Sunday, July 31, 2011

Summer '11

The summer belongs to pop the way the fall belongs to (sometimes) loftier fare. The rules of bad and good still apply to summer movies, and there is no reason why blockbuster summers can't give us plausible great movie candidates. There's also no certainty that the Oscar season will always give us splendor or profundity. With that in mind, and with apologies for missing Bridesmades, Bad Teacher, Cars 2, Pirates 4.0 and Green Lantern:

X-Men: First Class

This clunker of a reboot, fun in spite of its obvious flaws, is actually a period piece (obligatory costume design nomination in sight?). Set in 1961, the flick gets in front of the incipient 1960s chic that's being brought on by Mad Men. To drive this home, it even has January Jones inhabiting the role of Emma Frost (perhaps too icily for general audiences, who, unfamiliar with her Betty Draper, have unfairly mocked her "dry" delivery). The plot materializes X-Men younglings in front of our very eyes much the way the Star Trek reboot did, only this new cast barely has time to really stand out from each other, save for maybe Nicholas Hoult's Hank McCoy/Beast. James McAvoy has little to do but debate Michael Fassbender's Magneto throughout the movie, puzzlingly urging Erik at one point to show mercy to the two warring armies he's lobbing missiles at, actually saying to this Holocaust survivor, "they are just following orders." The X-Men race against time to halt nuclear war during the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an interesting thing to include in a film aimed at teenagers, who may have vaguely heard of Kennedy and Castro at this point in their lives. If there's one great thing in the movie, it's Michael Fassbender, whose Magneto is sympathetic, fearsome, completely awesome, and as much hero as anti-hero.


The second Marvel movie in as many weeks, this summer, Thor is probably the goofiest of all big-budget superhero movies, but still falls short of the goofiness a Thor movie really deserves. This in spite of direction by Kenneth Branagh and production design by Bo Welch. That ought to give us something either brilliant or ghastly, but instead we get middling, Marvel micro-managed good behavior. Shame, really. A complete brat before expulsion from Asgard, a fish out-of-water who meets three useless humans midway through, and a perfectly boring day-saver by the end, Thor himself really hasn't got much to offer aside from his Rocky Horror-style sex-ness. The mid-section of this movie has been unfavorably compared to the Dolph Lundgren Masters of the Universe, as they share essentially the same plot. Asgard is beautifully designed, the rainbow bridge is worth every penny they spent on it, I enjoyed Loki, and Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba's Asgardian turns, and hey look, it's Rene Russo! She's still in movies!

Super 8

Is it the destination or the journey? Is the MacGuffin really what we want to discover? There were two different movies going on with Super 8, one that was non-existent, throbbing in the heads of moviegoers expecting to have their minds blown (no doubt influenced by the marketing), and the other, the film we got, a loving tribute to Amblin Entertainment, produced by Amblin and J.J. Abrams, who himself was just the right age when E.T., Close Encounters and The Goonies came out in the late seventies and early eighties. For those who have positive associations with multiple bright blue lense-flares and children throttling through the suburbs on their bicycles, saving the day, this movie had plenty to keep your heart aflutter. To those expecting a mind-bender, you no doubt left disappointed. It's interesting that I haven't seen anyone state the obvious, that J.J. Abrams is doing for Spielberg here essentially the same thing that Todd Haynes did in honor of Douglas Sirk with Far From Heaven. Both films couldn't be more different in style or tone, but both pay loving tribute to very specific kinds of films, made by very specific kinds of directors.

(Note: This is the most child-endangeringest movie in many years)

Tranformers: Dark of the Moon

Did you spend nearly three hours oppressed under the mighty weight of yet another dull, incoherent, homophobic paean to what's dead inside us all? I did too, it sucked, but it sucked in that big American way that only Michael Bay's big clanging truck nutz can be sucked on. It's just a movie, critics, a movie borne of the equivalent of the GDPs of two or three developing nations, all so we could watch Optimus hide while humans suffer and die, Bumblebee could be traipsed in front of a firing squad only to triumph at the last minute, and all so Shia LaBeouf could be castrated in the most homophobic way possible by Ken Jeong. We became Rome long before the production of these movies. We'll likely have a few more like these before the fall.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2:

