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Entries in transformers (5)

Friday
Mar132015

Run All Night

Liam Neeson shooting people. If that sounds like a familiar premise for a film, it’s for good reason. Over the last seven years, ever since Neeson surprised everyone with his transition into action territory with “Taken,” it seems to be the only type of movie the once respected actor has made. A man who was once nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “Schindler’s List” has since built a generic filmography that makes him more or less a walking joke. Seemingly every film, from “Taken” to last year’s “Non-Stop” follows the same at-this-point worn-down formula, with each film becoming more of a slog than the last. “Run All Night” could be the worst one yet, as it simply goes through the motions without doing much of anything particularly interesting.

Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a mobster who finds himself in a precarious situation with his boss after, through some of the most contrived circumstances I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture, he ends up shooting his son. Once friends, that boss, played by Ed Harris, is now an enemy and plans on making him feel the same hurt by taking his own son, Mike, played by Joel Kinnaman, away from him. Naturally, Jimmy will do anything to prevent that from happening, which leads to one long night of shootouts and chases.

And I mean loooong night. Not since last year’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” has a movie been so unnecessarily long in relation to the complexity, or lack thereof, of its story. Thankfully, “Run All Night” isn’t quite as long as that movie, as it clocks in at roughly two hours, but it feels about the same. Characterization and emotion is minimal, though the film tries to create some of both with amateur screenplay tactics—Mike is estranged from Jimmy, meaning he has never met his own grandkids, all the while he’s freezing in his home because the poor guy can’t afford to fix his heater, etc.—so there’s very little grab onto here. In fact, it’s one of those rare films where I was actually rooting for the supposed “good guy” to lose.

You see, despite attempts to make Jimmy a likable character, his introduction shows him as the boorish pig he is, as he dresses up as Santa, gets drunk, treats the kids around him poorly and then proceeds to speak to an attractive woman in what can only be described as sexually abusive language. The introduction to this character is so bad that it leaves a lasting impression that later acts of goodwill fail to reverse, though even if it did, a late film reveal shows the true cowardice and selfishness of his personality.

Meanwhile, his boss, Shawn, shows empathy and even a tinge of regret. When he turns down a business deal with a local drug dealer trying to peddle heroine, he explains it’s because when he did something similar in his younger, more naïve days, it led to too much hardship, as those he loved became hooked on it and he lost them all. He’s still a bad guy, of course, and has most certainly done or ordered people to do worse things than Jimmy, but the film, perhaps unintentionally, paints him in a better light than the supposed hero.

Simply put, “Run All Night” has everything backwards and its tepid action does little to hide that fact. Its action is accompanied by few truly heart racing moments and lots of far-too-dark cinematography, occasionally aggressive close-ups and shaky cam and shot reverse shot shootouts. It feels very much like action filmmaking 101, like what an amateur filmmaker without the experience to truly know what he or she is doing would produce if given millions of dollars to toy with.

Run All Night receives 1/5

Friday
Jun272014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

As I walked into my screening for the latest Michael Bay explosion-fest, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” a giant standup poster greeted me, touting my upcoming experience as the first film shot with the IMAX 3D Digital Camera, which means that sequences shot with it are presented in an IMAX aspect ratio that gives around 26% more image than the standard aspect ratio you would get in a normal movie theater. This is such a big selling point that even the actual film itself was preceded by a short behind-the-scenes look of shooting with the camera. It’s an interesting nugget of information for film enthusiasts and provides some exciting possibilities for future filmmakers, but it must be said: more than a new camera is needed to fix the “Transformers” franchise. A lot more.

The “Transformers” movies have always relished on the absurd. They typically take a small amount of time to set up what some might consider a story (thin though they may be) to give what follows some context, and if you’ve seen one, you know what follows is action, action and more action. The movies feel like something a 10 year old would dream up if given a camera and $200 million to play with. Appropriately, a poster with a quote from Albert Einstein on it appears early on in “Age of Extinction.” “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” it says. This quote is a fitting description of Bay’s talent: he has plenty of imagination, but, aside from an uncanny ability to film destruction, no filmmaking knowledge.

