Thursday, June 30, 2011

Curtains for Transformers!

Political comedian Lewis Black famously quipped that without Dubya in the White House to kick around he could effectively retire from comedy. Movie critics are in a similar situation this weekend without the prospect of another Transformers movie.

Yes, the beast that is Transformers is finally being concluded or put out of its misery, whichever depends on how many Hasbro toys are sitting within a 10-foot radius of your computer. You’ve probably already guessed: I have none. The first film I hated. The second one I really hated. And here’s the third, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, that’s terrible but not nearly as loud and obnoxious as Part 2, Revenge of the Fallen. I still hated it, though, which would make a great quote for the poster: “Slightly less grating than the others!”

I reserve much of my frustration specifically for Michael Bay, the director of all three films. He less directs and more manipulates his characters for maximum damage, like a child setting up his toys and then seeing how they all scatter when stuff is thrown at them. Here his toys are set up in downtown Chicago, where a tantrum-prone Bay throws every piece of shit conceivable their direction.

The movie begins with the historical lead-up to Apollo 11 — and what might be the worst impersonation and/or CGI buffoonery of JFK ever committed to film — and culminates with the astronauts making their giant leaps for mankind from the lunar module into the gaping maw of a giant Transformer ship parked nearly right next to the American flag. Later in the film the actual Buzz Aldrin shows up because something every American icon needs to do — he was the second man to step foot on the moon for heaven’s sake — is talk to giant green-screened robots for a director who wouldn’t know a narrative structure if it burrowed into his eye and laid eggs there. Planning a birthday party for your 10-year-old? Book Buzz Aldrin; he has too much time on his hands. Michael Bay could shoot the video … if he were qualified.

Anyway, turns out the moon ship contains a Cybertronian device that will reverse the tide of the agonizing Transformer war that has spilled onto Earth. The device is a teleporter of some kind, which makes no sense because Transformers were transporting around the globe in the last film, but nevermind. The teleportation device is controlled by a Transformer with a mechanical beard, which makes even less sense, but nevermind again. So the transporter will be used against hero Optimus Prime by — get this! — transporting an entire planet to Earth. What about the two planets’ gravity fields destroying each other? Nevermind, nevermind, nevermind, for real this time. Making sense of this plot is like making sense of baby gibberish or Charlie Sheen’s twitter feed.

This is a good example of how the franchise invents new devices that serve the story at that exact second. Unfortunately, the writers never consider the longer impact. For instance, the Transformers have selective immunity to bullets. Sometimes bullets hurt them and other times it might as well be string cheese thrown at them from pre-schoolers. The only time guns do work is when the plot requires it, like when a character needs to be killed, which happens quite frequently during a lingering and cluttery sequence in Chicago. Consider another scene in Chicago, where Optimus Prime, the main Transformer, destroys robots as big as skyscrapers yet finds himself stuck in crane cables. The cables aren’t really an obstruction to this intelligent war machine, but the plot required him out of the picture for 15 minutes, which is the only reason he got stuck to begin with. This is how the whole plot runs, and it was old during the first movie.

Other tricks that are returning to the franchise are the spinning camera effects, the low-angle up-the-nose camera shots, the incessant product placement (mostly GM, Cisco and Lenovo), the incomprehensible action sequences and Michael Bay’s continued objectification of women. The first shot of a woman is a close-up of her underwear-clad butt as she offers sex to a man. The rest of the movie she is spent waiting for rescue or more sex, and there’s the camera always hovering like a dirty old man over her legs, breasts or lips. Michael Bay could probably make a great porno.

The woman here is Victoria Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who was hired for her measurements (34-25-35) as opposed to her acting ability, which often involves her staring into the void with this vapid look on her face. Actually that part she's pretty good at. She joins Shia LaBeouf, whose smart-alecky attitude is growing old and stale. I noticed something about his Sam Witwicky character that I’ve never noticed before: Sam needs some therapy. He’s detached from events around him, he blows up at the tiniest issues and he has a raging God Complex that festers more with each new outburst. There’s a scene where he yells at some military guards that’s downright embarrassing. At one point I expected him to start flopping on the ground like a whiny little fish. Man up!

