Sunday, July 15, 2007

Episode 49

1408 - Mike Enslin (John Cusack) makes a living writing about ghosts, or perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof. He travels around the United States visiting locales that are supposedly haunted and proceeds to investigate the truth behind these claims. After several years and several books spent searching for a real live (or dead, as it were) ghost, he receives a postcard in the mail from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City with a message on the back reading simply "Don't enter 1408". Intrigued by the message, Enslin travels to the hotel and asks to stay in room 1408, only to be ushered into the company of hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). Olin refuses to let Mike, or anyone else for that matter, stay in room 1408. When Mike persists, Olin goes into detail as to why the room is off limits, describing the numerous deaths that have occurred in the room. Not a superstitious man, Enslin continues to insist that he be allowed to stay in the room, and due to a slight legality, is eventually allowed access. His stay in room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel begins innocently enough. The room is a little creepy, and a quick ultraviolet scan of the room uncovers traces of a large amount of blood, but nothing overly horrifying. Before long, however, Mike Enslin the skeptic may be forced to become Mike Enslin the believer. As the night continues, more and more supernatural occurrences rake at Enslin's sanity until it is clear that only one of the two will survive until morning: Mike or room 1408. Much like John Cusack's character in this film, I was a skeptic going into the theater. Unlike Mike Enslin though, who didn't believe in the existence of ghosts, I was skeptical that 1408 would be a good movie. The trailers for the film showed a lot of Enslin's daughter (Jasmine Anthony), which gave me the impression that this would be another in a long line of recent horror movies to revolve around creepy little children. I am happy to report that this is not the case. The back story of Enslin and his dead daughter is told in a refreshing way throughout the film instead of being crammed into the opening like I thought it would. As it turns out, it is the way that 1408 breaks free from the stereotypes of every other scary movie that really makes it worthwhile. This film does not try to make you jump with cheap scares the way that your average horror film does, but instead attempts to fill you with a deep-seeded feeling of dread, which it does with some degree of success. Outside of the style of the film and it's storytelling, the thing that really makes this movie is the performance of John Cusack. I am not usually a Cusack-supporter, but he really impressed me in 1408. The film is, after all, essentially ninety minutes of Cusack locked in an evil room by himself with no other actors to interact with. Though this could be said about any film, a poor performance of the lead role in 1408 would have absolutely crippled this movie. This is more true for 1408 than most films, though, because for the majority of the running time the only character we get to see is the lead. That doesn't mean that there are no worthy supporting roles, though. Samuel L. Jackson, who is only in the movie for about ten minutes, provides some of the best scenes in the entire film. He has become a pop culture icon based on his outrageous personality in such films as Snakes On A Plane, but parts like Gerald Olin are the ones in which Jackson really shines. Though Cusack carried the film well on his own, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wanted to see more of Jackson's character. As for the scares themselves, as I said, they are meant to disturb more than shock. In this regard 1408 delivers with some truly eerie and suspenseful moments. There are a few startling events though, that may make you jump. The only variable remaining, then, is the ending. It is not uncommon for a good scary movie to have a horrible ending, which is honestly what I was expecting from 1408. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. 1408 has, in my opinion, the perfect ending to the events that occur in the plot. I was genuinely pleased with the closure we get from the film. All in all, I found 1408, which had all the odds stacked against it, to be an entertaining, original, and rewarding moviegoing experience. If you've grown tired of horror movies because of their stagnant repetition in recent years, 1408 is the movie for you.

United 93 - United 93 is the story of one of the four planes hijacked on September 11, 2001. As everyone knows, two of these planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York, NY and a third was flown into the Pentagon. The fourth, which this film is concerned with, crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The plot follows several different groups of people through the events of the day, leading up to the crash. Most notably the viewer is shown the stories of the passengers of the flight, the terrorists who hijacked it, and a group of airport employees. After the hijackers take control of flight 93, a group of passengers band together to attempt to take back control of the aircraft, which eventually results in the plane going down. Sorry to spoil the climax, but I'm sure everyone knew how it was going to end anyway. I find myself on the fence regarding the film United 93. It was an interesting, engrossing experience, but it certainly had it's flaws. First of all, the film felt more like a documentary than a movie. We are never given enough time with or background on any particular characters to allow us to grow attached to them. The story jumps around so much that there's never a chance to breath and really get to know anyone. It would have been tough to make a standard Hollywood film out of the events of this movie because of the subject matter, but I just felt as though it didn't necessarily make for a good narrative. Another problem that I had with United 93 is probably one that some people may be offended by. I know how this sounds, but I honestly felt like the film was too sappy. Near the climax of United 93, right before the passengers of the plane are about to make a stand against the hijackers, a large number of them begin to use the air phones to call their loved ones so they can exchange teary good-byes in case they should not make it back alive. I'm not clear on whether or not this actually happened on 9/11, but regardless of whether it did or not, it felt as though director Paul Greengrass was trying harder to wrench tears out of the audience than he was to actually tell the story. I'm not saying that scenes like this should have been dropped entirely, but I really felt like they were a bit overdone. This is a touchy subject because we're talking about real people and events here, but let's be honest for a moment. If this were a film made pre-9/11 and these scenes were kept intact, they would have been essentially included in poor taste. If it weren't based on real events there would be no room for the majority of the emotional tension that is involved in the ending of this movie, and what this all really comes down to is that while I thought United 93 did a good job of telling it's story, I don't feel like it was completely successful as a motion picture. The film was shot beautifully and dramatically and kept a very good pace for the majority of the running time, but as a movie I thought that it was a bit lacking. Like I said, it would almost make for a better documentary than a feature film. This is, of course, just my opinion. I can imagine that if I personally knew someone involved in the tragedy of 9/11, or more specifically the actual United flight 93, that I would have a different opinion on some of these topics, but as an average movie-goer (like most of the individuals watching this movie are), I didn't come away having greatly enjoyed watching it.

