’s Ryder wants $10 million in an hour or he starts shooting the hostages one by one.

Perhaps the best way to look at the film isn’t through its 1974 predecessor but through Scott’s Man on Fire, also written by Brian Helgeland. In that film, Mexico City is a patina of Catholic order stretched over a boiling cauldron of lethal, frolicking Bacchanalian mischief. Yet even that disorder has an effective but repugnant rational system buried underneath it. Scott and Helgeland have embodied that dynamic entirely into this villain. Ruling the underworld, Travolta’s fallen angel keeps a cross stud in his ear, screams like a madman, but ultimately has carved out his own ingenious system toward personal enrichment.

On the other side, like Mexico City, the façade of order in the Big Apple is retreating. Rather than being a rock of leadership in a crisis, the lame-duck mayor performs like a senior ditching class in his last semester. Garber, a Catholic himself, has worked his way up from a train driver to the executive suite. Now he’s falling back to earth in a bribery scandal. He could become a hero not by inherent virtue but luck of the draw.

Man on Fire is also a film about fractured perspectives and subjectivity. Pelham likewise. Everyone can see a bit of the picture, but no one sees the whole. The villains are in total command in their own capsule but look out upon only lurking darkness. Snipers see their targets but not the hostages. Garber is involved via computers and technology, but cannot see the real thing. For Scott, cameras and computer screens function toward reality in ways like mirrors have functioned toward characters in classical cinema – as indicators of division. The technology allows us to commune around an event but also forces us into a distorted fragments of its reality. It lets us see the elephant but only feel the tail.

Despite my admiration of its elements and a generally favorable opinion, Pelham doesn’t quite measures up to Scott’s best recent work. Man on Fire is a modern version of The Searchers. Déjà Vu, some think, is a technological update on Vertigo. Domino is …. well, Domino is pretty much its own indescribable thing. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is ultimately an update of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a sturdy New York thriller of its time, but not quite a classic. But it at least lets me continue to wear my “Tony’s the auteur, Ridley’s the hack.” T-shirt with pride.

Imagine That

Imagine That [G]
Grade: C
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Yara Shahidi, Thomas Haden Church, Nicole Ari Parker, Ice Cube, Martin Sheen
Director: Kasey Kilpatrick

It’s always a bad thing to start a movie with your face in your palm.

That was where things were firmly planted after the first scene of Imagine That, Eddie Murphy’s latest venture into family fare. As Murphy gets tossed out of a front door – by Ice Cube no less –,he goes bug-eyed and starts crying out for his blankey. Promising stuff.

That sound you hear at that moment is critics going white-knuckle on the cupholders bracing for another Norbit or Meet Dave. So it’s a bit of a positive testament that when the scene recurs later, the film has won you over enough that the scene is at least a flyspeck funny. While never overwhelmingly successful, Imagine That ends up as semi-tolerable family fare.

Kids films should be sweet, moving. funny and joyous. They shouldn’t be sappy, cynical, overly corny, or feature letters that spell “school” with a backwards “k,” scratched out by a production assistant over lunch break. Most of all, the story should be empowering. The kids world should outsmart and overpower the adult world that surrounds it.

In that category, Imagine That does well. Murphy’s Evan Danielson is a top stock analyst with little time for his young daughter Olivia (super-cute Yara Shahidi) from his failed marriage. She has retreated into a Linus-like obsession with her security blanket. After she spins around with it on her head, it takes her to a secret kingdom with her imaginary friends. As it turns out these imaginary friends like to share excellent stock tips, but only in childish gibberish. Stock tips that turn Evan into the star of the company.

Will children warm to a movie about stock tips? I don’t know. I don’t know many dads and daughters who bond over stock tips, but whatever works. Soon, the previously inattentive father is spinning around with a blanket on his head and talking to dragons. At work, he gives out financial tips in little girl language. That is either a step up or a step down from his over-the-top Indian office rival (Thomas Haden Church), who gets his stock tips at night from conversations with the “Dream Sparrow.”

The knives are out for Murphy, so you can expect harsh reviews. But this is hardly a worthy target. It’s inoffensive. It’s cute where it should be cute. Sweet where it should be sweet. Funny from time to time. Only steps in doo-doo once. And Murphy and Shahidi have good rapport. I wouldn’t watch it again. But I can’t find horrible things to say about it, either.

Friday, June 5, 2009

About The Hangover:

I miss the days when comedies were real films made by ambitious young directors with wit, skill and vision, where the cinematographer worked with the director to create a unique world, rather than just making sure that the penises stay in focus.

