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The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

It’s a beguiling little buddy movie about a wrestling fan with Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) escaping his care facility, joining forces with a runaway screw-up (Shia LaBeouf) in over his head, and the nursing home assistant (Dakota Fanning) looking to find her charge so they can all sail down the river and meet an old wrestling coach (Thomas Haden Church) who may or may not exist. It’s an episodic journey that hearkens to Mark Twain and 90s indie cinema with its unorthodox family dynamics. The real pleasure of the movie is watching LaBeouf and newcomer Gottsagen bond, whether it be building a raft, channeling larger-than-life wrestling personas, running away from a vengeful criminal (John Hawkes), getting baptized by a blind man, and simply finding time to become friends. It’s one of those “journey, not the destination” films because by the end The Peanut Butter Falcon is nice but rather unremarkable. It’s amusing and sweet but the advertising was filled with heightened exclamations such as, “The sweetest damn film of the decade.” As I sat in my theater, I was wondering if there was something wrong with my ticker; it wasn’t exactly feeling too full from the onscreen proceedings. It felt like there were core elements here that could have been further built upon, further developed, to turn The Peanut Butter Falcon from a relatively good movie into a great one. It’s well acted and the photography of the South can be gorgeous. LaBeouf (American Honey) is genuinely terrific and carries the movie on his back as a beleaguered soul still wounded from personal tragedy. The way he becomes the biggest supporter and advocate for his new friend is heartening without feeling overly trite or saccharine. However, by the end, I didn’t feel too uplifted or moved by the accumulative adventures. I enjoyed myself, but much like a Twain story, it’s more the teller than the tale, and by its winding conclusion I felt like there was too much left behind unexplored.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Fury (2014)

images-1Why haven’t there been more tank movies? We have a slew of war films in all shapes and sizes and yet there are hardly any movies from the unique point of view of the battle-tested tank crew. Perhaps it’s the claustrophobic shooting conditions and limited breathing room, but then both of those are usually assets to the submarine sub-genre, and we got plenty of movies set primarily in less-than-spacious submarine quarters. Maybe it’s the sheer cost, since a submarine can be replicated with a model and a tank requires its own onset crew just to get exterior shots. Then there’s the issue of just watching close-ups of people looking through telescopes, squinting, and pulling triggers. I don’t really have a working hypothesis to explain the paucity of tank movies from Hollywood but now there’s at least one mainstream effort on the big board.

Fury follows the brave men of the titular tank that’s traveled from Northern Africa to France and now Germany in the dwindling days of World War II. Norman (Logan Lerman) is the new guy, replacing a fallen comrade on Don “Wardaddy” Collier’s (Brad Pitt) crew. The average life expectancy on a tank was only a handful of missions, but under Collier’s leadership his squad has defied the odds. Now the presence of a rookie puts all their lives in danger especially so close to the end of the war.

Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch, Sabotage) delivers a meat-and-potatoes kind of war film, a movie that knows what it’s doing and how to satisfy its audience but rarely steps outside of this mission to resonate further. There’s a requisite pathos and air of contemplation to the proceedings, especially with the conflict of Norman’s innate goodness getting in the way of killing soldiers, armed and unarmed, in the line of duty. What does it take to be a soldier? Can you still recover as a man or does one have to shut off those elements of concern, the quibbles over moral actions that would otherwise haunt. In one sense, it’s a little contrived that the new recruit has to be so green to the battlefield that everything needs to be taught to him including the us vs. them mentality of war. On the other hand, it provides an ongoing source of conflict that leads to some striking moments, like when Collier literally forces Norman’s hand to get him his first kill. Much like Saving Private Ryan once it settles down, the movie progresses as a series of vignettes that showcase a variety of consequences and realities of the war. Naturally some are more engaging than others, but for the majority Fury holds your attention nicely. Ayer’s direction of action is astute and a tank-on-tank battle is wondrously taut thanks to the stubborn and fascinating tactics of tank warfare. I just don’t know how all these guys can make out whose order is for whom with all the other noise going on.

furystill_r_2953048bIt’s during the concluding act where the movie abandons most of its sense of realism to completely double down on exaggerated action movie heroics, and it’s unnecessary. Beforehand, we’ve been treated to this crew and their town-by-town escapades, watching them come together but also watching them deal with the vagaries and lasting traumas of war. And then it suddenly shifts gears and becomes a last stand movie where our small crew in one immobile tank has to take on, literally, 300 Nazi soldiers. Ayer makes a specific point of clarifying them as Nazi S.S. men and not your casual German soldier. Pitt and company all decide to stay and fight valiantly rather than hide, and so we’re treated to their preparations for what is sure to be an Alamo in a tank. It then just becomes a rote action movie where they fire into the smoke, more Germans keep coming, and we just patiently watch them run through their last remaining desperate options for defense. Ayer doesn’t falter with his depiction of the action or the logical nature of his plot beats, though I don’t know why they didn’t keep more of the gun ammo in the tank. There’s a repetition and expectation of casualties with this section, perhaps intended to magnify their sacrifice and heroism but it feels too forced. The movie was working perfectly fine prior to this new shift in tone. Now we have Germans that are plainly idiotic, with poor marksmanship, and who can’t  just wait out the tank. They have rocket-propelled weapons and the tank only shoots in one direction. The ending action assault still works as an entertaining barrage of blood and violence, but if you were liking Fury for what it was then be prepared to be a little disappointed.

What really hooked me with the film was an extended sequence that doesn’t even involve the tank at all. Stopping to regroup with their company in a small, bombed-out German town, Collier and Norman enter the home of two women, Irma and Emma. Initially the scene plays out like they’re scouting for any hiding soldiers, so there’s an initial carryover of tension. Then the gentlemen stay and the scene transforms organically into something more interesting. The scene is allowed to linger, and we see a different side of Pitt’s tank captain. The women set up a dinner and there’s a moment of reserved calm. Norman and the youngest German woman get some privacy, much to the knowing approval of the other two older adults in the room. Then just as their little scene has reached serving time, the other members of the tank storm the room, drunk and confused. They came seeking to deflower Norman with an ugly prostitute they each had a turn with. Their eyes settle on the young, much prettier women, the food about to be served, and you can feel the resentment starting to build, the old conflicts and tensions sneaking back into the scene, particularly a sneering Jon Bernthal (Wolf of Wall Street), who relishes being hostile. You don’t know where this is going to go. Are they going to make a fuss? Will they mistreat the German civilians, maybe even assault them, and if so how will Collier and Norman respond? What will they say about the appearance of preference with these civilians than with their tank company? How far will this go? I am not kidding when I say that for a movie with plenty of war violence, this was the tensest scene in all of Fury. It plays out so naturally, leisurely, but every moment pushing forward and building in tension. It’s a shame then how Ayer decides to conclude this entire episode, glibly turning these women from characters into a cheap plot device. Until then, though, it’s a 12-minute oasis from the genre machinery of war movies.

