Monday, July 30, 2007

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

If ever there was a movie destined to disappoint, this was it. I am such a huge Simpsons fan I actually considered getting DVR just so I would never miss a new episode. I own (and have watched) all 9 seasons currently out on DVD, regularly watch re-runs I have seen maybe even a dozen times before, I have been known to pay full price for Simpsons t-shirts...probably the ONLY t-shirts I have ever paid full price for...and I regularly quote classic Simpsons lines. In short, I love the Simpsons. And now we are getting a triple length Simpsons episode disguised as a movie. There is plain and simply no way it can measure my expectations. Practically every line would have to be quotable, every scene a laugh riot, and so forth.

Well...for the first time in recent movie history I found a movie that not only had high expectations, it met and exceeded them...blew them away.

First off, I will start with the bad. There was no couch gag. There was very little Mr. Burns or Apu.

Now to the good. It had all the elements that made the Simpsons great. There were guest stars (Tom Hanks, Green Day), a nice dose of a large number of supporting characters, social consciousness, comedy, crack-backs on the fans, jokes that relied on other episodes to make their full impact, great one-liners, call-backs to classic moments in American life, whether movies, tv shows, or current events, and yes...even more.

It started with an Itchy & Scratchy Cartoon. The Itchy & Scratchy franchise is itself in a commentary on violence in cartoons (Tom & Jerry, the Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner cartoons come to mind from earlier times and those from today are too numerous to mention) as well as an ongoing crack at the Disney Empire (see the episode where who originated Itchy & Scratchy is debated). It was a funny, funny bit that led to the first crack-back on the fans...Homer pointing at the audience and complaining about paying to see something he could see for free at home. It was this moment, in fact, that replaced the couch gag. Instead of being at home watching tv on the couch the Simpsons were at the theatre watching a movie.

It is this type of biting satire that has kept the Simpsons going strong. He is right...season after season of the Simpsons can be seen for free every afternoon on Fox and new episodes every fall. Yet here were the die-hard Simpsons fans paying 9 bucks a pop (or more) for tickets, another 14 or 15 bucks (or more) for snacks, and watching it. This was a theatre scene, so it was really the couch gag...but because of the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon and it being a theatre instead of couch some of us missed it.

Soon after there is a classic Homer & Bart sketch that shows them at there best...worst...well, with those two it is hard to say what is "good". Their escalating dare contest is hilarious and leads to a recreation of Bart's opening sequence skateboard scene with more perverse (and hilarious) results. Soon we have Homer on one of his tangents, hanging out with a pig (which leads to some classic movie references) and creating larger than life situations.

Meanwhile, the other Simpsons each have their own story lines going...Lisa finds her dream boy, Bart finds Flanders, Maggie is showing her budding intelligence, and marge is trying to keep the family together.

There are two distinct types of comedy; visual and great lines.

The visual comedy is tremendous. It ranges from one scene where panic-stricken bar denizens flee the bar for the next door church to assuage their fears...only to pass the frightened parishioners fleeing the church for the next door bar to assuage their fears. It is a brilliant commentary on how some people regard both alcohol and religion...a crutch to get through life. Even for one such as myself who disagrees with this view it is a very funny bit of visual humor.

Additionally there are numerous sight gags that rely on a knowledge of Simpsons...I hesitate to call it history because placing a timeline or establishing some sort of continuity is both ridiculous and example would be the climactic jump over Springfield Gorge. Long time Simpson fans will remember the classic "Bart the Daredevil" episode where Homer tries and fails to leap the Gorge on a skateboard. At the end of that sequence an ambulance crashes into a tree. In the movie, that ambulance is seen still crashed into the tree in the background, thus providing an extra joke to fans in the know.

For me, however, the real heart of the movie was the classic quotes...

Bart: "This is the worst day of my life."
Homer:"Correction. This is the worst day of your far."

Ned Flanders: "I have something to confess."
Homer (crossing fingers hopefully) "Gay! Gay! Gay! Gay! Gay! Gay!"

