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Sunday
Jul032011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon 3D (2011)

Revenge of Revenge of the Fallen

Last week, I tweeted a question:

"How much of the Transformers 3 hate is based on the lingering smell of part two--versus an honest assessment of the new movie?"

Having just seen the film, I can safely say that the answer is, "a lot".

Not that Dark of the Moon hasn't earned its current 37% Tomatometer rating; but there are an awful lot of critics and commentators who either refuse to acknowledge that there's some good stuff here, or, at the other extreme, gloss over the bad parts and proclaim the film great--by virtue of the fact that it's at least not as bad as the second one. It's fine to love or hate the movie, but I think there's a lot of honesty missing from the discussion about what works and what doesn't, and to what degree that sabotages or saves the film.

Personally, I think this is the best of the series, but it's still not terrific. It has the most potential, story-wise, and is by far the prettiest to look at, but director Michael Bay again buys into the belief that every blockbuster must A) exceed a two-hour run-time and B) balance out the heavier elements with comedy that wouldn't make it out of a Nickelodeon writers' room. 

The story follows the exact same beats as the previous installments (a fact I picked up on by watching Revenge of the Fallen mere hours before heading to the theatre): The evil Decepticons and the human-loving Autobots must scour heaven and Earth to find an ancient artifact that holds the key to either the destruction or preservation of the universe (a cosmic cube in the first movie, a dagger-like Matrix of Leadership in the second; a Leonard Nimoy-voiced robot named Sentinel Prime in part three). Caught in the middle are college grad Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), his military buddies, Lennox and Epps (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson, respectively), and his new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). The robots destroy large parts of the planet in order to save it, but wind up settling their scores in a single-location, hour-long battle (Los Angeles, Egypt, Chicago, in franchise order).

Like the Friday the 13th movies, the Transformers films aren't about the journey or the destination; rather, they're notable for their wacky, disposable characters and the spectacular ways in which they're used and abused. When John Malkovich, John Turturro, Patrick Dempsey, and Alan Tudyk show up in a movie like this, it's not because Bay wants them to stretch the abilities they've spent decades crafting into solid careers; it's so that the audience can say, "I can't believe they got THE John Malkovich to get into a tickle fight with a Transformer!"

In the case of Ken Jeong, it's probably more like, "It was funny when that Asian guy from The Hangover acted all weird and Asian and gay."

Only Frances McDormand escapes with her Oscar intact, and even elevates the material during her relatively few minutes on screen as the buttoned-down Director of National Security.

(In a shamefully funny twist, many of these great performers are out-done by a Victoria's Secret model. Huntington-Whiteley provides a pleasant trade-up from Megan Fox in both acting ability and character disposition. My one criticism is completely superficial: her lips seemed to alternate from scene-to-scene: in one instance plump but manageable; in the next, intimidating, as if attempting to swallow the rest of her face.)

A close second in the Race To Be Taken Seriously After Transformers 3 is Dempsey. He plays a millionaire financier named Dylan who snatched Carly away from the British Embassy in order to curate his collection of vintage luxury cars. His cultured, smirking seriousness is the perfect foil for Sam, who's struggling to find his first job out of school; even though he helped save the world twice, his adventures are top-secret--meaning the only difference between him and the other mail-room workers is the chip on his shoulder. Yes, Sam is pretty unlikable this time out, transforming from wise-ass, good-hearted teenager to entitled, jobless whiner. It wasn't until Dylan turned out to be a race-traitor that I wondered why I was supposed to be routing for Sam instead of him.

I guess that brings us back to the plot. Sentinel Prime crash-laned on the moon years before we stepped foot on it. Bay plays out a nifty bit of historical fiction by suggesting that this event kicked off the space race--but the kernel of coolness is marred by the execution, which involves unnecessary, multiple film-stock switch-ups, and some of the most godawful CG facial animation I've ever seen. The bit where JFK addresses his cabinet in the Oval Office looked at best like a cartoon and at worst like the President's waxy visage after "Oswald" blew his brains out.

Dammit! See? I try to get back on track with the story and keep getting distracted by the visuals!