Evidence of this comes in the way he directs his actors. This time, Bay replaces Shia LaBeouf with Mark Wahlberg, a recent Oscar nominee, but the result is the same. His performance, along with the majority of the rest of the cast, is wooden. Only Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammar put forth a modicum of effort, likely because their talent and veteran statuses require less input from a director to be effective, but the former is given horrendous dialogue and a narrative arc that makes zero sense while the latter plays the most cliché government villain character you can imagine. The two are in cahoots, naturally, with Tucci’s character being the business mogul responsible for engineering a man-made Transformer (and if the movies have taught us anything, it’s that playing God is a bad idea) and Grammar’s CIA Black Ops character finding and killing all Autobots to give Tucci the transformium elements he needs (which is only a slightly better element name than the unobtainable unobtainium from “Avatar”). Their plan that creates the central story has something to do with building a Transformer army to protect US citizens, but let’s be honest, what does it matter?

Frankly, the story itself hardly even exists, as it comes off more like a dialogue dump than anything else. I haven’t seen a film with so much expositional dialogue in a movie with such a meaningless story in a long time. It’s one of those films where characters will ask a question about what’s going on, only for another character to go on a five minute monologue explaining every plot element up to that point. In a very real sense, “Age of Extinction” feels like it’s written by a first time screenwriter, someone who has no idea how to craft believable situations or dialogue. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given that it was written by Ehren Kruger, the man responsible for the worst “Scream” entry and the messes that are “The Brothers Grimm,” “The Skeleton Key” and the previous two “Transformers” movies. His writing combines with Bay’s underwhelming direction to create a film that has no flow and is thematically and narratively empty.

The best example comes with Wahlberg’s character’s poorly developed relationship with his daughter, Tessa, played by Nicola Peltz. Primarily, this is due to the fact that she, despite being only 17 in the movie, exists solely as eye candy and as a means to be abducted and saved like the helpless woman she was written to be, the Princess Peach to Wahlberg’s Mario. The movie forces in some single father shtick, like when he complains that her shorts are too short, but it never comes off as authentic (and he certainly doesn’t make her change those shorts, as that would ruin the upcoming close-up butt shot the young actress was cast in the movie for). The other characters don’t fare so well either, with the minor ones being too underdeveloped or too annoying to be interesting (“Thank God” a fellow critic whispered in my ear after one of the more grating characters bit the dust).

If there’s one thing Michael Bay knows (and if his past filmography is any indication, it is indeed only one thing), it’s action, but even that is a bit of a letdown here. After three previous movies, each one more bombastic than the last, with the third installment upping the stakes as the end of the trilogy, this feels light in comparison and is sporting a very evident “been there, done that” feel. Only the Dinobots offer up any excitement, but they show up so late in the film’s exhausting two hour and 45 minute runtime that they still fail to make much of an impression, no doubt due to the fact that you will likely be so worn down by the endless slog that came before. Characterization here is the thinnest this franchise has ever seen, believe it or not, so the vapid action is inconsequential, as there’s approximately zero reasons to care if any of these characters succumb to the destruction around them.

If that isn’t enough, “Age of Extinction” has some of the most shameless product placement in a movie since “Talladega Nights,” but at least the product placement fit into the context of that movie. Here, you’ll get nice, clean close-ups of Oreos, Beats by Dre speakers, Gucci sunglasses, Bud Light cans (one of which Wahlberg violently cracks open and chugs after slamming into and destroying one of its transportation vehicles) and even a plug for Victoria’s Secret, which is featured prominently on a bus that is completely destroyed, except for the front where the logo is, of course. I wonder if Bay thought us dumb enough to not notice these things. More likely, the incompetency with which this train wreck was put together was simply creating to its own level; “Texas, USA” flashes onscreen at one point to set the location, as if the country designator was necessary.

