Friday, July 29, 2011

Planet of the Apes

Torpid action-adventure, toothless satire, generic science fiction, take your pick—Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes aspires to all manner of mediocrity. Never really a master of the lunk-headed blockbuster, Burton is far from his strengths here, resulting in one of the most flat and hackneyed films this eccentric stylist has yet produced. But it’s hard to imagine any director coming up with much better based on such a slapdash script. Narrative logic has never been the purview of this franchise, but even for a movie with talking apes and time travel this is pretty incoherent stuff. The best you can hope for is some trace of anarchic gusto (see: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), but all you get are the clichés and tepid ironies that killed this series in the first place (see: Battle for the Planet of the Apes). Charleton Heston even appears briefly as a dying ape patriarch, which only reminds viewers of how uninspiring this rehash is compared to the loopy original (and didn’t he blow up the Earth in the second Ape movie just so he could get out of making these things anyway? Damn you! Damn you all, etc.). At least the original films had the Cold War and impending nuclear death to give some shape to their satire; like most modern blockbusters, this film’s vision only comes into focus when its eyes are locked on your wallet.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

After the ill-advised detour into avant-garde abstraction that was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Michael Bay has decided to return to what he knows: guns, cars, and the poetry of the female form in its more malnourished state. Cobbler, stick to thy last.

The early scenes in Transformers: Dark of the Moon even resemble something almost like entertainment. Bay begins his latest trip to the toy box with a zippy burlesque of the space race, suggesting that America travelled to the moon to explore a crashed Autobot ship containing a wizened robot called Sentinel Prime, as well as some sort of spacebridge that could bring about the end of the world (as per usual). It’s still fairly stupid, mind you, but there’s a certain charm to this children’s matinee version of conspiracy theory paranoia. If nothing else, it’s a welcome break from the more tedious garden-variety stupidity that otherwise characterizes these films. Still, a familiar sinking feeling sets in by the time Optimus Prime, our hero, is saluted by Buzz Aldrin, appearing here in a cameo that suggests the astronaut pension plan must be in a pretty lousy state these days. Yes, it’s time for another two-plus hour epic of explosions interrupted only by broad, failed swipes at comedy and sonorous military speeches from a kid’s toy. Brace yourselves.

The cast is sadly more or less the same as previous films, once again headed up by eternally shrieking man-child Shia LaBeouf as Sam Witwicky. He’s supported by the usual mix of generic second-rate action heroes (Josh Duhammel, Tyrese Gibson) and slumming character actors most likely looking for a bit of street-cred with their teenage offspring (Frances McDormand, Johns Turturro and Malkovich). The one exception is Megan Fox, who was kicked out of the party during one of Herr Bay’s purges and whose career now bears the tragic distinction of having peaked with the second Transformers movie.

However, model Rosie Huntington-Whitely, making her first acting performance here as Fox’s replacement, unfailingly performs the function of an archetypal Michael Bay heroine, which is to say she’s capable of running through a war zone in four-inch heels. To her credit (or perhaps to everyone else’s demerit), she’s no discernibly better or worse than any of the experienced actors that surround her. Presumably, she also did not sass Bay whenever he would film her butt, so I guess we should applaud her professionalism or whatever you want to call it.

So: objectified women? Check. Anthropomorphic objects? Check. Human beings? Um…better start digging, because if there are any, they’re probably buried under several tonnes of CGI rubble and the air is getting thin. One of the more surreal qualities of a Michael Bay film is the way he injects bursts of emotion—explosions of sentimentality as random and jarring as the more traditional pyrotechnics—into an environment completely hostile to all human feeling. Aside from the expected dull inspirational speeches (“You may lose faith in us, but never in yourselves.” Uh, what?), this also means you’ll be routinely baffled by why any of these people should care about each other.

One particularly confusing instance comes with the random reappearance of Epps (Gibson), a minor, undeveloped character from the previous film that apparently has some sort of deep bond with Sam. Did they even talk in the last movie? Was all the male bonding implied? Did I just miss it? Was it somewhere behind the explosions, where we couldn’t see it? I started to wonder if the two actors were maybe confusing off-camera camaraderie with the on-screen relationship between their characters. I’m sure there must have been plenty of bonding time during the last movie while they waited at the craft service table as Bay tried to explain to Megan Fox the correct way to arch her back. Otherwise, I can’t see why the pair should be acting like old friends.

