Sunday, August 20, 2017

"The Book of Henry" Tries to Balance Tones and Genres Towards a Divisive and Questionable Conclusion

A title like The Book of Henry sounds like an Old Testament story, or perhaps an untold folklore tale. Nevertheless, it refers to a book with illustrations, notes and details by the film's title character in carrying out a specific plan to help somebody else.

This feature film from a screenplay by Greg Hurtwizz (reportedly twenty years in the making!) and director Colin Trevorrow (2015's Jurassic World and 2012's Safety Not Guaranteed) certainly doesn't lack for ambition and creativity. Yet, a majority of critics and audiences have not been impressed, calling it a "cynical" film.

So, what are we to make of The Book of Henry?

On the plus side, for one, it's incredibly well-cast. The story follows an eleven-year-old boy genius (Midnight Special's Jaeden Lieberher) raising his younger brother Peter (Room's Jacob Tremblay) and single mother Susan (Naomi Watts), and eventually coming up with a plan to help his next-door neighbor and classmate Christina (Sia doppelganger Maddie Ziegler) from her abusive stepfather (Dean Morris).

The opening illustrations in Henry's titular "book" (along with Michael Giacchino's effective piano score) bring us into the wonder, creativity and complexity of his world. Did I mention his bedroom wallpaper looks like it's from outer space, and that he has a massive treehouse in the backyard woods? Imagine if the Baudelaire orphans lived in present day New Jersey. There's even a montage where Henry makes specific notes in his book (which will apparently be important later). These types of elements (along with Henry handling the family's finances) add some incoherence, implausibility, and a strange sense of omnipresence to the story.

But the family is broken in a lot of ways. There's no backstory on Susan and her previous marriage, with no mentions at all of her ex-husband nor on what led Susan to be the way she is. It's easy to understand she's an aspiring storybook illustrator, yet she chooses to work a minimum wage job at the local diner. She doesn't seem to be a very good influence, and neither does Henry, sometimes, considering she plays violent video games and occasionally swears in front of her children.

And yet, she fears going on without Henry, like he's a guardian angel. "You're the best part of me, Henry. . . . I don't know how to be a mother," to which Henry replies, "I never taught you that." If looked at from at certain angle, this is part of what the film is about, at least for Susan's character.

Before this development (and after an unexpected tragedy), life is sad, lonely, and dreary (much like Christina's apparent one, which feels one-dimensional). Peter's influence and wise words cut through, though (much like Linus to Susan's Charlie Brown): "Don't do what Henry would do, Mom. Do what you would do." Is it any wonder Jacob Tremblay is such an admirable and gifted young actor?

Trevorrow considers the film a freedom of artistic expression, as well as an experimental meshing of different genres. In this case, The Book of Henry could be classified as a coming-of-age family/mystery/thriller with a motif of not leaving things undone, including familial and relational issues.

But perhaps the film tries to be too many things at once. For one thing, it takes a critical and unexpected (even traumatic) turn halfway through, regarding Henry's meds, seizures, and his book. There also seems to be a heavy theme of childishness versus being an adult and moving on. (Commendable, as a theme, but exaggerated nonetheless.) And what are we to make of a climactic talent show darkly juxtaposed with an intense (and impending violent) act. The ultimate goal is disturbing, and reiterates why many critics and reviewers have called the film "cynical".

Says Henry during a pivotal scene, "Violence is not the worst thing in the world. It's apathy." What is violence? Google Search describes it as "behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something." On the flip side, the same site describes apathy as a "lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern." With that in mind, Henry's concern for Christina and her safety is admirable. But is a lack of interest or concern really worst than physically hurting someone? It certainly makes for great discussion, especially a biblical-related one.

In Safety Not Guaranteed, there are characters who want to fix parts of their past. In The Book of Henry, there are characters who consider what they want to leave behind as a legacy and how they want to affect the future. During a school presentation, Henry proclaims, "Our legacy is not built on how many commas we have in our bank account. It's who we're lucky enough to have in our lives on this side of the dirt." For audiences, that's good inspiration in choosing to be what they each want to be. And as storytellers (and many of us are), there are many ways to tell them, even though they can get muddled and aren't always the best to hear. So, overall, maybe this is not the best way to tell this particular story, at least the finished film version.

