Sunday, October 15, 2017

"The Meyerowitz Stories" Could Have Been A Standout Film This Year

I eagerly awaited the release date for writer-director Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) since hearing about the film over a year ago. The main reason I was interested was simple: Adam Sandler in a rare serious role. Understandably, as many poor films as Sandler has been in the last few years, there are still a few he's made where he's shown that he is capable of more than just funny noises and crude expressions. (2002's Punch-Drunk Love and 2004's Spanglish still hold up as brilliant dramatic roles on his resume.) Furthermore, the pairing of him with fellow comedian (and friend) Ben Stiller, the legendary Dustin Hoffman, and the always-stupendous Emma Thompson, sounded like an intriguing pairing.

The film centers on the legacy of a famous art sculptor, Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman), whose estranged children from previous marriages reunite for a celebration of his life's work and eventually his impending health. The oldest, Danny (Sandler), is a struggling musician currently divorcing his wife, and with an 18-year-old daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), on her way to college. Matthew (Stiller, a Baumbach regular) is a successful businessman whom Harold seemed to direct most of his attention and affections to. And then there's Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), an introvert who represents the sibling or family member most people would easily overlook.

Baumbach seems to specialize in stories of dysfunctional families and imperfect relationships. (His previous credits include 2005's The Squid and the Whale, 2008's Margot at the Wedding, and 2010's Greenberg). And the premise of Meyerowitz seems conventional on the surface, what with all the family members assembling under complicated circumstances. What makes Baumbach's script unique is how grounded in reality it is, and how his actors put 100-percent of themselves in their characters. This is a character-driven piece, after all; an expertly-directed one, at that. And it's easy to see why members at the Cannes Film Festival early this year went crazy for it.

In fact, it's terrific seeing Sandler in serious mode again--a case in point why he should do more similar work in his career. His willingness to not only play Danny straight but to play him with real conflict and neglect--and alongside other acting heavyweights--showcases perhaps his best screen performance to date. Ditto for Stiller, Marvel, Hoffman, Van Patten, and Thompson (as Harold's loopy current wife, Maureen). There are also many poignant scenes that illustrate the pain these characters feel towards their father, as well as the persistence they try to endure through this time. "Maybe I need to believe my dad was a genius," says Danny, "because I don't want his work to feel like crap."

(l-r) Grace Van Patten, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Elizabeth Marvel
But well-acted performances and great direction do not a great movie make. Which is why (as sad as it is for me to say) I can't mark this film as a standout feature this year.

Having been purchased by Netflix, the film was slapped with a TV-MA rating (equivalent to an R-rating or above). I knew there would be profanity issues (which there are) and other dysfunctional-related themes and content issues (which there are plenty of). After all, such stories typically tell of the feelings of disappointment, regret, or lack of success, that parents have on their children. And Harold has had that kind of effect on his children, whether through divorces or different homes or career choices or so forth. Matthew, at one point, confronts him by saying that he feels like a jerk because of his father.

But the biggest slaw that breaks the camel's back here is not so much these characters' feelings of neglect and lack of success. The biggest slaw is, in particularly, their neglect of certain current issues and effects, particularly Eliza's choice of career: pornographic filmmaking. It's bad enough audiences learn about this--twenty minutes into the film, as a matter of fact, which made me lose hope in the film. However, audiences are not treated to one, but two completely unnecessary scenes showing clips from Eliza's films, with dialogue and images too graphic to even describe. "That was really hard-R," comments Jean after viewing one of them. Harold rightfully criticizes it, saying that "people should not allow their kids to do that." To add insult to injury, Danny and Matthew later encourage Eliza in her acting endeavors. I personally found these elements degrading. Also, Harold is eager to watch new premium cable channels later on, one with a film called Sex Tape. Such is the case of irony. With all of the sexual harrassment controversy going on in our culture currently (that is, news of famous people who've been forced or forced others into sexual-related activities), is it really any different when a parent allows (and condones) their child to participate in sexual-related activities by their child's own free will? As Meyerowitz celebrates family unity and attempting to resolve past conflicts, it seems to neglect and condone such current effects.

I'll say it again. Solid acting and direction alone do not a great movie make. Therefore, I cannot place The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) on my "Standout Films of 2017" list. I wish I could.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Any Wonder That "mother!" (a.k.a. The Year's Most Controversial and Appalling Film) Has An Exclamation Point In Its Title?

