Sorry, I just can’t hate Transformers: The Last Knight (***)

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Transformers: The Last Knight – 2017

Director Michael Bay
Screenplay  Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, John Turturro (with the voices of Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Erik Aadahl, Ken Watanabe, Jim Carter, Frank Welker, Steve Buscemi, Gemma Chan)

There was a point a decade or so ago when Anthony Hopkins still had a sterling reputation. He decided to retire, presumably to avoid having to reduce himself to less impactful roles. Stanley Tucci has never had the height of critical stature from which to be reduced. It is almost certain Michael Bay is sitting there, behind the camera, saying something like “just put more Tucci into it!” John Turturro, my Lord, he can be in anything good or bad. There will always be something along the lines of The Night Of for him to look forward.

There is a feeling of hanging around the savanna’s watering hole as it begins the process of drying when seeing the likes of these three in a Michael Bay film. With nothing to do but keep feeding on the animals approaching the ever decreasing water, they don’t need to lie in wait or put any skill into the hiunt. Instead, they just pick off the distracted animals, one by one, like moviegoers heading into a googleplex. Meanwhile the smell about the swamp attracts all sorts of pestilence.  It is hard to smell, much less respect.

Is this trash?  Yes. Is it congruent in any way with how humans (much less award winning thespians) act? Well, no.  But look!  They’re destroying the Pyramids again! And Sir Anthony is looking cool shooting Megatron with a cane!

That said, despite every column inch of negative press regarding this film and how uselessly complicated (and just plain useless) it is, I still can’t bring myself to dislike it. The film is the same as each of the others in terms of plot devices, MacGuffins and General Sharp / Morshower. This time though, they actually took the time to build on the half-ass ending they had in Age of Extinction with a somewhat decent first half of the film.

The biggest advantage the film has early on is the general absence of Optimus Prime, who is back on the Cybertron being bitch slapped by a floating sorceress (Chan) and then charmed with stories of their home planet’s once and future greatness. Not slowly and without subtlety, Prime is won over to the side of whatever causes humans the most damage.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, we have a chance to actually get to know some of the other Transformers. This is a great opportunity that has largely been wasted in previous films. We are usually stuck listening to the boring leader of the Autobots opine about virtue and never again losing trust in humans while Megatron plans and schemes to be that one extra bad guy in the end who gets destroyed as a prelude to the big finish.

The point this time is to see, hear and feel the interaction with the other characters who have not had opportunities for forming anything more than thumbnail generalities previously. Bumblebee is the big winner here. Likewise, Carter’s Cogman, who exhibits a feeling of dedicated servant coupled with unhinged sociopath that is warily fun.

Less fun is the precocious little girl who acts as though she is a protector of Autobots. The little kid was focused in an ill advised early round of commercials which I think significantly diminished this film’s already waning appeal. No one liked Scooby Doo once they added Scrappy.

If one can get past the historical hogwash of King Arthur’s court, the Nazis and other points that directly contradict at least the first two films.  And if you can look past the fact that yet another large mass is coming to our orbit and trying to destroy us without affecting things like, say, our gravitational field. And if you can just accept that character A has to get to point B in the first act, then character C is the only person that can help with situation D. And if you get around the idea that for all but the first one of these films, Bay has not bothered with concepts like gravity, space or coherent editing…you should be just fine.

Do I understand if someone hates this film? Sure. It’s not that good at all. But is it too complicated and silly at the same time as it has been accused? If anything, this plot has been the most straightforward of them all.

The bots benefit from more screentime, and become more like-able, just like the film itself. I never disliked Optimus Prime, but in no way did I realize that boring Peter Cullen would have 90% of the dialogue for all of the Transformers up to now. I don’t mind looking at Prime. I just want to hear someone, anyone, else.

