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Nearly 3 Hours of Michael Bay Blowing Things Up
Transformers : Age of Extinction (PG-13, 2:45, Imax, 3-D) SF, biggie, sequel
No, 4 hours' worth would not have earned 4 stars.
Many years ago, I saw a movie about the Crusades, told (naturally) from the perspective of the Christian West trying to "civilize" the blasphemous Musselmen who were profaning the Holy Land with their mere presence. (How much things have changed since the 12th Century, eh?) During a truce, Richard the Lion-Hearted hosted Saladin at a grand feast in his royal tent and, wanting to impress the infidel with his puissance, seized a broadsword and, with a single hack, clove a large, solid object in twain. Saladin politely applauded, then arose, flung a convenient filmy veil into the air, and held his curved blade edge up as the veil settled gently across it, hanging for just a moment before its own weight parted it cleanly. (Damascus steel, you know.)
I was properly impressed at the time and the level of respect the film-maker had accorded to Saladin also formed a lasting memory for me but the real take-home point was that battles were not necessarily won with thud and blunder but sometimes with subtlety and finesse.
Expect none of that from the nearly 3 hours of Michael Bay blowing things up in Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Good things first. (It won't take long.) Yes, the movie was really loud, but it wasn't outright deafening, like its 2 immediate predecessors. A fast-talking, well buffed Mark Wahlberg was a distinct upgrade from Shia LaBeouf in the role of The Human We're Supposed To Care About. The 1st half-hour or so, the warmup that featured real human interaction, had some welcome goofy moments from screenwriter Ehren Kruger.
OK, so much for that. Let's smash some things. Let's smash some more. Nope, not enuf, more! Is that all you've got? Smash some more. C'mon, sissies, more! Look, we've still got an hour left to go, let's get with it! Whack. Bash. Slam. Ka-blooie. Whang. Ba-doom. Crash. Whoom. Clang. Bzzzap. Brief interlude in the lab. Kapow. Blooey. Somehow we found ourselves in Hong Kong. Hack, hack, hack. Metal dinosaurs. Gratuitous fireworks. Stabby. Pokey. Scratchy. Scrapy. Rakey. Ships falling from the sky. Whangy. Rippy. Smash, smash, smash, smash, smash! Gentle ringing sound of circular object slowly spinning down. SMASH IT!!!
Who are these giant robots? Apparently we're supposed to know in advance, because they're never properly introduced in the movie, and they move in such close-up and so confusingly and quickly (no cut longer than 3 seconds, lest Bay be accused of Attention Deficit Aversion) that we never have any idea of which of them is doing what to which others. I get the vague impression that there was supposed to be a 3rd group of them in addition to the 2 traditional ones, but really they're all indistinguishable from each other, except for a few who spout bad dialog a la the #3 henchthug in a 1947 gangster film. And those are, I surmise, the good robots.
Oh, incidentally, there are some characters. The one that showed the most promise gets fried early. All the rest have the sort of good fortune and miraculous escapes that are the stuff of epic poetry, legends, and holy books. Then again 4-5 more times for good measure.
You'd think it would be difficult to get bored with all this non-stop action roiling across the screen, but about 130 minutes in I found myself imagining Megatron sidling up to his director during a break in the filming and asking "What's my motivation here?" I expect that Bay would be at a total loss for words. But he'd make up for it by blowing something up.
The Rover (2014)
Hard, Desperate, Slightly Crazed Men in a Hard, Desperate Society
The Rover (R, 1:43) other: drama, 3rd string, original, OSIT cynics
We know this from the opening title card: It's Australlia, 10 years after "the collapse". That's the last nod to science fiction in the film, which is otherwise about hard, desperate, slightly crazed men in a hard, desperate society that might as well have been medieval Japan.
We learn this thru dialog: 4 such men have committed some kind of crime (never seen, even in flashback), and 3 of them are fleeing from the scene in their truck. The older of a pair of brothers, Henry (Scoot McNairy), has been shot in the leg and is in the truck; the younger, Rey (Robert Pattinson), a dimwit, was shot in the side and left for dead, but he wasn't.
