Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

September 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Gerard Butler as missionary Sam Childers in "Machine Gun Preacher"

Written by Jason Keller

Directed by Marc Forster

Starring Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon

Machine Gun Preacher is quite an epic title for quite an epic movie. It manages to spell out the crux of the story in big bold letters without giving away what you’re going to see going into the film, because there’s nothing else quite like it. That’s not to say Preacher is a perfect film (far from it) but its heart, like its real life hero, is in the right place and though its tactics (ham fisted dialogue and heart string highway robbery) might sometimes come off as a little cheap, also like true life hero, the film’s less than honorable style is nonetheless effective in achieving its goal.

Sam Childers is a biker with a horrible past. Hardcore drug addiction, rampant acts of violence and robbery, including a nice pile of bodies in his wake, but he one day he finds God and gives all that up. The next day he finds the plight of the Sudanese people in the form of a guest speaker at his church, looking for handouts. Before we know it, Sam is in the Sudan, building new structures for local villages. While other Christian missionaries and volunteers go North to the major cities looking for parties during their weekends off, Sam goes south with soldiers, to bear witness to refugee tent camps and rebel army horrors, ranging from piles of dead bodies to a child who has his legs blown off by a mine right in front of Sam.

This changes Sam completely, gives him a purpose in life. He returns home, builds his own church, designed to accommodate wayward souls like himself, starts his own construction company, saves some money and returns back to Sudan to build an orphanage.

What follows afterwards is a series of very similar sequences of Sam killing rebels and collecting dozens of child soldiers to save and protect them, coming home to a strained marriage and unresponsive rich people who’s money he needs to fund his missions in Sudan. Sam goes from being a good Christian to being something else entirely beyond religion. He’s a one man army, a rebel General on a mission to save the children and kill anybody who gets in his way. He gives up everything for his cause, nearly giving up his sanity as well in the process.

What writer Jason Keller, director Marc Forster and star and executive producer Gerard Butler have crafted here is a finely tuned b-action movie coupled with an art house international message film. Neither side of the production is top notch in regards to subtlety- the early scenes in the film are mind-numbingly self-conscious, trying to hammer home an entire lifetime of bad behavior on Sam’s part in a few short scenes in order to get him Saved by God and soul searching in Africa by the 25 minute mark.

After that, however, the film finds itself and presents a reasonably engaging series of sequences that offer up plenty of bravura acting from Gerard Butler, who is magnificent here, given the genre and gives Michelle Monaghan a fun tough chick performance that won’t garner Awards favor but is a respectable notch on her career’s belt. Michael Shannon shows up as Butler’s partner in crime and fellow lost soul whom Sam Childers tries to save. Shannon once again steals the scenes he is in, bringing a quiet intensity while offering some wry comedic twang to his delivery to keep his character human and likeable.

This is Gerard Butler’s film all the way, however. He dominates the film, appearing in nearly every scene and showing a fairly believable transformation from criminal to modern day saint- with a machine gun. Butler has an ability to emote quite intensely with his facial expressions, going from happy to pissed off to sad without much effort. There’s a depth to this performance that will be overlooked come awards time because the script for the film is quite heavy handed, moralistic and wants a little too badly to be important.
This film was certainly made for entertainment first, but there’s clearly a message here and a purpose behind the film. The film makers want the message of Sam Childers to be heard, aside from the fact that his story is quite extraordinary and larger than life.

This is a good film but Forster is not a very subtle director. Go back and watch Monster’s Ball or Quantum of Solace. With heavy handed material he has a penchant for beating his audience over the head with his theme or the overarching style of the piece until you’re going in circles from the unrelenting nature of his storytelling. The bleak repression of Monster’s Ball, the balls-to-the-wall emotionally charged violence of Quantum of Solace or the endless nature of Sam Childer’s efforts in Machine Gun Preacher. He’s showing a more and more deft control of his action scenes in each progressive film, portraying chaotic gun battles in more understandable ways, but he could take his acting direction down a notch, perhaps reigning in his actors’ scenery chewing.

Sam Childers is a very interesting man and I’m glad he turned his life around in such a profound and unusual manner. Gerard Butler showed some impressive range in this while sticking closely to the genre- historic action- that launched his career in the first place and Machine Gun Preacher is the kind of pulpy message film the world hasn’t been waiting for, but deserves.

Imagine the goal Steven Segal set out to achieve with On Deadly Ground, his environmentalist movie about oil drilling that included lots of bad guys being shot or round house kicked to death, then class it up a little bit with better acting, better direction and better writing and Machine Gun Preacher is what you get. Nothing wrong with that, but even message films can have too much gouda for their own good.


Fright Night (2011)

August 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

David Tennant and Anton Yelchin gear up for battle in Craig Gillespie's remake of 'Fright Night'

Written by Marti Noxon

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Starring Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and David Franco

I almost didn’t see Fright Night in theaters, because it wasn’t playing in any big new shiny state of the art multiplexes, nor was it playing in any of the neighborhood art house theaters that I feel smart and dutiful for patronizing. I almost didn’t see Fright Night in theaters because the only cinemas offering the movie were a bunch of rundown multiplexes that have seen better days. Theaters that were built in the late 80’s or early 90’s and were THE place to see big new releases up until about seven or eight years ago, when they were supplanted by even bigger and cooler theaters. Regal runs the chains that are aging poorly and AMC runs the big new behemoths. You can see, when you go to a Regal theater, all the failure of time passing faster than the chain could keep up with. Multiple snack counters built in around the dark and most vacant theater complex that are stripped of all devices and delicacies, with the snack bar relegated to a larger, centralized hub, as is the trend in newer theaters. The ceilings are planted sky high with mirrors and curly-cue fancy neon lettering announcing what each section of the theater is. It all looks chintzy and anachronistic by today’s standards. Well, I caved to seeing Fright Night in this kind of theater, because I had no alternative. I thank my lucky stars that I was forced to take in just such an environment when viewing the film.

Fright Night is a remake of a cult classic from the 1980’s by the same name. in this classic, a vampire played by Chris Sarandon (brother of Susan Sarandon) moves in next door to a horny teenage boy named Charlie Brewster. Charlie has a best friend named Evil Ed, played by one time cult icon Stephen Geoffreys (rumored to have developed a debilitating cocaine habit and horrific debt which led him down a dark path of prostitution and gay porn) who is obsessed with horror films and the macabre. When Sarandon moves in right next door to Charlie Brewster, Evil Ed convinces Charlie that the neighbor, Jerry, is a vampire. Jerry even has a live in friend/assistant, who is either his gay lover or a familiar (a wanna-be vampire who willingly becomes a vampire’s man servant in exchange for being allowed total access to a vampire’s world). Jerry is sophisticated and mysterious gentleman who indeed turns out to be a vampire and turns Charlie’s world upside down. The plot and basic story points of the remake are the same, for the most part. The original was filmed on a Hollywood backlot in a street that you’d recognize from many films, including Tom Hanks’ early star effort “The ‘Burbs”.