Ralphie (after seeing a nude Bart skateboard by) "I like boys now."

Marge (looking at silo labeled "pig crap") "It is full after just 2 days?"
Homer "Overflowing, actually."
Marge" The pig did that in two days?"
Homer: "I helped"

and my personal favorite:
Mr Burns: "Smithers, I don't believe in suicide but it might cheer me up to watch you try."

In the end it was a laugh riot that was instantly memorable. People who have seen it walk around the office bouncing off random lines from the movie (Spider pig songs seem to be a favorite) and generating bursts of laughter. And even in the end credits there was a little gift for us. Ignoring the episode where Maggie says her first and, barring Halloween specials, only word to date, she says her first word during the credits; "Sequel". We can only hope.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

You Kill Me (2007)

One thing I always note about independent films such as You Kill Me (2007) is someone, somewhere, probably right this second, is crowing about the superior quality of independent films, how they are smarter, better acted, better written, and just all around better than brain-dead Hollywood blockbusters such as Transformers (2007) or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) to name just 2 recent Hollywood blockbusters.

Of course, some of us fail to see the appeal. As a general rule independent movies have fewer writers which is sometimes good, sometimes bad. As any accomplished writer can tell you, sometimes it is extremely helpful to have friends to bounce ideas off of. Blockbusters generally have more camera angles (and better film stock), better music, and, frankly, more entertaining plots. There is a reason independent movies have limited release...they usually have limited audiences. Every so often you might find a hit that spreads by word of mouth but for the most part the cold hard truth is this; independents deliver a lower level of enjoyment to a larger audience and thus experience smaller audiences.

It has always amused me how independent junkies are among the most elitist of all people as if they are smarter, hipper, more educated, and better qualified to judge the quality of movies...not just for them self but for others. Yes, I see the irony in my critiques...but then again, I am reporting how I feel about movies, not how you should. I may have absolutely no interest in something like Waitress (2007) but that does not mean I don't see how you could enjoy it. After all, someone, somewhere thought Vanilla Sky (2001) was good. If you ever feel like one more bad movie would put you over the hump to quitting your movie habit forever, just watch that. This commentary has been a public service announcement.

The long and short of this preamble is when I go to an independent movie I keep in mind it probably will have slightly lower levels of writing, cinematography, and special effects. On the other hand, it will likely have more to say.

You Kill Me clearly had a lot to say. It never really figured out if it was a comedy (it is based around a Polish mob hit man) that forgot to be funny, a drama (it is based around a mob war) that forgot to have tension, or an anti-drinking manifesto but it had a lot to say.

The protagonist is Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), a droll, hard drinking hit man for a small Polish mob family...the entire family seems to consists of 5 members. They actually have more snow plows than members...which in itself is a commentary on the diminished grip the mob has in American life today. Frank drinks all the time...when he is shoveling snow at his Buffalo home, when he is on a stakeout for a hit, when he gets home, when he...well, you get the picture.

After he misses a key hit on Irish mob boss Dennis Farina (Edward O'Leary) because he was drunk and sleeping he is sent across country to San Fransisco to get sober. There he is put in a job at a funeral home and ordered into AA meetings.

It is here writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely really hit their stride as they hit the loneliness, desperation, hope, and patheticness of an AA meeting. The pains and sorrows of addictions and the plaintive, self-flagellating attempts at self-redemption are mirrored into the cold, dead-fish acting of Kingsley.

After a funeral where Frank meets equally dead-fish, dead eyed, dragging through life ad-seller Laurel Pearson (Tea Leoni) his life changes slightly as he begins to show joy, interest in things other than drinking and killing...he actually changes his expression!

His openness to fellow AA member Tom (Luke Wilson) about his hit-man career leads to openness with the AA people, then Laurel.

Meanwhile, the family is getting steamrolled by Farina and his boys. While Frank struggles with a budding relationship, drinking relapses, coming to grips with getting rid of alcohol from his life, the family struggles with severed relationships as the Irish push the Poles out of various scams, they are forbidden parts for their plows, and struggle to retain their very lives.