An A-list cast and first-rate direction--albeit daring and experimental--can make a movie great. They can also be misleading, causing the film to be out of bounds for general audiences, for one thing. Consider Darren Aronovsky's mother!, for example. It has both the aforementioned casting and direction, but ultimately it may also be the most scathing film in years. It's certainly the most scathing thing to come to the cinema this year.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a married couple whose quiet, secluded life is interrupted by strange visitors. She's a housekeeper, and he's a struggling writer. The visitors claim to be fans of the writer husband, but the housekeeping wife is skeptical and eventually unsettled, not only by their strange behaviors, but also their two sons and eventually their other guests.

And when she becomes pregnant, another cycle comes. We sense that something bad will happen. But when it does, it turns out to be a living hell for audience members, just as it is for Lawrence's character. It's beyond horrifying. In fact, the last thirty minutes of the film are not only stomach-churning. They're beyond horrifying.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem
Aronovsky reportedly wrote his initial script in five days, like a "fever dream" and a "howl" to current world events, then put his cast through a rehearsal period of three months before shooting. The film has a haunting atmosphere, and puts an unprecedented, beyond-crazy spin on the home invasion motif. As Charlton Heston's Taylor famously quoted in Planet of the Apes, "It's a madhouse." And a nightmare, at that. Furthermore, the very hope of rebuilding a home from rubble (as the opening segment suggests) and wanting to make a paradise rapidly falls apart when others come in and carelessly tarnish it, and not just invade people's privacy.

The imagery throughout is disturbing in and of itself, from blood-stained floors and light-bulbs, to cellars illustrating boiling pots waiting to explode at any moment. But it's the writer's obsessive fans who act more like ritualistic followers, leading to an angry mob, unspeakable violence, and then disturbing carnage (like hell).

Many people will have a hard time wondering if Aronovsky's use of allegory here is either used as a contemporary parallel or as a harsh criticism towards Christianity and religion. Even director William Friedkin (no stranger to controversy himself with 1973's The Exorcist) was unsure of Aronovsky's intention during a recent interview between both filmmakers at the Producer's Guild of America (click here and here). Lawrence's "mother" is supposed to represent Mother Nature (a caregiver, a housewife), while the "husband" and "wife" (a crazy and creepy Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) are supposed to be Adam and Eve, and their two sons (real-life brothers Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson) represent Cain and Abel--with familial and violent consequences. (Did I mention even Kristen Wiig shows up as the writer's publisher?)

Lawrence hits a boiling point
But all these characters' names are written in lower case. Bardem's, on the other hand, is the only character with his name capitalized. Above all, if Bardem's "Him" is supposed to represent God (as Aronovsky has revealed in interviews), then it's the most scathing, careless, and emotionless portrayal (and possible criticism) I've ever seen. He's a character who's so overwhelmed and so into himself, his success, and how much his "followers" love him. Bardem (a phenomenal actor) becomes quietly unpredictable, and, dare I say, menacing, especially when he and Lawrence stare down over the newborn baby.

I cannot strongly state how damaging and how unbelievably appalling this film really is. If IT was a nightmarish carnival, then mother! is an insane asylum. The overall experience is also depressing, feel-bad, and horrible. Is it any wonder there's an exclamation point in the title?

"Baby Driver": Talk About a Killer Soundtrack

Somebody who attended the same screening of Baby Driver as me asked what the film was about. My spoiler-free response to her was, "Let's just say it's an unconventional heist movie." Indeed, the basic premise of Edgar Wright's film is about a getaway driver who soundtracks his life (courtesy an iPod playlist of various songs) as he escorts gangs of various trigger-happy criminals.

Known for his Cornetto trilogy of comedies (2004's Shaun of the Dead, 2007's Hot Fuzz, 2013's The World's End), Wright gets his motor running based off of a music video he directed in 2003 (Mint Royale's "Blue Song"). And the British filmmaker does it with both killer style and unexpected substance.

