No Concessions: A Summer “Transformered”
“You’ve lost a shitload of weight,” a colleague remarked recently. While not true by the scale it feels true, and for a very simple reason: Over the last two months I’ve largely avoided the multiplex, and my weekly infusion of popcorn so buttery and caloric I leave the theater wearing it. That all ended on Wednesday, when a diet rich in low-cal, eat-your-vegetables movies was abandoned for a full-on dive into the fattiest of cinematic junk food.
You know where I’m heading with this, and maybe you’re heading there to this holiday weekend. But before we get there, let’s review my summer so far. Like yours, perhaps, it began in late April, with Thor, which…
[Editor's note: Thor? Thor? Now we get Thor? It's played out, gone, off to DVD. No one wants to hear that you feel "vaguely retarded" trying to summarize the plot, and wonder how people could spend years of their lives working on it; that Kenneth Branagh, uneven talent though he is, could only bring so much "class" to it before it had to hew to the yawningly familiar Marvel mash-up template; that the outer space Viking production design looked like a cross between the Atlantis resort and a cheesy Italian-made Star Wars ripoff from the 70s and that the desert town had more product placement than residents; that there was way that Natalie Portman would ever put this on her reel; that the end credits song was awful; and that the image-dimming 3D conversion was the pits. Thor's getting a spot in the Avengers and a 2013 sequel so move the fuck on with these months-old "insights," slowpoke.]
Like yours, perhaps, it began around Memorial Day, with the release of Midnight in Paris, which, wonders never ceasing, has gone on to become Woody Allen’s most successful film since Hannah and Her Sisters back when we were fighting Gaddafi the first time. It’s a nice little souffle of a movie, brisk and sweet, helped enormously by Owen Wilson’s best-ever surrogacy of the “Woody Allen part” and a better-than-usual reading of the stock mean fiancee role by Rachel McAdams, his Wedding Crashers co-star. Allen has put short story effort into the time travel plot and the meet-cute situations, with casting relied on to supply the magic–and when you have Corey Stoll as Hemingway, Tim Hiddleston (Thor!) and Alison Pill as the Fitzgeralds, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, and Adrien Brody as Dali, you’ve got more than enough tricks up one’s sleeve for 90 minutes. So what if Brody has just a single shtick, repeating the name “Dali”? It still made me chuckle, and who wouldn’t want to be here than, say, on that boat with Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor at the end of Allen’s bottom-hitting Cassandra’s Dream? Mojo that kicks in every three years or so, or the distance between Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point, is still mojo that kicks in.
Speaking of McGregor, every casting director’s third or fourth choice for leading man mopes through Beginners, as a struggling artist coping with elderly father Christopher Plummer’s late embrace of homosexuality. That this was actually experienced by filmmaker Mike Mills should make for a rich and surprising drama, but Mills has chosen to smother it in layers of cutesy touches, like having a dog (his late father’s own dog, as it happens) react in subtitles, as many times as a hack like Chris Columbus would do in a typical greeting-card flick. Structured like a bloodless video essay on the subject at hand and too arty for its own good the movie is determined to keep us at arm’s length from its volatile subject, becalming both performers.
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon find their own rhythm on The Trip, Michael Winterbottom’s feature-length distallation of a TV miniseries that aired in Britain last year. For most viewers I imagine this portable version will be enough, as Coogan, a favorite overseas, remains a marginal comic figure here, playing villains in The Other Guys and the like. That he hasn’t broken through to his satisfaction is the core of the movie, as he and Brydon, as versions of themselves, motor around the north of England on a newspaper-sponsored restaurant tour. They fitfully amuse themselves (and us) with imitations (bravo to the Michael Caine standoff, though Brydon’s Welch accent tends to compromise his American characterizations) and take a stab or two at the existential implications of being 40-ish, with the self-doubting Coogan at a perennial crossroads in this road movie. It’s a movie to like for what it is (how Winterbottom gets these very narrow pictures and programs airborne time and again is a lesson in industry perseverance) though I felt a little sorry for The Observer, as neither diner takes a single note during their courses.
You can say a lot or a little about The Tree of Life, a movie (a film) as fervently awaited by adherents of director Terrence Malick as the Rapture is (or was) by its disciples. There is a religiosity to it, as the mother figure of Jessica Chastain speaks of God (almost entirely in voiceover) as father Brad Pitt broods and rages and son Sean Penn (in the framing segment) tries to make sense of it, sometimes from within one of those glass-and-steel houses that in the movies always connote spiritual emptiness and suffering (don’t a lot of stars live in these?). There is a great deal of birdlike, darting cinematography and a visit with a very principled dinosaur and his prey and through the turbulent cosmos, overseen by none other than the great Douglas Trumbull, of 2001 fame. I found this family odyssey frustratingly lacking in specifics, thought Penn was miscast as a seeker, and I suspect Malick’s six-hour cut will continue to shrug off clarity if it ever surfaces. But there is a fascination to it–its idiosyncratic journey never draws condescending laughter–and even Malick grinches will have to admit that its hummingbird approach occasionally alights on something simple and arresting, as in the photo.
