Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Review

Overall Grade: C-

Reviewing a film is a tricky art and a movie like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (from here on referred to as Transformers 2) only magnifies that difficulty. On the one hand, I thought the film was idiotic, boring, and condescending. On the other hand, Transformers 2 presents its own clearly drawn cinematic world along with a directorial vision with the same scope and magisterium of an Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, or even a Steven Spielberg. Like Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Spielberg, Michael Bay filters every aspect of Transformers 2 through his particular worldview, his cinematic lens. The difference being that the aforementioned directors had worldviews that aspired to understand, explore, and learn about humanity and its range of experience; Michael Bay has the worldview of a horny teenage boy in arrested development given over to all his indulgences. I guess the question is, do you want to spend two and a half hours looking through those eyes?

The cinematic vision of Michael Bay has always been prevalent in his earlier films, but they seemed to have found some kind of balance to become bearable. In 1996's The Rock we got a heaping dose of Michael Bay's swooshing, twirling camera and his heavily stylized lighting, but the great interplay between Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage, and Ed Harris seemed to balance the film out. 1998's Armageddon displayed for us Bay's penchant for epic destruction (he takes out Paris with an asteroid, in Transformers 2 he returns with a destrucive Decepticon landing), loud bangs, and juvenile humor. Thankfully, that film also found a little balance in a grounded Bruce Willis as well as decently plotted script. By the time 2003's Bad Boys II rolled around, Bay's vision was firmly in place. Thankfully, the first Transformers was tempered by a fairly simple plotline (a young teenage boy gets his first car and tries to score the girl) that Bay was able to fill in with his own style. However, either due to the sucess of the first film or the convuluted script of the second film, Bay seems to have let himself completely loose in Transformers 2.

In what may have been bearable for an hour and a half, entering into Bay's cinematic world for two and a half hours was an exhausting and uncomfortable experience...in the bad way. (Munich by Steven Spielberg is an exhausting and uncomfortable experience in a good way). Rather than entertained and amazed, I felt pounded into submission by a juvenile worldview. For that is exactly how juveniles try and get across their views, with loud and base arguments rather than engagement and discussion.

Everything in this film is seen through the eyes of horny teenage boy in arrested development. All the relationships our main character Sam (Shia Lebouf) has are at an arm's length distance. There is no sense of intimacy, no revelations, no connections. Everyone is an object of use or desire, an obstacle, or just a thing to our characters. Any woman outside of our main character's mom is objectified primarily as a sex symbol. Bathed in golden yellows and filmed with a peeping eye, the portrayal of women here is immature in the least, repulsing at best. Most of these women are found at the college Sam attends and it too gets the Bay treatment. Sam's dorm is co-ed, where all the women look like hot models (his roommate compiles a 'Freshman Top 50') and apparently come out of the bathrooms and walk the halls in just towels. In fact, from the first day at college, one of the women tries to throw herself at Sam, doing anything to get him to have sex.

Getting the adolescent treatment as well is the military. Michael Bay should be the first person the military hires to film their commercials because he films the military in the same way he films women, with an objectified and leering camera. However, Bay gives us shot after shot of military porn without any depth or context whatsoever. The military commanders and soldiers (which the first film at least gives them something to do) are so one note and unexplained in the film, that one could guess they really were written by a teenage boy.

Of course, it isn't all bad to see the world through a teenage boy's eyes. There really is a 'cool' factor to Transformers 2 that other films have a hard time matching. Bay is masterful at incorporating visual effects to the locations and giving us some incredible visuals. Of course, as with any juvenile 'cool', it's empty and hollow and forgotten afterwards. There is scene that plays out for nearly five minutes where a decepticon robot infiltrates a military compound by turning itself into little balls and reassembling itself. Its a 'cool' scene that must have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of an effect houses time. However, it reminded of the virtuoso mechanical spider sequence in Speilberg's Minority Report, where Cruise and a Spider struggle to keep his eyes blindfolded. Integrated into the story and the characters, Spielberg's spiders may not be as complicated and 'cool', but they are memorable and effective.

