Sunday, June 28, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen / ** (PG-13)

Sam Witwicky: Shia Labeouf
Mikaela Banes: Megan Fox
Captain Lennox: Josh Duhamel
USAF Tech Sergeant Epps: Tyrese Gibson
Leo: Ramon Rodriguez
Alice: Isabel Lucas
Ron Witwicky: Kevin Dunn
Judy Witwicky: Julie White
Agent Simmons: John Turturo

Featuring the voice talents of:
Optimus Prime: Peter Cullen
Megatron: Hugo Weaving
Jetfire: Mark Ryan
Wheelie/Skids: Tom Kenny
Mudflap: Reno Wilson
Soundwave/Devastator: Frank Welker
Starscream: Charles Adler
The Fallen: Tony Todd

Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures present a film directed by Michael Bay. Written by Ehren Kruger & Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Based on the Hasbro toy line. Running time: 150 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence, language, some crude and sexual material, and brief drug material).

I’m just a little ticked off at Michael Bay. This review required more research than I’ve ever had to put into a cast list before. It’s bad enough that even for its two and a half hour running time the cast of humans and robots is far too large for anyone to know who anyone is, but apparently DreamWorks and Paramount weren’t even able to get proper casting information out to ahead of time. You certainly can’t tell who’s who by watching the movie. But let’s back up a bit before I start nit-picking about what a hunk of CGI of metal calls himself, or not.

“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” had me. I was there, enjoying a big loud ridiculous summer blockbuster filled with more explosions than a promo DVD sent to the Coyote by the ACME Corporation. I liked it. I was enjoying myself. I was there. And then a giant robot walked out of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum—the one located at Dulles International Airport, not the one located on the Washington Mall—onto a great plain filled with hundreds of large airplanes with a picaresque mountain backdrop, and I said to myself, “that really doesn’t look like Dulles Airport to me. It doesn’t even look like the nearby historic Sully Plantation, a fairly wooded area. Where are they supposed to be? Why would an ancient alien robot that can transform itself into any airplane be disguised as a modern stealth bomber when there are such historic planes featured in the Smithsonian, like the Enola Gay, that it could much more interestingly inhabit?”

There I go, nitpicking again when I did start out liking this movie for the first hour or so. Sure I had to ignore such glaring mistakes as characters asking why the evil alien robots, the Decepticons, are still on our planet, when those same characters point out that the government still has a shard of the Allspark—the device sought by the Decepticons in the first “Transformers” for its ability to give robot life. Heck they steal the thing to bring their leader Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving, “The Matrix” trilogy) back to life from his grave at the bottom of the Pacific. Maybe that’s why they stuck around?

But in the world of Transformers, nothing is as simple as it should be. You see that’s not why the Decepticons stuck around. No, they’re still here because an ancient Decepticon, known as The Fallen (voiced by Tony Todd, “Candyman”), wants to find a device built on Earth by his alien robot species in the pre-history of man that would leach all the energy of our universe’s sun, destroying life on Earth. This was when the civil war between the two factions of this alien race began. The faction that refused to destroy an inhabited universe would eventually become the Autobots. Since all this was before the Autobots’ time, none were aware of the sun-eating device, including their leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, also long-time voice for Eeyore in the “Winnie the Pooh” films). So if the Autobots didn’t exist when all that ancient gobbledygook happened then why are our heroes shocked to discover that the robot they were looking for in the Smithsonian is a Decepticon? Weren’t they paying attention to the history lesson? I was, desperately.

Now I’ve gotten away from telling you what I liked about the movie again. And, that’s just “Transformers” problem, those pesky robots just keep getting in the way. Unlike the first movie, there is an attempt in this one to let the human characters breathe a little. Sam Witciky (Shia Labeouf, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”), the hero of the first film, is off to an Ivy League college. His father (Kevin Dunn, “Small Soldiers”) is ecstatic—aside from the $40,000 a year—and his mom (Julie White, “The Astronaut Farmer”) is hysterical. She is especially hysterical when she gets a hold of some “green” brownies on campus. Sam’s girlfriend, Mikeala (Megan Fox, “How to Loose Friends and Alienate People”) is concerned about the distance between L.A. and the East Coast. His Autobot bodyguard, Bubblebee, is saddened by the fact that Sam must leave him home because freshmen can’t have cars.

