Saturday, June 28, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction Review

(dir. Michael Bay)

Paramount Pictures

“You gotta have faith, Prime. Maybe not in who we are, but who we can be.”

     There are things we come to expect from a Michael Bay film: the low-angle 360 degree shot, a plethora of American flags, sunsets, and infinite explosions. These films are as much style as they are brand and despite some minor repackaging, the latest adventure of the robots in disguise delivers exactly what’s been marketed. If the previous Transformers movies haven’t been to your liking then this latest installment will do nothing to sway your opinion, but fans of the franchise will be pleased as Bay delivers his most explosive film yet.  Transformers: Age of Extinction is absurd, fun, and expands the mythology of the series.

    Four years have passed since the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the U.S. government has turned against the Autobots that once protected them, hunting them and Decepticons alike for their own nefarious purposes. The story follows Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling inventor trying to support his 17-year old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). Cade purchases a beat-up truck that happens to be a damaged and battle-weary Optimus Prime.  CIA  Agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) leads a strike team called “Cemetery Wind” to hunt down the Yeagers and Optimus. The Yeagers and Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) are forced to go on the run with Optimus and a rag-tag group of disillusioned Autobots. Unbeknownst to them, Attinger has teamed up with a bounty-hunter Transformer named Lockdown and scientist Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) in an effort to build man-made Transformers.

The human protagonists once again exist to serve as the audiences surrogates. They are clearly characters built for convenience to the plot, but Wahlberg, Peltz and Reynor are all compelling enough and hit the necessary emotional beats. Stanley Tucci is fully committed to the absurdity of his character and stands out as always. But the true stars of these films are of course the Transformers. There’s simply nothing like hearing Peter Cullen’s deep resonant voice saying lines that sound like they’re coming from one of those talking action figures where you press the button to get 10 different sound clips. The Transformers once again all have very distinct personalities and Bay and the effects team has gone even further in humanizing their features (Lockdown’s facial features are eerie in their human likeness.) The odd design choices may raise a few questions (why is Hound over-weight? What is the cloth-like metal on Crosshairs? Why does Drift look like a Japanese samurai?) but at least they are differentiated enough from their cartoon iterations to tell them apart. ILM once again does a marvelous job with the effects and the Dino-bots that emerge near the later hour of the film are imaginatively designed.

     The story (by returning scribe Ehren Kruger) is enjoyable, with a few surprising plot twists. Still, the story is simply the plate on which the main course of special effects and expert choreography is served. Though the script far outshines the messy plot structure of Revenge of the Fallen, it doesn’t have the same earnest charm of the first film or the sense of an epic culmination as Dark of the Moon. Much of the sophomoric humor that ate up runtime in the previous films is gone. There are still a few points the film drags in its three hour runtime but there are so many big action set pieces that in the scheme of things the slow points matter very little. The film never forgets its roots, that it’s in part meant to sell toys (action figures to kids and cars to adults—ridiculously wealthy adults that is). The film is ultimately an entertaining ride, a sometimes messy barrage of ideas and explosive effects, and a film only Michael Bay could make.

    As a bit of a side-note, there’s been much made about Bay’s critically maligned franchise.  Slashfilm’s David Chen referred to it as “distillation of anti-cinema." Other detractors of both the professional and message board variety have made similar claims about the downfall of American cinema due to the commercialization of the industry and the taste of moviegoers in the advent of more and more big-budget sequels and reboots over the past few years. It speaks to a problem within film criticism—the idea that only certain types of films can be enjoyed and that a moviegoers’ tastes in film as a whole can be judged by this. We can refuse to take part in a snobbish film culture, while still recognizing a changing and sometimes problematic industry.  We can enjoy and find merit in many films regardless of their trappings, just as we can dislike many types of films.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with disliking a film, even hating a film. Having strong opinions on what we watch is always a good thing, it generates conversation. But judging individuals’ intelligence by what they enjoy, crying wolf on the doomsday of the industry, and writing reviews on unseen films isn’t film criticism. It is blindness and ill-suited posturing, considering many of the sites making these claims make their revenue from bait-click articles focused on commercial films. The simple truth is sometimes people want to watch the latest Oscar-bait or critically acclaimed independent film and sometimes people want to watch alien robots with swords ride robotic dinosaurs. That’s ok. We can watch all things both silly and smart, and be smarter for it.

Grade: B+

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow Review

(dir. Doug Liman)

Warner Bros.

“How many times have we been here?”

     Hostile forces have attacked the world. They’ve destroyed our landmarks, depleted our resources, and pushed us to use desperate measures. The military can’t save us; they don’t even know where to start. Our only hope? Tom Cruise. If any of this sounds familiar it’s because it is. Edge of Tomorrow mashes together a lot of ideas that have been executed in other movies, while still managing to be an entertaining ride. 

     Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a cowardly spokesman for the U.S. military who convinces others to join the fight against alien invaders, Mimics, while he avoids entering the fight himself. After attempting to blackmail General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) in order to prevent being sent to the front lines, Cage finds himself stripped of his title and forced to serve as a grunt with J-Squad. Cage, labeled a coward and harassed by his fellow soldiers and Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton), is forced onto the front lines in France with a metal exo-skeleton he barely knows how to use. After an encounter with a Mimic, Cage dies only to find himself back with J-Squad on the day before the battle but he can remember dying and everything that happened before. The time loop he’s caught in brings him in contact with Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), known as the Angel of Verdun, the only one who understands what’s happening to him. With her help Cage must go from a coward to a solider, one capable of ending the war against the Mimics.