imagesThe other aspect where Fury falters is when it comes to fleshing out the characters in that dangerous tin can. With war movies the characterization can often get lost in the shuffle of violence and messages, so there’s something of a sliding scale; if you can get one good sequence, perhaps one solid insight into a character that opens them up as more than “Hispanic Gunner” or “Vaguely Southern Religious Marksman” then you call yourself fortunate. The characters don’t stray far from their archetypical orbits: the rookie, the hotheaded one, the Bible-quoting philosopher, the commander who hides his fear and… the Hispanic Gunner (sorry Michael Pena). The assembled actors do fine work with what they’re given, but so much of the part is reactionary to off-screen, out-of-the-tank action. Pitt (World War Z) has a stolid clam that commands leadership but boy does his character lack a personality. He’s just settled into that authority figure role. Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac) gives a performance with enough edge, the emotions just peaking through during key moments, to leave you wanting more, both from the character and the actor. Lerman (Perks of Being a Wallflower) is suitably wide-eyed and out of his element early, finding his requisite spine and becoming a “man” over the course of the film. It works as a point of view entry into this world though his character can come across as naive and then later also unjustly criticized. After two hours with this crew, you won’t be fighting back too many emotions as they make their last stand and their numbers dwindle.

Fury is a fairly gritty, bloody, and sturdily entertaining World War II action thriller that is unwaveringly serious for a solid two acts until an all-out assault into over-the-top action movie land for its final, admittedly enjoyable, conclusion. It decides to just skimp out on the characterization so as to spend more time pumping up the virtues of tone and action. The film never bored me, and during stretches it was riveting with suspense and a gritty realism, all before retreating back to archetypes and Hollywood standoffs. For long stretches it’s a series of vignettes but there are moments that rise above, which cut through the carnage and stay with you. Ayer’s direction of action is rather impressive and this is easily the finest work behind the camera for the famous screenwriter. In many ways, Fury is a no-nonsense throwback to World War II war movies, with a similar no-nonsense pack of characters. An older audience will definitely find the movie appealing. It does more than enough well to recommend but just don’t expect the next Saving Private Ryan in terms of lasting impact. Still, give me more tank movies, Hollywood.

Nate’s Grade: B

Nymphomaniac volumes I & II (2014)

113648_galWhen Danish film director Lars von Trier said he wanted his next movie to be “porn” he wasn’t kidding. The controversial filmmaker wanted to explore the world of a woman addicted to sex, following her history of varied experiences over the course of two movies/volumes. Actors lined up for the notoriously demanding filmmaker. During the sex scenes, computer effects magic married the actors’ faces and upper bodies with the lower parts of porn stars. Upper half, Charlotte Gainsbourg, lower half, some pornographic double, all spliced together into one onscreen human being. Think about that little special effects ground-breaker, putting Hollywood faces into hardcore sex scenes. Knowing von Trier’s pessimistic tendencies, and his penchant for heaping abuse upon his female leads to the point of uncomfortable exploitation, you may rightly cringe about the prospect of a von Trier “erotic” movie. That’s the funny thing about Nymphomaniac; it’s all about sex, sometimes graphically so, but it’s never erotic. It’s an intriguing, sometimes maddening look at human sexuality and our inhibitions and frailties, until a horrible ending spoils it. In the end, von Trier just couldn’t help himself.

The story boils down to this: Joe (Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as the younger version) is found beaten and unconscious in an alley. The kindly, monk-like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, brings her back to his home, and tends to her wounds. Joe says she brought all of her pain upon herself. Seligman finds this hard to believe. She uncorks a lengthy series of tales about her sexual awakening and desires.

112010_galIn many ways, Lars von Trier is the best and worst candidate to present a four-hour opus on the life and times of an avowed nymphomaniac. The man approaches the idea of sex addiction in practically the most clinical way possible while still being cinematic. You can practically envision Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier, countering Joe’s sense of shame with a broader, scientific perspective. Really, this is the tale of a woman spilling her guts about all her dirty little secrets and a man nodding along, asking questions, and dismissing her self-loathing with his reason and empathy. It’s sort of like being inside a therapist’s office. I can’t say whether or not I find all the analogous asides to be interesting or simply insufferable pretension. While Joe is detailing her behavior, Seligman will stop her and provide further context, often bringing in such subjects as fly fishing, the mating habits of fish, the Fibonacci sequence, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical music. It’s almost absurd how encouraging Seligman is, dismissing every action of Joe’s sordid past through an example. After a while, it almost becomes a humorous game all its own, as we know Seligman will use every story as a stepping off point to some weird outside connection. Every item in Seligman’s bare bedroom inspires a story from Joe, which leads to a suspicion that she is something of a salacious Keyser Soze, piecing together her story on the spot; some of the coincidences with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) seems just a bit too much. Seligman’s enlightened and intellectual asides force the audience to consider deeper meaning with Joe’s actions. Is she irredeemable, does she have control over what she’s doing, is she doing anything even bad? Over the four hours of psychological examination, the doctor is out. Nymphomaniac, especially in Volume Two, is the best film yet on sex addiction. It doesn’t demonize the behavior, it doesn’t treat it as sensationalistic, and it doesn’t overtly judge its lead characters and the choices they make, nor does it spare them the devastating consequences.

The graphic nature of the film is getting all the headlines but Nymphomaniac treats its heroine as an addict trying to get a hold of herself. We begin with young Joe innocently discovering her sexuality, especially discovering the pull she can have over an almost endless parade of weak-willed men who will follow her every whim. If that was the only plot, then there would be little separating von Trier’s film from any late-night cable erotic series (“Oh, let me tell you the time I met this man and we did this…” –Repeat). Over the two movies, we get a stronger sense of how utterly trapped she is by her urges, by her addiction. When she’s dealing with the undignified death of her father, Joe finds whatever solace she can with a willing bedmate. She places herself in precarious situations chasing after that orgiastic high, which disappears at the conclusion of Volume One. The cliffhanger separating the two volumes is that Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure, which is rather problematic for a nymphomaniac. And so in Volume Two, Joe desperately searches for a means to get her groove back, at one point abandoning her own child so that she can pursue her kink. Joe goes to counseling, joins a sex addict group (she bristles at the term and prefers “nymphomaniac”), and tries to detox, at one point removing everything vaguely sexual from her apartment, including anything knob-shaped.

nymphomaniacThe film is structured as a series of vignettes and anecdotes, broken up with von Trier’s tried-and-true onscreen chapter system. As expected for a film based around anecdotes, some stories are more interesting or revealing or simply entertaining than others. The stories are a little more whimsical in Volume One but by the time we get to Volume Two, they become more punishing and sad. It’s one thing to bet your promiscuous gal pal who will have sex with the most people on one train ride home, or on a prank to stick a restaurants dining utensil up your vagina, but it’s another when an adult woman, night after night, leaves her toddler at home so she MAY have the opportunity to have her behind whipped. The young Joe stories are easier to shake off as youthful experimentation and thrill seeking, which Seligman rationalizes as well. However, they set up just exactly the path that the adult Joe was destined for. The tales in Volume Two have to ratchet up the stakes, given Joe’s absent mojo, so what was once titillating can become downright disturbing. von Trier’s four hours offer plenty of feel-bad feel-good opportunities along the human sexuality sphere. Adult Joe thinks introducing a language barrier could be enticing, so she asks an African immigrant if he’ll have sex with her. He agrees, but brings his brother along. The two men bicker in a different language, while Joe sits there, head slumped against her hand, comically waiting for these two naked men, their penises wagging in the foreground of the camera, to get to business. It’s quite a funny and ludicrous turn of events.

