Friday, June 27, 2014

BABES, BOOMS, BOOZE, ‘BOTS…BOREDOM. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” Edges The Franchise Closer To It.

Within the first ten minutes of Michael Bay’s Transfomers: Age of Extinction, an ancillary character says something to the effect of “sequels and reboots are all a bunch of crap”; a metatextual line of acknowledgement that, in Michael Bay’s hands, can either be taken as a challenge to belie the statement or as serve a “f*** you” to the audience as he’s about to fling it at you like a pissed off caged monkey. The film, and I term it loosely, is more latter than former.

Taking place five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), the Transformers, both Autobot and Deceptacon, are deemed unwanted aliens and are systematically hunted down by a government agency run by rogue CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), with the help of an alien robotic force led by an entity called “Lockdown” (Mark Ryan), whose mission is to find the gone-missing Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). In the meantime, a down-on-his-luck, single father inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), discovers Prime's remains and finds himself, his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), and her race car boyfriend Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor) drawn into events that involve…

…remember that analogy about monkeys above? Well, that’s kind of what the plot feels like. After the relatively poor performance of the previous installment (in comparison to the first two that preceded it), there was a need to up the ante on this one.  While Ehren Kruger is credited with writing the film, the narrative is so disjointed it barely holds itself together as such.  It’s as if someone took a monkey, gave it poo with plot ideas written on them, flung it against the wall, and saw what stuck which, given what’s packed in the overlong running time, seems like everything. That’s the whole tragedy in this film.

One of the major rules of storytelling (never introduce an element if it is not intended to be used, a rule especially espoused by Alfred Hitchcock) is violated many times. There are some really good ideas (one of which never before explored in the entirety of the “Transformer” mythology), which are built up without any payoff, playing more as a“wouldn’t this be cool if…” pastiche than an actual cohesive, linear story line. 

Directing actors have never been Bay’s strong suit, but at least in his previous films his characters had a sense, however thin, of consistency. In Extinction, character motivations change at a moment’s notice to a simian-head-scratching degree. Mark Wahlberg would be a welcome addition to the franchise solely for the fact that he’s NOT Shia LeBeouf, but he earns his place as he is certainly the most enthusiastic and sympathetic member of any Transformers film. His character is the anchor for the human point of reference; despite being a gifted tinker, his inventions never work and he is due to lose his home. The only other human performance worthy of note is John Turturro stand-in Stanley Tucci as a blatant Steve Jobs rip-off who is out to destroy the Transformers for his own purposes.  His character is completely disjointed, but at least his over-the-top histrionics make for entertaining fare. The rest of the cast are nothing more than the usual Michael Bay stock cut outs (the "hot girl", the "rebel boyfriend", the "homicidal muscle", etc.) that do their jobs adequately for the purposes of what passes for a film. The CGI is perhaps the best this series has seen, despite some weaknesses in translation to 3D.  However, I can honestly say that for the first time in a Transformers movie I could identify which robot was fighting whom with each ‘bot having a look as distinctive as their personality.

However, this is a Michael Bay party, and he’s brought his usual testosterone-jacked bag of tricks:  Ascending point-of-view car exits, babes in short shorts that would make Catherine Bach blush, sssslllloooooowwww-moooooooo, hardware (military and otherwise), booze, Steve Jablonsky’s staccato military rhythms, product placement galore, and the boom, Boom, BOOM! But much like the lens flare in a J.J. Abrams Star Trek production, the elements are so overdone here Extinction comes across as a Michael Bay parody; some moments so obviously pandering that they are groan-inducing caricature. The movie could have been significantly improved if Bay hadn’t seemingly fired his editor as the action sequences go so long that by the time the “money shots” are arrived at, one is either past caring or just relieved that it’s finally over. More and more is thrown into the ramped up battle scenes, with John Goodman’s “Hound”, Ken Watanabe’s “Drift”, John DiMaggio’s “Crosshairs” and Robert Foxworth’s “Ratchet” reminding us that this movie ostensibly about "robots in disguise" is really a study in machismo excess (everybody’s running around chasing a “seed”…yeeeeaaaah….); not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it weren’t so disjointedly blatant. As far as I’m concerned, so long as Peter Cullen continues to voice Optimus the character itself can do no wrong. But even actor and character are slaves to the story. By the time Optimus gets to his own “money shot” of riding the Dinobot “Grimlock”, the movie has gone so far off the rails for so long the viewer is left too confused about the shenanigans to care. Situations, motivations, and locations all jump around to such a leap frog extent that it feels like someone tried to condense all six Star Wars films into a two hour plus running time. When one says that an episode of the original Transformers (1984) cartoon was better executed in story and presentation than a big-budgeted, big screen adaptation, there’s a problem.