Monday, August 7, 2017

"Split" Reestablishes M. Night Shyamalan's Career, But Showcases Disturbing Elements of Abduction, Creepiness and Multiple Personality Disorder

The latest psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan (1999's The Sixth Sense, 2015's The Visit) opens with a girl named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), sitting apart from everybody else at a classmate's birthday party. She catches a ride with two other girls and their dad, only to be abducted in the parking lot by a mysterious and creepy man.

What follows split-screen opening credits is an abandoned room where the girls are held hostage. Everything we begin to understand about Casey is in her eyes and her reactions to the horrors going on. It also shows a difference between what she's thinking and what the other two girls, Claire and Marcia (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula), are thinking. "The only way we're going to get out of this is if we all go crazy on this guy," they say.

James McAvoy
They soon discover their kidnapper has multiple personality disorder (23 different personalities, in fact, if you've seen any trailers or ads for this movie). We only get to see a few of these "personalities," including germaphobe "Dennis," model "Barry," motherly "Patricia" (the strangest of them all), and nine-year-old "Hedwig," all sprouted from the traumatic mind of the real identity named "Kevin". They warn the girls of a mysterious being that is apparently coming for them as "sacred food" (talk about ancient ritualistic fear), and the girls go through many escape attempts involving air vents, hallways, mental games with the childish "Hedwig," "windows," and walkie-talkies, before "the Beast" (whatever it is) emerges.

James McAvoy showcases a masterclass of acting with all of the personalities on display, with surprising levels of wit, cunning, and tragedy--not just creepiness and horror--beneath the surface. Credit equally goes to up-and-coming actress Anya Taylor-Joy (who broke out in the sleeper horror-thriller The Witch a year ago) as Casey. Her character's fears and doubts turn out to mask a childhood family trauma, as well as a growing courage in a fight for survival. "It's about whether you can or cannot outsmart the animal," Casey's dad tells her in a flashback lesson in deer hunting.

Anya Taylor-Joy
The third central character here is psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, who also appeared in Shyamalan's The Happening). According to one of her neighbors, Dr. Fletcher treats her patients "like they have supernatural powers or something." Her response: "They are what they believe they are." In other words, she believes that supernatural abilities walk the earth, similar to Elijah Price's belief that superheroes walk the earth in Unbreakable (Shyamalan's sophomoric feature from 2000). At the same time, she does believe "there must be limits to what a human being can become." In a scene where she makes a Skype call to the University to Paris, Dr. Fletcher states, "Have these individuals, through their suffering, unlocked the possibilities of their mind?"

Hence, the two central characters, "Kevin" and Casey, have gone through (and are masking, in their own ways) suffering and trauma, whereas Dr. Fletcher works to help at least one of them understand who they are and to find the humanity that's been "out of the light". Her approach to helping her patients is admirable but questionable (i.e., inviting them into her home, and even visiting one of them at his).

Betty Buckley
The film also touches on what abuse (and self-belief) does to people, and how it keeps them "out of the light," sometimes for long periods of time, whether it's Casey's relationship with her uncle growing up or how Kevin used "the Beast" to both frighten people and cope with his mother's implied abuse. Says "Dennis," "He [the Beast] believes we're extraordinary." He adds, "Only through pain can you achieve your greatness." A twisted, misguided, and tragic worldview, if ever there was one. Plus, the element involving "Dennis" forcing the girls to remove their clothes bit by bit (due to germs) bothers me, as I find objectifying teenage girls very disturbing in itself. And when the Beast finally emerges, it's not cheap or laughable as many would expect, in spite of previous Shyamalan films. It's downright scary, especially when elements of cannibalism and shotguns come into play. (Not really a twist, per se, just a Hitchcockian tool for suspense.)

