Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Michael Bay is a talentless hack

An interesting thing happens about an hour into director Michael Bay’s latest film The Island, he remembers that he is Michael Bay. At this point of recognition he reverts to his usual strategies that largely involve wrecking or blowing up anything that moves. It’s a shame, as The Island could have been his best film but it ends up being just another massive waste of time that degenerates into a 90-minute orgy of explosions.

The film starts out promising as Bay is obviously channeling George Lucas’ icy 1971 bleak science fiction film THX 1138 as the look of The Island is a virtual copy—no colors as everything is white or black, the future is a cold place with nothing but concrete, glass, steel and our society is rigidly controlled with few personal freedoms.

Ewan McGregor plays Lincoln Six Echo, a man in this sterile future world who begins to question all around him, including a contest known as "The Lottery", that will decide who gets to go to an island paradise and escape the confines of the city. The dream of winning the lottery to get out of this place and onto the utopian island is the driving force of people’s existence.

The moment Lincoln Six Echo escapes the control of this world, and takes Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) with him, the film becomes a kind of a Logan’s Run dosed up on massive amounts of steroids. It’s at this point to the stops being about an idea and just becomes a silly prolonged chase scene that Bay is infamous for.

Quick history lesson on Bay: he is the man who has given us crimes against cinema such as Bad Boys and The Rock and that embarrassingly bad Pearl Harbor. To think that Bay could make a film about ideas rather than about explosions, I guess I was kidding myself.

Bay just has to be himself. And showing us sweeping helicopter zooms, cheesy slow motions of explosions, cars flipping over again and again, machine-guns and rockets blowing even more stuff up is just Bay letting us see how macho he can be. Bay is as subtle as a jackhammer to the skull and it’s dull, soulless and insulting cinema to anyone who loves movies.

The true star of a Michael Bay film isn’t the actors or script—it’s the person who sets up all the various explosions or destruction that is going to ensue. That person needs a vacation after working on a movie like The Island because they will have pushed the “explode” button so much their finger will be sprained. I’m not kidding. Bay will blow or shoot anything up—cars, buildings, helicopters, more cars, train-stations, streets. Anything. It becomes exhausting at a certain point and not at all thrilling or exciting, as Bay believes it might.

The Island is just further proof that Michael Bay is a hack director. He takes an interesting idea about a utopian future world and ruins it by making it a cliché ridden exercise in excess with him just blowing things up. Any ideas that the movie tries to develop is lost by the end of the film, just one more thing Bay blows to bits.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The joy of the f-word

The most refreshing thing about the raunchy comedy that often takes place in Wedding Crashers is that it is R rated. We actually get to hear cursewords! We live in a PG-13 world during the summer (and most of the year unfortunately) with Hollywood sticking sequels, comic book adaptation after comic book adaptation (really, when will it end?), a various assortment of action films and the recent summer pre-requisite--teen horror film--down our collective throats. To actually hear the word "fuck" pop up that second time (therefore assuring the movie a R rating) almost fills me with the subversive feeling of danger as I sit in a darkened theatre. "Did he just say what I think he said?" I ask myself.

In fact, Wedding Crashers, like so many recently released R rated comedies, is pretty one dimensional and relies on seeing how much humiliation it can unleash on its main characters. But who cares? The actors spout out "dirty" words, get into naughty situations, multiple breasts are exposed (hey, if you are gonna go for the R, you might as well toss in some nudity too!) and the very funny Vince Vaughn experiences a variety of uncomfortable scenes where he gets to curse in all its glory (unfortunately, the tiresome Owen Wilson is in this too. He has two acting expressions: the squint--which he does so often I often doubt his has eyeballs--and the pursed lip pout. Both acting strategies are really annoying and I'd rather he said nothing in movies, regardless of if he's cursing or not.).