That paragraph contains more character development than the first movie had in its entire running length. Mostly what appealed to me about these opening passages was that the screenwriters, Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, found ways to squeeze some comic relief in between the explosions and special effects. There’re even a few good comic moments coming from some of the transformers. Wheelie (voiced by Tom “SpongeBob Squarepants” Kenny) is a Decepticon who switches to the good guys once he develops a crush on Megan Fox. There are twin Autobots, Mudflap (Reno Wilson, “Crank: High Voltage”) and Skids (also Kenny), who are pretty funny, although their characterizations skate on the edge of offensive stereotyping.

So, I was having fun, but as the movie ventured into its second and then on its way into a third hour, I found myself distracted from all the explosions with questions like, Why do all the Decepticons look alike? It sure makes it hard to distinguish who is who, especially in the battle scenes. Why did they have to build their sun destroyer on Earth? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to build it on Mars or some other planet that wouldn’t have provided some form of resistance against it? What’s that planet the Decepticons escape to? Why don’t they just stay there? Does The Fallen despise humans because they stopped him from using his sun destroyer, or did he build his sun destroyer on Earth because he despises humans? And if Transformers are an alien species of their own background and lineage, why would they all look like Earthly beings and human-made devices in their disguise forms? Shouldn’t they look like alien objects?

I’m sure many Transformers enthusiasts will explain all this to me. What I’m not sure about is why I gave “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” two stars. I suppose that whole summer blockbuster experience thing was good for something here. I hope that Michael Bay learns how to edit a movie one day so it isn’t just a jumbled mass of explosions and metal. It would be nice if these Transformers could get some sort of sensible movie treatment. Heck, it would be nice to be able to write a coherent review of one of his movies.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Hangover / ***½ (R)

Phil Wenneck: Bradley Cooper
Stu Price: Ed Helms
Alan Garner: Zack Galifianakis
Doug Billings: Justin Bartha
Jade: Heather Graham
Tracy Garner: Sasha Barrese
Melissa: Rachel Harris
Mike Tyson: Mike Tyson

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. Running time: 100 min. Rated R (for pervasive language, sexual content including nudity, and some drug material).

I remember a three-year period in the mid-80s when my parents subscribed to HBO. I used to sneak down in the middle of the night to see the ‘R’ rated comedies my parents didn’t want me seeing. The fact that I wasn’t a master sneak might explain why my parents canceled their subscription after only three years. But this was during a more innocent time when there were certain types of comedies that HBO wouldn’t play until 10 p.m. or so. These comedies usually had nudity and involved a hair-brained scheme by the heroes to partake in all the booze, drugs, and debauchery they could get away with until they were caught by the people who wouldn’t want them doing those things, like girlfriends and wives.

The new comedy, “The Hangover”, is about such an event in four men’s lives, but it is so much more intelligently crafted than those silly movies I would sneak down and watch with the sound turned down so low I could barely hear them. Who knows? Maybe some of them were actually good, but it’s hard to imagine they were as good as this one.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. My words were “intelligently crafted,” not “intelligent.” Were that nasty word involved, none of this would be as fun as it is. You see, the genius of this story of debauchery is that we miss the whole night of sin and sensationalism and wake up the following day with three groomsmen who don’t remember the bachelor party and seem to have lost the groom. Over the next 48 hours the three friends must scour Las Vegas to reconstruct their crazy evening and try to find the groom in time to get him to his wedding.

To call the three of them friends is a little misleading. Two of them are longtime friends of the groom. Phil (Bradley Cooper, “Midnight Meat Train”) is the de facto leader of the group. He has dashing good looks and an aversion to marriage—he’s actually already married with a dreary job of teaching high school to escape. He comes up with the plan for a crazy night in Vegas. Stu (Ed Helms, “The Daily Show”) has a controlling girlfriend (Rachael Harris, “Reno 911!”) whom he must call every fifteen minutes or so to convey his ongoing lie that they’re touring Napa Valley for the “bachelor weekend.” Nothing sounds like a good idea to Stu, yet somehow he ends up being the one to discover that he married a stripper named Jade (Heather Graham, “Scrubs”) at some point during their group blackout.