This one ties everything together about as well as you could expect, leaving out plenty, but following the best due course it could, which was to include all the bullet points so as to not incur the wrath of millions of die-hard Rowling fans. That being said, this movie is often rousing, closing out a series that was already on par with Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones for serving us high adventure and serving it well. There are times when this series has left out crucial structural character details, like Molly Weasley going to clean out the Boggart in Order of the Phoenix, only to have it turn into the rotating bodies of her beloved children, Harry as well. We get her payoff in this last flick, but it's more of a payoff if you've read the books. Still, one can forgive the filmmakers for leaving out much of the plot minutiae, rules of Harry and Voldemort's connection, etc. This series has more MacGuffins than any eight films could possibly include. What works in books makes for anti-narrative in films, sometimes. We'll never know if what was excluded would work if filmed, so to enjoy the movies is really to enjoy the full immersion of this beautiful world, and revel in the absolutely revelatory acting of its expansive British cast, of which much has been said, but of which Alan Rickman above all deserves Oscar attention later this year. His work is beautiful, as was Rowling's in creating his character, and while every character shines in the movies at one point or another, Rickman's Severus Snape (not forgetting Ralph Fiennes's amazing Voldemort), really dominates my memory of this wonderful film.

The Tree of Life

Terence Malick's Full-blown American Opera and Book of Job is a summer movie too. It's really far more ambitious than anything that's come out this summer, this year, or in many years. That's been the focus of much discussion of the movie, but for now, I'll focus on its astonishing, absorbing, painstakingly detailed account of a childhood. The scenes in Texas from the point of view of the young Sean Penn character (Brad Pitt playing his father), the slow, often quiet, sometimes jolting, sometime dangerous life of a pre-teen boy against a backdrop of a fifties small town, is really one of the best pieces of out-of-body-experience Americana I've ever seen. As he deals with a domineering, austere father, an outdoor life more compelling than television, a hair-raising trip into a stranger's house that was all the more plausible in the fifties than it ever would be in our time of locked doors, a receptive audience is taken on a journey in those scenes as well as the now famous dawn-of-time scenes, which rightly anoint the film as a peer with 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Captain America: The First Avenger

This whole summer has been a time machine, hasn't it? So much Americana, whether it's the 40s, 50s, 60s, or a J.J. Abrams remembered 1979, America seems to be turning back the clock in its fiction, pedalling as fast as it can away from our uncertain future. But Captain America is not sad, not depressing, even when comparing its old-fashioned heroic outlook to that of our current morass. It's fun, a little exciting, and full of rich performances by Toby Jones, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanly Tucci and our dependable leads, perhaps not so rich, but still serviceable, Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell. It's directed with wit and good humor by Joe Johnston, will remind you more than once of his splendid The Rocketeer, and is the last stop on the road to next summer's The Avengers, which for all this lead-up and stretched-out origin-story excess from recent Marvel films, better be a rapturous outburst of owning.

I'm still on board for Cowboys & Aliens, will remain open-minded about that damned dirty ape movie, and am going nowhere near a smurf if I can help it. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 04, 2011

More Than Meets the Eye (No Homo)

The movie critic tropes in service of hating Michael Bay films are as self-perpetuating as his movies. I have tried to approach each Transformers film with a ritual shedding of my film critic skin. After all, where else am I going to see a spectacle of this magnitude, in service of pure action picture id and technological worshipfulness? I really have, each time, tried to localize my thoughts and feelings into another part of my brain and see if my reptilian side can just tap into whatever collective unconscious instinct of ours has boosted the box office receipts for these films into the stratosphere. There I was this go-around, doing a smart-thoughts squelching mind-keigel, when what happened? The summer of 2011 fanboy-movie interjection into the events of the early 1960's pulled me right back out of my parietal lobe.

The movie begins in 1961, and traces its events with the run-up to the moon-landing, positing that we discovered signs of extra-terrestrial life on the moon and that the sole purpose of the mission was to discover what was there before the Russians did. Cut to the landing, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin discover a wrecked Autobot spacecraft. This is all recreated with stock footage and digitally altered historical scenes. It's a ten or fifteen minute opener, requiring more patience from the audience than I ever expected Michael Bay to ask of us.