Kickboxer - Eric Sloane (Dennis Alexio) is the reigning heavyweight kickboxing champion in the United States of America. Desiring to meet a worthy new opponent, Eric and his brother Kurt (Jean Claude Van Damme) travel to Bangkok, Thailand, the birthplace of kickboxing. Just before Eric is scheduled to go up against the local champion, Tong Po (Michel Qissi), Kurt sees him training in another room and realizes that his brother has no chance of beating him. He tries to warn Eric, but he refuses to listen and enters the ring. After a severe beating from Tong Po, Eric's back is broken, paralyzing him from the waist down. In the wake of this tragic event, Kurt vows to get revenge on Tong Po, and seeks out the assistance of the reclusive martial arts master Xian Chow (Dennis Chan). Xian accepts Kurt's request for training, and over the next few months Kurt not only becomes a great fighter, but falls in love with Xian's niece, Mylee (Rochelle Ashana). Finally the day of Kurt's fight with Tong Po has arrived, but the rules have suddenly changed. First, it is announced that the battle will take place out of the ring, and instead in an ancient cavern. Second, the fighters will wear hemp gloves covered in shards of broken glass. Third, Eric has been kidnapped by Tong Po's representatives, who plan to kill him if Kurt either defeats Tong Po or doesn't last until the final round. The tension rises as the fight begins and a secret rescue mission is planned to free Eric, but will he be recovered in time for Kurt to protect his honor? Make no mistakes...Kickboxer is a terrible movie. It essentially takes the plot of Karate Kid and throws all of the character development and heart right out the window. Jean Claude is essentially an older Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), Michel Ossi is a less interesting Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and Xian Chow is a sad substitute for Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Not to mention, the acting is absolutely horrible. While I've enjoyed Van Damme in such films as Universal Soldier, Timecop, and Maximum Risk, his character in Kickboxer is a hollow shell of a man. Kurt and his brother exude no real emotions, and there were often moments over the course of the movie when I felt as though I was watching a poorly acted student film. The only person to give a reasonably multi-dimensional performance was Haskell Anderson as Winston Taylor, the comic relief and an old friend of Xian's. I'm sure that nothing I've said about the lack of plot or quality acting has come as a surprise to anyone, but a complete surprise to me was the final fight scene between Kurt and Tong Po. The movie had been so horrible up to this point that I was shocked to find that the filming and execution of the climactic battle was actually pretty good (albeit WAY over the top). We're not talking The Matrix good or anything, but it was really exciting and engrossing (something which can't be said for the rest of the film). In a way, the final fight scene almost makes up for having to sit through an hour and a half of garbage to get there. Watch Kickboxer with a couple of friends and have a good laugh at it's many weaknesses, but don't expect to get much more out of this movie-viewing experience.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Episode 48 - This Isn't Revenge...It's Punishment!