The third is hardly a friend; he’s the bride’s brother. Phil and Stu aren’t sure he’s playing with a full deck of cards, and comedian Zack Galifianakis (“What Happens in Vegas”) is just about the strangest oddball actor they could get to play Alan. I can imagine during the pitch meeting a name like Will Ferrell’s came up as a 1st choice for this role, but Galifianakis goes beyond Ferrell’s simple strangeness and brings an uncomfortable quality to his performance that becomes projected upon all those around him. A couple lines come to mind to exemplify this. “Um, I shouldn’t be here. There’s a court order that says I’m not supposed to be within 200 yards of a school.” Or even better, “Would you please put some pants on? I think it’s strange that I should have to ask twice.”

The hardest part about reviewing a great comedy is conveying just how funny it is. The comedy in “The Hangover” evolves from the mystery of just what happened during their night of debauchery. Many filmmakers believe incidents are funny just because they exist, but this is not true. The incidents in “The Hangover” are the same type of stupid situation comedy that can be found in just about any straight to DVD National Lampoon movie, but what makes it so funny is that these characters must discover just what disgusting and idiotic deeds they did after the fact.

Perhaps the best part of “The Hangover” is that we never get to see what actually happened during that long evening in Vegas. The audience is invited to participate by filling in those blanks on our own. In this way “The Hangover” is a very intelligent comedy because it engages us and makes us active participants in the humor. However, if you stay for the credits, you will get to see pictures from the missing memories.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Drag Me to Hell / **** (R)

Christine Brown: Alison Lohman
Mrs. Ganush: Lorna Raver
Clay Dalton: Justin Long
Rham Jas: Dileep Rao
Mr. Jacks: David Paymer
Shaun San Dena: Adriana Barraza

Universal Pictures and Ghost House Pictures presents a movie directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi. Running time: 99 min. Rated R (for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language).

Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” relishes in what it is. It is a goofy, gory, funny, over the top, balls-to-the-wall, and genuinely scary, classic horror flick. It’s like what you might imagine a Dario Argento movie might look like if he were also a director capable of making one of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood history.

Raimi, as many people are aware, is responsible for the mega popular superhero series of “Spider-Man” movies (rumors about Spideys 4 and 5 have been flying around the Internet from the moment Raimi announced he would be back to helm them). He began humbly with a series of ultra-low budget horror movies known as the “Evil Dead” trilogy. “Drag Me to Hell” is his triumphant return to not only the genre, but also to the unique, vivacious, daring, and ultimately original style of filmmaking that he made his name on.

The screenplay by Raimi and his brother Ivan (who also shared screenwriting credits on “Spider-Man 3”, “Army of Darkness”, and “Darkman”) has a simple premise. A bright young thing offends an old gypsy hag, who curses the heroine. The curse calls for a demon to torment the poor girl for three days and then take her soul back to Hell. Not in my memory has such a simple horror premise been approached with such cinematic zeal by the filmmakers. Rarely is horror this much fun.

Christine Brown is a woman trying to rise above her station in life. She listens to enunciation lessons on her drive to work every day to rid herself of the southern drawl she gained growing up on a farm. She fights the career-climbing ladder at her bank job trying to win herself a big promotion. Her boss (David Paymer, “Ocean’s Thirteen”) tells her she must make tough decisions in a bank. With this in mind, she has no pity for a gypsy woman (television actress Lorna Raver) who has been given several payment extensions on her house loan and is now threatened with eviction. When Christine refuses the woman’s request for yet another extension, the old hag attacks her and puts a curse on her that will make all her little life problems seem insignificant.

The genius of Raimi’s effective vision can be easily observed in the parking garage scene in which the old lady places the curse on Christine. As she walks to her car after work, Christine notices the old lady’s car sitting across from her own. The tension builds during the first few moments in a very traditional way. This is a horror scene we’ve seen before, but soon it becomes clear that Raimi’s acute attention to detail will make this one of the more memorable scenes in recent horror history.

