Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I hated Michael Bay's first Transformers, and this second installment is more of the same only longer, louder, sleazier, and (if possible) dumber.

Part Deux is filled with lazy humor, cheap gags (such as multiple shots of humping dogs and robots), a confusing and ridiculous plot (which is so inane characters twice have to stop and explain it not only to us but each other), big, though not too impressive, special effects, and little else. It's obvious that Bay and screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman love robots (wait, it took three of you to write this movie?). What isn't obvious is if they give two shits about Transformers, or their fans.

Once again we're given a plot which has more to do with Sam (Shia LaBeouf) learning a life-lesson and Megan Fox looking hot than Autobots or Decepticons. In fact the Decepticons aren't even the big baddie here, it's the Fallen. What is the Fallen? Well, you see, he's one of a race of seven Primes, ancient Transformer brothers... (the sound you just heard was me dying a little inside).

Let me stop for a second and offer a note to perspective screenwriters: When your plot makes Highlander 2: The Quickening sound plausible by comparison chances are you've taken a wrong turn somewhere. And Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen takes many, many wrong turns.

The one improvement made from the original is to increase both the role and of Optimus Prime (the only robot in the film who is more than a special effect) and his ability to kick ass in a fight. Now Prime can take on multiple other Decepticons at once and hold his own. However now so can Bumblebee. Um, what? Did the Autobots go through some training course between films or have the Decepticons all simply become big pussies? Seriously, when you get taken down in seconds by Bumblebee you need to slink off and see if you can get a job as an extra in a Gobots movie.


I could spend another thousand words discussing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and its long list of other many obvious failings (the Cylon sexbot, the pitiful version of Jetfire, the Decepticon in a box, the racist-bots, the wide variation in number and strength of Transformers over the course of the film, the brownie scene, Bumblebee's water spray gags, and, oh, so much more). Then again, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I've got one that sums up my feelings:

Congratulations Mr. Bay, you've now distinguished yourself as a serial rapist of my childhood. You've somehow outdone your last attempt at transforming a once-beloved franchise into a preposterous exercise of "cool" which amounts to loud explosions, shots of Megan Fox's ass, and robot porn for sad lonely men who are still blogging incessantly complaining that Birds of Prey was taken off the air.

As you can see on the scale below, in relations to all things Transformers, the new film rates rather low. Finding itself snuggled at the extremely un-awesome side of the scale between Seaspray and Gears, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn't worth even a fraction of its 150 minute running time.


Friday, June 19, 2009

The Proposal

Romantic comedies can scare critics away quicker than a mob racing out of a burning building. It's hard to warm up to a genre that's let you down so often and so consistently. So settling down to watch The Proposal, all I really was hoping for was to make it out of the theater with my sanity intact.

Here's the thing: Aside from the contrived device used to get the film's stars together (and a few best forgotten groan-worthy scenes), the film actually works better than I expected. It's not great by any stretch of the imagination, but for the genre, it's above average.

Sandra Bullock stars as Margaret Tate, a bitchy cutthroat book editor who is feared by all. Her assistant, Andrew (Ryan Reynolds), sums up her character best as someone who is allergic to "pinenuts and the full spectrum of human emotion." When Margaret is faced with being deported and losing her job, she decides to blackmail Andrew-whose career track is tied to her success-into marrying her. The newly engaged couple take a trip to Andrew's hometown to learn about each other and prepare for a quickie wedding. And so the shenanigans begin.

As contrived set-ups go, it's not exactly new, but at least if feels more real than unlikely bets about trying to get someone to love or dump you, falling for the fake psychic who is helping you get over your dead fiancée, or reporters secretly writing stories about your crazy bridesmaid days. So many wasted hours and miles of celluloid. Have I mentioned my disdain for this genre?

In true rom-com fashion The Proposal gives us a contrivance which forces our characters into an uncomfortable position. However, from that point (for the most part) it allows them to react to the situation rather than inserting new misunderstandings and obstacles every ten minutes. Yes, there are plenty of moments where I groaned during the film, but during most of them I was chuckling too.

Smart casting can do quite a lot for a film. Both Bullock and Reynolds have starred in rom-coms which have worked, and those that haven't. Their inherent charms, and director Anne Fletcher's willingness to let them act like normal people in an extraordinary no-win situation rather than insufferable crazies playing out a tired script, make all the difference.

Reynolds is able to be gallant and gets to deliver some trademark sarcastic lines but is also allowed some quieter scenes dealing with his untenable situation. And Sandra Bullock slowly allows the cracks to show in her character allowing us to come to care for Margaret despite her surly disposition. Had this same script been cast with the likes of Kate Hudson and Jason Biggs I have no doubt I would have been trying to impale myself with a Twizzler 20 minutes in.