The Punisher (1989) - Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was a good cop until the day that the mob blew up a car with his wife and two daughters inside. It has been assumed that Castle himself died in the explosion as well, but no one has ever been able to prove it, including his ex-partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.). Not long after Frank's disappearance, however, a vigilante known as The Punisher appeared on the scene and began a killing spree resulting in 125 dead members of the mob over a period of five years. Many people believe that Castle is The Punisher, but again, no one has been able to prove it. When the second in command of the mob is finally killed in an attack by the The Punisher, boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé) must return to the United States from an extended vacation in Europe to take up the reins of his toppling organization. Not long after his return, Franco convinces the heads of the other four crime families to join forces with his, but their first job as a team goes awry when it is interrupted by a gang of Yakuza hitmen lead by Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) and her daughter (Zoshka Mizak). Tanaka plans to take over leadership of the mob while they're in their weakened state, all thanks to The Punisher thinning out their ranks. Castle would be happy to stand by and let the mob and the Yakuza kill each other until he discovers some new information through his informant Shake (Barry Otto). When the mob bosses refused to cooperate with the Yakuza, Tanaka kidnapped all of their children to hold for ransom, which is not something that Frank, who lost his own daughters to rampant crime, is willing to let happen. Now The Punisher must take on the entire Yakuza army to save the children of the very men responsible for his own family's deaths. The original 1989 Punisher gets a ton of flak, but I'm not entirely sure why. I'm sure that some people are surprised to hear me say that, but it's true. I honestly don't think that this is a bad movie. Now don't get me wrong; there are certainly some problems with this film. In fact, let's take a look at those first, shall we? First of all, what is the first thing you think of when you hear "The Punisher"? If you've ever seen a comic book before, it should of course be a big, creepy white skull on a guy's chest. However, for some reason the people in charge of making the 1989 Punisher film felt the need to omit this from the character's design. This is like taking the "S" off of Superman's chest. The skull appears on the handle of The Punisher's knives in the film, which he often leaves stuck in the bad guys for the cops to find later, but aside from that the film is devoid of this symbol. I can't fathom why they did this, but you know, it doesn't really affect the film all that much. The other big thing that people fault this movie for is it's leading man: Dolph Lundgren. Now, I would be kidding myself if I said that he is a good actor, but if you can buy Arnold Schwarzenegger's performances in some of his earlier films, then you should certainly be able to deal with Lundgren in The Punisher. He really doesn't do much in the film aside from beating on people, shooting people, riding a motorcycle, and occasionally delivering a clever retort or pre-death catch phrase, all of which I think he managed with a worthy degree of believability. The real thing that I find odd about Frank Castle in this movie is that there are multiple scenes in which he is kneeling naked in his underground hideout. I'm not really sure what these scenes are supposed to signify, but I can deal with them. While I'm behind Lundgren's involvement in The Punisher, my real opposition to the casting lies mainly with the children in the film. None of these kids are even remotely close to good actors, and they provide the most laughably-delivered lines of anyone on the screen. Those characters aside, we have some very stereotypical representations of Japanese people and mobsters, but it is an eighties action movie after all. One character that I could take or leave is The Punisher's informant, Shake. He is a bum who gives Frank Castle intel on upcoming crimes in exchange for booze. He was obviously included as the comic relief of the film, but is thankfully not in it enough to dumb down the story. The action, for the most part, is standard eighties/early nineties fare with explosions and sub-par fight choreography in tow, which I won't fault the film for, because that's just when it came out. Now for the things that I liked. First off, The Punisher is an urban legend. He's been around for a while and has a mythic feel about him in this film. The same cannot be said for the more recent celluloid incarnation of the character. Second is the plot. I love the plot of this movie. The fact that Castle has to save the lives of his enemies' children is great. It also allowed for him to go up against some enemies who had an entirely different fighting style to his own. While brief, the fight between Frank and Lady Tanaka's daughter is really innovative in my opinion. I also enjoyed Louis Gossett Jr.'s character. He could have come off as a whiny sidekick, but instead was a badass himself. Finally, while the script was weak at some points, there were also some lines that make me smile with glee such as when Berkowitz asks, "What the fuck do you call 125 murders in 5 years?", to which Frank replies, "A work in progress." Classic. While The Punisher will turn many people off based on Lundgren's involvement and it's technical inferiority in comparison to the newer installment of the franchise, this film still stands up for me as one of those great, mindless action films of the eighties. Watch it if you get a chance, and if you've seen the more recent film, try to look at it through the eyes of someone seeing it pre-Y2K.