The Autobots recover Sentinel's body from the wreckage, along with five pillars of a massive stargate. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) uses his Matrix of Leadership to revive Sentinel, who was his mentor on the robots' war-ravaged home world of Cybertron. The Decepticons learn of Sentinel's awakening and dispatch a team of nasty metal creatures to deliver him to evil mastermind, Megatron (Hugo Weaving). To go any further would spoil the last hour-plus for the five of you who may care to be surprised; suffice it to say, the stargate opens and all hell breaks loose in The Windy City.

That last hour is pretty much all anyone wants to talk about, but you should really put it out of your mind if you plan on enjoying this movie. The Chicago invasion is intermittently spectacular, but it suffers from what I like to call Gamer Syndrome: people playing video games can get so wrapped up in fighting and level-beating that, for them, an hour of constant re-starts and shooting the same enemy can fly by like minutes. For the casual observer, it just looks like the same mess of explosions and carnage; every establishing shot is a heart-sinking realization that the next five to ten minutes will drag just as much as the previous, identical chunks of time.

There's only so much running around and pointing to strategic positions one can endure; only so many bot-on-bot street fights that can be packed into one climax before the only machine you care about is the one on your wrist. I'll give Bay and his amazing effects team credit: every frame of this movie is gorgeous. The trite criticism that it's impossible to tell what's going on in the metal-heavy fight scenes was legitimate four years ago, but the digital artists have cleaned up their acts and their compositions (Note to film snobs: It's much easier to follow the action if you stop rolling your eyes). Despite being justified in wanting to show off his new toys, Bay sacrifices pacing and, with the help of his earlier, ill-conceived comedy bits, draws his movie out 45 minutes past the point of being tolerable.

It's a shame, too, because there are some nice, dark plot turns here that would have been better served by a more serious writing/directing team. Ehren Kruger's screenplay touches on interesting themes about war, adulthood, and national security, but they're drowned out by more goofy robot-sidekick shennanigans, disaster-porn imagery (Bay evokes both 9/11 and the Challenger explosion in a move that's more jaw-dropping than Revenge of the Fallen's racist-robot duo, Mudflap and Skids), and a bizarre fixation on blowing Leonard Nimoy (the movie features at least six nods to his Star Trek role, including an ironic twist on his famous "The Needs of the Many" line). The scene where Dylan reveals himself to be a Decepticon sympathizer is Bond-villain chilling and suggests a really interesting, sinister big picture; but the following ten minutes of Sam acting silly under the influence of a behavior-modification drone undoes all that.

The first two Transformers films feel like sketches of the third; Dark of the Moon is hardly great, but in the pantheon of summer blockbusters, I'd place it in the "okay" category. Had this been the first of the trilogy instead of the last (and it easily could have been, given the interchangeability of the series' plot points), I would call it a solid launching point that, with a few tweaks, could develop into a cool franchise. But since this is ostensibly Bay's last go-round with the Hasbro icons, I can only shake my head in disbelief that it took a guy half a decade and several-hundred-million dollars to make one semi-successful popcorn epic.

Note: Thanks to a ticketing snafu, I saw Dark of the Moon in 3D. I'd wanted to watch the 2D version, but I'm glad I didn't: unlike 95% of the late-stage-conversion garbage pushed on an already cash-poor audience, this movie was actually filmed for 3D and delivers a satisfying, depth-rich experience. It's not a home run, but it's the best I've seen so far.

Friday
Jul012011

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Mr. Allen, Meet Mr. Serling

"The good old days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems."

--Billy Joel

You're about to read a review for what I consider to be the best film of the year so far. If you haven't seen Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, I ask that you please stop at the end of this paragraph and come back later. The synopsis of this movie is a massive spoiler, and you'd be cheating yourself to learn anything about it beforehand. Additionally, this one's definitely a big-screen experience. I implore you not to wait for home video. Now, off with you.

Hey! Welcome back! Still need a minute to pick up those few remaining pieces of your mind? Well, the critique train has just left the station, so hop on the back when you're ready. Now, down to business...