No, the real twist Shyamalan pulls off here is how he subtly and unexpectedly connects this film to the same universe as a previous film involving people with superpowers and superhuman capabilities (including a surprise cameo from that film's star). It could even set up Casey as a potential new "hero" in Shyamalan's next project that begins filming this fall.

Classic Films: "Misery" (1990)

Two of author Stephen King's bestselling books are being released as movies these next two months, one being this weekend's The Dark Tower (based on the series of western/science-fiction adventures, starring Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba); the other being It (featuring Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard as a horrifying new version of Pennywise the Clown). Now would be as good a time as any to look back on one of the rare critically-acclaimed features based on King's work, courtesy director Rob Reiner (1986's Stand By Me).

In Misery (published in 1987, and made into 1990 movie), novelist Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan) gets in a car accident in a Colorado snowstorm, and is soon rescued and nursed back to health by a local nurse, Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for her role), who claims to be his "number one fan". Sheldon has become successful through a series of romance novels. As the film opens, he's finishing his latest novel and decides to kill his main character, Misery Chastain, to end the series to move on to other projects. "I never meant for her to be my life," Sheldon tells us. But when Annie reads the unfinished manuscript, she is less than thrilled and goes from obsessive to psychotic and trigger-happy in an instant.

James Caan

Kathy Bates
The screenplay by William Goldman (1976's All the President's Men and 1987's The Princess Bride) stands as a brilliant example for how to structure an effective story, no matter the genre. The first act establishes the central characters (Paul and Annie) and their motives, as well as who Paul's agent (played by Lauren Becall) is, and who the local sheriff (played by Richard Farnsworth) is.

The first plot point occurs when Annie reads Paul's unfinished manuscript, and crazily goes from loving Paul to hating him. The second act is a game of survival as Annie forces Paul to rewrite the story and its ending, and even creates a writing "studio" for him--a creepy one, at that. (The image of the match and lighter before this act is chilling.) The tour of Annie's home, including her stash of books and newspaper clippings under the scrapbook title of "Memory Lane," reveals chilling revelations and misguided spiritual worldviews, while juxtaposing the subplot involving the police search and investigation as Paul's days of writing pass.

And, of course, there's that famous hobbling scene (possibly the second plot point). This scene, for the record, is one of the few classic movie moments I just can't look at. (It'll scare you for life!) Images of a kitchen knife, typewriter, and matches? That's nothing compared to this scene.

The third act, we'll just say, gets really twisted (and justifies the film's R-rating). What results (and still holds up) is a chilling interpretation of celebrity obsession and fandamonium that carries into the social media age from the last decade-and-a-half. Just don't get me started again on the hobbling.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" Continues Marvel's Shared Universe Without Fully Standing Alone

Within the last 15 years, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee's ever popular web-slinger has been portrayed by three different actors, from Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi's critically-lauded films in the early 2000s to Andrew Garfield in Marc Webb's gritty and "ultimate" interpretation in 2012, and now to Tom Holland (who made his scene-stealing debut as the friendly neighborhood hero in "Captain America: Civil War" last year).

The good news is, like Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, Holland (whose previous credits include The Impossible and The Lost City of Z) represents a throwback to the fun and fantastic thrills of the comics from the '60s, while embracing John Hughes films of the 80s as well as today's trends. Director Jon Watts, in fact, had the cast watch several Hughes films in preparation for filming, which comes through in scenes like detection a la The Breakfast Club and the titular dance a la Pretty in Pink. (Even the credits are an MTV-style homage to '80s culture.)

The beginning of the film shows Peter filming a video diary of the central heroes battle in Civil War (a creative and impressive update). Two months later, Peter hasn't heard from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., who reportedly may be hanging his armor up soon) and wants to fight alongside other heroes. And yet, he's held back ("Can't you just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?") Thus, Peter continues his regular life as a high school sophomore at Midtown Science with his nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), quirky classmate Michelle (singer Zendaya), while crushing on the prettiest girl in school (Laura Harrier) and sitting through motivational videos from Captain America himself (supposedly before he became an outlaw). His objective throughout the whole movie, obviously, is to prove that he's capable of more than others think, despite being a teenager. Even more, he's portrayed as a real teenager--not a 20-something pretending to be a teen (sorry, Tobey and Andrew).

