Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Here Comes the Boom:

Now five films deep, it’s hard to call the Transformers series anything more than “barely narrative.” Sure, there are recurring motifs and a familiar ensemble of returning characters, but any sense of a coherent story or mythology capable of being grokked stopped in the end credits of the first – and best – installment. With Transformers: The Last Knight, director Michael Bay seems more than ever invested in the movie only insofar as it allows and affords him the ability to stage whatever kind of bombastic set piece he wants. This is franchise filmmaking as a bajillion-dollar playground where he can build, play with, and blow up anything: a submarine, a castle, a small town, Stonehenge. Why not? He can get away with this because he’s such a great imagemaker. There’s nothing like seeing his brand of spectacle – the grade-A Bayhem – carted on screen by the metric ton. Frame by frame this movie sparkles with sunsets and vast vistas and impressive effects and awestruck hero shots. But, of course, it’s also in service of a series that’s long since passed into irretrievably convoluted gobbledygook. This iteration doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessors, but it doesn’t scrape the barrel’s bottom like their lows, either. A middle of the road Transformers it is then.

At least the screenplay cobbled together by four writers recognizes that the Transformer destruction playing out over the last four films would leave the world rattled. We join the story in progress, with the world terrorized by all the gigantic alien shapeshifting automotive robots who have landed and continue to arrive on a seemingly unstoppable basis. With Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) missing, the Autobots just roam the planet doing whatever, getting into scrapes with Decepticons who still have their leader, Megatron (Frank Welker). That Transformers are sufficiently mindless to need their strong leaders to give them purpose is certainly strange, and makes them dangerous. Humans have decreed them illegal, and deputized an international paramilitary force to hunt them and anyone helping them. The conflict is that, once again, there’s a world-ending calamity coming, provoked by bad ‘bots, and the humans must allow the Transformers to fight it out for the fate of the planet. Tagging along with the junkpiles gurgling crass one-liners in the voices of beloved character actors (John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carter) are the token humans: last movie’s hero (Mark Wahlberg’s hilariously named Cade Yeager), the military liaison from the first three movies (Josh Duhamel), and new characters like a scrappy orphan teen (Isabela Moner), a scatterbrained Englishman (Anthony Hopkins), and a supermodel, in good looks and frequent inexplicable wardrobe changes, historian (Laura Haddock). Bay needs these human-sized caricatures to sell the plot’s stakes and scale.

There’s no need to recap the nonsense except to say it hurtles through frantic globe-trotting (Chicago! South Dakota! England! Cuba! Africa!) and alternative history digressions (Bay squeezes in a lengthy King Arthur prologue and a World War II flashback) on its way to the expected oversized explosive finale with alien floating weapons and enormous energy pulses and endlessly complicated competing schemes to destroy and/or save the planet. It’s cut together with manic editing and an eardrum-quaking sound design. Get Bill Hader’s Stefon to describe it. This Transformers has everything: fire-breathing baby dino-bots, a potty-mouthed steampunk robo-butler, a floating alien tech witch, comic relief characters played by funny guys (like Jarrod Carmichael and Tony Hale) for whom no one wrote jokes, the United States freeing evil robots on a Dirty Dozen work program, bean-bag-shooting drones, a three-headed dragon built from a dozen interlocking mechanical Knights of the Round Table, John Turturro. Any movie that starts with Stanley Tucci playing Merlin (and yet he’s not an ancestor of the character Tucci played in the last movie?) and gets to Mark Wahlberg sword-fighting a Transformer (and that’s before Stonehenge blows up as the nexus of ancient robot evil) is certainly following its own bizarre id. The movie is all hollering and hurtling, cleavage and calamities, in between Bay’s usual aggressive humor and loud exposition and leering camera ramping up even small dialogue scenes as concussive clattering exertions. 

