Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The third Transformers film Dark of the Moon has so much (too much really) spectacular action that it’s kind of a shame it got stuck with such a bad action movie. In Transformers 3 you will be treated to just about every kind of chase, stunt, explosion, shoot out, special effect, in the book plus the whole book and the kitchen sink as well. If that’s what you’re looking for, good for you. Look no further. Some people consider that getting their money’s worth and although the Transformers films have been a lot of things to a lot of people, boring they have not been. If however you want, oh I don’t know, say, filmmaking, storytelling, characters, drama, insight, depth, logic, common sense, continuity, or any other such endangered species to the Hollywood summer film landscape, well look elsewhere.

“But Hey!” some will scream. “How can you expect anything more from a Transformers movie when you know exactly what you’re getting before you even get it?” I don’t, but how, I retort, can you be satisfied with so much less? The Transformers films, I have realized, under the both flawed and brilliant reign of director Michael Bay, are not films at all but extended music videos in which there is only the outline of story, character, drama etc., and instead of music the quick, jagged images are instead made up of flashes of sound and colour. This is the cinema of banging and blowing up as enormous computer generated effects crash headfirst at high speed into other enormous computer generated effects in an orgasm of colour and noise. Transformers 3 is, if nothing else, certainly the loudest movie I have ever bared witness to.

In my last paragraph there I hinted at how Transformers could be so much more, but then again, I’m not sure, after all this, that it actually can be. Of the last film, the thoroughly unbearable Revenge of the Fallen, I complained of the function of the human characters who were essentially real faces that popped up amid the wall-to-wall animation and served no purpose other than to shout inane dialogue, run away from things exploding and ceaselessly fire unlimited rounds of ammunition, achieving upwards of nothing. Sometimes, I said, in particularly ambitious moments, they were allowed to do all three at once.

In this film, which is, for whatever it’s worth at a base level, infinitely better than that last one, I realized that it’s actually the Transformers themselves that are the problem. Sure the humans are still about as useful as a tuna flavoured lollipop, but it’s the Transformers that really blow the load this time.

To recap before I finish that thought: Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) is now living with his new girlfriend Carly (Victoria Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whitely). This is one hell of a broad. Not only is she the most understanding girlfriend in all of movies, believing Sam and his crazed stories of saving the world, but she also manages to not even break a heel while in the heat of combat as the warring Transformers lay waste to Chicago. That’s a keeper.

Anyway, The Transformers are now used to help the American’s fight their own conflicts until they discover a piece of hidden Intel which suggests that, when the U.S. finally landed on the moon all those years ago they discovered a crashed Autobot ship (those are the good guys by the way) that also housed the lifeless remains of Sentinel Prime, the former Autobot leader. Optimus, learning of this, goes to get Sentinel and resurrect him before the bad Decepticons find him and…I don’t know. Something about pillars that could destroy the earth.

This all leads up to a monster of a third act which is straight, unending wall-to-wall combat as the Autobots and Decepticons wage war against each other in Chicago, leaving the city in ruins. Of course, this being a PG-13 enterprise, no civilian is ever seen to be harmed by the warring robots despite the fact that Transformers have to be one of, if not the leading cause of death in the United States.

Nevertheless, into the fold drops St. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and his men who jump out of air crafts above Chicago and sail down like flying squirrels into the city because he apparently didn’t get the hint after the last two Transformer battles that machine gun fire doesn’t contribute anything to a giant space robot war except noise pollution.

Not even mentioning that the film also, for reasons above and beyond what my mind allows me to comprehend, features John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and Patrick Dempsey, it’s time to get back to the problem of the Transformers.

If Bay were to allow a genuine human emotion to seep into the movie over the course of the film’s mind battering two and a half hours, and maybe if he’d lay off the pyrotechnics a little than maybe, just maybe there would be something here. But because the film revolves around a nonsense plot involving robots who have no back story, no empathy, no characteristics and nothing that defines their existence, it is virtually impossible to care about a single one of them. They are thus, when broken down, essentially made to crash into each other, pound each other to spare parts, blow one another up and, ultimately to have faces to be put on t-shirts and be made into action figures and so on.

All of this, as all bad movies tend to, left my mind to wander to this: What is the origin of Transformers? How did they come to be on that distant planet of Cybertron? Because they are machines that leads one to believe that they would have had to be assembled, which explains why none of them are females, but what was the force that brought the first Transformer to assembly? It couldn’t have been human as, until they arrived on Earth no knowledge of Cybertron existed. But it would have had to have been something. And how, if not human, did this mysterious force know to model them after American vehicles?

Of course, the movie doesn’t have any answers to these questions, but I didn’t expect it to. What it does have is a lot of bang-pow-boom-blow-up-fall-down-shoot-shoot-run-jump-crash kind of action. It’s masterfully done but after a certain point it all blends together into one big void of nothingness. I know, I know, why should I expect anything more? Apparently not a single fan of these films does.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris opens with Woody Allen’s traditional jazz score atop many static shots of Paris. We see the famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, it is morning, it is sunny, it rains, it is night, the streets are bare and the streets are bustling with life as people populate the city. They are the most serious and solemn shots in the film as they evoke the realization that although these people live now, they will all eventually fade away. The realization from this is that, as they pass and a new population comes and goes, Paris will always live, rich in it’s history, always breathing and growing. Life is short but Paris is eternal.