In this updated version, Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a decidedly hip and socially conscious ex geek who has shunned ‘Evil’ Ed in favor of a hot girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and mainstream buddies (David Franco, younger brother of James Franco). Evil Ed is a dorky kid who hasn’t grown up yet, unlike his old friend Charlie. As played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Evil Ed is nothing more than a plot device; A simple way to definitively ‘out’ Jerry as a real life vampire and to create a few more mild difficulties for Charlie in the final act. Otherwise, the character is an after-thought in this version. To Mintz-Plasse’s credit, he’s taken Ed from an unequivocally campy film creation that had no place in reality and has turned him into a somewhat believable entity. This is due in large part to screenwriter Marti Noxon’s razor sharp script, employing some fantastic dialogue and understated sequences which expertly build tension and give us snacks of character development as we watch the film’s central mysteries unfold. Given that he must work within the relative confines of the original film’s plot points, his own additions are that much more impressive, particularly in scenes addressing Brewster’s uncomfortable transition from a sword playing geek to an unexpected ladies man, landing a decidedly hot girlfriend by eschewing all awkwardness and childlike wonder from his personality. The dialogue Noxon provides Poots with to justify her pursuit of Jerry and the foundations of their relationship feel genuine and thoughtful as far as Hollywood fantasy goes; particularly a line in which Poots’ Amy lists the fact that Charlie’s skin cleared up from early teen acne issues as one of the reasons she was dating him that manages to not feel mean or superficial, merely appreciative. A little bit of vain honesty goes a long way towards characters feeling genuine.

Where Evil Ed’s presence falls a bit short, the update of Jerry goes above and beyond. Instead of a creepy older gentleman with an awkwardly homoerotic familiar, Jerry is played by Colin Farrell as a very cool, friendly and driven vampire who oozes sex appeal and cool factor. There is no familiar, just Farrell. Farrell is the heart and soul of this version of Fright Night, which keeps its roots firmly in the 80’s, by completely owning his scenes. He isn’t phoning in this performance, this doesn’t feel like a paycheck role. It’s very fun, very creepy, very confident and completely devoid of ego. He’s serving the script here with a detached character that is more animal than man, living a life devoted to hunting and feeding. The way he sniffs the air and walks with hunched shoulders, his head drooped low, much like a wolf preparing for an assault. It’s an effortlessly fun performance that will likely go unheralded due to the genre and source material. If Farrell was an unknown he’d be getting high marks and notice for this role.

The updated setting from Small Town Anywhere, USA Hollywood Back Lot to a modern upscale housing development in Las Vegas acts as a stroke of genius on the filmmakers’ parts. First they utilize the weak housing market early on in the film to hint at what’s to come when we’re introduced to Charlie’s single mother, a realty agent, loading up ‘for sale’ signs in the back of her car, the sharpened ends for planting in front yards in obvious display looking like ‘roided out stakes. Later we’re exposed to a loop hole in vampire mythology that Jerry is exploiting by setting up shop in a neighborhood who’s occupancy is beleaguered by the economic downturn; empty houses or houses in between owners means that a vampire doesn’t have to be invited inside to hunt. Despite the modern setting there is still something anachronistic about the houses we see. They’re very uniform and bland. There’s a dark and empty sterility to many of the sets. Given the glitz and glamour of Vegas, the filmmakers do an interesting stylistic effort in which they seem to have purposefully darkened the films’ images. Even scenes in broad daylight have a shadow over them. It works wonders, evoking a long forgotten genuine sense of foreboding in modern Hollywood horror that the 80’s had down to a science.
Now, this could also be a result of having shot the film in 3D. I went to a 2D screening because I didn’t want my experience sullied by watching an already darkly photographed and dimly lit film to be tinted to illegal proportions by the shading of 3D-glasses and the double vision images of stuff coming off the screen. I could see the shots where they were most clearly employing 3D and it didn’t seem necessary or even additive for this film’s purposes.

The other change in the film that works beautifully in the reimagining of Peter Vincent; No offense to Roddy McDowell, but David Tennant should from now on be known as the definitive incarnation of Peter Vincent. Tennant’s (best known for his incarnation of the long running BBC sci-fi staple ‘Doctor Who’) Vincent is not a bitter old man who hosts a cheap local Saturday night Horror segment, but a wealthy, vapid Vegas showman who provides much of the comic relief. He’s like Criss Angel crossed with Russell Brand and he works beautifully. Tennant also provides the bulk of the comedy, though he only shows up sporadically, with the bulk of his scenes taking place in the final act as his character is given a chance to grow beyond his excessive fortune and showmanship into a real person with fears, emotions and a similarly personal drive to that of Charlie’s in search of Farrell’s head on a platter. The final showdown between Jerry, Charlie and Vincent isn’t particularly memorable or inventive, but it’s very satisfying at an emotional level given many of the conversations Charlie and Vincent have leading up to this moment.

Fright Night cost a reported $30 million to make, which is chump change by Hollywood standards. Given the very modest budget, director Craig Gillespie employs judicious and impressive use of special effects to go along with some nifty camera work, using complex tracking shots that are no doubt green screen or completely digital, but which blend seamlessly without distracting from the story. You get to see Farrell’s transformation between his palatable human form and his grotesquely animalistic vampire form including inhuman body movements and contortions in very cool manners. I was surprised with the film’s attention to detail in this respect, with scenes of Farrell’s character reacting to injury with unnaturally quick movements not looking hokey but genuinely frightening. There’s a particularly effective sequence involving a roaming single-shot perspective inside a moving car as it is being chased by another car, ending in a nice, subtle cameo that is an insider’s nod to the original for any devoted fan or film geek. There are also a few very obvious shots meant for the 3D showings of the film, including digital blood spurting into the air and some shots of objects moving directly towards the camera. None of them are necessary and feel shoehorned in to an otherwise lean and expertly told story.

This version of Fright Night probably doesn’t have the cult classic potential of the original, but it’s still a very refreshing take on the vampire genre and exhibits what will go down as an underrated performance from Colin Farrell in an underrated film that oozes creepy atmosphere while managing to maintain a light enough tone to keep things fun and acknowledge the ridiculous nature of any vampire story, especially in today’s oversaturated post-Twilight market. A true diamond in the rough, it’s a shame that it could only muster an $8 million opening weekend. Hopefully this intelligent and well made supernatural thriller will find an audience somewhere down the line and earn the fan base it so very much deserves- more so than its source material.

