Sunday, June 28, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: Bigger, Louder, Goofier

When the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences extended its best picture category this week to include 10 nominations for 2010, instead of the usual 5, perhaps they had in mind pictures like this weekend's Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. This is the kind of big, massively viewed film that the Academy hopes will grace its awards so it can draw more viewers to its struggling ceremony.

Already, this movie is being compared to Batman: The Dark Knight - at least in terms of the one measure that counts most in Hollywood, weekend box-office. Clearly, this film is a successful tent pole for the Hollywood entertainment machine. The only question, I suppose, is whether it's any good.

From the reactions in the theater, it's certainly a successful crowd-pleaser. For some people, I think, this will be enough. Basically this is a re-hash of the story in the first movie: the good transforming Autobots battling the bad transforming Decepticons (both of whom were - in the last movie at least - advertisements for GM cars) on the battlefield of Earth, all entangled with the life of one boy, Sam Witwicky, who holds their destiny in his hands (played with gusto by Shia LaBeaof, who's beginning to nicely fill out the leading action-man role and obviously has a secure future in blockbusters ahead of him), and who's helped along by his hot, hot-rod-addicted girlfriend (played by Megan Fox, who gets to do a little bit more this time than being Michael Bay eye-candy).

That's all you need to know of the plot (except, perhaps, to know that the Transformers are a Hasbro toy turned into a franchise, and where you can go buy the merchandise for your kids. Disclaimer: I own 3 shares of Hasbro stock, bought before this movie's release.)

The idea behind this outing of Transformers, then, seems to basically be this: take everything that worked in the first film, and do it bigger, badder, goofier, and more often. Audiences loved the goofy, smothering parents in Transformers 1, so here they get to be even more goofy and smothering (the mother gets a hold of some wacky weed while dropping off young Sam at college). The kick-ass Marines, led Josh Duhamel as Major Lennox, get to be even more kick-ass, teaming up with the Transformers as a "special squad" whose job it seems is to go around creating destruction in some random place in the world somewhere. There are more Transformers on both sides and the battles are bigger, longer, more explosive, and with much more massive collateral damage, which requires really precise special effects machinery to lay-on all those explosions and ordinance around flying actors and stomping CGI Autobots. The budgets were obviously loosened on this film, and everyone on the special effects teams has done a great bang-up job blowing up towns, cars, highways, monuments, and just about everything else from Shanghai to Paris to Egypt, and training actors to go flying, turning, and hurling against a green screen somewhere. It all feels pretty seamless and I felt like taking the F/X crew all out for a beer just to say, "good job."

Much like the mega-Transformer which appears mid-movie by assembling itself from dozens of Decepticons to become a massive, whirling wind-sucking machine, Michael Bay has essentially borrowed tropes here from dozens of summer movies and assembled them into a loud, whirligig of a movie, cobbled from pieces of CGI destruction, officious characters, cartoon baddies, and goofy interludes. One can recognize pieces of everything from Close Encounters to Team America to X-Men 3, Independence Day to Fifth Element to Indiana Jones. And by "transform," I mean, he turns this all into a specially flavored type of confection that is typically Michael Bay: strong emotive music signaling when we should have our patriotic feeling, a 360 degree camera whirl around the characters that leaves you with mind-numbing vertigo, and the classic Bay "hero shot" of the dream team walking slow-mo into the sunset. If you've never seen a summer movie before (let alone a Michael Bay movie like Pearl Harbor, The Rock, or Armageddon), I imagine this must be impressive - which is why, I suppose, the youngest people in the audience seemed to be having the best time. For the rest of us who have some familiarity of the Bay oeuvre, the technique in this movie borders very close to self parody...and makes some scenes physically unwatchable.