We see this in the opening scene: A gaunt, grizzled, bearded loner in cargo shorts (Guy Pearce), sits brooding behind his steering wheel before bestirring himself to enter a ramshackle, isolated general store in the outer part of the Australian outback, where they sell limited amounts of expensive food, very limited amounts of very expensive petrol, ammunition, and serious, serious suspicion. The credits claim that this is Eric, but I don't recall him ever mentioning it, not even later, to the grandma who continuously importunes him for his name. As he nurses his mason jar of hooch, the overturned truck containing the 3 squabbling fugitive thugs slides by outside the store window.
That was probably the most expensive action scene in the whole film, which would have qualified as a bargain-basement production were it not for the presence of its 2 stars. There are few characters, almost no sets or locations, maybe 20 total costumes (mainly army surplus), and even dialog that appeared to be dispensed with eye-droppers. Screenwriter (and director) David Michôd was clearly not being paid by the word; the Pearce character in particular is monumentally taciturn.
The thugs get out of their truck, spot Eric's car standing nearby, hotwire it, and take off again. He immediately leaps into their truck (which has come to rest upright but entangled), rocks it out of its snare, and takes off after them. When they finally both stop for a confrontation, he is monomaniacal on a particular subject: "I want my cah back!" he repeatedly insists, in the thick Australian accent that makes it difficult to understand half of what limited dialog the movie offers up. And, despite the fact that the thieves are holding guns on him, he seems determined to beat that car out of them.
When he wakes up, they're long gone, but shortly thereafter, as he's trying to figure out what to do next, the halfwit Rey shows up, looking for the brother who abandoned him. These 2 form an uneasy partnership and set out on the trail of the desperados. Along the way they will encounter multiple hard-core and hard-luck types, and there will be a plethora of danger, punctuated by sudden, violent death.
About 99 minutes into the 103-minute run time, we finally find out why Eric was so damn obsessed with getting his cah back.
As I said, hard, desperate, and perhaps more than just slightly crazed.
The Signal (2014)
Spoiler Bait 1st 15 minutes described here, rest keeps getting weirder
The Signal SF, 3rd string, original
An odd film. A trio of hyper-bright MIT students are on a road trip to California to deliver 1 of them (the cute one, Olivia Cooke) to a year's fellowship at Caltech, but the other 2 (the dorky one, Beau Knapp, and the rugged, athletic-looking guy with the crutches, Brenton Thwaites) want to take a little side excursion to a spot in rural Nevada which seems to be the point of origin of a mysterious computer signal that trashed their computer servers back in Cambridge and which has been heckling them about it ever since.
They drive down a rutted dirt road to find what appears to be a deserted shack, and they figure it must just be a relay point for a hidden operative located elsewhere, but the lads go poking around inside it anyway, when they hear screams coming from outside. They rush back out just in time to see the gal suddenly levitated, then everything goes black. When they wake up, they're flat on their backs in separate rooms, wearing hospital gowns, in a strange, all-white underground lab, surrounded by mysterious people in hazmat suits, only one of whom (Laurence Fishburne as Damon) ever talks to them, often from behind a 1-way mirror.
What's up? They spend the rest of the movie trying to (a) find out and (b) get out.
It's a puzzlebox of a movie. It didn't need much of a budget, but it's well scripted (by William Eubank, Carlyle Eubank, and David Frigerio), aside from repeated obscure flashbacks by Nic (the viewpoint character), his legs all muscular, running thru the woods, pausing beside a rushing stream, and riding on a carnival tilt-a-whirl. We keep waiting for these scenes to contribute some explanatory power to the situation, but they never do, so in the end they're just a distracting annoyance.
There are few other characters, and aside from the central 3 they're all strangely "off" somehow. The actors sell them well. The plot keeps your attention all the way thru. It's an original. All of these are plusses. The main downsides are the credibility gaps, but if you go into it without conventional expectations, you'll probably be able to slide past them.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Groundhog D-Day with BFGs
Edge of Tomorrow (PG-13, 1:53, Imax, 3-D) SF, biggie, original
Officially sourced from the Hiroshi Sakurazaka novel All You Need Is Kill, this movie will never escape the comparison to Groundhog Day, where the protagonist (here Tom Cruise instead of Bill Murray) is required to live the same day over and over until he gets it right and can finally escape into the future. What, does that make it derivative? Yeah, sure, because it reworks a concept so overused that you can remember picky little details of its predecessor like the snowball fight or the alarm-clock song 21 years later. When's the last time you saw a hair's-breadth escape from a car crash, volley of gunfire, or exploding bomb and thot to yourself "Golly, THAT'S original!"