Which brings us to…well, not quite yet to the Spielberg-produced phenom of the weekend, but the one that’s been kicking around for a few weeks, Super 8. Set in 1979-ish (a “My Sharona” sing-a-long, the kind of thing I did when I was 14 that year, makes for one early, charming scene) the film’s stars are a small group of Ohio kids making their own Romero-esque zombie movie, which just about passes the smell test; Dawn of the Dead was in release, not that any of these kids were likely to have seen it, and cut prints of Night of the Living Dead were just going into TV circulation, at least in New York. Their movie, which we see aside the closing credits, could be what they imagine Romero’s “forbidden” films to be like. In any event it’s all a case of auteurist misdirection–the real lust object for J.J. Abrams is Spielberg himself, and Super 8 is a simulacrum of Spielberg’s summer movies past, “the way they used to be.” (Recall that Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a Christmas 1977 release, was reissued in summer 1980). Just about every beat, flourish, and camera move is designed to draw on memories of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, The Goonies (ugh), and, of more recent vintage, War of the Worlds. The problem, however, is twofold. If you know those movies, you’ll get restless waiting for this one to come into its own, and wonder why Abrams, an accomplished genre filmmaker in his own right, is bothering with a two-hour homage (or how egocentric Spielberg, who usually seems so humble, must really be to greenlight it). If you don’t, you’ll have trouble oohing and aahing over the finale, which has to work overtime to get you oohing and aahing at things we’ve oohed and aahed at 300 times in the past–and doesn’t quite get there. Audience indifference to alien invasion movies, which began with the foggy Skyline and continued with Battle Los Angeles, Paul, Mars Needs Moms, etc., hasn’t been overcome, and executive producer Spielberg must be starting to sweat his third one of the summer, Cowboys & Aliens, which from the looks of the trailer has scenes interchangeable with Super 8‘s less-than-super third act.
Fortunately the second, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, is money in the bank, and will be waving its flag this holiday weekend. Whenever a Michael Bay film (I mean, movie) opens the critics recount his many sins against cinema, as if the director were a prisoner of the Cultural Revolution. But Bay, virtually bulletproof at the boxoffice (and that includes his dire remakes of iconic 70s/80s horror movies), refuses to recant before his accusers. Each release is louder, longer and dumber than the last, to the point where even he’s a little self-critical of the second, woeful Transformers movie, the one with the robot balls and the robot nightmare and the race-baiting robot sidekicks. And yet there I was on opening day, my 3D glasses and jumbo tub of popcorn at the ready. Why?
Well, OK, I admit to kind of liking the first Transformers movie. It has all the usual Bay faults: arrhythmic editing, which tends to slow what should be fast-paced action scenes and really bogs down the expository stuff, witlessness (you know he’s the kind of humorless person who has no sense of humor but persists in thinking that he does), simplistic, might-makes-right politics, and the coarsest taste imaginable. These really are PG-13 movies, accent on the “13”–here we go from goings-on at the moon, filmed with a kind of grandeur, to an admiring shot of the “moon” of the series’ new leading lady, as the franchise’s former love interest, who dared to compare Bay to Hitler, is shot down with a mean-spirited, totally high school quip.
But in 2007 Bay broke down the digital dividing line between actors and CG creatures, something other filmmakers hadn’t quite accomplished, and scene after scene he did it under sunny skies, which are unforgiving on computer animation. The Transformers co-existed on the same plane with the human performers, and that’s not nothing, even if no one, flesh or carburetor, was spared the terrible dialogue. And having missed out on the Hasbro toys I enjoyed the idea of the Transformers, and could watch them morph into air conditioners, fridges, and flatscreen TVs all day. The movie was robbed of a visual effects Oscar. (Who remembers the winner, The Golden Compass?) Once was, however, enough; I skipped Revenge of the Fallen until it turned up on cable, where I did admire the battleship sequence, where in a few minutes Bay tops the entire “money” hour of his woebegone Pearl Harbor.
What brought me back into the fold was two things: 3D, and Chicago. In not even two years since Avatar 3D has become a sad joke among discerning filmgoers, for good reason–we’re not getting any bang for our buck, particularly with all the screen-deadening “conversions” out there that add no dimension whatsoever to the movie. Bay promised to change all that, with 3D from the get-go and a new process to brighten the picture. I can’t comment on the process (it did look handsome, without the tiresome dinginess we’ve come to expect) but I can say that Bay came up short on his bargain. The moon sequences register with some force (never mind that the real Buzz Aldrin somehow consented to participate in the movie’s conspiratorial fiction) yet Bay has otherwise held back on the effects. You expect and want Michael Bay to rock your world and obliterate your eyeballs with 3D bric-a-brac, and here, now, he chooses to be tasteful and discreet. (If Spielberg and Martin Scorsese can’t get anything going in the third dimension with their next movies, the process is creatively spent, finished.)
Chicago, however, destroys quite nicely, and it’s high time for it to go down in flames, cinematically speaking. Other than a few sci-fi cheapies from the 50s and The Blues Brothers (1980) it’s gotten a free pass since the historical In Old Chicago (1937)–the Batman movies, set in Gotham City but filmed there, don’t count–and as someone who loves Chicago architecture I got a somewhat morbid kick out of watching robot ships and robot aggressors dismantle it block by block. Once you’ve gotten through the first 90 minutes of the flick–and a big problem with the franchise is that none of them runs just 90 minutes–you can kick back with the spectacle, which is thoroughly up-to-date, no looking back at the way things were. There are maybe 10 minutes here where Chicago, 3D robots, and death-defying urban sky jumping converge and make for a genuinely thrilling time at the movies. The other 144 have the great Frances McDormand on hand as a tough-talking government operative who cuts through the crap of the movie and gives a perfectly sensible performance, so rare in a Bay film. I like to think that she called Bay Hitler every day on set and he was too terrified to argue.
Enough of the robots. Enjoy the battle of the Michael Caines:
And testimony from an expert witness: