If Transformers: Dark of the Moon is indeed Michael Bay’s final entry in the Hasbro toy-inspired franchise as he has repeatedly intimated then it is a fitting swan song for a director whose lust - and gift - for spectacle remains unmatched. Exhilarating and exasperating awe-inspiring and stupefying the third installment in the blockbuster alien-robot saga is less a movie than a prolonged manic episode. In other words it’s a Michael Bay film.
Any suspicion that Bay might have matured at all since his last film 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen vanishes immediately after Dark of the Moon’s opening credits when model-actress (in that order) Rosie Huntington-Whiteley replacing tempestuous Megan Fox as the franchise’s resident eye candy is introduced ass-first. The camera lingers on her backside mesmerized as she makes her way up the stairs to summon our hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) from the bed she inexplicably shares with him. For a director so notoriously ADD-afflicted as Bay he can show remarkable focus when circumstances require it.
Times are tough for our boy Sam who despite having saved the world on two separate occasions can’t find a job. With the Decepticon scourge abated (for now) Optimus Prime Bumblebee and the rest of Sam’s Autobot pals have gotten side gigs as mechanized Hans Blixes roaming the planet in search of illegal WMDs and eliminating the regimes that harbor them. Feeling left out and finding little comfort in the arms his undeservedly hot girlfriend Sam yearns for a shot at more world-saving action.
He finds it soon enough when he is drafted into a plot so sprawling and convoluted that to describe it in full would extinguish what little neurochemical reserves I’ve managed to replenish since last night’s screening. It’s built on an enticing bit of revisionist history which casts the war between the Autobots and Decepticons as the real inspiration for the Cold War space race. It seems that many years ago an Autobot spacecraft carrying a technology that could turn the tide in their centuries-long war crash-landed on the moon. Alerted to the crash JFK immediately initiated the Apollo program with the specific purpose of harvesting technology from the craft before the Soviets could.
But that’s only part of the story as Sam learns when confronted with evidence by a raving co-worker (Ken Jeong) at his new job. (The two have a tussle in the loo – setting the stage for a hi-larious gay-insinuation joke. Vintage Bay!) Turns out there there’s much more to that fallen craft than anyone realizes and if its undiscovered cargo falls into the wrong hands – say Megatron and the Decepticons who are quietly regrouping in Africa – the implications could be devastating.
Dark of the Moon can be roughly divided into two parts. The first is a conspiracy thriller with a surreal comic bent with Bay aiming for – and dare I say nearly achieving – a quirky Coen Brothers vibe as Sam delves headlong into the moon mystery. (The presence of Coen veterans Frances McDormand John Turturro and John Malkovich among the cast reinforces the connection.) Credit screenwriter Ehren Kruger for recognizing that material this preposterous requires a suitably ludicrous sense of humor. But there’s also a sharpness and irreverence to Dark of the Moon’s wit that previous Transformers films have lacked. (It’s still however steadfastly juvenile: When Sam locks eyes with his future girlfriend for the first time his mom exclaims “What a gorgeous box!” while gazing at an unrelated object in the background.) Dark of the Moon's screenplay is a vast improvement over Revenge of the Fallen's in that it is an actual screenplay and not a stack of index cards.
The second half of the film centering on the Decepticons’ extended siege of Chicago unfolds essentially in one long action sequence. It’s as if Bay having sufficiently answered the biggest complaint about the previous film – the lack of a discernible plot – is suddenly unburdened free to commence the all-out sensory onslaught he’s been planning all along. In doing so he all but disavows the film’s first half rendering much of its storyline superfluous.
The battle scenes are truly epic – unprecedented in grandeur and scale and utterly resplendent in 3D – but the endless spectacle induces a kind of delirium. Each frame is positively crammed with images far more than our feeble non-Michael Bay brains could ever hope to process at the breakneck speed he presents them. And no two shots ever look the same: Even a simple shot-reverse-shot dialogue exchange shifts perspective on seemingly every other word. The net effect of Bay’s frenzied handiwork is a state of joyful discombobulation: mouth agape bewildered basking in the dopamine blush.
