"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

5 Posts from June 2009

IN THEATRES

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, directed by Michael Bay    Opens on Wednesday 24 June 2009

For the last two decades it has been said that the summer movie blockbuster has progressively become more about expensive displays of CGI mechanical action than about entertaining, thrilling stories.  Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the apotheosis of this evolution, giving its audience scrap heaps of literal mechanical action with terminally protracted scenes of gargantuan alien robots beating each other up.  This was kind of novel in the first of these enormously expensive feature-length toy commercials for Hasbro; but screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and director Michael Bay endlessly repeat the battling robot formula with barely a new twist in this tiresome sequel to the 2007 original movie. 

The story continues the adventures of college-bound Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) and his association with the Autobots who saved Earth from the dastardly Decepticons in the last movie.  All the robots have the ability to transform into cars, airplanes and other mechanical items: the Autobots vehicle of choice are GM cars, presumably they are trying to help the troubled automaker pull out of insolvency with a cool new action image.  The Autobots now reside on Earth and are working in alliance with a top secret U.S. agency called NEST to hunt down and destroy any remaining Decepticons. 

Sam has accidentally absorbed the contents of a sliver of the Allspark cube - mostly destroyed in the first movie - which has the ability to bring mechanical and electrical objects to life (usually creating more bad old Decepticons), and is apparently the source of life for all Transformers.  Within the Allspark information embedded in Sam's brain is the whereabouts of the Matrix, a small device hidden on Earth eons a go by the first Transformer visitation.  The Matrix will power a weapon that will destroy the sun for the creation Energon, the lifeblood of the Transformers . . . or something like that.  It's all convoluted if you are not, I suppose, a Transformer's fanboy.  What this slim thread of a storyline justifies is a movie as a glorified demolition derby.

I know that a big appeal of these movies is watching the robots duke it out, but the repetition of these scenes make the old "Rock' Em Sock 'Em Robots" game toy seem awesome in comparison.  The incredible details on the robots don't help the clarity of the action.  The robots contain such infinitesimal detail that they are almost abstract designs.  So when they are fighting one another in scenes of rapidly edited close shots, it is easy to be confused about who is fighting who.  The images become a mess of fast moving colour and texture that is more disorienting than exciting.

Shia LeBeouf, as the semi-dorky teenager who has formed a close human connection with the Autobots, is appealing and has a relaxed way of delivering comedic lines.  He also displays a talent for physical comedy in a classroom scene where he becomes overwhelmed with the alien information in his head.

Megan Fox is back as LeBeouf's spunky and impossibly gorgeous girlfriend.  She's not given a whole lot to do except to expertly fill-out a snug wardrobe.  (At the screening I attended, Fox received a round of applause from a group of young males in the audience when she is first seen straddling a motorcycle while wearing a pair of Daisy Dukes.)  For the last act of the film, Fox is seen running in slow-motion towards the camera so many times that I thought I was watching an episode of Baywatch.  This is not a criticism as it was a welcome diversion from the laborious and incessant final battle.

John Turturro returns as the obsessive Agent Simmons giving Revenge of the Fallen a much needed eccentric edge and comedic snap.  Of the new robots my favourite was "Alice", played with intense sexual malice by Isabel Lucas.  She doesn't get a lot of screen time, but she is so indelible that I bet the fanboys will be dying to get their hands on her "Bitch-Bot" action figure. 

The first movie in this franchise was silly fun.  In that film, the Autobots, such as Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, were given enough personality to be somewhat endearing and you rooted for them.  If you didn't think too much about its improbable story logic, the original Transformers entertained with some pretty cool images and some funny moments; it accelerated like a well oiled and highly-tuned engine.  Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen can't get out of first gear and at 2 1/2 hours it's an arduous drive that begs the question, "Are we there yet?"

[TV commerical for "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots": more fun than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen]

IN THEATRES

SUMMER HOURS, written and directed by Olivier Assayas                                                                                           Opens in Vancouver on Friday 19 June 2009 

French films tend to pulse at a different beat than other world films, especially in comparison to Hollywood movies which have a tendency to just beat you senseless with their unrelenting in-your-face pacing.  French films - like in Eric Rohmer's best pictures - have a way of coming at you with a gentle caress, softly embracing the viewer.  The same could be said of Summer Hours, writer and director Olivier Assayas's fragile evocation of relinquishing the past.  Unfortunately, this wisp of a movie is so light it just wafts away. 

Summer Hours opens with three forty-something siblings - two with their children - visiting their mother, Hélène, on her 75th birthday: Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a single New York designer; Frédéric (Charles Berling) is a family man and a professor of economics in Paris; Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) is an enterprising businessman who works and lives in China with his wife and kids. 

Hélène has lived a long time in her cherished French country house that once belonged to her beloved, long deceased uncle: a famous and highly regarded painter.  The house is filled with her uncle's paintings, sketches, antique furniture and bric-a-brac; several pieces are desired by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and his sketchbook is sought by Christie's art auction house in New York City.  At the birthday party, Hélène takes Frédéric (the eldest sibling) aside and instructs her son to sell the house and all its valuable contents upon her death.  Frédéric can't fathom the idea of not keeping the entire estate in the family to pass down to Hélène's grandchildren.  For Hélène, her deep connection to her uncle's house and his art will be of no consequence when she's gone.  She firmly believes the money from the sale would be of more value to her family because her possessions could never have the same resonance for them as it did for her. 

After her death, Hélène's children consider what is to be done with the house and the artwork.  Jérémie and Adrienne are emphatic that everything is to be sold; they have little sentimental attachment to the estate.  Even the grandchildren are indifferent about their family history.  When Frédéric points out to his kids a painting on the wall of the house and asks them if they like it, his son dispassionately answers: "Well, it's another era".

Adrienne and Jérémie make it clear that if their mother's home is kept in the family they will seldom have a chance to visit it because they lead very busy lives on opposite sides of the world.  Frédéric wouldn't be able to afford the upkeep of the house on his own, so he reluctantly agrees to sell it and eventually must come to terms with stripping away the past.  He obsesses over two paintings by Corot that had to be sold and his brooding over their loss drives his wife to frustration.  The irony of Frédéric is that he is an economist, yet the value he holds for his mother's estate is not about economics, it's about the memory of a lost era which holds little value for his family that is willing to let it fade away. 

Summer Hours is rife with elegy.  I have never seen a movie before that contemplates the power of family heirlooms and how they may resonate with the energy of their owner's life.  One of the best scenes in the movie occurs in the Musée d'Orsay where Frédéric and his wife visit their mother's antique furniture.  They pause at a gorgeous Art Nouveau desk that we first saw in Hélène's house where it was cluttered with paperwork, books and pictures.  At the gallery, the desk is clean of objects, coldly on display to be admired, and we feel a sense of sadness because this desk - no matter that it is a work of art - is not serving it's purpose as a practical piece of furniture that belonged to someone who loved it.  Frédéric notices one of his mother's antique glass vases on display and comments that it doesn't feel "enchanted" anymore because no flowers spring from the vase.  This is a lovely notion suggesting that the objects we hold dearly in our lives absorbs and reflects our identity - our spirit. 

The cinematography is appropriately doleful, mostly light grays for the exteriors in the first three-quarters of the film and then sunnier yellows for the final quarter when Frédéric's pot smoking daughter throws a party for her friends in the abandoned house - sort of a last hurrah for the old place.  The end of the picture echoes the beginning: children and teenagers playing in the house's wild gardens as metaphor for the past to be overtaken by the unsentimental nature of youth.

For all its composed melancholy and its brief moments of lyricism, Summer Hours is sorrowfully lacking in dramatic tension.  The narrative dangerously comes close to sleepwalking.  The scenes of the siblings' conversations that turn to recriminations feel arbitrary.  The actors are fine, but consistently too low-key; that's a problem with Assayas's script.  It's wonderful to see the great Juliette Binoche on the big screen, but her role doesn't give her anything to chew on and she awkwardly disappears from the last quarter of the movie.  Edith Scob is touching and slightly ornery as the dying mother.  It's suggested that she once had an illicit love affair with her artist uncle, but this news barely fazes her sophisticated children (they are French, after all).