All in all, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a poorly designed robot; some parts work, others are mismatched and grind like nails on chalkboard. The sad fact is it really is like visiting monkeys at the zoo.  The cute monkey will fling the poo at you with disdain, but the audience will still shell out the money to watch without realizing they’re essentially paying for the privilege of being shat on.

Monday, June 9, 2014

MALEFICENT IS LESS THAN MAGNIFICENT: Angelina Jolie's Performance Saves The Film From Crashing Down Upon Its Revisionist Foundations [MINOR SPOILERS]


Put succinctly, Maleficent is Disney’s Man of Steel.
 
That’s not necessarily a good thing.
 
The most curious aspect about the release of Disney’s live action feature Maleficent, directed by first time director Robert Stromberg and starring Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones with supporting assist by Angelina Jolie, is the missed opportunity of rereleasing 1959’s Sleeping Beauty on DVD. Upon viewing the movie, it is crystal clear why the action did not take place.  Clearly, Disney has jumped upon the revisionist bandwagon to such an extent that it has employed that most insulting and lazy of fictional tropes: Everything you know is WRONG.
 
Given the Maleficent’s character design (as well as that of the castle) and the fact the film carries the distinction of being Disney, there’s a reasonable inference that the film was to tell the story of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s point of view.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The studio subverts its own 1959 animated presentation to such an extent it is barely recognizable, turning one of the  most (if not the  most) deliciously, unrepentant villains in Disney’s Pantheon of Evil into a vengeful but sympathetic anti-heroine; one barely recognizable from the source material.  Now, the 1959 film is by no means 100% faithful to its source material either (with permutations too long to summarize here), but this is a unique take in that Disney is revising its own "history"; interesting, if not satisfying.
 
In this retelling, Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy (pre-teen); Ella Purnell (teen); Angelina Jolie (adult)) is reimagined as a good fairy that protects the kingdom known as “The Moors”, a land that is populated by fantastical, supernatural beings that abuts a human kingdom in an uneasy truce. When young Maleficent is called upon to see to a thieving human boy Stefan (Michael Higgins (pre-teen); Jackson Bews (Teen); Sharlto Copley (adult)) who has trespassed into the “The Moors”, they strike up an unlikely friendship that becomes something more. Upon adulthood, Copley betrays her in his quest to become king. Violated and disillusioned, Maleficent becomes vengeful, hard, and aloof.  Years later, when the married King Stefan presents his daughter Aurora, the uninvited Maleficent arrives to invoke the infamous sleeping curse, albeit in circumstances altered from the original Disney film.
 
Most everyone knows the story of “Sleeping Beauty” (at least, the Disney cinematic version).  But here, this is less a fairy tale for adults and more of a study of cultural inversion. There has been a trend since the early 90s in pop culture media to have the hero become the villain and vice versa.  Both Wicked and Oz: The Great and Powerful show the Wicked Witch of the West in a more sympathetic light. In the world of comics, both Doctor Octopus and Lex Luthor have supplanted their respective super-heroic foes by becoming effective heroes in their own right. Both the Dark Lords of the night and the Sith have become tragic pawns in the name of love, with Van Helsing and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively, represented as unsympathetic antagonists. General Zod isn’t “bad”, he was just, to borrow from Lady Gaga, born that way, etc. Regardless, the above-mentioned characters retain their now-somewhat-muted villainy. Maleficent goes one step further.  She herself is completely reimagined to such an extent that she goes from “villain” to “violated victim” and “anti-hero”, bringing a logical (and in the wake of the recent events in Santa Barbara, California, a decidedly uncomfortable) justification for her actions, and it changes the story into something other than “Sleeping Beauty”. The names remain the same, but the characters and motivations are so different as to render them practically unrecognizable; that it could have conceivably been its own story without affiliation to the source story. It further pushes a theme introduced in Disney’s latest animated release, Frozen, regarding the notion that a “one true love” does not necessarily mean romantic love. Conspiracy theorists would have a field day with this film regarding the advancement of hidden agendas, given how some of the characterizations play out.
 