Finally the Farina family moves in and kills all but one member of the family who calls Frank. He, having just relapsed into drinking a second time and, in his drunken stupor aimed his gun at a stranger on his porch, which proved to be Laurel, decides to go back to Buffalo to avenge his family...and leave the complications of failing her when he fails to refrain from drinking. She follows him to the airport where it becomes clear she wants to work past her issues to be with him but he is so afraid of his drinking that he leaves her, literally and figuratively, at the boarding gate.

In the climax she surprises him by showing up to save him from an assassin, then joins him in revenging himself on Farina.

Ultimately the movie is slow-paced, dry, and thought-provoking. The acting is quite subdued and the story very personal. One gets the impression that one or more of the writers has experience with the alcohol addiction/AA cycle and is trying to expunge that part of their past by portraying it on the scene. You will not find any of the glitzy blow-everything-up scenes like you might in the climactic wipe-out of the enemies in The Godfather (1972) or the chases of Heat (1995) but you will find a highly personal and entertaining tale that might bring a chuckle or two to your face.

Monday, July 23, 2007

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007)

Rumors abound that the script for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) was floating around for a decade before Adam Sandler picked it up, read it, laughed, and got it made. As more than one pundit has no doubt already addressed, had this movie been made a decade ago it might have succeeded as the agitprop it strives to be. Now, however, it simply is a tired exercise in name-calling.

On the bright side, it revolves around a well-constructed plot device...back here I complained about a brutally pathetic plot device that did not bother to hide its role. In Chuck and Larry the plot device, Larry Valentine (Kevin James) needs to provide for his children and the rules prevent him from doing so. It has all the elements that GOOD plot devices have; believability (albeit you still must suspend a certain amount of belief), purpose, and re usability.

With this plot device we get into the real meat of the movie which is a series of jokes revolving around two straight guys living together as if they are married gays which gets in the way of Chuck Levine's (Adam Sandler) sex life. It is interesting that in these "enlightened" times a man-whore is also a hero...and he is a hero EARLY for A) cheating on one girl with her twin sister, B) convincing the twins to engage in incestual lesbian sex acts (which, conveniently, are prevented from occurring onscreen by the timely ringing of a fire bell; watch for this theme to reoccur), C) getting it on with a half dozen Hooters girls and a doctor whom he gets to "discipline" the Hooters girls with a cane for untying her...which is done off-screen, much to the chagrin of bondage voyeur enthusiasts everywhere.

This is only important because of the role this movie is trying to fulfill as agitprop; how can we take seriously the attempt to complain about the mistreatment of gays when one of the central protagonists is a chauvinistic man-whore who sees girls solely as sex objects? If the film were not attempting to make a social statement then the prurient interest of scantily clad hot bodied women would make a lot more sense. Or perhaps that is the point of having them in there.

That comment needs some explanation. It is no secret that most males who are not active in the social commentary community are hardly going to seek out opportunities to see agitprop over the acceptance of gays in the workplace. On the other hand, the opportunity to see bran and panties clad hotties combined with a significant amount of screen time for Jessica Beal in heels, panties and skimpy bra just might draw them in so screenwriters Barry Fanaro and Alexander Payne can try to get their message across.

And there are some things this movie does very provides plenty of flesh shots of hot girls. Alex McDonough (Jessica Biel) spends the movie in provocative clothes and poses. Early on she is dressed classy in..well, sexier business attire than one would suspect. However, this is trumped by a lengthy scene of her bending over at a ninety degree angle (director Dennis Dugan clearly enjoys the female posterior; he also included a lengthy shot of the Hooters girls bending down to look at the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, their panties struggling to hold their cheeks in), thus showing that no matter how intelligent and professional a woman might be, her real value is eye candy for Levine (and, by extension, the viewer).

