Monthly Archives: July 2007

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

No movie has carried the burden of expectations quite like what befalls The Simpsons Movie. The animated TV satire has become a cultural phenomenon in its 18 seasons on the air. The Simpsons is a unique comedy with something for everyone; sharp cultural and political satire, slapstick, sincere family values, crass jokes, witty pop-culture zingers, and sly sight gags that take the eighteenth viewing to fully capture. In fact, I can only slightly explain the significance the show has had on my own life. For starters, it has influenced my sense of humor and writing, but the show also pretty much takes up full-time residence in my brain. I have told people for years that I believe 85% of my grey matter is filled with movie trivia and Simpsons quotes. There isn’t an experience in life that cannot be linked by an appropriate Simpsons quote (“Every time I learn something new it pushes something old out of my brain.”). I can quote episodes like some people can quote Bible verse. To many, The Simpsons is like a modern Bible for comedy.

With that said, the long-in-development movie version of our favorite yellow-skinned Springfield family is now in theaters. The loose plot of the film follows a typical Homer screw-up. He’s adopted a pet pig and disposed of its waste in the endangered Springfield Lake. The environmental calamity causes the EPA, led by a duplicitous department head (Albert Brooks), to place a dome over the town of Springfield. It doesn’t take long for the town to figure out it was Homer that doomed them, so the Simpsons family flees to Alaska to start anew before they learn that the government has plans to fully wipe Springfield off the map.

I suppose expectations will create a different prism for each person to view the film. The Simpsons TV show has never been terribly rude, and when it comes to satire it jabs more than eviscerates; in reality, the show has a terribly large heart and treads in moral and ethical dilemmas. It’s been more sweet than sour. Some fans might be hoping for the same transformation that South Park took when it hit the big screen in 1999. South Park made the leap with a brilliant movie that seemed to stretch the scope of what the show could do; it was more than a bigger and longer version of the TV show, it was an exceptional and blistering and hilarious satire that also was the most damn infectious musical of the decade. The Simpsons Movie doesn’t take full advantage of the opportunities a movie offers, though we do have a handful of non-network appropriate items like Marge uttering a blasphemy and Bart going the full yellow Monty. The Simpsons Movie doesn’t push the series into something too vulgar or unfamiliar. The movie feels like three episodes strung together. Whether or not that’s good enough for your entertainment dollar will be questionable. For me, having a feature-length version of my favorite TV show that’s written by the “Golden Age” writers is enough to guarantee at least two viewings.

The Simpsons Movie is easy to enjoy. The 11, count ’em 11, former show writers know exactly what makes the series work and how to stay true to the core of the show. There is some great lampooning of elected officials, including President Schwarzenegger declaring he “was elected to lead, not to read.” There are plenty of solid moments from the great plethora of supporting characters, like Ralph’s reaction to seeing a naked Bart, Mr. Burns remarking that for once the rich white man has the power, Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel idiot-proofing a safety measure, and Kent Brockman describing the environmental disaster as so serious, “it has its own theme music.” The Simpsons has such a large cast of memorable characters that it’s only fair that some will grumble that their favorites didn’t get more screen time (more Ralph and Mr. Burns, please), but the beauty of The Simpsons is that every person has their own set of favorites. The guest appearances by Tom Hanks and Green Day are well incorporated and fun. Albert Brooks has a long involvement with the show and is fantastically droll as always.

However, ignoring my fan-coated bliss, the movie is not a comedy home run. The film does seem to lose some comedic momentum when it spends time on action. The emotional interludes feel a bit awkward but they still hit hard for me because I’ve followed these characters since I was 7 years old. The subplot involving Bart looking for a better father figure in Flanders has been done before and better like when Bart got a Big Brother to spite his father (“Simpsons did it!”). That’s the trouble with 400 episodes; there’s little material the show hasn’t already covered. The family excursion to Alaska never really feels like it fits with the plot, but then again the TV show always takes unexpected diversions. The Simpsons Movie is consistently funny, always amusing, fairly clever, but rarely will anything prompt uncontrollable laughter. It’s a bit of an easygoing good time, but will that be enough for the die-hard fans who are hoping the movie will contend with the pinnacles of all human artistic creation?