Carl Erik Rinsch made a huge splash in the advertising industry with his high-concept storytelling. That brought Hollywood to his doorstep and he was quickly attached to a handful of exciting science fiction and fantasy projects (Logan's Run and The Creature From The Black Lagoon among others) that were too pricey for established action directors to work on. We've been hearing his name for years now but haven't seen one of his films go into production. So when he was hired by Universal Pictures to helm 47 Ronin, a period-set samurai flick with Keanu Reeves headlining, I was skeptical about its priority at the studio.
Now it seems the project is finally getting underway as Variety reports that a quartet of foreign actors have been cast. Right off the bat, I'm stoked about Asian actors playing Japanese characters. I'm glad that Universal isn't pulling a Last Airbender and hiring SoCal American's to play hardened feudal warriors. Authenticity will be in tact in this film and I'm enthusiastic, especially since there are a few bad-ass actors involved. Let's have a look.
First we have Tadanobu Asano, who is perhaps best known for his leading role in Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer as well as the lauded Mongol. He'll become even more recognizable this year when he co-stars in Thor and will have two big Universal films to open in 2012 (including this one) because he's got a part in Peter Berg's Battleship. Next up is Rinko Kikuchi, a feisty little thing who was seen showing her hoo-ha in Babel and added international flavor to Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom. Most geek worthy is Hiroyuki Sanada, who appeared in The Last Samurai, Rush Hour 3, Speed Racer and the final season of ABC's Lost as an enigmatic protector of the island known only as Dogen. Finally we have Kou Shibasaki, a singing sensation who made her film debut in Kinji Fukasaku's acclaimed Battle Royale. Have a look at them all below (thanks to CS for the photo mash-up).
You may not be familiar with all of these actors, but that's not the point. The point is that the the famous fact-based story about a band of samurai swordsmen who avenge the death of their master in 18th Century Japan will look and feel like a genuine period piece, not just a soulless Hollywood product. Chris Morgan (Wanted, Fast Five) penned the screenplay for this epic actioner, which is on course to release on November 11th, 2012 in 3D.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT?
Loosely based on a documentary about a family who encountered strange goings-on in their new home this Hollywood-ized version finds the Campbell clan moving into a Victorian-style house in upstate Connecticut only to find it was once a funeral parlor dating back to the 1920s where spiritual entities crossed over thanks to the then-owner's clairvoyant son Jonah. You might think they would have gotten the idea that all was not so charming and quaint by the fact there's also a creepy cemetery next door but with the father usually off on a drunken spree and Mom urgently needing a place to take care of her gravely ill cancer-stricken teenage son (not to mention two daughters) there wasn't much time to house-hunt. Now the past is starting to catch up with the present and the Campbell's face terrifying ghostly visitors at just about every turn.
WHO'S IN IT?
At the center of this nightmare Virginia Madsen (Sideways) is well-cast as the rock-solid mom who has to contend with a weak hubby sickly son and a new house seemingly populated by the dead! Madsen once dealt with Candyman so this haunted mansion should be a snap. As Matt her son with a rare usually fatal cancer Kyle Gallner redefines intensity spending the bulk of the movie fighting demons of every kind — including his own. Amanda Crew plays it by the numbers as daughter Wendy the type of movie character that likes exploring dark deserted rooms late at night. Martin Donovan is given the thankless role of the alcoholic father while Elias Koteas is laughable as a Reverend who tries to battle the home's devilish spirits and seems to be channeling Father Merrin from The Exorcist.
Besides Madsen? Not much. But at least this is one horror film based in some semblance of reality with the cancer plotline adding a layer of credibility not found in today's usual brand of torture porn.
In taking its inspiration from countless psychological '60s classics like The Haunting and The Innocents to the more vivid terrors of The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist it only serves to point up this incarnation's inadequacies. There are a few scares but they are all produced by predictably quick editing and heightened music cues designed to give the audience a momentary rush and not much else.
