Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Transformers (2007, Michael Bay)

Michael Bay movies are like race cars- they're sleek and loud, and every spare inch of surface area is devoted to selling you something. It's not just that this is a movie based on a series of toys. Bay is a commercial veteran, and while you can take Bay out of the commercial, you can't take the commercial out of Bay. As a result, TRANSFORMERS mostly feels like a 2 1/2 hour advertisement- Hasbro, GM, Nokia, the U.S. Military, Dance Dance Revolution, and a little kid waiting for the Tooth Fairy are all shot for maximum selling power. And as with any commercial, this one is chock full of babes- aside from the hero's mom and Anthony Anderson's grandma, I'm not sure I remember a single actress with a speaking role who doesn't look like she stepped out of the pages of Maxim. Of course, I don't think I'd be complaining about all of this if the movie worked, but it really doesn't. The first half of the movie has some of the charm of a Spielberg-lite boy-and-pet robot adventure (if nothing else, Shia LaBoeuf justifies his recent hype), although with doofy Bay humor- LaBoeuf riding a pink girl's bike, lines like "I want to ride you, er, drive you home," the business with the dad's lawn, and so on. But the big action stuff, frankly, sucks. There's no coherence or spatial dynamics in these scenes at all, especially when the Transformers are fighting. Heck, Bay's famously-antic editing style is so omnipresent here that the film never even affords us a good long look at the Transformers, which might afford us a good chance to enjoy the fruits of the FX teams' labors (compare to something like STARSHIP TROOPERS, which gave us some nice long shots of the giant bugs). Bay shoots his action scenes using a whole mess of whip pans and perspective shots and shakycam closeups, so that it's hard to make out what's happening outside of "OK, they're fighting." This would be OK if there were two humans engaged in hand-to-hand combat, since we've seen the human body so many times that it's easy to figure which body part is which in closeup. But since the Transformers aren't just robots but robots that have been reconfigured from automobiles, these shots become little more than metal grinding against metal. And these scenes drag on FOREVER. By the end of the movie, we're back in advertising mode, with porny-pouty ingenue Megan Fox making out with LaBoeuf on the hood of his pet Camaro named Bumblebee, and Optimus Prime standing on a hill overlooking an all-American vista (I half expected the voiceover to contain the line: "I'm Optimus Prime, and I approved this message"). Let it not be said that TRANSFORMERS is not the ultimate Michael Bay vehicle, playing to all of his fetishes and (for lack of a better word) his strengths. But while I recognize the skill and care that have gone into this movie, they aren't my cup of tea. We may very well be living in a Michael Bay world, but I don't have to like it. Rating: 3 out of 10.

The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel Coen)

Funny how most viewers and even critics simply shrug off the fact that Lebowski is stuck in the 60s, because honestly, I think the fish-out-of-water formula is the key to why this movie works so well. The unreformed hippie meets up with a Raymond Chandler plot- this is more or less The Big Sleep, with some Coen-style wrinkles added- and nothing quite turns out as it should. Whereas Marlowe's efforts, intentional or accidental, usually bring him closer to the truth, The Dude keeps running into dead ends and slammed doors. Is it simply that he's listless, or is it the more confounding world he lives in? It's both, really. Not only is The Dude out of place in the plot, but the plot is strangely out of place in near-contemporary L.A. But while the storyline never pans out in a satisfying way, that's the point (Sam Elliott's wrap-it-all-up final monologue is the final, ironic nail in the coffin if you're paying attention). But while the story and the setting don't quite mesh, The Dude fits in perfectly, one of those only-in-L.A. types that populate the world of the film. This is not the cops'n'robbers L.A. of detective fiction, but a circus of humanity in which The Dude can co-exist with a rich-bitch artist, a yammering millionaire, a body-stockinged pederast, a sarsaparilla swilling cowboy, and John Milius as a security store owner. Rating: ***1/2.