The other advantages of this worldview are that we are treated to a bunch of action sequences. The action sequences range from good (a forest encounter between Optimus Prime and three Decepticons being the best) to outright boring and frustrating (the entire action finale). Included with this worldview are cartoonish stock characters and an over-reliance on sex and body fluid jokes. Some of them are funny, but we unfortunately have to sit through a parade of them to hear a couple good ones.

Is Transformers 2 a bad movie? It would seem a slam dunk 'yes' from my analysis above, but I am forced to conclude that Transformers 2 is a bad film only because I care nothing for the perspective in which Michael Bay has infused the whole thing. I have to give the film respect for being a big, bold, and unique artistic film. For those who don't mind the universe Bay has created in Transformers 2 (judging by the box office returns and some friend reactions there seem to be plenty), then I can understand how they give the film high ratings. This is not a lazy or slapped together film (even if the cobbled together plot suggests it). Transformers 2 represents the unique labor of an artist who has given birth to a film that fully encompasses his cinematic vision. On that alone, I give it respect that others seem to not pick up on. However, I just don't enjoy wallowing and celebrating in indulgent teenage immaturity. Call me a prude, but if that sounds like your idea of a good time, then this film is for you.

Friday, June 26, 2009

56. Casino Royale

Casino Royale (2006)
Directed by Martin Campbell

Casino Royale not only rebooted the Bond series in 2006, but saved it from irrelevancy in a post Bourne action world. With a fresh reboot came changes; a fresh face in the Bond role (from Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig), an old face to the director’s chair (Martin Campbell directed Goldeneye), and some pedigree to the script crew (Oscar winner Paul Haggis helped to write). Tinkering with the Bond formula and adapting it to new times could’ve easily led to disaster just like Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns from the same year. Fortunately for Bond fans, Casino Royale is a great success and for my money, it’s the best Bond film of them all.

The seeds for a reboot were sown in 2002 when Die Another Day, the most recent Bond film, was released to good box office returns but strong negative reaction. Besides the negative reception, there began a shift in action styles that can be traced to the 2002 release of The Bourne Identity. Although Identity wasn’t initially received as influential (like The Matrix was within months of its release), the quick and practical style of action was adopted gradually over the years until it became the standard for serious action films. Identity’s follow-up, 2004’s Bourne Supremacy, cemented Bourne’s influence on action films.

By the time the Bond producers were able to move forward with another film, the tastes of audiences, which had been changing since 2002, had become permanent and a reboot was necessary. The change in tone is noticeable right from the beginning. Where Die Another Day opened with a grandiose hovercraft chase in North Korea, Casino Royale opens with a stark black and white sequence where our new Bond earns his “007” status through two brutal murders. It’s brilliant sequence that leads directly into a superlative chase through a construction site.

Breathlessly shot with an incredible eye for coherence, it’s an awesome mixture of the brute and practical action of the Bourne series, but with the grandiose set pieces of the Bond series. Throw in a helping of parkour (urban free running) and Bond is no longer a relic of a bygone era, but he’s current and he’s setting new standards. From here the action and pace barely let up as Bond whisks away to Miami for another intense and suspenseful chase scene. In fact, for nearly the first hour or so, the movie never lets up; its one of the most enjoyable and brutal hours in all of cinema.

After Miami, Casino Royale settles in for its second act, spent mostly in a beautiful hotel playing poker and it’s here that the movie puts plot and character development into high gear. Vesper Lind, played by a gorgeous Eva Green, is a great match for Bond and their relationship, while still retaining the Bond jokiness, is quite intelligent and layered. How the filmmakers approached Bond and Vesper’s relationship is typical of how they handled all the other Bond elements as well.

The usual formula is retained, but they are grounded in a reasonable environment and treated as realistic. Thus, we get a villain who has blood come from his tear ducts, but is still every bit as believable as a villain in a typical crime drama. Bonds' puns and one-liners are present, but they are kept to a minimum and generally feel like a natural part of the scene.