Transformers has always rubbed me wrong, but Dark of the Moon does something I wasn’t expecting: it offended me. Not to be overly sensitive, but I have a problem with any film that allows a character to shoot a gun point-blank at the head of the Abraham Lincoln’s monument. A villain does it in a disposable scene smack dab in the middle of Moon. It’s insensitive for a film — especially one that is purely pop entertainment — to replicate the Lincoln assassination just for kicks in a movie designed for children. And then later it blows up a space shuttle in a scene that might as well have been footage of the Challenger disaster. Did anyone on the set study history? Or do they just have fun trampling all over it?

Sam joins his Transformer buddies as they once again swat away Megatron, a mechanical monster that wears a cloth hood — apparently the robot is modest, or maybe he has a sun allergy. The action is once again preposterous. There’s a lengthy sequence with soldiers in skydiving wingsuits, a stunt that Bay inflates to the breaking point and well beyond. Another sequence takes place inside a tilted skyscraper and it might be the best part of the film simply because it makes sense logically and visually, a rare feat in any Transformer movie.

Michael Bay is probably capable of making wonderful movies, but his films contain the most basic ideas — women, cars, action, explosions — exaggerated exponentially until they are parodies of themselves. Rather than developing anything serious, he just smashes these undiluted parody ideas right into your face with little consideration for what effect that might cause. It’s like drinking frozen concentrated orange juice without the water. And I’m not entirely convinced that Bay even cares about his plots or characters. They are afterthoughts to the overarching style of his movies. He seems to focus on what makes films “cool” as opposed to what makes film “great.”

Transformers might be cool to some, but it’s as far as possible from being great. Hopefully this is the last time I have to justify this belief. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Cars 2 promo art … and lots of it

I'll admit I'm very skeptical of Cars 2The original Cars was the first Pixar movie that seemed to fall short of the high expectations the animation studio was setting for itself. I'm hardly alone when I say that it creeped me out a little with those plasticy human faces on the front of automobiles.

The second one drifts into theaters next week. Check out some of the film's concept art. It's all hand painted in soft hues and delicate strokes, and it kinda makes me want to see a film that looks like these paintings, which of course Cars 2 does not. All photos are clickable.

Now check out these rather nifty fake travel posters:

As if all that wasn't enough, here is the combined three-panel poster that has been hanging in theaters lately. Damn, these Pixar folks are clever.

Truth, dreams collide in indie drama Beginners

After the release of Thor last month — the headline contained the word “Thorible” — I was quizzed by a reader: “If you hate Thor so much, what do you recommend I see?”

My answer was Beginners, which wasn’t even open yet after its Arizona release was bumped several times, even as glowing reviews poured in from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. But Beginners isn’t just the anti-Thor: it’s a deeply personal and genuine film all on its own merits. And now it has a solid Arizona release date — this Friday.

It stars Ewan McGregor as a fortyish single man whose mother dies and a week later his father comes out that he’s gay. “She knew,” the father says. He’s played by the amazing Christopher Plummer, who has channeled Leo Tolstoy, Mike Wallace and Sherlock Holmes, but never a gay man. He’s remarkable.

But there’s more to Beginners than just its gay themes. It also has tender romance (gay and straight), a profound personal journey of the McGregor character, the lovely Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), a subtitled Jack Russell terrier, literal graffiti, comedy, and these nostalgic, dream-like storytelling devices that are refreshingly unique. They begin with McGregor narrating his character’s memories. I call them the “This Is What It’s Like” scenes. Photos flick onto the screen as if from a slide projector. “This is what the stars looked like in 1955 … the sun … These are my parents … This is where they were married.” The trick is poetic and wonderful.

The scenes were some of many clever ideas by the film’s writer and director, Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), who’s also an accomplished graphic designer and artist. Mills was traveling with Beginners on a national tour when I interviewed him last month.