As for what it all adds up to, well, this is left intentionally vague, I believe. The Transformer formula, I think, is to let the audience fill in whatever meaning it cares to: all the better to sell the toys to youngsters, who can let their imagination go wild. There is a sniveling government baddy, Galloway, played by John Hicky, as a replacement to John Turturro's black-suited agent nerd (who's turned into one of the good guys, in this film). Galloway is an officious oaf presumably sent by President Obama to stupidly shut down the heroic Major Lennox's operation with the Autobots. We're mean to root against him, and he gets his comeuppance at the hands of the more macho military types, who know what to do with sniveling sissy-men. I couldn't figure out, however, if this was a right-wing anti-government take ("don't trust your leaders," says one wise Autobot - while an Obama picture flashes by in the background - and much of the action in fact requires that the various heroes take matters into their own hands). At the same time, much of the purpose of the action requires just the kind of inter-species cooperation, out-of-the-box thinking and non-conformist initiative that would characterize an Obama's defence approach much more than Bush's. In fact, the person I was with in the movie thought Galloway was there to represent Bush Administration thinking: rigid, top-down, cover-your-ass. I, however, saw this as the film-maker's attitude to the current "leaders."

Clearly, then, Bay has constructed this to mean whatever you want: leaders simply are not popular, whoever they are. We need to trust our feelings, and it's the boys who put themselves on the line who are the heroes, who have a great destiny in store to save the world (and get laid by beautiful babes), no matter how goofy their parents might seem.

That message has clearly found its audience. I don't think the word for this kind of summer entertainment should be, as many commonly say, "mindless." More like, "visceral." The experience in the theater is meant to jar us: scramble our eyes and pound our ears with a two-hour ride through an amusement park of casual destruction, embarrassing parents, meddlesome aliens, explosive battles, and a race to save the world.

So is it good? I had a mildly good time, but I think it's particularly great training for the next generation of Army recruits.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Year One: The Discovery of Schtick

The trailer for Year One is promising. It suggests a kind of high-concept parody of 10,000 BC, staring Jack Black and Michael Cera as an almost modern-day Dean Martin /Jerry Lewis wandering through a mish-mash of pre- and post- history. Jack Black does his lovable idiot thing and Michael Cera does his mumbled nerd thing amongst tribal infighting, Biblical sketch comedy, and Peleponesian ritual sacrifice.

Sounds like it might offer a laugh or two. Jack Black and Michael Cera are two cave men ("Zed" and "Oh") who have to leave the tribe after Zed eats from the forbidden tree of knowledge and accidentally burns down the camp. Like Martin and Lewis traveling the desert, the two head out into the wide world in search of mishap and adventure.

It's hard to say exactly where this high-concept parody goes wrong. Is it the wondering story, that quickly leaves our pre-historic setup and enters into some kind of Biblical textbook, sending the characters through various Old Testament set-ups without any particular rhyme or reason? Well, other comedies have pulled that off - Monty Python practically made a career out of it.

Is it the low-brow poop and pee humor, that disgusts more than it entertains? Well, comedies from Something About Mary to Austin Powers have turned such scatological gags into an art form.

Is it the lovingly Jewish old-Testament humor, which seems right out of the Catskills? I don't know: Mel Brooks turned a completely Jewish-inflected type of paranoia, in the Producers, into a Broadway hit.

So where did Harold Ramis go wrong? Was he overcome by Jack Black's self-involved humor, and couldn't give him any real direction for his scenes? Did he fail to develop the jokes, and let running relatively unfunny gags like a pathologically lying Cain run on too long? Did he rely too much on old low-brow staples like tired pedophilia humor and jokes about hairy palms? Was it the presence of a vamping, hairy Oliver Platt as the High Priest, or the brooding Vinnie Jones as the sullen guard, who bring the movie to a screeching halt? Did it all go wrong in the editing bay, when all the random humor came together without any real punch?

Could be all of that. For the most part, Cera holds up his end of the movie, taking his lovable mumbling schlep character into the simple past, where he just wants to get his wick wet with camp hottie Eema. Cera ballances Black's extra-buffoonish performance with some well needed sarcasm, and makes this hour-and-a-half movie, which seems interminably long, somewhat bearable.

But really, this movie would have been much more serviceable as a six minute sketch on "Saturday Night Live." Ramis's attempts to stretch the concept into a feature prove that not all good comedy concepts can stand the full scrutiny of a cinematic treatment.