By the end I stumbled out dazed, deafened, and defeated by the volume (in noise and dimension) of the experience. But it was not entirely unenjoyable to sit back and allow the pummeling. Bay’s genius, and it is genius, is as one of the only modern blockbuster filmmakers who has figured out how to make digital and physical effects work together to create a sense of weight and scale. (Just look at any given Marvel movie, which will be competently handled, and maybe even a better coherent story most of the time, but will have all the tangible qualities of a CG laser light show.) Bay places figures – or spinning bodies, clouds of debris, blasts of fire, and so on – in frames arranged to provide contrasts, to accentuate size and scope, to emphasize motion and speed. Then he sets out sealing the deal with stomach-churning heights and dips, awe-filled low-angle shots of towering monstrosities, precision chaos. He makes the IMAX screen a massive mural tribute to action cinema. A car chase is filmed from as low to the pavement as possible, feeling the grit of the roadway as a character hangs out the door while Bumblebee shoots an evil cop car. A squadron of drones are placed just so to allow a character to leap from one to another, saving himself after getting thrown out the glass back panel of an elevator. A massive structure rising from the ocean drips waterfalls human figures must dodge as they, soaked, run to the aid of their robotic allies. Though not as memorable as the series’ high-water marks, these are sights you might find worth seeing and feeling, but only if you’ve already committed to sitting through the whole jumbled pandemonium anyway.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Puppetmaster: Oliver Stone's THE PUTIN INTERVIEWS

The skeleton key moment that unlocks what’s startlingly effective and unshakably troubling about Oliver Stone’s The Putin Interviews comes at the top of its fourth hour. The latest in the director’s side project making documentaries which chronicle his conversations with controversial foreign leaders–  Israelis and Palestinians in Persona Non Grata, Fidel Castro in Comandante and Looking for Fidel and a number of South American leaders including Hugo Chavez in South of the Border – takes him to Russian president Vladimir Putin. After what we’ve seen as three hours of discussion, but which obviously translate to many more hours of raw footage, Stone cheerfully asks Putin to indulge him in setting up a shot. Go down the hall and then walk in and greet me, Stone directs, jocularly playing for the camera his control over the situation. He calls action. Putin does not enter. Stone cuts to show us the interviewee in the other room, smirking and winking at the camera as he ignores the repeated cues. He enters when he’s ready, speaking a charming line he’s clearly prepared. Stone seems to view the whole encounter innocently, otherwise he wouldn’t have included it so lightly in the film. Here we are, it seems to say, enjoying one another’s company. How relaxed we are. Indeed, this moment, and the film, reveal a personable Putin, who has complexity and humanity beyond the headlines. However, the scene shows more than Stone seems aware. He thinks Putin’s playing along, but really it is the Russian president demonstrating his control. Who is a pawn in whose game here? The answer seems clearer to the audience than to its director. 

Over the course of many hours we hear about the Russian president’s life, ambitions, world view, and goals. He is subtitled, and Stone lets his translator drift into the margins of the sound design from time to time, making a pleasing multilayered multilingual experience. What we learn little about are the variety of abuses in and allegations about Putin’s conduct, Stone allowing a chummy, discursive approach that enables Putin to steer the conversation, especially since the American interlocutor never directly challenges the former KGB agent on the nastier and more frightening tendencies widely reported – crackdowns of free speech and treatment of dissent treated gingerly, if at all. In Putin’s telling, he cares only about making Russia a strong, independent country with a firm grip on “family values.” (That this is expressed in heteronormative assumptions and terse homophobia should surprise no one familiar with the hypocritical and oxymoronic religious right in our country.) The documentary does an effective and interesting job examining the Putin philosophy. He bristles when discussing NATO and outlines a perspective on the geopolitical history of the last 100 years as one where any Russian aggression is simply tit-for-tat reactions to other’s countries’ slights, attacks, threats, and encroachments -- cause and effect stretching back decades. He continually disdainfully speaks of the West in general, and the United States in particular, as seeking not allies but “vassals,” a curiously medieval turn of phrase that’s nonetheless remarkably candid in explicating his viewpoint. 

