July 24, 2011

Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon (7/24/2011)

Lettergrade: D+

My wife had been on bed-rest for much of July, and I was home virtually all month taking care of her. As such, I was kinda dying to get out and see a movie... any movie. Mostly, I think I just wanted the movie theater popcorn, a weird, unexplainable life-long addiction that I've never been proud of. In any case, we're fortunate here in Marina del Rey because we have two movie theaters directly across the street from our house, boasting 12 screens between them (although the theaters themselves seem to be more like what I remember low-rent cineplexes being like in the 80s). I waited until Laura went to bed one night, reviewed my options, and for some reason determined that Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon was the best game in town.

Now, I can't really say what led me to take a third bite from this overdone franchise. I saw part 1 in 2007 with my friend Chris, mostly out of my nostalgic love for the cartoon show, despite seriously disliking the previous films of Michael Bay. There were a few memory twinges throughout the flick that reminded me of watching the series as a kid, but the film largely proved to be a noisy and incoherent piece of shit that neither told a satisfying story nor did it even really showcase the innate coolness of giant autonomous space robots who can change into cars or airplanes or jukeboxes or shit like that whilst duking it out on our planet.

I saw part 2 two years later because there was absolutely hysterical fan hatred for it on the internet and a wide array of completely savage film reviews circulating in the press which went into nuanced detail about how preposterously awful it is. I must blame Roger Ebert in particular for writing a review that was so brutal and side-splittingly funny that that I pretty much had to see the picture itself so I could fully appreciate what he was complaining about.

And so... I saw part 2, and the staggering degree of badness wasn't even fun. Not only were there illiterate, black Autobots playing a prominent role in the story, but there was also a Deceptacon who talks like Joe Pesci for no apparent reason, a scene where a different giant robot appeared to have testicles, and then - and this was the deal closer for me - an instantly legendary segment where Shia LeBeouf dies, then floats up to heaven where Robot Angels (or something) tell him that it is his destiny to return to his body and help defeat the Deceptacons during the film's senseless climax in Egypt.

2 made use of the same bullshit editing style where no shot is held for more than a second and a half before cutting to another angle... it stuck to the same philosophy toward camera work where the ideal way to show an expensive visual effect is to get the camera close to it and shake the hell out of it so you can't even really tell what you're looking at... and it had the same piss-poor acting from LeBeouf and Megan Fox, combined with ill-advised appearances from a lot of wonderful actors like John Turturro, who did the best he could with what he had to work with, but really deserves better.

So why the fuck, you may be wondering, did I go in for part three? Well, again I didn't have much interest in seeing many of the other movies that were out... I didn't want to see that shitty looking J.J. Abrams Motel 6 movie that was still playing, and I didn't like either Captain America or Harry Potter 8 enough to sit through them again.

And then there was the fact that although I don't care for 3D, generally, the film was actually shot using 3D cameras (as opposed to being shot 2D and then converted to 3D, as many films are), and the color was graded to be brighter than normal, meaning that when the 3D glasses remove some of the brightness, the picture should still appear to be somewhat normal, not dark and dingy as 3D typically does. Michael Bay reportedly sent this letter to theater projectionists encouraging them to take extra care to project the film at the proper brightness level to achieve the correct effect (and inspiring this hysterical response).

Other factors that got me in to see the flick were that it was shot near where I grew up in Chicago, and although the trailers strongly suggested that the city was to be completely decimated by giant robots, at least I could gaze lovingly at familiar structures like Navy Pier and The Field Museum for a few moments before Megatron or one of the Dinobots tripped and landed on them.

But anyway, enough preamble... on to the flick. Well, it's awful, but for the first hour or so it's much better than its predecessors, at least. Working in 3D apparently inspired Bay to tone down his editing and shooting style a bit, and indeed shots are held on for reasonable amounts of time, and the filmmaking is almost traditional, in a sense. There are many indications that Bay actually paid some degree of attention to the critical lambasting he got over part 2 in particular, and he put substantial effort into developing unique personalities for the various robots and making sure we could actually tell them apart this time.