So I'm hoping Wedding Crashers does big business in the next few weeks after it had a solid opening weekend. In this ever increasing sanitized world we live in, it's nice to have the choice to actually see something not made for 14 year olds but for adults. Now, don't even get me started on the NC-17 rating as I can go all day on that topic, it's just nice to have some R rated comedy every now and then.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Jackie Brown eight years later

When I watched Jackie Brown when it was released in 1997, I left the theatre kind of swamped in disappointment. You see, it was writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s first film after his beloved Pulp Fiction and anything coming post PF is bound to appear not as good considered all the hype and anticipation that swirled around its release.

I watched Jackie Brown a second time over the weekend and admit right here and now: I was dead wrong in 1997. Jackie Brown is a really good movie and I don't know what in the world I was thinking eight years ago. It has aged incredibly well--or my taste has improved--is all I can say.

While I still wouldn’t put it in Pulp’s league, Jackie Brown is a gritty, interesting film with great dialogue, a wonderful cast of game actors (aside from Bridget Fonda who is hard for me to watch in anything—she better be glad her last name is Fonda is all I can say) such as Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Pam Greer and a low-key Robert De Niro set around an attempt to get money out of Mexico with some doublecrosses along the way.

The vibe of the story reeks of its source material (Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard) and then taken through the Tarantino cultural blender circa mid-1990s. In 1997 I thought the story was too slow in the first half with Tarantino taking too long to get to the actual criminal hi-jinks. What was I thinking? Now I think that is the strongest aspect of the film with the last third almost being anti-climactic as I was hoping to see the relationships between the characters further developed.

In fact, it's Tarantino’s patience directing this film that is the most surprising thing for me as I watched the movie 8 years later. He lingers over scenes and shots in ways I really loved. Combine that with his usual attention to atmosphere and detail and you get a great mix of filmmaking that makes me guilty I ever put this movie down at all.

Tarantino is kind of a polarizing figure in film. He annoys me to no end when I watch interviews or listen to him or see how he apes elements of other films. Yet, I admire his film geek passion/obsession for cinema and think he genuinely loves movies in such a level other directors pale.

His movies can elicit the same kinds of reactions. I didn’t like Kill Bill I/II at all as I felt they were lacking all the great elements of Tarantino’s films—the dialogue? What dialogue? It was too self-conscious for its own good. Kill Bill was Tarantino in love with his own swagger and showing off for his over adoring fans. On the surface it was quite pretty and alluring, but look below, the films were heartless, soulless, characterless exercises in Tarantino trying to be hipper than anyone else and showing he can reference other genres of films more than anyone else. Kill Bill I/II were failures and that feeling was immediate for me upon watching them. Jackie Brown created a more vague response from me after I watched it and who knows, in eight years maybe I’ll sing the praises of Kill Bill—but I doubt it.

I now think Jackie Brown is a better film than anything Tarantino’s done other than PF—that will never be topped—and shows how far Tarantino fell from this to Kill Bill. Maybe his next film will return to characters talking in wonderful ways but I've heard he's doing a kung-fu film in Chinese, so that's not happening. I have high hopes for a WWII film he keeps mentioning, but I'll believe that when I see it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The romance of a Budapest subway

Kontroll (2003) is an interesting film from Hungary that I saw tonight. The entire movie is set in various subway stations and lines below the city of Budapest as it follows a group of lowly ticket checkers as they attempt to check passengers for subway tickets. This is possibly the worst job in Budapest as they are yelled at, spit on, harassed, physically attacked or ignored (compared to what might happen, being ignored is the easiest on the workers).

Written and directed by Nimrod Antal, Kontroll is a lot of things at once--it's dark, it's romantic, it's a bit sad, it's got funny bits. The one thing that runs through it from start to finish is the chaotic atmosphere of the subway, all eerie artificial lights, dirty floors and oddballs who do not want to pay for a ticket to ride.