One story in Volume One stands out for its raw emotional power. Joe has a whole schedule of lovers visiting her door. Well one such older man wanted to have Joe all to himself but her price was high: he had to leave his wife, “Mrs. H.” Surprise, he does, and Joe is already uncertain if this new arrangement is what she wanted; her offer was better in the theoretical sense that he would never cross that line. Well the misses (played with chomping disgust by Uma Thurman) comes for a visit and she brings her kids along. She wants her children to see what their daddy traded them away for. At first, the wife acts civil with some stinging passive-aggression, but the uncomfortable incident is dragged out, and the emotions reach a fever pitch, with crying all around. It’s so uncomfortable, so potent, and so memorable, forcing Joe, and the audience, to think of the ripples of consequences from simple sexual dalliances. While Joe is having her fun, unbeknownst to her, there are far-ranging consequences that she, and by extension the audience, choose to ignore because all those pesky details would get in the way of our fun.

The most troublesome storyline is also one of the longest, with Joe having her backside swatted by a no-nonsense sadist played by Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge). This guy insists there will be no penetration and his rules are to be followed strictly. It starts out intriguing to get a sense of who this guy is and what his practices will be. Joe has to sit with other women between the hours of 2-4 AM, and maybe she’ll get picked. Night after night, she goes through this setup, so desperate to feel the spark of desire again. This situation feels like it goes on forever. There is no easy climax. Rather it sets up the darker turn for Joe’s character, as she gives up being a mother and a wife. To make ends meet she becomes a debt collector, using her knowledge of men, particularly heir weaknesses, to coax them back into paying. There’s one disarming moment when she takes great pity on a pedophile that will surprise you, and it’s the only incident that causes Seligman to disapprove. Her boss (Willem Dafoe) advises her to think of an eventual replacement she can groom, and his method is singling out a young girl with no support, becoming her world, and slowly manipulating her to do your every wish. In a von Trier film, that is what a retirement 401k package looks like. This whole storyline, including her young mark (Mia Goth) romantically falling for her would-be maternal figure, just feels misplaced, like von Trier doesn’t know how to bring his four-hour opus to a close.

Prelude-to-a-Wholesome-EveningThat’s because he doesn’t! This paragraph is going to delve into the conclusion of Nymphomaniac, so be warned that there will be major spoilers being discussed. If you wish to remain pure, skip to the next paragraph. During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. And there’s truth to what he says, namely that the world judges Joe far more harshly for her actions because she happens to be a woman committing them. If a man was performing the same stunts, or left his family, he would not be seen as damningly. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.

It’s a shame because Gainsbourg gives a terrific performance as the older Joe. The actress is no stranger to von Trier and his sadomasochist ways, having also starred in Antichrist and Melancholia. You get a sense of her character’s desperation, the thrills of her youth now gone. She’s also grappling with her own fallibility, the anger that comes from that, her antipathy with others, and the regrets and jealousy that penetrate her hard exterior (no pun intended). She’s trying to act above society, an operator who plays by a different set of rules, but it’s fascinating when the emotions reveal themselves from the sensations. And Gainsbourg puts all of herself into this role, submitting to her character’s many mental and physical tortures. Even if she has a body double pasted in, it’s still representational of her and Joe. Gainsbourg manages to draw us in, not wanting our sympathy but eventually earning it. Martin, as young Joe, gets just as much screen time as Gainsbourg, but there’s a vacancy there to her acting, a certain passivity that makes young Joe feel more like a spectator than a participant in her life. Skarsgard (Thor: the Dark World) is an appealing foil for Joe, almost comical in how accepting he is and how excited he can get with his digressive connections. The only other actor of note in the large ensemble is LaBeouf (Transformers) who affects a strange accent but sticks with it. We’ll see if his self-imposed exile from Hollywood and acting sticks as well.

112003_galI’ve spent this entire review talking about everything else rather than detailing the nature of the graphic sex, the point that earned Nymphomaniac much of its curiosity with the general public. That’s because the explicit nature of the sex is inconsequential. I understand that that may sound odd for a movie literally called Nymphomaniac, but that’s because von Trier’s movie is less interested in the salacious and tawdry acts and more about deconstructing a life lived and the increasingly fraught rationale for her choices. Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, the graphic sex is the headliner, and it is occasionally graphic and unsimulated, with more than a few vaginal close-ups. The sex is incidental, a symptom of the human condition, and von Trier’s less-than-sensational look at such a sensational topic grounds the movie intellectually. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is posing questions, pushing his audience to question our own views on sexuality and concepts of normalcy and what is and isn’t in good taste. We’re prurient creatures lapping up all the dirty details and copious amounts of nudity, but the introspection is what sticks, and it’s an incisive character study that opens up in many beguiling, illuminating, and surprisingly relatable ways…. Until the end. There’s no way to account for Nymphomaniac and just forget the ending. Four hours and for what? I cannot fathom what von Trier was going for rather than a return to his M.O. of humanity resorting to casual cruelty. If you can bear it, Nymphomaniac is a fitfully entertaining film, provocative to the end, and then it all slips away thanks to cinema’s worst practical joker.

Volume 1: B-

Volume 2: C+

The Ending: F

Nate’s Grade Overall: B

Lawless (2012)

The bootlegging drama Lawless certainly has all the right elements to be an enjoyable movie. It’s by the men who gave us the great noir-Western The Proposition (director John Hillcoat, writer Nick Cave), it’s got a star-studded cast, plenty of bloody action, and a handsomely recreated production of the Prohibition era. But as I watched the Bondurant boys struggle against those who would like to put them in jail and/or murder them, I kept noticing something odd. I wasn’t that engaged. There was plenty of life-and-death drama, but why wasn’t I involved in the story more? Lawless feels like a series of scenes rather than a movie. Even when the plot changes it doesn’t feel like the movie is advancing. Even when things are more desperate it doesn’t feel like the momentum is building. The characters are somewhat sluggish as well, Shia LaBeouf as the scared youngest brother, Tom Hardy as the grumbly big brother who talks like his mouth is full of molasses. Jessica Chastain as the abused Good Woman who opens herself up to our Strong Hurting Man. Then you got a plot with a mobster (Gary Oldman) that weirdly climaxes with an hour left in the movie. He’s ignored for the remainder. Then there’s Guy Pearce as a colorfully fiendish and foppish special deputy that terrorizes the town. I am a Pearce fan but this guy is acting like he’s in his own weirder personal movie; it’s the kind of stuff Marlon Brando did. I appreciated that Lawless kept things gritty and bloody for realism, but I kept finding moments that ripped me out, namely the indestructible nature of Tom Hardy. Seriously, this guy has to be the Terminator. When he miraculously survives yet another seemingly fatal injury, all you can do is laugh. Lawless is passable entertainment but with its pedigree this should have been better.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