The question remains as to whether or not Maleficent is a good film on its own merits. The answer is, like so many other recent films, it's a lustrous moving painting that reveals its flaws upon further scrutiny; a mixed bag as a film proper.  The story penned by no less than seven credited screenwriters, which gives credence to the old adage of “too many cooks.” For example, a few events that take place within the story, including the climax, requires the viewer to fill in a few blanks for themselves from inference without providing sufficient pre-established cues to justify them (an example involves a Deux Ex Machina in the climax).
 
It's not hyperbole to say that without Angelina Jolie there would be no live-action Maleficent. While her physical disposition makes her the perfect actress, it is her innate intelligence and bearing that make it work. As the pre-betrayed Malificent she is serviceable. It's when the character goes to the dark side that she allows herself to gleefully relish the role with dry, witty, cheeky acerbity. Her comedic timing is impeccable, and it's only near the end where she raids Michelle Pffeiffer's fetish closet does her performance hit a sour note. In truth, she is really the only reason to watch this film; she manages to make the incongruous motivations of the character plausibly work. It's certainly not for the slipshod special effects. Half the time they're a work of picturesque artistry.  Others, the digital effects are so cheesily obvious (even in 2D) it's a wonder how the Disney studio allowed its name to be attached to the project; most egregiously with the three fairy godmothers, all of whom look like Gollum's little sisters. Instead of magical, the CGI renders them grotesquely.
 
Elle Fanning is sufficiently beguiling as Aurora, the unwitting pawn in the film's game of vengeance. She's acts as quasi-foil for the titular character and manages to build a credible relationship with her. It’s their revamped relationship that becomes the focal point of the film. While the onus of the burden of the film’s carriage falls on Jolie’s shoulders, Fanning assists in carrying the weight quite nicely.
 
Sharito Coplay, as King Stefan, manages to lose all the crazy charm he displayed in The A-Team for just plain crazy. His performance is disjointedly interesting, if bordering on one-note, as it’s left for the viewer (again, via inference) if his descent into madness is due to conscience, fear, or both. His performance is inconsistent and perhaps that was the intent. However, like the story beats, the relationship dynamics are filled in by the viewer via inference. Unfortunately, this compromises the dynamics between protagonist and antagonist so that when they finally, inevitably meet in the climax, the result is not as satisfying as it should have been.
 
The less said about Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple as the ersatz “Fairy Godmothers”, the better.
 
Special note must be made to actor Sam Riley who plays the anamorphic Diaval, who provides a much needed balance and reason to the film. Given all the subtextual misogyny the majority of the male characters portray in this film, he provides the one example that, gosh darn it, not all guys are bad (but then, it’s an easily obviated argument given that Diaval is a crow transformed into a man, not vice versa, and thus a magical creature, not a true man). Actor Brenton Thwaites is just window dressing as the ineffectual Prince Phillip.
 
James Newton Howard's score tries to be a mix of Disney Classic and vintage Williams and it works for the film, even if there isn't one particular melody which stands out.
 
The film will undoubtedly be a hit and does have a few things going for it. It’s a lush production with a strong feminist foundation and does provide positive messages regarding true love and strength of character. Yet it would have been more risky, daring, and interesting to portray Maleficent as the character in the original Sleeping Beauty. However, here Disney plays it safe, leading to a transmogrification of character that defangs Maleficent both in film and in person. In trying to explain the magic, the producers have done nothing but totally undermine it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

“EDGE OF TOMORROW” WILL LEAVE YOU ON THE EDGE OF YOUR SEAT.