It’s that quality which maybe most attracts young and middle aged men to Paris in order to ditch everything, take up residence there and discover themselves through the creation of great art and literature. It’s about making oneself a peasant for one last crack at attempting something meaningful. Art may be made from suffering but it is also made from freedom. Henry Miller described it best in his opening of The Tropic of Cancer as he haunts the streets of Paris: “I have no money, to resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

Midnight in Paris is thus three love letters rolled into one. It is a love letter to Paris, a love letter to writing and a love letter to the past. It’s a tale of whimsy without being too whimsical. It’s Allen’s most lovely film in years.

The film revolves around Gil (Owen Wilson playing the Woody Allen surrogate), a Hollywood script writer who has escaped to Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) in the hopes of leaving behind the creation of meaningless entertainment and crossing over into grand literature through the writing of his novel. Gil is in love with the idea of Paris, thinks it is even more beautiful in the rain and longs for the glory days of the 20s when the city was alive with great art, literature, music, what have you.

His novel, not appreciated by Inez or anyone else he describes it to, is about a man who runs his own nostalgia shop, selling meaningful items from the golden age of entertainment which have now, in the present, been reduced to no more than worthless camp articles.

There he meets Inez’s old friend Paul (Michael Sheen). Paul represents one of Allen’s favourite targets: a pedantic pseudo-intellectual who belivies himself to know everything about art and culture to the point where he will argue his point over that of the tour guide. One night, not wanting to go dancing and having sampled too much wine, Gil goes for a walk by himself around Paris. He rests on a stoop and as the clock strikes twelve a vintage car pulls around and tells him to get in.

He is escorted to a party where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Yes, that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. They explain to him that some people have come together to throw a party for Jean Cocteau. And is that Cole Porter on the piano? Gil thinks someone is pulling his leg until the Fitzgerald’s, finding out that Gil is a writer, invite him to meet Ernest Hemmingway, who doesn’t want to read his book but will indeed take it to Gertrude Stein for a once over. Gil, overjoyed, goes to retrieve the manuscript but finds that, upon leaving, the glorious 20s party has morphed back into a standard dry cleaners.

And so every night Gil finds an excuse to sneak away so that, when the clock strikes midnight, he will be picked up and taken away to the 1920s. While there he meets Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, Man Ray and Picasso who is currently dating Adriana (Marian Cotillard), a French beauty who quickly becomes the star in Gil’s eye. She is initially taken by passages of his novel and dreams of getting out of the dreary 20s and escaping back further into the past herself. She dreams of escaping to a golden era where everything was better

What this amounts to is one of Woody Allen's more quiet, tender and lovely films. In the same vein as Sweet & Lowdown, Midnight in Paris remembers fondly a time in the past when great art and literature were created by a commune of great minds coming together. It then ultimately comes to the tender realization that to pine for the past is not enough. One must pay homage to it in order to keep it alive while still finding beauty and poetry in the present to keep the tradition moving forward.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crowne

Believe it or not Larry Crowne was the movie I most looked forward to in the summer of 2011. Having read numerous scripts over my past several years as a paid script reader many of them just sort of blend together. Some I remember bits and pieces of; some I remember the concept or the title or who is supposed to star; but some, for all I know, will never come out, and if they do, I missed the memo. Sometimes I will be watching a trailer and the urge will sneak over me that hey, I think I read this.

Such is the script reading business. Not that it matters. For one, it helps to have a fresh perspective when the actual film comes out and for second, don't movies themselves, after a certain point of consumption, take on this characteristic as well?

To get to the point, Larry Crowne was one of the few scripts that stayed with me. I read it and loved it, praised it with recommendations and eagerly anticipated its release. On the page it was magical. It reminded me of the warmth and loveliness of Tom Hanks in Spielberg's hugely underrated The Terminal. It was about the most rare of all leading men: a nice guy.

When I was finished reading the script I just felt good. It is was a nice movie about nice people. Movies aren't very often nice anymore. I felt it was exactly what Hollywood in 2011 needed: a star vehicle with no huge plot points, no gimmicks and nothing but charisma and charm.

And then the reviews rolled in. Larry Crowne now, two weeks into its release sits at 35% on Rotten Tomatoes. Some of the top critics liked it (David Edelstein, James Berandinelli) but the vast majority waved their hands in front of their noses. It was, in a small way, sort of crushing. Even worse, Kid in the Front Row, who was also buzzing about it before it's release, weighed in with equal distaste. What happened?

So here's the question: does one go and see Larry Crowne and hope for the best? Do I sit and hope that the critics just couldn't see the magic that was so prevalent in the script, with the chance of being horribly disappointed, or do I stay away and keep my memory of Larry Crowne as being one of the nicest scripts I've ever read?

I'll see it of course but the question raised is an interesting one. Should a film be judged based on it's finished product or can it's value exist in the memories we create around it? Should a finished film wreck a good script or a good trailer or even a good song or is it possible to leave the filmic experience behind and just keep what was so appealing to us in the first place?

If I don't see Larry Crowne, it will be, for all I know, a great movie. If I hadn't went on to see some movies they would have remained great simply based on what their trailers offered. But is this enough? Is the final film the total package from which all is judged against or is it just one small step along in the entire personal process of shaping a positive memory about a single work?