On that level, I guess, I have to applaud him. But Bay's newfound maturity melts away in the last hour or so, however, and we're back into a mindless orgy of robot-on-robot violence again. I sort of blacked out during sections of this last hour, to be honest with you, which probably made whatever story was present seem less understandable still, but even before that I had no idea what the fuck was happening so I'm not sure my lack of consciousness really made a difference.

What else... oh yeah, porn-star quality actress Megan Fox was fired from the movie by producer Steven Spielberg (Casper, The Flintstones) shortly before they started filming for comparing Michael Bay unfavorably with Hitler, so they replaced her with Victoria's Secret model and first-time semi-actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who believe it or not, is even worse. She's playing a different character, technically, than Fox did, but I have a feeling that "screenwriter" Ehren Kruger pretty much just left the script unchanged after she was canned.

Leonard Nimoy provides the voice of a good robot from the past (who had been trapped on the dark side of the moon, providing the film with its title), but then he became a bad robot somewhere along the line, so in this movie he's mostly just being a real dick to everyone. Oh, and alumni from various Coen Brothers movies accepted what I can only presume to be massive checks to appear in the movie too: Turturro reprises his role from the first two flicks, John Malkovich appears as Shia's boss for part of the film, and most surprisingly, Frances McDormand agreed to be the Secretary Of Homeland Security (or something). McDormand is married to Joel Coen, and I'm trying to imagine the scenario where she told him that she was accepting a role in a big, loud, empty and ugly movie like this that is so antithetical to everything that his films have always been about.

So... I don't know, man. The movie's terrible, but they've all been terrible. If you saw the first two... and you liked them... and you walked out of the theater feeling enlightened and satisfied with the experience, but you had kind of wished it had been slightly better, then I guess this is the Transformers movie of your dreams. Although I recognize Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon as a great improvement over Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen, whenever it is that they get around to making Transformers 4, I'd probably be better off if I just walk over to the theater, buy some popcorn, and then walk back out without actually buying a ticket.

Check out Topless Robot's highly entertaining Transformers 3 FAQ.

Read my entry on the first Transformers (Lettergrade: D) here.

And my entry on Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen (Lettergrade: D) here.

July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (07/23/2011)

Lettergrade: C+

I drank a pretty large Coke during the afternoon showing of Captain America: The First Avenger that we caught, and yet the movie still had me feeling kinda sleepy toward the end. It's a shame because it had a lot going for it for a while there: A charismatic title character with a great backstory... cool WWII era sci-fi sets... a gorgeous British dame played by Hayley Atwell... a nifty Indiana Jonesish Nazi villain bent on world domination... and some pretty bad-ass action scenes that consist of stunt men duking it out rather than CG junk blowing up.

There is a really engaging 40 minutes or so at the beginning, after which the movie starts to slow way down. I think it's the segment where then Buck-Private America, having gained super powers by taking an experimental serum, takes a gig fronting USO shows and pitching war bonds before, you know, getting into all the jingoistic ass-kicking stuff. By the end, Captain America: The First Avenger feels like its primary function is not to get The Captain's own story to a satisfying conclusion as much as it is to put the pieces in place so he can appear in next summer's Marvel superhero circle-jerk The Avengers (and there's a post-end-credits teaser to prove it!).

But man... that how-Captain-America-became-Captain-America segment at the beginning sure was a breath of fresh air compared to other recent superhero movies, wherein the background stuff often feels rushed and half-assed. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has the brave heart of a true patriot soldier, but the body of Neil Patrick Harris after a month-long fast. He's been rejected for military service several times due to his puny size and flat feet. Luckily, a German-but-good scientist played by Stanley Tucci catches on to what he's been doing and allows him to join a small US military unit, the members of which are auditioning to be part of a top-secret experiment. These scenes are highly reminiscent of similar beats from the first Men In Black, not only because the soldiers submit to endless tests with unclear objectives, but also because Tommy Lee Jones observes sternly from the sidelines in both films.