After the obnoxious, oafish mess that was 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a sequel that took everything good from the first flick and undermined it and took everything awful and magnified it, I wasn’t expecting much. True, low expectations have benefited this franchise built upon merchandizing, product placement, and giant freaking robots that fight. I still remain a fan of the first film back in 2007, and I do feel like director Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armegeddon) is a natural fit for this material. But after another overlong, overblown, and overloaded Transformers film, I’m starting to think that the franchise’s best days left with Megan Fox and her cut-off jean shorts.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has graduated from college and is now perusing a job in Washington D.C.’s vast center of government contracts. He’s living with his new girlfriend, Carly (Rose Huntington-Whiteley), the assistant to a rich billionaire (Patrick Dempsey) and his fleet of collector cars. Sam gets a job with at a military private contractor run by a angry loon (John Malkovich). But Sam’s post-collegiate journey once again runs afoul with killer alien robots. The villainous Decepticons are plotting to steal a spaceship that crash-landed on the dark side of Earth’s moon. Inside that spaceship are teleporter orbs and a sleeping robotic giant known as Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy, hooray). Optimus Prime, leader of the noble Autobots, revives his predecessor. Together, the group attempts to thwart the Decepicons, lead once again by Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving).

The Transformers films have been getting larger and larger in scope and destructive power; the first film messed up some L.A. streets, the awful second film trashed Egyptian pyramids (only Six Wonders of the World left in your punch card, Bay), and now the third film pretty much obliterates downtown Chicago in stunning and overblown fashion. The climactic Windy City beatdown lasts a solid 50 minutes and may just be the greatest thing Bay has ever put onscreen, which admittedly might be faint praise to many. Perhaps the city of Chicago thought this would make for good tourism: ”Hey kids, come see the buildings that were turned to rubble in your favorite summer movie!” The impressive special effects are uniformly terrific, and the integration of reality and fantasy seems seamless. That goes without saying. I must credit Bay for creating sustainable action that is, here it goes, actually coherent. I know that “Bay” and “coherency” rarely go together, so I’m as shocked as everyone. No longer does geography become a hindrance to understanding. During this climactic Chicago onslaught, the locations are established, the objectives are clear, and the audience has a crisp understanding of the different teams, their paths, and their organic roadblocks and setbacks.

There’s a strong set piece within this 50-minute assault where Sam and company enter into a crumbling skyscraper that then teeters on its side. The organic complications allow for some nifty, almost ingenious, split-decisions utilizing a specific location, the hallmark of good action sequences. One moment they’re climbing up the floors, the next moment they’re tumbling through the floors, then sliding down the sheer glass wall, then firing at the glass to fall back inside and tumble some more. All the while a giant worm-like robot is churning through the foundation of this collapsing building. The scale of the sequence is quite thrilling for the time being. And yes, the 9/11 imagery is undeniable and relatively unearned without even a nod to solemnity or anything less than brainless summer spectacle. Sure the “cool-ness” of the individual parts never really materializes into something greater, and yeah maybe the action would have more impact if you actually felt for the characters, or knew who some of them even were, but you take what you can get in Michael Bay world. The extended climax for Transformers: Dark of the Moon is relentless and will beat you into submission, admiring the intrinsic beauty unique to Bay’s epic, albeit mind-numbing, demolition of the senses.

But Dark of the Moon is also the most visually coherent of Bay’s troika of Transformers flicks because the man has finally settled down when it comes to editing. Now no one will confuse this movie for Rope or Russian Ark (look it up, Transformers geeks), but the edit/panic button is given a slight reprieve. The shots last longer; the editing is far less frenetic and chaotically ADD-addled, and no longer does a Transformers action sequence look like jumbled, mechanical scrambled porn. Image A and Image B make a logical connection, at long last. You can tell which robot is which, for the most part. Perhaps this editing epiphany was a result of Bay’s corporate betters insisting that the film be shot in 3D (I chose to see the film in good old boring 2D, feeling that 150-minutes of Michael Bay with headache-inducing glasses was not worth the extra dough). Perhaps Bay had to consciously think about his audience’s well being so his shot selections lasted longer than his usual whirlwind of cuts. Perhaps the secret was loading Bay with cameras that weigh the same as couches. Maybe a little extra weight was all the man needed to formulate lucid action sequences.

And yet Dark of the Moon is just as stupid, outlandish, and tonally disjointed as the other movies, particularly the abysmal Revenge of the Fallen. The comedy remains at a puerile, sophomoric level. Bay’s sensibilities have always somewhat mirrored that of a snickering 14-year-old boy; the love of destruction, the fascination with things that go “boom,” the ogling of lithe feminine bodies. No joke, the first image seen directly after the film’s title is a close-up of Huntington-Whiteley’s ass ascending a staircase. I imagine there were plenty of men spasming in their 3D glasses trying to reach out and grab the circumference of a Victoria Secret model’s talents. I wrote about the second film: “Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women.” Huntington-Whiteley’s character certainly leaves much to be desired, outside aesthetics. At least Megan Fox’s character had, you know, some character traits. I also wrote: “Amazingly enough, [Fox] manages to lose more clothes the more she runs in slow-mo, allowing the male audience members to follow the nuance of her bouncing breasts. She’s clearly not the next Meryl Streep but this girl deserves more than being wordless arm candy.” Seems apt to me. Carly is as bland as she is blank-eyed beautiful, just the way Bay likes ‘em.

The first 90 minutes of the film is spent with the humans and it’s like being trapped inside a bad comedy. There has always been a strong comedic bent to the franchise ever since the first film in 2007; however, the latter films have taken to grotesque caricature. In Dark of the Moon, the comedy is so deeply unfunny but so consistently antic, trying to overwhelm you with its bad taste. There’s a scene where Ken Jeong (yes, you read that right) corners Sam in a bathroom stall to distribute his crackpot manifesto. Then Sam’s boss walks in and, oh boy, he overhears and thinks they’re having a homosexual liaison in the men’s stall. What a hoot. Then Sam’s mother gives him dating advice, stating there’s no earthly way her son is going to nab a third “hottie” unless her boy has a giant…. and trials off (wouldn’t a mother kind of have an idea about that subject?). And then there’s the little Autobots, the size of remote control cars (perfect presents for Christmas mom and dad), who wheel around spitting smart-alecky backtalk. The entire Malkovich portion could have easily been cut from the film without damaging a soul. The Ken Jeong stuff should have been eliminated first. There’s something to be said when John Turturro’s returning Agent Simmons is the least annoying comic sidekick in this movie. But hey, at least there aren’t any overt racist depictions and jokes about robot scrotums. Nope, there’s only infantile humor and nonchalant misogyny. The comedic pit stops and non-sequitors never allow the movie’s tone to gel.