The unintentionally funny sequence when the family first discovers their new dream house may not have been such a good deal after all. It's even more terrifying than a sub-prime mortgage!
Misery loves the Savages--always has. Ever since they were kids Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have been plagued by the blasé blues. Even though they went their separate ways the siblings have remained somewhat close geographically--she lives in Manhattan he in Buffalo--and in their discontentment. But what made them this way in the first place their father (Philip Bosco) is about to reunite them. After losing his mind to dementia and his longtime girlfriend (Rosemary Murphy) to well death the old man officially needs to be looked after and that’s where Jon and Wendy reluctantly come in. Despite having not seen their estranged father in ages they fly out to his Arizona senior-citizen-friendly community immediately upon word of his downfall. What they didn’t plan on however is staying more than a couple days. Ultimately they take him back to Buffalo and place him in a nursing home about which Wendy constantly feels guilty. Now forced to live together and look in the metaphorical mirror the siblings Savage learn about self-discovery mortality each other and how to revive a decades-old rivalry as though it had never gone away. Given the way Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman constantly one-up each other in The Savages you’d think there was a real sibling rivalry at play. Of course it’s merely two of today’s very best actors giving par-for-the-course flawless performances. In so doing they create something beyond chemistry: a relationship so fractured and imperfectly perfect that it could only exist between an aging brother and sister. Whether the scene calls for fireworks or subtlety solo or together Linney and Hoffman are always up to the task. Linney is especially wide-ranging as Wendy still fights her midlife crisis. The veteran actress is often heartbreaking because Wendy is often heartbroken even when she tries to convince herself otherwise but Linney still manages to leave the window of hope cracked open--for us and her character. She truly encompasses everything in this her best performance to date. Hoffman is slightly more of a supporting player here but no less impactful. The Oscar winner is apathetic through much of the film but his terse outbursts of anger and/or sadness are stark reminders of his awe-inspiring range as an actor. Perhaps the most savage Savage is the patriarch played with grace by longtime actor Bosco. But instead of vilifying Lenny or making him worthy of all your pity Bosco makes him a rollercoaster of emotion as per Lenny's dementia. It’s been nine years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ last--and only other--feature-length film the twisted coming-of-age tale Slums of Beverly Hills which has given her plenty of time to think grow older and think about growing older. She philosophizes aloud in The Savages a movie that addresses everything you don’t want to but with a sardonic edge to it; in fact maybe this is as much a coping mechanism for her as it is an artistic endeavor. While the movie is primarily about the title siblings it essentially explores the human condition under their guise. But Jenkins does so in a way that is never preachy never obnoxious never sappy and always astutely observed. It’s her naturalistic approach to moviemaking that will turn what is ultimately a sharp dramedy into too much of a downer to please casual moviegoers looking for lighthearted fare in wintertime--this is NOT Little Miss Sunshine--but those who go in looking for a drama will be moved occasionally to laughter. Because The Savages is that rare deep movie: heavy on symbolism and meaning light on pretense and contrivance.
