Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen

Three things I learned from this movie. Transformers are evidently warm blooded- and for that matter, they actually breath. There's no need for consistency in things like size, or bad-assery, and clearly Megan Fox doesn't need to actually act. Clearly this movie delivers exactly what the trailers offer- a rehashing of the previous movie's plot, with a ton of transformer visual effects, and a slight bit of acting thrown into the mix.

Most convenient double entendre ever. The title both means the revenge of those lost in the first movie, and one of the most hackneyed names for a villain ever. You guessed it, the bad guy's name is actually "The Fallen." This movie begins essentially where the last one left off. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is heading off to college, and is trying to regain a bit of normalcy in his life (despite having a transformer for a car). Along the way he's trying to maintain a long distance relationship with his girlfriend, Mikaela (Megan Fox). And that's where the human interaction essentially ends. On the flip side, the autobots (good transformers) have teamed up with the military to rid the world of the last of the decepticons (bad transformers) that are in hiding. This setup results in the best scene of the movie- which is unfortunately the first one. For the two and half hours that follow it, the movie just goes down hill.

Through an awkward narration delivered by none other than Optimus Prime himself, we learn that the relationship between transformers and humans goes back thousands of years, and through a clumsily developed plot line, made overly complicated with obnoxious sounding names that sound like they were thought up by a tech savvy third grader, we learn that the decepticons, led by "The Fallen" want to destroy the Sun. This leads to a movie filled with robotic hand to hand combat, and more cameras rotating around a transforming robot than I could count.

Obviously the movie is stupid, with a few exceptions, the acting is awful (both human and robot). Shia LaBeouf in a few wonderful scenes seemed to be channeling his Even Stevens days and reprised some of his goofy physical humor that has been missing from any of his roles in years. John Turturro also returned in his role from the first movie, and somehow managed to make the dialog he was given much better than it actually was. Unfortunately he could only do so much, and it was still very flat.

But the point of the movie is, of course, the Transformers themselves. And I must say, they were beautiful. Unfortunately they didn't pack the same visual wallop as the first one. It suffered from the same thing the Jurassic Park sequels did. We've seen these before, so we're not blown away simply by how they look. We need more. Michael Bay answered this by ramping up the action, and giving more character to the robots. In the first part he kind of succeeded (which I'll get to in a moment) but on the second aspect, he failed miserably.

There has been a lot of criticism about the movie having racist undertones. This is due largely because of two Transformers called the Twins- they talk in ebonics, sport golden teeth, and pretty much get in the way. I can completely understand why people would be offended- however, the true offense here is that they're just awful characters. They're not necessary to the movie, and if they were indeed included for comic relief, it fell flat. Sure they're stereotypes, but no more so than the Hyenas in The Lion King. The difference is that those were important, and great characters.

As far as ramping up the action, he certainly did that- but at a cost. The movie features a lot of lingering shots on Transformer's fighting, which I appreciated. Nothing bothers me more than rapid fire cutting to disorient you (and essentially make it easier on the director). Unfortunately this also resulted in some pretty horrifically violent scenes. I guess the idea is that if it's robots getting their heads ripped off and disemboweled, it's okay. But still, I found a few parts almost difficult to watch. The violence and the profanity I think could very possibly alienate a younger crowd- a very important demographic for these movies. However, there were a lot of little kids at the showing I saw, and they seemed to get a kick out of it, so maybe I'm just behind the times.

In all, it was a pretty terrible movie. An hour too long, too violent, bad acting, bad dialog, bad plot. But, and this is a very important but, it looked absolutely gorgeous. Very rarely do I enjoy a movie based simply on it being pretty. This movie, though it fell short of getting real positive feedback from me, was very close to being worth it just for the effects.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Vals Im Bashir

I've been waiting almost a year to Waltz With Bashir, and it finally came out on video. I'm thrilled to report that it did not disappoint. It has elicited many comparisons to Persepolis from a few years ago. Both brought unique animation styles, both were documentary-esque, but most importantly- both were stellar films.

Bashir is about director Ari Folman trying to unearth repressed memories about his time in the Israeli army when they invaded Lebanon in 1982. He accomplishes this through a series of interviews with other soldiers that served with him. Of specific concern to him, and the true fuel for his quest was the desire to remember his role in the taking of Beirut and the massacres at Sabra and Shatilia, supposedly sparked by the assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel (hence the title of the film). As Folman talks with more people, his memories slowly start to come back, until he can finally see those fateful days in Beirut.

This is a powerful movie about what otherwise good people do in war. It's interesting seeing a conflicted Folman want to find out what happened, but scared to find out what he did. All of this was sparked by one of his friends who was being haunted by dreams of dogs he killed during the war. Folman then started likewise being haunted by his own dreams (or lack thereof).