Before the movie descends into an all-out series of explosions and shrapnel, the setup actually has some genuine interest. Then it just all goes nuts at warp speed. The fact that the space race to the moon had a sinister ulterior motive, investigating alien technology, is an intriguing start. Bay even shoots the 1960s sequences like he’s ripping off Oliver Stone, swapping film stocks and black and white film to showcase his historical reinactors (three presidents get represented, including Obama). Apparently after this film and X-Men: First Class, the breakout star this summer is archived footage of JFK (man did he have a full plate, mutants and robots, and the man still found time to bang Marilyn Monroe). There’s even a cameo by the real Buzz Aldrin, which served to make me remember his better cameo on TV’s 30 Rock (“Would you like to yell at the moon with me?” he politely asked Tina Fey).  The space race was a pretense for getting our human hands on some alien technology. Of course we were warned years ahead of time via Pink Floyd but nobody could put the pieces together. But there’s more alternative history to be had. Turns out that the disastrous nuclear accident at Chernobyl was caused by the Russians trying to operate alien/Transformer technology. I’m sure modern-day Ukrainians will adore having their deadly tragedy turned into a plot point in a stupid movie about fighting robots. The Decepticons wicked plan is to open a teleportation portal and bring their dead planet, Cybertron, to Earth. Then they will use Earth’s human population as slave labor to bring their dead planet back to life. My question is this: when you’re a huge robot the size of a building, wouldn’t puny little humans make for a terrible labor force with their stunted little legs and feeble muscles? I know there’s billions of them, but there’s a reason human beings have never turned on ants and forced them to become a labor force for our construction projects. How many more deadly things from Cybertron are secretly going to be hidden on Earth? And yet none of this is even one-tenth as stupid as Transformers’ heaven in Revenge of the Fallen.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is likely everything fans would want from a franchise. There’s wanton destruction, a plethora of noisy explosions, and plenty of eye candy both in special effects wizardry and pouty, full-lipped women. But at a colossal 150-minute running time, this is a Transformers film that punishes as much as it entertains. There’s really no reason a movie about brawling robots should be this long. There’s no reason it should have to resort to so much dumb comedy. There’s no reason that the women should be fetishized as if they were another sleek line of sexy cars. There’s no reason why something labeled a “popcorn movie” can’t deliver escapist thrills and have a brain too. Dark of the Moon is saved by its long Chicago-set climax, which gives way to some staggering action set pieces. The newest Transformers movie is just as stupid as the rest (what the hell is up with the weird Igor robots tending to Megatron that just seem to grumble and grunt?) but, unlike the previous installment, it’s not offensively stupid. Dark of the Moon is an exhaustive experience whose thrilling high points even feel mechanical and pre-programmed. Is this the future of Hollywood? Bay and his army of robotics and excessive spectacle have taken over the world. When it comes to big-time summer entertainment, the machines of Hollywood are going nowhere fast and even louder.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen pretty much sells itself. More giant freaking robots. That was enough to make the first movie a worldwide blockbuster. My own teenaged brother-in-law, when he first saw the first Transformers movie, declared it his favorite live action film. Director Michael Bay completely empties his creative cupboard into a bladder-unfriendly two and a half hour endurance test. It’s too bad that that cupboard was bare when it came to story.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf) is headed off to college, and he’s leaving behind his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) and robot guardian, Bumblebee. Optimus Prime and the other Autobots have been working with the U.S. government to hunt down Decepticons around the globe. There?s a war on the horizon, and weasely U.S. bureaucrats want the Autobots to take a hike. Sam discovers a tiny shard from the super Cube, which was the source of life for the alien robots. His brain is zapped with an alien language that will lead him to a secret location to a secret ancient machine. The Decepticons want this info and chase after Sam and Mikaela. The biggest bad of them all, The Fallen, is sitting at home waiting to return to Earth and exact interstellar vengeance. The Fallen was foiled in 17,000 B.C. by the Prime family line, and only a Prime can kill him. The Decepticons resurrect their leader Megatron and go about trying to snatch Sam, kill Optimus Prime, and destroy man’s planet.

Bay has been condemned for his erratic ADD-shooting style, and this was the first film where I really felt pounded and punished. To contest that this movie is just “a popcorn summer movie” is just making excuses. What the hell was going on? The movie is simply a blur of colors and noise. Transformers 2 is entirely incoherent, both from a story standpoint and simply from a visual standpoint. Bay at least pulls back his camera so that the audience can identify the fighting robots easier this time; this time it’s not like deciphering scrambled porn. It’s the rest of Bay’s characteristically bombastic display of carnage that suffers. Bay is a man that doesn’t know the meaning of the word “small,” and so nonstop explosions and massive destruction litter the movie. Sam is always running or riding in his car to escape. At one point, Sam and his posse hide in a campus library only to have the building turned into cinders (showing Bay’s opinion on what books are really good for). But what exactly is happening? Why does it matter? What are the obstacles? Everything is way too busy and accomplishing so little. Half of the movie consists of the human character running and screaming. It’s excessively excessive and taxingly so.

A strong example of the film’s incoherence is the 40-minute climax set amidst the pyramids of Egypt. At no point does Bay establish the geography or bother to let the audience follow along. The stakes and parameters have not been made adequately understandable. Ordinarily, in large action sequences there will be different groups of segments and we’ll watch each progress. Here we disjointedly cut back and forth between the groups but I have no idea what?s going on, where the characters are, where they need to be, and what is stopping them. Megatron calls down 13 different evil Decepticon robots to take part in the climactic battle but Bay never introduces these new figures; they get no setup to explain each of their unique weapons systems or general appearance. We see them only at a distance walk through wafting smoke clouds. So when they do pop into battle in quick blurs it’s just another point to be confused about. If you’re like me, you can only endure so much confusion before your brain just gives up. Bay is a fantastic visual stylist, but his action sequences are poorly developed and poorly staged. He needs to check out The Hurt Locker and take notes. Transformers 2 is nothing but non-stop careless mayhem. For what it?s worth, the special effects are incredible at every stop.