30 Minutes or Less (2011)

August 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari get their crime on in Ruben Fleischer's action comedy '30 Minutes or Less'

Written by Michael Diliberti

Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari, Nick Swardson, Dilshad Vadsaria, Fred Ward, Bianca Kajilic and Michael Pena

It takes a ton of luck for any movie to get made. Even for the dumbest comedies to look like a real movie with decent images, passable audio and semi-believable acting you need a team of highly trained professionals at the top of their game to deliver something at least passably entertaining that won’t distract the audience with its shortcomings. As technical prowess goes, 30 Minutes or Less is surprisingly well crafted as far as action scenes are concerned, thanks, no doubt, in large part to the efforts of director Ruben Fleischer, who wowed us previously with the surprisingly fresh and irreverent zombie action comedy ‘Zombieland’. The problem with ’30 Minutes or Less’ is in the script. A Disney exec recently got candid with some media people and explained that scripts don’t matter. What matters is how low can a budget get for superior quality images and will people pay to see what you’re selling. 30 Minutes or Less was never destined to be a huge blockbuster, but it has potential to be a modest cult hit. It wont stand the test of time or of an On Demand rental afterlife, because the script simply isn’t up to snuff.

As with the images on screen, a script is made of many parts that must work together to coalesce into something believable, entertaining and satisfying. Not to say that 30 Minutes or Less isn’t entertaining- it is quite entertaining in a single serving way, but the plot is so full of holes and the final film feels so lazy that I hope there’s a director’s cut with an additional act tying up the litany of easily explainable loose ends.

The film has four stars in the form of two 2 man teams; Danny McBride and Nick Swardson play a pair of sycophantic dolts living meagerly off the fat of McBride’s Marine Corps veteran father, who, ten years prior, won a modest $10 million lottery. McBride is a loser and an idiot with no friends, no discernible talents and misplaced charisma. He leeches onto a weaker man played by the ever evolving Nick Swardson as a seemingly innocent man child with moments of intelligence seeping out between inane sycophantic conversations with the far more arrogant but far dumber McBride. To make a very dumb sequence short, McBride devises a overly convoluted plan to secure his and Swardson’s fortunes without lifting a finger. They’ll kidnap a pizza delivery boy, strap a bomb to him and force him to rob a bank and get them the money, lest he blow up if he doesn’t succeed.

That unfortunate pizza boy is played by Jesse Eisenberg in his trade mark fast talking slacker intellectual mode. He works for a pizza delivery company with an antiquated 30 minutes or its free delivery policy, while offering service to a ridiculously wide area of towns. Eisenberg’s character is constantly running up against the clock and negotiating with customers to not get stiffed, hence the title of the film. It’s pretty amazing when an actor can take any script and make you feel like he’s playing the same guy in different scenarios film to film. Sometimes it’s gratingly awful, such as with Arnold Schwarzenegger or some other lunk headed action heroes, but in Eisenberg’s case, he’s refreshingly sincere and self-effacing without seeming meek. Eisenberg is an aimless college graduate who works as a pizza boy. He lives with his best friend, played by Asis Anzari, as a man with a little more ambition who makes a decent living as a third grade teacher. Ansari shows a decent amount of range in this film, being funny while also having sincerely emotional moment. It’s also quite refreshing that an Indian plays a lead role in a film without a single reference to his ethnicity.

Suffice it to say, Eisenberg finds himself strapped with a bomb and with nobody else to turn to, he asks his best friend to help him out of the situation. The bank robbery turns out to be the tip of the iceberg. It was almost confusing to me when that section of the film was wrapped up within the first 30 minutes and we were left with another hour of action. Enter Michael Pena in his signature silly psychopath mode with a mild lisp and a serenely humorous indifference to human life as a hit man going after pretty much every other character in the story. Pena’s psychopathic tendencies and McBride’s lunkheaded plotting finds Eisenberg and Ansari on the run from two moronic criminal factions as they try to find a way to disarm the bomb and get rid of $100,000 in stolen cash before its too late.

The way the film is wrapped up is completely illogical with many key sequences cut short or excised altogether in favor of throwaway lines of expository dialogue used to fill in the gaps. There’s a lot of entertaining banter and a couple of impressive action sequences in the middle (though, to go along with the plot hole heavy script, there’s also an inexplicable use of an 80’s song squarely associated with action juggernaut ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ that feels very out of place in a modern movie) but the script ultimately feels quite lazy with a few conveniently oversimplified sequences wrapping up useless characters’ thin arcs and excising the kind of final wrap up scenes so popular in the 80’s with the emergency vehicles and our hero on the back of an ambulance being apologized to by a hot headed superior or cop who just got definitive proof of our hero’s innocence while the girl runs up and plants a big wet one on the guy’s bruised and battered lips. It might have been hokey, but those sequences at least gave films closure.

Nowadays the convention is to have no conventions and though sometimes it can work, most often it will leave attentive audience members frustrated and disappointed by a high concept with a low execution. 30 Minutes or Less is a clever concept with a no so clever script, but it wouldn’t be the least entertaining hour and a half ever spent at the movies if you bothered to sit through this leap frogging action comedy.

NOTE: There was an eerily similar true story that occurred in 2003, in which 46 year old pizza delivery man Brian Douglas Wells died after a bomb exploded around his neck after a failed bank robbery. Check out the full true story, with very similar details to the film, at this wikipedia page:

The film makers swear the idea was original.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Freida Pinto, James Franco and modern day Lon Chaney Andy Serkis filming 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'

Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver

Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Starring Andy Serkis, James Franco, Tom Felton, John Lithgow, David Oyelowo, Brian Cox and Freida Pinto

The Planet of the Apes series has a strange place in pop culture. I doubt most modern day film audience members have seen the original movies or would willingly sit through them. Nobody much talks about the last attempt at a series reboot with Tim Burton’s simply titled ‘Planet of the Apes’ starring Mark Wahlberg and a whole bunch of famous actors in state of the art ape make up that honestly wasn’t exactly light years ahead of the original 1960’s designs.

The original films were campy allegories about racism and what it means to be an animal- an inversion of humanity’s control over the planet for all these years and an examination of just what separates man from so called beast. We’re only a few genetic points removed from apes and chimpanzees. Another couple of chromosomal alterations and who knows how similar we’d be to one another. The films are cheesy by today’s standards; with their sets clearly built on Hollywood back lots, utilizing 1960’s technology and aesthetics. Even for that era, the primate costumes were very impressive, if not entirely convincing with the faces not moving too much. The make up work in the 2001 remake was light years beyond what was doable in the 1960’s. Even so, the 2001 remake remained fairly loyal to the original’s designs.