The comparison I encourage you to make is to Greg Bear's Nebula-winning short story "Hardfought".
Here the day being relived occurs not in placid Punxsatawney, PA, but rather on the beaches of Normandy. Not the Normandy of D-Day 1944 (tho the movie was released on its 70th anniversary, doubtless by pure coincidence) but rather one of the near future, when a meteor smashing into Hamburg, Germany (seen briefly in an opening montage of TV news clips), has emitted a ravening horde of kinetic alien sea anemones that rapidly overspread Europe like, um, a ravening horde of Nazis (maps included). Human resistance seems futile until the Battle of Verdun (no, not THAT one, THIS one), when a heroine emerges: Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), quickly dubbed "the Angel of Verdun", who seems to be everywhere on the battlefield, able to anticipate the enemy's every move and provide just the right counter to it. On TV news coverage, this is credited by US Army Major William Cage (Cruise), a former PR flack, to "new technology".
Of course, as is customary in war, the first casualty of battle is the truth. There was no new technology involved. Instead, as we soon learn, Vrataski's abilities were a fluke, the result of her having been initially killed at the Battle of Verdun by an alpha-type alien that got some of its blood on her. It turns out that alpha blood, now mixed with hers, enables her to restart the day whenever she dies. So that's what she does, hundreds of times, each time learning exactly what to do to avoid her previous death until she finally prevails.
But wait, there's more. There's a flaw in her plan of continual resurrection. Eventually she's just wounded instead of killed, she gets a blood transfusion, and that thins out her time-shifting abilities to the point where they no longer work. Now she's just an ordinary soldier (tho admittedly by far the most experienced one on the planet), when into her lap drops Cage, a former ROTC guy who isn't trained for warfare, isn't any good at it, and wants nothing whatever to do with it. That's why he too was killed (also by a splattery alpha, as it happens) 5 minutes into the invasion he was press-ganged into. Rita's job becomes to prepare him for combat, join him on the battlefield, and keep killing him until he gets it right.
Of course, each day that Cage comes back, he's initially confronted with non-coms who think he's just a shirker looking to desert as soon as possible, so he has to figure out a reliable way of outwitting them as quickly as possible so he can get busy with the real work. The movie gives us 1 or 2 quick tastes of what this must be like without beating it to death. The rest of the film is building up the choreography step by step, using trial and error, without ever having seen the full dance demoed.
Hanging like a sword of Damocles over the whole proceeding is the knowledge that the alien's central controlling omega organism Cage and Rita's ultimate goal is itself capable of fiddling with time.
After you walk out of the theater, you may find yourself asking questions like "Where was our air support?", "Why didn't we just nuke 'em with ICBMs?", or "Why was Paris awash in water?", but none of that occurs to you in the midst of the action, which is a mark of a movie that effectively causes you to suspend your disbelief.
An Interesting Frozen-Like Variant on an Old Fairy Tale
Maleficent (PG, 1:37, Imax, 3-D) fantasy: fairy tales; biggie; formula; OSIT feminists
Well, after only a week, you're probably out of chances to see Maleficent in Imax (as Edge of Tomorrow takes over the big screen at 8 PM), but it'll still be available in 3-D as well as 2-D. IMO, not worth the premium price for either of the frills.
I enjoyed Maleficent and give it a 7, but I guess I was hoping for more. In particular, if you saw Super 8, you know what a tremendous talent Elle Fanning is, and that was back in 2011. Here she plays the role of Aurora, the sleeping beauty who's the ostensible central character of the original Grimm Brothers fairy tale, and all she's expected to do is skip about, smiling and perky, looking all dimpled and rosy-cheeked and fresh-faced, and very very blond. With so little to do, she comes off as perhaps a little dim or simple in addition to being cloyingly vapid. But she clearly has a heart of gold, and that endears her to all who meet her.