Probably the biggest and best change to the series was an actual desire to examine Bond as a character. Casino Royale examines Bond in much in the same way that Batman Begins examines the literal as well as the thematic and motivational beginnings of the Batman character. We witness Bond gain his ‘007’ status, as well as discover how he develops his cold personality towards women. It’s not until the very end of the film that we have witnessed a fully developed ‘James Bond’, and it’s not until then that the audience is allowed the catch phrase, “Bond. James Bond”. Excellent.

I do have a few nitpicks about the film. The pacing of the film is a major problem for me. While the first hour really is excellent, it also creates unevenness to the whole movie. For after watching an entire hour of action, we don't get another real action set piece until the final scene of the film, almost a whole hour and fifteen minutes later. The second gripe is that the action finale is nowhere near as exciting or accomplished as anything seen in the first act and it makes it a little anti-climactic for me. Outside of that, Casino Royale is an action masterpiece and an essential addition to my collection.
P.S. The promotional material for this film is some of my favorite. Below is the excellent teaser trailer and "You Know My Name" is my all-time favorite Bond song and opening sequence as well

Thursday, June 25, 2009

57. Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland (2004)
Directed by Marc Forster

Finding Neverland is a creative and heartwarming ode to the imagination. Charges of the film being ‘saccharine’ and ‘schmaltzy’ are not without cause, but Finding Neverland seems to be able to overcome its inherent sentimentality to become (like In America) a magical film experience for me.

There are times when the ideas of ‘Neverland’ are a bit juvenile (“You can visit your mom in Neverland any time you like”), but there are also some scenes that perfectly deliver childhood imagination and wonder through the lens of a grownup. I take particular joy in director Marc Forster’s use of his camera and special effects to create these sequences. Forster takes possible mundane sequences like flying a kite in the park, dancing with a dog, and playing pirates, and with a restrained flair creates sequences that even Michel Gondry would be proud of.

My favorite sequence, because it encapsulates everything this film has to offer, is when Peter watches the “To die would be an awfully big adventure” sequence during the Peter Pan play. Forsters’ flying camera through the playhouse that ends on Peter’s startled face gets to me every time.

There are many other pleasures to be had in the film (including all-around great performances and art direction), but one of the most distinguished is the musical score. Parts whimsical, magical, and fantastical, but still grounded in a somewhat conventional film score. It’s not the deepest of films and it’s a film that is quite easy to nitpick apart; however, it’s also a film that never fails to reach inside and move me. For that, I have found Finding Neverland to be one of the films I just can’t live without.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

58. Sideways

Sideways (2004)
Directed by Alexander Payne

An incredibly rich and character driven film, Sideways has been one of my favorite films from the first time I watched it. There is a lot of insight in contrasting and comparing the two different personalities of Paul Giamatti’s uptight Miles and Thomas Haden Church’s carefree Jack. Giamatti and Church (who have great chemistry here) imbue their characters (which are already rather complex) with such great subtlety and idiosyncrasies that is hard not to root for the both of them.

However, Payne’s adaptation is unsparing on both of our lead characters. These are not great guys who do one or two wrong things; these are people with major flaws and issues. It’s refreshing to see a film deal honestly with characters that are layered with pros and cons. In fact, half the fun of the film is to watch the interplay of these two performances and the insight that comes from it.

Speaking of insight, Sideways employs several wine metaphors to deepen and illustrate our characters as well. There is an absolutely magic scene near the middle of the film where Miles and Maya (played by Virginia Madsen) discuss why they love wine so much; it’s worth the price of admission alone (and it nearly won Madsen an Oscar).