This prequel sets the stage in a whole new and less ambitious way. We see humanity as it exists today. A scientist played by James Franco has created a compound he calls AZT 112, which reverses the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s. Naturally the drug is tested on chimps, who respond to the synapse connection properties by boosting their ability to communicate effectively with humans, solve basic puzzles and play games. The first trial goes horribly wrong, the project is shut down and all is lost for the good doctor, except for a single spared newborn chimp, who Franco reluctantly steals from the lab to spare his life. The chimp is lovingly named Caesar by the doctor’s father, played by John Lithgow as a professional musician who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Lithgow is charming and effectively sad as the Alzheimer suffering elder.

Franco’s doctor realizes that the AZT drug was passed to the new baby chimp through his mother’s DNA. The original Days turn into weeks, weeks into months and so on until the chimp is living with Franco’s doctor as a surrogate son and lifelong test subject. Caesar can sign effectively and fluently, he can play chess, he has compassion and loyalty towards his human family members and is basically a well-behaved little child. Franco starts giving AZT to his father, with mixed results, the returns of the drug diminishing in time. Caesar, on the other hand, grows more intelligent each day, his I.Q. doubling every year.

Franco begins dating a veterinarian played by Freida Pinto in a thankless role as Franco’s conscience and our eye candy. Her character gets zero development and mostly stands around in the background or offers kind words to our conflicted human protagonist.

Years pass and Caesar grows restless and curious about the outside world, locked away in the confines of the home Franco shares with his elderly father. They have a snooty, annoying neighbor who is apparently around for comic relief, always finding excuses to get cartoonishly angry with the Alzheimer’s suffering father. One day Lithgow goes too far, managing to total the neighbor’s new Mustang in a rather ludicrous, conveniently over the top example of Alzheimer’s. Caesar sees the neighbor getting physical with Lithgow and goes, well, a little ape shit in Lithgow’s defense. The ape is taken to the San Bruno ape reserve (or something like that) where he’s imprisoned in what initially looks like a halfway decent home.

As with all film orphanages, for humans or otherwise, the pleasant and well run looking facility is anything but. After Franco reluctantly leaves Caesar in the car of original Hannibal Lecter Brian Cox, sporting a rather obvious dye job, Caesar immediately experiences cruelty at the hands of man. Specifically, a lazy, stupid and violent caretaker played by Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter. Sadly, Felton is every bit cartoonishly villainous and scenery chewing as he is in the Potter films, over enunciating and making exaggerated facial expressions as if he’s in a stage production. Felton gets the honor of reconstituting the Ape series’ most famous line in a scene of outlandish campiness. I’m loathe to admit it, but under the circumstances, the line feels forced, making the film all too self-conscious of the weight of its own campy pop-culture history.

The hyper-intelligent Caesar learns the cruelty of man and the dumbness of normal primates. He retreats into himself, becoming very angry and bitter towards all humans while experiencing a spiritual awakening of sorts on his loyalty to his fellow primate, regardless of the level of their intelligence. Through a convoluted and highly unlikely series of events, Caesar breaks out of the facility, travels only god knows how far across the bay area by foot, steals the AZT and exposes the other caged primates to a gaseous, airborne version of the drug. Very quickly he develops an army of about 20 or 30 primates, ready to do his bidding.
The finale is a race across the bay area, culminating on a ludicrous stand off on the Golden Gate bridge between a bunch of primates and about 20 heavily armed police officers. Despite these unfair odds, guess who rues the day.

The film ends with a ‘gotchya’ moment that hints at what’s to come (including what I think is a subtle reference towards HIV/AIDS vs. SIDS, the primate version of the disease) , but the stakes remain quite low when the closing credits begin to role and we’re left to wonder how a platoon of escaped primates who can play chess and use sign language grow in numbers to take over the planet.

Andy Serkis steals the show in his mo-cap performance as Caesar. It’s not clear how much of it is him and how much of it is post-production CGI, but the either way the results are terrific. He moves fluidly and his expressions tell great tales of the growing sense of disillusion, anger, distrust and innocence lost in his Caesar. There are rumors of Serkis garnering a best actor nod or at least a special Oscar for the work and I agree that it should be recognized, but how do we separate the actor from the effects team?

As the human lead, Franco is surprisingly likeable and effective in his emoting. Some people accuse the actor of being on autopilot, but I’m not sure what more could be asked from his performance as the surrogate father to Caesar.

Director Rupert Wyatt seemingly came out of nowhere, with just one low budget film to his credit called The Escapist, also starring Brian Cox. For a first time big budget project, I’d say Wyatt knocks Rise of the Planet of the Apes out of the park, with interesting visuals, a controlled pace to the story and character development in favor of flashy action sequences.

None of the Apes films have ever been or ever will be brilliant, but some are excellent examples of intelligent science fiction and Rise is no different. I would call it a worthy re-boot of the franchise and deserved of a sequel to its prequel story. I for one, am ready to revisit the story of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

July 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Good ol' ornery Harrison Ford and stoic brooder Daniel Craig cowboy up in the genre-clashing flick 'Cowboys and Aliens'

Roberto Orci (screenplay) &
Alex Kurtzman (screenplay) &
Damon Lindelof (screenplay) and
Mark Fergus (screenplay) &
Hawk Ostby (screenplay)

Mark Fergus (screen story) &
Hawk Ostby (screen story) and
Steve Oedekerk (screen story)

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (Platinum Studios comic book)

Produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Steven Spielberg, etc.

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown, Adam Beach, David O’Hara, Walton Goggins and Sam Rockwell

Let me start by acknowledging all the credits I put at the top of this review. Normally I keep it to the key credits and try to focus on the true stars of the film rather than the bulk of the cast who have named characters and speaking roles. I added everybody I possibly could without turning this into an page because seeing these stats, if you will, forces me to address a few points about Hollywood and the history of film making.

First note the seven names credited with developing the story and writing the script, then notice the eighth name, Scott Rosenberg, the guy who actually wrote the graphic novel upon which the film is based. Normally when you have this many cooks in the kitchen -and we’re potentially looking at a regular old ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ scenario- it is readily apparent by the disjointed story and uneven thematic and stylistic elements of a film that nobody could get it right, the studio was running up against rights deadlines and people’s schedules and said ‘screw it’ and just filmed the damn thing, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. That’s normally what so many writers would mean. For some reason, though, thanks to the movie gods, ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ has done something that is on one hand very unique in modern day Hollywood and on the other hand is what we’ve come to expect, recognize and appreciate most as film goers over the last hundred-plus years of Hollywood.