I'm new to Woody Allen's movies. Sad, but true: up until a recent dive into Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors, my only exposure to his work was Small Time Crooks. But I've long been a fan of his 1969 comedy album, Standup Comic. In one of his routines, he talks about a crazy party he attended several years prior in Europe, where he mingled with the great artistic and literary luminaries of the 1920s.

Fast-forward more than forty years to his latest romantic comedy, in which Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a successful but wholly unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter who's vacationing in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Joining them are Inez's ultra-elitist parents, John and Helen (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), as well as Inez's former college crush, Paul (a deliciously smarmy Michael Sheen), and his girlfriend, Carol (Nina Arianda). Gil is inspired by the splendor and romance of the city that he hopes will push him to write a novel; he sees himself as a hack who never bothered with literature until a recent mid-life crisis. Inez and her friends seem to have been born cultured, and have little time for Gil's questions or cute, base-level observations (they're like Diane Keaton's character in Manhattan, minus the underlying self-awareness).

After following these joyless snobs around the city all day, listening to Paul argue with a French museum guide (Carla Bruni) about the identity of Rodin's mistress, Gil opts for a drunken, late-night stroll. He gets lost in the winding streets and takes a breather on some steps. A moment later, a vintage Rolls Royce pulls up to the curb and a group of loud revelers ushers him inside. They drive to a high-society costume party, with a "Lost Generation" theme. A Cole Porter look-alike (Yves Heck) plays a rollicking version of "Let's Do It" on the piano, and a comely, tipsy girl introduces herself as Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill). She and her husband, Scott (Tom Hiddleston), take an instant liking to Gil, whose zonked-out disbelief they take as eccentricity. Before long, Gil accompanies the Fitzgeralds to Gertrude Stein's (Kathy Bates) house for an impromptu critique of Pablo Picasso's (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) latest painting, with Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll) looking on.

It doesn't take long for Gil to realize that he's entered The Twilight Zone, that his hosts are, in fact, living, breathing incarnations of his heroes. Instead of freaking out, he plays along, giddily--engaging his mostly down-to-Earth new friends in heady conversation, and cozying up to Picasso's muse, a darling French girl named Adriana (Marion Cotillard). At the end of the evening, Stein agrees to review the first draft of Gil's novel; just as he's left, he realizes that he didn't suggest a time to drop by for notes. He turns around to find the house gone, replaced by an all-hours laundromat.

Fortunately, the car returns the next evening to pick him up, whisking Gil off to a thinking-man's Wonka factory; he talks art with Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Luis Bunuel (Adrien Brody, Tom Cordier, and Adrien de Van, respectively) and dances with Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland); on another evening, he shares a car with T.S. Eliot (David Lowe) and joins Adriana in conversation with Paul Gaugin (Olivier Rabourdin) and Henri de Touluse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes).

Yes, the timeline of Gil's adventure gets confused, as he begins to notice that his inspirations suffer the same maladies as he does in his day-life: he's convinced that he was born in the wrong era, that Paris in the 1920s was a much better, cooler place than the corrupt, ignorant twenty-first century; but Adriana feels that life was much more interesting during La Belle Epoque, and she is guided (via horse-drawn carriage) through a similar time-travel wormhole.

Through this wacky alternate-universe story, Allen lays out his arguments for enjoying the richness of the now, in whatever era one's "now" happens to be. Until the moment when the private detective Gil's future father-in-law hires disappears, I was convinced that all the late-night adventures were figments of Gil's imagination; that his mind had created an emergency intervention to keep Gil from marrying Inez and settling for a life of superficial misery. Indeed, Allen goes a tad over-the-top in making the occupants of Gil's daytime reality despicable, boorish creeps (when Gil defends a maid that Inez thinks stole a pair of her earrings, she screams, "You always side with the help!"), and it's unclear why Gil would have chosen to stick with her and her crazy family in the first place.