Have I mentioned that this is also one heck of a comedy? It really is. With the exception of a scene near the end of the film where Miles finds himself running away from a naked fat guy, all of the jokes are spot on. There is also some incredible music and editing work here that rounds out the film as a whole. If it wasn’t for that oddly gratuitous scene with the naked fat guy (and also his wife), this film might’ve found itself in my top 50, but its just such a big misstep that I can’t look past it. Beyond that, this film is pitch perfect and required viewing for me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Hangover Review

Overall Grade: C-

The Hangover is not only one of the most pedestrian sex comedies I've seen in a while, but it's also the most overrated. The Hangover takes an interesting premise and squanders it with cardboard characters doing immoral actions and ultimately learning nothing from anything while getting away with everything. As the men learn of their escapades their reaction is laughter and incredulity, its never remorse or reflection. Don't be fooled, The Hangover is no Wedding Crashers nor is it even Knocked Up, this film could've starred Jerry O'Connell and gone straight to DVD in college towns.

Of course, the first response will be, "Kyle, relax, it's just a comedy". It is the very fact that it is all played just for laughs that makes the film so offensive to me. These men purposefully go to Vegas for a wild night of possible debauchery and then awake in the morning to "shockingly" find that they actually had a night of debauchery. This isn't a comedy of errors, it isn't one coincidence rolling into another, nor is it wrong place-wrong time, these are events that happened at the (mostly) free will of inebriated men. Where is the comedy in that? Not to mention that while the guys have good onscreen chemistry, there isn't a truly likeable character in the bunch. One of the characters isn't allowed near schools (a line played off for a joke), and one character (playing an elementary teacher, husband, and father) is the true instigator of the evening.

The Hangover then has the audacity to include only crude, annoying, or ignorant females. One possible wife for one of our leads is such a cartoonish and overblown conservative character that Sarah Palin would make fun of her. Adding insult to injury, the end credits feature the most lewd and crude footage of the entire film, including fully uncensored sexual acts that an Apatow film would blush at. That the film wants to me laugh at drugged, inebriated men, cheating on their wives and girlfriends with strippers, hookers, and apparently random women in elevators is offensive to me, and I would hope it would offend most people. There is no redeeming moral, not even a small and insignificant arch that the film could be proud of.

A lot of times it takes one person in the crowd to stand up and question something before others realize the foolishness which they have embraced. Its one thing to laugh at some of the sequences and images (I'm not calling your gut reactions wrong here), but this celebration of deviant behavior should be called for what it is. If what I have described is something that you feel completely comfortable with, then this is a film that is right up your alley. However, for everyone else who laughed at the premise in the trailer and heard how popular the film was, I caution you to stay away.

59. L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential (1997)
Directed by Curtis Hanson

If it's a murder mystery detective story that you're looking for, it really doesn't get any better than L.A. Confidential. The film really stands out because it's not a film that relies on a unique premise or a gimmick; this is a film that relies on genuine storytelling. Filled with fantastic performances, stellar art direction and cinematography, there isn't an aspect of this film that is subpar. In many ways it reminds me of American Gangster, but with a much stronger narrative. If you've never seen the film, grab some popcorn and a soda and watch a fascinating story unspool.

60. The Prestige

The Prestige (2006)
Directed by Christopher Nolan

A twisty-turny (sp?) tale of dueling magicians in the late 19th century is ironic film for me. Despite its dark atmospheres, tragic twists, and cautionary tale underpinnings, The Prestige is an absolute fun time at the movies for me. I wasn't too sure about the film after my first viewing, but after repeated viewings and much thought, my enjoyment of the film has only enriched greatly.

I say it's a cautionary tale (much like Zodiac and The Descent) because it tells the tragic tale of a man consumed by his obsessions. I don't mind the fake "magic" science ending at all, and I think it actually deepens the moral of the story. It allows our characters the ability to take their obsessions to depths beyond the real realm and comments on what they could potentially be possible of. Great performances by Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Rebecca Hall really top off an already great film.

The Prestige isn't a groundbreaking film, but its one of my favorite stories and it's extremely well told. Add to that, thanks to my friend (whose name I will protect here), this was the first real movie set that I have ever stepped foot on. It was a good experience and one that connects me to the film just that little bit more.