It also does a magnificent job of showing a wide variety of caricatured stereotypes. Here is a short list;

- the repressed homosexual who displays repression by being a near-raging maniac likely to go on a killing spree. this role is covered by the talented Ving Rhames playing Duncan, a fierce firefighter referred to by Captain Tucker (Dan Aykroyd) as someone he thought would go on a murderous rampage at any time but who was completely changed into a friendly guy once he came out

- the flaming effeminate who leaps about like a pixie. This role is covered by Kevin McDonough (Nick Swardson). Note the last name of the character...which nicely ties into the next one.

- the crusading lawyer mostly interested in a cause because a relative is a member of the affected party. That would be the aforementioned Alex McDonough.

- the universal refusal to work with a gay person (the entire ladder on which Chuck and Larry work)

- the lunatics who are the only people who could possibly protest the gay lifestyle. This group is portrayed universally as unwashed, unbathed, uneducated, hateful and spiteful with no redeeming features whatsoever.

- the overzealous prosecutor. This role is played by Clinton Fitzer (Steve Buscemi). He is pretty funny and makes something of a nothing role.

There are more but you get the idea. This is a movie filled with stereotypes, caricatures, and over-the-top mockeries. There are some nice cameos...David Spade, Lance Bass, I will let you guess the other main one...

The movie floats along with a series of jokes, feel-good moments and bits of agit-prop dealing with reactions to homosexuality in public. At the climactic moment we find out how the stars, Sandler and James, feel about the courtroom they, as proof of their homosexuality, are supposed to perform a kiss. The approach of their lips...the moment of gay chicken, as it is described on Scrubs, is an endless movie moment. The slow motion approach makes the steamroller in Austin Powers seem like a drag racer. Before they can kiss, however, they are interrupted by Captain Tucker with a statement along the lines of him not being willing to watch 2 straight men kiss. Remember the taboo narrowly avoided when the twins' incestuous lesbian kiss is prevented from actually occurring even though a willingness was demonstrated? Boom, instant replay. Willingness? Sure. Execution? Not so much...

This frees up Levine to hook up with Alex and Valentine to move past his wife's death and hook up. Significantly, for a piece of agit-prop, neither main protagonist ends up in a gay relationship, though several supporting players do. Thus the status quo of being accepting even if it isn't for me message is passed on with both heroes ending up with beautiful women.

Overall the movie had some laughs, some nice moments, but the best parts by far are, tellingly, Biel in a vinyl catsuit and in her underwear. And I guess that sums it up. As porn it is too soft, as agit-prop it is too cautious and too late, as a comedy it is too light on laughs.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Die Hard (1988) introduced us to John McClane (Bruce Willis), the wise-cracking tough guy cop willing and able to kill numerous people, absorb tremendous punishment, foil intricate and convoluted plots and defeat top-shelf criminals while uttering memorable lines. Hugely successful, it spawned the equally entertaining sequel Die Hard 2 (1990) which led to an even higher volume of destruction and villain body counts. The third entry, Die Hard:With a Vengeance (1995) ventured too far from its roots, being too interested in blaming whites for all the social ills of the day than in having McClane make wisecracks and kill people.

Live Free or Die Hard (2007) returns in some ways to the roots of the franchise. McClane has several memorable quotes...including a call-back to his classic "Yippee ki-yay, " from the original Die Hard. Perhaps the best quote comes as Matt Farrell (Justin Long) exclaims, "You just blew up a helicopter with a car!" to which McClane cracks, "I was out of bullets" with that wry, cheese-eating grin on his bloody face. It is a hilarious line that illustrates all that is right about this movie....humor, lots of gunfire and explosions...and all that is wrong with this movie...implausibilities and impossibilities that, even in a state of suspended disbelief, almost make Transformers (2007) seem more likely.

It begins with a complicated, involved plot by a group of cyber-terrorists hacking into various governmental systems. McClane is the closest detective so he is assigned to bring in noted hacker Farrell to try to help out the government. Now that the plot is out of the way we can enter the real meat of Live Free; the near continuous presence of gunfire, explosions, and chases.