I think The Simpsons will go on forever. It’s a handful of seasons away from breaking Gunsmoke‘s record as the longest-running prime time TV show (20 years). The big screen version is an entertaining and amiable version of the show. That’s good enough for me. I just pray that a sequel takes less time to hit the theaters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Sunshine (2007)

Danny Boyle is one of the more interesting film directors out there today. He seems to dabble in every genre. He’s done paranoid thriller (Shallow Grave), substance abuse drama (Trainspotting), zombies (28 Days Later), and a genuine family film (Millions). Boyle has a bountiful imagination. Now he and his 28 Days Later partner, writer Alex Garland, are going where many have gone before in the film world – outer space. Just don’t confuse the film with the 1999’s Sunshine where Ralph Fiennes plays three generations of a Jewish family with rotten luck. Come to think of it, both Sunshine movies fall apart in the final act. Note to filmmakers: just stay away from this title. It will doom your ending.

Fifty years into the future, the sun is dying. Earth is under a solar winter as it undergoes less and less light. The crew of the Icarus II has a very important mission: restart the sun. Attached to their spacecraft is a giant bomb intended to create a new star inside an old one. They have a giant reflective shield to protect them from the direct heat of the sun. The ship has eight crew members, including the physicist responsible for the bomb (Cillian Murphy), a botanist (Michelle Yeoh) with a garden to provide recyclable oxygen reserves, and a hotheaded handyman (Chris Evans) that believes nothing could be more important than their mission. As they drift closer to the sun they pick up a distress call that belongs to the previous Icarus I spacecraft which vanished under mysterious circumstances seven years ago. The crew decides that two bombs are better than one and changes course to intercept the Icarus I. anyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows you don’t go poking into the spooky place when you don’t have to.

Boyle sure knows how to make things look pretty, or interesting, or pretty interesting, and this helps because Sunshine is rather shopworn with familiar sci-fi staples. The premise itself almost seems identical to a 1990 film called Solar Crisis, a movie I only remember marginally because of the female nudity my young eyes caught glimpse of (in those days we didn’t have any of yer fancy Internets). Besides this, the film borrows liberally from 2001, Solaris, Star Trek, Alien, Event Horizon, The Core, and the super crappy Supernova. Most every aspect of Sunshine can be traced back to a different science fiction film, but sci-fi is one of the few genres that don’t necessarily suffer from being derivative. A cookie-cutter sci-fi movie is forgivable as long as the filmmakers treat the audience with respect and attempt to be smart with their story. I don’t care that Sunshine reworks plot elements that have been worked since giant alien carrot people frightened necking teenagers in the 1950s, and that’s because the genre is built for being borrowed.

Sunshine is often beautiful to watch with awe-inspiring images of that great ball of fire, our sun, but even better is the fact that the film is pretty much the opposite of Armageddon – it’s smart. The movie discusses the realities of space travel, communication, oxygen levels, trajectories, sub-zero temperatures, sacrifice, and how to live so close to the sun where the human eye can only safely look at 3.1 percent of its light emissions for 10 seconds. It’s a bit slow but rather fascinating just to witness how day-to-day life functions for the crew and how the time, or lack of discernible time, plays with their psychology. This respectful intelligence helps when the crew debates altering their mission to inspect the mysterious space vessel. The audience knows that only bad things will happen but the crew argues with reasonably sound logic about the potential benefits.

Sunshine is a thinking man’s sci-fi treat for its first two acts and then it completely devolves with a disappointing turn of events; it becomes a slasher film in space. There’s genuine awe and intrigue, along with some brainy scientific discussions and some considerable religious/philosophical pondering… and it all just stops dead for a madman chasing people with pointy things. Sigh. It’s an artistic free-fall that Sunshine never quite fully recovers from. Boyle makes the strange decision to keep his space slasher out of focus so the audience never gets a clear look; even stranger are camera shots where the killer will walk into frame and then transform his area to an unfocused blur like a blurry infection. It’s an artistic choice that doesn’t quite work (“The blurry man’s coming to get you, Barbara!”). The film then morphs into your standard race-against-time and then balloons with trippy computer effects and snazzy light filters. Sunshine was exceedingly more entertaining prior to picking up the unwanted visitor.

The cast does a fine job mulling their life-or-death options, but the two standouts are Murphy and Evans. Murphy and his piercing baby blues make for a strong lead. He provides soulful glimpses into his stock scientist role. Evans is the surprise of the film. Best known as the Human Torch in the dreadful Fantastic Four films, he exhibits a wider range of emotions from macho hardass to duty-bound soldier. This is a film heavy with noble sacrifices, and Evans is the reminder of all that is at stake.