Of course, the answer is that she's beautiful, and Gil--acting as Allen's stand-in, complete with fits-and-starts line delivery and depressed-college-professor attire--is a sucker for a hot lady. It's a theme I've noticed in Allen's movies, and I just wish he'd gone a little further in rounding out his villains; though often hilarious and uncomfortably haughty, their one-dimensionality wears a bit thin. By contrast, the figments of Gil's Lost Generation crowd are generally polite and relaxed, but can also be surly, vindictive, and selfish. Luckily for us, much of the picture is spent with the more pleasant set of characters.

I'd like to take a moment to share a unique experience I had while watching this wonderfully original film. I cried. So, what, right? It's no big deal to get weepy during a movie. The thing is, I didn't cry during the sad parts (mostly because there aren't any). I was so overcome with emotion at seeing a master filmmaker take me to a place I absolutely did not expect to go that Allen's ideas, score, cinematography, and brilliantly on-point cast blew my brains out the back of my head (hence my opening alusion). After months of enduring mind-numbing, modern crap, I felt like I'd entered the stargate from 2001 (lest you be concerned, it was a single-tear cry and not a full-on, blubbering weep-fest).

Midnight in Paris is a beautiful movie, bursting with hope, love and an appreciation of one of the world's greatest cities on par with De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. Sure, it's cliche to build a movie around the idea that Paris is the romance capital of the world--but Allen makes a strong case; he takes great pains to make the city of the present just as alluring and full as the Paris of the past, a reinforcement of his thesis that people can find excitement and inspiration in their everyday lives and that nostalgia is as much of a prison as a bad relationship. This film may have started out as a bit in a standup routine, but Woody Allen has shaped it into a whimsical meditation on finding oneself after being lost in a spiritual wilderness.

Friday
Jul012011

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

A Rocky, Horror-show Picture

Two years ago, I spent the fall devouring the films of Bill Moseley in preparation for the first-annual Chateau Grrr Celebrity Dinner. My wife, always a great sport, agreed to watch Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Haunted World of El Superbeasto one evening, and I take the fact that we're still married to be evidence of God.

Watching Repo! was such a chore for both of us that I vowed to never, ever--under any circumstances--watch it again. I felt so spiritually defeated, so overcome by anger and frustration, that I couldn't even bring myself to write about it.

So, naturally, a reader requested that I review the movie.

(I could have tossed off a few choice paragraphs from memory. But my critiquing policy provides a one-week window in which to write about a movie I've just seen. About five films have fallen down that memory hole this year, meaning I'll have to watch Old School for the sixth time before typing a single word.)

So, what do I think of Repo! the second time around? It's still shit--and I had to cheat in order to get through it again--but knowing what I was in for helped soften the blow. The film is set in a dystopian future where a company called GeneCo sells human organs as fashion accessories (No one explains how being implanted with a bar-coded liver makes someone sexy; indeed, most of the people in the film are hideously scarred, pierced freaks).

GeneCo's founder is a dying man named Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino). His three grossly spoiled, adult children, Luigi (Moseley), Amber (Paris Hilton), and Pavi (Nivek Ogre) vie for the family fortune, which has been built not only on selling body parts, but also by reposessing them when customers can't make their payments. Enter Nathan (Anthony Stewart Head), a disgraced doctor who supports his ailing daughter, Shilo (Alexa Vega), by ripping spines and intestines out of deadbeats and shipping them back to headquarters.

That's the setup. To say anything more about the story (aside from "everybody's got a secret") would spoil the film. Also, frankly, I just don't care to get into it. I don't suppose people come to Repo! for the story, anyway. This is a bombastic, midnight-movie experience that's all about songs, costumes, and gore.

Which is fine, except that none of those three things is handled well. Let's start with the gore. Director Darren Lynn Bousman, best known for his work on the Saw franchise, spills a lot of blood and guts here, but in a far less artful fashion than I'd expected. Aside from a couple of scenes, the eviscerations look really fake; not bad-fake--more like over-the-top fake. I understand the impulse: these Rocky Horror-style shows aren't built on subtlety; but by making the torn faces and gaping stomach wounds look like Halloween-store novelty items, Bousman strips the horror element right out of his movie. He might as well have had his actors yank red streamers out of each others' shirts.