The Punisher (2004) - Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is an undercover cop who has just completed his final operation before moving away with his wife and son to live out the rest of his life without fear of losing it in the line of duty. Unfortunately, during this final mission, one of mob boss Howard Saint's (John Travolta) sons was killed, which obviously doesn't please Saint or his beautiful wife Livia (Laura Harring) too much. On the day of her son's funeral Livia asks Howard to enact revenge on the man responsible for their loss, and what Livia wants, Livia gets. Recently free from duty, Frank is at a beach-side party with his entire family when Saint's lackeys show up, lead by his right hand man Quentin Glass (Will Patton). After murdering every single member of Castle's family, despite his attempts to save them, Quentin and co. beat, shoot, and blow up Frank on a pier. Discovered washed up on the shore by a local man, Frank is revived with one thing on his mind: punishment. He relocates to Florida, where Howard Saint resides, and rents an apartment in a small, run down building where he sets up shop with an armored car and every type of weapon imaginable. As The Punisher, Frank methodically takes down every aspect of Saint's business, surviving every attack that is sent his way. Meanwhile, through interaction with his three new neighbors, Joan (Rebecca Romjin), Dave (Ben Foster), and Bumpo (John Pinette), Frank also begins to feel normal emotions again like trust and compassion. However, as his mission to ruin Howard Saint's life continues, The Punisher remains an unstoppable force of vengeance, forcing Saint to repeatedly up the ante. This time around The Punisher got a bigger budget, bigger stars, and bigger action sequences. Despite all this, the 2004 incarnation of The Punisher still didn't perform magnificently in theaters. Regardless, this is a pretty good movie. Thomas Jane is certainly a better actor than Dolph Lundgren was in the previous Punisher film, and this one also has a more noteworthy supporting cast. In fact, that's really what makes this movie. Based loosely on the Garth Ennis-penned "Welcome Back, Frank" story-line from the Punisher comic books, Jonathan Hensleigh's film borrows from the comic's wonderful cast of ancillary characters. Frank Castle's neighbors Joan, Dave, and Bumpo all have their origin's in Ennis' comics, as do villains Harry Heck (Mark Collie) and The Russian (Kevin Nash). Speaking of The Russian, his scene in this film is definitely the highlight of the movie. The overall tone of his fight with The Punisher carries over perfectly from the comic book and is way more fun and funny than a scene in a generic action movie has any right to be. As far as the rest of the villains go, John Travolta puts in a mediocre performance as Howard Saint. Honestly, I had a hard time believing that anyone would be afraid of him in this film. He just didn't scream badass to me. Harry Heck was only in the film very briefly, but puts in a rather decent performance in the time alloted to him. As far as the neighbors are concerned, they are all important and play their parts well. My only complaint would be that Rebecca Romjin was a little too beautiful to believably pull off the character of Joan (at least the way she was portrayed in the comic), but that's hardly something to worry about. On the topic of the differences between this version of the Punisher and the previous incarnation, there are many, but I'll go over a few important ones. First is the skull design. Unlike the Dolph Lundgren version it is all over this movie, which is good, but the origin of it is pretty damn stupid in my opinion. The filmmakers were trying to give the skull a deeper meaning than it has and, in my opinion, they managed only to make it slightly more stupid than if it were just a skull shirt that Castle ended up with. Next we have The Punisher's public appearance. In the Lundgren film The Punisher had been around for several years and was a bit of an urban legend, which I liked. In this film he walks right up to the front of a police station to announce his existence as soon as he rolls into town. I wasn't a big fan of this, primarily because it doesn't make sense. If you're going to go around killing a bunch of people, why not be secretive about it? Realistically, as soon as the first bad guy dropped dead, the cops would have been knocking down Frank's door, but then again, we are talking about a comic book movie here. This time around we got to see the deaths of Frank's family, which are on a much larger scale than in the original film, allowing the viewer to get into Frank's head a little more. This is good and bad in my opinion, because I liked all of the character development of The Punisher in this film, but also appreciated the mystery of him in the other. When you get right down to it, despite all of the differences between the 1989 and 2004 Punisher films, I like both of them on just about the same level. The 2004 version is absolutely the better movie, but both are quite worth a watch.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Episode 47 - Transform And Roll Out!


Thousands of years ago an item known as the Allspark (a mysterious cube that can create life) found it's way to the planet Cybertron where it birthed a civilization of living robots capable of taking the shapes of various objects. These beings became known as Transformers. For a time the species thrived until an evil Transformer known as Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) began a war which eventually ravaged the entire planet. Megatron and his followers, known as the Decepticons, battled against the Autobots, as led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), for control of the Allspark. When Cybertron had been totally demolished by fighting, the Autobots took the Allspark into space where Megatron traced it, eventually finding himself caught in the gravitational pull of planet Earth. He was pulled to the surface and crash-landed in the arctic where he remained frozen until many years later when an explorer by the name of Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard) stumbled upon his body. Using the last of his strength, Megatron shot forth an energy beam which engraved a coded map onto the lenses of Archibald's glasses which would lead anyone able to decode it directly to the Allspark's location on Earth. After some time the Decepticons were able to track Megatron to Earth and arrived there, immediately searching for the Allspark and their lost leader. Using the technology available on Earth, including the internet, the Decepticons were able to track Archibald Witwicky's glasses, and the map contained within, to their current owner, his grandson Sam (Shia Lebeouf). A high school student, Sam has just purchased his first car, which as it turns out, is an Autobot named Bumblebee (Mark Ryan) in disguise. After locating Sam, Bumblebee sends a signal out into the depths of space, calling for his fellow Autobots to join him on Earth to help find and protect the Allspark. After the cavalry arrives an all new war begins to see who will finally gain control of the Allspark: the riteous Autobots or the evil Decepticons.


Opening Remarks - I've decided to break this review into multiple parts because, honestly, there's a lot of ground to cover here. I was never a huge fan of The Transformers as a child. I had one or two Transformers toys, hardly ever watched the cartoon, and didn't end up seeing the original movie until I was about 18 years old. I used to watch the spin-off series Beast Wars, but that's about it. My knowledge of the Transformers is fairly limited, but as a movie buff, a science fiction nerd, and a child of the eighties, how could I not be excited to see Optimus Prime and Megatron duking it out on the big screen? So for months I read all the rumors on message boards and watched all the clips leaked online and finally the day arrived that I, along with the rest of the world, would be able to see cars turn into robots and beat the hell out of each other in the theater in full, glistening 3D CG. The following are my findings.