McClane kills 3 of 5 men on a hit team that is trying to kill Farrell (it is never really made clear exactly what virus has been invented that, simply by uploading the virus causes the computer to have a house and apartment leveling explosion when the "Delete" key is hit, but such a virus failed to kill him so the hit team went in to do it themselves), kills a helicopter and several other professionals.

In another call-back to the earlier movies he acquires a walkie-talkie tuned to their channels and talks to them. It is here that director Len Wiseman lets us know the rules for this movie; McClane tells bad guy head honcho Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) he is going to "Kill everyone and rescue my daughter." Gabriel asks how McClane knows he won't just kill Lucy McClane (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), thus pointing up an oft-exploited plot device; baddies often take hostages but it is rare indeed that they actually get around to killing them. "You are afraid of me," replies McClane, "You are saving her for a bargaining chip."

Live Free then attends to another common convention in these cannon-fodder movies...namely, where does all the cannon fodder come from? McClane asks Gabriel where he is getting all these he calling 1-800 Henchmen or Henchman r us? It is a funny moment that points out some of the issues that action movies seldom address...where do all these bullet absorbers come from?

Sadly, there are times the movie just gets too over the top. Top 5 things we learned in this movie:

5) If you are in an SUV that is in an elevator shaft hanging by a thread, the weight of a 200 pound good guy slamming into the windshield will not cause it to plummet down the shaft. The weight of a 125 pound bad girl, however, will.

4) If your Semi truck is tipping over, if you simply twist the wheel hard enough the other direction the semi will right itself instead of tipping over. Also, if a nearby F-15 A) blows up the freeway behind you and B) blows off the top third of your vehicle you can A) outrun the collapsing free-way for several miles and B) still not tip over.

3) It is possible for a cab to drive in a straight line...but only with no driver, nobody holding down the accelerator, and when it will be going fast enough to actually launch off a concrete stanchion high enough to hit a hovering helicopter.

2) An F-15 cannot catch up to a badly damaged semi. It just isn't fast enough. It can, however, hover.

1) If you are a mastermind who can hack into the highest, toughest levels of the government, take over their computers, commandeer military resources, and generally wipe out all the power to a third of the U.S., but encounter someone who kills 3/5ths of your crack hit-man team, blows up a helicopter, survives an attack by an F-15 and puts it out of the sky, kills your ninja-like girlfriend and tracks you down to your secret hideout it is still a better idea to send your remaining assassins out 1 at a time than send them in a bunch to hunt down the guy who has single handed done all that damage.

Despite its flaws, Live Free is a wildly entertaining action flick that is a feast of adrenaline for action junkies with a liberal dose of humor that makes it well worth watching.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

In the interest of fairness, I should point out going in that this movie had little chance with me. I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) and was not amused. It may have been the company I was with at the time, I don't know...but I later tried to watch a second Harry Potter movie and could not make it through it. So I am not a fan of the franchise. However, we were on vacation and the person I was with really, really was looking forward to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) so we went to see it and I assured myself I would keep an open mind.

It starts off with a battle between Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and a couple of spirits called Dementors. The battle is short but entertaining. It leads to a mildly entertaining courtroom scene where the obvious "I would have died had I not used my magic" defense oddly never arises.

Thus ends the entertaining portion of the movie for quite some time. Potter then goes into quite unlikable mode. He rejects the friendly advances of his friends, reacts churlishly to the new instructor in Defense against the Dark Arts, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), who herself seems to be a master of the dark arts.

She plays the role of fun-killer and representative of the Ministry who, throughout the movie, seem to act as a malicious Big Brother type presence more interested in retaining power through subjugating the students and staff of the school than anything else.

Finally, once Harry has come around and become friendly with his friends again (and started a bizarre and short-lived romance with Cho Chang (Katie Leung) which makes no sense whatsoever, particularly in light of the "natural", in movie terms, romance that SHOULD but never does take place with Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), he and his allies battle the evil Lord Voldemart (Ralph Fiennes). The battle is actually pretty entertaining. It just isn't good enough to make up for the 2 hours of boredom preceding it. As one person pointed out, they took a pretty good half hour after school special and made a terrible 2-1/2 hour movie out of it. Thanks for nothing, David Yates, J.K. Rowling and Michael Goldenberg.

