TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

By R. David

Published June 30, 2011

Michael Bay is generally considered by critics to be a terrible director. Not just a terrible director, but a soulless monster who has ruined cinema as we know it. Most of the pundits go on about him in their reviews as if he broke into their house, killed their dog and made off with their wife.  He gets so much shit that I fear many critics have given up even trying to be objective and simply call whatever his latest film is the worst movie since the last dung pile he flung at us. With each film comes a bevy of soundbites from various critics saying things like, “I died a little inside.”

The truth is Michael Bay is a very good director. A hugely talented one, actually, as far as judging directing as an art form is concerned. His films – his shots – are simply gorgeous.  He simply chooses to work with scripts that are often dumber than dumb. It’s not exactly fair that he takes the brunt of the criticism for what’s written on the pages of the scripts he works with (after all, he doesn’t write his films, he’s simply the guy responsible for bringing as much life to the material – as written – as possible, and that is one thing he does exceedingly well). I’m not making excuses for him, however. No one forces him to work with these dopey screenplays that treat things like story and character development as an afterthought (if it bothers to tend to them at all). He clearly is more concerned with spectacle.  Epic, awesome, thundering spectacle. Its all about visual flair and ain’t-that-cool camera moves. Less is not more for Michael Bay. More is more. And that is fine. There is a place in cinema for a guy who wants to push the boundaries of what an action extravaganza can be and how great it can look. James Cameron is generally thought to be this sort of director, and he gets all sorts of respect for it. Many would argue that is because he combines original and interesting stories with his eye-popping visuals, whereas Bay makes the equivalent of a 13 year-old’s wet dream with each film. Fair enough, but I’ll take “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” or “Bad Boys” over any of the pretentious crap Cameron has churned out over the last two decades (and yes, that includes that bloated, hokey ball of cheese “Avatar”).

Notice I didn’t include the “Transformers” trilogy in that list though. With the “Transformers” films (and “Pearl Harbor” before it), I feel Bay is playing right into the hands of his detractors. They are dumb. Too dumb. Too childish and too silly. Yes, even for movies based on a cartoon and line of kids toys. They are also too much. Even for Bay. His muchness is generally what makes his films so damn off-the-rails cool in spite of their shaky scripts. But the “Transformers” films are simply too much muchness. The action scenes are a jumbled blur of color and metal, making it all but impossible to tell which Transformer you were looking at, and who’s clobbering who in the battle sequences. And despite Bay working on some of his largest scales to date, and certainly with his largest budgets to this point, these films seem to show him regressing as a director. Many shots are poorly framed, the camera work is herky-jerky, and there are continuity and flow issues that seem more glaring than in any of his other films. Maybe working with so much more CGI than he was used to was tough for him to bite off. Who knows? But the bottom line is that the first “Transformers” was mediocre (too long, too silly, too jumbled, but with some of Bay’s usual impressive chase and action sequences), while the second film, “Revenge of the Fallen,” is the first time I agreed with critics, not that “I died inside” for having watched it, but that Bay seemed to have jumped the shark, submitting a film that was stupid, incoherent, boated, nonsensical, boring, ugly and pointless. It’s his worst film to date and it would be an amazing feet if he were ever to top it’s awfulness.

“Dark of the Moon,” while not a great film by any means – it still suffers from the same problems that critics have been carping about with all of these films – is an improvement over the second “Transformers”. That may sound like faint praise, but it’s all anyone could realistically have asked for at this point. “Transformers” has become big business, a successful product that no one in their right mind is going to tamper with at the risk of losing potential hundreds of millions of dollars. So credit Bay for at least acknowledging number 2 was crap and that there was room for improvement. This is no revamp – the same issues with laden comedy, bloated action sequences and crazy over-length remain – but there is a more focused story, you can tell (most of the time) which robot you’re looking at and who’s fighting who, there are some eye-popping action sequences (nice knowing you, Chicago!), and hey, at least they fired Meghan Fox.

The plot being somewhat more focused, however, doesn’t mean it’s any less beside the point.  It’s still just an excuse for Bay to inflict his usual Bayhem on the viewer. Something about NASA discovering a Transformer spacecraft on the moon, which the Autobots need to stop the Decepticons from retrieving or they will be able to take over the universe and enslave our planet (yeah, that old story again).  So, cue Shia LaBouf screaming like an annoying little girl as everything explodes around him.