The Plot - The plot of Transformers is fairly simple: good robots versus bad robots with life as we know it hanging in the balance. That said, it's not unfathomable that the story could have been bogged down by unimportant subplots and/or mundane intricacies that don't further the plot progression. I am happy to say, however, that the plot of Transformers is solid. There are some flashback scenes narrated by Optimus Prime that give the viewer a brief look at the history of the events taking place which clue the audience into a few things they need to know right when they need to know them. Past that, Transformers is jam-packed with story points that are (for the most part) relevant. With that said, the story is not without it's flaws. Transformers clocks in at two hours and twenty four minutes, but could have easily been three hours long. This is not to say that it should have been, and there are certainly people who would complain that making a film longer will not solve anything, but the simple fact of the matter is that there are often instances in Transformers where the pacing feels rushed. It's as though many of the scenes were intended to be longer, but had to be cut short to meet some sort of time constraints. I think the plot suffered in some areas based on this flaw. Many characters felt underdeveloped and multiple scenes left me feeling cheated out of a properly paced bit of drama. Had the film held a better flow, I would have no real problems with the story, but as it stands it felt to me like there was a bit too much crammed into slightly too small of a space. Then there is the humor. Transformers has many more comical moments in it than I was expecting. Most of these instances were done in good taste, but I personally felt that there was sometimes too much focus on the humor. Many jokes felt justified and meaningful while a select few felt overly cheesy and forced. And finally, one of my bigger gripes about the film's plot involves the focus of the film. The movie is called Transformers, however the way the plot plays out, the film could have been called "Sam And His Transforming Pals". Now, I am not going to dispute the importance of Shia Labeouf's character in this film, but for a movie about giant robots, I really didn't feel like the robots were given quite enough to do for a great deal of the movie. They managed to be onscreen a good bit, but there were hardly any scenes of the robots talking to each other. Almost every single scene, regardless of whether there was a robot in it or not, seemed to revolve around whatever human was in the frame more than the robots themselves. I understand that Sam is the main character, and I am fine with the amount of screen time he had, but I just didn't feel like the Autobots got their due until the climax of the movie, though even then I was a tad disappointed (more on that in a bit).

The Humans - Shia Labeouf is incredible in Transformers. He is funny, interesting to watch, and absolutely believable in the role of Sam Witwicky. His interaction with the robots, both Autobot and Decepticon, is flawless, as is his interaction with his family, the love interest, and all of the various government and military personnel. Megan Fox surprised me in this film by being more than just a pretty face. She carried the role of Mikaela Banes fairly well for the majority of the movie, however I still didn't quite believe her as the badass grease monkey that she was supposed to be. Jon Voight was one of the few actors in the movie that I honestly wasn't all that impressed by. As sad as it is to say, I think that the last movie in which Voight really impressed me with his performance was Varsity Blues. He didn't do a terrible job in Transformers, but perhaps his character just wasn't explored deeply enough to make him seem all that worthwhile. Speaking of shortchanged cast members, none of the military characters such as Sargeants Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Epps (Tyrese Gibson) really had a fighting chance of showing any real character development. All of their scenes essentially consisted of them shouting and shooting things, which they were good at, but which wasn't very rewarding as far as their personalities were concerned. John Turturro's portrayal of Agent Simmons was one of the more interesting of the human roles, simply because his character had a bit of character. He exuded some actual emotions and had a little more to do than just look concerned and shoot things. Also worthwhile were Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam's parents. Their characters were fairly stereotypical onscreen parents, but their interaction with Shia was entertaining and they provided some of the more worthy comical sequences in the film. Another heavily comedic role was that of Anthony Anderson, who did a rather horrible job of playing a genius computer hacker alongside the equally unimpressive Rachel Taylor.

