Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (Jon Favreau, 2011) -- D-

There's a scene two-thirds of the way into Jon Favreau's hopelessly inept, infuriatingly hollow Cowboys & Aliens where Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) flashes back to his being abducted by aliens, tortured, and equipped with some sort of laser-shooting contraption on his wrist. He writhes and squirms on the slab before bolting up and fleeing in pain. The scene gets a hand-held, docu-drama aesthetic shift from Matthew Libatique's portentous, dimly-lit cinematography, suggesting (perversely) some sort of visual connection with post-9/11 incarnations of media-obsessed international torture footage - forced subtext. Forced, in that what has preceded this despicably glib inclusion amounts essentially to narrative incontinence, overflowing with nonsense on top of nonsense, as genre mash-up collides with comprehensive genre misunderstanding. This is what you assholes deserve for praising those shitty Iron Man films.

Fact is, Jon Favreau might just be the most incompetent director ever allowed to helm a $100 Million studio production. Such a claim must be predicated on the recognition that Favreau is not without a certain degree of savvy - he at least knows to put big names around him (Spielberg, Howard, and Grazer get executive producer credits) and hires a cinematographer to make his film look like it's sophisticated. One need only peel back these easily crumbled layers to reveal his crux of novice interest - that being merely concept. He's a suitable director for these times of marketing fascism, where consumers mindlessly wander from product to product, week after week, blithely devouring the next "must-see" blockbuster, fitfully amused, but only because they're too chickenshit to dissent. That, and wholly unrefined in artistic appreciation.

Such a digression must preface a brief examination of Cowboys & Aliens, equal parts calculation and artistic dearth; if grossly self-aware dreck like Machete and Kick-Ass are cultural seizures, Favreau invites paroxysm against what his filmmaking stands for. For him, genre is merely a confluence of archetype and setting. Infatuated with facade over feeling, he's content to indulge inanity for the sake of satiating a simplistic physiological fetish - posturing imagery, images as a means to an end; he has not the slightest eye for movement or awe. His tricks are merely grade-school antics compared with the stupefying visceral one-hour finale of Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Oddly enough, scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman also helped pen this...thing (alongside six others!), but the shoddy incongruence lies solely upon Favreau's shoulders, seething in every single frame, simply an idea (a dickhead one, at that) in search of anything resembling human action, thought, reaction, creation. Supplanting even comic book superficiality (not a yeoman's task), this isn't "dumb fun" (is there even such a thing?) so much as a black hole where the cinematically forsaken form for a call to worship.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, 2011) -- C+

The cast of Crazy, Stupid, Love. is so strong that they almost compensate for an embarrassingly cringe-worthy script by Dan Fogelman and shockingly pedestrian direction by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, who made perhaps the most delightfully idiosyncratic comedy of 2010, I Love You Phillip Morris. Bonus points for refraining from heedless raunch are quickly lost by the realization that none of the filmmakers have a distinct vision or insight for nearly a half dozen intersecting story lines, where Cal (Steve Carrell), having just been divorced by Emily (Julianne Moore), who's been cheating on him with David (Kevin Bacon) meets endlessly cool, sexy Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who'll teach him how to be a player - only Jacob has a hang-up of his own in Hannah (Emma Stone), the woman who might change his womanizing ways. Less interesting subplots involve the adolescent crush of Cal's son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) on babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who just so happens to be secretly in love with Cal. Cal, meanwhile, has a nasty one night stand with Kate (Marisa Tomei), who just so happens to be Robbie's 8th grade teacher. If it all sounds needlessly convoluted, well, it is, and yields little by way of meaningful relationship insight or resonance. Moreover, the "just so happens to be's" take an outrageous turn in the finale, coupled with a painfully saccharine, harmonious cast recognition that love is, indeed, all one needs. Nevertheless - through all of the expositional headache, Ryan Gosling emerges as the brightest talent of his generation, able to seamlessly pull off such comedic material here, right after his marriage-on-the-rocks virtuoso turn in Blue Valentine. Alongside Michael Fassbender, there's no better actor working today. Steve Carrell also delivers an excellent performance, arguably the best of his film career. However, the female characters get really fucked over here, especially Marisa Tomei's psycho-bitch schoolteacher, unfunny caricature and pre-feminist hysteria abounding. Yucky stuff. Likewise, Moore is merely a conduit for Carrell's sexual reawakening - the film doesn't treat her with much interest. Emma Stone is probably the strongest female presence, but even she's saddled with an Asian-American BFF whose sole preoccupation is Stone's happiness. Too bad, as even a marginally satisfactory script would have sufficed with such glowing talent on board.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Friends With Benefits (Will Gluck, 2011) -- C+

The smarmy self-righteousness of Will Gluck's Easy A has worn off a considerable bit in Friends with Benefits, a hyper-self-aware Rom Com entry that feigns pedigree more than it actually demonstrates sophistication; however, anytime a film features scenes and/or posters from It Happened One Night, On the Waterfront, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, screen-romance afficionados must take note. The postmodern relationship crisis strikes again: can we fuck and just be friends? Resoundingly the answer is NO, and though these traditionalist, heteronormative underpinnings are trite, trite, trite, there's something to be said for Gluck's genuine interest in his two protags, each played charmingly by respective leads Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis (who's especially strong). Moreover, characters act and think with pop culture prowess, chiding the Hollywood romance lessons from the Katherine Heigel canon, predicting beats in standard film fare down to the painfully literal music, and even using the word "postmodern" to describe themselves! Were Gluck less overt in his pop-cock waving (dude's just showing off), maybe he'd have recognized that merely citing cliches does not excuse him from indulging them - which is precisely what Friends With Benefits does when it isn't proudly announcing itself as not one of the pack. Undeniably, Gluck knows the genre - but there's a fine line between knowing and feeling; his lead-pipe direction, exhausting pacing, and zeitgeist infatuation don't amount to comedic ingenuity. Less perceptively quotidian than determinedly "fresh," the leads are buried by Gluck's self-love.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) -- C-

Captain America: The First Avenger is the corporatist, Hollywood-franchise machine at its most egregiously barren, hiring competent (the most overrated superlative of pop movie critic lingo) director Joe Johnston to craft a thoroughly adequate, formulaic, and (thus) vanilla production, designed and manipulated to suck any and all idiosyncrasy from its straight-forward aesthetic, even more so any cultural and/or historical astuteness. Much like Thor, another Marvel tentpole to preface the soon-to-be mammoth The Avengers, there's little here for a viewer to like, much less love - and theoretically, there's little to hate. That's the franchise way - as long as you don't piss them off, they'll come calling for more later, on the promise of excellence, like a bird that keeps crashing into a window, thinking the glass has finally disappeared. Of course, this promise is predicated on an alternative brand of excellence - technical proficiency and narrative logic. They look at it this way: give the film a slick aesthetic (here smoky and gray because, you know, that's how things looked in the 1940's), provide an "inspiring" underdog character, give him a love interest, throw in the uncertain but ultimately accepting father figure, and set-up a villain with will-to-power interests via global domination, though faltering because of narcissistic tendencies...voilà!