The highly ramped-up action would have been acceptable if we knew what the hell was going on and we actually cared about the story. Transformers 2 makes the first film look like poetry in comparison. The story for this movie is simply atrocious and it’s made worse by the merciless attempts at comedy. This movie is stuffed with tin-eared exposition, so our only break to try and assess what the hell we just saw is when the characters take a breather and rapidly spout more plot vomit. It’s like listening to a homeless man shout nonsense for an hour. After a while you just tune out the crazy. If the Decepticons can construct a robot that has the ability to take human form, why the hell aren’t they doing this all the time? Why aren’t they infiltrating government offices instead of prancing around colleges in hot pants? Why in the world would an 18-year-old boy leave the mega hot Megan Fox and his TALKING ROBOT CAR? Why would anyone leave these two to live in a dorm and shower in flip flops? What universe does this college that Sam attends exist in? The place is crawling with leggy, waif-thin bombshells. The movie doesn’t even resort to college stereotypes; there isn’t a single gal that doesn’t look like a magazine cover girl. The Fallen is kind of like the evil leader of the Decepticons and he’s, what, confined to sitting in his robo La-Z-Boy on his home world like Archie Bunker? Get up and do something. The Transformers fought ages ago amidst man?s loin-clothed hunter and gatherer ancestors but leave no record? You’d think some caveman type might consider that worthy of painting on a wall. Why is Megatron even in this movie? What was the point of bringing him back alive if he’s just another lackey to The Fallen guy? Why does no one consider turning over Sam to the Decepticons if it could save the planet? In the big Egyptian battle sequence, where is the Fallen the whole time? He just kind of lazily shows up at the end. Also, ancient robots made a special key to jumpstart an ancient planet-destroying machine, but then we are informed when Sam visits, no joke, Transformers heaven that this key does not work unless the holder has earned the right to use it. It’s like some high tech moral barometer. Why didn’t these alien robots say anything about this? It would have spared a lot of time and energy trying to make sure the Decepticons never got a hold of it. How does a dead human end up going to robot heaven anyway? Does that mean there’s a robot God? Was robot God created by our God? Is there a robot Devil? Does Bay do the work of the robot Devil?

This time the comedy is puerile and embarrassing. The jokes make this movie tonally feel like a cartoon strictly for snickering adolescents. In the span of 150 minutes we’re given dogs humping twice, a tiny Transformer humping Megan Fox’s leg, Sam’s mother going berserk from ingesting pot brownies, a Transformer testicle joke (why would a robot even need genitals?), and let us not forget John Turturro in a thong. The humor aims low and still finds a way to be even worse. To save you the trouble, I am going to spoil the only two good jokes in this self-indulgent, bloated mess. Here there are, enjoy:

1) Sam is at a frat party, and it’s a frat party unlike anything ever seen unless modern fraternities can afford expensive interior decorators. One unamused frat guy asks Sam what he’s doing. Sam responds, “Going out to get you a tighter shirt.” The frat guy’s flunky clarifies: “There isn’t a tighter shirt. We checked.” I laughed. Sue me.

2) Sam and the gang at one point talk to a Transformer that’s thousands of years old. Apparently the guy is being housed at the Smithsonian Museum, which means that this is the second summer movie that is trying to inform the public that there’s something weird over at the Smithsonian. The old Transformer even has a robot cane, which is too bizarre. He rambles about the old days like Grandpa Simpson, and then finally gave this gem: “My father was a wheel. The first wheel. You know what he could transform into? Nothing! And he did so with honor.” This made me want to think about a period Transformers costume drama, where they exist as textile steam engines and phonographs and Model Ts. Would that not be a vastly more entertaining movie?

Despite all the painfully juvenile attempts at comedy, by far the biggest eyesore would have to be Bay’s Sambot twins, Mudflap and Skids. To say that these two irritating robots are politically incorrect does not go far enough. It’s one thing to reflect a cultural or ethnic stereotype, and it’s another thing entirely to keep digging deeper and deeper. These robots talk in eye-rolling faux gangster street talk, one of them has a big gold tooth, and these robots admit to being illiterate. It’s practically breathtaking to watch how racially insensitive and appalling these characters become. It’s essentially a robotic minstrel show. I’m surprised Bay stopped short of having Mudflap and Skids eat a big bowl of watermelon. This got me thinking about what other highly insensitive Transformers characters that didn’t make the cut over these two. Was there an Asian bot that turned into a car that didn’t drive well? Was there a Jewish bot that chided Optimis Prime to settle down and quit running around with those shiksa sports cars (“You know those aren’t her original parts?”). Bay can dismiss these characters as merely dumb robotic comic relief, except for the fact that these two bumbling, detestable heaps of scrap metal are never, ever funny.

The actors have little impact in this type of movie. I like LaBeouf (Eagle Eye) but he’s got little to do but stretch his legs. Fox became a star thanks to the previous Transformers flick, and she hasn’t gotten any less attractive. Amazingly enough, she manages to lose more clothes the more she runs in slow-mo, allowing the male audience members to follow the nuance of her bouncing breasts. She’s clearly not the next Meryl Streep but this girl deserves more than being wordless arm candy. Many words have been spilled about the quasi-racist twin robots, but I’m disappointed that people aren’t as equally up in arms over the film’s blatant misogyny. Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women. They are all like Alice, the robot programmed to do nothing else but seduce the men. All of the special effects and noise just overwhelm the other actors. The robots themselves have no personality to offer, good or bad.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is an obnoxious block-headed mess that feels like it’s being made up as it goes along. It’s sensory overload without a lick of sense, clarity, wit, and general entertainment. This sequel takes everything that was good about the first Transformers film and undermines it, and it takes everything that was awful and magnifies that awfulness. The first Transformers movie was fun. This is just work to sit through. Apologists will try and rationalize their disappointment, decrying anyone who hoped for something more than a big dumb summer blockbuster about rock’em, sock’em robots. Bay wants to show you everything and as a result you rarely get a chance to process little in this movie. There is absolutely nothing more than meets the eye here. It’s all arbitrary and tedious and it goes on for what feels like an eternity. It’ll make a gazillion dollars at the box office but will anyone remember a single moment from this exhausting junk? Make sure to bring the earplugs and aspirin in abundance.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

I lived in New Haven, Connecticut for a year while my wife was earning her Master’s degree at Yale. We hated it. New Haven is a college town that doesn’t know it’s a college town, so everything closes at 10 PM, there are no student prices for anything, and the people there more or less sucked. We were happy to depart from the Nutmeg State. Then the week after we were going to leave was when Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and the production team for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were coming to town. They were going to film a motorcycle chase along Chapel Street (where I walked to work every day) and all along the Yale campus. Finally, a reason to stay in New Haven presents itself and it has to happen after we escape. It’s not often one of the most anticipated movies comes to your doorstep.

I could have been an extra in the motorcycle chase, which set in 1957, could have used a long-haired Beatnik type (played by yours truly) for an exaggerated reaction shot. I could have been sipping on an espresso and then Indiana Jones could have zoomed by on the bike snatching by hot beverage, leaving a long-haired Beatnik type (me again) to mug shamelessly for the camera. It would have worked. Alas, it was not to be, though it certainly would have made this ages-in-development sequel more enjoyable on my part.