Here's the good news. The film differs from previous adaptations of Spider-Man by avoiding another origin story route (something the 1989 Batman did really well), another dead Uncle Ben, and another gritty and depressing version of a comic book character (I'm talking to you, Batman v Superman). The fact that Peter is both witty and humorous is pleasing. (After a montage through New York, you'll never hear the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Pop" the same way again.) And when his best friend Ned finds out, we get a different take on "the guy in the chair." The same goes for an unexpected twist involving a central character, Stark's role as a surrogate (and possibly absent) parental figure, and Peter's relationship with Aunt May.

The overall direction of the film is well done, including action sequences that deliver a real sense of vertigo (particularly at the Washington monument), power (when Peter is stuck under massive piles of rubble, echoing what is considered one of the most iconic moments in the comics), and emotional reality. The costume has several technical upgrades via Tony Stark, yet retains the classic look in the comics. In addition, several characters carry a supposed misguided sense of what it means to protect loved ones, understanding how the world works, and what it means when they're "under the radar" and how that affects those closest to them. And the cast is terrific, especially Zendaya as the quirky and sarcastic Michelle, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, and Michael Keaton as the brilliantly-menacing Adrian Toomes a.k.a. Vulture. (Honestly, what is it with Hollywood casting Keaton in bird-like roles?)

Spider-Man Homemade

Michael Keaton


But the fact that this film, while entertaining, is part of a cinematic franchise may also be its biggest setback. I was hoping for a film that would stand on its own and not require any backstory of previous installments or chapters. The opening of the film is a brief backstory on the Vulture, tracing back to the alien war from the first Avengers. And the occasional salty language (which was one of Guardians  of the Galaxy, Vol. 2's biggest weaknesses as well) does dampen the story at times. Still, like "Wonder Woman," "Spider-Man: Homecoming" proves superheroes can still be fun and heroic, and not just conflicted.

"Wonder Woman" Restores Hope in the DC Film Universe

Wonder Woman (2017): After 75 years, DC Comics' most popular heroine finally gets her first big screen solo outing, and shakes up the superhero/comic-book genre with an origin story of the Amazonian fighter who stands for goodness, peace, and justice.

With Marvel's current winning streak of popcorn superhero flicks and DC's former descent into brooding, depressing fare following the success of the Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), it's easy to see why audiences have rewarded the former studio with much praise while giving the latter's initial installments in their own cinematic universe the cold shoulder.

As with any great movie, one needs a great story and characters that are identifiable and worthy of rooting for. Especially if it's an adaptation, it has to be respectful of the original source material. The Batman franchise hit an all-time peak with Christopher Nolan's critically-acclaimed and financially-successful films that showcased the Caped Crusader and his alter ego Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a brooding and complex vigilante hero who seeks to restore balance on the streets of Gotham City from various adversaries. Unfortunately, this trend of making such a franchise dark and serious led many studio executives to believe that making other superheroes dark and serious (whether these were meant to be or not) was a winning box-office formula. Just look at previous installments of Superman, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four.

Zach Snyder took directing reigns for a more gritty and grounded version of Superman with 2013's Man of Steel (while Nolan stayed on board as co-writer/co-producer). The result was an intriguing, yet divisive and, at times, devastating, take that left many viewers cold (including yours truly, in retrospect). Following the poorly-received and equally-bleak subsequent installments from last year (Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and David Ayer's Suicide Squad), it was easy to be extremely skeptical of the studio's newest take on Wonder Woman (who made her live-action film debut--and practically stole the show--in Snyder's aforementioned sequel), as well as the otherwise highly-anticipated gathering of the Justice League.

Chris Pine and Gal Gadot
But Patty Jenkins (who directed an Oscar-winning Charlize Theron in Monster), writer Allan Heinberg and current DC president Geoff Johns, had a different direction in mind. Said Johns in a recent interview with The Wrap:

Get to the essence of the character and make the movies fun. Just make sure that the characters are the characters with heart, humor, hope, heroics, and optimism at the base.