Perhaps the most egregarious portion of the movie was the bare bones plot device. Some monstrous giant who is the secret brother of some other un-named character (no doubt Potter fans will know who the hairy Huntsman is) is shown to Harry and his friends. Okay, fair enough. Then, when Harry and his students are supposed to reveal the whereabouts of their secret (and non-existent) anti-Ministry army they lead Umbridge to this cave where she single handed defeats an army of centaurs until this giant plucks her away and disappears. No explanation. No reappearance. No real role in the movie except to pluck her away.

Now, I understand the need for plot devices. The One Ring in the Lord of the Ring series is little more than a plot device to allow encounters with the Nazgul, allow Bilbo and Frodo to escape seemingly impossible situations, and so forth. However, it is well do not think "Oh, the ring, plot device so thus and such will happen" or "plot device. Just there to solve this one particular problem." It is a great plot device.

This giant, on the other hand, is completely pointless. He is not interesting on his own, is not a 3-dimensional character...his only point in existing is to get rid of Umbridge, thus solving the problems at the school without needing to have Harry and his friends come up with a solution. It was a role that could have been taken by a sign saying, "Due to mismanagement and torture of students we have removed Umbridge and all traces of her presence from this movie. We now move you to the next scheduled scene." In fact, that would have made more sense.

I thought maybe it was just me not being a Potter fan that made this movie all but unwatchable for me. However, the Potter fan I was with was quite upset and did not enjoy it, thinking it was by far the worst one, boring and with unlikable characters. Oh, well, many other people have loved it.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Transformers (2007)

When I first saw the trailers for Transformers (2007) I will admit to being excited. I instantly decided I wanted to see it no matter how bad it was.

I had low hopes for this movie. I seldom saw the Transformers cartoon show growing up, but I was certainly aware of them. Even worse, we could not afford the Transformer toys...I did, however, have two Go-Bots. Go-bots were a cheap imitation of Transformers that did not really transform...they just had arms that went straight up and down. Still, the concept was awesome and even I knew the tagline "More than meets the eye."

One problem with the recent spate of movies providing a redux of "classic" 80s television is the overlooked fact that the shows did not hold up well. Seriously, things like Miami Vice (2006) are an excellent of the old show flocked to the movie and roundly panned it...they hated it. I did see the movie...and I actually thought it very much caught the "feel" of the old show...full of angst, bad clothes, and weak story lines. I actually think had it not been given the Miami Vice franchise it would have been regarded as a solid entry into the action movie genre but because it was part of the lovingly remembered, long-running Miami Vice franchise there was simply no way for the movie to live up to the expectations. I never really liked the old Miami Vice show so I suppose it is an open question why I went to see the movie...and perhaps my lowered expectations are why it actually was an okay movie to me.

Of course, perhaps I am not a typical movie viewer because I have been a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for many, many years...I was first introduced to them when they were only available as a black & white comic at underground shops and the mainstream had never heard of them. The first, live-action movie was one of my all time favorites (and was the second movie I ever saw in a theatre, in fact). So when a new one came out this year I had a huge anticipation for it...the previews were blowing me away with their stunningly awesome animation. I was there opening weekend. It was an okay movie, mildly entertaining, but nowhere near as good as I was hoping for. Of course, as high as my expectations were it is entirely possible no movie could have matched them. So even though it failed to meet my expectations...I still might purchase it because it was an okay movie.

I was determined not to make that mistake with Transformers (2007). I had low expectations going in. Let's face it, if the cartoon had actually been as good as we all remembered it being, it would still be shown on a regular basis on the Cartoon Network or one of its clones or still be on Saturday morning TV, if not the original incarnation then as a reworked, renamed show much as the Turtles are, Pokemon is, and so forth.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. Let's get one factoid out of the way very early. The storyline is very...uhm...plain. Straightforward. Implausible. Bordering on uninteresting. Between the expectations and the storyline it would be a tough job indeed for Michael Bay to turn in a good flick.