The trademark rom-com beats are all here, though thankfully the third act fight-break-up-and-resolution (which can usually last what seems like decades in movies like this) is handled with swiftness and aplomb. Future writers and directors should take note.

The film is still saddled with some bad scenes such as Margaret's spontaneous bachelorette party and a ridiculous chanting scene in the woods between Bullock and Betty White. Thankfully, for every such scene the film delivers, many others flesh out the characters of our stars and provide the audience with an understanding of their motivations. We get a little insight along with the antics, which is nice for a change.

I'll give The Proposal some credit for being a rom-com that wasn't painful to sit through and actually provided some laughs along with a pair of characters who probably do belong together, and even more importantly, that the audience wants to see get together. Guys, if your girlfriend has been dying to drag you to one of these, you could do far, far worse.

Easy Virtue

When you stop and think about it, it's amazing any movie ever actually gets made. Many films flounder through the maze of casting issues, constant rewrites, shooting problems, and budgetary constraints. A finished film, even an awful one, is something of a miracle. If you don't believe me, check out Lost in La Mancha, which chronicles just how far a film can go off course when the gods are against you.

Easy Virtue isn't a great film. It just didn't navigate those treacherous waters with enough skill. Despite several pieces which work well, and a definite style, it's a deeply flawed film. Much, though certainly not all, of its troubles can be laid at the feet of its young stars.

The film stars Jessica Biel as Laritta, a poor American race-car driver who marries young British aristocrat John (Ben Barnes) for love. What follows is something of a farcical Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (with snobby class warfare replacing racial tension) as John and Laritta travel to England to introduce his family meet his new bride. There are laughs, hidden secrets revealed, family squabbles, hard choices, and a suitable, though predictable, end.

The film was adapted from the Noel Coward play that Alfred Hitchcock adapted to the silent screen in 1928. This version is much more faithful to the original source material, but that doesn't mean it's an improvement.

When the film plays it light and has fun with the situation and the battle of will between John's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her new daughter-in-law, it works well enough. Colin Firth shines as John's father, the only member of the household who is in favor of its newest addition. There are also nice performances from the rest of the household including Kimberly Nixon and Katherine Parkinson as John's sisters, and Kris Marshall steals more than one scene as the butler Furber.

Add to this some beautiful sets, a nice soundtrack, and interesting camera work in recreating the look and feel of the time period and you have the makings of a darn good film. The look and feel is right, and there are plenty of good laughs, so you would think this would be an easy recommendation... Ah, but as I mentioned before, the gods of film can be a fickle bunch.

Where the film struggles are in the more dramatic scenes, and the reason for those troubles can be stated in two words: Jessica Biel. I've never been a big fan of hers, and I have often remarked on her curse for being involved in projects which seemed instantly and forever doomed to mediocrity. Although I think she is a capable actress in small roles or television, she simply lacks the range for something like Easy Virtue. Having failed Hollywood's test to make her a star in big budget (Blade Trinity, Stealth) films I'm not sure the solution was try to showcase her acting ability in a small art film.

All the blame can't be laid at her feet alone. Biel's leading man, though handsome, is also thrown into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim. The film actually comes to a screeching halt during the dreadfully inept dramatic scenes between the pair. I winced as Biel and Barnes attempted to deal with and convey real emotion. She's simply asked to do too much. I'm not sure he's capable of it at all and the film struggles because of it. It doesn't help that the two are asked to hold their own against Firth and Scott Thomas who convey more in a single subtle glance than our leads are able to achieve in the entire length of the film.

Even with all I like about Easy Virtue and how it's put together, I can't quite bring myself to recommend it. Brought down by a pair of performances more suited to late morning soap operas, Easy Virtue probably deserved a little better than it got, but those movie gods can be fickle. If you're still inclined to view the film, you might want to wait a few months and rent it on DVD rather than putting forth the effort to try and hunt it down in art houses and the smallest theaters of your town's biggest multiplex. It's not a bad film, but it had the potential to be something much more.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

As a director Tony Scott is a bit hit (Domino, Spy Game) and miss (Deja Vu, Enemy of the State) for my tastes. His latest, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, is not the first movie to be adapted from the novel by Morton Freedgood, but does showcase Scott's trademark style.

I had planned to sit down and watch the original before hitting the screening for the new remake, but couldn't quite find the time. So I can't tell you how the film measures up to 1974 film with Walter Matthau. What I can tell you is the film delivers your basic "Die Hard in a subway" scenario, with smart crooks, mostly dumb cops, and a twist or two as well.

Our protagonist this time isn't a hero. He isn't John McClane in the wrong place at the wrong time. Denzel Washington stars as Walter Garber, a lifer in the subway bureaucracy who has been demoted pending the outcome of an investigation into his ethics. That puts the unlucky Walter at the dispatch desk when the call comes in that terrorists have taken control of a subway car with 19 hostages and are demanding $10,000,000 which must be delivered in one hour.