It’s all goofy and ridiculous, but then again, it is a movie about waring alien robots, so you get what you signed up for. At least it’s all pretty tolerable this time, as opposed to the grating second film. Still, if you hated the others, this won’t win you over. If you loved the others, you’ll love this one. At least Bay knows his audience enough to be consistent in giving them what they want. It is pretty clear though that this franchise is about out of gas. I think its about time Michael Bay stops making movies about alien robots blowing shit up and gets back to making movies about wise-cracking cops blowing shit up.

2.5 stars out of 4.

BRIDESMAIDS

By R. David

Published June 10, 2011

I know the rap on this movie is that its a real crowd-pleaser that both men and women can enjoy. That “men too” point must be qualified because, as the studio would rightly assume, any movie called “Bridesmaids” which lacks a single male in its principal cast would certainly send boyfriends and husbands running for the hills at the very suggestion they be forced to endure such an obvious chick flick (one about weddings no less!). But wait, guys! The twist here is that there are all kinds of frank conversations about sex acts, a lengthy sequence where all the main characters puke and shit on each other, and lots of slapstick dumb-assery where people fall down or otherwise look ridiculous and embarrass themselves. You know guys, all the dumb shit that makes a guy’s movie a guy’s movie, because crude and brainless humor is the only humor you can comprehend!

If that alone weren’t condescending enough, “Bridesmades” still shoehorns in every chick flick cliche in the book, and you’re still watching a movie in which no one responds to any situation in a way that resembles anything close to the way human beings interact and characters spend long stretches of the film bickering over everything from hurt feelings to bridesmaid dresses. In other words, “Bridesmaids” is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: The same old tired chick flick crap, with some “guy humor” thrown in to hedge its cross-gender-appeal bets. I’ll admit, its not nearly as horrid as say, “The Ugly Truth,” “Bride Wars,” “The Bounty Hunter,” “The Back-Up Plan,” or any other number of recent awful, forgettable and interchangeable romcoms from hell (If anyone can, off the top of their head, remember what films belong to those titles, you win a prize), but frankly there is nothing in “Bridesmaids” that seems the least bit original or authentic, and the film really doesn’t feel like it should appeal to men or women. Shows what I know though, since at the screening I attended, women seemed almost giddy at the idea that this movie was somehow a honest depiction of how they interact. Really, ladies? This is the most false, cloying, cartoony depiction of female relations since “Sex in the City.” You might like to think these films are some sort of living mirror for you and your friends to get all nostalgic over, but they have about as much in common with real life and real relationships as a night out at the bars for me and my friends has in common with “The Hangover”.

Which brings us back to this idea that “Bridesmaids” works as a perfect date movie because it throws in some gross out scenes for the guys to distract from the weepy romcom cliches that make up the other 95% of the movie. As a guy, I’ll simply say this: Gross-out gags and sex talk do not automatically equal funny to us, and even if they did, no guy wants to see anything close to that “fitting scene”, and even if I did find such scenes to be the height of hilarity, this movie would still be a typical, predictable bore.

1.5 stars out of 4

SUPER 8

By R. David

Published June 10, 2011

Overrated before it even hit theaters, it would be easy to be cynical about “Super 8″, J.J. Abrams’ Spielbergian throwback to kid-centric adventure fantasies like “E.T.” and “The Goonies”. There are many plot developments that make little sense, or at least require some explanation that never comes, and tonally it often shifts from too silly to too melodramatic. But, like the movies it pays loving tribute to, it will be better enjoyed if you just go with it. After all, movies like “The Goonies” and “Gremlins” are not exactly fondly remembered for their finer plot points. “Super 8″ works on a similar level of both big, summer movie spectacle and coming-of-age heart.

It’s small-town Ohio in the late 70s. Young Joe Lamb (a pitch-perfect Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother and is having trouble relating to his father, the town’s deputy sherrif (Kyle Chandler). His primary means of escape is working on a super-8 movie he and his group of middle school friends plan to enter in a local contest. During a late night shoot by the railroad tracks, a pick-up truck slams head-on into a speeding train. Suddenly the power starts going out all over town, car engines and dogs are disappearing and the military locks down the town providing few answers. When the kids realize they may have captured the answer on their camera, they become entangled in much more than they bargained for.

Having now seen “Super 8,” whole hush-hush lockdown on prerelease details of the film is rather silly in hindsight since, despite having Abrams at the helm, there are no “Lost” type mysteries or revelations here. There is the “what is it?” question that the trailer posed, but “it” is more or less the very sort of thing you’d expect. Where “Super 8″ excels is in it’s ability to effectively blend the kids’ family and friendship drama with the extraordinary events unfolding around them. The action sequences are staged well enough, but this military secret on the lose and locking the town down stuff is pretty standard. Like Spielberg before him, Abrams realizes you need something more than pure spectacle for the audience to relate to and be moved by.