At least it won't elicit statements like, "the worst film I have ever seen," something I heard a recent attendee claim about The Tree of Life. And that's precisely what studio-heads want: a perpetuation, a seemingly endless cycle of superficial films, showing allegiance to cynically devised metanarratives that simplistically (and, in terms of form, causally) depict action, desire, and consequence. Viewers are now brainwashed robots, disparaging (and unable to recognize or feel) artistry and passion, then extolling hackneyed, endlessly redundant pop fare. Such a culture calls for pugilism over compassion - sickeningly unimaginative. Critics are equally to blame, afraid to speak up (or, even worse, just exaggerated versions of the brainwashed viewers) because they face a backlash in readership. If the body of critics across the country truly finds Captain America worthy of a single viewer's time and consideration (at last check, it sits squarely on 74% at Rotten Tomatoes), then we're truly in the dark days of socio-cultural sophistication.

There's a central paradox Johnston fails to probe - the proliferation of "all for one, one for all" militarism (which Captain America endlessly drudges out - not to mention hero worship), but mindless finger-wagging at the numbingly archetypal Nazi villain. An early scene laughably imitates Christoph Waltz's Col. Landa - only it isn't meant to be satirical. That's the issue plaguing much of Captain America, a consistent negation or, even simpler, non-recognition of its inherent responsibility to take history seriously, either through a vision infused with nuanced conviction, or radical revisionism, turning myth into fantasy, identifying the thin line between the two. Nah - to quote a friend of mine: "In Captain America, he has his shield and pretty girls and the trains go boom boom and the bad guys go dead dead, and the world goes save save, and the guy gets strong strong." This movie sucks sucks.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Winnie the Pooh (Stephen J. Anderson & John Hall, 2011) -- C+

Winnie the Pooh is an inherent relief from Pixar corporatism - minimal, hand-drawn, but more importantly, founded upon a degree of humanism, interested in simple, sincere moral tales. However, to stop here and laud this fleeting 67 minute feature with praise would be bad criticism, no better than the viewer who appreciates a film because he agrees with it's "message," presentation be damned. Fact is, this reintroduction of the A.A. Milne's indelible crew of play things lacks a genuine sense of immediacy and drive towards its desired moral ends, amusing in its minimalism, and approaching excellence in two surrealistic sequences (Pooh has always been a self-reflexive text too; doubters need witness only the characters' interaction with the actual words of the storybook) which deliberately evoke Dali and Cocteau in juxtaposition (and irrationality) of size, scale, and movement. Nevertheless, these evocations are more transitional beats than pointed pieces to a greater, playful puzzle. Pooh has consistently been among the greatest of 20th century childhood narratives (those unfamiliar with Frederick Crews' The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh, though only adjacently about Milne's stories, will find much hilarity if knowledgeable of the Pooh characters), primarily because it celebrates imagination and friendship without cynical sentimentality (a deadly combination). Too bad the latest Pooh, while admirable, lazily reaches its humanist ends, as if it were a foregone conclusion, confusing minimalism with simplicity.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pusher (Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996) -- C+

It's difficult to place Pusher within the action canon in 2011, seeing how so many films have imitated, borrowed, or straight-up stolen from Nicolas Winding Refn's neo-neorealist crime feature debut. From Snatch to Gomorrah, the film's influence may run nearly as deep as Pulp Fiction, informing both form and content. Unfortunately, Refn's interests are only slightly more sophisticated and relevant than many of his imitators. In chronicling the petty drug pushing of two Copenhagen hoods, Refn's immediate interests are characterized less by a hypocritical examination of will-to-power (the subgenre's staple approach) than an exploration of fragile masculinity, bordering on outright crisis. Frank (Kim Bodnia) and Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) assert their sexual dominance via discussions of orgy dick-sucking, butt-fucking, and past instances where they had to "fuck someone up" for flirting/fooling around with their girlfriends. These early scenes are strong, almost satirical in their awareness of the genre norm. Moreover, by refraining from ironic detachment (unlike cinematic tumor Guy Ritchie), there's a degree of sincerity driving these scenes towards humanist revelation. However, that tract becomes lost less than halfway in, once Refn begins to pile on the cliches of undercover cops, snitching, drug use, and bursts of graphic violence, all filtered through the "gritty, realist" aesthetic (how depressingly literal), wrapped up in a world at once reviled and admired. Refn loses interest in progressive genre critique and, by the film's end, is more part of the problem than subversive visionary.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011) -- B

Give Gore Verbinski credit for not merely replicating the ho-hum fun of his lamentable Pirates of the Carribean films with Rango, easily 2011's most ambitious feature (behind The Tree of Life, of course). With his animated debut, Verbinski calculatingly culls many cinematic favorites (Leone, Chinatown, El Topo, My Darling Clementine are the central referents), gorgeously (and creepily) animates an anthropomorphized pastiche, integrating pop discussions of existentialism and morality. Rango boasts dialogue that, in these near-illiterate times, could only be called verbose, at a whip-snap pace. In abstaining from culpability with Pixar schmaltz, Verbinski inherently makes Rango a refreshing departure - it's just a shame the film becomes thematically unwieldy and, at times, subsumed by the monstration of its breathtaking animation. Not necessarily a bad thing given its texture and fullness, particularly when acknowledging the idiosyncrasy of each possum, lizard, or, even more frightening, giant snake, that gets a leering close-up.