Baby (The Fault In Our Stars' Ansel Elgort) has chronic tinnitus from an accident he had as a kid, and still hears a hum in the eardrums. This explains why he plugs his iPod earphones in to drown out the vibrations with those on par with the Beach Boys. Then he meets a pretty diner waitress named Deborah (Cinderella's Lily James). However, Baby's boss, Doc (the always-engrossing Kevin Spacey), who's been the only father-like figure to him (other than his deaf guardian Joseph), has one last job for him. But Baby wants out, for good.

Ryan Gosling's cinematic cousin?
That's the film in a nutshell. And if any of these story elements sound familiar, they do sort of make the film fall on the conventional side. What makes Wright's script and film (his first shot in the U.S.) stand out, though, is its musical and rhythmic structure. The visual idiosyncrasies from Wright's aforementioned films are still in tact here, mostly for the purpose of the soundtrack and its numerous synchronizations, ranging from artists like Simon & Garfunkel (the film's title comes from one of their songs) to Young MC to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas to Queen. Being the music geek that I am, to a degree, I found this thoroughly engaging. The car chases, for one, are first-rate--and done for real! The opening sequence, set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms," sells the movie from frame one and rivals some of the best openings of any film. (Check out this insightful video for a breakdown of that scene.) This sequence, as well as the one-take shot of Baby walking downtown to Dave and Sam's "Harlem Shuffle," highlight Baby's character and his dilemma. And his conversations with Deborah, who represents the life he wants to get away to, wonderfully touch on numerous songs that are about their respective names. (The same applies to his genuine relationship with Joe.)

The film's cast is stellar, with such A-listers as Spacey, Jamie Foxx (a menacing dog of a role), Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez (as a married couple, and possibly a sharp contrast to Baby and Debora, especially when they lose their cool), Jon Bernthal (a scene-stealer), James, and a breakout star in Elgort, who allows Baby to be sympathetic, unpredictable, and universal. He may even rival Ryan Gosling's unnamed "Driver" from 2011's Drive.

Ansel Elgort
As for the story, it's deeper than you may expect (a strength), and not as silly or as fun as the film's title or trailers would suggest (both a strength and a weakness, especially for discerning viewers). Baby is involved in a life of crime, after all. His tunes may be fun and cool, but some of the things he (and audiences) spectate or partake in aren't that fun at all, whether it's occasional profanity or violence that is hysterical (crazy, not comedic) and, at times, shocking. While not on par with the violence that Logan escalated in, it still doesn't make for easy viewing at times. Hence, the film's R-rating.

We can at least give Baby credit for pushing to get out of that lifestyle and toward a more meaningful one, all the while keeping iPods and mixed tapes still in fashion. How's that for unconventional?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

"IT" Is Surprisingly Effective But Still Very Frightening (and Troubling) In Its Supernatural and Human Elements

Stephen King's bestselling novel "It" was first published in 1986, and centered on a group of outcast kids in the town of Derry, Maine, who come face to face with an evil entity in the form of a clown. The book was first adapted into a classic T.V. miniseries in 1990, and starred Tim Curry as the villainous Pennywise (who became the source of a lot of kids' nightmares from then on). The new 2017 version, from director Andy Muschietti (2013's Mama) ups the fear factor to 11 and combines supernatural horror (a demonic creature terrorizing children) with human drama and trauma (children who regularly face bullying and even adult abuse).

It all begins with a stormy night in 1988 when little Georgie takes his paper boat (made by his stuttering brother Bill) out into the rain. Soon, Georgie has an encounter in a sewer with a mysterious figure, who promises him a fun adventure. But then, . . . well, you know where this is going, especially if you've read the book. (Cue horrific scene.)

Twelve-year-old Bill and his preteen friends (Richie, Eddie, Stanley, as well as new kid Ben, homeschooled Mike, and girl Beverly) learn their small town has a history of a deadly curse that comes every 27 years. "People die here," one character tells us, "six times the national average. And that's just grown ups. Kids are worse. Way worse." That curse comes in the form of the aforementioned clown, who appears to each kid as the thing they fear the most. For Bill, it's losing his little brother. For Mike, it's rotting corpses of a factory bombing he survived. For Beverly, it's possibly becoming a woman, due, in part, to an apparently, sexually-abusive father. For Richie, it's simply just . . . clowns.