Summer Hours' failure to generate any degree of heat leaves the viewer frustratingly detached.  However, I am grateful to the movie for inspiring me to look past the kitsch value of the ceramic cat lamp I inherited from my grandmother and contemplate its meaning. 

MUST SEE DVD

BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984), written & directed by Woody Allen

Whatever Works is the title of Woody Allen’s new movie that opens on 26 June 2009.  After an extended cinematic stay in England and Spain to make his last four films, the poet laureate of New York angst and romantic tribulations returns to his native Manhattan for his latest comedy starring Larry David (co-creator of Seinfeld and creator/actor of Curb Your Enthusiasm). 

Woody Allen’s filmmaking career is astonishingly prolific: in a 40 year period he has made virtually one movie per year and continues writing and directing into his mid-70s.  I have many favourite Woody Allen films; high on my list is Broadway Danny Rose (1984).  This is Woody’s ode to the odd personalities hovering on the fringes of American show-business and it is one his most entertaining and sweetest stories.  

In scenes that bookend the movie, Broadway Danny Rose is a Damon Runyon-esque tale as told by one comedian to a group of veteran comics in Manhattan’s Carnegie Deli.  Woody Allen is Danny Rose, a theatrical manager of misfit entertainers.  Danny nurtures his acts as if they were his children, especially his biggest baby, Italian crooner Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), whose career is tanking.  Danny convinces show-biz icon Milton Berle to check out Lou’s performance at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as an audition for Berle’s upcoming television special.  This news triggers Lou’s debilitating nerves; he won’t be able to perform unless Danny brings Lou’s mistress, Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow), to the show.  Danny knows this is a bad idea because Lou is married with kids, but business is business.  Danny tracks down Tina, the platinum-blond ex-wife of a deceased mobster.  He tries to convince Tina that Lou’s big break will go bust if she isn’t by his side at the show, but she wants nothing more to do with the neurotic crooner since she’s angry with Lou for not leaving his wife.  Tina flees Manhattan with Danny chasing her, plunging him into a wacky adventure involving the mob out to whack the frantic and panicked talent agent.

Woody Allen as Danny Rose is note-perfect; not really a neurotic character, but a platitude-spewing, hyperactive den mother whose faith in his one-legged tap dancer, his ancient balloon-folders and his messed-up crooner is heartfelt.  It’s perhaps Allen’s most endearing role.

Nick Apollo Forte never acted before Rose.  He was a real-life singer who could pull off the American song standards with swagger, while displaying a touching vulnerability that makes the anxious and needy Lou Canova sympathetic and not merely pathetic. 

Mia Farrow’s Tina is brass and sass, but she never allows her character to become a cartoon as Tina’s compassion slowly emerges.  This is a tribute to Farrow’s talents and to Woody’s screenwriting.

The era of the story is slightly nebulous; it’s evocative of the late 1950s or early 1960s, but sometimes you are aware it’s the early 1980s.  This paints the picture with a lovely timelessness which is only enhanced by Gordon Willis’s black and white photography.  In many of Woody’s movies Manhattan is photographed to convey the great city as a character.  In Rose, Manhattan is not only a character, but a multi-textured stage for the eccentric characters to play out this show-biz fable upon.

Broadway Danny Rose is contextually a screwball comedy, but for all its wackiness the movie’s core throbs with fondness and warmth for its cockeyed characters without ever portraying them as just silly.  Woody Allen slowly insinuates a quiet pathos in the comedy reminiscent of one of his cinematic heroes, Charlie Chaplin.  By its conclusion, Broadway Danny Rose is surprisingly touching, and illustrates Woody’s deft facility to take a wonderfully ludicrous idea and naturally imbue it with human characterization - and not cynical caricature. 

[A clip from Broadway Danny Rose]

If you live in the Greater Vancouver area, you can rent the DVD of Broadway Danny Rose from the greatest video store in Canada, Videomatica - located at 1855 West 4th Avenue (phone: 604-734- 0411) in fabulous Kitsilano.  Website: www.videomatica.ca

IN THEATRES

Yara Shahidi and Eddie Murphy make a mess of pancakes and this movie

IMAGINE THAT directed by Karey Kirkpatrick: Opens Friday 12 June 2009

Poor Eddie Murphy.  The once acerbic and outrageously funny actor/comedian has once again chosen to wither away his talents in yet another lame family comedy.  Imagine That - written by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, and directed by Karey Kirkpatrick - offers Eddie Murphy his flimsiest material to date and suffers from a paucity of what the film's title suggests.

