Monday, June 29, 2009

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" / "Year One" / "Waltz with Bashir"

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - Directed by Michael Bay, starring Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, and John Turturro - Rated PG-13

The Kurgan has some issues with this movie, but giant robots constantly fighting more than make up for it.

The new Transformers movie is basically more of the same, emphasis on more. More action, more robots, more CG, more Megan Fox, more comedy, and about twenty more minutes in length. If you’re a fan of the first film, then more is a good thing, for the most part. I enjoyed this film, but I think the first film is better. For me, more doesn’t necessarily mean better.

I suppose my main problem with the movie is the lack of character development and down time. In the first movie, we had to be introduced to each character so there was a bit of downtime that allowed us to get to know the characters. For example, Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) was shown to be kind of a loser with slightly off-balance parents and Lennox (Josh Duhamel) had a newborn baby he was waiting to get home to. In other words, there were traits and situations the audience might be able to identify with. This time around, there’s no time for that. There is no mention of Lennox’s family and Sam is treated more as some kind of destined hero rather than an awkward young man. Fine, people change and all that, but I would still like it all to slow down here and there. But every slow moment is only used for comedic relief. This is where Sam’s parents come in. Sure, his mom was a bit goofy in the first film, but apparently the stress of knowing about alien robots over the past two years has caused her to completely lose it. Don’t get me wrong, some of the comedy works; I just think they went a bit too crazy with her.

The lack of character development leads to more action, of course. This is where the film works best: giant robots pummeling each other in lengthy fight scenes. The robots look amazing and the fights are visually and audibly impressive (especially on IMAX). There were times when I couldn’t tell which robot was winning the fights, but I didn’t really care because it looked so great. The action scenes in the forest and on location at the Great Pyramids are both worth the price of admission alone. All of my problems really turn to nitpicks when I stack them against the action sequences. That said, I still want to address a few more issues.

The director, Michael Bay, needs to calm down. I get the feeling from watching this film that Bay is extremely energetic and most likely hates silence being still. His camera movements during an early scene between Sam and Makaela (Megan Fox) nearly made me dizzy due to the fast, rotating camera. Simple scenes dealing with relationships do not need noticeable camera movements. Maybe if they were arguing or something, a camera movement might add to the mood of the scene. But Bay’s camera movements contradict what the scene is about. It’s almost as if he was watching the scene happen with a stationary camera, proclaimed “I’m bored!” and commenced to running the camera in circles around the actors just to keep himself interested.

Bay also needs to learn how to limit the length of his films. The first movie was quite long as far as action movies go clocking in at 144 minutes, but this film is even longer at 151 minutes (160 minutes on IMAX). I’m okay with long movies, but big action movies like this are better off ending at the 2 hour mark.

One last issue that needs to be addressed is the controversy over the supposedly racist transformer twins in the film. They have been described as “jive-talking black stereotypes” in other reviews and in countless articles on the internet. It’s already getting old, but I feel the need to weigh in on this. Decide for yourself, but I argue that claiming a “jive-talking” alien robot is meant to be a black character is racist in itself. Are we to assume the other robots are white? They are robots from outer space! People looking for racism in mindless entertainment like this have too much time on their hands, anyway.

I referred to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as mindless and that is why I have not given a plot synopsis for the film. Let’s face it: did anyone go into this film expecting a compelling story? Robots fight in this movie. That’s all you need to know. If that’s something that sounds entertaining to you, then you’ll have fun with this one, but maybe not as much fun as the first time around.

I want to expand a bit and talk about the Transformers themselves in this film. The returning autobots are still cool, especially Optimus Prime. The new ones are decent, though the Fallen was pretty weak, in my opinion. But Devastator (the huge vacuum type robot from the preview) was awesome. Every full IMAX scene featuring Devastator was simple amazing. By full IMAX scene I mean that some of the action scenes were filmed with IMAX cameras and took up more of the screen than the rest of the movie. I noticed it when it switched back and forth, but I didn’t have a problem with it. More on IMAX: the movie is longer in IMAX due to extended fight scenes.

Year One - Directed by Harold Ramis, starring Jack Black, Michael Cera, and David Cross - Rated PG-13

I'll try not to make this a regular thing, but I was torn between Commodus and Kurgan with this one.

Year One is the movie that looks like a caveman movie based on its previews, but is really a comedic retelling of biblical stories. It’s about Oh (Cera) and Zed (Black), two hunter/gatherers on a trek to find their place in the biblical world, and hopefully hook up with beautiful women along the way. I hadn’t really planned on watching Year One in the theater, but it was playing locally and I had nothing better to do. It’s no masterpiece, but I certainly don’t consider it a waste of money. The referential jokes dealing with hunter/gatherer societies and bible stories like Cain and Abel are more miss than hit, but when they hit, they are quite funny. It’s just that so many miss and miss hard. But in the long run, I remember the funny moments and the misses don’t stick out so much. But that might just be because there are so many of them.

Quite a bit of this movie depends on the actors and I must say that Jack Black and Michael Cera save it. If you’re a fan of Jack Black, then you’ll probably like him in this. I know that some people have issues with him, but he’s actually a little toned down in this one which allowed him to work better with Cera. Michael Cera gets on my nerves in most of his roles lately. I liked him in Superbad, but when he started playing that character over and over again I got tired of it very quickly. I don’t know what it is, but I enjoyed him in this. I actually found him funnier than Jack Black. Maybe it’s that his character type works better in an unlikely environment. Either way, both leads worked for me in this one.

Year One is incredibly stupid throughout, but there are worse movies out there. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, though. There were some lengthy stretches in which I didn’t laugh and that’s never good when you’re watching a comedy. But some of the bigger laughs (like Michael Cera being in the awkward situation of needing to urinate while hanging upside down) even it out. I would say that most people need to wait for the DVD for this one.

Waltz with Bashir - Directed by Ari Folman - Rated R

Chigurh found the story in this documentary compelling on its own, but the animation adds serious style that makes this a great film.

Waltz with Bashir is the Israeli film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It’s really an animated documentary in which the director, Ari, tries to remember his involvement with the war in general and with two massacres specifically. The animation really sets this film apart and I found that it served the story quite well. It never came across as forced style or anything. The animation, for one, makes it much easier financially to recreate scenes of warfare. It also helps to create a surreal feeling of war that brings up memories of classics like Apocalypse Now.

I’m really at a loss trying to describe this film. My words cannot do the animation justice. It’s certainly not traditional animation and it’s not rotoscoping (a la A Scanner Darkly). It’s just interesting and it looks great. What I really want to say is that the animation is simply cool and it makes this film stand out.

I can’t really get into performances here since it really is a documentary. But I can talk about how compelling the story is. The whole repressed memory aspect of it creates a mystery that really hooked me early on. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the mystery adds up to a very compelling and sad ending. I thought the animation played a factor in this because (slight SPOILER) when the film goes from animation to actual footage it is very jarring, especially when we’re shown the image of the dead child the soldier described. This was an amazing surprisingly effective film.

All that said, animation does not mean kid friendly. This is rated R and that’s because of war violence of course, but there is also quite a bit of animated nudity that might throw some people off. It’s never gratuitous, though (some may claim that the scene with an officer watching a porno is gratuitous, but if you pay attention, you can see the plot point at work when a car model is mentioned, which shows that they were looking for intel from the film). Just a little warning in case some people out there don’t notice the R rating.

Lastly, I watched this with the original audio track (which is in Hebrew), not realizing that there is an English dub track. I can’t vouch for the quality of it, but I would imagine it’s suitable and I certainly suggest it since it frees up your eyes to fully take in the animation rather than trying to read and watch at the same time.

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