The one insight from this film is that we seem to have finally established the next generation of comedians. With figures like Black, Cera, and the irrepressible Christopher Mintz-Plasse now able to make flops as easily as blockbusters, we've definitely passed the baton to tomorrow's comedians. Let's hope on their next outing, they have a better go of it.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Up: Points in Direction of Continued Success for Pixar

Count me on the bandwagon of critics who have been pleasantly surprised and entertained by this latest Pixar creation, which will compete along with Finding Nemo and Toy Story as one of the great Pixar films and new-era Disney classics. Unlike other films aimed to exploit the summer kid market at the expense of adults, Up is a thoroughly sophisticated film, a story as layered as the best literature, that also speaks to children in a way that keeps them entertained throughout.

The genius of this film lies in the 20-minute prologue, which encapsulates the life of old-man Carl Fredericksen beginning when he is a little boy, enthralled with the adventures of the lost-world traveling Charles Muntz (voiced with marvelous obsessional zeal by Christopher Plummer). The young Carl meets an equally enraptured young girl - Ellie - who ends up becoming his wife. Carl and Ellie vow to travel to South America together, to have their great adventure. But life has a way of getting in the way, and by the time Carl and Ellie are ready to leave on their trip to South America, it is too late - for Ellie, at least.

The introduction with Carl's back story is surprisingly moving - It's a Wonderful Life done with a gently animated montage - but also, extremely smart. By introducing Carl as a boy with a shared dream, both the children and the adults in the audience are more fully able to relate to the 78-year-old Carl, whose dream is no more complicated than to fulfill a child's desire, and a promise he made to the love of his life. While others might interpret the aloof Carl to be a self-obsessed shut-in, we're able to understand the powerful sentimentality - and sadness - that drives him on his quest.

Interestingly, while grief has closed Carl up, everyone he meets on his journey is unabashedly open - from the obsequious eight-year-old explorer Russell, who is inadvertently swept along with Carl on his journey of self-exploration, to the wonderfully zany creatures they encounter along the way, including a talking dog and a kind of big blue ostrich. All they want to do is love the grumpy, single-minded Carl, but they all find that friendship is not quite as simple as it seems. As with the best children's stories, then, Carl's journey is about finding a passage out of grief and back into life, or the next stage of his life, anyway.

Thus Up is the direction that Carl must go, and as Freud so insightfully pointed out, his house is the symbol that he must take with him (Freud, if you missed that class in college, postulated that a house, in dreams, represents our own ego - or more literally, our own body). Thus it is in this story that Carl literally ties an immense bouquet of balloons to his chimney in order to float his house from the city that's grown up around him to the wilds of South America.

Through a wonderfully handled use of metonymy, Carl's house also acquires the name Ellie - it literally becomes the memory of his wife, which he must drag with him until the dream and balloons deflate, and the house finally empties itself. Of course, all this symbolism means nothing to the kids in the audience, who simply find the talking dogs hilarious and the menacing Muntz an efficacious villain. They also justifiably sympathize with the loquacious young Randall's attempts to penetrate the defenses of the equally obsessed Carl.

If all this story had going for it was the sympathetic telling of an old man re-finding his joy for life, it wouldn't be such a success. Pixar blends that story with the humor and animated thrills that have become its trademark - the two old men stiffening into a freeze when their backs both go out as they are about to begin a sword fight; a wonderful pause in the big chase scene as in response to the "where'd they go" question, Randall slaps against the big window in front of Muntz and squeezes along it, while Muntz only follows with his eyes; the various looks of surprise and awe as Carl's house drifts along the buildings of his city as he makes his ascent.

The Pixar team has mastered the ability to pack a lot of meaning into these brief moments of expression - they sweat the details, and the results are there on the screen. Like the most complex and revealing of dreams, Up carries us along through the wilds of the imagination, and then brings us back home with a satisfying awakening. It is the most basic of stories, told with the kind of wonder that enthralls adults and children alike.