Murphy plays Evan Danielson, a successful financial executive who is a divorced father of seven-year-old Olivia (Yara Shahidi).  When it's his turn to look after Olivia, Evan takes his parental responsibilities as a bothersome obligation as he works on the latest high-end stock deals for his clients.  He is consistently distracted from his work to deal with Olivia's attachment to her "Goo-ga", a security blanket that she drapes over her head to speak to her imaginary friends, two princesses and a queen.

Along with his daughter's "Goo-ga" fixation causing school problems, Evan faces a crises of confidence in his job as his financial rival, Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church) - a "First Nations" descendant - impresses the company bosses and their clients with his pseudo-mystical approach to financial forecasting, complete with absurd, Native American analogies to corporate investment. 

Late one night when Evan is desperately analyzing possible investments to be presented at a client meeting the next morning, Olivia tells her father about specific financial insights recommended by her "Goo-ga" friends. Of course Evan blows off her daughter's financial flights-of-fancy.  The following morning, just before his big presentation, Evan finds his notes defaced with crayon illustrations and sparkle decorations by Olivia, and in the meeting Evan is upstaged by Johnny Whitefeather who wins over the clients with his ludicrous spiritual insights into the markets.  This ignites Evan's anger.  He explodes into a rant about Whitefeather's nonsensical native approach and states it's no better than a child's reasoning while reciting Olivia's fanciful descriptions of what companies to ditch or invest in.  Figuring he has lost his job, Evan's boss (Ronny Cox) calls him into a meeting where he tells Evan that in spite of his unorthodox presentation, the news is that he was right about the financial forecast of the companies, which means Olivia was right.

Evan becomes a believer in Olivia's "Goo-ga" and uses his daughter to channel her imaginary friends for their advice on further investment opportunities.  Evan must appease Olivia's "friends" by joining her in rituals involving running through imaginary lands, hopping around, singing songs and dancing in public.  Each time, Olivia's financial advice proves a winner for Evan and this causes Johnny Whitefeather to investigate, discovering Evan's secret of the mystical blanket and inspiring Whitefeather to fight blanket with blanket.

Imagine That strives for comedic whimsy, but the comedy and whimsy are as depressed as our current economy.  A child's miraculous insight into the stock market may be the stuff of wish fulfillment for adults, but it sure doesn't make for an entertaining family film.  There are too many scenes of investment talk that will bore children wanting sprightly action and disappoint adults expecting scenes of parental hilarity from Eddie Murphy. 

The idea of the imaginary friends that Olivia speaks with is handled in a most perfunctory manner with no sense of enchantment.  Going into the movie knowing the basic premise, I dreaded an onslaught of over-the-top computer generated special effects that realize Olivia's fantasy friends.  Surprisingly, the film never, ever goes down that road.  There is not one digital pixel to illustrate what is really under Olivia's "Goo-ga", which at first I thought was refreshing; the filmmakers want the audience to use their imagination.  But this is handled with no sense of style to inspire the imagination, and as the film dragged on I was praying for a hit of over-indulgent special effects to liven up a supremely sluggish movie.

Eddie Murphy has loads of limitless charisma.  He possesses a unique vocal delivery (a mixture of a lyrical rapid-fire cocky confidence and a subtle vulnerability) and a gift for physical comedy.  So it's a real shame the filmmakers went so soft on scenes that would have benefited from Murphy's talents.  An example of this laziness is the scene where Olivia has taken her father to a public space to dance as a test for the imaginary Queen's acceptance of Evan.  This could have been a wonderful bit of heart-warming physical comedy: an embarrassing public exhibition that becomes a delightful bonding moment for father and daughter.  The danger here is that the scene could have been cloying.  However, it is neither funny nor sweet because the scene is shot and performed in such a lacklustre manner that it reeks of blandness.  The same goes for two other potentially engaging scenes between father and daughter: Evan trying to teach Olivia to sing The Beatles' song "All You Need Is Love" and the two of them making a mess of a pancake dinner covered in ketchup, mustard and hot sauce. These are supposed to be adorable scenes of bonding, but they all fall flatter than their pancakes.