That being said (and to paraphrase the late Roger Ebert), while Wonder Woman is only the fourth film in DC's Extended Universe, it's truly the first one to get it right. For many fans, it's simply about time a female superhero had her own feature film. (Attempts in the past included the failures that were 2004's Catwoman and 2005's Elektra.) Wonder Woman stands more in line with classic adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as Richard Donner's unforgettable version of Superman rather than Nolan's influences. It also takes the iconic character back to her roots, from her days as a naive and determined girl on the sheltered island of Themyscira (a thing of magnificence with 300-inspired visuals, headed by Queen Hippolyta) to her unprecedented training as a warrior to her first meeting with American pilot Steve Trevor.

The mythology of the Amazons (strong, intelligent, and fierce women) echoes elements that are Greek, biblical, and ancient, tracing back to the Greek gods Zeus and Ares, and Diana's formation. And when Steve Trevor arrives to warn them of the horrors of the first World War and his mission to help stop it, Diana believes that Ares ("the god of war") is behind it, and insists on journeying out into the world (for the first time) to defeat him and stop the war. "I am willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves," she insists.

Wonder Woman's alter ego, Diana Prince
The film's production design (including the magnificent island of Themyscira and an early 20th-century Europe) is great, as is Dark Knight veteran Lindy Hemming's costume design, particularly in the scene where Diana figures out a proper real-world disguise (complete with glasses), echoing the era's fashion trends and subtle nods to suffragettes back then. The same goes for the scene with her gala dress (with her sword behind her back). And her armor, from the shield to the lasso of truth to her tiara to her body armor, is incredibly well-done without being gratuitous (surprisingly).

Israeli actress Gal Gadot (a former beauty pageant winner who served in the armed forces before breaking out as Gisele in three Fast and Furious sequels) wonderfully embodies everything about Diana/Wonder Woman: she's intelligent, fierce, fearless, honest, humble, determined, naive, kind, earnest, and courageous. She is also very loving and genuine. Her transition from a trained fighter to a fish out of water and to a developing character who sees the reality of the world without sacrificing her ideals is thoroughly compelling and believable. Sure, she is devastated at times, but she ultimately chooses to do the right thing not because others deserve it, but because of what she believes in. If anything, her belief that good will come again is very admirable. This ultimately makes her (and the film) not only worth rooting for, but somebody who truly stands for and fights for something greater. (Now that beats angst and depression by a long shot.)

Chris Pine's Steve Trevor is an adventure-worthy companion to Gadot's Diana, adding grounded charm, swagger, complexity, and humanity in Diana's growth as a character. Diana questions him many times about what it means to live, what people do, what marriage is, what a family is, and especially the goodness and darkness in everybody, and the choice between both. The same goes for remembering why they fight and what they fight for.

"It's what I'm going to do."
And the action sequences deliver with real substance, even though they do feel comic-book-y at times. Yet, they are intense and gritty without getting polarizing. (Many viewers have criticized the CGI-centered climax as the film's weakest segment. I respectfully disagree, as it fits the overall story and mythology of this character.) And the No Man's Land sequence? This scene alone sells the movie, and gives Diana a now-iconic moment in cinema history. (And let's not forget that awesome electric-guitar theme, courtesy Junkie XL!) This movie is a knockout, as well as a benchmark in cinema--not just for women in film, but for the doors it's now opened for other stories to be told.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

$uccessfu! Films: Transformers: A Necessary Franchise?

As far as today's movie franchises go, it seems that just about any series, let alone an installment, can turn a profit, no matter what audiences and/or critics can say against it. The same goes for series' of films that start out well, yet never manage to reclaim the same level of quality or relevance subsequently. From sharks terrorizing small beach towns (Jaws) to average-Joe cops at the wrong place at the wrong time (Die Hard) to Caped Crusaders stalking criminals at night (the Batman movies of the '80s and '90s) to pirates blazing the seas (Pirates of the Caribbean) to dinosaurs running amok at a planned theme park (Jurassic Park) to giant robots smashing the life out of each other (Transformers), said follow-ups still manage to be financially successful.