The wardrobe and set decoration are the most impressive things about the movie, but even those have problems. Repo! looks exactly as you'd expect it to, given the synopsis and target audience: lots of gothic/pseudo-burlesque accoutrements, and more spiked leather and hair extensions than five movies of its kind should be allowed. But where's the design? Where's the imagination? Like Sucker Punch, Repo! looks and feels like it was produced by the Hot Topic marketing department, with input from MTV executives. So, even if I'd given in to my urge to turn off the sound, there still would've been nothing interesting to look at.

Yes, the songs are terrible. The screenplay reeks of the kind of hackish, immature writing one might try to spruce up by, say, burying in a song. Every characters' lyrics and dialogue are purely expository, and the story is conveyed not so much by singing, but by sing-song talking. Full disclosure: I don't know much about opera, but there's little in Repo! to recommend it--unless you count this is as great song-writing:

I'm the smartest and the toughest! 
I will find a hole and fuck it! 
If there ain't one, I will make one! 
Luigi don't take shit from no one! 
One brain, mark it up! 
Only I got brains enough! 
That's why Pop will leave GeneCo to me--
Me, me, me, me, me, me!

There are some awesome, operatic performances by Sorvino and Sarah Brightman, but, again, they don't serve anything amusing, thought-provoking or worthwhile. I get the feeling they were reined in quite a bit to make the rest of the cast more comfortable. Paris Hilton's great and all, but listening to her sing was enough to make me want to tear off my ears and sell them at market price. Props also go to co-writer Terrance Zdunich, whose work as the narrating Graverobber made at least some scenes bearable.

I mentioned earlier that I cheated while watching Repo!. On occasion, a movie will be so excruciating that I'll indulge in diversions while it's going on. I'm not proud of this, but were I to be strapped down like Alex in A Clockwork Orange and forced to endure Repo! head-on for a second time, I probably would have jumped out a window. It took me twelve hours and ten breaks to finish this hour-and-a-half film; and as the story ambled along towards the climax, I found myself suddenly very interested in Google.

Occasionally, something would draw me back to the screen, like Shiloh's bedroom-fantasy dance number in which she sings about being seventeen. I couldn't peg the song as a Joan Jett tune, but there was definitely a Black Hearts quality to it. Sure enough, the camera whips around to Jett in a corner, rocking out on guitar. Sadly, I couln't hum a bar from that song if you paid me, though I just watched this scene yesterday morning.

I admire the movie's ambition, but not its execution. There's an easy quality to it that suggests the filmmakers didn't bother to push the story or the music to their fullest potential. Honestly, they didn't have to. This film was manufactured as a cult sensation, a disturbing phenomenon we're seeing a lot of lately. Launched as The Rocky Horror Picture Show for a new generation, I'd wager the producers didn't care how commercially successful their product was in the short term. They knew the movie would find an audience on video and at midnight screenings for years to come. And any critics who might fail to appreciate the film's greatness, they might argue, are simply not cool enough to get it.

Well, I get it. I just don't accept it. For example, casting Paul Sorvino in a movie like this is a brilliant move; but that has to be followed up with a script and a vision that give this wonderful performer something more to do than wear the confused, pained look of a father reading a ransom note on live TV.

Having said that, I don't blame anyone for being really into Repo! The Genetic Opera. I've liked plenty of awful movies over the years. But as a successful work of art, this is as indefensible as Bill Moseley's singing voice.

Wednesday
Jun292011

Transmorphers: Fall of Man (2009)

Best Picture, Anyone?

Transmorphers: Fall of Man is another life-changing movie from The Asylum, the independent studio that does for film what Ark Music Factory does for music (think Rebecca Black). Why should you waste your time watching a lower-than-low-rent knock-off of Michael Bay's Transformers sequel?

Three words: Shane Van Dyke.

You might remember him from that other modern American classic, Titanic 2. Sadly, he only writes and stars here, but I'm convinced that when Transmorphers 3 comes around he'll make a mad dash for the director's chair. His performance and screenplay have to be experienced to be believed, evoking at once a dumb high school jock auditioning for Death of a Salesman and the bad-poetry-scribbling classmate he beats up after lunch.

