July 29, 2007

The Simpsons Movie (07/29/07)

Lettergrade: B

I was about 10 when The Simpsons debuted as a half-hour series on Fox. Like a lot of my friends, I grew up watching it pretty regularly: It became a cultural load bearing pillar of my teens, and was still quoted quite heavily among my friend group on into my 20s. Also like a lot of my friends, however, I hadn't really checked in with the show much for several years now. There's no particular reason for this... I guess if I'm going to spend 30 minutes watching a cartoon, I simply prefer edgier fare like Family Guy or South Park over something so familiar at this point.

I mention all this, dear reader, to emphasize the point that although I was certainly curious about what a Simpsons movie might be like, my enthusiasm going in was modest at best. It so happens, however, that the movie is actually pretty solid, entertaining, and worth the time and effort to see.

Nothing about The Simpsons Movie reinvents the wheel, relative to what the show does, but then again it is pretty clear that it was never the intention to do so. The picture was written by writers of the series, and directed by one of its frequent directors. The notable exceptions are that executive producer James L. Brooks and Simpsons creator Matt Groening have stepped up and apparently taken a much more hands-on approach than they have in the last several years with the show.

I don't really want to get into the details of the plot, but suffice to say that it feels like a somewhat amped up version of a storyline they might do on the show. We should make a distiction here, however: the movie feels like an expanded episode of the show, but not a bloated one. The jokes are well-placed, consistent, and occasionally surprisingly funny. I never had the feeling that they were just padding sections out to fill the time.

"Movie" versions of popular shows can sometimes be risky propositions. South Park was able to expand itself brilliantly for the big screen, but others franchises that come to mind such as many of the Saturday Night Live movies, Beavis And Butthead Do America, and 3 of the 4 pictures featuring the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast all fell somewhere between "underwhelming" and "painful" by my standards.

The people who made The Simpsons Movie, however, are keenly of what the fans were hoping to see, and skillfully play it out over the film's 90 minute running time. It's not a movie that will change your life, but after so many years of expectation, it could have been worse, and it's hard to imagine it being much more solid.

July 24, 2007

Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix (07/24/07)

Lettergrade: C+

I first saw Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix when it came out last July, but I never got around to writing about it due to my busy work schedule (combined with, let's face it, unblushing laziness). Recently, however, I saw it again on DVD and was reminded that while it is a decent picture overall, there's something a little uneven about it too.

I love the Potter books, but have had problems with several of the movies, particularly the fourth film, Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. It felt like director Mike Newell either hadn't read the same book I had or he just didn't give a shit about where the series had been or where it was going next. The emphasis was on the action scenes and the set pieces rather than the meaty character material, and when you prioritize that way, it becomes just another bullshit fantasy / action movie ala The Golden Compass, Bridge To Terebithia and The Spiderwicke Chronicles, all movies that you couldn't pay me to watch.

Phoenix, part five in the series, isn't as playful or as imaginative as the first three movies, but it's not as sucky as part four either. The director this time was David Yates, who had never had much stateside attention previously, but is notable for directing an excellent BBC miniseries called Sex Traffic as well as HBO's The Girl In The Cafe. Yates isn't the series' most visual director (that honor still goes to Alfonso Cuarón, director of the the third film), but I think he's the one that demonstrates the most mature understanding of the material. I've got my complaints about which components of the story made it into the movie and how certain plot points were handled, of course, but I'll give him some major points for getting the overall tone of the picture pretty much "right."

Like Cuarón, Yates was able to take the dense plotting and structure of the book, and boil it down in a way that empasizes themes that are important to him. In this one, Harry, finds himself a pariah within the wizarding community after reporting that the evil Lord Voldemort returned at of the end of the previous movie. The newspapers and the wizarding community at large are out to paint him as serial liar, and early in the picture, Harry is introduced to the Order: An underground organization comprised of Hogwarts teachers and the parents of his friends, charged with countering the efforts of Voldemort's "Death Eaters." Concurrently, the Ministry of Magic installs a real cast-iron bitch as a teacher at Hogwarts in the interest of keeping an eye on Dumbledore and Harry. Like the book, the movie highlights the theme of standing up to authority when it is oppressive or unjust, in addition to the series' overall emphasis on the important bonds of family and friendship.