Yara Shahidi as Olivia is no better.  She is pretty and pleasant, but she lacks the vitality and charm her imaginative character needs to engage her father and the audience.  Thomas Haden Church, so wickedly funny in Sideways, is e-mailing his performance into the movie.  And the always solid Martin Sheen, as the financial guru who puts Evan and Johnny Whitefeather to a test of leadership, is terribly vapid in what is an impoverished, mechanical role that was written strictly to hinge a climatic plot point; another waste of fine talent.

Imagine That is a sadly predictable and malnourished family comedy that wheezes to an ending that takes little imagination on the audience's part to foresee.  And imagine that Eddie Murphy used to spoof icons of children's programming (Mr. Rogers, Gumby) years ago on Saturday Night Live; he has now evolved into what he used to scathingly satirize.

 

MUST SEE DVD

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948), directed by William Dieterle

Portrait of Jennie, David O. Selznick’s strange 1948 production, is the kind of fantasy film that’s easily scorned (it was upon its original release) because this fragile, fanciful story is treated with sincerity.  Yet Jennie is curiously captivating if you allow its dreamlike spirit to wash over you.   

Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is a talented but uninspired artist struggling to make his way in mid-1930s New York City.  One winter evening, as he wanders quietly through Central Park, Eben meets Jennie (Jennifer Jones), an enigmatic little girl playing by herself in the snow.  Jennie’s comfortable rapport with Eben evinces a connection as if they’ve known each other forever.  As suddenly as they meet, Jennie disappears into the cold evening.  This encounter rekindles Eben’s artistic drive, sparking a creative output that begins to earn him a steady income.  What follows is a concurrence of encounters between Eben and Jennie.  Each time they meet, his inspiration mounts, their love deepens, and - within a few months - she miraculously matures closer to Eben’s age, so it would appear that their passions might perhaps be consummated in the end.  Eben surmises an unreal, equivocal nature to his relationship with Jennie: he’s either imagining his muse or she’s a ghost.

The success of Portrait of Jennie depends on your willingness to believe in what is basically a silly story meant to be taken seriously.  A similar idea, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) was a successful spectral love story because of its beautifully crafted script, which balanced humour and drama with sympathetic characters.  The potential problem with Jennie’s acceptance lay in its high-minded approach to delicate fantasy, which might seem pretentious; Jennie’s prologue doesn’t help as it opens the film with ostentatious quotes by Euripides and Keats (producer Selznick’s attempt to ease audiences of his time into this very strange fable), but, depending on your temperament for this type of story - meaning, no cynics allowed - Jennie weaves a lovely spell of mystery, longing and destiny that is entertaining and moving. 

Director William Dieterle and cinematographer Joseph August shot Jennie mostly on location in New York City.  Even though the films suffers from some awkward studio process work and cuts due to technical problems in the location filming, the powerful black and white images - with expressionistic lighting, textured overlay effects and stark silhouettes - render an eternal, haunted quality to the city that is harmonious with this phantom romance.  The apocalyptic fury of the climatic storm sequence is expertly staged with excellent special effects and is tinted in monochrome green, giving it an eerie patina; the storm’s aftermath is tinted red, and the final shot is in full Technicolor. 

Themes of the eternal spirit, past lives, and souls destined for each other beyond the space/time continuum can easily sink a fantasy film by the sheer weight of its grandiosity.  Portrait of Jennie, however, perilously scrapes a few dramatic reefs but manages to stay afloat, and so must be reconsidered as a flawed but fascinating classical-era Hollywood movie that’s part art film, part ghost story and part wonderfully absurd romance.

If you live in the Greater Vancouver area, you can rent the DVD of Portrait of Jennie from the greatest video store in Canada, Videomatica - located at 1855 West 4th Avenue (phone: 604-734- 0411) in fabulous Kitsilano.  Website: www.videomatica.ca