It starts out slowly with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) doing a terrible, boring presentation for class that turns into a sales pitch for a pair of glasses that prove to be a major plot point. Soon he is on his way with his dad to purchase his first car. Through an amazing display of destruction he is united with Bumblebee, beloved protagonist of the cartoon series.

In the cartoon series Bumblebee was a VW bug. Rumors abound that Volkswagen refused permission for their name to be associated with a war movie so Bumblebee got an he was a Camaro. Still, clever allusion abound...his air-freshener is a bumblebee, several times he passes yellow VW was a clever way of Bay letting people "in the know" associate him with the old-school Bumblebee while following the rules.

Bumblebee provides a lot of humor in the movie, from his "Bee-yotch" air freshener to his choices of songs (he can only communicate through songs) that attempt to move Sam and Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) into a romance...but Mikaela is having none of it.

Meanwhile, Decepticons are ambushing the military. The resulting battle allows Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and his men to discover a weakness they can exploit against the Decepticons. They begin their trek back to the states as Barricade (a Decepticon disguised as a Police Cruiser) and Frenzy battle Bumblebee in their attempt to get the Witwicky glasses which contain the map to the Allspark.

The Autobots finally arrive in force and the grand finale of the movie sees a monumental battle between the U.S. Marines of Captain Lennox, the Autobots, and miscellaneous cops and Sector 7 officials on one side and the Decepticons on the other.

First, the good: The movie is just plain fun. The special effects are outstanding, the characters almost universally likable. This includes the bad guys. Frenzy is hilarious, Starscream retains his rebel against Megatron while still being evil schtick, etc. The songs as communication of Bumblebee is a great touch and the various Autobots have distinct but cool personalities.

The scene where the Autobots are trying to retrieve the glasses from Sam's house while "sneaking around" is perhaps the best scene of the movie. Their attempts to "hide" by transforming into automobiles on the front lawn of his house was hysterical.

Even the battles are, for the most part, well done. Both the Autobots and Decepticons are good foes because neither is presented as invincible. Human weapons destroy Scorponok's tail and prove they can, properly armed, hurt the Decepticons and even Bumblebee is captured by just a few agents.

On the dark side there are a large number of ENORMOUS plot holes. For example; Scorponok alone wipes out an entire U.S. base in Qatar, one with about 50 tanks...then is taken down by a single platoon that were the sole survivors of the first attack.

The search for the glasses is important because they have the map to the Allspark location...but the Allspark was moved AFTER Megatron was frozen. How is the map accurate or meaningful?

During the long, long battle at the end, after it has been going on for a solid 10 minutes there are still people walking down the street with shopping bags and acting surprised to see the continuing duel.

However, these things are not hugely important. The battle with Scorponok is so entertaining you do not notice how de-powered he suddenly was. The glasses and the Allspark are just plot devices that are at least somewhat hidden (see the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix review for a plot device that is bare bones and pointless). The people in the streets provide useful obstacles/tools. And really, we are having so much fun with the transformations and cool battle to really care unless and until we are writing reviews.

In fact, the only quibble I actually had with the movie was one scene that was packed with skilled actors. You never really felt like you were looking at thought you were looking at people involved in a story in their own universe....except for one scene. Defense Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight), Glen Whitmann (Anthony Anderson) and Agent Simmons (John Turturro) are trapped in a room of archaic communications equipment by an impending Decepticon attack. This scene was clearly directed by a second director because suddenly you are looking at people acting. Their shrill, heightened responses do not come across as people in a desperate situation...they come across as people portraying people reacting as if they were in a desperate situation. It is perhaps a subtle difference but it was the only seam in the movie, the one time the very skilled Voight and Anderson seemed like actors instead of "real" people reacting naturally.