Sunshine is visually pleasing and intellectually stimulating, especially for a sci-fi film built from the discarded pieces of other films. It’s a tense and exciting time, that is, until the movie just throws up its hands and transforms into a laughable slasher film. This movie did not have to go this tiresome route; there could have been an on-board mutiny when they discussed the idea of killing one of their own so they had enough oxygen to complete their mission, there could have been further psychological torments from within the crew, or even easier, the spaceship could just have undergone more malfunctions. Sunshine is a thoughtful, slightly meditative sci-fi thriller, but then it loses all of its better senses.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

The most interesting aspect for me about the ongoing Harry Potter big screen adaptations are how each new director handles the material. Christopher Columbus got the ball rolling with his autumnal and slavishly loyal films, Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Then Alfonso Curaon made the series feel magically its own for the first time with Prisoner of Azkaban. Mike Newell made The Goblet of Fire feel like a teen romantic comedy. Now it’s David Yates’ turn to be at the Potter helm. Yates has little to his resume beyond assorted TV movies, but his direction must have impressed the Potter brass. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix feels somewhat like setup to more important events yet to come, but with Yates and new screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, this new entry feels up to the entertainment challenge of its forebears.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is entering his fifth year of education at Hogwarts School of Magic. The Ministry of Magic is trying to silence Harry’s claims that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) has arisen anew. They’ve installed one of their own, Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. But she’s not interested in teaching the students actual magic. The Ministry feels it’s best for the Hogwarts youth to just have a theoretical knowledge, so they’re distributed out of date and censored textbooks. Umbridge gathers greater power and eventually has the run of Hogwarts, forcing Harry and his friends, like longtime buds Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), to practice their own protection spells in hiding. Umbridge and the Ministry are convinced Harry and Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) are trying to unseat their leadership. In actuality, they’re just trying to warn people about a war that is on the horizon.

The fifth movie is also the most grownup in tone and temperament yet. Harry is in a very different place and feeling alienated from the important people he cares about. The Ministry of Magic is turning the public against him by making everyone believe that Harry is a liar. Order of the Phoenix explores a lot of psychology and doesn’t have anywhere near the humor of previous installments, especially 2005’s heavily comedic Goblet of Fire. I think this is a step in the right direction. Harry’s mortal enemy has been resurrected, his schoolmate has been murdered, and you can’t really go back to zippy Quidditch matches and silly spells that make people hurl slugs. The Harry Potter universe has gotten darker and more serious and Order of the Phoenix reflects this. Harry warns his peers during a training session that death is a real consequence of what they’re about to face, and that bad things will indeed happen to good people.

Order of the Phoenix is structured into two dominant storylines: Umbridge and the school repression, and Voldermort’s attempts to infiltrate Harry’s mind. Voldermort is handled as a murky puzzle, mostly in a succession of quick flashes and nightmares, and this results in the storyline feeling more like a fuzzy memory. I found the Umbridge character to be far more interesting and even far more menacing than He Who Must Not Be Named. The combination of political suppression of the truth, fear mongering and paranoia, torture interrogations, trampling over civil rights, and teaching students censorship in the name of safety is a fascinating correlation with our own modern society. The book may have been released in 2003, and written by an English woman, but the political repression feels alive and relevant today. While I appreciated the well-crafted peeks to the nasally-challenged Dark Lord, I found Harry raging against the system trying to keep him mum to be the real meat of Order of the Phoenix. I lost some interest once Umbridge had been vanquished.

Harry Potter advocates of all stripes and sizes constantly ask me why I have little interest in sitting down and reading the actual novels, why I’m content to wait the extra time for the movies. The answer is two-fold: 1) I’m lazy, and 2) I think the slimmed down screenplays may boil the essence of J.K. Rowling’s verbose books and present a better and more focused story. In all honesty, I don’t really care about who wins a Quidditch game, or how someone helps a magical creature that is of no consequence to the story. Rowling’s massive tomes seem so overstuffed, and I repeat that I am passing this judgment never having read one book, that I don’t mind all the superfluous subplots and characters that are trimmed and/or eliminated in the path of economic storytelling. The essential essence of the story and all the really important elements will be included, any the quibbling of what gets tossed aside is often enough to confirm for me that I don’t need to read the books to see what I’m missing. Then again, this entire paragraph may do nothing but prove that I am willfully ignorant or just plain wrong. Oh well. Two more movies to go and two more books not to open.