Of note is Yates' inventive way of translating bulky passages to the screen using clever montages, voice over, and even footage from the previous movies: All techniques which, for the most part, make for clean, economical filmmaking. The flip side, though, is that there is a certain "thinness" to the film in places as well that has increasingly bothered me on repeat viewings. It feels like there were clear opportunities to weave more texture and nuance into the material than Yates saw fit to take advantage of. I understand the aversion to making the picture feel over stuffed -- as the fourth movie did -- but certain sections would up feeling more like television than cinema.

These feelings are not helped by somewhat lackluster work by two key creative personnel: The first is composer Nicholas Hooper, a long-time collaborator of Yates, who wrote a perfectly passable score, but one that has the misfortune of appearing in a series that also includes some dynamite music by John Williams (for third film in particular).

The other is Mark Day, the editor. I find it is difficult to evaluate film editing unless it clearly isn't working, and in this case, it's not. I repeatedly felt that the picture fails to cut to key actors for important lines, and that numerous scenes are replete with awkward pauses and unusual pacing choices that do not feel entirely consistent or satisfying. One early scene in particular... where Dumbledore defends Harry against the Ministry of Magic's equivalent of the People's Court... contains a number of bizarre edits, erratic performance shifts that don't match from one cut to the next, and jarring reaction shots that conspicuously feel like they were stolen from other parts of the scene. Excerpts that appeared in the early trailers were edited in a much snappier way than they appear in the finished film, suggesting that either Day fucked up, or that Yates insisted on certain things in the editing room that were, in the long run, bad for the picture. In either case, many scenes feel like they're functioning in spite of the picture editing, not because of it, which is a rare and tragic thing to have to say.

Every one of the Potter books has a really long scene toward the end in which one of the characters (usually Dumbledore) gives an extensive explanation of all the book's previously unexplained plot turns, and often throws in some moral wisdom for good measure. They're the "Scooby Doo" scenes. While these scenes have traditionally been a bit cumbersome - both on the page and on screen - they're worth it because usually provide some pretty good payoff as well.

The film version of Phoenix made the somewhat disappointing choice to reduce its Scooby scene - a big conversation between Harry and Dumbledore after the action climax - to all of five lines or so. It's a sad loss because in the book the scene not only packed a strong emotional wallop, but also clearly set the stage for the grave seriousness of the events that would follow in the next two books. The first time I read book five, I reached the last page late at night and was heard to exclaim, "Holy fuck!" upon which I immediately set out looking for a 24 hour grocery store or pharmacy that might be selling book six. Phoenix, the movie, does not conclude in a way that inspires such enthusiasm (that is to say, feelings similar to crack addiction), but there are a couple stellar scenes toward the end that ultimately made me glad that Yates, in spite of this picture's shortcomings, will be back to direct the next entry in the series.

The key stand-out sequence is where Voledormort possesses Harry at the ministry. In the book, there's a lengthy passage later (during the Scooby Doo scene) where Dumbledore would have explained that Voldemort could not stand to possess him. Yates, of course, cut that scene, but the way he attempted to make up for it is interesting: Using quick cuts showing Harry's thoughts (as well as footage from the previous movies), he paints a really impressionistic picture of the internal struggle that he's going through - first focusing on despair and loss, then deliberately moving through the whole spectrum of emotions including friendship, compassion, affection, the comfort of togetherness and love. In a highly abstract way, it all underlines another key theme of the books which is that in the winding road of life, a lot of bad things can happen to you, but it is how you choose to deal with loss, rejection, and disappointment that determines a lot about your reality and what kind of person you will be moving forward.

The brilliance of this scene also greatly enhances the picture's final scene, where Harry and his friends walk to the train station that will take them away from Hogwart's and back to the real world for the summer. During the penultimate shot, Harry has some sparse dialogue, and then the camera cranes up, just a little, and holds on the mass of school children for a slightly prolonged beat. In that moment, it is clear that Yates has come up with a clever, non-verbal way of communicating what this year in the lives of these kids has been about. Harry has learned that speaking out when its unpopular and standing up for the commonwealth of all is key for the greater good, and he has a sense of what he stands to lose if he fails to do so.

When I think about it, I guess I'm little disappointed that Order Of The Phoenix isn't quite what I pictured when I read the book the first time. I still kind of have the feeling that the movies are somewhat designed for people who already know what's happening, rather than for people who are only watching the movies. Nevertheless, its been a consistently solid and rewarding series thus far, and I'm excited to see how the last few installments play out.