Pennywise: every child's and adult's worst nightmare
Pennywise is as horrific, nightmarish, and unpredictable a villain as I've ever seen on screen, even more than Curry's iconic portrayal. I can't even look at images of actor Bill Skarsgard in his clown makeup without freaking myself out, whether he's starring at you blankly (like above, sort of) or scurrying about in a haunted house, in the sewers, or in a projector (a truly jumpy scene, see below).

There is something intriguing, though, about the difference between facing monsters in fantasy and facing monsters in real life, and overcoming all those fears as a group instead of alone. "What happens when another Georgie goes missing," Bill asks the others. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman was recently interviewed by PluggedIn's Paul Asey about using the supernatural horror genre to tackle such themes. Said Dauberman, "I think that has to do with me really being a believer that there's something that's greater than all of us, and that death is not an end. . . . So writing and researching these stories kind of reaffirms that for me in a way. Even if there's a demonic presence, I'm always going, 'If there's a demonic presence, that means that somewhere out there there's good.' And a lot of times in these movies, the good comes from within." Furthermore, the idea of not letting fear and the thought of being an outsider define you (and "starving" it in the process) is a noble theme and action in and of itself.

The Losers Club
The film (though episodic) is also a strange piece of 80s nostalgia. I did enjoy the little nods to artists like New Kids on the Block and Young MC, and even film titles like 1989's Batman on the town theater marquee. While the cast certainly is phenomenal, and there are some surprisingly poignant moments, there are several more that are problematic and very upsetting. For one thing, the town bullies, led by Henry Bowers, are just sadistic and cruel. But do we really need to hear the other kids cussing out f-bombs every so often? There's also that scene at the lake where the kids swim half-naked and even ogle Beverly. Most of (if not all of) these children clearly have terrible parents, or at least live in a town where parents and grown-ups cannot be trusted (a common theme in popular films of the 80s, from E.T. to The Goonies to Stand By Me).

And, of course, there's all those graphic and violent images that come across the screen every 5-10 minutes or so, including carved torsos, severed heads, razor-sharp teeth, blood shooting out of bathroom sinks a la Carrie or The Shining, a chaarcter who gets stabbed in the neck, another whose arm is bitten off, and a villain whose form disfigures and contorts to horrifying effect. It's a terrifying experience indeed.

"The Boss Baby" Delivers a Surprisingly Creative Spin on Family and Business, Even If It Does Go Through a Few Too Many Diapers

Imagine, or a moment, that Jack Donaghy from NBC's "30 Rock" was an infant, and he starred in his own film, a cross between Look Who's Talking and Glengarry Glen Ross without the cussing. That's the basic concept of DreamWorks Animation's comedy, The Boss Baby (based on an award-winning children's book), which stars Alec Baldwin as the voice of a suit-wearing, adult-speaking toddler.

But the film actually begins with imaginative boy Tim (voiced by Miles Bakshi, grandson of veteran animator Ralph Bakshi, and narrated as an adult by Tobey Maguire), who goes on many imaginative and creative adventures with his loving and supporting parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow), from Congo exploring to deep sea diving. This visually comedic prologue is followed by a cheery and silly allude to Fred Astaire's "Cheek to Cheek," and puts a new spin on the whole "Where do babies come from" notion--a different realm than Warner Animation's Storks took as babies here are divided into either families or management (depending apparently on their ticklish habits).

And then, the Baby shows up. Obviously, chaos happens in the family and in Tim's own life. And when Tim finds out the Baby can talk (and who he is), he plots to get rid of the Baby. Pretty obvious, as we've seen this theme in several potty-humor kids films. Furthermore, it's the Baby's belief that "there's only so much love to go around," and not enough for him or Tim.

And when they're both grounded after a mishap and forced to spend three weeks together, the Baby confesses: he's been sent from his company "up above" to stop a rival puppy corporation (where Tim's parents work) from releasing a new puppy that's reportedly being made, in order to get promoted to upper management (as if up above wasn't enough). Plus, "babies aren't getting as much love as they used to," he tells us. The action and mayhem that follows gives "Rugrats" some company, and puts Baby Geniuses to shame.

Kudos to director Tom McGrath (2005's Madagascar and 2010's Megamind) who keeps the visual style and comedy coming. Separating itself from the more complex and human-like work done on previous DreamWorks films like Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon, The Boss Baby's animation recalls the style of Disney, MGM and Warner Bros from the Fourties through the Sixties, with silly character designs a la Dick & Jane, as well as big heads and small bodies. The opening credit sequence alone reminded me of 101 Dalmatians. There are also clever supporting characters, including the Boss Baby's earthbound "business partners" Stacy, a group of triplets, and big Jimbo. But it's Baldwin's voice work alone that's worth the price of admission.