The visuals transcend merely the weird by giving the titular character (Johnny Depp's best work since Ed Wood) a narrative grounding, methodically introducing peripheral characters, and convincingly conjuring a quest to send them on. Yet, there's a nagging problem with all of this, being that Verbinski is, essentially, indulging himself (as many recent filmmakers have) with yet another variant on "homage overload," collecting bits and pieces from various influences, making it explicit, and ultimately falling short of any discernible revision, much less one worthy of further consideration. Viewers should know something is slightly off when the spokesman for the film's recurring mariachi band says during the opening, "sit back and enjoy your low calorie popcorn." Too cute by a half, such an inclusion epitomizes a comprehensive disinterest in making Rango a truly daring mainstream work. Nevertheless, several sequences (such as a mid-film chase through the desert) are wonderfully captured (Roger Deakins acts as consulting DP for the animators) and as a visual work, Rango is unquestionably a masterpiece.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010) -- B

As far as franchise flicks go, Tron: Legacy quickly ascends the ranks merely through its emphasis on form, streamlined and devised with the image in mind. Director Joseph Kosnski doesn't necessarily have an acute eye for movement and dimension (his images don't develop a social level needed to constitute feeling or emotionality), but between his bleak, Fincher-esque aesthetic and infusion of Daft Punk's electro-chic score, there's a surface-level visceral quality driving the thankfully sparse narrative. Familiarity with the 1982 original isn't a prerequisite, but Kosinski doesn't conform to reboot banality, less interested in reconstructing the mythology than utilizing details for spinning a new yarn. The four screenwriters play with fantasy/sci-fi standard narrative, allowing brash young Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) less a plethora of daddy-issues than minimal motivation for sling-shotting him into "the grid," a digital realm of creatively rendered mano-y-mano battles (light, sound, aura) and posturing baddies, namely Clu (Jeff Bridges), a tyrannical doppleganger for Sam's father, trapped for years without recourse. Though a more thoroughly felt narrative would constitute deeper consideration, Kosinski at least refrains from expositional overload, thankfully forgoing self-indulgent pop mythology, rather constructing giddy set-pieces of physical grace. An early scene of Sam driving his motorbike through city streets perfectly reflects these interests. If Tron: Legacy wears thin in the final third, Kosinski's previous emphases make comparable boy vs. the world epics like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings seem simplistic and aesthetically unsophisticated.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Monte Carlo (Thomas Bezucha, 2011) -- B

Little to no one seems to have pointed out that Thomas Bezucha's Monte Carlo shares its title with a 1930 Ernst Lubitsch film, starring Jeanette MacDonald as a Countess seeking financial security, using the titular destination as backdrop and geographical marker for its adult fantasy. It's a wonderful film - socially conscious and endlessly amusing. The same can be said for Bezucha's film, though to a lesser degree. Three Texas girls head for Paris following high school graduation, each with a certain degree of baggage. Grace (Selena Gomez) has been waiting to graduate so she can flee her small-town roots; Meg (Leighton Meester) is still broken-up over her Mom's death, nearly two years prior; Emma (Katie Cassidy) is conflicted about marrying her long-time boyfriend. The early scenes flatly render motivations with little nuance or heft - it's blunt and hackneyed.

Nevertheless, once they arrive overseas, Bezucha surprisingly allows for reflective moments, not just with the girls, but their imaginations and impressions of the city. Like Midnight in Paris (but refitted for the proper demographic), there's a mix of fantasy and social consciousness - Monte Carlo even more so, since its mistaken identity hook (which kick-starts the narrative's crux) affords immersive, Princess fantasy-as-reality for the trio, but consistently (if half-heartedly) questions bourgeois decadence and the cultural construction of girlhood, materialist desires. Moreover, the film almost completely lacks slapstick gags, quipping children, or pandering sensibilities. It treats these three like young adults, genuinely interested in their fears and anxieties. These specifics are less interesting, though, than the film's playfulness in enacting an implicit contextual understanding, reverent to filmmaking traditions, while responding to the pop cultural zeitgeist without explicit referencing or cynical sneering.

Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks, 2011) -- C

Larry Crowne offers a refreshing bit of modesty and humility when compared with its aggressively raunchy brethren (like Horrible Bosses or Bad Teacher), but it's ultimately just as contrived in its wholly complacent, borderline ridiculously naive perspective. Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) loses his retail job (some nonsense about him never going to college), which propels him towards the local community college, where he meets babe prof Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), who's naturally going through rocky times in her marriage and having an identity crisis about her role as educator ("Does anyone even care what I'm talking about?"). Essentially a successive series of meet-cute's and whacky characters, Larry Crowne is cookie-cutter humanism, superficially suggesting self-expression and a positive outlook (Tainot's mantra of "care" makes the rote 180 by film's end) are the keys to happiness and self-fulfillment. Supporting players Wilmer Valderrama and George Takei get some nice moments, and Hanks is considerably nuanced with his schleppy lead. Little of this matters when the script (co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos) is so minute, inconsequential, and innocuous, it's a wonder the film doesn't just disintegrate right off the screen. Hanks' direction adds a few deft touches (split-screen work early at least shows some effort), but he directs dialogue exchanges with tone-deaf pacing and beats, leaving the film to rely solely on the goodwill of its characters, which wears thin well before the 2/3 point.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (David Yates, 2010) -- C+

There's a moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 that seems to suggest a ravishing conclusion will follow; stranded with his peers and professors from the entire franchise in their beloved Hogwarts, Harry and the gang prepare for Voldemort and his crew's descent, recalling the genre perfection of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. I should quickly add that this moment is fleeting, however, since director David Yates instead negates any such visceral minimalism for Lord of the Rings carbon copy mayhem, replete with Titanic-esque moments of sentimental panic, destruction, and strained pathos. Such a sequence suitably summarizes a franchise that has been content to settle for easy moments of excitement (nothing in this film truly astounds), much less features a single sequence in its eight-film span that warrants notoriety beyond the sufficient. Even at the end, Harry Potter remains a poor-man's fantasy realm, serving up broad themes of regret, destiny, and mortality without ever convincingly addressing any social parallel, much less a compelling aesthetic vehicle.

There are moments in this final saga that approach sophistication, unfortunately stopping just short before reaching said destination. In particular, a surrealistic sequence involving Potter's interacting with deceased Dumbledore, concluding with the line, "If it's in your head, isn't that still real?" Transcending perfunctory existentialism, the line speaks with crude brevity to subjective vantage points, something that could easily have been explored by Yates in the formal presentation. Rather, he's content to represent Potter's final hour with workman banality, jumping between characters and motivations without any concrete rationality. Though the perspective belongs to Potter throughout, the form never compliments this shift in a sufficient way, relegating his genuinely existential feelings of displacement hollow or, at least, underwhelming. That's the whole of the Harry Potter finale - a woulda-coulda-shoulda affair that consistently falters in offering a jaw-breaking knockout blow.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Horrible Bosses (Seth Gordon, 2011) -- C+

Judd Apatow's reign now extends past the productions he's not even associated with - Horrible Bosses reeks of said director/producer's brand of man-child antics, improv mixed with scripted material, and crude-but-cuddly humor. Seth Gordon's film has a veneer of noir ethos, but the schema is wholly toothless, predicated on naughty words and erratic behavior over situational causality, which would follow the should-be nasty premise to its proper ends (while revealing nuance about work-place dynamics). Instead, the lout characters at the helm are treated as darlings, inept but still nice guys, whose decision to kill their tyrannical bosses is essentially just another frat-boy premise ploy, a vehicle for ridiculousness rather than legitimate consideration. Here's yet another "raunchy" comedy that thinks drug gags (accidentally inhaling cocaine), bad words (nympho Jennifer Aniston gets to talk about her female parts in various terms), and awkward racial dynamics constitute provocative material. For all its mugging, Horrible Bosses never excavates any of the horror implied in its title - this is simply date night fodder. Blame not the cast, which from top to bottom is quite excellent, excluding the incessantly whiny Charlie Day. Too timid to activate any underlying implications that would challenge contemporary comedic convention rather than conform, the flick is funny, but lacking sufficient gall.