The Autobots - As I've already mentioned, I really would have liked the Transformers (specifically the Autobots) to do a little more in this film. As it is, the Autobots (excluding Bumblebee) take their sweet time arriving on Earth, but after they get here they really don't do a whole hell of a lot. Fortunately, however, the Autobots were handled well in the scenes thay they were in. A lot of people were worried by the more realistic appearances of the robots in the movie as compared to the way they looked in the cartoon, but I was behind the designs from the beginning. What I was worried about was whether they'd stick to the heart of the characters or not. Luckily they did just that. Optimus Prime, as voiced by Peter Cullen, is the epitome of a leader. His speech alone demands respect, and when he was really in his element in this film the hairs on the back of my neck stood up at the sound of his voice. There were some silly moments involving all of the Autobots, but those aside, Optimus was handled extremely well. Bumblebee was also done decent justice in this movie. I was initially disappointed that he wasn't going to be a Volkswagon Beetle like the original character, but in retrospect I think I'd have had a hard time believing that he could do any real damage if he were in fact a VW Bug in a live-action movie. Something else that initially worried me about Bumblebee was that instead of speaking he used sound clips from the radio to talk. I expected this to be very corny and stupid, but he honestly doesn't use this ability very often in the film, and the few times he does didn't really bug me too much. The main problem with the other three Autobots of the film, Ratchet (Robert Foxworth), Jazz (Eddie from Family Matters), and Ironhide (Jess Harnell), is that they have almost no character development whatsoever. Soon after their introductions we are treated to a few little one-liners from each that give us an idea of what their personalities are like, but then they essentially have no important or memorable dialogue for the rest of the film. Overall my complaints about the Autobots all come down to their lack of importance to the plot aside from showing up for the final battle of the movie.

The Decepticons - Really, my complaints with the Decepticons are much the same as those I had with the Autobots. For one, zero character development. Megatron is in stasis for the majority of the film, so he really only has about the last half an hour of the story to build up any sort of personality or character. If it weren't for the other characters foreshadowing his arrival and talking about what a badass he is prior to his release, he probably wouldn't have come off as much of a threat at all. Then we have the rest of the Decepticons...I think there were eight of them in total. The first action scene involves Blackout, the second involves Scorponok, and the third involves Barricade (more on these scenes shortly). After that we really don't see the villains until the ending. Again, for having so many damn robots in the movie, we hardly see any of them. Not to mention, for the most part the Decepticons don't even have any speaking parts. They each have maybe one or two lines, but they're all spoken in an alien language for the most part and subtitled onscreen. This, combined with their lack of screen time in general, really impedes the viewer's ability to get to know the characters. I personally can't even list off all of the Decepticons that were in the movie or what vehicles they turned into because they just weren't important enough to the plot to be memorable. This becomes a real problem toward the end of the movie because I had no real idea who was who during the climactic all-out brawl that ends the film (that's not really a spoiler because, come on, who didn't know that's how a Transformers movie would end?). The really sad thing about the Decepticons is that the one who gets the most screen time is a little annoying robot who turns into a stereo named Frenzy (Reno Wilson). In my personal opinion Frenzy is to Transformers what Jar Jar Binks was to Star Wars. Everything about this character sucked. Even the way he moved. The filmmakers decided to make his movements very exaggerated and (in my opinion) overly-fluent, giving the character the feeling of a silly Bugs Bunny type of character. Then there was his voice. He speaks in little cartoony grunting sounds that just scream "I was added to entertain the kids in the audience." Aside from Frenzy, the thing that probably bugged me most about the Decepticons was that Starscream (Charles Adler), Megatron's second in command, was hardly in it. In the cartoon Starscream was an incredibly rich character who always seemed on the verge of getting into a fight with Megatron over the leadership of the Decepticons. There was only one real moment in the film that these two characters shared and it was probably one of my favorite of the entire movie. It showed that the filmmakers knew how to handle the characters properly, but that they just didn't bother to take the time to do so.

The Special Effects - There isn't much to say here. The special effects in Transformers were top notch. I had no trouble believing that the incredible robotic creatures onscreen were real because they fit so well into the onscreen environment. The transforming process was impressive, as were the movements of just about every CG character. The effects in Transformers were absolutely the best I've seen to date.

This next section discusses, in some detail, the events of the film's action sequences. If you haven't seen the movie yet you may do well to skip the following block of text and proceed to the next. You've been warned.