Here’s a general rule when evaluating this film: if you didn’t enjoy any of the previous movies, then move along. This one won’t change your mind. If you think that somehow Bay took a dip in skill, energy or just plain continuity this time around, you picked the wrong reviewer to follow. I have a hard time writing reviews on films as if they should suck and just saying they are just too complicated to explain. When it gets down to it, there are plenty of nonsense reviewers out there that just took this film off. Bay has not gotten any better in these 5 films, but he certainly hasn’t gotten any worse.

(*** out of *****)

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Beauty and the Beast: Old and new it stands out of time…

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Beauty and the Beast – 2017, 1991

Directors: Bill Condon (2017) and Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise (1991)
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos (2017) and Linda Woolverton (1991) based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring:  Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson (2017) and Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti (1991)

Disney has been remaking their animated classics for so long now, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t. I think it may have started with 101 Dalmatians but in all honesty most of them are not good enough for me to go back and research. Over the last few years, the most notable have been their attempts to put women on the screen as real life princesses or (in Angelina Jolie’s case) should have beens. The one that everyone will talk about and remember has just arrived.

Everyone’s real hero of the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger (no one wants to imagine she really married the doof who shall not be named) is now as likely and deservedly remembered as Belle. Although not being considered a singer before being cast in this musical, Emma Watson creates her own version of the role that Paige O’Hara mastered a generation ago.

The question of whether the movie update is necessary is immaterial at this point. A more pointed question would involve a contemplation on whether or not live action should include as much if not more animation than the original animated film. I am not going to discuss that either, though. I am really just here to celebrate both films, since, miracle of miracles, they both turned out to be pretty great.

To do this, I am just going to discuss the elements of each film that stand out more for me than the other. At this point, can we really review a film that everyone will see and love…except for those who insist on pointing out flaws. Well, I will try, but it will all feel like quibbling when I throw criticism to the side and just say it is a classic despite them.

First thing is first. What parts of the new film are not as good?

  1. The first time we see Belle’s village: For a second, I got a sickening feeling. Everything seems so close and claustrophobic, it felt like I was watching the recent redo of The Smurfs. There is no feeling of span in the town and it feels like Belle is walking in a really tight circle. The empty bookstore feels bigger than the whole confines of the village.
  2. Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury as Lumiere and Mrs. Potts can’t be beat: It is a personal preference, as McGregor and Thompson do well in the same roles. To McGregor’s credit, he just moved forward with his much less distinctive voice and personality. While it isn’t as memorable, it works. Orbach completely mastered the role, though, making Lumiere seem older and more virile at once. Thompson is a blander version of a character one would normally consider to be quite bland. No one ever made us sit down, make ourselves comfortable and have some tea like Lansbury.
  3. The ballroom scene. Especially true after the remastered version of the original pumped it up about 200%, there is just no beating the myriad colors and sweeping grandeur of the original. It’s one of the great animated scenes in cinematic history.
  4. I just wish they would not have cast Stanley Tucci. It’s so tiring to see him in every movie, even when they give him bad teeth to inhabit.

So what was made better in the new film? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

  1. LeFou: Gad is an inspired casting choice. His nuanced performance works in every way possible. The original was barely a placeholder for Gaston, to the point where I wondered why he was even included in such a large musical number. This time around, the character is fully fleshed out, an improvement in every way. The only time it doesn’t fit is when the residual lines from the original make it necessary to have him be somewhat illiterate and ill-informed. It is quite likely the LeFou has read most of the same books as Belle.
  2. Maurice: Good Lord I hated Belle’s dad in the original. I would have thrown him in the loony bin or old folks home right off the bat if I had to listen to his babbling. Totally moronic and typical Disney Dad, with his head in the clouds while missing every possible thing on the ground. He even thinks she should hook up with Gaston. Kline presents a slightly preoccupied, but deeply saddened man. He is completely aware of his daughter and he wants to protect her from the horrors he’s experienced, while showing her the beauty he sees in life. It’s completely understandable how they could be related in this version of the tale. She enjoys the same things he does, with her own spin. Incredible that Disney finally gets a Dad right, for once.
  3. The night-time trip to Paris: This adds a completely new dimension to Belle, her father and heretofore absent mother. This scene has a great song (How Does a Moment Last Forever) and in its inclusion, we allow a moment of true bonding between Belle and the Beast. This is the kind of scene upon which romances are built and it makes what follows all the more meaningful.
  4. Letting Belle get plastered by the snowball: It was always a little weak to have Beast hoisted by his own petard in the original.