What the film does suffer from, at times, is a predictable subplot involving a former baby boss who plots revenge against a rival corps, and an unnecessary dimwitted, cross-dressing "Scary Poppins" bodyguard. Personally, I would have chosen a different song for the closing credits than the Burt Bacharach cover. And some of the content is pretty deep (Tim asks at one point, "Are you the baby Jesus?"), which will easily fly over kids' heads. But even if the story is full of one too many subplots and few too many diaper/poop/butt gags (as can be expected in a PG-rated cartoon feature), its creative and fun take on family and business is well worth it.

There's a Benjamin Button-/Peter Pan-esque moment where the Boss Baby tells Tim, "I may look like a baby, but I was born all grown up." It's obvious many people, particularly preteens and adults, want respect and dignity and success. And yet, there's something poignant about the theme of never growing up, yet never having anyone to share your life with (whether children or adults) and, as a result, feeling empty without them or seeing the effect it has on both. Imagine if all the Jack Donaghy's in the world heard that.

Monday, September 11, 2017

"Dunkirk" Brilliantly Experiments With Filmmaking Techniques While Still Telling A Worthy WWII Story

In the course of his nearly-20-year career, British filmmaker Christopher Nolan has tackled psychological thrillers, comic book icons, and science-fiction. And now, like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock before him, he tackles war and historical events. Dunkirk recreates the miraculous 1940 evacuation (known as Operation Dynamo) of nearly 400,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk in the early years of World War II.

Nolan's direction puts you right there in the middle of the action and allows you to feel the suspense, the tension and, above all, the experience. Furthermore, the way Nolan structures this story for the screen is unparalleled. Juxtaposing three different perspectives--soldiers on land, civilians at sea, and pilots in the air--the results are unlike anything ever seen on the big screen, and are constantly on-edge-of-your-seat and unpredictable. Nolan even mixes a temporal strata of each of these perspectives--in other words, the time durations of each place (one week on land, one day at sea, and one hour in the air). This theme of time is even echoed in the ticking sounds found in Hans Zimmer's experimental and powerful score (with elements of Vangelis in there as well).

Many viewers have argued that the film lacks character development. While that can be debated, there are still key characters we care about, understand, and see various levels of humanity,worry, grief and tension in. Such include on-land soldiers Tommy, Gibson and Alex (newcomers Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and singer Harry Styles); sailor Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend George (Barry Keoghan), and a traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy); and spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). Whitehead, Murphy, Rylance, and Hardy, in particular, give standout (and expressive) work.

Nolan's key mission with this film, to reiterate, was to put the audience right in the experience of the battle, and therefore in this story of survival (which one character states is sometimes enough), rescue, and of course certainly heroism. The camerawork and dialogue-limited script add to this successful masterwork of artistic achievement, while honoring the fallen and, most of all, paying tribute to the heroism of regular people willing to answer the call, and not just soldiers. Not since Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998) and Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) have I seen a war film very different from its genre. This one arguably leaves them and all others behind.

Just as he did with the Dark Knight sequels and Interstellar, Nolan employs and takes IMAX cameras and 65/70mm film to a whole nother level. For one thing, the filmmakers placed some of these cameras in actual spitfire planes and behind real boats, to add a greater sense of authenticity. The latter format, meanwhile, recalls the way films used to be made and seen. Dunkirk is, in fact, the third film this decade to use the format, following Paul Thomas Anderson's period piece The Master (2012) and Quentin Tarantino's violent western The Hateful Eight (2015). I attended a 70mm screening (which I hadn't been to in about six years) and found myself surprised--and a little distracted--by the loud sound of the projector behind me. (It's amazing what six years can do.)

Nevertheless, Dunkirk ties with Wonder Woman as the year's best film, in terms of an old-fashioned and groundbreaking scope. It may, hands down, be the best moviegoing experience this year (and should be seen in IMAX). It represents the way films should be made, and the way they're meant to be seen.