July 6, 2007

Ratatouille (07/06/07)*

Lettergrade: A

The Transformers (07/06/07)

Lettergrade: D

The new Transformers movie, based on the cartoon series and the toys from the 80s (both of which were staples of my youth), delivers a lot of cool visuals and robot-induced shit blowing up. Although there were several moments when my heart glowed with nostalgia during the picture, I didn't find the experience of watching it all that pleasurable. I hold one man responsible for that: Michael Bay. Although it's hard to deny that Bay, whose crimes against humanity include Armageddon, Bad Boys II, and Pearl Harbor, seemingly handled this massive production with the managerial skill and competence befitting a big-budget commercial film director, I can't shake the feeling that many other competent filmmakers (even when given significantly more meager resources) could have made a better one.

The general story is nifty enough, I suppose, and the roster of producers, which includes Steven Spielberg and X-Men's Tom DeSanto, have been associated with good projects in the past. There's something about Bay's attention-deficit style of shooting and editing, however, that really harms the material. I so rarely felt like I got a good look at anything. The early character scenes -- usually designed to make you give a shit about the people you'll be spending the next two hours with -- are completely blown through at lightning speeds, as if Bay found them to be a mere nuisance one must endure when making a movie. In many ways, Transformers feels like 1987's Masters Of The Universe, (also based on a toy line) which had a ridiculous, nonsensical plot that none involved with the movie seemed to understand or take all that seriously.

The plot itself is a shameless mish-mash of recent and not-so-recent sci-fi flicks including Independence Day, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Maximum Overdrive, Men In Black, The Iron Giant, My Mother The Car and Robot Jox. Basically, there are good Transformers (Autobots) and bad Transformers (Deceptacons) who have spread throughout the galaxy looking for the mysterious "All-Spark." It's not clear what the All-Spark does, but in alternating scenes it is described as being able to help the Transformers recreate their home world of Cyberton and then having the power to blow everything to high hell.

Enter meglomanicial child-actor Shia LeBeof, who makes a mild attempt at playing a normal kid in this movie. His father (played by Kevin Dunn, oddly reprising exact same role he had nine years ago in Small Soldiers) purchases a car from Bernie Mac that turns out to have curious properties, such as driving away when it's not supposed to and helping LaBeof woo astonishingly bad actresses like Megan Fox, who plays the remarkably hot, bitchy girl that LeBeof likes for no clear reason other than that she's got a great rack and exposes her midriff regularly.

After what feels like two hours of screen time, it is revealed that the car is, in fact, a Transformer! I, personally, did not see it coming. Anyway, all the Autobots then show up and explain everything, including the fact that Megatron, the leader of the Deceptacons, came to Earth 70 years ago but was unexpectedly frozen by the polar ice-caps. By coincidence, LeBeof's great-grandfather discovered him and somehow got the coordinates of the All-Spark (which Megatron was getting ready to transmit to his comrades) imprinted on his glasses. Now, they have to find the glasses, locate the All-Spark, and defeat the Deceptacons before Megatron thaws and starts stirring up all kinds of hurt. Other running subplots and ancillary characters include the survivors of a U.S. military base in Nevada who track the Deceptacons that attacked them, and Jon Voight, slumming it as the U.S. Defense Secretary who oversees a group of cyber-geeks that ultimately do not contribute a single thing to the film's resolution.

Oh, and there was something later on where if an electronic device gets too close to the All-Spark, it suddenly becomes a Transformer too, and starts slashing away at stuff. I completely didn't understand what the hell that was supposed to be about. Even if a cellphone could become a Transformer instantly like that, where did it get the blades and other weaponry from?

The action scenes are well staged, and you have to admire Bay's sense of showmanship to some degree. It's undeniably cool to watch the Transformers do the task for which they're named. Certain moments of the movie are really exciting, but mostly they're the moments that echo something from my vague memory of the cartoon series. Of note is the fact that they brought back Peter Cullen, movie-trailer voice over artist extraordinaire and the original voice of Optimus Prime, to reprise his roll. Without his scratchy, John Wayne inspired vocal stylings, I doubt I would have found the film even half as engaging.

Truth be told, Transformers is not a bad movie as much as it's a misguided one that does not entirely live up to its potential. In the cartoon show, the Transformers were always front and center with the humans only dropping in occasionally. In this movie, it's the opposite with the Transformers kept on the sidelines, never given concrete identities or personalities. At the end of the film, I still, frankly, could not tell a single one of the Deceptacons apart, and even if I could, I'm not all that sure that it matters.

Ultimately, however, if you're looking for explosions, mayhem, and robots, this movie certainly has all three. It's a little disappointing, though, that Bay had all these resources and such potentially rich source material, and this is what he came up with.