What we audience members have come to appreciate is comfort imagery and eye popping, ground breaking spectacle. Most of the time we don’t get them in one film. We have to pick and choose our stylistic battles and the studios know this, so individual films tend to get bogged down in the uninspired and tedious retreads of past genre successes. Movies like ‘Skyline’ and ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ take the most basic elements of successful alien films like ‘Independence Day’ or even a satire such as ‘Mars Attacks!’ and managed to strip the fat from the proceedings. But what is fat? We perceive fat to be bad. Yet, butter makes things taste better, fatter cuts of steak tend to be juicier and appease our taste buds more thoroughly. What I’m getting at here is that there was a humanity and a depth to these elder statesmen of the genre, in which we followed characters we learned to care about and remember, memorized our favorite lines and reveled at watching our favorite scenes over and over again as the years went on and the films aged, mostly in nostalgic and positive ways. Sure, some of the effects and model work in ‘Independence Day’ started looking hokey once we got accustomed to HD screens and yes, a film like ‘Mars Attacks!’ is pure satire, but at their cores they relied on characters. Who doesn’t remember Will Smith’s choicest quotes (“Welcome to earf!”/”Now that’s what I call a close encounter”) or Randy Quaid’s crazy abductee or Bill Pullman’s stupfyingly cheesy ra-ra speech to signal the beginning of the third act (“Today, is our Independence Day!”). These were what made those films memorable. Not the special effects, not the big shiny space ships zipping past our screens. It was the people that gave us an excuse to care and to pay attention and remember. Films like ‘Skyline’ or ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ ask us to be wowed by generic special effects and indecipherable action sequences in which the film makers hope that by virtue of simply knowing we’re watching special effects and blue lasers blowing stuff up we’ll be satisfied. The aliens have vague designs and zero personality, give zero reasons for the invasion and we’re generally not given anything to care about except for a few money shot moments of someone doing something generically heroic in slow motion. These scenes are all interchangeable.

To aide in these endeavors, the actors provide juicy quotes during the pre-release media blitz, doing their damndest to convince us they’re practically real soldiers or wunderkind Action Jacksons by providing quotes about the ‘intense’ two week boot camp they went through before filming. However, in the end, we don’t care about their characters and most everybody above twelve years old is disappointed or feels insulted by what they just paid to see and these films quickly become a minor cliff note in Hollywood history, cautionary tales about the soulless and creatively bankrupt side of the movie industry.

On the other hand, you’ve got the western, a Hollywood genre-staple, a go to action movie and paycheck for actors still in the contract Studio system era. There were a handful of sets built on the back lots and outskirts of a relatively undeveloped Los Angeles. Contract screen writers would crank out the white hats vs. black hat stories of simply morality tales such as ‘Shane’ starring Alan Ladd and Jack Palance as men who literally wore white and black hats depending who was the protagonist and who was the villain. John Wayne made scenery chewing auto-pilot acting an art form. As Hollywood got more sophisticated and technology improved, people tired of the simplicity and old fashioned nature of the western and it was mostly abandoned, save for the occasional big ticket ‘anti-western’ films such as Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” in which violence was shown in its true horrific nature, with blood and squibs everywhere. The heroes and villains didn’t wear uniforms of white or black, but men wore shades of gray, their roles interchanging as the stories progressed. Clint Eastwood took this mold to its most sophisticated and simplistic zenith in the seminal anti-western Best Picture winner ‘Unforgiven’ about a former gun slinger who is forced back into his violent ways by some small town corruption.

Aside from these examples, westerns had mostly lost their luster and tended to be passion projects of actors too young to have been a part of the studio system. Movies like the ‘Young Gun’ series, ‘Quick and the Dead’ and ‘Tombstone’ took Westerns and turned them into action set pieces meant to provide aforementioned younger actors a chance to get a taste of old Hollywood film making. Aside from these, westerns as a genre-staple were dying or dead.

Enter ‘Cowboys and Aliens’, which has taken all of the most memorable, fun and spellbinding elements of these two separate and wayward film styles and has managed to create a credible, fulfilling and nostalgic experience for fans of either genre. The film starts and ends with classic western motifs, while filling the middle and apex of the story with classic sci-fi/alien action that will please even the most ardent and anal genre fans. The story isn’t quite as simple as white hats vs. black hats, but it might as well be. Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan, a gifted fighter and gun slinger who awakens with his memory wiped from existence and a strange and indestructible metal bracelet firmly attached to his left wrist. He doesn’t know who he is, but does remember English and how to defend himself. He quickly avoids capture by some ruthless travelers looking for a quick finder’s fee and makes his way into a small town that’s virtually run by a supposedly ruthless cattle man played by Harrison Ford.

We quickly meet our cast of characters, with everybody getting a little bit of back story and some vague character arcs; an indifferent reverend (Clancy Brown) who’s too jaded to pretend God can save people must find the holy spirit once again and imbue his Godly comfort upon other lost souls; a meek bar owner (Sam Rockwell) must find the confident warrior within himself to stand up to the town bullies, earn their respect and save his wife. The cattle rancher’s defiant, arrogant and destructive son (Paul Dano in a surprisingly menacing performance) must learn some humility, the anglicized Native American (Adam Beach) must use the knowledge of his people to bridge the cultural gaps between the white cowboys and the Native American tribesmen and Olivia Wilde, playing a gorgeous, confident and mysterious woman, who must achieve certain personal goals to help the humans fight the aliens. Wilde is wonderful, evoking a confidence and power reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver or Julianne Moore. It might sound sexist to say this, but it’s almost a shame Wilde is as stunningly beautiful as she is, because if she was more weathered, I think her tremendous strength as an actress would be better acknowledged.

Then of course, there’s Harrison Ford as Woodrow Dolarhyde, a cantankerous cattle owner whose men run the town with a mildly mighty fist. People seem to cede power to Dollarhyde when in his presence, but otherwise acknowledge him to be a basically decent guy who abstains from town business. As Dolarhyde, good old Harrison Ford delivers a lively, hammy performance that evokes a more with-it aging John Wayne type of an actor, who has his own rhythm and styles, to hell with modern acting or believability! Ford grumbles, guffaws and screeches all his lines through a bellowing phlegmy elder statesman voice, evoking years of toil, hardship and loss of direction as an actor. The plain fact is, the man is a legend and to see him on screen is instantly pleasing. Every single line and shot with him is a heart warming trip down memory lane.