The odd couple here are the super-powerful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and the power- obsessed peasant boy Stefan (Sharlto Copley from District 9), denizens of naboring kingdoms with radically different lifestyles. Stefan's is a typical ruff-and-ready, ruthless, medieval human kingdom, while The Moors, where Maleficent hangs out with a host of animated (but universally insignificant) critters, is a literal fairyland. They meet young and hit it off, but as they grow older, Stefan's ambition leads him to betray Maleficent, and he cuts off her wings to present to his king as evidence that he has vanquished the chief defender of the naboring realm.
Maleficent, horrified and outraged, waits until Stefan now elevated to the throne hosts a christening celebration for his new-born dotter before exacting her revenge, in the form of a curse upon the infant that she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel before sundown on her 16th birthday and fall into a deep sleep, awakenable only by love's true kiss. That's the basic fairy tale, and the rest of the movie is devoted to the untold part of the story, which is not as neat and clean as has come down to us in legend.
Suffice it to say that neither Maleficent nor her pet crow are beings you want to be on the bad side of, and Disney pulls out all of its special effect to underline the point. I would've preferred a little more humanity, altho, to be fair, one of the reasons Imax was overkill for this is that much of the screen time is devoted to closeups of the characters. But they're mainly just doing completely in-character line readings.
I suppose I shouldn't expect too much realism in what's basically a fairy tale. And it puts a nice feminist gloss on the tired helpless-princess trope. Still, I ended up wanting more.
Everything You Expect in a Godzilla Movie, Nothing You Don't
Godzilla (2014, 2:03, PG-13, Imax, 3-D) SF, biggie, remake
It's everything you expect in a Godzilla movie and nothing you don't. Special effects are bigger and better than ever before. I saw it in Imax (worth it for the big screen and big sound, not so much for the retrofitted 3-D, which is nothing special).
If you were expecting meaty roles for top-notch actors Bryan Cranston, Julette Binoche, and Ken Watanabe, too bad. The first 2 are killed off early, and Watanabe mainly just stands around with his mouth open (tho he and sidekick nuclear engineer Victoria Graham do get a couple of minutes to unload the only exposition the screenwriters figured the audience would sit still for). At no point does anyone question why creatures that feed on electromagnetic energy need such huge mouths and so many teeth.
Elizabeth Olsen is utterly wasted in a throw-away fretting-mom role, and the nominal hero of the whole shebang, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (much buffed up since regularly getting his ass kicked in the title role in Kick-Ass) stoicizes as a Marine lieutenant thru a series of disasters that he just happens to be in time to witness as he follows nature-balancing Gojira and its 2 new nemeses, a male and female mating pair of MUTOs, across the Pacific where they will jointly devastate San Francisco for a change, after warming up with Honolulu and Las Vegas.
Blessedly, the movie-makers let us see the creatures fairly early (instead of teasing us with obscure distance shots and partial glimpses for much of the movie) and at full size. Unlike the Transformer movies and Pacific Rim, you can actually see who's doing what to whom else at reasonable distances, and at speeds resembling real time. Good shot composition and no soft-pedaling of the destruction involved, tho the PG-13 rating is preserved by showing us essentially none of what had to be a gargantuanly massive toll of deaths and injuries.
Godzilla gets bigger with every incarnation, and this one is no exception, making it perfectly believable that some forces of nature (like Antarctic glaciers, sunspots, and giant radioactive Japanese lizards) are so powerful that humanity is helpless before them. Really, with CGI technology as advanced as it's gotten, there's no upper limit on creature size, certainly not the frequently and cheerfully ignored square-cube rule. I expect that soon we'll be seeing Galactus gracing the big screen.
Of more substantial interest, the opening trailers included one for Christopher Nolan's latest mind-blower, Interstellar, due out Nov. 7. It's not the case that the trailer alone is worth the price of admission, but it's value added.