The mild goodwill that this engenders is spent rapidly as the film returns us to what has to be the worst collection of human characters in a sci-fi/fantasy picture I've ever encountered. The Witwicky family, spazzes all, Megan Fox's replacement model, who serves only to distract the heteros in the audience from their own impatience with the presence of dialogue, and John Turturro's purely awful ex-CIA agent, all are basically useless for the two hours or so we spend with them. The cartoon movie from 1986 didn't rely so heavily on its human characters. Its Autobots and Decepticons were themselves imbued with human characteristics of bravery, self-sacrifice, heroism, a sense of humor, sympathy, or outright ruthless evilness, and the human characters were relegated to the sidelines. I prefer that approach to imbuing no characters, human or machine, with any appealing or believable characteristics whatsoever.

Still my real complaint with these films has been less to do with the appalling tone or values on display, or the casual racism and homophobia (more on that in a moment), but more with the fact that I grew up with the Transformers, and here they just don't feel right. There's too many gears and crap flying around their bodies when they transform, too much detail on each of them, to the point where they often seem formless and indistinct, whether in close-up or longshot. Put them in a remotely cybertronian environment, especially in the case of Decepticons, and the effect is practically camouflage. I wish I could say the editing restraints of 3-D (perhaps the only restraint Michael Bay has encountered to his filmmaking in some fifteen years) make the transformers' scenes more comprehensible, but I don't really think they do.

This is the first film in this series to contain a dramatic plot of some kind, and it deals with Sam Witwicky's emergence into manhood and independence after terrible emasculation. At the start, he has the hottest girlfriend imaginable, but he can't find a job and is forced into a mailroom at some vaguely fascist corporation. It is at this job that an Asian scientist and conspiracy theorist corners him and all but homosexually rapes him in a bathroom stall to get him to admit to being in league with the autobots. I don't know how to adequately describe this scene. It's the most homophobic trash I've seen in a movie aimed at children in, perhaps my entire life. It's like Takeshi Miike done very poorly. After being gay-raped in a bathroom stall and his girlfriend dominated by Patrick Dempsey's evil Decepticon lieutenant character, he flails through the next hour or so until, after the apocalypse starts in Chicago, a marine (Josh Duhamel) hands him a gun. He is now a man. Arc achieved.

A central plot point involves an Autobot act of subterfuge that fools the Decepticons into thinking they've left Earth. They then take over Chicago and start murdering thousands of people, incinerating them like it's Spielberg's War of the Worlds. This is a film aimed at little kids, right? What are they (or we) to make of the Autobots allowing so many humans to lose their lives, just to convince us humans how much we need them? That's not the Optimus I grew up with. He then repeatedly says, arriving just a few moments after several innocent bystanders are annihilated, with regard to Decepticons, "We will kill them all". A far cry from the selfless heroism of "One shall stand, one shall fall".

The twice repeated mockery of Barack Obama, the flick's absolute militarism, its desperate attempt to tack on feelings of victory even after the Lincoln Memorial is destroyed and Chicago is left in ruins, is all just base pandering to a whole section of this country that can't accept that we've lost two wars and are in serious disrepair, as a nation. That we beat the Decepticons is really cold comfort, right?

The set-pieces are fearsome, large, and kind of amazing, particularly an extended sequence of a building falling over while our human protagonists are inside it (which goes on for nearly half an hour). The last hour and a half is so extensive indeed in its action sequences that we are ourselves cowed by its might, and perhaps many of us led to believe this is what an "awesome" movie looks like. In reality it's a cold, empty film, committed to distracting us from our own directionless present.

And with all that dudgeon I seemed to have felt and expressed, it's still just a movie, somehow marginally better than the second one. Someone asked me why John Malkovich and Frances McDormand would accept work in garbage like this (to say nothing of Alan Tudyk!). The reason should be obvious. Add up the total gross of the last five Coen Brothers or Spike Jonze films, and a Miss Pettigrew film, your total won't come close to one of these. I say bless them, all of them, may they each have been paid many riches.