Flix: Beginners is very good, which makes me wonder why you have to travel with it and publicize like you are.
Mike Mills: Well, I’ve learned that movies are sold in two ways: by word of mouth or by big-budget marketing campaigns. This movie isn’t going to get a bunch of marketing simply because it’s small and the story, about a 75-year-old gay man who’s dying. It doesn’t have that kind of big story — it’s not Iron Man. So I’m touring with this movie for the next month or so. These small movies get sold by shoe leather, which is basically me going door to door. It’s kind of magical. You meet some wonderful people, which doesn’t happen all the time — a director a meeting their audience.

Flix: What has the response been from the gay and lesbian community?
MM: To be honest I haven’t read anything from anybody. The movie is so personal that I haven’t really sought out opinions from writers … gay or straight. My general feeling is that the response has been positive. Every once and awhile an older gay man will come up to me and say something really sweet about how the film mirrored their life, or touched them in some way. It feels good to hear things like that, especially since the film is told through a straight person’s eyes.

Flix: I know the film is semi-autobiographical, but how much of it is true?
MM: It’s very autobiographical, but it’s also, in a way, my dream, which are represented in some of the sequences. What is true, though, is that my parents were married in 1985. My dad was gay, my mom knew it. My mother died and my dad came out of the closet when he was 75. Then he passed away almost five years later. That’s all in the movie and it’s all very true. There’s a part of the movie where my mom was kicked off the swimming team in 1938 for being half-Jewish. That’s true as well. There are also a number of photos in the film that accurate, like the one of the location of my parents’ wedding, which was down the street from where Allen Ginsberg did some of his writing.

Flix: The “This Is What It’s Like” scenes are very memorable. Are those dreams?
MM: In a way they are, but they are also very factual to me. Really, they are all facts. This is what the stars looked like, this is what the sun looks like. Those are actual pictures of the sun and stars in 1955. It gets very dreamy. I love that conflation. It really hits at how dreamy facts are, and how factual dreams are. I was using a documentarian-like approach, but the end result is very lyrical.

Flix: Those are my favorite parts of the movie. I especially liked how you showed a quarter on the screen when it’s told to the father that he has a tumor the size of the quarter. First you show the quarter, then two dimes and a nickel, then five nickels, then nickels and pennies, then finally all pennies. It’s an interesting visualization. The film vilifies the quarter — something most people have in their pocket at any given time — and it also shows the spread of cancer.
MM: I’m glad you liked that scene. If you only knew how hard it was to convince people to do that. They were just like, “Really?!?” It’s just the way I think. I went to art school; I didn’t go to film school. There are a lot of artists who do similar kinds of work that inspired me. I feel very lucky that I had the nerve to show these elements as I naturally view them.

Flix: Was it hard securing your cast?
MM: It was, but not once I met them. Once I met them it became incredibly easy. Making movies like this is like swimming your way upstream. It’s also like running for president: You have to meet all these people and basically convince them that you are the right guy to make this movie. And you really have to campaign for yourself and the actors you want in it. As soon as Ewan and Christopher read the script they loved it, and they loved it for all the right reasons. Ewan and I had coffee together very early, and I kept thinking he was going to like it but be unable to do it because he was busy, or he was shooting another movie, or whatever. Or I also worried that he was going to be an ass, like someone I could never relate to. But then he shows up and he’s like the most down-to-earth dude I’ve met in a long time. He spoke of the movie using the right tone and you could tell he was there with the movie’s good intentions at heart.

Flix: I just reread Easy Rider, Raging Bulls, about New Hollywood’s transformation of cinema in the late ’60s and ’70s. In it, there are directors who want to become famous to make big movies, people like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and there are directors in it who want to become famous to make small movies, people like Francis Ford Coppola. Which group do you put yourself into?
MM: Oh, no doubt, I want to make smaller films. I want to make more personal films, films with stories. The smaller/bigger movie thing is kind of a trick though, too. Consider Little Miss Sunshine, a small movie that made a ton of money. Lost in Translation was a small movie that found a large audience. So, in a way, I don’t want to self-ghettoize myself by saying I make small movies. I just see my movies about people getting in touch with who they are. And making those kinds of movies is so hard. It takes so long to get it all right. I feel like I lose a limb after each one.