It’s been a long time since part-time archeology professor and full-time treasure hunter Henry “Indiana” Jones (Ford) beat the Nazis. The world has gotten a lot more complicated thanks to the Cold War, the atomic bomb, and the fact that Jones is now well into his 60s. It’s been 19 years since his last adventure but the man with the bullwhip and the dusty fedora still has a knack for intrigue. Soviet KGB agents have captured Indy and his friend Mac (Ray Winstone) and taken them to the Area 51 warehouse. They’re seeking a recovered artifact of alien origins that can wield tremendous power, as they always do. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is the head KGB agent and likes to threaten her enemies with a riding crop (perhaps she earns some extra money on the side punishing bad, bad comrades). Indiana Jones manages to escape and is pursued by the Soviets and blacklisted by his government due to his perceived involvement with Russia.

Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) seeks out the help of Dr. Jones. Mutt is a greaser on a motorcycle that might be a chip off the old block. His parents are in trouble. The stepfather that raised him (John Hurt), an old archeology buddy of Indy’s, has traveled to South America and found a legendary crystal skull. The bizarre artifact would lead the way to the mythical golden city and crazy amounts of Mayan supernatural power. Unfortunately, the skull has also made him as batty as a bat and Spalko is going to kill him. Indy and Mutt fly down to South America to save the crazy old man. Oh, and Mutt’s mother is also in danger, and she would be none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who has plenty of romantic history with a certain swash-buckler afraid of snakes.

Seeing Ford back in action just feels right. His character has grown into a bit of a curmudgeon but he’s working the same territory Bruce Willis did last year in the long gestated Die Hard sequel. He’s an old man serving some justice to all these young punks that won’t get off his lawn. The film acknowledges his age and mostly uses it as a means for comedy (he cracks that a life of adventure isn’t “as easy as it used to be”). Ford looks more alert than he has in years.

Blanchett is one of our finest actresses on the planet but she has serious trouble maintaining her Ruskie accent; she alternates between Russian and British the whole movie. Her dominatrix-styled villainess is certainly interesting, and man does she have great posture, but the film doesn’t really know what to do with the Soviet bad guys. They become more or less Nazi stand-ins and seem to repeat the same ambitions that the Nazis carried out in two or the three previous films. Allen has aged magnificently and is a welcome return. She and Ford have terrific screwball comedy chemistry and pick up right where they left off in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. LaBeouf does a solid job even though he doesn’t have any meat to his character after his Marlon Brando-like introduction in leather jacket and motorcycle. Instead, Spielberg continuously winks at the audience about Mutt’s obvious familial line. It wouldn’t be a Spielberg movie without some family dynamic.

I’m pleased to reunite with Indiana Jones, I like the new characters, and I even like Mutt, but the story the characters are saddled with is lousy. This is the script that Ford, Spielberg, and co-creator/producer George Lucas all agreed upon? I’m not one of those people that have an issue with aliens being the primary movers and shakers in the plot (in informal talks with friends, many are upset that little green men are the stars). The first three Indy films dealt with a religious supernatural power and now this new installment covers a space alien supernatural power, so that doesn’t concern me. What bothered me is that Crystal Skull is a murky mash-up of [i]Temple of Doom[/i] and Stargate. Once the primary characters reach their hidden temple the movie takes a nosedive. Spielberg almost crafts an anti-intellectual message, where finding out the reality behind the magic ruins the soul. The exact story behind the Crystal Skull is frustrating in how oblique it is, and Spielberg doesn’t want to offer any clarity. I’m at a loss to explain exactly why anything happened in the concluding 20 minutes, least of all how an alien race must have a very different definition of the word “gift.”

Never before has the action in an Indiana Jones film come across as so campy. This is likely the most disappointing part of Crystal Skull: the action is too tongue-in-cheek. There were moments where I thought the film was one step away from Army of Darkness. Spielberg is enough of a brilliant tactician to know how to setup and build satisfying and stylish action, which normally involves organic complications and letting the audience fully grasp what’s happening. This means no rapid-fire edits and plenty of long, high angle shots to get the big picture. And when he’s in his groove, there are few that can top Spielberg when it comes to an action sequence. There are points in Crystal Skull where the action is rollicking and joyously packed with excitement and wonder. The opening sequence inside Area 51 starts the film off with a bang, the motorcycle chase through Yale is well choreographed, and a car chase in the jungle is fantastic in the amount of back-and-forth scuffles and emerging obstacles. It’s by far the film’s high point and then there was one point where Mutt was swinging from vine to vine like freaking Tarzan and he enlisted the help of monkeys. It took me completely out of what had been a rip-roaring action sequence. Then there’s the moment where Marion drives everyone off a cliff and onto a tree that bends to drop them safely before smacking back like a rubber band. I’m not asking for complete believability in an action caper but I’d prefer it not become an embarrassing Looney Tunes cartoon. Crystal Skull is filled with little moments that will completely yank you out of the movie.

The action sequences feel too pat for the material the film wants to cover. Even that great jungle car chase could have been boosted with some extra ingenuity. The scene opens with the Soviets driving a vehicle that is slicing the forest to splinters and clearing a path for the caravan of cars to follow. Now I know the Spielberg of 1981 would never have introduced such an interesting machine in a unique setting without using it later. The Spielberg of 2008 is different because this nifty blade mobile isn’t even seen again after its initial introduction to establish how a car chase in a jungle could be possible. The action relies too heavily on distracting CGI that takes the action sequences on annoying, over-the-top detours. Just because computers can make it happen doesn’t mean it’s always a good avenue to go down. In short, the CGI is undercooked and over used.

I also need to speak frankly about the CGI — it is terrible. However, when I watched Crystal Skull my party got a tad lost on the way to the theater so the only seats left were the third row from the screen. I spent the entire movie with my neck craned up. Perhaps if I saw the film in a position it was more intended to be seen the special effects would come across as more professionally polished, but from my neck-cramping position they looked pitifully amateurish for a major summer blockbuster with Spielberg and Lucas’s names attached. The effects work is shockingly shoddy, but the practical production design is amazing. Unfortunately, this does not balance out in the film’s favor.

I’m coming across as harsh but I only get this way when my expectations are raised because of a pattern of quality. The three prior Indiana Jones films were lively, imaginative, and deeply charming and satisfying adventures that leaned toward the exaggerated but still managed to thrill without feeling dumb. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the few perfect movies in existence, in my opinion, and set the standard for all action/adventure movies to follow. It’s unfair to expect the same sensation watching a sequel 19 years after its predecessor, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does manage to hone in on the same spirit that made the other Indy films such high-flying thrill rides. If you set your brain to a low frequency, enter the theater with lowered expectations, and already know that at one point Mutt will swing from vine to vine like freaking Tarzan, then Crystal Skull will provide the necessary popcorn entertainment you’d seek in a summer blockbuster. It is possible to think Crystal Skull ranks up with its predecessors but that requires so much contortion that I wouldn’t know how to arrive at that opinion. I suppose we should all resort to the consolation that even with E.T. taking over the plot, this thing could have been a lot worse. Just remember that if an alien offers you a “gift” to run in the other direction.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Disturbia (2007)

This Rear Window for the Facebook generation starts off strong with a solid performance by Shia LeBouf, but then quickly unravels once the filmmakers think they’re desperately running out of time. The teasing mystery is set up well and elicits some interest, but then, as if afraid of lulling an audience to sleep with a story that takes its damn time, Disturbia throws everything and the kitchen sink at you in the last 20 minutes. The movie falls on its face (the metaphors are flying today) trying to make up for lost time with jump scares and lame thriller conventions. The end gets a tad absurd as well as Shia discovers his serial killer neighbor isn’t just a murderer, but he’s a home decorator on par with the creature from Jeepers Creepers. By the time Shia falls into an underground water cavern filled with corpses, I wanted to scream myself for such wasted potential to a film that seemed like a formless rip-off on the surface.