There’s not much going on in “Super 8″ that hasn’t been done before, but Abrams and crew cover the familiar ground with a sense of urgency and obvious affection. The proceedings benefit from his ability to genuinely surprise and move the audience where necessary. The action stuff gets away from him at times (that train crash is fun to look at, but its ridiculously over the top; I’m talking “Transformers” level excessive, and what exactly were all those tanks and troopers firing on, all off in different directions,  at the end there?), and some of the script’s more cliched elements occasionally become tiresome. But overall “Super 8″ effectively captures the spirit and thrills of the films that inspired it.

3 stars out of 4

HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN

By R. David

Published June 3, 2011

The hilariously self-explanatory title should tell you all you need to know about “Hobo with a Shotgun”, a balls-out entry in the recent barrage of cinematic homages, throwbacks, whatever-you-want-to-call-them to the the junk-action exploration flicks of the 70s and 80s. Like “Gindhouse,” “Machete” and “Drive Angry” to name a few, HWAS gets the tone and look of the films that inspired it just right. Unlike those films however, HWAS actually feels like a long-forgotten, unearthed flick plucked off a video store shelf, rather than a multimillion dollar blockbuster trying to look cheap and constantly winking at the audience. Unfortunately, this also proves to be the film’s weakness as a little bit of the ugly mayhem on display here goes a long way.

Rutger Hauer (charismatic as always) is a drifter who stumbles into a town run by a crimelord and his two batshit-insane sons, and overrun by thieves, whores, addicts, crooked cops, and drug dealers. The entire society seems to exist in some alternate reality where criminals don’t have to worry about any consequences for their actions. Hauer dreams of raising $50 to buy a lawnmower and start a business (why here, and why he doesn’t just catch the first boxcar back out of town, I don’t know) but instead becomes a vigilante, the lone voice of opposition to the overwhelming criminal element of the city. And, wait for it…. He uses a shotgun.

HWAS’ premise is as hilariously straightforward and ridiculous as it’s title . Several scenes hit the mark perfectly. But the film overplays it’s hand on several occasions with some scenes that are simply too nasty and too uncomfortable to be any fun. When people criticize some of the other films of this type for being too jokey in trying to recapture this genre, they must forget that many of these movies were pretty grim. A movie called “Hobo With a Shotgun” should not be grim or leave a bad taste. It should be fun.  Criticizing a movie like HWAS for being too crazy may seem silly since being ‘too much’ is essentially the point. Make no mistake, from a movie like this I want crazy, I want violent, I want over the top. But I want to have fun with it, not feel put off.

“Hobo With a Shotgun” scores with it’s premise, it’s overall vibe and many stellar sequences. There is a lot to admire here. But overall it’s simply not nearly as much fun as it should be and leaves a bad taste.

2 stars out 4.

THE HANGOVER PART II

By R. David

Published May 26, 2011

Essentially a remake of the first movie only in a different location, “The Hangover II” not only follows the same blueprint as the first in its presentation of events and humor, but recycles entire scenes and specific gags from the first film as well. What’s new this time around is Bangkok standing in for Las Vegas, a drug-pushing monkey tagging along for the ride instead of a baby, Stu (Ed Helms) is the guy getting married, and there is a darker and raunchier vibe to the proceedings. Critics have been hard on this film, calling it a carbon copy of the original, only with a more mean-spirited tone. Ironically, though, these are precisely the assets that made it work (for the most part) for me.

I liked the original “Hangover”, but I didn’t love it. There was this hype, even before it opened, that the film somehow transcended the fratboy, “bromance” humor typical of films of its kind; and it was to be some sort of original breath of fresh air for the genre. Was it funny? Yes. Was it anything new, groundbreaking, or even different? Not at all. Everything in it was as well-worn in every film of its type since the days of “Porky’s,” and even in more recent “guy comedies” that appealed to both sexes like “Wedding Crashers” and “The 40 Year-Old Virgin”. “The Hangover’s” assets more or less lay in the way it colors in the margins of a standard-issue road trip comedy of errors with well-written characters, jokes and situations. It wasn’t the height of hilarity that many fans would have you believe, but there was plenty of fun to be had.