Hall Pass (The Farrelly Brothers, 2011) -- C-

It pains me to see the Farrelly Brothers, whose films have consistently balanced the goofy, human, and absurd over the years, sink to perhaps their lowest point with Hall Pass, a thoroughly desperate and unfunny vehicle that couldn't play more like a tonally uncertain amalgamation of sweetness and gross-out. Even their unsatisfactory remake of The Heartbreak Kid had at least a degree of charm, managing moments (what the brothers specialize in) of cleverness. Now, their latest premise, which could have theoretically yielded a Dumb and Dumber level romp (the underlying idea isn't flawed), sinks fast amidst their confusion. Buddy married bros (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudekis) get a week off from their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate), each compelled to make the offer after sensing marital dissatisfaction. Nothing coheres comedically, however, from the stupid-serious turns by the male leads (each is fairly awful here) and gags ranging from eating too many pot brownies, Applebees' unsatisfactory chick factor, shitting in a sand trap, and faking cunnilingus. If those don't sound lame or tired enough - well, then we're on different wavelengths. The Farrellys have always been best at utilizing their leads' comedic potential - their material has never really been that funny. That their one strength falls woefully short here should be sufficient indication as to the film's comprehensive inadequacies.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Taking of Power By Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini, 1966) -- A

Roberto Rossellini's ultra-conscious approach to historical depiction deserves more than faint praise in this era of empty-headed myth making and culturally ignorant sentimentality. With an almost Bunuelian irreverence for dramatic logic (the camera often stays away from the decadent, thoughtlessly spoken characters) and a prescient aesthetic quite close to Robert Bresson's proceeding Lancelot of the Lake, Rossellini's detached precision is oddly intimate and rigorously considerate of the inescapable link between individual canonization and Nationalistic fervor. The trick comes not necessarily in the historical detail, as the filmic presentation. Meaning, simply reading the film's synopsis would be akin to perusing through a history textbook - all fact, no form.

Rossellini's brilliance comes in his ability to take an historical moment (here, the death of Cardinal Mazarin and the ascendance of young Louis), but refuse to make it "accessible." There are no cues for emotional highs and lows, no agenda-driven vilification of one character to meet certain dramatic ends. Every scene is pitched with a subversive degree of complacency, emphasizing banality over personal triumph. Try finding any such subtlety in The King's Speech. None of this should suggest Rossellini engages ambivalence or lacks a distinct comment for his work; wholly unconcerned with the "based on a true story" fetishizing (but nowhere approaching total disregard like Inglourious Basterds), he's able to liberate historicity rather than constrain and reduce it. His emphasis remains implicit, a self-constructing schema that desires interpretation and quietude over cut-and-dry posturing and finalities.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Love and Other Drugs (Edward Zwick, 2010) -- C+

Love and Other Drugs flirts with similarly middlebrow terrain as Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, their lightly, almost evaporating satirical interests actually just backdrops to attractive people fucking. Director Edward Zwick believes amping up the nudity quotient makes his film sexier and more adult, which isn't necessarily true, though getting more than a few passing glances at the bods of co-stars Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't hurt the film's watchability. Nevertheless - for a film deliberately set during 1990's pharmaceutical battles (Gyllenhaal plays a go-getter drug rep), very little of Zwick's focus is on health care, much less any tangible argument or discourse. Rather, the film's narrative primarily concerns Hathaway's early stages of Parkinson's disease, and each character grappling with their inadequacies, intimacy fears, and narcissism. Though all of the material more or less plays well, there are significant focus issues in the film's second half, seemingly uncertain where its energy needs to go. Health care satire? Adept romantic dramedy? Whackier screwball comedy? All and none, the breaking point comes when Gyllenhall's character, having taken Viagra, can't lose a hard-on, and goes to the hospital for assistance. It's part-and-parcel for Zwick's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, especially distasteful and sour since it follows a scene that allows Hathaway to work her dramatic (more like histrionic) acting chops. Lacking comedic and thematic fluidity, the functional scenes never congeal into any particularly resonant form.

Little Fockers (Chris Weitz, 2010) -- F

Disintegrating even the slightest semblance of good taste, cinematic sophistication, and, without question, figures resembling actual human beings, Little Fockers might just be the most excruciatingly worthless film ever made. Where to begin explaining its endless barrage of travesties? Essentially, the third film in this unfunny franchise (okay, the first one at least coasted on the affability of its leads) involves...well, mainly a bunch of gobbledygook pratfalls, anal insertion gags, erectile dysfunction corkers, and, my favorite, children projectile vomiting. Every single scene in the film falls horribly, catastrophically flat almost instantaneously. Newcomers Jessica Alba, Harvey Keitel, and Laura Dern generally make complete fools of themselves. To see Keitel and De Niro, united probably for the last time on-screen, suffer and mug their way through such horrid muck is akin to cinephilic food poisoning - rarely has such an esteemed cast, who've done strong, often miraculous work with other filmmakers, been so egregiously useless. Moreover, the entire film has been written into some indistinguishable black-hole, as none of these characters could ever be mistaken for living, breathing, people. Neither does director Chris Weitz turn the proceedings into outlandish farce, a move which would have, at a bare minimum, given a tonal consistency to the nonsense. Rather, he directs with a moron's eye, relying on excess and strained, desperate gags to keep the incoherent narrative chugging along. Furthermore, there's never even one iota of thought given to thematic formation about family values or aging. Just seemingly endless, woefully unfunny jab after jab. Rarely will "fun" ever be this intellectually imprisoning.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Brotherhood (Will Canon, 2011) -- F