The Face of Another (1966, Hiroshi Teshigahara)

As with Teshigahara's masterpiece Woman in the Dunes, it'll take more than one viewing for me to be able to satisfactorily explain this film's effect on me. Based on the synopsis, I expected this to be a mood piece like Eyes Without a Face, but it comes across more as a Tod Browning/Lon Chaney film with added dissonance (Takemitsu rules!). From the opening moments, it's clear that the unseen incident that caused the protagonist's disfigurement cut him more deeply than any cosmetic procedure could ever hope to cure, and part of the charge of the final scenes is how inevitable they all were from the get-go. I also found the story's use of the other disfigured woman to be interesting, especially given how sharply she contrasts with the protagonist- his injury was partly his fault while hers was, we gather, due to the A-bomb; likewise, he goes to great lengths to cover his face, while the most she does is comb her hair down over it, and so on. I'd complain about the over-literariness of the idea of the conflict between our antihero and his new face if I thought Teshigahara and writer Kobo Abe meant it to be taken at face value, but it goes deeper than that, to issues of identity and the responsibility that comes with it. And what to make of the hallucinatory mise-en-scene in the director's office? Rating: ***1/2.

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964, Billy Wilder)

Wilder's late-period farce is sinfully fun, and not just because it got condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. One of Wilder's biggest assets was his understanding that placing characters at cross purposes is positively ripe with comedic potential. And so it is here, as Ray Walston's Orville Spooner is so at war with his impulses- his jealousy over his wife Zelda, his desire to make it as a songwriter, etc.- that he ends up painting himself into the proverbial corner, and half the fun of the film is watching him trying to get out. But if he's the comedic crux of the film, Kim Novak's Polly is its heart. On the surface, the character seems like your garden variety tart-with-a-heart, but Novak gives the character a touching vulnerability, with her head cold and her attempts at domesticity. One of the most magical moments in the film comes when Orville realizes that he genuinely cares about Polly as well- not as a husband or a lover, so much as a protector of the honor she mostly lost years ago. The film isn't so much an flat-out farce a la ONE, TWO, THREE as a classic comedy of remarriage, but what sets it apart is that both husband and wife end up getting their hands dirty before coming back together (more so in the European version than in the American). SPOILER: The film's title ends up doubling as its final line of dialogue, and one that takes on a poignant meaning in light of what has come before. Zelda says more in three simple words than she could in a long and teary-eyed soliloquy- "OK, honey, we both fucked up. You put me in a terrible spot and I didn't exactly act like a saint when I was in that spot. But I know that your mistake came from a place of love, and even if I had some selfish reasons for what I did, I also did it to help you. And it worked. But it won't mean anything unless we can forgive each other. And to do that we have to put it behind us, accept the past, and above all stop worrying so damn much about the impossible perfection we want from our marriage. So..." Also, Dean Martin is nothing if not a good sport here, and if his role is more as a plot device than an emotional anchor for the film, he nonetheless plays the part impeccably. Rating: ***1/2.

Day Night Day Night (2006, Julia Loktev)

This is the film I hoped PARADISE NOW would be- no ideological discussions or hand-wringing, but a portrait of the last days of a suicide bomber. But we shouldn't mistake this for pure realism- with a few exceptions, Loktev sticks to her heroine, played by Luisa Williams, using the camerawork and the exaggerated sound scheme (kudos to Leslie Shatz) to suggest a first-person experience. The film is divided into three clear acts- the protagonist arriving in town and waiting to be contact, the preparations for her operation, and finally her being turned loose to go through with the plan. The first two acts have a certain fascination, as Loktev observes the goings-on in detail, and Williams' performance really sells it- she's not a zealot or even a lamb being led to slaughter, but simply a girl who is fully committed to what she is about to do. But the film really takes off in the third act, in which Williams is practically the only character of note. As she wanders around in Times Square looking for the ideal moment to carry out her task, the film becomes almost unbearably tense. The emotional turmoil manifests itself on Williams' face- the fear she'll be caught, the last-minute misgivings about her task, her unwillingness to end her life. SPOILER: And when she finally does decide to blow herself up, it turns out that the device doesn't work. Some reviewers have complained about this, but frankly I thought it took the film to another, more existential level. Before this, she knew she was going to die, and she knew more or less when. She was prepared for every eventuality except for this one. So instead of blowing herself up- which she was fully ready to do- she's now alone in New York, wandering around with an undetonated explosive strapped to her back. She can't tell the police, and she can't contact her handlers. By the time Williams sits down on the sidewalk, whispering "why don't you want me?" to God or whoever she's doing this for, DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT has turned into a film about limbo, and as a result it's one of the loneliest films I've seen in a long, long time. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007, David Yates)