John Travolta is in his full scenery-eating mode as the lead terrorist. Those of you who have seen Broken Arrow or Swordfish know what I'm talking about. Though, to be fair, Pelham is better than either of those two films. What's nice this time is that Travolta's character has been purposely written in this manner, and there is a method and reasoning behind his madness. Travolta is allowed to be the cheesy over-the-top baddie because it is partially an act his character is putting on for Walter's benefit.

Most of my complaints come not from the film itself, but from its genre, which is starting to grow stale. We know the terrorists will outfox the police, have a second more important secret agenda, and that stopping them will come down to our main character making tough choices. Throw in a chain of coincidences (a character happens to go in one direction, a certain bag ends up in just the right spot, etc.), and you'll feel like you've seen much of this before.

Scott gives us a quick and well-paced film that thankfully never gets bogged down because it limits the amount of time you have to question all these little coincidences. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland goes one step further to suggest that fate provides a reason for these occurrences. It's a cheap screenwriting "out," but at least the unlikely nature of certain plot conveniences is acknowledged.

Although there are some nice supporting performances by the likes of John Turturro, James Gandolfini, and Luis Guzman, it's really Washington's film. Walter is a flawed character with real humanity. Although Travolta gets his share of screentime, Scott understands that this is Walter's story and the film works best when it's presented from his point of view. It's only in the film's final and weakest act where more is asked of Walter that the film begins to struggle with his character and what he is capable of. The script pushes the limits of the character a little too much in these scenes, but not enough to hurt the overall story.

Other than Star Trek, most of the bigger action films this summer have been disappointing, but here's one that finally delivers what it promises (and a little more than I was expecting). It's not going to set the world on fire or revamp the genre for years to come, but this new The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a fun, exciting, little action-thriller with a strong lead performance by Denzel Washington that may provide a couple hours respite from the summer heat.

Friday, June 5, 2009

My Life in Ruins

My Life in Ruins from any number of braindead romatic comedies. Here's one of those films where a character notices the love of her life under her nose, finds meaning in her demeaning job, and everything ends happily ever after for everyone (except the audience). When the film isn't throwing out contrived plot points like candy, and simply allows the actors to give some actual weight to their characters, there are slight glimmers at what this film could have been. Sadly, these moments are few and far between.

Nia Vardolas stars as Georgia, a disgruntled travel guide. She hates her job, she hates the people she works with, she hates her rundown tour bus, and she hates her tourists who are a collection of cliches you are much more likely to find in a movie like this than on an actual tour bus.

The group includes the funny old man (Dreyfuss) the stuck-up dysfunctional family (Caroline Goodall, Ian Ogilvy, Sophie Stuckey), the funny speaking Australians, the dumb Americans (Harland Williams, Rachel Dratch, Jareb Dauplaise), the slutty recent divorcees (María Botto, María Adánez), and the clueless businessman (who actually has the funniest line of the film, which I won't spoil for you here).

Georgia is an awful tour guide, because they script calls for her to be, and the tourist themselves are the most disinterested group of world travelers I have ever seen. Added to the mix is the quiet bus driver (Alexis Geogoulis), who has a little thing for Georgia. Gee I wonder if the group will become inspired, Georgia will finally notice the bus driver and learn a lesson about sharing something of herself on the tours, and everything will turn-out all right in the end. What do you think? Kill me, kill me now.

The plot is further complicated by a rival travel guide (Alistair McGowan) who bribes the boss to get all the "good" tourists and wants to see Georgia fired. Of course that means he'd be stuck with all the tourists, both good and bad, so the logic behind his actions is somewhat perplexing (much like the rest of the plot).

While watching the film isn't exactly painful, it's hardly the light romp I'm sure writer Mark Reiss had in mind. What's so sad is the bar for this genre has been set so low this film is actually slightly better than I was expecting.

There's little chance this is the worst romantic comedy I will sit through this year, but that's hardly a recommendation. Hidden deep, deep, deep down My Life in Ruins has a heart, but there's little evidence of a brain.

The Land of the Lost

Why? That's the question that kept reverberating through my mind as I watched this big-budget feature based off of, let's be brutally honest here, a pretty cheap Saturday morning TV show that hasn't exactly aged all that well.

Don't get me wrong, I spent some time as a kid watching Land of the Lost on Saturday mornings, and I have a warm spot in my heart for the Sleestak and the theme song. But I sure wasn't demanding a feature based on the show, and this trainwreck of a film is exactly why.

In the original series, a family finds itself sucked through a portal into the land of the lost, a weird alternate world featuring dinosaurs, furry cavemen called Pakuni, and the villainous reptile men known as the Sleestak. In the new version, Will Ferrell, in the Hollywood tradition of Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist or Tara Reid as an archeologist, plays brilliant paleontologist Dr. Rick Marshall. I'll give you a second to digest that. Take all the time you need.