To delve any deeper, you really have to just accept the differences between these two as just trades for each medium. Human Again (from the restored version) is traded for Evermore. The wardrobe is now an opera singer instead of a maid. My eldest noticed that Philippe was a different sort of horse. The library is remarkable either way. Gaston is as delightfully deplorable now as he was in animated form. Alan Menken is a treasure. I don’t know how he keeps drawing classics from this well.

It would be unfair to not recognize Watson’s achievement. Paige O’Hara has created, in all truth, the best Disney Princess. Instantly memorable for her pluck and her voice, all other Princesses have yet to reach the bar she set. Watson wisely avoids the pitfall of trying to match O’Hara’s voice and instead applies her own spin on the character. The songs and her performance are equally good and entirely different. I found myself hearing her voice in my head for songs that I have heard for a quarter century with O’Hara’s. She’s elevated the live action princess role that Amy Adams created so effortlessly and placed her own stamp on cinematic history, between this and Potter.

Dan Stevens is a little old, even for a 27-year-old Watson, but the role works, especially if one considers the time passing under a spell. It’s close enough and not yet creepy. His voice in Evermore is remarkable and nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

Celebrate these films. They are gifts to humanity. There have always been beauties who were drawn to beasts that they had to learn to understand. There have always been beasts who are society’s winners that smart girls know to avoid, too. This film has brought hope to many a bookworm girl and boy that they will someday meet and learn to accept one another. And grow. Everyone wants to feel like they can do that.

Both films (***** out of *****)

The Hunger Games 4, Mockingjay 2 (***) is grim and joyless

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 – 2015

Director Francis Lawrence
Screenplay Peter Craig, Danny Strong based on the book by Suzanne Collins
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

It is somewhere in the midst of the second movie that I realized The Hunger Games movies were not going to escape the gravitational downward pull of the insipidly morose books. Katniss (Lawrence) is feeling all sorts of bad and conflicted and she is surrounded by folks only slightly less bad and conflicted who are trying to convince her that she should push whatever it is she is feeling and just go with it. While the books have an endless and tortured internal dialogue, we can mostly only see our hero frown incessantly. There’s gotta be a smile somewhere in all of those action adventure heroics. Three books and now four movies in, the next smile would be the first.

Yes, it is easy to understand in a world of oppression and media manipulation that the people would be stuck in some sort of viewing mode, unable to rise up while being entertained. The story never pays much more than lip service to the sociological concepts of Snow’s rule. Granted, it barely had the time to do more than push characters from one presentation to the next, then one booby trap to the one that follows.

So there is this underground movement, you know. And it takes Katniss by surprise in the beginning of the non-eventful first Mockingjay film. She spends time trying to figure out if she is going to represent these folks who kept themselves hidden from her for two chapters and now say she is their champion.  Of course she gives in to their requests to be a mascot, but not because they want it to happen.  Got it?

Throughout we see characters come and go. There always seems to be one scene or another taking place in a burned out, bombed out section of town which is now cleared of bodies, but has plenty  of debris. People from earlier parts arrive on scene, discuss a few points and then explain what has to happen next.  We keep seeing the same people, even though they really don’t represent much to us. Familiar? Yes. Brave? Apparently.Charismatic? No.

These feel like people who left the set last time we saw them, went straight to makeup and came to the next set they were supposed to be on. There are endless explanations for motivations behind this action or that inaction. Most of these are based on winning a war of hearts and minds that we never really can be convinced matter all that much.  So often we hear of collateral damage and intentional wipe outs of entire districts, who is left to convince?