It’s a small sin, I suppose. None of this makes much sense, although the movie is clearly more coherent than its predecessor, even with its disjointed editing and countless useless little scenes that come from—and quickly return to—nowhere. But the core of the film is still pure incomprehensible gibberish, a mass of sci-fi clichés welded together with discarded auto parts. Apparently the Decepticons want to enslave the human race. I see several noteworthy flaws in the logic of the magical evil spacebots. Allow me to elucidate. First, they spend an inordinate amount of time vapourizing their coveted labour resource, which is never good business. Second, why would a race of giant, super-powerful robots with technology advanced far beyond ours need the primitive, puny, comparably weaker human race as slaves? Based purely on a size-ratio comparison alone, this is akin to humans enslaving mice. Now, I imagine with a bit of fortitude and ingenuity and maybe a few decades of work you could train a giant slave army of mice to, say, clean your toilet. Or you could simply do it yourself, which would take about one minute, or a little longer if you need to let it soak. What I’m saying is, just how lazy are these Decepticons? And exactly how credulous do we have to be to enjoy this nonsense?

But perhaps I’m being unfair. For all his notable failings here, Bay has actually shown marked improvement over Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Certainly, this movie is much less racist than its predecessor. The rather unfortunate robotic minstrel sideshow in the previous movie has given way to broader, more socially acceptable—if no less annoying—forms of comic relief. On the other hand, progress is a relative thing, considering this movie still refers to the Middle East as if it were a single country (you know, it’s the one filled with all the swarthy people who hate FREEDOM). And Bay seems to be working towards a clumsy form of narrative economy—perhaps intended to combat the bloated two and a half hour running time—by simply having minor characters say, “We’re dead,” thus sparing us the obligatory slow-motion tornado of junkyard scrap as they actually die.

What can I say? In something as regressive as this movie, you take your signs of progress where you can. Everything that happens feels like a salve for the wounded ego of an entitled post-adolescent male, here represented by Sam. Sure, he’s an unemployed, self-pitying schlub, but he deserves everything and more: the supermodel girlfriend with an inexplicably huge house, the best car, the respect and admiration of the entire world, you name it (see, Sam saved the world twice, and now he has to work an entry-level job right out of college, oh the humanity). When the Decepticons are about to execute Bumblebee, Sam’s Autobot buddy, the film displays what might be its one genuine flicker of emotion. How sad to think it comes when someone is faced with the prospect of losing his first car.

Are we seriously supposed to be moved by the petty insecurities of the privileged and the powerful? Look, I know everyone has their problems, and I don’t want to disparage the emotional suffering of anyone. But it’s hard to feel much empathy when it all comes couched in the crass objectification of women, tinged with homophobia—I didn’t even mention the mincing gay superspy—and filtered through a generally narrow-minded, hateful worldview (see previous paragraphs for the assembled evidence). Still, with a total of over $800 million in worldwide box office so far, Transformers: Dark of the Moon seems to be providing some kind of comfort for countless poor, suffering souls out there. Perhaps all they need is a kind voice to reassure them that they, like Sam, are indeed special and wonderful. And also, apparently, that Arabs are evil, homosexuals are gross, and women are fuck-holes. Sentinel Prime—thoughtful fellow, he—sums up the situation quite well: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” And then he blows up Chicago.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Small Soldiers

In 1998, the movie-going populace could easily be divided with one simple question: Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line? But there was always only one right answer, and that’s Small Soldiers. Joe Dante’s cutting satire shows up the hollow platitudes of its more prestigious war-movie brethren, all while conveying the simple joys of blowing shit up. As always, Dante is such an energetic entertainer that you sometimes forget he’s almost a better media critic than he is filmmaker (and he happens to be a very good filmmaker).