In the opening scene of Wristcutters we see twentysomething Zia (Patrick Fugit) cleaning his room for what appears to be the first time in ages; it’s also the last. He isn’t straightening up for a guest or for the hell of it but rather to leave a clean room behind when he slits his wrist moments later. Cut to Kamikaze Pizza the restaurant where Zia works in what he thinks is purgatory. The only way in is by committing suicide and the only way out is if there was a mismanagement in your death circumstances and you wound up there by accident. Zia hates every second of it and is happy to find someone in Eugene (Shea Whigham) with whom he can commiserate over beers at the local dive bar—which is really the only place to go anyway. The afterlife brightens up even further when Zia gets word that his ex-girlfriend back on Earth Desiree (Leslie Bibb) has offed herself too and is er descending upon the area. So Zia and Eugene go on a road trip through the most desolate highways and byways you’ve never seen in an attempt to track down Zia’s lone post-suicide regret. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon) who believes she’s there by mistake as well as a very twisted sort of enlightenment. It’s always impressive when actors are able to acutely grasp the most complex scripts and their subtext (i.e. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and the gang from Wristcutters is in that rare company. Fugit who broke out in 2000’s Almost Famous and has remained well under the radar since is the oddest of protagonists—a suicide “victim ” if you will whose afterlife you’re rooting for—and it’s hard to think of another actor who could pull off what he does here. It's because he’s somehow compellingly blasé which is obviously no easy feat and is clearly as lost post-life as he was during it. Sossamon (A Knight's Tale) is spunky quirky and unpredictable in a way that’ll be as attractive to viewers as it is to Zia. There really is something troubled and normal about her character that adds potential validity to Mikal’s claims of not belonging in this apparent purgatory. Rising star Whigham (All the Real Girls) as the heavily Russian Eugene rounds out the trio of roadtrippers with initial comic relief followed later by dramatic relief. Two of the more Bizarro performances we’ve seen in a long time come appropriately from a flying Tom Waits (whose record Zia puts on in the opening scene to die to) and Will Arnett possibly as the messiah. Who needs a huge budget when you have a huge imagination like Wristcutters’ Croatian writer/director Goran Dukic does? And what a perfect premise to have no money for because the afterlife he dreams up is a wasteland of nothingness where traffic-less roads stretch forever possibly as a punishment. But it’s not all about visuals or lack thereof in this adaptation of an Israeli short story (Kneller’s Happy Campers) by Etgar Keret even though the film’s most arresting scene features a deserted beach at sunset. See Wristcutters is a genuine romantic comedy under the guise of a grim deed and ramshackle no-budget “indie-ness”: The comedy is everywhere albeit very dry and romance is something of a Holy Grail for which the characters are unwittingly searching. But don’t write off Dukic’s effort as whimsical or obtuse because after some (literally) supernatural twists towards the end Wristcutters turns profound—in a way that is wholly unpretentious and thus surprising for an independent film.
Now it’s Milo’s (Zlatko Buric) turn the big bad drug dealer from the original Pusher. It begins with him going to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He says he wants to get clean so he can have a better relationship with his daughter Milena (Marinela Dekic). In the next scene Milo goes back to scoring drugs but he’s also planning Milena’s birthday party. As the big night nears Milo finds out that his latest score was ecstasy not heroin but sorting that out doesn’t seem so much of a priority to him. Milo gets busy cooking for his family gathering while his underlings try to sort out the X/dope mess. Milena’s got her own interests too and she’s not afraid of her badass father. The twist of the family story is a nice change-up for the Pusher series but it still delves into the violent world of drugs and qualifies as a worthy entry to the franchise. Buric plays a much older Milo here than he did in the first Pusher. With a deep sorry mumble he’s going through the motions of older age. He gets exasperated with his crew for pestering him while he’s trying to attend to his family and he seems like a normal dad in that way. Family fights are the same normal blow ups with quick forgiveness that happen at any Thanksgiving day gathering. As the night wears on Buric shows Milo’s growing intensity. His silent brooding means he is evaluating his distractions but really remains calm in even the worst of drug mishaps. It’s way cooler than the panicked street hoods of the first two Pushers. Now you can watch a real pro at work. As Milena Dekick doesn’t have too much personality. Is she spoiled? We get hints of that. Is she just controlling? Probably and with good reason living in that family. The other crew members are just generic criminals. Focusing on the family and Milo’s attempted recovery from addiction is a good twist. All the street dealing was getting old especially in Pusher II. This seems like a more adult Pusher dealing with real issues everyone has in some way--work family etc. It’s just most people aren’t thugs. Like a My Big Fat European Pusher this third one creates more excitement around the party preparations than the crime world. Still the movie is a Pusher so you’re waiting for the crime story to pop back in. The violence is plenty brutal but it’s torture not action. There’s no suspense because this is Milo the man in charge. It really makes one wish they’d just combined all three perspectives into one massive expose rather than dragging it out through three films.