There’s one scene in particular in which Ford is walking and talking with a young boy. The camera is pulling back in front of them, with Ford and the boy centered with a procession of men behind them. Ford looks to the sides of the screen, his left side (our right) in particular, presumably to avoid directly looking into the camera. He gives a long, uncut section of dialogue which he may very well have memorized, but I’m almost positive he was relying on cue cards to get him through the sequence. I thought I’d be disappointed by the possibility that Ford wasn’t on his game for this sequence. On the contrary, it was supremely satisfying to see an elder statesman of Hollywood, in a veritable come back performance, giving us an experience reminiscent of the greatest lazy actor of all time, John Wayne. This is Ford showing us his legend supersedes his abilities and daring us to be in any way disappointed or disenchanted by this fact. I, for one, got a grin-inducing kick out of being fully aware that it was a movie with a set and crew members running around making sure this sequence looked remotely believable. This is what old Hollywood was. These moments where it was so clearly a movie and the actors were so clearly phoning it in or didn’t have their best stuff, but you love them so much and love the genre so much that you simply don’t care, or the laziness somewhat ironically enhances your viewing experience. The most positive thing I can say about Ford is that, like the similarly named car company’s trucks, he’s built tough. Even in his mid-60’s, gray, crinkled and a little out of sorts in New Hollywood, the man holds his own during the action sequences. Watching him blaze across the screen on a horse as he spears or shoots a massive CGI alien is pure cinematic magic. I’m quite thankful he was pulled out of semi-retirement for this role as he nails it and gives us that warm gooey nostalgic feeling of watching something with such pure joy that we feel like we’re seven years old once more, for a brief two hours.

Once again, Harrison Ford is paired with a James Bond. Instead of Sean Connery as his father in Indiana Jones, he gets Daniel Craig as the mysterious and stoic man who holds the key to the alien presence (since science-fiction and the term alien didn’t yet exist in the old west, the aliens of the title are referred to as creatures, demons or things in the film) with a metal contraption stuck to his wrist, which he figures out he can use as a sort of hand cannon to fight the aliens with their own technology. He reluctantly but curiously leads the humans in their quest to save abducted loved ones, snatched up by dragonfly-looking metallic buzzard ships that may or may not be unmanned drones. He has shades of reluctant gun slinger ‘Shane’, while maintaining that uniquely Craig-ian tough guy snarl and believable physicality. He doesn’t look like a typical action hero, but I believe he could kick ass if necessary and that’s probably the best quality a hero can have in a movie like this. As for his character development, despite memories of a fallen lover and his own abduction experience, Longerhan is drawn to Olivia Wilde’s character, a woman not so much attracted to him as she is driven to help him because she believes he can help her, as they’re both connected to the aliens in their own way.

This all leads to an extended chase sequence that introduces us to side characters, including a rough and tumble outlaw gang, headed by up well known character actor Walton Goggings as an aw-shucks faux tough guy and a mean wanna-be gang leader played by scene stealing Irish toughy David O’Hara, perhaps most famous as one of the main henchmen in Martin Scorsese’s the Departed a few years back. Once all the cowboys are together, they encounter some Native Americans, who looks surprisingly like Native Americans you’d see depicted in classic Hollywood westerns, minus the racist undertones. The Native Americans, while not given a whole ton of character development, play vital roles in the battle against the greater evil of the aliens and there are some surprisingly entertaining sequences in which the tribesmen and townfolk must communicate through various bilingual members of their parties.

The final battle is pretty much the perfect mash up of alien tech design, replete with huge metallic ships, a weird membrane-like control center for the alien spacecraft, some experimentation units and lots of creepy aliens. The aliens’ overall look is a little vague. They’re like shrunken, more anthropomorphized versions of the ‘Cloverfield’ creatures, except for some slimy tentacle like hands that they can extend from inside their bodies to grab onto people better. This aspect is very creepy and will satisfy anybody looking for chills and good creature feature visuals. Though the aliens are devoid of personality, they are given reasons for their presence and a couple of mildly sympathetic moments to make them feel like slightly more than perfunctory anonymous creatures for the humans to fight with.

And that’s what makes Cowboys and Aliens so good. Yes, all the elements existed in cheesy, lazier fare before this film, but everything is done with such exquisite, loving detail, homage, tongues in cheeks and straight forward seriousness all at once that there’s nothing from either genre that’s missing and yet it doesn’t feel like they crammed too much in. We even get some slimy alien tech goo at one point!

The film is also profoundly shot in rich widescreen close ups that feel like the film makers are daring us to spot their tricks. They want us immersed in the visual treats on screen. They want us to feel as close as we can to really being there. The imagery is rich with texture and crisp angles to give us as much to feast our eyes on as possible. Favreau specifically avoided 3D-centric sequences (there is no 3D version of the film available) and also mostly avoids any frenetic quick cutting of fights. It’s all right there in plain sight, for all its cinematic glory to be bestowed upon the viewer.

All in all, Cowboys and Aliens is not nearly as silly as the title suggests, paying homage, respect and reverence to the genre flicks that came before it, sidestepping the mistakes other films have made along the way and only playing to its potential strengths, to give us a lean, fun and rich action adventure that harkens back to a time when westerns weren’t self-consciously hokey and alien films weren’t insultingly stupid.

Personally, I couldn’t have asked for a better genre-mash up.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

July 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Chris Evans being outmatched by uber-Nazi storm troopers in the campy but quality 'Captain America: The First Avenger'

Based on the comic created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Written for the Screen by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Directed by Joe Johnston

Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Toby Jones, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper with Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones

In the last nine years, since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, we’ve experienced a glut of big budget comic book movies. Prior to these, there was a smattering of weak attempts, including low budget versions of Captain America and Fantastic Four, a grunge-y adaptation of Blade and an odd assortment of lesser known comic book heroes not named Superman or Batman. Now in the past year we’ve had all the second tier characters on top of plentiful sequels for the A-list characters; The Green Lantern, the Green Hornet, Thor, Daredevil, Iron Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, the Hulk, etc.

So at this point we have an idea of what a comic book movie is, what to expect and what we like or don’t like about them. There’s the traditional school of comic book movies, such as Superman, Fantastic Four, etc. all slightly cartoonish and dreamlike. There’s the gritty re-invention adaptations such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and then there’s the newly minted Marvel-verse, which seems to take all its cues from Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man movie. Henceforth, it was inevitable that certain properties would be adapted eventually. Of these properties, despite the fantastical alternate realities most comics take place in, Captain America is probably the most difficult to translate to screen, given the facts.