Recreating several scenes form the first film for the sequel was clearly a nod to what worked, rather than the filmmakers simply not having new ideas. It is fun to watch so many of the same things occur again and the characters look on in utter disbelief that they are again caught in such crazy circumstances. As for the darker tone, I’m the complete opposite of the type of movie-goer who thinks raunchier or crueler is better or automatically funny just because some writer was able to come up with the grossest thing no other writer yet has. But if there was one thing the original film could have done to feel fresher, it would have been to amp up the situations beyond the typical “What, I got so shitfaced in Vegas last night I ended up married and don’t even remember it?!” business as usual. The Wolfpack’s Bangkok adventure is definitely crazier and it feels like there is more at stake this time. Zach Galifianakis’ shtick has grown more tiresome as he has been playing essentially the same character in everything since he struck gold with audiences in the original, but the he still scores some laughs, and the rest of the cast hit all the right notes again as well.

There’s not much new going on in “Hangover II,” but I have a feeling if this were the first film, people would have liked it just as well. It might be more of the same, and it will probably suffer with most audiences because of that, but truth be told, it’s also just as funny.

3 stars out of 4.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

By R. David

Published May 20, 2011

4 films later I am still surprised by the massive global fanfare for this franchise. I enjoyed the first film well enough for Johnny Depp’s (then) fresh and inspired performance, the film’s surprisingly often dark tone and texture, and the simple fact that a movie based on nothing more than a theme park ride had anything interesting going for it at all. Despite those assets however, the film also felt at times long, plodding and tedious; all problems that became more and more glaring with each successive installment. “Pirates” 2 and 3, like any good piece of corporate exploitation, milked every last drop of goodwill from the first film and Depp’s now-iconic character, reaching a suck-apex with the third chapter, “At World’s End”; a truly miserable and endless slog that went on for over three hours for no apparent reason. Boring, noisy, obnoxious and pointless, I wanted to slam my efin’ head into the seat in front of me repeatedly throughout that debacle.

I am happy to report that “On Stranger Tides” is not nearly as awful of a film as “World’s End” and its at least shorter than “Dead Man’s Chest” (#2). But “Tides” still follows the same tedious blueprint of capture-swordfight-chase-escape-repeat, with some wisecracks and a whole bunch of over-baked exposition thrown in between. Here Capt. Jack hooks up with the daughter of Blackbeard (an adequate Penelope Cruz) to find the fountain of youth and the usual antics ensue. On the plus side are Ian McShane’s performance as Blackbeard, the addition of some murderous mermaids and a mercifully shorter running time. But it isn’t short enough. Depp and the others keep making a point in interviews to mention the shorter length, as if to reassure fans who had the same reaction I did to the endless, off-the-rails previous installment. But this film is still nearly two and a half hours long, which is insane for a dumb pirate movie. What is it with Hollywood thinking that movies about things like pirates, transforming alien robots and boy wizards need to constantly approach the 3 hour mark? Insanely convoluted story lines and over-length have always been the “Pirates” films’ weak link, so why not just do everyone involved a favor and make it a clean 90 minutes, and in all probability a better movie?

Overall, “On Stranger Tides” is essentially more of the same. Depending on your affection (or lack their of) for this franchise, that’s either a recommendation or a warning.

2 stars out of 4

THOR

By R. David

Published May 6, 2011

Meh. A little of this Fury of the Gods stuff goes a long way with me, and despite some clever script elements, “Thor” adheres mainly to the Spartan-speak and lightening-shooting-out-of-things typical of this type of film. Relative unknown Chris Hemsworth is well cast as the titular hero, the God of Thunder with a hammer forged from the stars (or some shit). He is banished from his home planet for his arrogance and disobedience by his father, King Anthony Hopkins, but wouldn’t ya know it, his planet needs him to take down his traitor brother and just maybe he’ll learn to be a better man-god in the process. Oh, and he also wants to pork Natalie Portman.

“Thor” is getting a lot of good reviews, mostly for the script’s Shakespeareian overtones, director Kenneth Branagh’s handling of the action (who knows a thing or two about Shakespeare), and Hemsworth’s performance which is adequate, good even, but far from revelatory. And the critics are correct up to this point. But as entertainment – and an entry in the recent lexicon of comic book films – it lacks the epic depth and gritty realism of Tim Burton’s and Chris Nolan’s Batman films, as well as the hip and ironic flair of the first Iron Man movie (something even its sequel had a hard time living up to). “Thor” isn’t a bad film by any means. Many, especially kids, will probably love it. But in order to do so you’d have to be a major fan of style over substance, and tried and true over originality.

2.5 stars out of 4.