The climax feels weirdly non-climactic, though. I'm not all that sure what the evil plot even was, to be honest with you. And come to think of it, what seemed like an interesting bad-guy at first in Hugo Weaving's Red Skull started to feel more and more like one of those third-rate heavies from movies like The Shadow, Masters Of The Universe or the first Hellboy once I realized that there wouldn't be much to him.

It's weird to say all this because America seems like a perfectly well-made and professional movie, but one that gets into maudlin territory a little too often for me to really recommend it or want to revisit it again myself. Unlike the other two Marvel movies this summer, Thor, which I greatly enjoyed, and X-Men: First Class, which ran a lot of familiar plays, but somehow kept it all fresh and interesting, Captain America mostly feels like one of those C grade summer pictures that you pull the trigger on because the other movie you wanted wasn't playing anymore, and which you can barely even remember after a few months. It's alright, but you could probably do better.

Here's my entry on director Joe Johnston's previous movie, The Wolfman (2010), which was pretty awful.

July 16, 2011

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (07/16/2011)

Lettergrade: B-

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 2 adapts the second half of the final book into a reasonably exciting 2 hour, 10 minute movie that brings the series to an adequate finish. I liked it well enough, I suppose, but I have very conflicted feelings here. If we're being honest, I should say that I haven't really enjoyed the later entries in the film franchise for a while now, and deep down, I was kinda hoping that this last film would make up for the mild shittiness of the previous ones instead of just being "a little better."

I've read and re-read the books a few times apiece and consider them to be well-written, deeply layered stories that only seem to get better the more closely they're studied. I admired (or at least enjoyed) the first four films as well, but all that changed with part 5... That would be when director David Yates took over, and decided to ride the franchise out until the end (more on him in a bit).

Deathly Hallows - Part 2 picks up quite literally at the end of Deathly Hallows - Part 1, meaning that in the future, pale high school and college kids the world over will be able to watch both films in a fairly seamless five-hour block instead of, you know, leaving the house, making friends, and attempting to have sex with actual women their own age.

The evil Lord Voldemort (pictured right) has acquired the fabled Elder Wand, the most powerful wand ever created... an instrument with which he can maybe finally end Harry Potter for good. Meanwhile, Harry, Hermione and Ron are searching for (and attempting to destroy) the "Horcruxes," objects in which Voldemort has hidden bits of his soul... meaning that if his body gets all f**ked up again (like it did back when he tried to kill Harry as a baby originally), he'll still be alive in some form and free to appear in more sequels. Since movies 6 and 7 - Part 1 failed to stage the parts of the books that would have provided our hero with adequate clues as to where these objects might be, Harry and his friends must jump to conclusions that would seem far-fetched and flimsy even in the Adam West Batman TV series:

Nevertheless, after an astonishingly lifeless opening where Harry almost casually asks John Hurt about wand lore - compare that to the fierce urgency of the same scene in the book - and then lightly begs for help breaking into the wizard bank from Warwick Davis (appearing in dual roles, a touching tribute to Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or perhaps to Eddie Murphy in Norbit), the gang is finally off on their adventure, which will eventually take them back to Hogwarts School For Witchcraft And Wizardry and to the big-ass series climax.

It's hard to argue with the power of a good climax, and there's no denying that this is a satisfying one. Nevertheless, I can't help but regard it with a certain amount of disappointment: Not because it's over now, but after all those years spent anticipating it and wondering what it might feel like, when I got there, I guess I was just hoping it would have been better than it was.