Fall of Man is actually a prequel to 2007's Transmorphers, which I've yet to see (Van Dyke wasn't associated with it, so there's no rush). It tells the story of how a race of giant, alien robots take over our planet, forcing mankind to form a resistance using a series of underground tunnels (Some might call Van Dyke a thief for stealing the premises of two summer blockbusters in the same year, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Terminator: Salvation, but I salute him as a visionary with cyborg-sized balls).

We don't get to the end-of-the-world stuff, really, until the end of the movie. Much of the story centers on a sleepy town right outside of Los Angeles--which looks suspiciously like an abandoned industrial park. Van Dyke plays Iraq War vet Jake Van Ryberg, a lost soul who scrapes by as an electrician and tries to shield his PTSD from ex-girlfriend Madison (Alana DiMaria). Madison's uncle Hadley (Bruce Boxleitner) is the town sheriff who notices that something strange is happening to the people of his community; namely that they're being picked off by murderous trucks and cell phones.

Jake swings by Madison's house to fix her satellite dish; before he can get started, it "transmorphs" into a large, metal man. Jake grabs a gun from his tool case (why not?) and runs inside, warning Madison to grab her mother and flee. Within a half-hour, the planet has been "overrun" with killer robots bent on world domination. They swarm the cities, contaminating the water supply and blasting really convincing holes through very talented extras.

Note: Though we're constantly told that the invaders are everywhere, we only see six or seven in the movie; they're also easily defeated, as machine-gun fire causes these six-story marvels of engineering to explode as if they've been hit by RPGs. The creatures have apparently executed the worst world-domination plan since the aliens in Signs.

Jake, Madison, Hadley, and a Homeland Security agent named Dr. Summers (Jennifer Rubin) make a stand at Edwards Air Force Base--which, thanks to the government's ingenious foresight, has been camouflaged as an abandoned power plant populated by personnel and planes that have been wrapped in invisibility cloaks and given stand-down orders. In a selfless act of bravery, Hadley flies a helicopter into the main, evil robot; this jams the global signal or something and prevents further invasion (I assume he'll be remembered on Independence Day).

Fade to black.

The end.

The one positive thing I can say about Fall of Man is that it's really short--

Wait.

What's that fading in from the blackness?

Oh, my God, it's not over!

Yes, we pick up several months later. The world is a quite different place; mankind has become suspicious of technology and put the kibosh on most devices that transmit signals of any kind. I know this because the voice-over tells me so; on screen, the only indication that the characters' lives have changed is that Jake and Madison have a date in what appears to be a Country-Western bar--and Jake always struck me as a Chili's guy, through and through.

During their slow dance, Jake recounts a horrific war story, in which he ordered his platoon to stay put while he investigated an insurgent stronghold by himself (!). Unfortunately, he came back to find his men wiped out (Never forget, kids). Madison is so turned on by this story that she kisses Jake through his thousand-yard stare. Soon, they're having crazy sex in a scene that is, I believe, the world's first irony-free homage to The Room.

Five minutes later, another alien invasion begins. Ten minutes after that, Jake and Madison have joined a resistance movement stationed in a refugee camp just outside the "city" (a movement consisting of seven people holed up in what appears to be a newly framed house in the middle of flat, open land). According to radio reports, the robots have wiped out most of the major cities, including--no joke--Arlington Heights.

In a last-ditch effort to save humanity, Jake detonates a series of bombs inside the aliens' processing plant. In the film's one truly moving moment, Jake realizes that he won't have time to outrun both the blast and the robots that have blocked his path to freedom; he accepts his fate and is blown to smithereens.

At least, that's what would've happened to a normal human being. After the building blows, Jake saunters out of the rubble to hug Madison and put the narrative cherry on this celluloid sundae: In the closing moments of Fall of Man, Jake tells us that the global destruction of the aliens' processing centers resulted in a toxic cloud of gas that drove the human race underground; this allowed more aliens to show up and colonize the planet. In a move that would surely have resulted in a Fox lawsuit and the liquidation of The Asylum had more than eight people bothered to watch this movie, he delivers John Connor's "If you can hear this, you are the resistance" monologue from the end of Terminator: Salvation, practically verbatim.