Nolan stated in an interview about the battle's importance:

"This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate. And the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the U.S. would not have returned to war. It is a true point of rupture in war and in history of the world. A decisive moment. And the success of the evacuation allowed Churchill to impose the idea of a moral victory, which allowed him to galvanize his troops like civilians and to impose a spirit of resistance while the logic of this sequence should have been that of surrender. Militarily, it is a defeat; on the human plane, it is a colossal victory" (IMDb).

Monday, August 28, 2017

"A Ghost Story," Pretentious On the Surface, Proves Emotional in Mesmerizing Meditation on Grief, Time and Memory

One of this year's most striking and incredibly-effecting on-screen images (and its most simple yet distinct) is the sight of recent Oscar-winning actor Casey Affleck wearing a ghost sheet. But what could've easily been used as a cheap and silly gimmick--director David Lowery has confessed that it is a goofy image--instead becomes (and encompasses) a poetic meditation of loss, love and memory. In fact, Lowery makes the most of A Ghost Story's low-budget filmmaking capabilities (reportedly used off the funds from his live-action version of Pete's Dragon last year) that it's hard not to be mesmerized by the final product.

For one thing, the 4:3 aspect ratio (the image below) is used as if we're watching home movies of forgotten times. The translucent light effects on walls in certain scenes illustrate apparitions. The same goes for flickering lights in certain eerie moments. Quick cuts suggest the passage of time (a Terrence Malick influence, perhaps), including smoke and fog effects suggesting a change of seasons, lighting, and settings. If you pay attention to the credits, they state that Weta Digital was involved with the visual effects of this otherwise low-budget film. More specifically, several shots are very long, intimate and emotion-driven, including a now-arguably-famous scene of Mara scarfing down a pie, tears running down the end of her nose. Overall, this is simple, experimental, and great filmmaking.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck
Affleck and Mara (who both starred in Lowery's 2013 debut feature Ain't Them Bodies Saints) are riveting from frame one. They play a couple living in a small home in Texas. Affleck's musician C dies unexpectedly in a car crash one morning, leaving Mara's book-reading M devastated, but returns in the form of a physical ghost (a traditional sheet used like a costume with black eye holes a la "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"). M eventually does leave the house (with memorial notes left in the walls), while C's "ghost" stays, along with a piano and a neighbor "ghost," until other residents come in (a Spanish family, a philosopher, construction workers and corporate workers).

There is a sense of eeriness at times, in Daniel Hart's haunting score and in the direction of C's "ghost". The way he stares does trigger a certain spookiness a la Michael Myers or any famous horror movie character. But this film is not a horror. It's a drama. And a human one, at that. Many viewers will likely see this as a secular view of the afterlife, on the other hand. But it's more akin to The Tree of Life than, say, Beetlejuice, what with the aforementioned Malick influences of the passage of time, and images of the cosmos and stars. And Affleck (along with Tom Hardy's performance in Dunkirk) has the most challenging and effecting body-language of any film role this year, from the different postures he makes, along with the movements of his arms and hands.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara
There's not a lot of spiritual discussion here, save for one scene where an apparently pessimistic man theorizes and argues logic and science over God and believes everything will be lost and forgotten one. (C apparently reacts against this, what with the flashing lights and the implied rubbled aftermath that results.) In an early scene, C has the option of heading through a door light in the hospital, but chooses to miss it (it closes momentarily) and goes to a different "exit"--his old home.

The way the film plays with time and how it does so is very unexpected and thought-provoking. What is this character doing in this time? Does there seem to be a quick passage of time apart from reality? A quick transition to a 19th-Century pilgrim family building a home finds a little girl writing a note and leaving it under a rock (like M). And a flashback suggests that C didn't want to move, apparently attached to the house's history. Perhaps he was already a ghost before he physically became one? The ghost (no matter how absurd it looks) can poetically represent the memory of a loved one who has passed, and his/her presence in that place they left their legacy at. And if you stay through the credits, you'll hear quiet and misty effects such as winds and fields, suggesting a form of meditation and memory. I haven't seen film credits like this since, perhaps, the 1990 re-release of Fantasia, as well as Cast Away (2000) and No Country For Old Men (2007).

Perhaps no film this year has challenged or provoked me more than A Ghost Story. At its heart, it's a story about moving on. Not just from homes, but also from heartache and from tragedy.

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.