At 90 minutes, Bay’s brand of mindless, plotless action may be tolerable, but “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is nearly double that length, an absurd 165 minutes, the longest entry in a franchise already known for being a bloated, meandering mess. This is the second worst of the films, rising only slightly above 2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen” if only due to the fact that at least this one (arguably) isn’t racist. That’s faint praise, to be sure, but I must admit, when watching a “Transformers” movie, it’s not easy finding the high points.

Transformers: Age of Extinction receives 0.5/5

Thursday
Jun052014

Edge of Tomorrow

Last year’s “Oblivion” was one of the most underrated movies of the year and one of the most thought provoking science fiction movies in some time. While most science fiction films these days rely on explosive action (“Transformers”) or pseudo-philosophy (“Transcendence”), “Oblivion” had something interesting to say. Although it relied on some narrative genre tropes, it used those tropes to explore its themes in interesting ways. Tom Cruise’s newest science fiction film, “Edge of Tomorrow,” is the exact opposite. It has a cool story with some neat ideas, but the narrative doesn’t have any meaningful thematic context behind it. It’s still a stylish and entertaining movie, but it’s missing much of what makes the science fiction genre so interesting.

Cruise plays Major Cage, a media relations expert working for the military during the war against the Mimics, an alien race that arrived in Europe a few years back via meteor. Over the years, they have advanced across the continent and, with human resistance having little success, show no signs of stopping. Cage, despite not being a solider, is ordered onto the front line during an upcoming battle, one that could have devastating consequences for the human race if lost. While out there, he kills an “alpha,” one of the alien race’s leaders. Shortly after, he too perishes, but mysteriously wakes up in the previous day and finds himself reliving it all over again. Only one person knows what he’s going through, the Angel of Verdun herself, Rita (Emily Blunt), and with his help, she plans on stopping the Mimic invasion once and for all.

“Edge of Tomorrow” starts out on a low note. It introduces its story in a silly manner, complete with corny jokes that nearly all land with a thud and its characters come off as clichés, particularly Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton), who spouts off about the glories of war in a typical Southern accent. It even manages to treat the horrors of war and the sadness of death with a (perhaps unintended) humorous tone that makes you wonder just what in the world the filmmakers were thinking. When one soldier screams in joy at finally being on the battlefield, only to immediately get crushed by a crashing drop ship, there’s no other reaction to have but to laugh.

When the film does treat its characters like actual human beings and tries to wring some real emotion out of what they’re going through, it hardly resonates due to the nature of the story. The most glaring example comes when Rita dies in Cage’s arms, only for the day to be reset as Cage dies immediately after. Because of this, much of the action, which is already hard to watch due to excessive shaky cam, far too tight camera angles and quick movements of the aliens, has no real tension. Nothing is really at stake. We know that when they die, they will simply revert back to the previous day with superior knowledge that will allow them to not make the same mistake next time. With no real danger, there’s little to invest in.

“Edge of Tomorrow” still has a pretty neat story, even if it is just “Groundhog Day” with aliens, and its central character is interesting because he uses brain over brawn; he doesn’t find victory because he’s a battle hardened killing machine, but rather because he’s able to memorize and adapt to the aliens’ attacks through trial and error, that is until the last act at least, which abandons this different approach and transitions Cage into yet another indestructible action hero. But science fiction is interesting not simply because of its story or its characters, but rather from the way it uses them to tap into some deeper meaning. “Edge of Tomorrow,” while admittedly entertaining, is too thematically thin to be much more than a mild diversion.

Edge of Tomorrow receives 2.5/5

Friday
Jul122013

Pacific Rim

Much hullabaloo has been made about Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim.” You have two groups of people: those who are excited for it and those who think it looks like a glossed up “Transformers.” While the former staunchly defend the director (as they should given his track record of quality), can they really blame the latter? It’s hard to deny that the trailers, almost all of which focused on the action heavy sequences, were making a correlation between the two and reaching for that demographic. The good news is that this is no “Transformers.” Its approach to similar material is markedly different, both in tone, style and storytelling. It’s nothing particularly amazing and it’s certainly not one of del Toro’s best, but it’s well made, gorgeous and it has some truly terrific action.

