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Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Yes, it’s better than the last Transformers movie, but that doesn’t keep Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon from being the most obnoxious, noisy, tedious, ugly waste of film this year. In its own peculiar way, I suppose that’s something of an accomplishment. In that same vein, we should pay honor to such other improbable feats as finding an underwear model—Rosie Huntington-Whiteley—who makes the fired Megan Fox look like an accomplished actress, and note Shia LaBeouf’s seemingly effortless ability to get worse with every movie. Much more disturbing, however, is the fact that the American public has already shelled out $162 million to have its senses bombarded and its intelligence insulted, while the rest of the world has shelled out an additional $210 million. Mindblowing!
Of course, the idea that Mr. Bay’s latest mess of excess is better than the previous one isn’t predicated on what it has, but rather on what it doesn’t have. The lack of jive-talking comedy-relief robots is a plus, but this isn’t to suggest any actual improvement has taken place. And the addition of Ms. Huntington-Whiteley and Mr. LaBeouf’s increasingly incomprehensible “acting style” may make those omissions pretty much a wash. Apparently, it’s supposed to be disturbing that Bay has recycled footage from The Island (2005). I find it more alarming that anyone knew The Island well enough to notice.
So what do you get for your investment? Well, apart from a great deal of noisy CGI “spectacle” involving giant robots beating each other up and causing massive digital destruction, there’s a sort of a plot that might make sense if you’re careful not to examine it. Seems that the entire space program of the 1960s was due to a desire to find out what crashed on the moon—conveniently, the dark side of the moon. This, of course, turns out to be an Autobot (those are the good robots) ship with a mysterious cargo and the big cheese Autobot Sentinel Prime (given voice by Leonard Nimoy apparently channeling John Huston). We know he’s the oldest and wisest bot because he has a stringy bot beard. (Is anyone over 12 still reading this?)
While he’s being jump-started by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), the head Decepticon Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) has lumbered back into business. He appears to be missing half of his brain, but is still functional and still bent on world domination. There’s duplicity afoot, too—not to mention a lot of pointless digressions (why is the John Malkovich character even in this thing?)—in both human and autobot agencies. None of this should surprise anyone, but in case it might, I’ll leave you to discover it on your own.
All this nonsense is leading up to an endless bout of rock-‘em sock-‘em robot action that devastates Chicago, while an evil plan so scientifically idiotic that Roland Emmerich might have questioned its believability unfolds. It’s the sort of thing that will doubtless appeal to those who like to use phrases involving “check your brain at the door and enjoy the carnage” to justify the onscreen silliness. And no doubt that’s the concept that will be used to defend this rubbish—along with “you’re taking this too seriously.” But really, if a movie insists on frittering away over two-and-a-half hours of my time, yeah, I’m going to insist on something more than “stuff blows up neat.” Rated PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi action violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo.

Currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray at Amazon.

Footloose

Hollywood has gotten so full of remakes that, like a bloated tick, it can initially look unappealing before you realize that it might just be part of the natural order of things.
If you’re like me, the thought of going to see a Footloose remake will immediately make your stomach turn. Let’s face it, who could be better in the lead role than Kevin Bacon? So after forcing myself to watch the remake, I can honestly say that there is nothing new or different or even advance in the filmmaking process. Truthfully, there is not a shred of the new Footloose that couldn’t have been shot in 1984 – and indeed, it was.
Though there is a part of me that acknowledges that a retread of “Footloose” might actually be necessary. After all, I don’t expect any teenager to watch the 1984 film without rolling his or her eyes and wondering why they’re watching some old dude dancing to crappy pop synthesized music from 30 years before.
In this sense, the 2011 version of “Footloose” is exactly what a remake is supposed to be. It’s not there to throw into the cinemas because you have a lack of ideas. Rather, it’s put there to bring the story to a new generation.
The plot, character and delivery are pretty much the same as the original. This was not a venture to put a new spin on the film, unless you consider country covers of the original songs to be a new spin. But even this makes sense in context because the story takes place in Georgia rather than Utah, as the original had.
So, we’ve seen this before… a scrappy teen comes to a small town that has made underage dancing as illegal as underage drinking. It stems from a tragic accident in which three teens were killed on a ride home from a keg party. Hoping to liberate the town and get everyone’s funk on, the teen tries to repeal the law and allow the senior of the high school to have an end-of-the-year dance.
Like the original move, this film pushes all the necessary buttons. The cast is pretty decent, though no one is quite the standout that Kevin Bacon and John Lithgow were in 1984. Sorry, Julianne Hough.  I don’t think Hough has the star power, and with her annoying voice that simultaneously channels Jennifer Tilly and Joey Lauren Adams, her post-“Dancing with the Stars” fame will be short-lived.

Currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray at Amazon.

Moneyball

Co-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s baseball variation on The Social Network, Moneyball focuses on another outsider-rebel-wunderkind determined to upend traditional social and business paradigms through technological innovation via the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s franchise. Based on Michael Lewis’ book (and co-written by Steven Zaillian), and playing fast and loose with facts and contextual information, Bennett Miller’s film charts Beane’s efforts – after losing to the Yankees in the 2001 playoffs, and then losing his top three players to free agency because of strict budgetary concerns – to compensate for his club’s inability to spend like the league’s big boys by using statistical analysis to pinpoint unheralded players with potential. That idea comes courtesy of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a fictional variation on Paul DePodesta, who champions Bill James’ sabermetric approach to player evaluation, looking at key numbers (like on-base percentage) and ignoring more famous calculations like home runs and RBIs, a shift that angers Beane’s old-school scouts and leads to talk-radio ridicule until, lo and behold, the approach begins to pay dividends. Despite some moments with his daughter and doubts about his course of action, Beane remains throughout a two-dimensional figure, but a charismatic and decidedly human Pitt nonetheless embodies him with engaging verve, and Hill exhibits a droll understatement that helps enliven what amounts to a rather standard underdog-makes-good fable. For a film about insurgency from within, it’s disappointing that director Miller treats his material like conventional Oscar bait, but his stewardship is shrewd and light on its feet, and his integration of real-life footage into the proceedings is deft. Moreover, while it never strays far from its path, and more or less wastes Philip Seymour Hoffman in the limited role of A’s manager Art Howe, Moneyball manages the not-inconsiderable feat of transforming its true-life story into a feel-good fairy tale while also – courtesy of a sobering postscript – recognizing that sometimes, happily-ever-after is more complicated than uplifting Hollywood films can manage.

Will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray at Amazon.

Trespass

Trespass starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman is a home invasion film that grabs you by the throat only letting go long enough for you to wipe the sweat from your brow.
Directed by Joel Schumacher, Trespass has high expectations to deliver,  and it does. The Cage Kidman chemistry is a force to reckon with, along with Liana Liberato’s role as their rebellious daughter which is a perfect fit. In an echo of the lunatic performances at which Cage once excelled, he plays Kyle, a wheeling-dealing diamond broker struggling to pay for his family’s exorbitant lifestyle. So preoccupied with work he barely notices pleas for intimacy from wife Sarah (Nicole Kidman), he’s seconds away from hearing a portentous “we need to talk” when thieves con their way into his home.
The entire film is a fun thrill ride, although it gets very campy at times. It starts with the bumpy familial relationship between Kyle (Nicolas Cage), Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and Avery (Liana Liberato). Eventually it segues into Avery’s escape into crazy teenage party, a run-in with a predatory teenage dirt bag and an assault.
The film experience was especially awesome in the second half where it took unexpected, yet palatable twists that upped the film’s overall experience a few notches undoubtedly. One hostile situation in particular was extremely intense and so riveting you can’t take your eyes off the screen. The film is good at allowing the viewer to really feel the mounting anticipation.  If most of the film’s torments and turnarounds are factory-issue, there’s enough guilty pleasure here to hold the attention of most viewers for whom Trespass sounds like fun, with a couple of quirky surprises delivered by Cage. After all, how often do you hear a guy with a gun to his head ask “Do you know anything about the etymology of the word ‘diamond’?” Trespass is in theaters on October 14, 2011 and available on DVD or Blu-ray November 1, 2011.

