Saturday, August 27, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An arty movie saved us all... Well, me at least.

There's a lot to be depressed about these days, as a young person. The economic news continues to be poor, and I think just waiting for it to get better, as if it's a given, is the wrong way to think of it. It seems things are stuck this way for the long haul, so get used to it. And it was mostly caused by assholes in the financial sector, who have gotten away with it Scot-free, and continue to wreck things even now.

I don't mean to sound like a downer and lose the few regular readers of this blog that I have. I just mean to tell what I believe to be the truth. Republican-tea-party-loyalist-far-right assholes seem to have a firm grip on the wrench that is jammed into the gears of Washington. Washington is broken, everyone knows that. But they just held our country ransom so the rich in America could continue to pay low taxes. I don't blame the rich for wanting to pay lower taxes, as most of them have worked hard and earned their money honestly. But that's the price they pay for the tremendous inequalities we have in our stable democracy. They should accept the obvious fact that it's in their best interest to level things out, if only making things slightly more level, and move on. But they don't because they have too much clout in a Wall Street dictated government.

It's no big secret why I'm an expat right now. And though it may sound brash and egotistical, but I believe I'm one of the better examples of American youth: bright, brave, and well-educated. The US shouldn't want to lose a guy like me, but they have, to a totalitarian regime, a government my girlfriend, who's Chinese, referred to as "the biggest mafia in the world". But even they seem like a portrait of stability compared to the wrecked state of Washington. My mom put it this way: "You're the one who goes and lives with the Communists". Damn right, I do. It seems the Communists have opportunities to provide, unlike the US.

Young people like me can expect to make less than my parents' generation did. Social Security and Medicare for us seem like myths; only an idiot would take faith that they will safely pay off for us when we reach our Autumn years. And though crazy, right-wing assholes are mostly to blame for it all, the media seems incapable of putting the blame where the blame is due. Speaking of blame, Obama is without his share of it. The man shows common sense to deal with his political opponents. Sadly, in Washington that will get you nowhere these days, as those on the right insist upon one thing: if Obama loses, no matter the consequence, they win. Obama should never have treated them as if they were rational beings. They were willing to sacrifice our whole financial system so the rich wouldn't pay higher taxes, and I believe they would do it again.

But how has all this affected pop art? For one, movie studios have, and have for a few years now, relied on safe-bet films that will make a profit regardless of their artistic achievement. Maybe this has always been the case, but I've at times become depressed with movies like "Transformers" being the highest grossing movies of their year. At least films like Avatar had some sustenance. And even previous high-grossing films 'Titanic', The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and 'Toy Story' had some, if not plenty of artistic life in them. But these days it seems as if there are only two kinds of movies that get made: sequels and comic book movies (sometimes they are one in the same). Jesus Christ, am I so fucking sick of comic book movies. Except for Batman.

There was a movie, however, made recently, that's shear existence has restored my faith in humanity, art, and the medium of films: The Tree of Life. As I explained to a dear friend of mine recently, The Tree of Life is in a popular art medium, long-subject film, but it is not pop art. The fact that it has been shown in mainstream movie theaters is a triumph. And though a bunch of small-minded assholes may walk out on its slow pace and nonlinear plot, they will truly be missing something rare and fantastic. The film is ambitious as I believe a movie can possibly be: it attempts to tell the story of the beginning of life on earth and the creation of the universe, and put one life of one individual into the context of the cosmic dance, the life of an American growing up in Texas. And as best as a film possibly can succeed at this amazing task, it succeeds. It shows the beauty and elegance of life at all stages of existence, and asks the greatest questions the world knows: What is life? What is existence? What is time? Is there a God-like entity watching over us? Does that even matter if we have faith in God, creating our own reality? What is the Father? The Mother? The son?

There are no concrete answers to such questions. They can only be asked, examined, and opinions shared. Malick, the film's director, doesn't force anything on us, but merely presents us with the universal story that we all share. Hopefully, if nothing else, at the film's end you will not feel alone, but in the same cosmic state of ethos as the rest of us. But the trip will be wonderfully beautiful; with every image in the film capable of being paused and hung on your wall in a picture frame, as one critic put it. So Malick is truly master of his craft, in more ways than one.

So I was relieved, to say the least, that such a momentous work of art could be made at this point in history. And it reminded me that art will go on, of course always connected to the political, but nonetheless, always go on, no matter how dire things may seem.

Other films at Cannes this year also have me excited for the state of things. Namely "The Artist" by Michel Hazanavicius and "Midnight in Paris" by the great Woody Allen.

Movies are in the end pop art. Perhaps I should be championing the starving artist and his ill-attended gallery instead of famous moviemakers. But the fact that they appear in the mainstream, and dictate some of our culture, some of our collective consciousness, is important. If a film like 'The Tree of Life' can get made these days, and enough people can appreciate it, well, then I'm still happy to be alive, no matter the politics. And my faith in humanity, when tested, can at least be strengthened by humanity's best attribute, and that is art.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Let's just say I'm trying to get a gig as a film critic...

... and this was my sample review. Enjoy.

Much like it's two predecessors, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon is heavy on computer generated effects and violence, light on plot and common sensibility. And yet it's viewers will not feel unfulfilled at it's end as they've probably come to expect nothing less from the franchise built by Michael Bay. Of course, he will deliver what common entertainment fans are probably after. But they may even be presently surprised this time around by the film's sometimes clever and engaging, though ultimately incoherent plot that carries the effects and expensive action set-pieces to their ultimate climax, a final, hour long battle sequence set in Chicago. So there is slightly more to enjoy in this film than robots slamming into each other at high speeds and buildings crashing over, particularly in its first half, including some grandiose historical fiction and whimsical comedy delivered by some familiar faces. But there is also more to dislike, including too many extraneous characters and a simply bad romantic sub-plot. Essentially, the film is not as mind-numbingly stupid as the previous second installment in the now trilogy of Transformers films, but certainly not smart either.