As pensive and stilted as Part I is, Mockingjay Part II is not hesitant. We hear the leader of the resistance Coin (Moore, at her most distant) tell Katniss no, you can’t go into the capital to kill Snow. Katniss leaves, so Coin sends a bunch of her buddies to go with her. From there it’s another Hunger Games. Each corner has something lurking behind it, and sacrifices (according to one’s position in the credits) must be made.

There is a lot going on here, and some of it could be pretty neat, but it all feels so darned sad. What message are they trying to get across?  The politics of violent resistance and change requires we use the same tactics to survive.  Got it. Is there any sort of reward for bucking the system? It certainly doesn’t feel like surviving counts as one.

What is the benefit to having watched now four films just to find out that those resisting are as bad as those they are fighting against? It certainly is a worthy message, but it feels like homework the way they present it here. To her credit, Lawrence is not nearly the sad sack that is Katniss on the printed page. She is driven and determined this time around and still not following the instructions of her “advisers.” While still not that fun of a character, she at least is no fool and will not succumb to her obviously challenged emotional state.

Her two suitors, Gale (Hemsworth) and Peeta (Hutcherson) have little to no appeal. Peeta is a tough sell from the first part, being a pacifist and lovelorn at once. Gale has turned into a willing accomplice of the new regime and that makes him about as unique as a Stormtrooper.

So if you are looking for things to blow up, expectant surprises to pop out or just plain misery to abound, you may like this film. If you want the same thing, but you want your daughter to feel like she can be a hero, better stick to The Force Awakens.

(*** out of *****)

Spotlight (****1/2) takes the road less travelled

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Spotlight – 2015

Director Tom McCarthy
Screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer
Starring  Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Len Cariou, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup

In 2001, Marty Baron (Schreiber) is the new editor of the The Boston Globe. His perspective is that of an outsider and being so, he is not shrouded under the veil of the Catholic church in its U.S. stronghold. As he introduces himself to his new team, he reveals his desire for the Spotlight news team to turn its focus on the 84 suits against the church for the obstruction of justice in regards to molestation cases over many years. One lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci) believes that Archbishop Cardinal Law (Cariou) has been aware of the abuse and has done nothing to prevent it. The team takes several avenues to pursue answers. They find that they are onto something big.

There is a subtlety that is present in this take of the media’s search for truth that rarely makes it into stories of this kind. The newspaper industry is well on its way to fading into obscurity and the resources are becoming more and more scarce. The Globe is one of the few remaining enterprises, but cuts are on there way. Still there is a curiosity that being part of an investigative journalist that the actors handle in a genuine, but not heavy handed way. Ruffalo, Keaton, James and McAdams drive the ship from different but equally interesting ways. All the reporters are lapsed Catholics, but they don’t carry a grudge. Instead they have a new religion in the pursuit of journalistic truth. Spotlight is a love letter to the press, but it is a well made one.

One problem that drama in real life films have is they usually cast the same supporting actors as bureaucratic roadblocks. Spotlight is no exception with Cariou, Sheridan and Guilfoyle. It gives a feeling of sameness that takes away from the genuinely interesting finds and dramatic moments that come up through good hard work. It helps to have Billy Crudup as a lawyer with ambiguous intent to shake things up a bit.

Another problem with dramas based in Boston since Mystic River has been the repeated portrayal of Boston folk as overprotective and proudly ignorant. There is a little of that Boston politic at work here, but a lot less than any film starring an Affleck or a Wahlberg.

To give full disclosure, I am Roman Catholic and I am at peace with the truth that like any institution of men, there are many flaws. Amazingly, Richard Jenkins as Richard Sipe presents the same perspective. His ex-priest gives a “Deepthroat” angle that pushes the story into exceptionally dramatic proportions. It’s the organization that is crooked, not the faith.

Look, I’m not crazy, I’m not paranoid. I’m experienced. Check the docket. You’ll see. They control everything.