We as a species have yet to create words that can accurately express how important I think it is that everyone who loves movies watch this film. It's hilariously, uniquely bad in every respect--from casting, to computer effects, to plot (is this the world's first seven-act feature?), to papier-mâché-and-plastic guns.

You might call out the black putty over the Nissan truck logo or "Protect and Serve" sticker on the cop-car door as bad signs. You might wonder why none of the federal agents ever show credentials. You can even scoff at the characters' frequent invocation of Shia La Beouf's infamous, "Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!" or the fact that Jennifer Rubin delivers her lines as if the script called for her to take a shot before each one. These and a hundred other problems make Fall of Man both unforgivable and unforgettable.

But here are a few things that make this film better than the Michael Bay franchise that inspired it:

  1. Brevity.
  2. Robots that look like old-school Transformers toys, with clearly defined faces, bodies, and car parts hanging off their arms.
  3. This line: "If the doctors hadn't put the pacemaker in her, she wouldn't be with us to witness the end of the world."

Watching this movie reminded me of the games I used to play with my friends as a kid; we'd run around yards, ducking behind bushes and blasting imaginary enemies with cheap toy guns. Transmorphers: Fall of Man certainly looks and feels like it was based on a pre-teen boy's script and funded with allowance money--and I both respect and enjoy that charming lack of pretension.

Now, bring on Transmorphers: Dimly Lit Area of the Lunar Body!

Note: In the same way that Bruce Davison brought credibility to Titanic 2, Bruce Boxleitner does wonders with his few scenes in this movie. It's like a real-life version of Charlton Heston's Wayne's World 2 cameo.

Tuesday
Jun282011

Manhattan (1979) Home Video Review

 

Dreaming in Color

Seriously, why isn't Woody Allen our most heralded director? And why have I come to his movies so late in life? I feel exactly like the kind of thoughtless Neanderthal his character in Manhattan, Isaac, would ridicule for floundering in a world of cheap entertainment.

The film centers on Isaac's equally daunting challenges of finding love and getting over an ego that is at once expansive and deeply bruised. We meet him in a bar, in the middle of light conversation with his best friends, a married couple named Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne), and his new girlfriend, seventeen-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway). The age difference is shocking at first (Isaac is forty-two), but we soon learn of an even queasier coupling: Yale confesses to Isaac that he's cheating with Mary (Diane Keaton), a snobby, firebrand journalist.

Yale is conflicted about the relationship, but not so embarrassed that he doesn't introduce his best friend to his mistress. They instantly hate each other; while everyone in the movie is an intellectual to some degree, there's a definite philosophical divide between the Mary type, who speaks loftily about art, literature and politics--only to declare all of it lame (her phlegmy pronunciation of "overrated" artist Vincent Van Gogh's name as "Vincent Van Gaaahchh" drives Isaac nuts); and the Isaac type, who despises popular culture but has a no time for people who don't appreciate art and sensitivity. Of course, they end up together.

That part's not surprising, although the speed with which they hook up is. I'd expected Manhattan to be more about Isaac being jealous of his boneheaded, unavailable friend; but Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman keep Isaac front and center, focusing the story on his new dilemma of a three-way relationship: he and Tracy; he and Mary; and he and his incredible neuroses. He carries the burden of not telling Emily about Yale's indiscretions and then feels the shame of two-timing Tracy. But that guilt is out-matched by the joy he feels in going out with such sexy, challenging women.

Stepping back from the synopsis, I realize this probably sounds like a Melrose Place episode recap--and I haven't even mentioned Isaac's newly-out-lesbian ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep) or the book she's writing about their failed marriage. The brilliance of Manhattan is that the picture flows smoothly and picks up story details and personality quirks the way a river carries driftwood. The situations never feel contrived; I believed in the silly mistakes these people made and watched in horrified delight as they dug themselves deeper into tragicomic holes.