The Action - Frenzy was an annoying character. Many of the people/robots in the film didn't get enough character development. Several parts of the movie felt rushed and/or stereotypical of modern action movies. My biggest complaint about Transformers, though, falls into the category of the films's action sequences. The first taste of action we get is right at the beginning when Blackout (the evil helicopter) attacks an American military base. This scene was shot in such a way that we didn't get to directly see a whole lot of the action. The camera never focused very well on the villain and things were very hectic and confusing. I'm fine with this because it's the beginning of the movie and director Michael Bay probably just wanted to keep things a bit mysterious this early on. The second action scene that we get is when the survivors of the military base are attacked in the desert by Scorponok. Again, it's a bit tough to tell what's happening at times. Again, Bay seems to be focusing more on the random actions of the soldiers than the direct action of the robot, which is what everyone really wants to see. The camera moves around very quickly and shakes a lot, there are constantly demolished walls, etc. blocking our view of Scorponok, and sand and dust are flying all over the place, making things even more confusing. Okay, it must just be the location, and it's honestly still pretty early on, so maybe Bay is still just teasing us. A little while later there's a pretty cool, but incredibly short car chase between Bumblebee and Barricade (the evil police car), ending in a stand-off between the two. Then the two of them go at it, which would have been really cool if I could tell what the fuck was going on. My guess is that it was a combination of shaky cam, close-ups, and the fact that it's tough to discern between two characters when they're both just made out of a bunch of random pieces of metal, but I could hardly follow the action in this scene. Then, before you know it, the focus cuts away from the fight to see Shia LeBeouf being felt up by Frenzy and we miss the rest of the first real battle between good and evil robots. Oh well, there's plenty more action coming, right? Wrong. Fast forward to the last twenty minutes of the movie and the shit is finally about to hit the fan. Megatron's conscious, all the Decepticons are sounding off on their way to the location of the Allspark, and the Autobots are rushing toward the city. Commence fighting. What do we get? More shaky cam. More confusing, fast-paced fighting. This scene is in the daylight, and it's pretty long, involving some slow-mo, etc., so it's not all bad, but for the most part I was very disappointed with the climactic battle of Transformers. For one thing, as I mentioned before, I had no clue who half of the Decepticons were, so most of the time I felt like I was just looking at random bad guys. Second, is it just me, or did it seem like the robots were dropping like flies in this scene? I was under the impression that these things were tough, but each little conflict lasted maybe a minute and then one of the robots was being dismantled and defeated completely. This was disappointing because after all the build-up it seemed like the Decepticons were all talk. I won't dwell on the silly nature of some things like why the military decided that the best way to hide the Allspark would be to bring it into a populated city with lots of innocent bystanders to be killed in the coming battle, or why instead of taking the Allspark and driving to meet the military helicopters themselves, Ratchet and Ironhide made little ol' Sam Witwicky run down the street with it himself while they stood around and got the crap beaten out of them, but there were certainly some odd occurrences at the end of this film. All in all I just felt underwhelmed and maybe a little jipped by the climactic battle of Transformers. The best part, by far, was a short dogfight between Starscream and some U.S. fighter jets. This scene was well lit, well shot, and generally easy to see and enjoy. It was also pretty short, but it's something, so I'll deal with it.

In Closing - Transformers certainly wasn't horrible, but it definitely wasn't the amazing movie-going experience that I was expecting, nay, wishing for. Sure the effects were good, but the action was impeded by some odd filming choices that made it hard for me to enjoy them. Sure the story was perfect, but the storytelling was far from it. Yes, some of the characters were wonderful, but others were weak and poorly developed. Transformers had the opportunity to leave an impact on me like the first time I saw Spiderman swinging across the New York skyline, or the first time I saw H.R. Giger's nightmarish creation burst from a man's chest in Alien, but in the end it just felt like another standard summer action movie to me; less a failure, and more a missed opportunity.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Episode 46

Ratatouille - Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a rat, and as everyone knows, rats eat garbage. Most rats, including the rest of Remy's clan, are happy to just eat garbage, but Remy has a more heightened sense of taste and smell than most. Because of this, Remy has higher standards of what he chooses to eat, and also wishes to be a cook just like his idol Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett). After being caught raiding the kitchen of the home in which he and his clan live, the old woman who lives there chases Remy and the rest of the rats away. During their escape Remy is separated from the group and sails through the sewers to find himself smack in the middle of Paris, France, the home of the finest cuisine the world has ever known. Making his way to the late Gusteau's restaurant, Remy observes the new garbage boy named Linguini (Lou Romano) as he accidentally messes up a pot of soup in the kitchen. Head Chef Skinner (Ian Holm) scolds Linguini when he catches him trying aimlessly to fix the soup. Meanwhile, unwilling to let an imperfect meal be served in his idol's restaurant, Remy risks life and limb to fix the soup himself before being caught by the staff. When the soup is served, the patron who ordered it gives her compliments to the chef, which surprises everyone else in the kitchen because as far as they know, Linguini is the one who made it taste so good. Upset that he's been upstaged by the garbage boy, Skinner demands that within the next few days Linguini must re-make the soup to prove that he knew what he was doing, which he of course didn't. Afraid of losing his job, and after discovering that Remy knows how to cook, Linguini offers the captive rat his freedom in exchange for assisting him in becoming a successful cook himself. After Linguini wows everyone by making delicious dish after delicious dish, word comes around that the harshest food critic in the city, Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) will be returning to Gusteau's restaurant for the first time since he gave it a bad review (which cost the restaurant one of it's five stars) to review it once again. With time running out before Ego returns for his meal, Linguini and Remy must keep their partnership a secret, which could prove difficult because of Skinner's desire to find out how Linguini learned to cook so well. With a track record like Pixar's, including such films as Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars, it's not hard to imagine that Ratatouille is a great movie. Helmed by Brad Bird, the man responsible for The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, Ratatouille is the most stunningly beautiful of Disney and Pixar's computer animated films to date. Of course, seeing the progression that they've made from film to film, this is also not hard to believe. The city scapes of Paris at night in the film are stunning, and perhaps most impressive of all is a scene in which Skinner chases Remy through the city. Also of note is the first scene in which Remy finds himself in Gusteau's kitchen. What truly impressed me about Ratatouille though, was the story. Sure, it seemed fun and funny from the get-go, but I never expected Ratatouille to be as heartwarming and, dare I say, mature as it is. All of Pixar's movies have walked the fine line between being child-oriented and adult-oriented, and this is definitely the film that's leaned the farthest toward being meant for adults, but they still managed to keep the story simple and innocent enough to be ideal for all ages. As far as the story is concerned, as I said, it's easy to understand, even for those not familiar with the intricacies of fine-dining. It has a few morals sprinkled throughout as well, but doesn't shove them down the viewer's throat. All of the characters are likable and memorable. Linguini has a great chemistry with Remy, as well as with the one woman in the kitchen, Colette (Janeane Garofalo), who provides a potential love interest for him. All of the staff of Gusteau's kitchen and several of Remy's fellow rats have interesting designs and personalities, providing a great supporting cast with voice acting performances by the likes as Will Arnett, James Remar, Brian Dennehy, and Pixar staple John Ratzenberger. As for what I didn't like, there isn't much. One thing I wasn't a big fan of was the beginning of the film before Remy gets to Paris. I can't even put my finger on why I didn't like it, but I felt like it was the weakest part of the movie. Another small problem that I had was that I saw the ending coming from a mile away. Obviously I'm not going to say what it entails, but I knew what was coming about halfway through the film. I guess that's essentially all of my gripes, though. Ratatouille is a fine addition to Pixar's library of impeccable computer animated films and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. And by the way, I give Brad Bird and his team great praise for making perhaps the first story about a mouse or rat that doesn't involve a single cat. Kudos.