Notice that when Christine goes to unlock her door the internal door lock is already unlocked. Raimi brings no obvious attention to this fact, and it may even play as a gaff to audience members who aren’t paying attention when Christine has trouble unlocking the door. The reason she has trouble is because the door was already unlocked, but she never realizes that. Then the slow reveal of the old woman sitting in her back seat becomes one of the most sublimely chilling moments I’ve seen. Raimi suddenly takes the scene in a new direction as the two women have a fight so brutal it might make Quentin Tarantino cringe. Again, Raimi’s attention to detail during this fight adds new dimension to what we are witnessing. The staple popping out of the old woman’s eyelid is one moment not to be easily forgotten.

Although, like many supernatural terror victims Christine is alone in her suffering from this monstrous curse, people who actually notice that something is very wrong surround her. The Raimi’s don’t make the mistake of alienating their heroine by having her friends dismiss what is happening to her as nonsense. Her boyfriend, Clay (Justine Long, “Live Free or Die Hard”), is willing to take her to a seer even though he doesn’t believe in the supernatural. While he faithfully stands behind her in her time of crisis, his parents present possibly a greater terror to Christine than the demon that is stalking her.

Alison Lohman, perhaps best known as the kid who conned one of the best in Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men”, may seem muted in her performance as Christine at first, but this stoicism plays well into the harrowing journey her character will take as she is terrorized by her curse. Notice how subtly her attitude has changed by the end of the movie. In a scene where she struggles against the lifeless corpse of the old lady in a grave, she has a look of satisfaction on her face as she exacts her own form of revenge against the dead gypsy. It would be easy to play these situations over the top, but with Raimi’s often over the top direction, such a prospect for the acting could be disastrous.

Raimi also respects his characters. None of the humor, and there is a great deal of humor to be found in this horror movie, is taken at the characters’ expense. Raimi’s humor develops from the situations and his own zeal for literally eye-popping effects. Look at how often our heroine is forced to ingest something disgusting. The list of things that find their way into Christine’s mouth include a fly, embalming fluid, maggots, grave water and a decaying corpse’s fist.

“Drag Me to Hell” is one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve had. With horror films at their height of popularity, a great many moviegoers are seeing many horror movies. Few horror films seem to be in it for the fun of going to the cinema, however. While it is important for horror to carry the weight of their situations to convey their terror, Raimi has found a way to tell a scary story and acknowledge the absurdity of what the audience is witnessing at the same time. Perhaps he is a little too fixated on the oral ingestion of disgusting things, but he certainly knows how to make you squirm.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Land of the Lost / **½ (PG-13)

Dr. Rick Marshall: Will Ferrell
Holly Cantrell: Anna Friel
Will Stanton: Danny McBride
Cha-Ka: Jorma Taccone
Enik: John Boylan
Matt Lauer: Matt Lauer
The Zarn: Leonard Nimoy

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Brad Silberling. Written by Chris Henchy & Dennis McNicolas. Based on the television series created by Sid Krofft and Marty Krofft. Running time: 93 min. Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, and for language including a drug reference).

To call the new movie “Land of the Lost” strange may be perceived as an understatement. The fact that it is so strange is not really surprising considering it’s a remake of the very strange “Land of the Lost” ‘70s television show created by the undoubtedly strange television producers Sid and Marty Krofft. They also produced such questionable children’s programming as “H.R. Pufnstuf” and the oddball evening variety show “Pink Lady and Jeff”. Although the Kroffts’ names are all over this revamping of their strange adventure story, it somehow doesn’t seem strange enough.

What isn’t strange is that the story doesn’t really matter. It follows Dr. Rick Marshall and his belief that the answer to our energy crisis lies in “quantum paleontology.” There is an opening scene with the outlandish doctor being interviewed by Matt Lauer for the Today Show that is rather hilarious in the way Marshall gets under the veteran journalist’s skin. Another interview at the end of the movie has Marshall getting a sublime revenge on Lauer by forcing him to announce the title of his second book.