The screenplay has a lot to do with that success and, unlike Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen's injection of pseudo-standup anecdotes into Isaac's dialogue doesn't feel the least bit phony here; partially, I think, because he's a television writer/aspiring novelist (just like most of the other characters he meets). But also because Isaac finds himself in the middle of a lot of ridiculous conversations, which naturally opens his comedic floodgates.

But so much credit has to be given to the cast. What's great is that Allen's casting shows us just how right or wrong his couples are for each other, long before anyone on-screen realizes it.  This is a wonderfully bonkers group of Muppies (Middle-aged Urban Professionals), all fighting to rationalize their basest impulses with things they learned in school. Murphy and Keaton collide in a wreck of bored, desperation/fear of aging and a desperate need to be loved, respectively. Murphy plays Yale as a geeky stud who has everything together on the outside but who, by the end of the movie, is reduced to the kind of whining mess that he, I think, always perceived Isaac as. And Keaton tells us so much about Mary's upbringing both in the way she delivers her little bit of backstory dialogue and in the public/private dichotomy of her personality; she rambles on authoritatively about modern art as if she'd invented the form but then stomps around in a tantrum because she can't figure out why she only attracts weird, unavailable men; she also has a dog named Waffles.

Hemmingway and Streep do wonders with their smaller parts. As Jill, Streep embodies the cumulative frustration of a life lived with a self-absorbed, spineless intellectual; it's never suggested that Isaac's problems drove her to lesbianism, but there's a liberated airiness in their scenes--argumentative as they are--that illustrates the difference between healthy relationships and unhealthy ones. And Hemmingway is a revelation; only eighteen at the time, she emodies an intelligence that has not yet allowed its innocence to be corrupted. Though Tracy hangs out with people who are older than her parents, she doesn't get caught up in their bullshit. Indeed, she's the only cool voice of reason in Isaac's life; so, naturally he ignores her, except when it's convenient.

Despite being kind of a lovable asshole, Isaac makes for a wonderful, modern hero. Growing up, I remember a pop meme that said women found Woody Allen really sexy (until that mid-90s business, which, in light of his films' subject matter, should have surprised no one). I never got that, but I do now. He's smart and bookishly attractive, but he is also unafraid to wear his troubled heart on the lapel of his corduroy jacket. It's hard to say who the real Allen is, but Isaac feels like such an autobiographical construct that he might as well be a flesh-and-blood heartbreaker. As much as I didn't approve of Isaac's lecherousness, Allen made me understand it; and even sold it to me a bit by coloring his urges with a sense of moral conflict that is so undeniably human that I couldn't believe I was watching a romantic comedy.

The coolest character in the movie, though, is Manhattan. I hate it when critics describe a time or a place as a character because it's just cute, lazy shorthand that rarely means anything. So when I say the city is a "character", I mean that Allen spends so much time fetishizing the city's "personality" that it might as well have received a SAG membership. This isn't a knock. In fact, the way in which he and cinematographer Gordon Willis shoot the city informs the story as much as it gives it a place to unfold. In most scenes, the characters are small in the frame, underlining how ridiculous their self-imposed problems are in the grand scheme of things; in some cases, this dwarfing presents New York as the ultimate shrine to beauty, a place where people can't help but fall in love.

Allen's decision to shoot in black and white is another genius stroke. The light/dark dynamic sells the buildings, parks and apartments as the architectural and natural wonders that they are. The camera movements often create abstract images that morph into clarity (as in the beautiful planetarium scene, where Isaac and Mary's faces become talking constellations). Manhattan is such a crisp, gorgeous looking picture that after awhile I started to believe that I could get on a plane to New York and step off into a magical world of gray tones.

Once again, I find myself lamenting the fact that more filmmakers haven't followed Woody Allen's lead in the decades since he started making wonderful movies like this. Maybe audiences are too afraid of watching people who talk like they've earned degrees, or maybe the people who get movies made think that of ticket buyers. Whatever the case, I can't think of a recent romantic comedy that is as satisfying comedically, dramatically, or visually, and that's really, really sad.