Which brings me to talk about the latter example.

As just about everybody else can agree, the Transformers franchise (a.k.a. the record-breaking, Michael Bay-directed series, which said director has reportedly concluded with the recently-released fifth installment, The Last Knight) exists off of a popular Hasbro toy brand and T.V. franchise from the '80s. And the films certainly have their many moments of visual sophistication and explosive entertainment. Yet, unlike the popular T.V. series of the 1980s (and despite the anticipation and high hopes surrounding each sequel, including my anticipations for each of them), these films exponentially abandon any childlike wonder of kids playing with action figures and go for straight-up intensity. And they seem to have hit a series' low with The Last Knight. (And that's not just critics, audiences and the box office talking.)

In a story that makes almost no sense, The Last Knight attempts to tell the "secret history of Transformers" is chronicled all the way back to Medieval times, and even expands throughout significant turning points in world history, including Nazi Germany. Then there's Optimus Prime going against his moral code (a la Vin Deisel in Fate of the Furious) in a plot to bring a destroyed Cybertron to Earth, Mark Wahlberg as an on-the-run mechanic who is chosen by a fallen robot knight as a new sword barrier (am I getting flashes of Green Lantern here?), a teenage girl who wishes to fight in an ongoing battle between man and machines, Anthony Hopkins as an English lord who searches for clues from the aforementioned "secret history," and an Oxford professor who turns out to be the last descendant of Merlin.

Come to think of it, the Transformers movies have not always been strong on story, let alone coherence. And they try to make it up here yet again with explosive action sequences and groundbreaking IMAX 3D technology (which, in and of itself, is undeniably impressive). But why not coherence? Why not the childlike wonder? Why not a sense of real optimism as Wonder Woman had? The resulted film makes the other Transformers movies (with the exception of Revenge of the Fallen) look like masterpieces.

I recently recapped on the previous films, and attempted to dissect any "story" in each of them. The first Transformers (2007), for instance, was released as America was at war with Iraq. Arguably, the movie reverently portrays soldiers at the time, while briefly showcasing the history of the war between the Autobots (the good guys) and the Decepticons (the bad guys). The film itself was criticized for devoting less time to the robots and more to its thin and ridiculous plot (written by screenwriting duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who would go on to successfully reboot Star Trek for director J.J. Abrams). For one, there's the goofy subplot involving Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox (with unnecessary--or, as one review called it, dismaying--sexuality in a movie otherwise based on kids' toys). Teo Bugbee of The Daily Beast said the film "was a bit vulgar and a bit sexist and a bit dumb, but it wore its Spielbergian influences on its sleeve." (Steven Spielberg is an executive producer on this series.)

On the other hand, the mythology behind machinery from out of this world and that on earth, as well as the latter's humanity, does break through, including a character who learns he comes from an important and incredible ancestry. ("No sacrifice, no victory" is this family's mantra.) Plus, the limited screen time for the robots does make the finished film more anticipating a la Jaws or Jurassic Park. The most appealing and emotional character (even more than Optimus Prime) is arguably Bumblebee, which Spielberg must have influenced considering the "boy and his car" appeal, a rare case of sympathy for an inanimate object.

The first sequel, Revenge of the Fallen (2009), had a teaser trailer that promised the entertainment goods. What audiences (and critics) got was a rotten two-and-a-half hours of mind-numbing, bombastic, and ear-shattering mayhem (er, Bayhem) and surprisingly crass content. Did I mention there are a duo of stereotypically-offensive twin robots? And don't get me started on the parade of female objectification that rolls out, including but not limited to a reprised Megan Fox.