War becomes child’s play when a toy manufacturer unthinkingly installs some high-grade military tech into a new line of don’t-call-it-violence-call-it-action figures. These square-jawed grunts—known as the Commando Elite—are ostensibly heroes bent on hunting down the monstrous Gorgonites, a peaceful group that just wants to return to its homeland. These being little lumps of plastic, none of this should matter, but the military intelligence powering the toys also allows the commandos to learn and adapt. They grow more resourceful and increasingly vicious in their pursuit of the “Gorgonite scum.” When Alan, whose father runs a small toy store, gets his hands on an early shipment, he unwittingly unleashes a war on his own sleepy neighbourhood.

Actually, not just a war—Dante’s weird, wonderful comic imagination also runs amuck over this little suburb, spitting out all manner of wonky delights. Pop-culture references need not be dull, as a film like this proves. Every knowing reference comes wrapped in a layer of sardonic commentary. The score, for instance, cleverly parodies 1980s action movies by reworking the tune of “When Johnny Come Marching Home” with macho guitar-and-synth posturing. One of the film’s most indelible set-pieces is a double-tribute to Bride of Frankenstein and Gulliver’s Travels in which an armada of deranged, deformed dolls are brought to life, spouting cheery quips like “All my makeup is cruelty free” while threatening tied-up teenagers with nail files. Fever dream doesn’t begin to do justice to this stuff—it’s more like what you might dream up after snorting coke off the belly of a Barbie.

For all the goofy pleasures to be found here, there’s also something powerfully unnerving in the way Small Soldiers merges war movies with children’s entertainment. No one here wants to be a fun-killing scold and shield children from anything remotely upsetting—least of all Dante, I’m sure, whose films have always been happy exhibits of cartoon mayhem—but just what does this constant exposure to war iconography do to a child? For that matter, what does it do to the rest of us? Nothing makes the military-industrial complex quite so easy to swallow as a Burger King collectible cup. As we grow up steeped in images of war, the very idea of bloodshed loses something of its fundamental horror. What does the much-vaunted realism of a film like Saving Private Ryan matter in a world where real images of war are always at our fingertips? Only a stylized version of war, such as what Dante offers here, still maintains the power to upset and disturb. When reality ceases to shock, fantasy becomes the only way back into the world.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is pompous, self-indulgent, much too fond of its own flakey bullshit mysticism, not fond enough of coherent thought, and quite possibly the best film to be released this year. Terrence Malick gets full marks for ambition, even if he has to take a few deductions for the windy ending and bloated beginning of his cosmic memoir. But the film’s middle section, a tour de force that recounts the childhood of Jack, the eldest of three brothers, is one of the most lyrical evocations of adolescence yet to make it onto the screen. Just look at the montage of Jack’s earliest years, which turns the years to minutes and exemplifies the potent mix of nostalgia and dread that makes this film so hard to shake. Seen largely from the child’s perspective, images rush by: two sets of hands floating in a mirror, a man collapsing into seizure on the front lawn, light refracted through a mobile forming a dancing ghost on the wall. The whole world seems mysterious, terrifying and deeply wonderful. Malick, as ever, makes one very grateful for the simple pleasures of seeing.

Equally true to form, Malick also makes one much more ambivalent about the act of hearing. While the use of classical music is well suited to the material, the voiceovers remain ponderously poetic, pricking holes in the corner of scenes and slowly sucking the air out. Let the moments breathe, please. They’re so fragile they need all the oxygen they can get. Then, when the film finally screams out for some sort of context, the voiceovers fail us, and we are left drifting through Malick's subconscious doodlings with nary a whispered epigram for guidance. Suddenly, this humble family drama is tied to all history, including the birth of the universe, the creation of life, and two dinosaurs attempting to reenact “The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac” on a riverbed in the Mesozoic.

The juxtaposition of the grandness of all time with the smallness of our memories, the unity of all life into one great tapestry of pain and forgiveness: well, that’s just got to be more fun than Green Lantern, but does it actually hold together? Not quite, which makes this film as frustrating as it is pleasurable. Malick has set out to do nothing less than make a film capable of holding the entire universe. Unsurprisingly, he comes up a little short (I think he missed Pluto, understandably considering how tiny it is, all tucked away back there). Still, in these dire movie-going months, when so many big-budget beasts are too bloated and lazy to leap even the lowest hurdle to achieve mere mediocrity, there’s something noble in a film that sets the bar so high it can’t help but fail to ever jump over it. May we all fail so splendidly in our endeavours.