Flix: There are many directors working now, though, who have made their bones on a small, well-reviewed independent movies and then inevitably start making movies like Thor or Green Lantern or Iron Man, movies that don’t have a fifth of the soul of movies like Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation or Beginners.
MM: I think it’s a real struggle. I mentioned earlier that you have to swim upstream, and it’s really tough and it wears you down. Eventually you just tell yourself, “I want to go with the stream for once. I want to be supported.” I can see why directors would turn to these movies that are bigger and louder. I’m too old to switch gears. And I really don’t want to switch gears. Being a writer-director is the best job in the world. It’s the same job that Woody Allen has, the same job that John Cassavetes had. If I get to make movies that are anything like that I feel profoundly lucky and happy.

Monday, June 13, 2011

From the Vault: Cars, Pixar's first so-so film

In anticipation of the upcoming Cars sequel, here is my review of the original Cars from June 9, 2006. As a note, my newspaper reviews have star ratings: five is the best, one is the worst.

Four stars is the lowest rating I’ve ever given a Pixar film. It’s also the second highest rating a movie can get on my scale. You can make your own deductions from there but if one of them resembles this — “Cars is a superb movie that does not equal Pixar’s much-more-superb predecessors,” said by me — then you’re on the right track.

Cars is beautiful. No, Cars is gorgeous. It’s the kind of movie that makes you forget that all other movie mediums exist. Hand-drawn, live action, Claymation … what are they again? I’m now firmly convinced that Pixar workers even dream in computer renderings, and that those visions are the main inspiration for their movies. How else could such mesmerizing images make it to a movie screen? Magic, perhaps, which is where Disney comes in.

This new one takes place in a world where cars are people. They have their own minds, desires, personalities and dreams. When a racing event is held, cars are driven around a track while other cars watch from the bleachers. And when its time for the wave, instead of standing up they flash their high beams. The cars act and think very much like people, except that all their motivations are related to automobiles: their food is gasoline (different grades being different flavors), their shoes are tires (Lightyears, a reference to a certain Buzz) and their bugs are tiny winged VWs. Also, their personalities are akin to the make of the car: a Porsche is a hot young lady, a rusty tow truck is a twangy-voiced redneck, a Ferrari is an Italian racing stud, the lowrider is a gangster, the psychedelic minibuss is a hippie that blares Hendrix during the morning reveille … and so on. Pixar must have made great use of their Auto Trader Magazine because Cars is like a mall parking lot, each space is a different make, model, color with its own unique dents, dings or paintjob.

The movie’s central hero is a slick stock-car named Lightning McQueen, which must be a nod to wheeled daredevil Steve McQueen (IMDb says different). McQueen is a hotshot rookie driver racing for the Piston Cup, a NASCAR-like oval racing league. After a three-way tie during the last race of the season, race officials agree to a tiebreaker a week later in another city. As McQueen travels, the big  rig (his name’s Mack) pulling his trailer falls asleep and dumps McQueen in Radiator Springs, a sad little town on Route 66. In a panic, McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) tears up the street and is apprehended for speeding. Car jail, by the way, is a tire boot and an impound yard. The next morning the judge (voiced by avid race fan and driver Paul Newman) administers a punishment: Lightning must pull Betty, a road paver that spurts hot tar and asphalt and seems to have come from the depths of Hell.

All Pixar movies have a deep relationship to their central themes and Cars is no different. There’s a lesson here — I’ll let you discover how it’s administered — that suggests all cars feel sadness when they get old and are passed over by other greater models. The movie made me think of my own first car, a Hyundai hatchback. I wondered what kind of personality it must have had. Would it speak Korean? And where is it now? Is it happy? Hopefully some other high school student is using it as their first car and its seeing the road again. These are thoughts that race through your head when you get cozy in this flick.