The animation is the most unique feature of the movie- of course. It was primarily done with cutout animation in Flash (with no rotoscoping- they made that very clear on the bonus features). The rendering style, and the cutout animation give the impression of a comic book in motion. I'm confident that this movie would work just as well if it were a graphic novel instead. At first the animation bothered me a little, because it's all very slow and kind of robotic. It's as if the characters are floating through some kind of liquid. Eventually I grew used to this because it seemed to fit with the dream like nature of the film.

The music played an incredibly important role in this film. Each scene it seemed was paired perfectly which a wide range of music- from gritty rock to classical. The musical choices greatly influenced the feel of the scenes. The titular Waltz came from a dreamlike scene of a soldier dodging bullets in a ballet under the watchful eye of building sized banners of Bashir- all set to a Chopin waltz. Other scenes of soldiers goofing off amid gunfire, or time lapsed warfare going on in the distance to original rock songs about bombing Lebanon were reminiscent of scenes like surfing in Apocalypse Now, or the latter half of Full Metal Jacket. The juxtaposition of the music and the atrocities being met with nonchalance typify the stoic acceptance that these are just the realities of war.

This is a wonderful movie in all aspects. The illustrations are far better than the actual animation, but the animation itself is acceptable given the context. The story itself is power, as Forman tries to find the answers that he may not actually want to know.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Drag Me To Hell

Sam Raimi returns to his roots of horror with Drag Me To Hell. It's been 17 years since he did Army of Darkness, and to all those fanboys out there- he's still got it. I was dubious that he could retain his horror chops after almost a decade with the over produced Spider Man trilogy. Though Drag Me To Hell doesn't embody quite the campy deliciousness of the Evil Dead Trilogy- it seems to come as close as anything can in today's profit driven industry.

Alison Lohman stars as Christine Brown, a bank loan officer who in a bid for a promotion foreclosed on the worst imaginable person- an old gypsy woman who in retaliation lets loose a curse on Christine to- per the title- drag her to hell. I never understood why curses take so long to accomplish their goal. I guess there wouldn't be much a movie if there were immediate results. Starring alongside her is Justin Long as her fairly pointless arm candy boyfriend, Clay. He really serves no purpose besides providing a necessary love interest.

Where the movie really comes to life are in the scenes where gross-out practical effects take the center stage (and there's plenty of those). I was hooked from a scene early on when the old woman assaults Christine in a parking garage. For a split second I was worried this was going to be lame and goofy. I quickly realized goofy was an appropriate term, but I had to replace lame with wonderful. Goof and camp are what Sam Raimi does amazingly well, and it's what keeps his fans coming back.

Though Raimi doesn't reach quite the same echelon as the stop motion skeletons of Army of Darkness, those days are long gone. But he does manage to capture some scene reminiscent of the early 90's from movies like It (which despite what anyone says- I still think is one of the scariest movies of all time).

Drag Me To Hell is definitely a niche film, and you should pretty much know what you're getting when you go into it. You'll notice this review didn't mention anything about the acting, or the brilliant plot development. You may be surprised to hear this, but those were pretty much not there- unless you consider Christine going to a fortune teller to try to exorcise the demons an original plot point. Perhaps the best test you can conduct about whether you will like this movie is look at the title. If it sounds stupid and unpleasant to you, guess what- you won't like the movie. If the title sounds downright awesome- you'll have a blast.


The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

I have never seen the original, so I can't attest to any comparisons between that and this remake, though I've heard the original sets the bar pretty high. This one, helmed by the always too slick for his own good, Tony Scott, is high on style but as usual, low on plot. He tries to throw a lot of unnecessary action into the movie, pushing it to around two hours- when it doesn't need to be a minute over an hour and a half.

John Travolta stars as Ryder, a gunman who hijacks a subway train and holds it ransom. Denzel Washington plays the Walter Garber, the train dispatcher on the other end of the radio- the only one whom Ryder will negotiate with- perhaps because of his own shady past. The two of them have great chemistry, as great acting pairs always do. Even though they're almost never on screen together, they really feed off of each other. Travolta does what he does best- act as a crazy but charming villain, and Washington does what he does best- act as an imperfect and conflicted hero.

The problem arises when Scott tries to artificially action and suspense where it's not needed. This is exemplified by the "car chase" featured prominently in the trailer. These bloated scenes just take away from the the best thing the movie has to offer- two stellar actors let loose to do what they do best.

The movie doesn't have anything new to offer. At its best, Pelham features some sparkling moments between Washington and Travolta. Through most of it, however, it's just another formulaic heist movie. From the time warping opening credits to the action packed final showdown, this movie is pure Tony Scott. Unfortunately he doesn't push the style as far as movies like Domino, or go as unique as Enemy of the State. It's not his best, but it's also not his worst.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How have these not been made into movies?