Any dregs of morality are purely coincidental in Will Canon's appalling, incompetently executed Brotherhood, which is far more concerned with callously constructing masculine identity via cruel pranks, revving up an indistinguishable, metal-driven soundtrack, and filmed with enough murky, washed out cinematography to make Tony Scott blush. Everyone is dripping with sweat from the film's opening scene, but only tasteless, culturally unaware buffoons could be moved or thrilled by such a calculated presentation of forceful pathos. The entire film is predicated on a fraternity prank gone awry, after one of the pledges actually robs a convenience store (a communication mix-up, natch). The remainder dredges out its Tarantino-influenced guns, taking place over the course of a single night, with one of the frat guys bleeding to death. More offensive than every single frame's derivative nature is the disgustingly mistaken sense of moral fortitude; many films preach peace while reveling in violence, but Canon takes it even further, eroticizing the drawing of silver-plated handguns and wearing of ski-masks without irony - he clearly gets off on such pathetically transparent visual puerility. Unlike Larry Clark's Bully, Brotherhood mistakes genre masturbation for generational commentary - that's what great about Clark's film, it peerlessly defied genre (Docudrama? Suspense? Horror? Comedy?) not with pastiche, but by unearthing its lead characters' genuine sense of displacement, malaise, and cognitive misunderstanding of causality. Try finding any such layering of feeling from Canon's poorly scripted (some of the most risible dialogue in recent memory) and embarrassingly adolescent views on violence, sex, and cinema.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010) -- B

Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist is not so much a blessing as a needed rebuttal to Pixar and Dreamworks animation domination. Certainly, the Jacques Tati scripted feature is made with impeccable charm, grace, and serenity, beautifully recalling not just a style of animation that prioritizes elegance over polemics, noise, and excess, but also an implicit critique of a knee-jerk pop culture that devours whatever novel product is laid before them. Tati's critique of contemporary diversion through technology (disabling accessible human connection), is perhaps more relevant now than ever. Not to imply that Chomet addresses such issues explicitly, but his anachronistic magician adequately fulfills this metaphor, caught between his own desires/convictions and the consistently (d)evolving artistic preferences of others. With hardly a line of dialogue (much like his equally charming The Triplets of Belville), The Illusionist meditates on a city's expansive beauty (Paris), human behavioral idiosyncrasy, and a bygone era's nostalgic charm, without turning sentimental. Essence is rooted in artistic tradition and a culture's past, so Chomet suggests looking back (through introspection, not thoughtless replication) in order to move forward.

Ip Man (Wilson Yip, 2010) -- B+

Few martial arts driven films in recent memory are as thoroughly engaging and executed as Wilson Yip's Ip Man, part mythical biopic, part brash, kung-fu extravaganza. Not since Tony Jaa dismantled an army of men in The Protector has the genre been so kinetic. Moreover, Yip's sturdy hand does more than merely string together a few dazzlingly choreographed fight scenes - grounding the battles in convincingly sparse period piece dramatics, there's an impressively multi-layered balance of pathos and visual movement, due much in part to Donnie Yen's sly, understated performance as the titular grandmaster. Rather than unwisely weight down the proceedings in ultra-soapy melodrama, Yip goes light on exposition, primarily establishing scenario through title cards, brief scenes of dialogue, and minimal scenarios. By not overextending the narrative, Yip implicitly deconstructs nationalistic honor and pride through violence, perhaps brazen in his pop-art treatment of history, but no so egregious as to merely gloss through it. The final third especially ratchets up Yip's confluence of interests, enabling a climax that's acutely aware of its inherent silliness, but also deeper cultural convictions that translate well in a cinematic space.

Barney's Version (Richard J. Lewis, 2010) -- C

With a biopic (in this case, pseudo-biopic), it's all about form over content. Like any number of dutiful, but unremarkable biopics from the last few years (Ray, Kinsey, Frida, etc.), Barney's Version takes the episodic route, encompassing many years into the span of 2+ hours. Bad choice, though undoubtedly done to maintain a degree of reverence to Mordecai Richler's novel. Nevertheless, redundancy and complacency result, as neurotic asshole Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) goes through three marriages, years of ridicule, and even a murder investigation. Director Richard J. Lewis finds no way to transcend a literal presentation, shooting with a pedestrian's eye, and failing to encompass any sort of mounting tension. Each scene is so self-contained, enabling a frustrating start-stall effect. Furthermore, even the scenes themselves mundanely trot through larger themes of artistic failure, Jewish guilt, and cultural ennui. Lewis has no tonal/conceptual vision for either Barney or his film (Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman give strong efforts, nonetheless), resulting in minimal to non-existent resonance, especially given the unconvincingly sentimental conclusion.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One (David Yates, 2010) -- C-

Harry Potter makes for piss-poor cinema. Other than the books' legion of fans (and granted, they are aplenty), the films offer no recourse for the unconverted - nor do they make particularly compelling vehicles for viewers interested in anything but fidelity. Certainly, there will be a major divide here, between those who've read (and likely, read again) J.K. Rowling's collective apotheosis of modern literature and those who aren't immediately compelled by the boy (now boy-man) wizard and his posse of muggles, dwarfs, ogres, goblins, and wookies. If some of my terminology is wrong, please forgive, but only the most geeked-out fanboy/girl could become excited by such a world of utter nonsense. Moreover, as envisioned by director David Yates, part one of the saga's concluding chapter seethes with self-importance masquerading as atmospheric dread - dreary is more like it. At a ridiculously bloated 147 minutes, every scene comes and goes, meaningless dialogue exchanged, plodding along to the next, without the slightest recognition that what's on-screen lacks passion or artistic weight. With the pacing of an uber-faithful miniseries adaptation (and a now hackneyed, pseudo-serious HBO aesthetic), few films are this hopelessly leaden.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sanctum (Alister Grierson, 2011) -- D-

Less than five minutes into Sanctum, a James Cameron produced cinematic virus, cave-diving financier asshole Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) cockily states: “As soon as I leave, the whole thing turns into a Mongolian clusterfuck.” If that line isn't enough to make your hand start creeping towards the remote for that fast-forward button, then surely the nature chants (immediate recalling Avatar's grating score), petty bickering between indistinguishable crew members, and wholly trite and transparent narrative concerns will. Comparing this with something like Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, there's nary a moment of unsentimental meditation, much less introspection. Just hokey, ever-so-thinly drawn dramatics. Director Alister Grierson earns that title by credit only, shoddily constructing even a remote sense of suspense or natural wonderment; for the man who supposedly lived something close to these events, he directs with little assurance or guidance, recycling hollow adventure film cliches, and failing to provide a single concern outside of his protagonists' survival. To call this drivel third rate would be kind.