Cars is filled with wonderful characters, or caracters. Radiator Springs especially is filled with the most delightful makes and models. The crowd’s favorite will be Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), a tow truck who’s short on friends but full of heart. In his down time he goes tractor tipping until he’s chased off by a mean combine. When he hears of the Piston Cup, he replies, “He did what in your cup?” The Porsche, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), owns a hotel where the rooms are garages built around giant parking cones. My favorites were Guido and Luigi, two tiny Italian autos who share many a Europeans’ views on racing: NASCAR isn’t racing, Formula 1 is. The first thing they ask McQueen is if he knows any Ferraris. Then, at the end of the film, Formula 1 champ Michael Schumacher (as a Ferrari, of course) wants a set of tires and the little cars sputter, stall and pass out.

More than anything else, though, Pixar has taken animation to the absolute extreme next level. The animation crew seems to have made more innovations since the last picture than ever before. It seems special attention has been paid to lighting and the illusion of depth. The cars look a little cartoony, or maybe eerily too similar to Thomas the Tank Engine, but the world they inhabit is spectacular. In previous Pixar movies the created world seemed to end outside the scene, like a set that’s too expensive to expand out. In Cars, the horizon can be seen miles away, and when we look down a long, hot road, the asphalt sweats and distorts each mile after it. This is a massive world that has been created for these cars to play on, and they sure do have fun.

So why the lower rating? It’s hard to put my finger on. The premise is hard to swallow. Cars as humans is a little strange, especially those grill smiles and windshield eyes. In the other Pixar movies, the worlds were created around humans: bugs were living in a world we also inhabited, toys were moving around when we weren’t looking, monsters were coming out of our closets while we slept, and fish were swimming in an ocean we were exploring. Cars, though, is void of people and it doesn’t have the same dynamic as say Finding Nemo or Toy Story. Cars is a great picture, don’t get me wrong, but with the absence of humans I think audiences might have some questions: Who makes the cars? Are all movie theaters drive-ins? Is the Ford Taurus the slow, nerdy kid that no one wants to hang around? And even if you don't have questions, it's just kinda creepy.

Or consider this: no humans means no car salesmen. Now that’s a utopia, or maybe autopia.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rambunctious teens are the stars in Super 8

Popcorn has never tasted this good. Not real popcorn, mind you, but the popcorn-movie variety. The genre has been increasingly stale in recent summers. Not this time.

Super 8 is a perfect summer movie. It comes from the guy who invented the summer movie — Steven Spielberg — which means that Super 8 comes from a stately pedigree: Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. It’s a mixture of all those, and also the kid-classic The Goonies, from which Super 8 mines its spontaneous energy and wonder.

We can talk comparisons all day, but really this is a wholly original movie, a fantastically nostalgic romp with some pre-teens as they discover their own voices and the alien that terrorizes their small Ohio town. Set inside the framework of Super 8 is a movie within a movie, which is where our young stars make their entrance.

The year is 1979 and Joe (Joel Courtney) is the makeup man on an 8mm movie project called The Case, a zombie film written and directed by his best friend Charles, a lovable tyrant of a director who might be a Francis Ford Coppola facsimile. Cary, with a wild smile full of braces, is the film’s special effects wiz and pyromaniac. Martin, who throws up whenever he’s nervous, is the zombie flick’s star. The boys are in high school — based on their plucky attitudes, probably freshman.

These youngsters are authentic boys in every way: they like baseball and model kits, they ride their bikes everywhere, they bicker and argue in rowdy overlapping bursts, and they swear like little pirates. The big F word is mostly off limits; just the nickel-and-dime swears — shit, hell, damn — the ones that every kid in America knows and uses because it’s rebellious and fun. Remember when Elliott said "penis breath" in E.T.? It didn't inflict any damage on my young mind, and neither will these swear words so don't be afraid to take your children.