Retelling some 20th Century history to make room for the Autobots and Decepticons, the film begins with a montage retracing memorable steps in NASA's race with the Soviet Union to reach the moon. According to the film, it turns out this race wasn't so much for political bragging rights, but rather an attempt to reach The Ark first, the Autobot spaceship that crash-landed on the Moon. These scenes feature Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (who appears as himself later in the film), and even John F. Kennedy look-a-likes acting. Some may find these images out of place in the Transformers franchise, but I liked them; it was an earnest and fun revisiting of a golden age in American history, reminding us that the drama of reality can be more enjoyable than that of fiction. Though I would urge you to cherish this early attention-worthy content while you have the chance; the plot of the film will soon become to chuck-full of unaligned events and characters to grab your attention in a serious way again, at least not without the help of the complex action in 3D.

After revisiting the Moon with Apollo 11, we are returned to the present day, where we find the Autobots at work for the US government, working on secret missions with the aid of a special task force lead by handsome-faced Lt. Colonel William Lennox (Josh DuHamel), and our central protagonist, Sam Witwicky, played by the seemingly always over-stressed Shia LaBeouf. Sam is feeling a touch forlorn and anxious these days, as he is separated from his Autobot friends, and dealing with the stress of not having a job while living with a new girlfriend, Carly Spencer (Victoria Secret Model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, replacing previous franchise starlet Megan Fox, who was dismissed from the cast after a row with Bay). With help from Carly and her boss, Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey), a wealthy tycoon and car collector, Sam manages to get one at a highly competitive firm where he encounters some zany co-workers in Ken Jeong and even the great John Malkovich as a despotic, yet clueless boss. Malkovich always displays a strong screen presence despite not having the best dialog here, and his few, short moments on screen are somewhat enjoyable. However, he, like many other of the other menial characters in the film, is quickly thrown onto the scrap heap for other brief and under-developed sub-plots. Namely that Sam is jealous of the obvious attraction that Carly's boss has for her, and the two have some very meaningless romantic banter. If you haven't already, by this point you will have probably stop caring about Sam and Carly altogether, and wonder what happened to the Autobots and the real plot of the movie.

Luckily for us, Sam does indeed quickly scrap his new found responsibilities to rejoin the Autobots, much to the dismay of Carly, to find intrigue with his old pal, Seymour Simmons, played by the always likeable John Turturro, and film returns to a somewhat recognizable location. By now, the Autobots have revisited The Ark and awakened their ancient leader Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), who controls the Pillars, a way of transporting the transformer home world Cybertron to earth. Some plot twists ensue, which you may appreciate, or may see coming a mile away, building the film up to the final battle for the Pillars, where the Autobots, allied with some sparse human assistance (Colonel Lennox and friends), take on the usual Decepticon baddies, plus a new addition to their ranks, Shockwave, a Decepticon with a giant, metallic, worm-like extremity, that eats through the Chicago skyline without missing any fine detail of twisted metal or broken glass.

By this point, the film has taken us through historical narrative, pithy romantic mellow-drama, whimsey office comedy, an attempt at international intrigue, and of course some intense computer generated action sequences. As you can see there is way too much packed into this long, two and half hour film, as its initial fun becomes bogged down with far too many scenes that should have ended up on the cutting room floor. If you're like me, who like most fans of the Transformers franchise, can appreciate the entertainment of the detail that went into creating the Transformers and their battles, you may say to yourself at some point "just get back to the robots fighting already!" It seems that Bay realized this at some point, or perhaps all along had in mind to save it all for the end. But until you get there, you may be somewhat beneficially occupied with some performances from a curiously strong cast, including Malkovich, Turturro, and Frances McDormand, playing a bureaucratic, high-ranking government official to some comic affect. Unfortunately, I cannot include LaBeouf or Huntington-Whiteley as equally enjoyable. LaBeouf cannot help but seem flustered at all times, always overdoing it. And meanwhile, Huntington-Whitely is as stiff as cardboard, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, as she's just a pretty face who has never acted before.

But as I say, in the end, the violence that we've anticipated comes in droves, over-the-top as always. With quotes from Optimus such as "Kill them all" and unflinching scenes of Transformers being executed and beheaded with their spines ripped-out, some will no doubt feel that it's all too much, and others will simply feel that the movie finally delivered on all cylinders they had expected. Whether it's a venerable thing that the world over, such mindless violence is usually a top-selling attractor for moviegoers is another discussion, but at least it does seem to be the case that we prefer robot blood (or should I say 'oil'?) to our own.

But as for Bay, and let's not forget his screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, how are we to judge? If their only intention was to make money, than with each installment of the Transformers franchise they've laughed themselves all the way to the bank. But I do earnestly believe Bay would like some credit for the achievements in movie-making technology he and his staffs have produced. And to his credit, with this film he has found some good use for the often gimmicky 3D genre, as it seems often enough during his extensive set-pieces he had 3D in mind all along, and the extra dimension lends itself more to Bay's craft than other filmmakers. But can this computer technology alone take the place of decent plot, acting, or dialog in movies nowadays? Thankfully, with what I hear from most moviegoers regarding Transformers, the answer is no. But nonetheless, the allure of the effects and action is worth the price of admission for millions and millions worldwide. And though I too enjoy being entertained as much as the next man, this film in the end was not quite worth it for me.