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is either a triumph of artistic film or a boat load of cinematic crap. You will have to decide which one for yourself.
This shameless film by writer/director Terrence Malick has generated some Oscars buzz, but what you take from it will depend almost entirely on what you bring into it.
The story centers on a family in 1950s Texas, particularly Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest of three sons, and his questioning of life’s meaning. Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) represents “nature”, with a confident, controlling, survivalist attitude. Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) represents “grace”, a gentle, nurturing presence that finally finds strength by hardship she and the family endure.
But don’t think for a minute there is anything resembling a traditional narrative film here. There is very little dialogue and the story skips back and forth through time. The upside is the production has a sense of visual poetry about it. And in this way it is an incredibly beautiful film. The imagery is opulent and effortlessly blends the real with dream sequences, creating an almost hypnotic stream-of-consciousness vision on screen.
An extended sequence showing the formation of our solar system, the origins of life and the sudden extinction of dinosaurs, is particularly stunning and serves to put the relatively minor tribulations of individual human lives into perspective. Themes of searching for meaning and becoming what we hate in order to survive are rich in this film and you could spend months teasing it apart and discussing it.
But in a way, this is also the film’s major flaw. It’s so cluttered and overstuffed with often obscure symbolism that it nearly ends up meaning nothing at all. There is an overall feeling of being jerked out of the moment in order to acknowledge some new piece of self-conscious imagery. Less in this case would have been more.  In addition, Sean Penn’s scenes as an adult Jack never really integrate with the rest of the film.
The sheer depth and breadth of the concepts Malick explores make it a truly ambitious film but it almost feels like it was constructed for the express purpose of being analyzed by university film professors. It isn’t quite pretentious but it has a deliberate abstractness that pushes it perilously close. If you approach The Tree of Life as the art-piece, there is a wealth of poetic beauty and deeper meaning to find.
One word of warning, if you’re expecting a conventional movie with a conventional story you’ll be gravely disappointed.

Currently available on Blu-Ray at Amazon.

The Beaver

The core idea of having Mel Gibson play a middle-aged man who attempts to self manage his depression by communicating through a beaver hand puppet sounds absurd but it’s the element of this odd film that works best. From Max Mad to Lethal Weapon even to Hamlet, Gibson has had a long career of playing ‘crazy’, but his performance as Walter Black in The Beaver is one of restraint, suggesting a genuine understanding of how depression makes people completely shut down.
Directed by Jodie Foster, who also plays Walter’s wife Meredith, The Beaver is most successful when focused on the smaller details concerning the nature of depression, the effect Walter’s depression has on his family and its hereditary nature. In this regard, it’s a sensitive and non-judgmental film that neither romanticizes Walter’s condition nor indulges it. Walter is going through hell for reasons beyond his control, but the film recognizes that his suffering also affects those around him and that his family’s anger and pain is understandable. By assigning himself a ‘prescription puppet’ rather than seeking legitimate professional help, Walter finds a short-term solution that is certainly portrayed in the film as something amusing and fun, but not without ever fully removing the suggestion that something about this is not quite right.
The irony here, however, is that it’s because of Gibson’s personal woes that his starring role in The Beaver is so desperate, poignant and strangely comical. Gibson embodies Walter Black, a man on the verge of losing himself completely to the abyss of depression. Interestingly, Walter’s vegetative existence is not a result of his life lacking anything – he is, or was, a well-to-do toy executive with a healthy family — but rather an inexplicable, seemingly inescapable numbness that one day drew the curtains and refused to reopen them. His broken-hearted wife Meridith (Foster) wants nothing more than to see her once-loving husband return, but in a bid to prevent his self-implosion from scarring their two sons, teenager Porter (Anton Yelchin) and youngster Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), she holds back her tears long enough to kick Walter out of the house.
The Beaver is a return to form for Mel Gibson and wonderful example of Jodie Foster’s great eye for directing, The Beaver makes for a creative portrayal of mental illness, and of family life around those who live in the dark, reaching a fine balance of drama and comedy.

Currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray at Amazon.

Win Win

Win Win Movie Writer/director Thomas McCarthy has established himself as filmmaker (The Visitor, The Station Agent) able to mine huge amounts of emotional truth from contrived-sounding set-ups. His latest film, Win Win is no different. The crux of the story revolves around a 40-something family man and part-time wrestling coach, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), who is struggling to save his failing legal practice. Under duress, Flaherty hatches a plan to make a quick buck by offering to assume responsibility for one of his elderly clients. His intentions are less than altruistic and game changes dramatically when the teenage grandson of the elderly man shows up on his doorstep.
Although Win Win may be the sort of film that relies on desperate people being thrown together to teach each other life lessons, it’s beautifully crafted which works in its favor. The heart of the film is the relationship between the struggling New Jersey lawyer and the teenage grandson, Kyle played by newcomer Alex Shaffer. The son of a druggie mom (Melanie Lynskey) again in rehab a few states away. Kyle decides to crash at his grandfather’s place, then finds out the old man is in a nursing home. The kid is about ready to move on when Mike finds out he can wrestle, really wrestle. Soon the wandering Kyle has found new home on Mike Flahery’s team and all appears to be perfect with one exception … the dark secrets Mike is keeping.
McCarthy deliberately keeps the scope of redemption small. He knows people aren’t easy to fix — some people do lousy things, some are just plain lousy — and that humbling oneself is often the only way out of a bind. His writing reflects a wariness of human nature but he’s not cynical; the story wraps up with a tenderness that feels true but completely without mush or the need to slap a big happy face on the screen. Win Win  is a winner all the way!

Currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray at Amazon.

Thor

Thor MovieOutstanding, another superhero movie to add to the recent deluge. The primary problem is once you’ve exhausted the A-list heroes (Superman, Spider-Man, Batman), you begin reaching for the second string players who may be every bit as worthy, but do not have the same popular street cred. Thor is one such superhero (Green Lantern is another).
Thor takes place on Earth and the mystical Norse-god realm of Asgard, a dazzling planet surrounded by vast, swirling nebulae. The Mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth), son of king Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is banished to Earth to live as a mortal for inciting a war between his people and their most ancient enemies. On Earth, without his powers or his mighty war hammer, Thor must discover that being a hero is not just about strength and courage, but also humility and compassion.
One of the more appealing aspects of Thor is that he is not, at first, a likeable character. Unlike many do good superheroes who stroll onto the screen eager to save the world. Thor is different. He is arrogant, brazen and vain. He is reckless and immature which makes his classic hero’s journey far more interesting than most. Chris Hemsworth, known to most American audiences for his small role as James T. Kirk’s father in Star Trek, plays his part with the appropriate amount of zeal. But the credit truly belongs to Thor’s writers (Ashley Edward Miller, Zach Stentz and Don Payne) and Oscar-nominated director Kenneth Branagh, best known for Chariots of Fire and his incredible Shakespearean adaptations. Branagh brings a literary gravity to the film and examines themes like honor and the tempestuous relationship between fathers and sons.
Thor is, by no means, a bad film, but it is not a great one either. Thor is an enjoyable popcorn epic that skates by on humor and the performances of Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Dennings. Hiddleston is especially noteworthy in the role of Thor’s creepy brother Loki. Overall Thor is entertaining, fun and definitely worth watching! Be sure to play the movie through the closing credits to watch a surprise scene. Hint: It’s Hammer Time. Nothing against the buff, blond God of Thunder but at the end of the day Thor is amusing but instantly forgettable.

Currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray at Amazon.