After the perfunctory feel of GOBLET OF FIRE, the franchise finds itself back on solid ground with its fifth entry. Due credit should be given series newbies David Yates as director and Michael Goldenberg as screenwriter for distilling one of the longer Potter novels into a fairly satisfying 2 1/2 hours- whereas GOBLET felt almost like a highlight reel in its storytelling, this film fairly successfully boils down to feature length. Likewise, the supporting characters get more time to make an impression this time out. Best in show is chirpy little terror Dolores Umbridge, played by Imelda Staunton, as much of a pink lover as Elle in LEGALLY BLONDE, but with a positively Rumsfeldian heart. Plus it's nice to see Oldman, Thewlis, Smith and especially the priceless Alan Rickman back on their game this time after being skimmed over in the last installment. That said, the series suffers as ever from a workmanlike feel, the better to court both Potter-philes and non-reading moviegoers. Even the installment directed by Cuaron (the only true artist to helm a Potter film so far) hasn't gotten over this hump. In addition, the story is too dependent on last-second entrances and coincidences to be really effective in a narrative sense- I know these are magical folk, but come on. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Hairspray (2007, Adam Shankman)

Easily the best Hollywood musical I've seen since the otherwise completely different MOULIN ROUGE! A lot of this has to do with the relative lack of LET! US! ENTERTAIN! YOU! direction, which worked in ROUGE since it was such an oddball, but gets tiresome in stuff like DREAMGIRLS or CHICAGO. By contrast, HAIRSPRAY is more in the spirit of classic Hollywood, lighter on the pyrotechnics and much heavier on the dancing than most of its contemporaries. I also liked the relative innocence of the narrative- this isn't the wink-wink nostalgia trip of GREASE, but a timewarp back to a mindset of the early sixties. Some of the harder (weirder) edges have been sanded off the John Waters original in translation- there's no Pia Zadora reading "Howl" this time out- but much of the naughtiness manifests itself instead in the sexed-up dance moves of lead newcomer Nikki Blonsky, a plus-sized dynamo possessed of an infectious energy. Unexpectedly, I also enjoyed John Travolta in drag- his performance is distracting at first, given that it's both heavily stylized and unmistakably Travolta-esque, but once Edna begins coming out of her shell, Travolta's performance feels less fussy and more fanciful. Plus it's nice to see him dancing again as something more than just a gimmick (Christopher Walken, as her husband, is a joy as well). As for the rest of the cast, top marks go to Elijah Kelley, who's got a smooth voice and dance moves to spare, and surprisingly, James Marsden as the ever-smiling Corny Collins. Some of the supporting characters are too sketchy to be very interesting- Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) is more a symbol than anything, and Aryan stage-mother-and-daughter terrors Michelle Pfeiffer and Brittany Snow are broadly-drawn villainess cariactures. Also, the portrayal of the civil rights movement in Baltimore '62 is simplistic- not so much the marching and the protests, but the quickness with which integration is embraced by the viewing audience. But then, we don't come to HAIRSPRAY expecting MALCOLM X, do we? As an entertainment, it's fairly irresistible, reminding us of the pleasures only a good musical can provide. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Eureka (1983, Nicolas Roeg)

The party line seems to be that Roeg tailed off once the eighties hit, which probably explains why despite my love for his 70s work, I'm only now getting to the stuff that followed. The film never quite lives up to the operating opening section, complete with a river of gold that erupts from the ground to the strains of Wagner's Overture to Das Rheingold. As with THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, Roeg's previous collaboration with screenwriter Paul Mayersburg, EUREKA is the story of a man who gained the whole world only to lose his soul. But while its predecessor was distinguished by its innovative style and unexpected characters, this film treads a more worn narrative path. As such, it lacks Roeg's usual mastery of tone, and consequently only really comes alive during the scenes of heightened emotion. Thankfully, the film's three principals- Gene Hackman, Theresa Russell, and Rutger Hauer- are up to the task. Hauer in particular is a marvel, especially during the scene where he destroys a party after learning his mother has died. His talent and magnetism serves as a reminder of what a magical actor he can be, despite being mired in dreck most of his career (come to think, you could say much the same of Russell). The film becomes a kind of magnificent folly in the final act, following an brutal, protracted murder scene. By the time Russell takes the witness stand to be interrogated by Hauer (playing her husband!) about his own possible involvement in the killing for almost ten minutes, a kind of Rubicon has been passed- either you give up and laugh or give in and hold on. It's implausible, absurd and kind of stupid, but it's anything but lazy, and it's impossible to watch it without reacting. It's entirely possible that EUREKA is a bad movie, but if it is it's my kind of bad movie, the kind that can only be made by a great filmmaker so sure of himself that he's willing to go for broke. Whether that means I'm over- or under-rating the film, I'm not sure. Plus it's got naked Theresa Russell in her prime, which is always welcome. Rating: **1/2.