It may seem there were a lot of things I did not like...but that is not so. I loved the interweaving of three or four different groups, the special effects, the was a fun, fun movie and well worth the price of admission. Go see it.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Ratatoullie (2007)

There is a particular soft spot in my heart for cartoon movies. Until recently I was not aware enough of the differences in animation to really care if something was hand-drawn, CGI, stop-motion, or some other means. All I care about is the over-all look and feel of a movie. I am only aware of the difference when the film-makers themselves draw attention to it such as is done in the credits at the end of Ratatoullie (2007).

This one represented all that is best about cartoon movies. The protagonist was Remy (Patton Oswalt), a blue rat. This is simply not possible in live-action as yet. To be certain we have seen some incredible stuff done in live-action (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie 1990) with animals as lead character but they are just more fun when done as cartoons. It gives a certain feel to the proceedings that just lets you know it is right.

Remy is a rat that loves good food. Unlike most rats he has a conscience and wants to contribute, not just take. He has a loving family but they simply do not understand him. Meanwhile, Linguini (Lou Romano) is a lost soul. He has gone from job to job trying to fit in. He has no notable skills and his last chance is getting a job as a garbage boy at Gusteaus, a formerly high-flying restaraunt that has fallen on hard times. Through a fun series of coincidences the two outcasts form a bond that leads to a productive union of interests and lives.

Meanwhile, Skinner (Ian Holm) and Anton Ego (Peter O 'Toole) provide a magnificent pair of foils, raising obstacles to the inevitable, albeit surprising, happy conclusion. Unlike many recent villains, this pair is fun and likable.

A good movie villain should not just be bad or evil, they should be interesting enough to provide some sort of likability as villains. Think back to how Yosemite Sam could be the villain in piece after piece with Bugs Bunny and yet be an audience favorite. Warner Bros. did the villains so well it is an open question as to who was the hero and who the villain in the Road Runner v. Wile E. Coyote battles...and therefore, an open question as to whether, in fact, the villain won those battles.

Ratatouille does not carry it that far but certainly the Machiavellian machinations of Skinner are fun to watch as he diabolically schemes to take the philosophy of Gusteau that "Anyone can cook" and turn it into a fortune in frozen foods.

In fact, the single place where this movie missed the mark might be the kitchen staff at Gusteaus. They band together against Skinner on behalf of Linguini near the climax...then unexpectedly leave him in the lurch (except, of course, for the love interest Colette (Janeane Garafalo) who returns and, in the end (minor spoiler alert) lives happily ever after with him. After their banding together one expects this likable crew to make a heroic return but the movie is so fun their desertion is a minor quibble.

One thing I truly enjoyed about Ratatouille was the approach to voices. Too often in animated features there seems to be a belief that without famous, "A-list" names doing the voices the movie cannot do well. To be certain, there are times when a famous voice can add to a feature. In the Shrek series, for example, having Eddie Murphy voice Donkey was a brilliant move. It allowed numerous inside Shrek II (2004) when they arrive in Far Far away and they recreat some of the scenes from the Beverly Hills Cop franchise. This added to the movie and Murphy did some brilliant voice work. However, overall the voice thing is way overdone. If the story is strong enough then you don't have to mask the weaknesses by bringing in bigger name talent. For example the upcoming Bee Movie (2007? 2008?) is being marketed as a Jerry Seinfeld movie. From the advertisements I have seen the only reason to see the movie would be if I were a Seinfeld aficionado...the storyline is non-existent, the humor seems to be entirely built around the following joke; "Jerry Seinfeld voices a bee and is a bee character". Ha ha. My sides are splitting from the laughter. Or not.

In Ratatouille there are indeed some names people will recognize on a secondary level (O Toole, Garafalo, a few U.K. actors that are lesser known in the U.S.) but none that are so famous the movie sells based on their names instead of on the story and likability of the characters. And it is good to note that not once did I think, "Wow, what terrible voice acting." or "ooh, that would have been funny if it were voiced by Larry the Cable Guy." No, the voices were perfect.

A brief summation would be solid voices, excellent animation, good jokes, good story, fun movie.