Hobo with a Shotgun (Jason Eisner, 2011) -- C+

Though fronting a grindhouse-inspired veneer, Jason Eisner's Hobo with a Shotgun is actually more of a kindred spirit with Alex Cox's cinema, integrating giggle-driven extreme, cartoonish violence with socio-cultural degradation, culminating in pre-apocalyptic dread. Unfortunately, Eisner is, like all of his peers, driven by the cinematic posturing itself, rather than its underlying mechanism: thematic conviction. Content to rehash rather than reinvent, nothing is allowed to progress past circular logic, since a simple act of reverence is also self-effacing. World-weary Hobo (Rutger Hauer) strolls into a town overrun by young hooligans and headed by a silly tyrant named The Drake (Brian Downey). Cut-up, beaten, and exploited to the breaking point, Hobo snaps up a shotty during a robbery, becomes a "hero", and seeks continual vengeance. None of the exposition really matters - this is all about stylistic flourishes driving empty revenge. Neons, smoke, and harsh chiaroscuro characterize the mise-en-scene: flashy but meaningless. Moreover, Hobo with a Shotgun wholly misunderstands the vigilante ethos, rooting action in wink-wink self-awareness, instantaneously rendering itself insignificant. True vigilante narratives sprung from tradition clashing with post-Vietnam disillusionment; in other words, the place of personal justice in a milieu where governmental law fails. Though far more astute in its style and sense of humor than Robert Rodriguez's train wrecks Planet Terror and Machete, Eisner can't progress past a palpable sense of tedium, failing to provide a reason for his film to exist, other than allowing himself to enact an indulgent homage. If only his understanding of genre theory and practice were more astute.

Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011) -- D+

Battle: Los Angeles is unquestionably one of the most interesting films of 2011. That doesn't mean it isn't also one of the worst. Such a seeming contradiction reveals itself through intention vs. execution - director Jonathan Liebesman's ambitions far exceed his abilities. The film deserves at least marginal credit for its focus, that being an assemblage of diverse (black, hispanic, white, female) troops, each given a half-assed, one scene backstory, who are then hurled into battle against indistinguishable robot figures. Liebesman is not concerned with the rationale for attack, nor does he provide much detailed exposition. Instead, an attempt at pathos comes via Sgt. Nance (Aaron Eckhart), whose bravado matches the patriotics of early John Wayne characters - brash, slick, and full-blooded American. In times of intense crisis, he breaks into not-so eloquent monologue about unwavering duty, remaining loyal to the platoon, and putting country before self. In other words - a plea for irrational militarism. Not since Saving Private Ryan has a Hollywood war film so flippantly utilized the heroic narrative. The film essentially turns into an extended military advertisement, verging on propaganda in its straight-faced conviction. Problem is, that conviction plays as merely incoherent filler, not revisionist history for post-9/11 response. Instead of figuring a way to properly update military credulousness, Liebesman concocts an offensive melange of low-budget sci-fi and pathetically derivative docu-drama shaky-cam. His aesthetics clash more than the marines and aliens. Moreover, Liebesman's attempt to make what are essentially backlot sets with green-screens seem like epic, on-location realism is hilariously, almost shockingly, unconvincing. Were his postmodern sensibilities more refined, one could claim such efforts as appropriating the 1950's sci-fi allegory for modern warfare anxieties, thereby simultaneously redefining action/sci-fi genre split through Carpenter-esque formal minimalism and Hawksian propriety. Nope - this is a geek's world, with video game mantras, unremarkable visuals, and thoughtlessly pro-military, dunderheaded naivete.

Just Go With It (Dennis Dugan, 2011) -- B-

One thing's certain about Adam Sandler: he's riding his patented brand of giddy juvenilia to the end, stopping only seldom to make "real" films like Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People. And so the trend continues with Just Go With It, a remake of the 1969 film Cactus Flower (unseen by me), only I'd imagine that Walter Matthau starrer had less shots to the groin gags and probably didn't contain a scene where someone's hand gets shit on while they lie asleep in a bathtub. Nevertheless - what Sandler and crew never get enough credit for is their sense of the absurd, not so much "random" chic as socio-culturally reactive, prizing sight gags and often puzzled reaction shots over sitcom-level punchlines. There's a silliness that instantly satirizes, especially when something like plastic surgery is the target - Sandler has never stopped poking fun at bourgeois narcissism. Moreover, with Sandler's Danny as the straight-man more than the young hothead (co-star Nick Swardson hilariously picks up the slack on this end), there's a humble maturity present in the relationship with Katherine (Jennifer Aniston), albeit one rooted in goofy naivete and fantasy than any genuine attempt to address an aging man's discontent with the single life. No such luck - but then again, Sandler's chosen comedic mode consistently charms because of its tone and pace, hardly ever smug or overtly precious. Even when not outright funny (probably 80% of the time), Sandler and director Dennis Dugan keep things peppy and fleet.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Unstoppable (Tony Scott, 2010) -- C

Tony Scott is just obsessed with things that go real, real fast. Following his disappointing 1990's actioner-throw-back The Taking of Pelham 123, he unwisely elects to throw-it-back even further to the disaster/wreckage films of the 1970's with Unstoppable - to considerably muddled results. Lacking enough creativity or passion to circumnavigate the obvious trappings, Scott lazily ticks off the narrative beats: odd couple duo with family issues must ultimately confront their indecision through an act of heroism; tyrannical corporation head holds the company's interests dearer than human lives; eclectic group of supporting characters quip and look with concerned stares from afar; climax gathers families watching TV monitors as their loved ones get banged-up, but save the day just in time. More banal than the narrative beats is Scott's ice-cold visual style, equipped with his usually blurry transitions, and fulfilling nothing more than looking serviceably drab. Denzel Washington has rarely looked this tired. Chris Pine is a decent actor, but he's given nothing more to do than pout and appear troubled about his crumbling marriage. Infused with a tighter sense of blue-collar angst (and exuberant, rather than hackneyed humor), Unstoppable would be exciting - as is, there's a persistent certainty that all artistic parties involved are coasting.

Cars 2 (John Lasseter, 2011) -- B-

Commercialism shouldn't stop Cars 2 from being seen as Pixar's best film since Ratatouille - there's an unbridled enthusiasm driving the often spellbinding visuals and director John Lasseter mercifully omits the saccharine sentimentality that ultimately sunk Up and Toy Story 3. There's more imagination on display in Lasseter's presentation (the opening sequence approaches visceral sophistication) and these anthropomorphized cars make better play-date companions than Woody and the gang, especially Larry the Cable Guy's Mater, surprisingly funny and genuine, if slight. Nevertheless, Pixar yet again cannot refrain from attempts at implicit morality building, as the crux of the narrative concerns the emergence of an alternative fuel vs. big business oil. Like Up's corporation baddies or Wall-E's unforgivably smug liberalism, it's an unwelcome addition to a film that should be about wonderment, not polemics. More offensive could be Cars 2's eye-raisingly casual cultural stereotyping (another Pixar staple), but the damage is slight here, mainly because the tone is kept endearing, rather than forcefully sombre.

Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011) -- B

Beginners is almost a great film. In spots, it feels like one, playfully expressing self-pity, existential woes, and relationship angst without losing its precision and verve - director Mike Mills is, at least, specific in his vision. Bittersweet throughout, the death of Oliver's (Ewan McGregor) father (Christopher Plummer) conjures up Gondry-esque tampering with temporality and montage, implicitly suggesting the transient nature of life, distinguishable only through the zeitgeist's cultural signposts. Nevertheless, an unfortunate degree of cutesy quirk permeates just enough to soil otherwise magnificent work, such as a Oliver's dog, who speaks through subtitles nearly a dozen times throughout the film. Too pandering. Moreover, the film's consistent insistence upon anarchy and "living by one's own rules" plays more as hollow hipsterism than stone-cold conviction, especially since Mills sentimentalizes these assertions, rather than putting them to the test. At its worst, Beginners resembles cinematic migraine Running with Scissors - bourgeois self-hatred played as virtue. Yet, at its best, Mills transcends these trappings and approaches the art of Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry - but he never quite gets there, mainly because his aesthetic sensibilities are ironic rather than expressive, the visual ticks providing polemical commentary instead of organically supplementing the human struggles. The film does, however, feature some of the year's best acting (McGregor, Plummer, and Laurent) and is a step in the right direction for Mills following his muddled debut, Thumbsucker.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2011) -- B+

It should almost go without saying that Werner Herzog conjures up gorgeous, mesmerizing, and wholly transcendental images in his latest documentary, also in 3D, though that's more of a tangential perk than anything worth discussing. What truly brings vitality to the material are the interviews with numerous scientists and archeologists, all of whom have devoted significant amounts of time to studying the Chauvet caves of Southern France. Human idiosyncrasy (of the interviewees) parallels the incomprehensible drawings of cavemen, still preserved and astonishingly legible. Herzog posits the findings as lost or forgotten dreams, even going so far as to refer to their attempts of depicting movement as "proto-cinema." The archeologists muse over a time long since passed, becoming giddy and eloquent when narrativizing what's on the cave walls. They, like Herzog, view the past with equal parts nostalgia and introspection, often mimicking the actions of cavemen (such as throwing a spear to kill a horse) but are humorously unsuccessful. The past cannot be retained in whole - but it can be dreamt, mythologized, and made grandiose. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an endlessly eloquent manifestation of this phenomenon.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Best of 2011 (so far)

Halfway through the year, there have been some gems, but mostly a lot of shit. Here's how my favorites are stacking up:

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
2. Kaboom (Gregg Araki)
3. Scream 4 (Wes Craven)
4. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
5. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
6. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay)
7. Beginners (Mike Mills)
8. 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)
9. Green Lantern (Martin Campbell)
10. Hanna (Joe Wright)

Honorable Mention: Source Code (Duncan Jones), Insidious (James Wan)

Need to see: Hobo with a Shotgun, Of Gods and Men, Rango, Sucker Punch, The Housemaid, Even the Rain, Super, Paul, Incendies, Le Quattro Volte, Meek's Cutoff, Poetry, and Uncle Boonmee

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Weekly Viewing June 27th - July 3rd

13 ASSASSINS (Takashi Miike, 2011) -- 3/4

13 Assassins finds iconoclastic director Takashi Miike in a surprisingly reverential mode, paying thorough and adept homage to Akira Kurosawa's samurai epics, nearly devoid of his more perverse sensibilities, and approaching something almost shockingly grounded. Nevertheless, in terms of craft, scale, and visual sophistication, Miike reveals a classicist knack, focusing on traditional themes of honor, duty, and morality without an explicitly subversive or revisionist tract to be found. In essentially creating a workmanlike film, Miike both facilitates and inhibits his ends, certainly compelling as the rogue crew of ronin are assembled - and stunningly kinetic in the virtuoso, near hour long conclusion (here Miike recalls the unforgettable bloodshed of Okamoto's The Sword of Doom). Yet ultimately there's a feeling of restraint and a disappointing lack of anarchy from one of cinema's most notorious madmen. However, without considering Miike's oeuvre, there's little reason to quibble with straight-up proficiency - 13 Assassins is a professional affair from first to last frame.

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (Michael Bay, 2011) -- 3/4


AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY (Matt Harlock & Paul Thomas, 2011) -- 2/4

Instead of letting Hicks speak for himself (through stand-up), this limp-wristed documentary attempts to narrate the gone-before-his-time comedian's rise from humble small-town beginnings to hilariously controversial (and ahead of his time) politico, using his stand-up for near activist means, challenging mob rule behavior and blind-leading-the-blind governmental actions. However, whenever the film cuts away from Hicks on stage, it regrettably inserts monotonous praise or recounting of specific dates and linearity, rather than finding a form to match his madcap persona. Eulogizing Hicks is not inherently misguided, but directors Matt Harlock and Bill Thomas communicate little passion in their presentation, heedlessly peppy and tritely conceived. Hicks's life and work is fascinating - the film is less than compelling.

THE WAY BACK (Peter Weir, 2011) -- 2/4

Prizing "based on a true story" narrative complacency over rigorous formal pursuits, director Peter Weir is content to shoot amidst vast landscapes without utilizing them for visual splendor, while drearily marching through man vs. wild sequences, as a group of Siberian prison escapees march thousands of miles towards their freedom. Problem is, Weir doesn't weird it up enough, neither conceiving of nature in a surrealistic way or transcending rote dialogue exchanges musing on metaphysical trappings with precise observation. There's a total lack of immediacy or passion in the filmmaking. Any time a film opens with "this film is dedicated to...", it's an immediate recognition of pandering, dramatizing history instead of implicitly questioning that dramatization; in other words, Weir makes the film as if it's 1948, without any clear indicators as to why he's chosen this subject. Films don't tell stories - they show them. Weir's chosen aesthetic plays depressingly antiquated.

NO STRINGS ATTACHED (Ivan Reitman, 2011) -- 2/4

Why is it that nearly every modern romantic comedy lacks any real bite, insight, or specificity regarding class and socio-cultural influence? No Strings Attached presents two single 30's somethings, neither of which seems to hold sincere convictions that have come from over a decade of relationship baggage and emotional scars. Instead, they are caught in a web of sitcom-level scenarios of infidelity, jealousy, and altogether narcissistic behavior. Instead of working class, hell, even professional middle-class, it's Phantom Hollywood time, as the skewered mores of elitist studio execs are passed off as the hopes, dreams, and sexual desires of the masses. Hollywood has always used beautiful people to enact romantic scenarios, but former battle-of-the-sexes verbiage has given way to reductive maxims, tritely summarizing instead of playfully engaging. The film does thankfully spare much of the crude hijinks for a genuine attempt at humor and drama, but the film never dirties nor challenges either star, pre-packaged to sell, and conceived without any desire to truthfully excavate any nuance about contemporary relationships.

RUBBER (Quentin Dupieux, 2011) -- 1.5/4

Absurdity isn't inherently clever. It takes a certain degree of wit, deft application of irony, and a firm grasp of tone to achieve resonance. Director Quentin Dupieux struggles to find these avenues with Rubber, a self-reflexive piece about an anthropomorphic tire with telekinetic powers. Crushing a bottle in the desert, next a scorpion, then a beer bottle, and finally, exploding a man's head, it's a goofy bit of allegorical drivel, the tire's desires driven by empirical instances of power and control. Unfortunately, this already pathetic set-up is sullied even more by painfully indulgent and cutesy running commentary, first through an introduction that asserts there are "no reasons" why certain things happen in many films, then with a group on onlookers who break the narrative in order to provide reflexive insights (none of which are funny or insightful), recalling Haneke's Funny Games - but without any genuine sense of terror, this isn't a sick joke, just a lame one.

THE COMPANY MEN (John Wells, 2011) -- 1/4

Rarely are films as offensively reductive and middlebrow as The Company Men, a "timely" look at the harsh effects of downsizing on career men whose lives are essentially returned to square-one after losing their six-figure salaries. Director John Wells ineptly dramatizes this with one calculated scene after another, forcing pathos through numbingly false introspection and easy payoffs, losing any and all nuance in favor of hokey-inspirational tactics (too many CROWD-PLEASING moments to count), while retaining dour undertones to insist that this is a DRAMA. Nothing transcends a one-note dialectic (everything is made neatly explicit), so that even when characters burst into a rage or display fleeting conviction, the script undercuts it with an immediate reversal or manufactured emotional cue. Lacking even a single genuine, unfiltered moment (and made even more grating by a cutesy score), there are few films as transparently condescending.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011) -- B+

There's more than just the battle between Autobots and Decepticons raging in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Michael Bay's third (and best) entry into the juggernaut franchise. Cynical, jaded viewers will likely be unable to look deeper than Bay's veneer of explosions, car crashes, and clanging metal (much of which, I might add, is adroitly applied for sensory stimulation) to the palpable sense of urgency and artistic desperation that manifests, especially during the film's final hour, unquestionably Bay's magnum opus, a symphonic, self-reflexive, visceral, maximum display of the filmmaker's undeniable talent for large scale spectacle. Those who hate on Bay's insistence of movement, images, and sound over narrative or character development simply miss the larger context - Bay implicitly formulates cultural discourse through his crude sense of sociological humor, filtered by his distinctly American sensibilities, at once xenophobic and playful, half-joking and half-serious. Bay's honest, terse, and purely proletarian look at the political zeitgeist is sure to enrage "progressive" viewers, because it doesn't wear kid gloves or tread lightly around delicate subject matter. Yet, through all of the wreckage and destruction accumulated, Bay retains a degree of subtlety in his ability to suggest subtextual avenues, rather than overtly allegorize his man-child visual fantasy.

Bay's sensibilities have always tended towards hyper-stylized fantasy, even when dealing completely in the real world. The Rock, for instance, plays with Military-Industrial-Complex anxieties by fetishizing posturing, masculine leads, all while reflecting the post-modern mirror back onto itself, cheeky and self-aware, brash and unashamed to perversely distort reality. Few have given Bay credit for his comic book-style takes on politics and bizarro cultural outlook; instead, leftist critics are curiously enraged by him, somehow threatened by his bravado, either lobbing claims of racism, sexism, or chauvinism, and feeling self-righteous for having "defended" fellow human beings. In a political climate where pacification is rapidly becoming a virtue, Bay's "is-it-satire-or-not" ambivalence strikes a resonant cord - and Transformers: Dark of the Moon is one of his most precise, deft applications.

The film's narrative again concerns Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), now graduated from college, trying to find a job amidst a tough financial climate. His determination and persistence aren't enough - he must "impress them," as future boss Bruce Brazos (John Malkovich) states before hiring him. Bay playfully sends up knee-jerk political impulses via the Malkovich character, whose capitalist go-getter mindset cannot be stopped, even following the death of a co-worker ("We can't let his death shut us down"). Such a combination of cynical tyranny and extreme violence recalls Paul Verhoeven's Robocop in its seamless genre critique of American bloodlust (and apathy for human loss). Mentions of President Obama, Twitter, and "Weapons of Mass Destruction" facilitate the film's zeitgeist mode, seeking to address contemporary socio-political climate, but only in passing, a preferably concise approach to any larger, didactic discursive attempt.

Interweaving ephemeral narrative exposition with consistently thrilling action sequences, the film messily (but giddily) builds to the last hour, undoubtedly Bay's finest, where his entire oeuvre comes into play, a conglomeration of everything he's been working towards for the past 15 years. Before all-out war on the streets of Chicago, Simmons (John Turturro) says: "One day they'll ask us, where were you when they took over the planet?" Histrionic rhetoric becomes the action film version of Terrence Malick's opening line from the book of Job in The Tree of Life ("Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?"). Each filmmaker becomes immediately concerned with expressing existential woes through image and sound; of course, Bay's is less philosophically driven, but his kinetic brand of transcendental insight deserves a rigorous consideration for its artistic merits, not to be flippantly dismissed as "loud, dumb, and meaningless" as irresponsible critics are so enthusiastic to do.

Likewise, before Sam enters the war-zone, Epps (Tyrese Gibson) grabs him by the arm and states: "It's over. I'm sorry, but it's over." From that moment on, narrative goes underground, and Bay immerses the film in uninterrupted spectacle, heightened by a visually discursive presentation (at one point, a subjective, first-person shooter POV shot is inserted). Could Epps be announcing the death of the film's narrative? Moreover, is Bay suggesting that his post-modern sensibilities have been exhausted, finally entering a penultimate war-zone where he'll have to give it everything he's got? Perhaps, and likely so, a poignant self-recognition of unfiltered aesthetic vision on its last go-round. Indeed, Bay does not disappoint, offering up ingeniously constructed sequences of movement, collision, and scale (the loss of gravity as a building topples over is the highlight). Certainly, the images conform to a post-9/11 anxiety, exploiting while entertaining, large-scale destruction as the visual metaphor for a deterioration of cinematic and cultural understanding. Many call Bay "the death of cinema," but his use of the medium seeks to transcend the complacent filmmaking of his contemporaries, where nothing is banal or mundane. Humorously enough, the most ordinary part of his filmmaking is narrative emphasis, as it should be - cinema shows, is visually driven, and good at eliciting emotion through montage and juxtaposition. By implicitly questioning the medium's subjectivity and offering up numerous examples of towering spectacle, Bay uses the medium appropriately; those who don't appreciate his sensibilities want to tame his unbridled approach, insisting upon narrative to drive the action, instead of the reverse.