It’s basically about a normal G.I. on super steroids who wears a colorful uniform, sports a cumbersome but effective shield and only carries a pistol, which he barely uses. Aside from the logistical issues in convincingly displaying Cap Am on the silver screen, there’s a political element as well; Captain America is a fairly jingoistic character that’s a little too Ra-Ra America at his core for our generation’s multi-culti world view to be entirely comfortable with. There’s also the question of who could successfully play Captain America. It can’t be an unknown- that doesn’t sell tickets- but at the same time, the truly square jawed All American type from the 50’s is simply too cardboard 1-dimensional for audiences to connect with or take seriously as a character to root for. At his core, Captain America is an every man, meant to represent the very best values and abilities our nation has to offer. He isn’t cursed by a troubled past, or by some horrible deformity. He’s tall, well built, good looking, confident, loves his country and is a perfect physical specimen, designed to be as agile and adept in combat as humanly possible. A.K.A. he’s on the greatest steroids known to man. To top all of this off, despite being a United States soldier and essentially doing normal G.I. infantry missions during WW2 in his initial inception, Cap chooses to wear a rather attention grabbing outfit replete with a red, white and blue color scheme and a face mask that one would think obscured his vision worse than any regular helmet possibly could. In short, at face value, everything about Captain America as a character is impractical, even if his biological functions are next to perfect.

So given all that, they still went ahead and adapted the comic. They cast pretty boy hunky all american actor Chris Evans as Cap, going a little younger than previous incarnations, filled the rest of the cast with serviceable character actors, plus some gravitas from the wonderful Tommy Lee Jones and the respectably scenery chewing Hugo Weaving as Cap’s super villain-esque arch enemy Red Skull, a Nazi so evil and messed up he’s supposed to dwarf Hitler’s ambition and capacities considerably.

What director Joe Johnston has somehow done is perfectly melded the realistic aspects of a modern World War 2 movie, with the gung-ho aspects of a classic old Hollywood John Wayne-esque WW2 men-on-a-mission vehicle and filtered all of this through the perspectives of our larger than life hero Captain America and our larger than life villain Red Skull. We get subtle nods to the history of Captain America, to his original costume, which, like many original comic book costumes, don’t translate well to screen and we see a personal journey for Steve Rogers, the weak man who’d be turned into Cap, as a very relatable journey of a man weak in physical attributes, but powerful in courage, commitment and character. Johnston’s film never loses site of the Steve we’re initially introduced to, the Steve who suffers from a litany of health problems and is bone thin. He’s discovered at a recruiting station by Stanley Tucci’s sympathetic fatherly German scientist, who serves as a surrogate father figure to the orphaned Steve. That Steve stays with us as Captain America. His spirit is imbued believably within what becomes a behemoth of a man with his engorged biceps, bulging pecs and rippling abs. No, I’m not salivating, but the physical differences are a fact and do inform the character. The good part is that they don’t define him. He’s also devoid of zingers, one liners or any tongue-in-cheek dialogue. He’s as close as a multi-dimensional person to a Captain America adaptation is gonna get.

He’s given a love interest in Hayley Atwell, a British intelligence attache to the super soldier project that gives birth to Captain America. The romance is underplayed, as she initially sees Steve Rogers as an inexperienced, awkward young man who is honest and polite, but unaccustomed to dealing with women. He’s accompanied by a commanding officer in the gruff but fatherly Tommy Lee Jones and an assortment of soldier cliches around to support Captain in his suicide missions. These are played by established actors like Neal McDonough (best known for ‘Band of Brothers’, another WW2-centric story) and Derek Luke (of Antwon Fisher, amongst other films), the token African-American member of the crew. There’s also a crass but lovable asian American soldier tossed in for good measure. It’s a veritable Rainbow Coalition of a WW2-era fighting unit. The soldiers are there to be recognizable extras in a movie that is all Captain America’s. There’s also Sebastian Stan in a muted turn as Bucky, Cap’s sidekick, and Dominic Cooper as the senior Stark, father of future Iron Man Tony Stark.

In a similar capacity, Toby Jones shows up as Red Skull’s chief scientist and right hand man, Arnim Zola. It isn’t clear if he’s being forced to work for evil or if he’s evil himself, but merely indifferent and burned out from all the work he does. Red Skull’s plan is a macguffin. Basically he’s found this ancient blue plasma stuff that can be weaponized into these standard-issue laser gun/cannons, bombs, etc. and he uses them to build his own army of super Nazis who aren’t really Nazis (they’re his own brand of evil, whose name I forget) with a belief in the occult, a ridiculous double-Nazi salute and lots of other vaguely Metropolis-esque future-tech and they wear these Darth Vader-esque black uniforms, replete with breathing masks. The fire fights seem pretty fare between the traditionally armed American soldiers and the Nazis with science-fiction blaster guns.

Everybody gets their day in the sun, including some awkward scenes where everybody is given what feels like forced lines as an excuse to remind us they aren’t simply extras. Every name actor, like Tommy Lee Jones, get their big scene. Dominic Cooper channels the cocksure but oddly alluring nature of the Stark gene pool without coming off as a cheap imitation of Robert Downey, Jr.’s take on his fictional son. The action is very comic book-y with neat tilted angles and lots of money shot moments where Cap tosses his mighty shield to kick the ass of one of the future-tech Nazi storm troopers.

The ending is a bit of a non-starter as we kinda go from action set piece to downtime to action set piece until you realize the film is closing in on its 2-hour-plus run time and the film simply sets us up for inevitable sequels and the Avengers movie. They tie it into the Marvel Universe with a very brief appearance by one of the linking characters in all these films (hint: he’s black) and a special trailer for the Avengers film once the credits end. (I like the gimmick that this is an actual trailer as trailers originally functioned at the end of movies and got their names)

All in all a hammy but satisfying adaptation. They did as best a job they could of adapting an out-of-date character and impractical character and universe to conform to modern standards of film making, entertainment and political correctness. In the end, however, it felt like the pilot to a cartoon show come to life. That’s not a bad thing, but it does leave one with a detached sense of an impersonal screenplay for a property that might be too ingrained in its own time to translate perfectly to film.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

July 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Shia LaBeouf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley hiding from Decepticons in Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Written by Ehren Kruger

Directed by Michael Bay

Starring Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Ken Jeong and John Malkovich

Before I start the review, I’d like to acknowledge the dearth of new posts since my review of The Tree of Life a few weeks ago. This is due to a number of reasons, chief among them being this blog is not my job, I make no income from it and as such when I find myself in a period during which I must economize the time I do have, the blog (and my movie-going habits) are casualties of these periods. Thusly, I’ve got a lot of movies to catch up on. Luckily, I found myself with nothing to do last Thursday and decided I was in the mood for a shameless popcorn flick, so I made the time to go see Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

The Transformers series is a pox on cinema as far as critics seem to be concerned, but judging by the box office totals of this franchise (averaging $360 million at the U.S. box office alone between the first two entries) speak for themselves in regards to the general popularity and appeal of the films. The Transformers brand was simply a toy line of cool little matchbox cars that could be converted into cool little robots so that little kids of the 1980’s had two style toys in one product. A cartoon movie followed, famously voiced by Orson Welles. Technology obviously did not permit for the live-action adaptation of the franchise until now and what we got was a Michael Bay movie. Michael Bay is rather notorious for lunkheaded scripts, overindulgent use of slow motion, special effects and gouda-level cheesy moments to go along with immense levels of violence and carnage.