Yates brings in the shortest Harry Potter movie to date at 2 hours and 18 minutes long, but the hastened pace sometimes causes the film to stumble or lack clarity. There’s a death late in the film (while I’m sure the entire world knows the person’s identity I will refrain from spoiling) and I had no idea what had just taken place. The death is abrupt, and the person just sort of leans back and disappears into some gate that is never given context. The whole scene is meant to be defining drama but if I hadn’t known ahead of time what was supposed to happen then I would have been scratching my Muggle head. The prophecy that the bad guys want so badly seems rather unimportant, so the ending scuffle over this little glowing ball seems like much ado about nothing. Most of the new characters, like Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, don’t feel well incorporated into the overall story. But the worst part of the hasty pace is the fact that when we finally get an all-out wizard battle between good and evil that it ends far too quickly. The Order and Voldermort’s Death Eaters are going at it with colorful attacks jettisoned around the room, but this exciting bite of action turns out to be little more than a morsel. After the wizard-on-wizard combat, Order of the Phoenix goes back to a pretty predictable finish with little in payoff. And was Hagrid’s giant goofy brother really necessary to include?

The adults have always been impeccably cast in the Potter flicks, and real star of the fifth film is Staunton (Vera Drake). Umbridge is a juicy role and Staunton brilliantly plays this fascist little school marm in Pepto pink. She has this exquisite stuttering giggle, and her ever-smiling, cherubic face quivers like there are strings attached. Staunton makes even the most innocent “excuse me” sound like it’s dripping in poison. She’s so peppy and seemingly wholesome but in the same moment is There’s one scene between Umbridge and Professor Snape (the irreplaceably awesome Alan Rickman) where he can’t stand her presence and adds an extra dose of snarl in his annoyed replies; this woman has found a way to make Alan Rickman even more awesome. Order of the Phoenix is at its best when Staunton is stalking the corridors and enforcing her brand of control. I’ll miss her dearly.

I think I need to reverse my stance on the child actors of this profitable series. With the first movies, it seemed like Watson was the real star as the studious and nitpicky Hermoine. It also appeared that Grint would never escape the trappings of squealing cowardly relief. Radcliffe seemed to suit the material but felt overly wooden and I predicted he would never be anything but a blah actor. I now must rescind my earlier predictions. Watson has become more grating as the films progress, She outshined her fellow actors when they were 11, but now that she’s a teenager and working the same limited, yet extremely huffy, acting range, turning her character into more of an annoyance than an ally. Radcliffe, on the other hand, is nicely growing into his role and expressing deeper emotions and anxiety as the weight of his Harry’s name and destiny weighs on him. I think Radcliffe will have a career outside the boy wizard; he was strikingly funny on an episode of HBO’s Extras that sent up his youthful image. I don’t think we’ll ever hear much from Grint and Watson again once the end credits roll on movie seven.

After five movies, I think we pretty much know what we’re going to get with the Harry Potter series. The stories are getting more mature and serious, and this means that the films need more attention to adaptation and weeding out the nonessential elements. I think the fans that are still grumbling about the books being butchered have missed the point (they’re also still fuming over the “new” Dumbledore, even though Gambon has been in 3 movies now). Order of the Phoenix was the longest book but has been turned into the shortest movie, and it still resonates as an exciting and emotionally engrossing fantasy now taking definite and irrevocable steps toward something dark and meaningful. Yates is scheduled to direct the next Potter chapter,The Half-Blood Prince, and even though I won’t have a new director’s style to analyze, I look forward to more adventures with these characters. Just don’t tell me to read the books.

Nate’s Grade: B

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

A lot has changed in the world and for Bruce Willis since last we saw John McClane in 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance a.k.a. Die Hard 3: Die Harder-er. Is a post 9/11 anxiety-ridden world, does someone like McClane feel quaint, like the remnant of a bygone era? Live Free or Die Hard, a.k.a. Die Hard 4, is Willis getting back to butt-kicking, wise-cracking basics. The film is a surprising and fun summer entry that could have been much much worse, and for that I am grateful.

McClane (Willis) is a pretty run down man thanks to the rigors of his job the heavy price being labeled a “hero.” He’s divorced, estranged from his teenage daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and retired from the force. He gets called to transport a hacker named Matt (Justin Long) from New Jersey to D.C. and into federal custody. Before he can leave Matt’s apartment, assassins start shooting at McClane and the hacker and the two go on the run for their lives. A former national security leader, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) has planned what is known as a Fire Sale, where the United States’ infrastructure is brought to a standstill by eliminating all power services, communications, and causing the nation to be consumed by chaos. Matt was one of the many that were contracted to unknowingly write code that would assist in Gabirels’ techno takedown. Now Gabriel is cleaning up his tracks and that involves removing an increasingly irritatable John McClane.