Grade: C+

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

Constantine (2005)

I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for Christian mythology played against thriller and action settings. I may be the only person to have watched all of The Prophecy flicks, and probably the only person that eagerly chows down on the cheesy sequels to The Substitute, yet shy away from seeing the first film. I’m captivated by the imagery, the discussion of Heaven and Hell and its mythical logistics, and just the psychology of supernatural biblical beings. With this in mind, I was strongly anticipating the release of Constantine. What I got wasn’t exactly what I expected but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t entertained.

John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a very troubled man. Since his youth he’s had to live with his gift that allows him to see through earthy disguises and witness angels and monstrous demons walking among us. He’s parlayed this ability into a modest side job of exorcising demons and sending them back to Hell. Constantine figures his loyal service should grant him passage into the pearly gates, but Archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) reminds him that that’s not how it works. Constantine is doomed to go to Hell because he tried taking his own life, and if that’s not enough he also has terminal lung cancer from smoking like a chimney. “In other words, you’re f***ed,” Gabriel confides to Constantine.

Police detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) is investigating the suicide of her twin sister (also Weisz). She swears her mentally disturbed sis wouldn’t do such a thing, and she seeks out the help of Constantine. He challenges her beliefs, stating that God and the Devil (Peter Stormare) have a wager over the souls of mankind but cannot directly interfere. But now something is breaking this rule and it looks like demons may be getting closer to entering our plane, and it looks like Angela’s dead sister may have known more than people would have thought.

The plot of Constantine is rife with contrivances, aborted subplots, underwritten and nearly forgotten supporting characters, and sketchy logic (staring at a cat can transport you to Hell? No wonder I’m a dog person). Often the film feels overwhelmed by good special effects, as they seem to be the crux of the film?s purpose of being and not, on the other hand, a theological playground of ideas. Constantine gives veiled glimpses of something smart, but routinely shuts that door to focus more on annoying jump scares.

In fact, Constantine seems rather old-fashioned with its theology, still clinging to the Roman Catholic belief that suicide is a one-way ticket to the fiery abyss. I understand its use as motivation for our lead, but will progressive audiences accept something they may find archaic? I suppose it could be worse. Constantine could have briefly gone to Hell for eating meat on a Friday.

It’s interesting that after spending two years making The Matrix sequels, Reeves would choose to attach himself to another big-budget theological action flick. His acting never really rises beyond morose loner but somehow he does make for a satisfying, brooding hero. Reeves? low-key monotone speaking voice allows him to spout cheesy dialogue with a straight face and mercifully keeps the audience grounded.

The true stars of Constantine are the memorable supporting players in this celestial smack down. Swinton uses her androgynous looks to forge what David Bowie might be like as an angel: angular, mysterious, waif, and somewhat creepy. Stormare delivers a performance so kooky and tic-heavy, that it could only be compared to the weirder moments of Christopher Walken. Both actors liven up the film and seem to be having the most fun by far with their cheeky roles.

The genius of Constantine is in its one-upsmanship game it holds with the audience. Granted, suspension of disbelief is needed to even go along for the ride, but when we start learning that Hell has its own line of bibles (and they’re longer) we’ve gone beyond suspension of disbelief and into wacky Anne-Heche-speaks-to-aliens land. While sitting through Constantine, we the audience think, “There’s no way this movie could get any sillier.” And then it does! We think, “Alright, that was crazy. Now there’s no way after that this film could get any sillier.” And then it does! Constantine is an amazing ascent into movie madness. After a while, I became drunk from the film’s insanity and wanted it to get even crazier, if possible. It almost seems like there’s a drinking contest between the movie and the audience, and Constantine isn’t afraid to piss its pants to win.

By the time Lucifer shows up, clad in all white like Tom Wolfe, and the Dark Lord appears to have Tourette’s Syndrome and/or a speech impediment, Constantine has hit the bottom of its Kool-Aid cup. Sure the film’s cinematography is slick, and the premise is intriguing, but the real draw of Constantine and the real enjoyment of the flick is how bat-shit crazy it is. I cannot even think of comparable films. I hope David Lynch was taking notes if he saw this.

For a while there, it seems director Francis Lawrence wanted Constantine to be a companion to Wesley Snipe’s Blade character. Maybe the two of them can set up a play date and go destroy otherworldly creatures. There’s a visually striking sequence late in the film involving Constantine in a room full of demons. He’s “contaminated” the water system by placing a giant cross inside, thus holy-fying the water before he can bottle it and sell it to the masses. He holds a lighter to the sprinkler system, demons growling all around him ready for their kill, and then water sprays down across the room. “Holy water?” one female demon says in a stunned voice, watching her flesh sizzle away. Then Constantine marches through the wet room blowing away demons into splashes of ash with his comically unwieldy cross-shotgun. It’s filmed wonderfully with dark hues and is a great idea; however, it’s a bit of a rip-off of the opening sequence in the first Blade.

This seems to be a repeated sentiment in Lawrence’s direction. He has a sharp visual eye and several camera angles come from odd yet exotic places, but his film is borrowing so heavily from so many other films. What you’re left with is the impression of a stylish if very derivative looking action film. One exception is when Lawrence shows us glimpses of the blistering burnt orange world of Hell. It seems Hell is an exact model resemblance of Earth, only with the fire, brimstone, and crawling demons with their heads sliced open (there is a scary level beneath the surface where we witness a sea of people being tortured). The second or third time we traveled to Hell, I began to wonder what my house would look like and the logistics of upkeep for the homeowner in Hell. Surely the heating bills wouldn’t be the same.

Constantine is funny, frustrating, confusing, gorgeous, and just plain insane in the ole membrane. The film exhibits a rare and engaging form of insanity that may glue audience eyeballs to the screen to see what happens next. I’ve seen Constantine twice (don’t ask why) and even though I knew all the weird plot turns I still found myself getting an enjoyable contact buzz from the film. Who knows how long such a novelty can sustain itself, though. Comic book fans, especially those with a spiritual bent, should get a kick out of Constantine as will anyone else searching for a pristine example of how wonderfully out of control Hollywood moviemaking can be. Sometimes in a good way.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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