Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Cars 2/Transformers 3/Audiences 0

"The Summer of Our Discontent"
"Cash for Clunkers"

You almost don't want to go To the Movies this Summer.  Oh, we were warned; so many sequels and comic-book movies, the "experts" pouted and clucked.  But the law of averages were in the audience's favor; there had to be something good in "the numbers."*  But, this Summer has made me a little gun-shy and I hesitate from pulling the trigger on my credit card for a ticket.  Nothing's excited me so far (apart from The Tree of Life**) and it's July already.  Of the comics films, only X-Men: First Class had powers and abilities far beyond most super-hero movies—certainly over the previous "X-Men" entries.  The 3-D "phenomenon" has constricted budgets, pushed opening dates, and the only thing it seems to add is an extra dimension of "suck" to the productions in the end.

Two recent releases left me so completely unmoved—probably because they were manufactured machine-movies about manufactured machines manufacturing fights with each other—that I thought it best to combine them under one article...so I wouldn't have to spend too much time contemplating their existence, and simply move on. They also evoked the same thought of "What do I care what happens to machines? Machines can be re-built!" 

And movies series can be re-booted.  There are a couple I'd like to give the boot to right now.

Ultimately, both films are just long commercials for toys.  Better to buy the toys and make your own adventure than what's being served.

"Spare Parts"

I went into the original Cars with exceptionally low expectations, and found a surprisingly fun little film to appeal to the NASCAR crowd and anyone who had a love for the open road.  Automobile comedy would seem to be the lowest gear for laughs, but Pixar (and its guru/director John Lasseter, this time co-directing with Brad Lewis) managed a fine film that, if it fell short of the other Pixar products, at least managed to land on all four tires...and that's where the rubber meets the road.

But, what do you do for a victory lap?  Go around the field one more time? (Well...yeah).  With the novelty of a talking car universe safely a given, Cars 2 expands the concept, so that everything is talking, cars, boats, planes—although the oil-rigs featured are strangely mute.  It also goes global, with an environmental plot about an oil billionaire car (???) who decides to go "green" and develops a new fuel called "Allinol" (heh) and a promotional World Grand Prix to go with it.  This gives "Lightning" McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) to go head-gasket-to-head-gasket with his racing rival, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, who is having fun) for a best two out of three. 

Ah, but there's sand in the gas-tank, when a car-tel of lemon-models (Pacers, Pintos, Gremlins, Ugos) led by an evil genius (my guess it was an Edsel, but I was wrong) wants to exploit a weakness in the gas to destroy the racers in the Grand Prix, and it's up to Special Agent Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine, standing in for a friend, I think)—a gadget-laden Aston Martin/Miata hybrid—and his co-agent Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) to stop the plot and learn the secret identity of the evil genius behind it all.  In a case of mistaken vin numbers, these crack agents think that Mater, the tow-truck (Larry the Cable Guy) is their American contact with information to stop the  plot in its tire-tracks.  

Now...wait a minute.  I know it's a movie about talking cars (fergawdsake), but it takes a new meaning of the term British Intelligence to make that kind of mistake.  So, the movie shifts its emphasis from the McQueen caracter to Mater very quickly and the movie never really recovers...I mean, there's only so much Larry the Cable Guy a person can take.  The movie's tone has the feel of those '60's films where they used to shoe-horn Rowan and Martin or The Three Stooges into a spy plot because it was "a trend" and they couldn't come up with anything better...or appropriate. So, it's all a little "off," the timing chain a little twisted, not sparking on all cylinders.  It LOOKS good—the city-scapes haven't looked so lovely since Ratatouille (although everything looks a little miniaturized, like a play-set), and the movie has a fairly amusing sequence in Japan—but the film moves way too fast to appreciate all the chrome and options and it's too loud and obnoxious that the impulse is to roll the windows up and ignore it.  Despite a stellar cast (Vanessa Redgrave voices The Queen?  And did I hear Michael Gambon—uncredited—as the disguised voice of the villain?) and despite its emphasis on Mater, nothing mattersthere's no conflict, there's no drama—just a hokey plot, some slip-shod comedy, and everything running on auto-pilot. 

As such, it would have been more appropriate to have Roger Moore as the voice of the spy-car.

Cars 2 may be buffed and shined, but its parts are used and worn, and rather than having that "new car" smell, it has a distinct lemon-scent.

Cars 2 is Cable-Watcher.
(Wilhelm Alert @ 01: 24)

"Rock-Em, Suck-in Robots"

You should have no expectations walking into any film, but you really need to lower your guard going into a Michael Bay construction. His early films are such an annihlation of style over substance—to the point where action sequences are a mashugenah mish-mash between what looks like slo-mo Americana commercials for insurance—that you wonder if the guy at that point had any sort of talent whatsoever (I mean, Tony Scott has the same commercial gloss to his films, but at least you can follow them).

Over time, though, Bay's act has gradually gotten better. The action sequences smoothed out without losing any of the kinetic energy the director was striving for. Maybe there was even a good idea or two among the shrapnel flying through the air. But, the emphasis was always, and will always be I suspect, about demolition derby film-making with the occasional "grace note" of grinning nihilism and exploitive misogyny. One suspects that Michael Bay may become a better film-maker, but he will never grow up.