The scientific community at large disregards Marshall’s theories, and he soon finds himself lecturing grade school children about tachyons and answering questions from them like “Do dinosaurs have boobs?” But Holly Cantrell (Anna Friel, “Pushing Daisies”)—the only person who believes his theories—eventually seeks Marshall out. She takes Marshall to a sad amusement park out in the middle of the desert where the tachyon readings are high to field test his tachyon amplifier. Along the way they pick up Will Stanton, who is supposed to be their guide but becomes an unwitting tagalong when the tachyon amplifier transports the three to another dimension.

There is more to the plot that involves an alien race known as the Sleestack trying to get to Earth to take it over, but it’s really just an exercise in creating a framework where Will Ferrell (“Step Brothers”) as Marshall and Danny McBride (“Pineapple Express”) as Will can go off on their own comedic tangents, which mostly consist of sexual references and generally behaving like a couple of jackasses.

Now, I’m not knocking Ferrell’s and McBride’s comedic chops. There aren’t two people in the business at the moment better at portraying comic asses. But there doesn’t really seem to be much interest in the source material here. Sure, they make references to the talking points of the “Land of the Lost” television series. They make fun of the slow moving Sleestack—who are at least given ferocious looking mouths. There is the T-Rex that seems to have it out for Marshall and his clan. Ferrell even shows up with a banjo at one point to do his own rendition of the theme song from the show.

However, outside of the major references to the TV show, the movie plays like a series of sketches cobbled together from conversations people might have had about the show when under the influence. It’s filled with speculations on situations like, how could the same dinosaur keep showing up again and again to chase these people? Or, how do they understand their primate sidekick, Cha-Ka (Jorma Taccone, “Hot Rod”)? Or, with all those giant prehistoric insects flying around, what would happen if one of them bit a human? Even, how would someone survive being eaten by a T-Rex?

There are many funny moments to be found in “Land of the Lost”. The scene where Marshall, Will and Cha-Ka drink the hallucinogenic fruit seems to be inspired by speculation that most of the Kroffts’ shows were filled with references to drug use. The filmmakers have a good deal of fun picking up on all of the debris the Kroffts left lying around their strange creation. But in the end, I felt compelled to wonder just why I should care about any particular aspect of this movie experience. It gave me a few good laughs, but nothing that needs to be revisited. Since this movie is a revisitation of the television series, should that be seen as a failure?

Note: Despite the fact that the original “Land of the Lost” television series was a kid’s show, this movie is not for children. Most of the comedy involves sexuality and vulgar language; and there is an extended sequence referencing drug use. The movie is rated PG-13 because its material is not suitable for anyone younger than 13 years of age. Some parents may not even want their 13-year-olds seeing this.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Up / **** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Carl Frederickson: Ed Asner
Charles Muntz: Christopher Plummer
Russell: Jordan Nagai
Dug/Alpha: Bob Peterson
Beta: Delroy Lindo
Gamma: Jerome Ranft
Construction Foreman Tom: John Ratzenberger

Disney•Pixar presents a film directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson. Written by Peterson. Running time: 96 min. Rated PG (for some peril and action).

I think I’ve finally figured out how Pixar Animation Studio can so consistently turn out the best quality filmed entertainment in American cinema at the moment. They make films for adults and children. What’s more, they aren’t afraid to treat the kids like adults, nor are they afraid to treat the adults like kids. Kids can enjoy a mature story that operates on levels they can relate to, and adults can be swept back to childhood without being insulted by childish pandering.

While “Up” is the first official release of the Disney•Pixar partnership, it comes as the 10th film the two studios have released in collaboration with each other. After nearly 15 years of making movies together, their creative juices don’t seem any more worn than they were when “Toy Story” became the first feature-length entirely CGI animated movie to be released. Many saw last year’s “WALL•E” as a height the studios couldn’t match; but with “Up”, they have.

The movie begins on a sad note. We meet Carl Frederickson as a child, awed by the newsreels at the movie theaters—ah, if not for the 24-hour news cycle we might still have the pleasure of gathering our news in such a grand format. The big news is that explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer, “Inside Man”) is returning to the wilds of South America in his Spirit of Adventure dirigible to prove that a giant bird skeleton he says he found there is real.