Sunshine (2007, Danny Boyle)

For the first hour or so, I was seriously thinking this was going to be Boyle's best yet. The film does a splendid job of portraying life on a long space mission like this- the human chaos resulting from people cooped up together for long periods, the small pleasures each crew member finds, the things that can go wrong, and how they have to be fixed. And there's enough interesting character business to make them interesting and even sympathetic- for example, the way Cliff Curtis takes time out to look at the sun in the observation deck, and the way his skin is a little more burnt every time we see him. Unfortunately, the awesomeness can't last. For some reason, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland decided that it wasn't dramatic enough to show us a mission beset by technical woes on its way to detonate a nuclear device into the sun. I'm not sure why they felt it necessary to turn the third act into a slasher movie, in which a sun-charred survivor of a previous, lost mission finds his way onto the ship and begins killing in the name of God. It just doesn't work, and frankly I don't think I've seen a movie shoot itself in the foot so grievously since BATTLE IN HEAVEN. What happened, dudes? How do you start out shooting for 2001 only to end up aiming for EVENT HORIZON? On a more positive note, the cast is good, but it's more than a little surprising that the film's most interesting performance is given by Chris "Human Torch" Evans, who starts as the requisite jocked-up American but ends up as the one who's most fully committed to the mission. Way to grow, bud. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Insignificance (1985, Nicolas Roeg)

It feels vaguely like an exercise, but one of a particularly intoxicating sort, an experiment to bring together Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Joe McCarthy and Albert Einstein in one room in one night. The center of the film is the kinship between "The Actress" and "The Professor," which leads to a magical discussion of the theory of relativity that ought to be shown in high school physics classes, followed by some efforts to connect on her part and a great deal of reluctance on his. But all of the characters pull their weight, even "The Senator," who comes off initially as little more than a hateful demagogue. Also, remember when Tony Curtis was still trying? Remember when Gary Busey wasn't a joke? Most of all, I just miss seeing Theresa Russell in movies like these rather than showing up for a scene in SPIDER-MAN 3 while barely concealing her contempt for the hackneyed dialogue she was given. Rating: ***1/2.

The Simpsons Movie (2007, David Silverman)

I laughed fairly steadily throughout this, but didn't laugh as hard as I did during the greatest of the classic-years episodes. The problem isn't so much the jokes aren't there as that they don't have the same spark, the inspiration that makes them come off both as inevitable and out of left field. Now you get some of the former, some of the latter, but rarely both. I honestly can't imagine this holding up on multiple viewings, which seems strange for a phenomenon that owes much of its enduring success to syndication. It's been scarcely four hours since I saw this, and the only quote I remember that gives me that old feeling is, "Have you ever been mad without power? It's boring! Nobody listens to you?" Oh, and would it have killed them to include some kind of tribute to Phil Hartman? Rating: 6 out of 10.

Czech Dream (2004, Vit Klusák and Filip Remunda)