Plot-wise (if there is one), the movie tries to be too many things at once: a military movie, a dopey college, teenage-sex comedy; a special-effects movie; and an epic adventure set in China and Egypt, but with robots smashing and ripping each other apart. The late Roger Ebert compared this film to banging kitchen pots repeatedly, in order to spare readers the $10 required for a movie ticket. (Read here.) wrote, "[This film] comes with no pretensions of greatness. It's not written to make you think, not crafted to make you cry. Its sole intent is to get moviegoers to fork over their 10 bucks and sit still for two-and-a-half hours. That said, I was surprised at how cold this movie left me." The convoluted subplot has characters going to so much trouble for various things (including a "Devestator" Decepticon that uses a bunch of vehicles to get together, only to be blown up a while later), and all at the expense of showing off fireworks and fighting and all. It's ironic that one soldier, in the heat of a battle, states, "You better have a good reason for us to be here" (as if any moviegoer were strangely asking Bay the same question).

What the movie should have focused more on was the military subplot involving Autobots and soldiers working together and less or none on the dopey comedy and crass sexual content. I do give Bay credit, though, for filming at real locations (and with IMAX cameras for some sequences), such as the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and for doing so many of his action sequences for real. And while there are some noteworthy sacrificial and militant moments in the film as well as a lot of visual sophistication, there's ultimately a lack of real emotional investment throughout. And for what it's worth, this is the first time I saw and read about a movie (let alone a summer blockbuster) that really allowed me to take film criticism into account.

Film three, titled Dark of the Moon (2011), takes the space race of the 60s and injects the war between the Autobots and Decepticons (a promising start) into a plot that fictitiously enables NASA agents to send Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon to investigate what's on the "dark side". This tweak in history is questionable and kind of disturbing. The plot involves Autobots continue to assist human soldiers in "human conflicts," while quirky young adult Sam Witwicky goes job hunting, landing at a company headed by John Malkovich. There are even secrets within NASA and related organizations, as human traitors partner with Decepticons to bring Cybertron to earth, as well as characters who have lost faith and have become pessimistic or misguided ("No. It's not the only way," pleads one significant character.)

The film is a visual improvement over its predecessor, with carefully choreographed and staged action sequences that are less dizzying but still unbearable. The 45-minute climax in none other than Chicago shows people being vaporized, building plummeting, and a city being destructed like a giant pinball machine, especially when a giant Driller Decepticon constricts a building in a complex and mind-rattling sequence that strangely and disturbingly echoes 9/11. Sure, we know who wins, but then, just like that, the film ends.

Just when you thought you've had enough metal mayhem (er, Bayhem) like I did then, a fourth installment, titled Age of Extinction (2014), drops in, with a new cast (including Mark Wahlberg, Kelsey Grammer, and a standout Stanley Tucci as a Steve Jobs-type) and a new style that suggested a possibly different direction for the franchise (albeit a more gritty and human one). Interestingly, the plot involves alien robots being hunted down by human agents and soldiers, as well as an attempted father-daughter story, Optimus Prime being pursued by captures on a mission to return him to his "makers," and the ever-popular "Dinobots". The result was another meaningless romp of explosions and scrap metal. The "Transformium" element is just weird. The Autobots aren't that memorable (although Hound and Lockdown are standouts). Plus, Bumblebee doesn't seem like he's in here much. It's ironic that Tucci's character complains, "Why can't we make what we want to make the way we want to make it?!?"

There are only a few worthy moments, including those between Optimus Prime and Wahlberg's mechanic Cade Yeager ("How many more of my kind must be sacrificed for your mistakes?" "What do you think being human means? That's what we do.") And the score that plays as Prime gets an upgrade while the remaining Autobots assemble is terrific.

If this is all too much to take in, here's an attempted brief summary of each film:

Transformers (2007): A quirky high schooler witnesses the arrival of alien robots on earth, and becomes involved in a war between two races of machines.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): Alien robots fight alongside military soldiers against Decepticons and a new battle involving the ancient history of said alien robots (wait, they've been here before?), while a recent high school graduate goes to college.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011): The history of the war between Autobots and Decepticons alters American history of the space race, while a college graduate looks for a job in corporate America.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014): The prehistoric history of alien robots (again, they've been here before) resurfaces as a battle between humans and remaining robots (with help from a family) ensues.