My favorite elements of Kontroll were some of the less serious ones. Particularly the romantic story between a pretty woman dressed in a pink bear suit and one of the ticket checkers who is clearly dropped to rock bottom on this job. She's sweet (gives up her seat on the subway to the elderly), she's feisty (fights off 4 ticket takers at once) and she seems to like the brooding Bulcsu despite the fact he's always a bit bloody from his subway shenanigans.

I've always wanted to meet a woman on a train or in the subway and fall in love with them. Not a bus for love or jet airplanes for me. Trains and subways. Rail travel. When I lived in London or New York--nothing. When I traveled by Amtrak across the United States multiple times--nothing. Being underground or below ground in various places in Europe--did not happen.
I refuse to give up hope though, losing hope would weaken my claims for being a "romantic". So, naturally, I took to the romantic story of Kontroll like a fish to water.

I really liked this film. Helping my enjoyment is the fact I've spent a few months in Budapest and have spent hours upon hours in the subway. I've skirted away from the arm-band wearing checkers when I haven't paid my fare. I've pulled the ol' "oops, I should be going the other way" strategy to avoid being caught. I even tried the "I don't speak Magyar" that is shown in the movie to get out of a ticket. These people are not popular but I didn't realize the level of public disdain until watching Kontroll.

Kontroll is a dark, romantic film with a pulsing score and energy that should be the start of an interesting young director's career and gives me hope I'll meet some woman dressed in a bear suit I can fall in love with.

The Fantastic Four is fluff

>>>I am writing reviews in a paper nearby, here is my review for The Fantastic Four.<<<

Hollywood’s latest foray into the world of comic book adaptations, The Fantastic Four, raked in around 149 million bucks over the weekend. Its strategy was clear: go for the light hearted vein of summer cinema rather than the more introspective big budget releases such as Batman Begins, Star Wars or War of the Worlds.

The Fantastic Four ends up being a harmless fluff-a-thon action blockbuster that should appeal to the masses (hence the huge opening box office) while not reaching the status of the much superior comic related films such as Spiderman I and II, X-Men or Batman Begins. The masses sure are stupid sometimes.

The film wastes no time with character development as within minutes we’ve met the villain (Victor Von Doom) and are in space. While in space, a group of scientists, are struck by an unexpected radiation storm. After they return to earth, the scientists realize they have odd new skills such as invisibility, turning to flame, elastic ability and super strength. The fantastic four are soon saving lives and fighting crime!

Unlike the comic book films I mentioned earlier, there is no attempt at developing a character arc in how the scientists are altered on earth except for Ben Grimm (aka "The Thing"—I was glad to see actor Michael Chiklis in a large body suit rather than going the CGI route). We get to see how turning into “The Thing” costs Grimm his wife and what he perceives as kind of a public sideshow. It’s the only moment in the film where there is any heart in the story.

You certainly won’t find any surprise or spark in the predictable love relationship between “Mr. Fantastic” and the “Invisible Girl”. The movie tries to engage the viewer in their story as they were once in love, but it’s so obvious the course the story is taking that these forays are just distracting to what’s happening overall in the movie. The two leads--Jessica Alba (who can't act a lick but fills out the F4 suit rather nicely) and Ioan Gruffudd (who can't act either based on his performance in F4)--recite hokey dialogue all the way through the film that is a waste of time.

The big showdown with Von Doom (which should have been good considering his name resembles a nasty pro-wrestler) was completely lacking in suspense and was one of the most underwhelming face-offs between good v. bad I’ve seen in a long time. When it was over I was thinking to myself, “Is that it?”

The Fantastic Four attempts to create such a lighthearted, feel good, funny action film that it forgets to ratchet up any kind of tension whatsoever. Rather than delivering humorous quips maybe we could have seen that The Fantastic Four were in actual danger when the showdown hits. Never did it seem that Von Doom was capable of doing anything to them or the city.

If you like your summer action blockbusters full of lighthearted fun and fluff, then The Fantastic Four is for you. However, if you want to see more character development, tension and action scenes that deliver thrills and apprehension, look elsewhere.