Getting back to the movies, though, the series is similarly disappointing in that it started well, gradually got better, and then... with Yates' arrival... became really erratic and uneven. You can gripe about Chris Columbus's watered down 80s era Spielberg / Lucas style approach to parts 1 and 2 10 years ago, but if nothing else, it's tough to dispute that Columbus cast the series brilliantly and established a number of iconic sets and images that would benefit the films that followed immeasurably. I would also give a lot of credit to the wonderful part 3's Alfonso Cuarón and part 4's Mike Newell for imbuing the films with a little more maturity and creativity when they needed them, and for going through a lot of trouble to at least get you to somewhat feel the story, even if a good deal of it was going unexplored.

The three books that Yates adapted into these last four movies represent a failure to introduce interesting pieces of a multi-part story in a deliberate, memorable way, and to get them all to mean something powerful by the end. So many moments in Deathly Hallows - Part Deux seem to lack the proper set-up and payoff because the series had omitted the surrounding elements earlier. Of course, Yates had much longer, much more plot-and-mythology heavy text to adapt than the earlier directors did, but even back on 5 I was a little baffled that he put a lot of effort into staging aspects of the books that didn't seem that vital in the grand scheme of things, while simultaneously blowing through or outright discarding components that did.

His pictures were the first that decided to be companions to the books, rather than adaptations of them. Sometimes he'd just show an image of some major plot point without really explaining it or getting into how the characters feel about it, perhaps under the thinking that since these are very popular books, most people in audience have probably read them, and getting into details would be superfluous: An approach that's dead-ass wrong on every level. He decided to spend his screen time in other puzzling ways too, focusing on the teen angst stuff (maybe under the notion that the Potter movies could stand to be more like Twilight?), over-blown action sequences, and alarmingly often, entire scenes where Harry, Ron or Hermione just sit and look sad, without much dialogue or context to clue the audience in. As in the earlier movies, he frequently holds the actors in uncomfortable wide shots, perfectly highlighting their inexperience. There are awkward pauses between lines that in theory could have been removed in the editing, had Yates allowed editor Mark Day to actually use some of the coverage they got on set.

The films have not suffered financially under Yates' guidance, but his main crime, as I see it, is that he has taken three increasingly engaging novels and made films that oscillate between dull and incoherent with the occasional exciting action scene sprinkled in.

In that sense, Yates' telling of Deathly Hallows - Part 2 benefits greatly from consisting of 70% action, but what about the other stuff... the character stuff... the reasons that crowds dress up like their favorite Hogwarts denizen and have routinely stood in long lines at midnight each time a new book or film is to be released? I don't think you can plausibly argue that he's been good for the series on that front.

I understand that a novel can get into all sorts of detail that a movie cannot (and often should not), but for me the tragedy of David Yates is that he didn't even seem to try much of the time. His work just doesn't have that "something special" that all of the books and the earlier movies appeared to have. It's sad that they kept him on the series primarily because he was a mild personality who didn't make as much trouble as the earlier directors did. Check out this article in The Guardian where visual effects supervisor Tim Burke stops just short of outright calling Cuarón an asshole when reminiscing about the series as a whole: "He's … yeah, an interesting person. I'm being a bit cagey here. Let's just say he's challenging. High standards, and all sorts of other things."

Yates only got the job on 5 in the first place when every established, big name director they offered it to became nervous about the restrictions Warner Bros. had in place and turned it down - Terry Gilliam, Jean Pierre Jeunet, Mira Nair, M. Night Shyamalan, Tim Burton, et al. They kept Yates for part 6 when Guillermo del Toro passed on it in order to make Hellboy II. Who knows if they ever considered another director for 7 - parts 1 and 2, but one thing's for sure: The series deserved better.

FANBOY ALERT!!: Be sure to stick around after the end credits for the scene where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) visits Harry at Hogwarts, and gives another clue to the plot of next summer's The Avengers!

My entry on the previous movie, The Deathly Hallows - Part 1

My entry on part six, The Half-Blood Prince

My entry on part five, The Order Of The Phoenix