The film is nothing short of Bruce Willis trying to reclaim the action movie genre the way he sees it should be. Die Hard 4 is all about how computers and our complete reliance on modern technology put us all at risk if someone ever pulls the plug. Willis and the film are an efficient, and enjoyably retrograde Hollywood action flick that scoffs at kung fu, self-indulgent effects, and the gravity-defying acrobatics that have dominated action cinema since the rise of The Matrix. McClane shrugs and cannot understand this “kung fu shit” and mistrusts computers. Die Hard 4 puts most of its attention on good old-fashioned practical stunt work, not that the film’s sequences are practical, like when McClane is driving an 18-wheeler around a crumbling highway while being fired upon by a fighter jet. Live Free or Die Hard is crammed with gunfights, fistfights, and motor vehicles launched into the sky. People bounce around like pin balls. It pushes the boundaries of PG-13 action; the profanity of the previous films isn’t exactly missed, but it’s regrettable that cinema’s best catch phrase to ever use the term “yippee-ki-yay” has to be partially muffled by a sound effect to keep its more family-friendly rating.

Willis helps keep things grounded with an enjoyable acting style best be described as bemused crankiness. Throughout the long trip foes and intense obstacles beset McClane, and yet he remains the same grumpy Gus that can’t believe his own damn luck. Whenever he defeats a well armed opponent, or does something “so crazy it just might work,” and it does, he laughs to himself like he cannot believe his luck. He informs the bad guys that he is coming, and he will kill them, and they ask him how and even he doesn’t know and he doesn’t care. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, as he always has been, but there’s an added level of fun watching someone with an AARP card (who isn’t Clint Eastwood) kicking ass and taking cyber geek names.

Director Len Wiseman cut his teeth on the terrible Underworld movies (I’m sorry, but if you got a movie about vampires vs. werewolves, you don’t give them leather and guns and call it a night), but he now has won me over with his work on Die Hard 4. His careening, deep-focus visuals are like a mix of Michael Bay with an extra dose of the fetish-loving Wachoswki brothers. There are a handful of visual scrapes that really pop onscreen like some very close encounters with high-speed cars.

But let’s not get too wrapped up in the fun of Live Free or Die Hard. It’s still an out-and-out action movie complete with plot holes, logic gaps, stock characters (the movie loses steam every time we have to cut back to the FBI agents), and some one-liner groaners. The villains are pretty standard, though very tech heavy in their approach. The movie never explains why a good portion of the henchmen are French. McClane’s daughter will obviously get crafty and bullish when under pressure, proving herself a chip off the old block. The banter between Willis and Long is overdone in an attempt to add more frantic feeling to a tale about the end of all reliance on technology.

Live Free or Die Hard is an efficient and satisfying retro, macho action movie. The action is frenetic and focused on hard-nosed stunt work that brings so much more excitement to the film. The movie works, and that in and of itself is something of a miracle. McClane rattles off a monologue about what it means to be a hero, and in the end he says it’s just about you being the guy willing to do his job no matter what. Well, as far as I’m concerned, the John McClane job is about providing solid action-packed crowd pleasers. I don’t care how old the man gets, because under the right direction he delivers.

Nate’s Grade: B

Sicko (2007)

I live in a Western society without universal health coverage, the only Western society without, actually. Living in a consumer-driven society has its plusses and minuses, as any system will, but as political lightning rod Michael Moore’s new film Sicko indicates, perhaps under that system the Hippocratic oath may need to be changed from “do no harm” to “do no harm to the bottom line.” Sicko is different from Moore’s familiar political screeds; no, this is a deeply humanistic Moore who presents a scathing expose on the broken American healthcare system under the control of major corporations. This doesn’t taste like propaganda, not this time.

The film is really structured into three segments: health care horror stories, a comparison of other countries and their systems, and the jaunt with 9/11 rescue workers. The horror stories are the best condemnation of our system and also the film’s best point of argument for change. The additional segments provide more persuasive food for thought but are less explosive. Moore’s best points are his damnation of our home healthcare. I imagine the film is full of selective information and some bias, but the true stories of these people wronged by a system meant to protect are all the information needed to point to change.