Where the movie fails is in Stone’s oddly submissive approach. It’s baffling to consider the filmmaker who is so singularly skeptical about the narratives of powerful people – it’s all over his fiction filmmaking, the sort of nervy, edgy, intensely sympathetic, bracingly intelligent, conspiratorial frenzy that gives his work its heady, entertaining charge in exploring leaders and institutions of all shapes and sizes, from presidents to bankers to entertainers – going so cognitively limp. He presents his multiple interview sessions as warm and likable chat sessions, mixed with interesting tours of presidential offices and even an impromptu screening of Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War dark comedy Dr. Strangelove. (That’s by far the film’s best scene, with Stone grinning that relatable grin of a cinephile eager to see how his viewing partner is reacting, and Putin returning a stoic, unsmiling “very interesting” as the credits roll.) The four-hour-film is ultimately an American auteur crafting a moderately educational Russian episode of MTV’s Cribs. He does such a good job presenting Putin’s point of view it’s an example of Stone’s skeptical contrarianism taking him all the way around the bend. He can’t see his way clear to tough questions because he’s too busy using his interview subject to question American hegemonic thinking (he throws in references to our “neocons” and, cringingly, includes clips of his own films) to challenge Russian talking points, too.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Running on Empty: CARS 3

Pixar has been coasting downhill for the better part of a decade, only 2015’s double header of Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur stopping a slow but steady slide from the heights of Toy Story and WALL-E. Now they’ve reached a new low with Cars 3, their least interesting and least entertaining film yet. Although the animation remains top notch – gorgeous detail, convincing colorful design, and with tons of personality in its characters’ expressions – there’s so little going on as to be bewilderingly boring. I realize this is a movie for children, with easy lessons and simple characters, and on that level – pleasingly pleasant and essentially harmless – it’s still better than most of what passes for family entertainment from competitors like Illumination who show up with a third of the imagination and a fourth of the budget. But Pixar made a name off rich and involving films that were truly all-ages entertainment. They didn’t condescend to children in the audience or pander to the adults with them. In film after film they found ways to engage and entertain any demographic. Even Cars – an easy-going big city/small town parable – and Cars 2 – a zippy blast of an around-the-world spy story – had busy, buoyant, creative visuals and energetic voice work. Now, though, this third entry in a franchise about a parallel universe populated exclusively by anthropomorphized vehicles, just feels tired. 

There’s a sense of exhaustion as debut director Brian Fee and a collection of screenwriters tow out a thinner, smaller, slower, duller, less inspired version of what’s been done before. Once more, charming red racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is faced with a challenge involving his racing career. This time it’s a problem of obsolescence. He’s getting older. Winning races against younger, faster, sleeker modern cars (like a black-and-purple one voiced by Armie Hammer) is increasingly difficult. Faced with the prospect of embarrassing himself through poor performance on his way to a retirement endorsing mud flaps for a smug rich patron (Nathan Fillion), he decides to train hard and make the next season his best. He wants to finish on his terms, and in the winner’s circle. This attempt to do for these characters what Toy Story 3 did for the aging toys backfires, mostly because these movies have never been about the emotional resonances of their automotive natures. They are cars with human problems, acting out sports’ movie tropes with their big windshield eyes and bumper mouths, driving through an imaginatively designed world that is just like ours, but cars. We aren’t meant to contemplate their life cycle or anything deeper about the world than its surface pleasures and narrative appeal or else the whole thing falls apart. Here, it drives dangerously close to that edge, sometimes teetering.

Sure, there’s a sweet live-your-dreams plotline, as Lightning gets help from a sporty yellow trainer (Cristela Alonzo) who has him on treadmills and doing tire exercises. He wants to be the racer he once was, and along the way learns she wants to be a racer, too. So they help each other, and it’s very nice and wholesome. But the thin comeback story leaves little room for interesting new sights. The first film introduced the world, which was fun, and the second continued exploring all manner of new eye-boggling car-Earth detail (the Italian bay full of blinking boats, the compact cars in tiny Japanese parking garage hotels, and so on). This one is content to serve up a demolition derby with muddy clunkers and otherwise just drive in circles in the places where we’ve been without the energy to concoct interesting new characters or continue to explore the old ones. Everyone but Wilson and Alonzo register as cameos, and the racing scenes, while intricately detailed with scrapes and sparks, flashes of shiny paint and rumbles of burning rubber, have only a token amount of suspense. The movie is stuck in low gear, content to be just good enough, familiar sights and direct lessons. It’s most disappointing coming from a company that used to be – and hopefully can again be – so much more.
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