Under the Skin (2013)
Boring, Pretentious, Cognition-Free, but Naked Scarlett
Under the Skin (1:48, R) 4 SF; 3rd string, original; OSIT chauvinists
I realize that lately I've been handing out mainly 6es and 7s, but that doesn't mean I've abandoned all critical judgment, it just happens to be a coincidental run of pretty good movies.
To reassure you that, yes, there are worse flix out there, I cite for you the OTHER film in which Scartlett Johanssen stars this month: Under the Skin, a no-bones-about-it art film playing at Sundance Cinema. Based on its artistic merits alone, it deserves a 3, but my reviews are my personal opinions, so it gets bumped into the up-to-you range due to the many opportunities to watch Ms. Johanssen disrobe. YMMV.
You can tell right off the bat that it's going to be pretentious when the opening 15 seconds comprise a silent black screen, and the rest of the opening minute or 2 is a tiny pinpoint of white light in the center ssssllllllooooowwwwwllllyyy growing larger and transforming into a series of shiny circular shapes that slllloooowwwwwllllyyyy morph into each other. This motif is apparently offered sui generis and never recurs. So, check mark for "pretentious".
The check mark for "tedious" is justified by the glacial pacing, best exemplified by 20% of the movie being medium shots of our nameless protagonist behind the wheel of her big white panel van, devoid of expression, driving around what appears to be Edinburgh looking for lone male pedestrians. Really, a little of this would've gone a long way, but apparently Director Jonathan Glazer enjoyed extended periods of watching his star at work.
The extremely limited dialog is all vapid small talk exchanged in mumbles or chowder-thick Scottish accents, adequate to establish a mood and obviously not intended to convey any useful or interesting information, as this seems to be a cognition-free zone.
Intermittently a mystery motorcycle guy careens buzzingly down a deserted highway for about 30 seconds, to no obvious purpose and without any visible connection to the rest of the story.
Oh, the SF angle. She's an alien, as we finally see in the last 5 minutes of the movie. But by then we'd inferred that something bizarre was up, due to the repeated scenes of her and a series of guys walking sssllllloooowwwwllllyyyy across all-white or all-black backgrounds, dropping articles of clothing as they go.
If you're looking for a GOOD off-beat movie with "skin" in the title, go for Pedro Almodovar's 2011 The Skin I Live In.
Heaven Is for Real (2014)
A Nice Family Drama, Not Even Remotely Preachy
Heaven Is for Real (1:39, PG) borderline, 3rd string, original
You might be surprised that this film attracted an atheist activist like me. But I went to see it because as part of my self-imposed obligation to catch EVERY science-fiction and fantasy movie that hits town so I can review them for my listserv and at SF cons it looked like it might have some fantasy elements. I ended up classifying it as "borderline", which is where I put movies that are not clearly SF or fantasy but might be if viewed from a certain angle. This one leaves it open to interpretation whether little 4-year-old Colton Burpo actually experienced a trip to heaven while he was unconscious on the operating table at death's doorstep with a burst appendix.
The Burpos are presented as being among the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, and not in any "holier than thou" sense but as solid, down-to-Earth working folk, a kind, loving, and happy family. The dad, Todd Burpo, a part-time Protestant minister in Imperial, Kansas, is humble and declines the title "Reverend", saying "Call me Todd" even to members of his own congregation. He wears a work shirt and sits in the pews with the other congregants while the church service is doing other things, like Bible readings or singing led by Todd's wife Sonja.
The skeptical attitude is clearly articulated by several different characters in the film, including Todd Burpo himself, who's obviously having trouble wrestling with and reacting to what his son has been saying about his brief sojourn in heaven. And the conclusion is not some grand revelation or depiction of the "real" heaven but rather an informal sermon in which Todd (well played by Greg Kinnear) talks thru his uncertainties and tells his fellow congregants that "on Earth as it is in heaven" means that we should each value the little bit of heaven we share when we appreciate the people who love us.
Frankly, an avowed humanist couldn't have put it much better.
Still, there's the obvious fact that little Colton has been drenched in religion for almost his entire waking life, and that such total immersion surely accounts for everything he claims to have seen. And the Burpos had been having serious financial difficulties, a not-so-subtle motive for playing Colton's story for any financial benefit it might bring. Nor does the film stint from dramatizing those perfectly naturalistic explanations.