The first part quickly alerts the audience that, unlike the advertisement declaring that this is the funniest of Moore’s films, Sicko really is by far the saddest and most emotionally disheartening film the scruffy man with a camera has ever concocted. Endless full-length movies could be fashioned simply from the personal stories of those with insurance, and especially those without insurance, and how their lives have been ruined or devastated by the decision making of the American health care system. Sure, this segment is a blatant emotional appeal, but that doesn’t excuse what happened to these victims. One man accidentally sliced off two of his fingers and then had to choose which one he could afford to reattach. By far the most infuriating cases are the clear-cut examples where medical intervention would have saved lives. A mother lost her young daughter because she made the mistake of seeking help from a non-HMO approved hospital. She died in the wait to transfer her to another hospital while the mother begged the onsite doctors to treat her child. One woman even worked for a healthcare company and had her husband’s bone marrow transplant because they deemed this long-standing and highly successful surgery as “experimental.” Her husband had a perfect match thanks to his brother. He died a month later. Hearing these people’s sobering sob stories, one after the other, is like repeatedly getting punched in the stomach. It’s hard not to tear up as you witness peoples loved ones being transformed into profit loss statistics.

Moore also gets some plum interviews with former workers within the healthcare industry, and we see that the burdens of their actions still haunt them. One woman breaks down as she confesses a conversation she had over the phone with a couple applying for coverage. The couple was so overjoyed and relieved, but this woman new immediately that they would get denied, and that this moment of happiness would be utterly destroyed weeks later when that fateful letter was delivered in the mail. It’s explained by these people that the real mission of the big insurance companies is to find a way not to pay, thus achieving the exact opposite of what insurance is supposed to be. If by some miracle you do have insurance, they do approve your operation, and you have not incorrectly filled out your application, that’s when they set in the heavy hitters. These people scour through any record they can find to discover any means of denying converge. One woman had her surgery paid for by her insurance agency, then the agency found out that she had misled them by never reporting a serious medical condition in her patient history — she had a yeast infection. They then canceled payment and told the doctors to get their money from her instead. No stone shall go unturned in the pursuit of skipping out on the bill.

This segment also presents some of the most indicting information as well as some of the weirdest. A healthcare professional testifies to Congress that she received higher placement by denying coverage to people who presumably died without it. Bonuses are awarded to the agent with the most denials. Congress passed a Medicare reform that effectively handed the government system over to private interests, allowing drug companies and insurance agencies to become middlemen and drive up prices and cut out competition. The Senator at the helm of this reform became the CEO of a pharmaceutical company with a starting salary at $2 million. Coincidence? The strangest item is a record the American Medical Association distributed decades ago that stirred up fears of how socialized medicine would weaken our country and grease the wheels for a takeover by those dirty, spooky communists waiting in the wings. None other than eventual American president Ronald Reagan narrated the record.

Sicko then becomes an extended commercial for foreign healthcare programs. Moore visits Canada, England, France, and finally Cuba to see how other countries take care of their own. Throughout the film we’re warned by those in power how disastrous a universal healthcare program would be and how people would not be getting better care. Moore stumbles through every country and interviews doctors and patients in waiting rooms, all of who speak enthusiastically about a program where anyone can walk anywhere and get covered for free or at minimal cost. In France, there are roving doctors that take emergency house calls 24 hours a day, and this system was inspired by a man who reasoned if he could get a plumber 24-7, why not a doctor? A clog is a clog. Every one of these countries has a lower infant mortality rate as well as a higher life expectancy. This segment is informative and dispels misconceptions about foreign care, but it’s also hardly open and shut. The economic realities aren’t fully explored by a handful of glowing interviews where the subjects are sympathetic to Moore’s viewpoints. What is the cost of living in these countries with so much paid sick leave? What is the average salary like? How much are taxes to pay for universal coverage? What is the wait like for serious but not life-threatening operations? I am by no means saying that these other countries do not have favorable systems, but Moore is not covering the costs of those government-controlled healthcare systems.