Strange Days - In the year 1999 (lets keep in mind that this film was made in 1995), on the eve of the new millennium, there is a new form of media that you can buy on the black market known as "squids". They are called squids because of the shape of the media player that you place on your head to watch them which has several small protrusions resembling tentacles. Squids are more than audio or video, though. They're memories. Squid dealers like ex-cop turned street hustler Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) pay people to rob businesses, perform death-defying acts, and have sex with beautiful women, then extract their memories of these events, upload them onto discs, and sell them on the street to people who can't or won't do the things they desire most, allowing them to live vicariously through other peoples experiences. Life is going poorly for Lenny. The love of his life, a musician named Faith (Juliette Lewis), has left him and he can't seem to get over it. Then one day someone anonymously delivers a package to him containing a squid disc that shows someone's memory of murdering one of Lenny's few friends. The only people he can turn to for help in tracking down the perpetrator are former co-worker Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) and limo driver Lornette "Mace" Mason (Angela Bassett). Fearing that Faith may be in danger, Lenny asks Max to tail her, which is no easy task considering that her new boyfriend is a criminal named Philo Gant (Michael Wincott) who has several lackeys around them at all times. Meanwhile Lenny and Mace search for the truth behind the death of Lenny's friend, slowly discovering that the recent police shooting of an African American pop icon by the name of Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) may be involved as well. As the plot thickens, Lenny realizes that me may be in over his head. Strange Days has flown under my radar for years, and seemingly, the radar of the movie-going public at large. This could be partly due to the fact that while James Cameron, the the man who practically invented the science fiction action genre with films such as Aliens, The Terminator, and The Abyss, devised the plot and wrote the script for the film, he left the directorial reins under the control of former wife Kathryn Bigelow. There is nothing wrong with the direction of the film, but I have a feeling that Strange Days would be a bit more well known had it been directed by Cameron himself. Chances are it would have been a little better in the directorial department as well, though. The premise of Strange Days is fairly original and makes for a decent plot, but the timing of the film seems a bit odd to me. It was made in 1995, and meant to take place in 1999, a mere four years later. There is, of course, no way that in 1995 the filmmakers could have assumed that the technology in the film would exist a short four years later, but I'm sure that they set the plot when they did so that it could revolve around the turn of the century, which plays a fairly large role in the climax of the film. Still, that bothered me a bit. Ralph Fiennes does a decent, but not outstanding job of portraying the down on his luck Lenny Nero. He wasn't horrible, but I didn't think that he was great either. Really, none of the actors turned in a particularly memorable performance. Angela Bassett and Tom Sizemore's characters felt like they could have been played by anyone. Michael Wincott was his normal evil self, which can't be hard to pull off with that voice of his. As per usual, Juliette Lewis was decent, but no matter how good she is in a role, I still find her incredibly annoying. There are some exciting moments, as there are with all Cameron films, but nothing that makes this movie really stand out in it's genre. Based on the sub-par nature of Strange Days I can see why Cameron didn't bother directing the film himself, but I can't help but wonder what it would be like if he had. Strange Days is an enjoyable viewing experience, but not one that I'm overly excited about seeing again anytime soon.