In the near future, humanity is at war, but not amongst ourselves. Whatever petty problems we had before ended when we were one day invaded by a giant creature we eventually dubbed the Kaiju. At some point, a fissure between two tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean opened a portal between two dimensions, allowing these beasts to come and wreak havoc. In response, humanity built giant robots to fight them. These machines, called Jaegers, are controlled by two pilots who link their brains together to become one. However, the world governments are phasing out the Jaeger program because it is quickly becoming clear that as the attacks become more frequent, we’re unable to keep up. Their plan is to build a giant wall, which quickly proves to be futile. In the meantime, the military, led by Stacker (Idris Elba), changes their categorization into a resistance and plans to hold them back for as long as possible, eventually concocting a plan that could end the war for good.

The first thing one notices when watching “Pacific Rim” is its surprising focus on its characters. Contrary to something like the aforementioned “Transformers” movies, which were less interested in story and more in making things go boom, the film crafts its narrative around the people. The trailers may indicate otherwise, but there’s more story here than action. Unfortunately, the story is relatively uninteresting, mostly traditional and filled to the brim with action movie clichés like the late movie motivational speech and the celebratory crowd welcoming a hero home after a big victory. These moments do little to complement a movie that is already struggling for conflict, seen most noticeably by the forced human quarrels between bickering pilots, one blaming the other for their current predicament. All of these moments are supposed to build these characters and give us a reason to invest ourselves in them and their plight, but they are perfunctory at best and don’t do a particularly good job bridging the action scenes together.

But in the moment, those action scenes will make you forget all that. Guillermo del Toro does a magnificent job of portraying the scope of what’s happening, slyly placing objects in the foreground to contrast between the hulking monstrosities in the background, toying with our perspective and giving us a true idea of how massive these things are. When one of the creatures or machines go flying through the air towards a major city, we know this isn’t going to be like Iron Man falling out of the sky and taking out a previously well-constructed block of road; it’s going to result in catastrophic damage and lives lost. The seriousness of what’s happening is rarely lost on the viewer (aside from the comic relief scientist played by Charlie Day, who is horribly miscast here). In particular, the terrific finale and a nail biting sequence that takes place, no joke, on the edge of space, are mind-blowing. With a score that complements its scope, “Pacific Rim” gives off the feeling of a truly epic Hollywood blockbuster.

The reason these action scenes work as well as they do is due to a calm editing style that isn’t reliant on frenzied cuts to manufacture a sense of excitement. They’re occasionally bogged down by some unnecessary zooms, nighttime darkness and lens flares brought on by nearby bright city lights, all of which make what happens a tad hard to see, but for the most part, they stand as an excellent example of how action should be filmed and presented.

Unfortunately, it all comes back to those characters, all of whom are flatly written and blandly portrayed. For example, Charlie Hunnam, who plays our protagonist, Raleigh, speaks in a whispered dramatic tone full of sentiments and recollections, but he can’t properly convey the required emotion needed for the role. The opening sequence shows the loss of his brother in combat, whom he was mind-melded with at the time, so the memory of his death, all of his brother’s feelings and fears, are trapped in his head, but you wouldn’t know it based on his performance. He basically walks around and scowls for two hours and then the movie ends.

With all that said and with all those problems, including characters that are focused on, yet are still uninteresting, “Pacific Rim” still manages to work, mostly due to the wonderful Guillermo del Toro and a surprisingly effective use of 3D. It really is striking to see the size of the creatures off in the distance in relation to a helicopter up close, making that otherwise impressive flying machine look like a child’s play toy, and the 3D really helps accentuate that. Despite the majority of its pre-release hype being undeserving, “Pacific Rim” is a fun, if a bit shallow, time at the movies.