In short, if you were expecting a piece of pious propaganda, this isn't it. It's more like a nice, non-saccharine family drama with unusual subject matter, kind of along the lines of We Bought a Zoo. On my 9-point scale, it rates a 6.
Sadness Is Good If Done Well, and This Is
Spike Jonze's Her follows a lonely writer who gradually falls in love with his computer's sentient operating system (OS 1). Poor Theodore Twombley is sensitive and empathetic but just can't quite figure out how to get that across to the women in his life until he meets the one gal who's specifically designed to be exactly right for him.
The irony is that Theodore works for a fictional web company (sometime in the near future) called Beautiful Handwritten Letters (dot-com), where we see the letters being "handwritten" on a computer screen using voice-activated script fonts. But, despite the artifice and deceptive business practice, there's real human intelligence and caring behind the text of the letters. Theodore's really good at imagining himself in the position of the people who've asked him to pour out "their" hearts in the letters he's composing on their behalf in some cases for repeat clients who've been coming to him for 8 years.
Not at all techy (not even an admonition to back up your hard drive, with accompanying cautionary tale), it's a really low-key film about the quest for human connection. It's not talky, either, but the limited dialog (by Jonze) is well crafted, realistic, and involving.
The most unbelievable part is that our boy lives 2 floors up from Amy Adams, who's a good friend of his, and he hasn't crawled across crushed glass to try to win her affections. The least unbelievable part is that he attains an intellectual and emotional resonance with the warm, cheerful voice of Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johanssen, never seen), who's always there for him, constantly evolves to adapt to his personality, and is exquisitely sensitive to his moods.
It's a really sad movie with flits and blips of light-heartedness and happiness. Much of it is just Joaquin Phoenix's sorrowful face filling the screen in silence. This is about as far from Transformers and Pacific Rim as imaginable, which is all to the good IMHO. There is zero action, indeed, hardly any rapid movement of any kind. It's quiet and contemplative, giving the audience a chance to reflect on what we really seek out of a relationship and discover that the physical connection is only part of it, and probably a dispensable part at that.
It's from Annapurna Productions, the independent studio founded by Megan Ellison (dottor of úber-billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison), and that is turning out to be quite the mark of quality. It didn't go into wide release until last month, but they snuck in a limited release in December to qualify for the 2013 Oscars, and, sure enuf, it's a Best Picture nominee.
About Time (2013)
A Lovely, Lovely Film
About Time is full of really nice people who love each other, and you want nothing but good things for all of them. And that often turns out to be possible, thanks to the Lake family secret. All the Lake men have a limited ability to travel backward in time only to earlier points in their own lives, true ("We can't go back and kill Hitler or anything."), but usually getting a 2nd run at various awkwardnesses and infelicities is all it takes to smooth out life's little bumps and jolts.
Aside from the time travel, the biggest imagination-stretcher is that Rachel McAdams's Mary is a single gal in London in her early 20s and doesn't have a boyfriend. Our hero, the gawky but endearing Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), recognizes the cosmic injustice in that and determines to use his powers for good (or, in this case, love). But between his wistful adieu from the shy, plain girl he's met in a lights-out bistro and getting set to call the number she's punched into his cell phone, he performs a good deed for a friend, and it turns out that his little jaunt into the past has erased his evening's conversation with Mary from her memory and her number from his phone.
That's about the highest level of stress this film ever reaches. It's the farthest thing on Earth from an action-adventurer. It's mainly a love story with minor elements of comedy (sometimes it takes several re-runs at the past to get things just right, and we see the failed attempts in quick succession) and pathos.
It's written and directed by Richard Curtis, who earlier did About a Boy and Notting Hill, so you know he's got the characterization down cold, and Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, Richard Cordery, and Margot Robbie are pitch-perfect in supporting roles. And, if I didn't emphasize it strongly enuf earlier, you'll really like all of these people, even the crusty curmudgeonly playwright Harry.
Go see the movie.You won't be sorry. You can thank me later.