If you were to ask someone “what would you get if you crossed Groundhog Day (1993) with Mecha Anime[?]”, one of the most unlikely responses you’re liable to get is “a kick-ass Tom Cruise vehicle”; yet that is exactly what you get with Edge of Tomorrow.
 
Based on the Hiroshi Sakurzzaka novel ”All You Need Is Kill”, the story takes place, in what is implied through the use of real life cable news anchor cameos, to be the near future.  A race of aliens, known as “Mimics” (due to their ability to copy and anticipate military battle strategies), have overrun and decimated most of Europe.  However, despite their seeming invincibility, a series of successes effectuated by Special Forces solider Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) bolster the war effort to the extent that a final assault to eradicate the threat once and for all is planned.  Self-aggrandizing, cowardly advertising executive Major William Cage (Cruise) is ordered by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to film the battle at the front lines. When he tries to charm his way out of said duty, he is forcefully subdued and sent to the front lines as an infantryman and falsely identified as a deserter, much to the delight of J-Squad infantry unit leader Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton, whose presence, along with the set-up of J-Squad, heavily recalls Aliens (1986)). Terrified and way out-of-depth his depth, Cage is killed within five minutes upon arrival at the battlefront; but not before kills a rare, large blue-alien known as an “Alpha”.  Upon his death, he “resets” back to the present day. The character is well named as he is “caged” in a Ragnarokian time loop as time resets itself upon his death(s).*  It’s not until he saves Vrataski’s life that Cage begins to unravel the mystery of his condition and use his newfound power to aid in the war effort.
 
The advance trailers for the film depicted a bleak dystopian future, filled with the oppressive, hopeless desolation that has become the hallmark of modern sci-fi actioners. However, what sets this film apart is that it balances the proceedings with a healthy sense of humor due in no small part to Doug Liman’s direction and Cruise, who’s given the opportunity to poke fun at his own acting clich├ęs (a scene where he repeatedly flashes his pearly-white chompers is especially amusing) and makes the humorous most of the film’s “videogame reset” conceit (thus preventing the trope from becoming tiresome). Eventually, he defaults into his “dependable action-hero” persona, but he is effective in this playing-against-type turn.  In any event, the film shows that Cruise still has a few more “action hero” years left in him.
 
The film’s true star, however, is Emily Blunt, the resident "Valkyrie" who makes “The Angel of Verdun” a compelling, complex character; she is both dangerous and vulnerable all at once, and Blunt and Cruise share a great give-and-take dynamic. Credit must be given to Cruise in the fact that he knows when to dominate a scene and when to let his costar shine, which Blunt does. In their respective roles, both Gleeson and Paxton are stubbornly gruff, but Paxton is (in a rare case) especially entertaining; almost stealing every scene he appears in. 
 
Both the visual effects and cinematography are top notch; a gritty realism permeates each frame despite the fantastical nature of the elements.  Like last year’s Pacific Rim, it is an anime come to life; however, one that is slightly more convincing and, dare I say, compelling. The aliens are disquieting, tentacled monsters reminiscent of the robots in the Matrix films, and the battle suits are sufficiently convincing. Christopher Beck’s score is by turns pulse pounding and insidious, effectively highlighting both the action and the suspense.
 
The script, by Dante Harper (uncredited), Christopher McQuarrie, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, is surprisingly clever, catching the viewer unawares with certain revelations via dialogue throughout the film.  If there’s any weakness, it’s in the third act, where the lighting and editing make for a more muted visual experience.  Some might find the ending a bit pat but, given the bleakness in most summer blockbusters to date, it’s rather refreshing.
 
A clever script, heavy action, humor, and solid performances blend to make Edge of Tomorrow better than it should be. It is a highly enjoyable film that carries dramatic heft but does not take itself too seriously, and one that merits big screen viewing. You’ll LIVE through the action, you won’t DIE of boredom, and you’ll want REPEAT viewing.
 
 *Special thanks to Ian Morris for the analogical assist.