And he's still playing with toys. He directed all three "Transformer" movies, including the latest, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and before getting into what's wrong with it, here's what's right: the action sequences, particularly a crazed, high-strung highway chase and a mechanical urban brawl fought on three fronts through the high-rises of Chicago*** are marvels of imagination and quite "followable"—in other words, Bay is starting to understand the logistics of a good action sequence involve perspective and relatable occurancesthe swooping overhead shots let you see the relationships of what's happening, rather than just presenting a hodge-podge of in-your-face shots.  Yes, they go on too long—the evidence being the kids in the audience who couldn't sit in their seats long enough even when things started to go crash and boom—but at least things made sense, rather than merely noise and rubble.  Now, if he could just have things happen simultaneously—rather than have things stop on the other fronts while he concentrates on one sector—Bay might actually generate something his movies always lack: suspense.

So, the technique is improving, but he's still a far distance from being a mature film-maker.  The few women cast in the film, save Frances McDormand who manages to retain some inventiveness and dignity in her role, are all dressed like hookers with Bay's camera leering over their curves,**** the dialogue attempts double entendre but never gets beyond the singular stage, and the annoying Beavis and Butt-head mini-robots from the last film are back and just as juvenile.  The whole movie has the same air of arrested development, although attempts are made to make it seem like it is happening in something more than a fantasy world where aliens disguise themselves as muscle-cars.  The plot revolves around a derelict Autobot being salvaged from the Moonits detection being the genesis of Pres. Kennedy's push for a fast lunar landing (and a cameo by "Buzz" Aldrin attempts to lend credibility to the idea).*****  But, there are also "realish-world" cameos by Kennedy (eerily good effects work), Nixon and Robert McNamara (not so much), Walter Cronkite (TV archival footage) and Bill O'Reilly (which negates the credibility factor...a lot).  John Turturro returns, and John Malkovich has a small role as a gung-ho business exec.  Shia LaBeouf is on-hand (much more caffeinated than usual, probably to be better noticed and for good comic effect, as, Unicron knows, the robots are DEADLY serious), and there's just enough of his parents in this one to outwear their welcome, whereas they were one of the best things in the original.  Here, that role is provided by Alan Tudyk, who enlivens the first half of the film before he's made into a functionary.

But, human interaction other than urgently delivered exposition or awkward comedy is rare as human beings become mere flotsam (sometimes literally) in the crushing of gears against gears.  Since I've whined in the past that the "Transformers" movies have suffered from "Saved-by-a-White-Man" Syndrome (where a movie's ethnic entities' problems are solved by the usually-white star), this is actually rather refreshing (in fact, the girl-friend/model is the only one who does anything to influence the fight, by displaying the same kvetching characteristic she does with LaBouef's character, a nice touch if you actually believe it inspires what transpires, rather than her merely being turned into designer-charcoal as an annoyance). 

One looks for small signs of hope wherever one can, when one is dealing with something in so need of repair.

Ultimately, though, for all the metallicrash on the screen, my attention kept returning to my watch...I couldn't wait to get out of there.

One further thought to Bay's detriment: he can't direct 3-D (the format I saw Transformers: DOTM in. On too many ocassions, the illusion was spoiled by Bay's insistance in putting an out-of-focus obstructing "something" in between the viewer and the "focus" of the scene...which in 3-D...DOES NOT WORK! The eye wants to focus on the nearest object and move outward in focus, and with merely a "blur" to look at, gets mixed signals, leading to a frustrating viewing experience. Bad idea. And given that Transformers was designed to be shown in 3-D, some bad direction.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a Cable-Watcher, but rent it, instead, so you'll be able to skip places, speed it up, watch it in chunks...it's too long and renting it, you'll have more control over how much time you're wasting..

* Just because there's a number in the movie doesn't mean it's going to be bad—it amuses me that the intro on the Cars 2 poster says "From the Makers of Toy Story 3."  And there are the inevitable jokes—that Ocean's 11 was followed by Ocean's 12, and I remember a comedian saying about Malcolm X: "I never saw Malcolm I-IX!!"  I saw Super and Super 8 this Summer...where're the other 6?

** Meek's Cutoff was interesting, but nobody's going to see that.  So much for blazing trails.

*** You shouldn't take these things too seriously or literally, although Roger Ebert in his nicely disingenuous journal entry "On the Origin of Transformers" wonders why such a global conflict shoukld be limited to "the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive in Chicago."  Um...budget?

**** Bay's very first shot of the female leadRosie Huntington-Whiteley, a Victoria's Secret Model (but still...) is an up-skirt shot of her walking up a flight of stairs.  This isn't exactly the tradition of women making a "grand entrance."

***** This is the same "Buzz" Aldrin who, when confronted by an Apollo landing-hoax enthusiast, hauled off and punched the guy!  Who's getting the black eye now?


Frank Abe said...

I didn't see it, but didn't you like the spy-movie spin on Cars 2? It was a take off on the Bourne movies and Man From UNCLE.

Yojimbo_5 said...

No...it reminded me more of The Maltese Bippy. Cars 2 owes more to the imagery of the Bond films than Bourne or "UNCLE," and the "mistaken for a spy" angle owes more to Hitchcock films. Some nice visuals, but in the service of a pointless story.

Semen Rendi said...
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