Pacific Rim receives 3.5/5

Tuesday
Jun282011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Aside from the horribly inept, yet inexplicably popular, 1999 action movie, The Boondock Saints, Michael Bay’s first Transformers film is hands down the most overrated “guy” picture out there. If my experiences are any indication, men from all corners of the country hold that film up as an example of how action films should be, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why. It’s loud, overblown, overlong and convoluted, among other things. It may not match the abomination that is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (which made my worst of the year list back in 2009), but it’s still a decidedly bad movie. It appears the third time’s the charm, however, for director Michael Bay. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is easily the best film yet in the series and although it’s far from amazing, it rectifies many of the previous films’ shortcomings, making it one of the most pleasant, if ultimately unfulfilling, surprises of the year.

The film begins with a history lesson, but it’s a little different than what you learned in school. After being informed by American scientists that something of mysterious origins has crash landed on the moon, President Kennedy gives his famous 1961 speech promising to take a man to the moon and back safely. The catch is that the mission is to investigate the crash site, where Buzz Aldrin and company find an alien spacecraft from the planet Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers, carrying cargo of unknown capabilities. Meanwhile, in present time, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is living in Washington, DC with his new girlfriend, Carly (Victoria’s Secret supermodel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), and can’t find a job, despite saving the world twice and receiving a medal from President Obama. He soon finds out that his unemployment is the least of his problems, though, when the Decepticons find the cargo on the moon and threaten to use it to destroy Earth.

Based on that plot synopsis, it would be easy to conclude that the story here is just as inconsequential as they were in the previous two films, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s still rather ridiculous (as is the whole concept of alien robots from outer space, in fact), but it works here for one reason: Bay takes the time to develop it. For about an hour and a half, Dark of the Moon does a decent job of building its characters and allowing the story to flow naturally through dialogue. The romance between Sam and Carly, mercifully replacing the Megan Fox character from the first two films, is delicately handled and genuine. Huntington-Whiteley is a beautiful young woman with a surprising amount charm and comes off like a natural acting opposite the always amusing LaBeouf. Thanks to this, their chemistry rings true, which makes the later scenes of peril that much more tense because you’ll have invested so much in their relationship together.

There is some good humor too, much of which stems from their relationship and Sam’s jealousy towards Carly’s flirtatious boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), but Transformers: Dark of the Moon is nevertheless a darker film than its predecessors. I hesitate to call it a more mature film, however, because cinematic maturity comes with favoring story over explosions, but after that initial hour and a half, it devolves into another mind-numbing action picture. Like most Michael Bay movies, it begins to resemble something similar to what a 13 year old boy would do if given a camera and $200 million to play with. The story hits a standstill, the characters stop developing and the promising set-up is undermined by flavorless stupidity. It’s like Bay shot the movie in order, eventually got bored with all the talking and decided it was about time to blow stuff up. One of my chief criticisms of the original film was that the final action scene, as impressive as it was, went on for far too long, an exhausting 45 minutes. Well, in Dark of the Moon, the final action scene hits closer to the hour mark. Bay is a master at staging these types of scenes, there’s little doubt about that, but he needs someone to tell him when enough is enough. His refusal to edit them down to a manageable length does nothing but weaken an otherwise impressive finale.

What makes Transformers: Dark of the Moon still work in spite of those stumbles is that the events leading up to the mindless action are better handled. Although it still suffers from some of the same problems that plagued the previous films, many of them are fixed. There are no more offensive, stereotypical Transformers, no wrecking ball testicles, no small robots humping anyone’s legs and the acting is all around better thanks to a terrific supporting cast that includes veteran Frances McDormand, the personable Alan Tudyk and John Malkovich in a delightfully off-kilter role.

Of course, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is just as shallow and empty-headed as its older brothers, but it’s competently handled and more coherent. And given the track record of this franchise, that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon receives 3/5