On his way home from the theater—while pretending to be the famous explorer—Carl meets a girl who will become the love of his life. Ellie is perhaps an even bigger fan of Muntz, and the two make a pact to go to South America one day. As they grow older together, their travel plans keep getting put on hold; and before he knows it, Carl has grown old and alone once again after the passing of Ellie. That’s the sad part, but what a grand adventure it will lead to for the old geezer.

Ed Asner (“Elf”) provides the voice of the curmudgeonly old Carl, who remains in the house where he met his Ellie even though a city of high-rises has grown up around it. He delights in torturing the “suits” who desire his land and in sending the local Wilderness Explorer, Russell (Jordan Nagai), on “snipe” hunts. But at the end of the day Carl is alone. When forces determine it is time for him to leave his domicile, he chooses another option and ties thousands of helium balloons to it to sail it down to South America. Poor Russell becomes an unwitting stow away.

“Up” is one of those gloriously joyous stories that you want to just keep on telling once you’ve started, but I will save the rest of it for you to discover on your own. However, permit me to discuss one of the amazing minds behind the Pixar curtain and this movie in particular. Director Pete Docter’s work seems to embody one of the best ideals of the Pixar philosophy. Docter co-wrote the stories for “Toy Story”, “Toy Story 2”, “Monsters, Inc.”, and last year’s spectacular “WALL•E”. He also directed “Monsters, Inc.” All of these stories are fantastical tales about make believe lives and worlds that don’t actually exist. Yet all of these stories are rooted in our own humanity. Docter’s toys and monsters suffer the same failings of human individualism and survive the same bonds of friendship upon which we base our own survival. His child-like robot, WALL•E, shares our best qualities of curiosity, the yearning to explore, and loyalty in love.

Perhaps what allows these non-human characters to strike such a resonant chord with movie audiences, beyond their fundamental human qualities, are their very specifically observed human behavior and mannerisms. While “Up” marks Docter’s first story with human characters in the spotlight, it’s his attention to those human qualities that bring his animation to a level far superior to so many animated stories. Take the romance and life of Carl and Ellie for example. For a cartoon to take on the entire lifetime of a shared love is an extremely ambitious task, but Docter manages it by capturing those moments that we may not experience in love but dream of from the moment we are aware of the concept of a deep shared love with another person.

There are moments of serendipity and moments of realization, like when the couple sees shapes in the clouds together and Carl realizes that Ellie is only seeing babies. There are moments of deep heartache, such as when they are silently informed that Ellie cannot have children. Some may feel moments like these are too much for children to fully comprehend, but the essential human experience is there and translates as if it were our own lives these cartoon characters are experiencing.

Yet “Up” is also as pure a fantasy as any of Docter’s other credits. Carl and Russell fly a house to South America using helium filled balloons and we never once question the validity of such impossibility. Once there they make two friends—one a dog, the other a giant bird. We accept these unlikely bonds because this is fantasy and the animals are rich in the animation tradition of human-like qualities attributed to animals. Somehow Docter never betrays the line drawn between these characters as animals and the humans.

The dog is named Dug (voiced by co-director and screenwriter Bob Peterson, “Finding Nemo”). Never has a dog’s name fit so indubitably. Dug has been fitted with a collar that is programmed to translate his thoughts into words. A dial allows for the language setting to be changed, but Dug would prefer it if you left that dial alone. Who among dog owners hasn’t imagined the dialogue you might have with you own dog if they were able to speak your language? My wife and I have practiced interpreting our dog’s thoughts for years. However, the capability of speech doesn’t make Dug entirely human. His sentences are often interrupted by the thought that he might’ve seen a squirrel, and everything stops for squirrels.

There is really no way for me to express in an analytical review just how wondrous the movie will make you feel. All I can really do is assure you that no movie you see this year will make you feel as warm and happy as this one will. No other movie will touch your heart in the same loving way. “Up” isn’t a movie you want to read about; it’s one you need to experience.