The Hangover

The Hangover [R]
Grade: D
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Heather Graham.
Director: Todd Philips

The Hangover opens from the desert around Las Vegas. A man bleeds from his lip as he speaks into his cell phone. He instructs a faraway bride to hang up her bridal gown. She’s not going to need it. They don't know where the groom has vanished.

This edgy scene suggests that if you eat to the center of this comedy, you will find a secret of darkest cherry – something bleak and probably a little depraved. The fact that The Hangover delivers nothing so tasty or devilish is its great misgiving.

It's our popular fantasy that Las Vegas beckons a sort of madness even within our most sedate personalities. The most accountant-y of accountants might for one night lose his mind. This seduction myth fuels The Hangover, as four friends head to Sin City for one last rodeo before one of them plunges into marriage.

The nice-guy groom Doug (Justin Bartha) is out for the traditional last blast, but in for a most untraditional one. The wiseguy teacher (Bradley Cooper) craves a long, refreshing party. Stu (Ed Helms), the neurotic dentist, needs an escape from his henpecking girlfriend for a few days. Then we have the maladjusted Alan (Zach Galifianakis), a shaggy-bearded chaos generator. Every time a scene needs saving (or killing), he can be counted on to drop his pants. Or say something weird. Or show off the dietary habits of a goat.

The friends wake up the next morning to a trashed Caesar Palace suite, completely wasted, without a shred of memory about, for example, how the live tiger got locked in the bathroom. And quicker than you can say Steve Guttenberg, they find a baby in the closet, its origin and purpose a total mystery. The dentist is missing a tooth, but that’s not all that is missing. The groom has disappeared without the benefit of a scream. For the next two days, the men struggle to stitch together their crazy night and save their missing friend from the neon clutches of Vegas.
If The Hangover had been made ten years ago, it might have been an indie directed with the offbeat spirit of a Doug Liman trip. Instead, it concedes too much of its touch of zaniness to its desire for a mass audience. Rather than ride along through the realm of the outrageous or profane, the film is left rubbing its eyes and piecing together the predictable. Sure, it might still be insane if a guy from your office capped off a drunken Vegas adventure by marrying a stripper. But it isn't exactly a storytelling novelty.

I’ll concede that the tiger caper, including the beast’s celebrity ownership, is one blind-squirrel instance of getting things right. But too much dangles. In a wild comedy, a drunken hospital visit should end with something weird pulled out of someplace weird, not a mild case of bruised ribs.

And why recycle the plot of Three Men and a Baby, only to surrender it without a punchline? Was there nothing different to do with the warmhearted stripper (an unaging Heather Graham)? Could you make her a graduate student paying her tuition, with the brains and sass to give the film a female perspective? The three female characters are a pole dancer, a fed-up bride, and a hellcat girlfriend. Like all modern male comedies, this one is coated in sexism.

Director Todd Phillips loves frat boy bonhomie. His cult hit Old School has taken up its spot in the Animal House pantheon. It would be wonderful to say that The Hangover captures that feeling of male bonding and ritualism, but it really doesn’t. From a friendship perspective, these guys all take their own separate cabs. If the search for a missing pal seems like an annoying distraction from a comedy routine for the men involved, why should it matter to the audience?

The Hangover goes to a great amount of effort to be almost-but-not quite funny. There are six or seven golden laughs, served with a fair side of smiles. No pain was involved. You won't need aspirin or menudo the next morning. Yet if it were not for this era of all-bromance-all-the-time, I'm not sure that it ever would have been made.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Up [G]
Grade: B
Cast: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai
Director: Pete Docter

While watching the latest Pixar animated feature Up, it doesn’t take long to embark on one of the sweetest montage sequences you’ll ever see.

In a matter of a few animated minutes, we watch Charles Frederickson age from a young boy through the entire thick-and-thin span of a marriage. It’s sweet, and it’s bittersweet, and it is full of the small, gentle things. Then he is an old man.

It’s a lovely, lovely sequence radiating the power of animation. If you’ve ever wondered about the bizarre human instinct for storytelling – why we have such a real emotional response from something we know is pretend – that feeling must stand in triplicate for Mickey Mouse and friends. How does a wholly imaginary image affect us as if it were flesh and blood? (It also should bolster the thoughts of those who after Wall-E believe all Pixar personnel sit around watching Stanley Kubrick all day. It shares a touch of the Dave Bowman aging sequence at the end of 2001.).

Up is an old-man’s adventure largely free of cynicism. The montage evolves and humanizes our elderly hero, bringing an emotional appeal to his curmudgeonly self. Even its get off my lawn moments are dabbed in generosity.