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017): The "secret history" of alien robots resurfaces as battle between humans and robots continues. (Wait, haven't we seen this before?)

Michael Bay behind the scenes of Transformers: The Last Knight
Obviously, it's easy to criticize Michael Bay as a poor filmmaker who favors action and style over substance and character. On the other hand, the work he puts into his action sequences is what makes him, to a degree, noteworthy. Spielberg once said about Bay, "He has the best eye for multiple levels of visual adrenaline." Furthermore, he's one of the few filmmakers nowadays who prefers shooting on film and doing as many practical effects as possible. He's even pushed for the improvement of IMAX and IMAX 3D technology with each subsequent film in the series, despite all of their otherwise flaws. Revenge of the Fallen does have some spectacular shots, as noted above. (The Dark Knight practically revolutionized the big screen imagery a year prior, after all.) And Dark of the Moon does benefit several examples of steady 3D and attention-to-detail. Age of Extinction was reportedly the first film to be shot on IMAX 3D cameras, and it incorporated a lot of different camera angles and dollies made in Japan. Lastly, Bay has stated that 98 percent of The Last Knight was shot with real IMAX 3D cameras. (Watch here and here.)

However, the visual effects in the first film still remain revolutionary; entertaining and exciting, even. I mean, how cool was it to see, for the first time, robots shapeshifting like Rubix cubes in and of themselves? In fact, a friend from college told me he watched the whole movie literally frame by frame just to watch the attention to detail. The combination of practical and CGI effects a la Jurassic Park works. When the Autobots arrive, the sequence is spectacular. Even original voice actors from the cartoon series (including Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime) brought back a level of '80s nostalgia. This is the only Transformers movie with convincing excitement, emotion, and nostalgia, along with typical action that Michael Bay has become synonymous with. (There's a great YouTube video that discusses and critiques Bay's filmmaking style.)*

After seeing all of the other films, however, I'm convinced that my initial instincts were correct (no matter what the other trailers implied): after the first three movies, the others weren't necessary. However, I do have hopes that next year's Bumblebee spinoff (reportedly set in the '80s) will be better, and that new writers and filmmakers will take the franchise in different directions, to what made the T.V. series and action figures appealing to begin with, and "transform" them into movies actually worth watching.

*WRITER'S NOTE: The YouTube link does contain a few PG-13-level profanities in an otherwise informative discussion.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Films of 2017: "Power Rangers"

Trailers for Lionsgate's update of "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" earlier this year had the six-year-old in me geeking out. I remember the original series when it premiered on the Fox Kids' Network in the early-Nineties, and thought it was one of the coolest things I've ever seen on T.V. (aside from the Batman animated series and pretty much anything on Nickelodeon back then). And while this gritty and exciting update has some of that same nostalgic vibe in the final cut (the suits and Zords are super cool), it does lack depth and cuts at a mildly-rushing pace, particularly in its first two-thirds.

Most of the film is spent with its engaging though rebellious cast of teenage characters, who come from different backgrounds, even which some of them question. Topics amongst them range from familial conflict, relationships, athletic disappointment, and even sexual identity--some deep stuff for what is essentially a kids' action series. The plot follows them as the come across an old land mine and find five mysterious coins that eventually give them superpowers. (Okay, you know where this is going.) And while the story is mostly predictable, the diversity in the main cast is an added bonus, as eccentric robot Alpha 5 implies, "Different colored coins. Different colored kids."

Speaking of the cast, RJ Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, 2015) steals the movie as Billy the Blue Ranger, along with the perfect casting of Bryan Cranston as Zordon, Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa, and a surprising new spin on Alpha 5 from Bill Hader. Overall, while the six-year-old in me did root at moments (such as during surprise cameos from some of the original "Rangers"), the final cut follows in the same cinematic footsteps as Transformers and Batman Begins before it. If there's a sequel, hopefully there's more "morphin' time" in its script than in its style.

(l-r) RJ Cryer (Billy), Naomi Scott (Kimberly), Ludi Lin (Zach),
Becky G. (Trini), and Dacre Montgomery (Jason)