As a performance piece, this is actually more like an 8 or 9, but since the filmmakers are also the perpetrators, grading this is a little tricky. For a film that credits itself as a reality show, the filmmaking is fairly unpolished- the directors get the insistent camerawork down cold, but I didn't think they really captured much else (the Mickey-Mousing music, the graphic bumpers, the montages, and so forth), or maybe it's just that these aren't as prevalent in Czech TV. In addition, I wish they hadn't felt the need to appear on-camera again after the prank went down and discuss it with the "victims." Better, I think, to stand back and observe the fallout, both among the people there and in the media. Still, it's pretty potent stuff, especially its commentary on marketing and manufacturing hype. In our age of viral marketing of movies (e.g. the 1-18-08 hype) the lessons learned here are relevant as ever. But what really hit home was the portrait of the particular Czech mindset, a society that's still new to capitalism, with adults full of wonderment at the opportunities it's finally presented them, and the children who've basked in its glow practically all their lives. If we take our shopping malls and our Wal-Marts for granted, it's because we've never known another way, but these people have seen the alternative and they like the current option better. Sure, standing in line at the opening of a new hypermarket looks much the same as standing in line under Communism, but at least now you just might bring home a cheap TV and 20 lbs of bananas. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

July 2007 mini-reviews

7/28- Rescue Dawn (2006, Werner Herzog) [6] {Most certainly Herzog's most conventional fiction film, but still very Herzogian in its observation of the details of Dengler's story. Bale's performance feels overly fussy at the outset, but once he gets in the camp his work becomes more effective, or maybe I'm just saying that because he's acting opposite Jeremy Davies, twitchy as ever. Steve Zahn is sort of a revelation as Bale's escape companion, as frightened and doomed as Bale is determined. Still not sure about the "up" ending, but it's not nearly as jingoistic as I've been hearing.}

7/24- The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) [****] {May be the 2001 of horror movies, reconfiguring the DNA of the traditional fright flick into trippy, uncompromising art. Like 2001, it ends up falling down the rabbit hole into another, more twisted dimension, and by the time it's over you realize that it asks more questions than it answers. Perhaps the key to the movie is that Danny knows that, as Halloran told him, the visions are "just like pictures in a book. It's not real." Whereas Jack lets them get to him, and they drive him off the deep end. Also, Garrett Brown is a god.}

7/15- Paprika (2006, Satoshi Kon) [5] {Meh. Some clever and well-drawn dream imagery amidst a muddle of convoluted narrative. Never boring, but doesn't exactly make the heart leap either.}

7/14- Private Fears in Public Places (2006, Alain Resnais) [8] {Although honestly I'll have to watch this again to be able to really appreciate what's going on in a really deep thematic sense. Mostly I just grooved on Resnais' direction, as prone to experimentation now as it ever was. There's got to be more going on here than people failing to connect (reflected in the shots of people talking through screens and panes of glass and the like), but for the first viewing the style is more than enough for me to chew on.}

7/9- Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton) [****] {In the old days before CGI, when an enterprising director wanted to do something that hadn't been done before, he figured that shit out or he didn't do it. Thank goodness for Keaton, who took the former route, and it led him to big-screen immortality. Plus this is just really goddamn funny. But I mean, duh, it's Keaton.}

7/7- Pride (2007, Sunu Gonera) [4] {These sports movies might wash better with me if I was a sports fan, but I'm not. Is there a screenwriting program out there that allows people to input their true inspirational sports stories so they can be spat out in screenplay form? Terrence Howard is solid as expected, and I liked Bernie Mac as well- he does his avuncular-grouch routine here, but doesn't really play it for laughs as much as usual, and his expressive face could prove well-suited for more dramatic roles in the future. Otherwise, this is pretty mediocre stuff. Under the circumstances, could it possibly have been otherwise?}

7/4- To Be and to Have (2002, Nicholas Philibert) [***] {Most successful documentaries work because they illuminate what we don't know already, or at least what we don't know that well. However, nearly everyone has gone to school, yet this still works beautifully because it reminds us of things we've long forgotten. That coloring requires deep concentration. That playing in the rain or snow can be a whole different kind of fun. That the only thing worse than writing in cursive is learning to write in cursive. That a field trip or anything else out of the ordinary can be exciting. That there's always one new kid who cries on his first day. And, above all, that there was a time in our lives when the idea that nothing stays the same forever was still a novel idea to us.}

7/3- /Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)/ [****] {In today's bigger-is-better blockbuster climate, it's a little amazing to think that one of the most popular movies ever (not adjusted for inflation) eventually boils down to three guys in a boat, hunting a shark. Not only are the guys interesting, but Spielberg wisely sticks with them once they've cast out to sea. This is the rare big movie that actually becomes smaller-scaled as it progresses, and that's why it still works. As far as movies like this go, JAWS is perfect.}