As a child, Charles (voiced by Ed Asner) falls in love with flying. From the magic of newsreels, he takes on an aviator hero. The explorer disappears into the jungles of South America at a spot called Paradise Falls.

Flight also becomes the path to his heart. He falls in love, and later marries, a girl who is just as passionate about the wild blue yonder. They plan to one day visit the Falls themselves. Decades later, with bulldozers on the doorstep of his house, he finally decides to make the trip. His flight plan – attach thousands of birthday balloons to the top of his house and float away.

The curmudgeon is accidentally joined by the stowaway Russell, a dim but lovable 11-year-old who is a member of an organization called Wilderness Scouts. On the trail to the Falls, they share adventures with a giant popsicle-colored bird and a dog who can talk from a device on his collar.
It’s hard to say you had a problem with a movie’s talking dogs. But there are about three talking dogs too many. One dog ends up with the voice of Alvin the Chipmunk. It breaks the spell, changing the tone from sweetness to ironic posturing. The other error is tacking on an unneeded final action caper. By then, the film has already ended emotionally. However, these are minor blemishes for one of the more human films that you will see this year.

The unsurprising quality of the animation is instantly clear. Marvel at the realness of the spotlight falling from a dirigible. Or enjoy how a newsreel sequence seems just like an archived newsreel but one covering the lives of cartoon characters. This is part of the Pixar appeal. Often their films do not feel like they have been “drawn” by human beings. They feel like films that come from the planet where the animated people live.

When I say Up is my favorite recent Pixar film, it might not carry the same weight as if it were coming from other smitten critics. Ratatouille left me cold. Perhaps I still feel bitter about the Plague. One day I expect to ask the same sort of questions about the political trendiness of Wall-E that I ask about Star Trek IV: What were we saving the whales from, again? But I do mean to pay Up a high compliment. And it is hard to imagine anyone having anything but a good time.

Terminator Salvation

Terminator: Salvation[PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: McG

It’s a shame when a movie series hits the point where only this question is left. Terminator: Salvation is the equivalent of which Planet of the Apes?

No, I’m seriously asking. I really don’t have my Planet of the Apes straight. But T:S would be the one where the series finally collapses under the weight of its premise and only targets the devoted fans, the ones who really give a darn about an apocalyptic finale.

There comes a sad moment in every series where things have worn out their welcome. By the fourth film, we expect the premise to be tired. What disappoints most about Salvation is that its action is tired, too. For instance, a scene we’ll call “The Attack of the Forty-Foot Terminator” starts in terror, then turns to a long, listless chase, and creeks to a slow end in a showdown between a real tow truck and a few flying computer images. In this film, there are guns, robots, motorcycles, warplanes. Plenty of firepower, but not nearly enough excitement.

Terminator Salvation is an inverse of the Terminator formula found in the series’ previous three films, meaning a man comes from the future to protect a figure in the past. This time a person from the past, a death row inmate named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), mysteriously appears in the series’ apocalyptic future. He’s come for a reason, to find certain people, but he doesn’t quite know why.

That future is the one we know from the previous films, with a genocidal, post-nuclear war between the last humans and “the machines,” an army of robotic terminators roaming the wastelands of cities at the command of the evil supercomputer Skynet. The human leader in spirit is a grownup John Connor, who believes he has found a way to finish the robots end the war. But before he can finish off the terminators, he must overcome a ruthless series of contrivances and characters making ludicrous decisions.

So first things first – if you had “method acting,” you win. I know that I had that as the reason for Christian Bale’s infamous onset blowup. In this film, Bale generally acts like you just woke your father up early on Sunday morning. I think the world of Bale, but his intensity comes across as overacting here. I’ll paraphrase what Mick LaSalle had to say in his San Francisco Chronicle review: at some point Bale will have to choose between being Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage. I agree, and that moment is fast arriving.

Would McG take quite so much McGuff if he did not call himself McG? It takes the talent of a Prince to pull off such a name. Strangely, McG fights against his reputation for a wasp-wing editing style. Several times, he composes action scenes in long takes. A weird transition, but not particularly successful. The scenes come across as aesthetic rather than vital.

McG also has a reputation for using a referential cinema, in which many scenes have precedents in other films. It’s a little like watching a Brian DePalma movie and trying to sort through all of the allusions. We have stuff from The Great Escape and, using Worthington’s Mel Gibson resemblance, The Road Warrior. Is that stealing? You decide. But it definitely does not save the movie.