    What works best for the film is its sense of humor early on. The time loop allows for some entertaining gags involving Cage’s ability to die and wake up twenty-four hours prior. Though the film recycles footage to achieve the effects of the time loop it avoids becoming repetitive primarily because of Cruise and Paxton’s comedic timing. It’s in the more serious moments that occur as the story proceeds where the film begins to falter slightly and recycle elements from the past thirty years of science-fiction films without enough of a twist to make them surprising. The Mimics, while visually interesting, are susceptible to the same weakness that nearly every alien in the past five years has had which eliminates the threat level somewhat.  There’s a notable similarity to some of James Cameron’s earlier films at points, as well as some shots Michael Bay would be proud to claim.

     Doug Liman, whose previous credits include The Bourne Identity, Jumper, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, once again proves his knack for directing action scenes. Despite moments of predictability, there is never a dull moment in the film. Edge of Tomorrow is well directed, but not visionary. It’s smartly written but doesn’t say anything. Edge of Tomorrow prescribes to the Hollywood formula and twenty or thirty years ago that would have been enough to generate a global sensation.

    Much has been made about the reasons behind film’s disappointing box-office returns and who’s to blame. Is it Tom Cruise? Is it overcrowded summer movie season? Do audiences reject original concepts? Audiences don’t reject original concepts because there are no original concepts; there are only the right combinations of familiar elements made to feel unfamiliar. We live in a time where CGI aliens, robotic exo-skeletons, and Tom Cruise simply aren’t enough anymore. That combination of elements feels too familiar right now. But Hollywood is caught in a time loop itself and what doesn’t work now will likely someday work again. Edge of Tomorrow is a competent film, but for one of the year’s few original sci-fi offerings, it just doesn’t feel that original at the moment.

Grade: B

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Maleficent Review

(dir. Robert Stromberg)

Walt Disney Pictures

“I had wings once, and they were strong. But they were stolen from me.”

     Disney’s Maleficent continues the recent trend of revisiting classic fairy tales as big budget spectacles. The film seeks to give depth to the titular character, exploring the source of her villainy. While the marketing for the film depicted an eerie, sinister atmosphere, the film is actually much lighter than what the trailers have suggested. The film presents some interesting ideas, and like Frozen it smartly circumvents that traditional trope of love at first sight, but it is ultimately undone by its poor pacing and forced plot points.

     The story begins with young Maleficent, a powerful fairy who lives within a magical realm called The Moors. The Moors are bordered by a human kingdom that has long been in conflict with the fairies of The Moors. Stefan, a poor human boy enters the Moors one day and befriends Maleficent.  As they grow up they fall in love but Stefan’s relationship with Maleficent is tested by his desire to become King. After a battle with the Moors, the King is gravely injured by Maleficent and Stefan is given the opportunity to become the King’s successor if he can kill Maleficent. Stefan ultimately betrays Maleficent which sets her up to cast her spell of revenge that she takes out on Stefan’s daughter Aurora. What follows is a twist on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) complete with a dragon, Prince Phillip, and the three pixies: Thistlewit, Knotgrass, and Flittle (who are easily the most irritating characters in the film).

     Maleficent and Stefan’s relationship is central to the arc that Maleficent undergoes but that arc is hampered by the film’s reliance on summary through voice-over instead of providing necessary character moments between them. The narrator tells us that they fall in love but the audience is never shown this. The narrator tells us that Stefan desires the crown but we never see why. Upon Stefan’s return to The Moors, the narrator tells us that he and Maleficent talk of many things but the audience is never privy to this conversation. Their entire relationship exists only as an ill-defined idea.  The tragedy of their relationship is necessary to move the story forward but the tragedy isn’t particularly tragic from an emotional standpoint because no time is taken to explore their interaction. This oversight proves damaging to the climax, which is not as thrilling or resonating as it conceptually should have been.

     Sharlto Copley is unfortunately just as miscast in this film as he has been in every movie he’s been in post-District 9. His performance as Stefan is unconvincing in both intent and accent.  He does not believably create a character that could have ever been in love with Maleficent. Instead Stefan is a one-note villain that lacks depth and true motivation. As it becomes increasingly clear that Maleficent is not the film’s antagonist we are left with Stefan who simply waits for sixteen years to take action, not because it’s a logical character action, but because it’s what the plot demands. The film bides for time with digital effects shots, seemingly unsure what to do with all the characters it has introduced and how to create compelling scenes with anyone other than Maleficent. This leaves the film with too many inactive characters while the story waits for Aurora to turn sixteen and once she does the story resolves itself so quickly that any real sense of tension is left behind.

     Angelina Jolie gives a wonderful performance and she clearly has fun with the role, relishing in the idea of being evil. She conveys both the beauty and terror of Maleficent and creates layered character moments in spite of being in need of a better script. Maleficent’s relationship with Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) gives the character an interesting conflict to work through and offers a unique twist on the story.  Though this relationship too (to a lesser extent than with Stefan) too often relies on voice-over and too brief scenes to earn the emotional impact the filmmakers wanted the ending to achieve.

     Stromberg, who worked as a production designer on Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and Oz The Great and Powerful, creates some beautiful visuals. There are some fantastic shots in the film that really capture the iconic look of Maleficent. It’s clear that Stromberg is far more comfortable with the dialogue-less scenes that explore the world and its creatures than he is with character interactions. The concept artists, costume designers, and make-up artist extraordinaire Rick Baker must really be commended for the work on the film. For all of its problems, it’s certainly an interesting film from a visual standpoint.

     Maleficent isn’t a bad film; it has too much unexplored potential to be bad. Rather it’s a disappointing skeleton of a film, filled with empty moments wanting to be explored and emotional arcs that needed to be taken further. Ultimately the story here would have perhaps been better served in a medium other than a full length, live-action film. Despite the spectacle, and Angelina Jolie’s performance, Maleficent lacks too many elements to create magic.

Grade: C+