Do you ever read a book and think that it would make a perfect movie? Well usually it's already been made- possibly more than once. Every so often, though, I think there is potential for a fantastic adaptation and none can be found. This leads to the obvious question- How have these not been made into movies? Today I've got two.

The first is John Steinbeck's "In Dubious Battle". Steinbeck is obviously no stranger to the screen. There have been movies made of Canary Row and Sweet Thursday, and numerous versions of East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and others. But I have never seen an adaptation of In Dubious Battle- what I feel is one of his strongest works.

It tells the story of two members of the communist party trying to introduce unionization to field workers in California. During this course they deal with strikes, intimidation, and harsh conditions. It covers important issues, is filled with deep conflicted characters, and could feature some brilliant cinematography of vast Western fruit farms. Seriously, how has this not been made.

My second choice is "I, Houdini", a children's book by Lynn Reid Banks (whom is more well known perhaps as the writer of the Indian in the Cupboard series). I, Houdini is told from the perspective of a family's hamster, who wants nothing less than to be caged up. He manages to escape from every cage the family uses, and wreaks havoc when he's loose. Eventually he escapes the house and is introduced to the world outside- both its majesty and its horror.

I may be swayed on this one because I read it many times when I was younger and always loved it. But I genuinely feel it could make a wonderful movie if done correctly. It would have to be animated, and would either have to be done by Martin Rosen (Watership Down, Plague Dogs), or in a Don Bluth fashion (Secret of NIMH). But it's a wonderful story with undertones about balancing adventure and danger, freedom and risk. Again, how has this not been made into a movie?

Leave a message with if you've got any movies that are just dying to be made. And more importantly, leave a message if either of these have indeed been made, because I would be dying to see them.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Up (among other things)

Okay, so yes, it's been months since I last posted a review. My apologies. But I couldn't let The Film Elitist go down without a fight, so here we go again. Hopefully there's still some people out there who will read this.

The last six months have been filled with a wide range of movies, from the sublime (Coraline, Star Trek) to the mediocre (Wolverine Origins, Knowing) to the absolutely abysmal (Terminator Salvation, Monsters V. Aliens). I Debated about trying to catch up on some of these movies, but decided instead to just charge ahead with what's knew. Suffice it to say, you should see the first two I mentioned, and disregard all the others.

So for my first movie back I'll be reviewing Up, the latest Pixar feature. For better or worse, I've come to expect a certain (almost unobtainable) level of quality from Pixar. Up, it turned out, fell short of that mark (albeit only slightly). Peter Doctor, one of Pixar's core creative team, took the reins in this unique tale- the first one he's helmed since Monster's Inc in 2001. It's certainly an original story, but also certainly not without his flaws.
Up follows Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner) in his golden years. On the eve of his commitment to a retirement home, he decides he must fulfill a long held promise of adventure. He fills thousands of balloons with helium (20,622 to be exact) and takes off with his house on his final big adventure. Unbeknownst to him, Russell (Jordan Nagai) an enthusiastic boyscout-esque Wilderness Explorer is off to share the adventure after being stuck on the porch of the house as it floated away. Fairly quickly they reach their goal (approximately) and it's a race for Carl to get the house to its final resting place before the helium runs out. Things are complicated however, with the appearance of an exotic bird, her hunter, and a lovable dog named Doug.

First of, it's Pixar, so naturally it looked gorgeous, and the animation was stellar. It continued Pixar's tradition of very realistically subtle animation, but included some wacky parts with the bird that were reminiscent of the Dodo from Loony Tunes.

My issues come from the story (and mostly not the story itself, but how it's executed). At the beginning of the movie we're met with a lengthy sequence outlining Carl's entire history. It's a beautiful montage, and I've heard of many from whom it extracted tears. However, it's a little overt. Within the first ten minutes we really know everything there is to know about this character. I don't like being told how to feel about a character. That is something that should be revealed over time, and it should be up to the audience to figure out throughout the course of the movie. I wouldn't lose those early scenes, I would just spread them out to break up some of the movie later on, and use them to explain events after they've happened, as a way to create dramatic tension, then release it.

The other part that I took issue with were some of the gags (notably vicious dogs with high voices). These were used over and over. I understand that things like gag recognition will hold the attention spans of young children, but these really don't help the movie. And things get really wild with dogs flying airplanes, and a pretty amazing aerial battle. Some of this could have been done without.

It seems this movie suffers from what all Pixar movies suffer from a little. It deals with some heavy subject matter, but also has to draw in the young-uns. It leads to a slightly schizophrenic feel, trying to balance these two ideas. It mostly does a good job, but occasionally leans too far in one direction or the other.