Transformers was initially conceived as a cost-effective SFX extravaganza starring cheap character actors and unproven hot new hollywood talent. Shia and the other cast members were all paid scale (around $500,000 for leads and the prices dropped after that) If it busted, it was no big loss, but if it was huge, it was a sustainable franchise. Despite these goals, the films still ballooned a bit with $200 million budgets for the next two films (and LaBeouf pocketing a cool $20 million between the second and third franchise entries) The second film went a little haywire and even the film makers admitted it was a pile of shit, replete with racist minstrel-style robots and action sequences that were impossible to follow.

Dark of the Moon is their attempt to streamline things and enlarge the scale at the same time.

Given those attributes, Dark of the Moon is a success and thus far Bay’s magnum opus in terms of grandiosity, though it’s also his least compelling film as far as character development is concerned. The title is derived from some extraneous backstory on the Transformers connections to humanity that involved some flimsy historic footage of JFK interspersed with actors and a rather impressive Apollo 11 sequence that makes me think Bay has potential as a serious director if he bothered to lay off the movie-cocaine. A lot of his movies make up for their lack of depth with memorable characters and action that can be respected. What’s happened with Transformers is that he has brought cartoons to life. As other reviewers have pointed out, the human characters in this franchise are inconsequential and only exist to give the audience something to grab onto for some semblance of character development and relatability. Otherwise, this is simply about a bunch of massive robotic-intelligent life forms duking it out for our auditory and visual sensory pleasure. In a nutshell, there are Autobots and Decepeticons, rivals from a mechanical kind of planet who have been at war with each other for a long time. Their war has flung them across the universe and they’ve landed on planet Earth where they have adapted to life here by hiding in the form of regular old man-made cars in between transforming into their humanoid forms to beat the crap out of each other and shoot space bullets at one another using space machine guns speaking space-English and giving each other space-Americanized nicknames.

When they came to earth they befriended a small-town boy with the strangely geeky name Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf. He finds himself consistently entangled with their robotic war of attrition as he transitions from high school to college to adulthood. In the first two films he is accompanied by his out of his league girlfriend played by Megan Fox, who sports an “I was molested” high-pitched girlish voice and questionable acting talents. She was cast by the unabashedly objectifying eye of director Michael Bay for her physical attributes. Mainly that she looked great in a slow-pan close up of her ass going to her hips and ending on a silhouetted profile shot of her breasts in a push up bra and a dirty undershirt. Megan Fox, even with her limited acting talent, was notoriously vocally critical of this objectifying by her director and behind the scenes she said some reportedly anti-semitic remarks. Exec Producer Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay decided she was dispensable and fired her after the first two Transformer films, replacing her with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a real-life British supermodel and real-life girlfriend of action star Jason Statham. Rosie plays the post-college Sam Witwicky’s current unbelievably hot girlfriend. She’s putting him up in an amazing loft apartment while he toils in post-college joblessness. Her main job is to stand there and look good while speaking very perfunctory dialogue to establish that she’s more than a highly-advanced sex doll, gifted to Sam by his robot friends. She’s perfectly adequate, given the goals of this franchise as being all around eye-candy. Shia LaBeouf isn’t given a whole lot more than her to do, aside from a couple of childishly comedic moments (including a photo-op with a super imposed President Obama) and running around. Luckily this time he doesn’t say “No, no, no, no, no, no, no!” as he had in the previous franchise installments. Here I can’t really recall his lines. He mostly stood around and complained about not having a job then ran from one part of the country to another (in record time no less!) to save his girlfriend or help the Autobots in freakishly capable ways that somehow our entire trained military could not. Turturro is also back as the conspiracy-theorist federal agent who is a human fact machine and veritable clown prince of the franchise. Josh Duhamel and Tyrse Gibson each show up briefly to….do nothing in particular. Frances McDormand has fun as a no-nonsense Director of Defense for the United States and Ken Jeong pops in very briefly as a strange man with a curious interest in Shia’s character. Basically it amounts to a cameo due to popular demand. Good for him. The only human actor who walks away dignity intact is a scene-stealing John Malkovich as Shia’s boss. A man with a atrange Euro-Boston accent who is very driven, orderly and to the point. It’s a cute and entertaining diversion from the otherwise wooden characters. Oh and they employ some famous but unrecognizable voices for the Transformers, including Hugo Weaving as Megatron (unrecognizable) and Spock AKA Leonard Nimoy as Autobot-Prime (or something like that)

There’s also a human villain in this one (I won’t say who, though it’s quickly obvious) to raise the personal stakes for Sam in order to give his character arc some sort of closure. His evil reasoning is very flimsy, but this franchise is not known for its logic. The final hour of the film is one long battle encompassing Chicago (why Chicago? Why not?) that actually makes the scale feel rather small given that these robots are supposed to take over our entire planet, but there’s only a couple dozen of them total. They seem to struggle to control one city and a band of maybe 20 humans and a couple of friendly robots take them on in the finale (guess who wins) so I can’t imagine how they intended to take over our entire planet.

Basically there’s nothing surprising here. It’s a very impressive visual feast with a forgettable script, forgettable characters and the kind of talent displayed that makes you wish everybody involved would move on more compelling material. Thankfully, Shia LaBeouf has taken every opportunity he can to confirm this is his last foray into the Transformers universe and thusly I assume that unless they offered him ungodly piles of cash, so it is too for its less-than-esteemed director Michael Bay.

The film defies logic and is a smorgasborg of a clusterfuck of hard-to-follow battle sequences between good robots and bad robots. There are some cool set pieces, including a building that our human heroes find themselves trapped in as its demolished from the ground up by robots who apparently despise efficiency and prefer to do their destroying in conveniently inept fashion. The CGI is virtually seamless with the live action and set pieces. On that account, Transformers is a marvel. Part of this is achieved through the constant quick cutting and highly angular cinematography employed by the film makers.

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