The final segment is typical of the stunts in other Moore movies. He interviews a collection of 9/11 rescue workers that volunteered to clear rubble for weeks and months and now have serious health problems from time spent at Ground Zero. Because they were not government employees, the government rejects paying for their medical care. These people were selfless when their nation needed them most, and now the fact that our own government has turned its back on returning the favor is deeply shameful. Moore takes these 9/11 workers and others and travels by boat to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where those responsible for 9/11 are getting better healthcare. The rescue workers are brought to tears at the discrepancies between the Cuban health system and the American counterpart they’ve been butting heads with for years. Moore paints an all-too rosy picture for Cuba, a country of notorious political repression, censorship, and the internment of homosexuals. These points are conveniently left out while Moore marvels at the advanced care his charges receive for free.

Sicko is a powerful and searing condemnation of what Americans live with to live. Moore always seems to formulate a conspiracy-laden thesis through his documentaries, but this is one I can definitely get behind. Moore theorizes that Americans are kept demoralized and in fear so that they will be kept complacent. Saddled with mounting debt, you’re not going to rock the boat when you have to keep your job as the only means of affording medical care. The U.S. industry seems to working backwards; instead of protecting people they are protecting shareholders. When people starting dissolving and all that can be seen is profit ledgers, that’s when we’ve gone too far and twisted a system meant to heal people and prolong their lives and not empty their wallets. Moore doesn’t present a strong alternative but presents overwhelming evidence that change is in dire need. Sicko is skillfully presented, has some humor to it, but is by far a more draining and agitating experience than a fun one, ultimately scaring the viewer to ever fill out an insurance application again. Ever have a yeast infection?

Nate’s Grade: B+

Transformers (2007)

Once again Hollywood is quick to prove that if any television show emits some level of nostalgia, or merchandising potential, it is only a matter of time before it finds itself reconfigured as a big screen blockbuster movie. In all honesty, I was never a huge Transformers fan; I was more into Ghostbusters and then transitioned into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It may be sacrilegious, but I thought the knockoff cartoon/action figures, The Go Bots, were just as good. Steven Spielberg and critically derided director Michael Bay (Bad Boys II, Armageddon) have teamed up to bring the world a lengthy and noisy Transformers feature film. I can’t wait for the Go Bots to get their own equally pricey close-up.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is your typical teenager obsessed with getting his own car. He can only afford an old Camaro at a used car lot, and his dreams of impressing the hot girl in school (Megan Fox). But Sam’s car isn’t just any old busted jalopy, no sir, it is really a robot in disguise from another planet. Sam’s car, codenamed Bumblebee, is apart of a robotic race known as the Autobots, led by their leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen returning to voice with gravitas). They can transform into vehicles that they scan with their optical sights. The Autobots are trying to save the planet from their evil counterparts, the Decepticons, who have already infiltrated our world in search of their fallen leader, Megatron. It seems Sam holds the key to the survival of Earth. His great grandfather was an Arctic explorer and happened upon the frozen sight of Megatron. He left behind an artifact that reveals the location of the chilled robot as well as a source of unparalleled power known as the Allspark. Needless to say, the military and the Secretary of Defense (John Voight) are a little aghast at how their weapons stack up to big bad robots.

Michael Bay was born to direct a live-action, ultra expensive Transformers movie. The testosterone is through the roof and the film worships everything shiny, fast, and automotive. This is the kind of movie that fits exactly into the artistic parameters of Bay. The film is one gorgeous product placement orgy that is all about the eye candy; the cars are hot and desirable, the car chases are cool, the explosions are a lovely shade of orange, and Megan Fox is quite hot and desirable too (engaged to a 90210 actor? Why oh why, Megan?). The special effects are downright flawless and the action sequences are enormous. The scale of destruction is, like most aspects of Transformers, cranked to such a high degree that summer satisfaction can only ensue. Everything is bigger in Michael Bay world. Transformers is Bay’s best movie so far and it delivers the goods when it comes to hyper-kinetic action and plenty of thrills.

While the movie runs on silliness it also keeps its wits about it and delivers solid and exciting action with a breathless pace. What really surprised me about Transformers is how much humor they squeezed into 143 minutes of loud and hyper bombast. Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (The Island, Mission: Impossible 3) have a great economy to their storytelling. They also have created a wacky teen comedy that just so happens to also be inhabited by giant robots. Much of the first hour is spent with Sam and his attempts to look cool with his new ride and impress the pretty girl. Sam is hocking his family wares on eBay and the Decepticons are on the hunt for… LadiesMan217. There’s a lengthy sequence where five Autobots have to duck and hide outside Sam’s house so he doesn’t get in trouble with his parents. Ma and Pa Witwicky look out the windows, and the robots dodge getting caught, and it’s like a classic bumbling slapstick comedy. A good action movie can become a great one when aided by well-timed humor, and Transformers has so many quips, sight gags, and goofy sidesteps (“Mountain Dew machine must destroy all humans!”) that is could be considered the most expensive comedy of all time (take a seat, Evan Almighty).