Swearing or not, I loved these kids. They make the movie. Each has their own quirks and interests, which gives them personality and spunk. I liked the Charles kid, who lives in one of those big houses with a gaggle of brothers and sisters who terrorize their parents at every dinner table gathering — in every shot someone is getting walloped repeatedly with a plastic bat. It reminded me of Ned Beatty’s house in 1941, the one with the kids who bounce off the walls as Beatty’s ack-ack gun is driven through the living room.

While Joe and the rest of the film crew shoot a late-night scene at a train station, they witness a horrific train crash that turns loose a captured alien, a massive beast that disappears into the brush and quietly escalates a campaign of terror on the town: Electricity flickers. The local dogs flee for neighboring communities. Engines from cars at a car dealership are stolen: “How do I explain this to my insurance company?” the lot owner screeches. Joe’s dad, the town’s ranking deputy after the sheriff turns up missing or eaten, tries to piece everything together to no avail. The deputy is played by Kyle Chandler, who was in another perfect popcorn movie about a monster and a movie within a movie — Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake.

There’s only one female character, Alice, played by Elle Fanning (Somewhere), Dakota’s little sister. She’s taller and slightly more developed than the boys because that’s the way it is; girls mature faster than boys. She has several great scenes, including one where she wows the film crew with her acting. Her careful performance provides a tender contrast to the film’s other sides: the action-heavy bombast, the witty banter with the boys, and the sci-fi thrills.

With the thrills, there are many. And they aren’t just gotcha moments, where the soundtrack volume jumps to illicit cheap shocks. Super 8 works — and works hard — for its electric jolts. I liked one scene with an electrician who hears strange noises while suspended high up above a utility truck. He goes higher and higher until the bucket he’s riding in tops out at the perfect chomping height for space aliens.

Action and thrills are prominent in Super 8, but the film never panders to the lowest common denominator. It’s fun and exciting, but also incredibly intuitive about filmgoers’ tastes. There’s a generally accepted misconception that some audiences want “mindless entertainment” — that they “don’t want to think, but just enjoy a movie.” (I get emails like this every time I pan a blockbuster movie.) This idea perpetuates movies by Michael Bay and others who feel obligated to create explosion after explosion for no other reasons than just because. Or it “looks cool.” Considering the horribleness of the last Transformers movie, this film philosophy doesn’t hold much water.

Here’s a test: go on YouTube and watch videos of building demolitions. Time yourself. If you can do this for more than two hours then you’re in a rather small minority I would not admit to in public. Most people want substance, whether they realize it or not. They want the plot, and the characters within it, to make sense. Here’s a movie that combines all the popcorny elements — gunfights, explosions, aliens, chases — into a coherent plot that will impress the hell out of you with its keen eye for detail, sharp sense of humor and its irreverent journey into the life of boys.

What begins as an adventure, quickly veers into science-fiction, mystery, action and lots of human dramas, including a half-expected romance and a painful revelation about Joe's deceased mother who may have had something to do with Alice's dad and why he's such a grump. The military also makes an appearance, as does a barking colonel who turns the Ohio town into a warzone as soldiers criss-cross the streets searching for their escaped extraterrestrial. The movie excels with each new addition to the plot. Each new layer adds to the whole, and the young actors adapt with ease. I fear that some will find the finale implausible and silly, but I saw it as a natural progression to its end. (Speaking of ends, stay for the credits to watch The Case in its entirety.)

It’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg is producing this film. He was a boy himself when he began filming his own Super 8 movies. I’ve mentioned Spielberg several times before this, but he’s not the director. J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, TV’s Alias) has that job, and he does it well. I just see more of Spielberg in this than of Abrams. Super 8 feels like a splendid mixture of E.T. and Goonies, two classic Spielberg projects that understood what it meant to be young and to seek out that one great adventure before a boy became a man, uncoiled from his imagination and entered adulthood. This is one of those rare movies that makes me want to be a kid again.