Years after being discredited by Matt Lauer (who plays himself in the film), Dr. Marshall is tempted to use his invention (a time-warping machine that plays show tunes and you can strap to your chest) by an eager young scientist (Anna Friel). Along with a trailer park worker (Danny McBride) who "smells like feet and malt liquor," the pair travel into the mystical world of the Land of the Lost.

As set-ups go, that's not great. Things pick up a little as the voyagers explore the new world, but nothing feels as magical as it should, except perhaps the Sleestak who are painstakingly recreated in all their glory.

The movie has two problems. One, it can't decide whether it wants to be a comedy or fantasy/action tale. The second is Ferrell himself who is let loose to do whatever he pleases on screen. Although this provides some funny moments and quite a few groans, there's no real character at the heart of the stupidity. Rick Marshall the character never shows up in the film, it's just Ferrell trying to save the script with as many antics as he can imagine.

I had pretty low expectations going into the movie, and they were met. I wanted some cool Sleestak action and the original theme song (Ferrell sings it by the campfire in one scene). Land of the Lost does give me these two things, but supplies little else. The dinosaur, Grumpy, is probably the best written character of the film and I thought the effect shots, while not spectacular, were competently done.

I didn't hate the film as much as I felt apathetic to the entire enterprise. I laughed some, groaned some, and yawned more than once. Even through rose-colored nostalgic lenses it's pretty hard to argue that Land of the Lost is anything but a disaster, but one that's bad enough and stupid enough that it could easily find a home, and possibly even a cult following, on late night cable. Land of the Lost should have stayed on TV, in either the wee hours of morning or late at night. That's where it truly belongs.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Public Enemies

Well, it's not my favorite Michael Mann film, and is sure not The Untouchables, but for all it's faults, Public Enemies is still a fair film filled with some great moments, and it's worth a good long look.

The story is centered around bank robber extraordinaire John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). We don't learn much about Dillinger over the course of the film other than he's the brains of the operation, well respected among other robbers, disliked by the mob for bringing attention on them, and an all around good guy (at least for a robber and murderer).

Rather than give us a character study or a balanced look at both cops and robbers, like he did in Heat, Michael Mann instead shifts the camera to zoom in on how this man's mere presence affected those around him. The cops, led by (Christian Bale) begin to take shortcuts and cross many important lines in their quest to apprehend their prey. The most gruesome of these is the questioning of Dillinger's girl (played magnificently by Marion Cotillard) with an old-school cop brutality that isn't easy to watch.

Depp is terrific, as always, providing some great moments, and I've already said I was impressed with Cotillard who shows here she can carry her own in more than just art-house films. However, most of the rest of the cast is forgettable, not because their performances are lacking, but the characters themselves are given little to no weight. The only other robber who has any impact on the plot is Baby Face Nelson. As played by Stephen Graham, even he is more of a cartoon (and not that far removed from Michael Badalucco in O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

Bale draws the short straw with a character who is far less developed, rounded, or even interesting. He's also saddled with a lisping accent that seemed to be annoying to him as it was as me. Billy Crudup also has a memorable, though not necessarily convincing, role as director of the newly minted FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Crudup's role was one step away from caricature in many scenes, but that isn't surprising considering the script walked that same fine line.

And then there's the cinematography. To put it simply: Everyone who held a camera on this film should be shot. Besides the shaky cam (even in scenes without any action or even movement), many shots are poorly framed and/or focused to the point of incompetence.

The first 20 minutes are especially troubling and it took me a long time to stop being distracted and get into the film. I more than half expected a boom mic to make its way into the frame. What's so odd is that the whole movie isn't shot this way. Consequently, the more traditional shots clash that much more with the attempts at guerrilla filmmaking.

I will also stop to mention the film's violence. There's a reason it's hitting theaters in the summer rather than fall. Many people die in this film, and several are riddled with more bullets than Beatty and Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. Those who are squeamish about such things may want to stay away. The violent scenes, except perhaps the last big blowout, are well handled, though, without going too far into Rambo territory. I also want to credit Mann with giving us the most effective use of tommy guns in a movie that I can remember.

Public Enemies is a good film with the pieces in place to be so much more. There are times when director Michael Mann is at his best, hitting just the right notes of drama, suspense, and ambiance. And the film has a wonderful sense of humor which mixes well with its darker moments. However, there are plenty of moments which feel like they were done by an awkward first-semester film student experimenting with a digital camera for the first time.

I'd recommend both Brian de Palma's The Untouchables and Mann's Heat over this movie, but there are enough moments here that it's still worth seeing. I just wanted more, and felt a bit robbed.