There is, however, a price to be paid for all this comedy and that is that no one acts with any true sense of awe. They are witness to large walking and talking monsters of metal that are out to enslave the planet – there has got to be some wonder there, but the film doesn’t treat anything seriously. Its jokey nature keeps the film from being anything more than disposable, throwaway entertainment. I mean, I find it difficult to take any movie seriously that features a robot “relieve” itself on John Turturro.

Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia) carries the film on his sturdy shoulders. The shape of Transformers has more to do with his horny, smart allecky character than the robots that fight. Normally the only thing required in an effects-heavy action flick are some fast legs and a healthy set of lungs, but LeBeouf has charisma to spare. He has a young Tom Hanks everyman feel to him. The greatest compliment I can give him is that he is the most memorable figure in a movie with big brawling robots. Fox is pretty easy on the eyes. Voight is adept at playing government figures in times of national peril. If you need a guy to stare at something massive, or formative, or formatively massive, and utter, “My God,” then Voight is your man. Kevin Dunn and Julie White provide nice comic additions as Sam’s mother and father.

Transformers may be a perfect slice of summer thrills, but unlike its titular gigantic robots, it’s little more than meets the eye. The movie loses steam whenever it deters from its main story involving Sam. I understand that the filmmakers were trying to widen their story scope, but nothing is gained by the inclusion of such useless characters like the overweight super computer hacker who lives at home with his mom. There’s an elite team of national security analysts and they all happen to be scruffy multi-cultural hippies. We have a blond Aussie (with a nose ring, oh so rebellious) who discovers the Decepticon signal and then, well, she sits in a room for a long while and then mostly sits on her hands during the climax. The opening follows a band of soldiers in the Middle East (which the film reminds us is where Qatar is, because apparently it does not feel that your core Transformers fan has a basic grip on geography) who also must reach the bigwigs in Washington with important info on these killer robots. These dangling storylines could be lost and little momentum would be lost. None of these extra characters are given a lot of attention. Most of them will vanish for long stretches so that when they do reappear you’re reminded how much you did not miss their absence. You’re going to need stock roles, like military men and tech geeks, but Transformers has cast its lot with the simple story of a boy’s first car and his unyielding teenage hormones. Transformers could use a good pruning for balance.

The robust action sequences are somewhat hampered by the typical Michael Bay ADD edits, but what really hurts the action sequences are the robots themselves. The original Transformers were designed smoothly, because in all reality they were animated toys and needed to function for kids. These 21st century Transformers have parts all over the place. There are gears and wheels and who knows what sticking out everywhere. They look far too cluttered, like a little kid’s art project where he keeps slathering on more junk. As a result of this robo design, when it comes to action you may not have a clue what’s actually happening. When the big robots wrestle you’ll be left trying to piece together in your mind which part is the robot mouth, the robot head, the robot fists/claws/drill/whatever. I suppose in a way this kind of demanding user activity is similar to watching scrambled porn; both involve trying to dissect the image into something workable and, thusly, satisfying to the senses. That’s right, I compared Transformers to scrambled porn, which is also quite more than meets the eye.

Obviously, with a film about powerful robots from space, there is going to be a stopgap of logic. If you can accept interstellar robots that arrived from a robotic planet, oh and by the way, they learned English from the Internet (it’s a wonder they speak in full sentences), then you should be able to shrug off any other shortfalls in logic. Transformers was never too deep a subject to being with; every episode of the cartoon revolved around the Autobots and the Decepticons battling over new energon cubes, and that was all the plot needed for a show about robots that fight.

There could be 20 minutes sliced out. Lots of ancillary characters are just dropped. There may be too much humor. The climax is way too long. The dialogue is corny. And yet with all its flaws considered, Transformers is an exhilarating entry into the world of summer smashups and blown eardrums. Michael Bay may never stretch his creative wings with a Victorian costume drama, but the man does what he does well. Transformers is a perfect match for Bay’s noisy and boisterous sense of action and his love of things fast and expensive. There isn’t much below the surface when it comes to Transformers, but it’s such a fun and exciting popcorn movie that it’s hard to argue with the results.

Nate’s Grade: B

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