As ensemble dramas go, this one is remarkably smooth. There is only one incident of the nausea inducing grandstanding that make these types of films feel so long. All of the actors are experts at downplaying their big moments to make them more accessible. Keaton, Tucci, Slattery and Schreiber are especially good. Most impressive among the lesser known actors is veteran theater actor Bryan D’arcy James who has a significant role within the Spotlight team.

When watching how this story unfolds, it makes one wonder. How have things changed in the Roman Catholic Church? So many people have been affected by this, but the Church seems to be making steps to acknowledge their sins and seeking correction and forgiveness. The light of truth that they needed in this case will likely be needed in the future too. Every group that holds power holds the possibility of corruption.

What is going to happen to the newspaper industry?  It’s compelling to see that in the midst of the coverage of the story, the Globe’s staff acknowledge that they had all of the pieces all along but never pieced it together before now. The case for organized news gathering has been so powerfully made. If there is a way to keep newspapers going, this should help in the effort.

McCarthy and Singer have created a near masterpiece out of what could have been a self-aggrandizing pile of schmaltz. Like its subject, this film is not perfect, but it aspires to be greater.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay 1 (***)

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Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 – 2014

Director Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Sam Clafin, Jena Malone
Screenplay by Danny Strong, Peter Craig based on the book by Suzanne Collins

At this point we’ve all become accepting of the process of dragging out books into multiple movies. Outside of the last Harry Potter film, they’ve all been pretty weak. The Suzanne Collins dystopian trilogy ran its course after about half of a book for me. By the time I read the third book, the back and forth agonizing of her on again off again heroine Katniss (Lawrence) became unbearable. Fortunately, the movies have taken the dregs and made them into something watchable. The second film fell down a tick if only because it tread the same ground as the first, with a ton of lamenting over who she thinks she loves.

As we start the 3rd movie, which is the first of two Mockingjay movies, she’s done the switcheroo one more time. In the truest fashion of dragging it out, she once more loves the guy who is not with her. In a brilliant move, we get Julianne Moore at her most severe playing the President of the free people in Colony 13. She does a great job making the revolution feel more like a chore than a choice. Then we get some assistance from Haymitch, Effie and Plutarch (Harrelson, Banks and Hoffman) whenever the plot needs to move forward a tick. Will she or won’t she support the cause? Will they meet her demands? When she joins the revolution, what will she wear? When she gets the right outfit on, will she look like a natural rebel leader? Will she fall in love with Gale (Hemsworth) or will she find the Peeta (Hutcherson), for whom she longs?

So many aspects of this story have such ridiculous elements, it is hard to take any of it seriously. The more faux Storm troopers we see ineffectually holding back unarmed folks, the more I realize that this revolution is silly for all the machinations and wish to get the propaganda just right. Still, Lawrence is able to keep things crisp and less boring than the books.

So we get to see the good guys strike, the bad guys strike back and a bunch of white roses throw Katniss into a useless emotional tizzy. Why would a woman write her woman hero to be such an emotional wreck. Lawrence was able to fight off the silly portrayals to this point. This time, she has to spend much of her time underground, fussing and fighting just enough to take down something that looks an awful lot like the Quinjet from Marvel’s The Avengers.

The movie cuts out just after two hours, and we are left with the not so surprising reunion with Peeta (What? He was brainwashed? Do tell!). We are left with a prelude for what Katniss has to agonize over now, hoping it does not last too much longer into the future. They sure drag it out in the book.

Not enough of a story for one movie, it seems to satisfy the throngs of people who accounted for 3/4 of a billion in receipts. If the future of cinema has to be like this, they might as well go back to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. At least they did not pretend to be anything more than a lead on for the next episode.

(*** out of *****)

Transformers: The Age of Extinction: Remember Chicago?

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Transformers: Age of  Extinction – 2014

Director Michael Bay
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Kelsey Grammer, Sophia Myles, Li Bingbing, Titus Welliver, T. J. Miller, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe
Screenplay by Ehren Kruger

Alright, let’s get this thing over with.  It’s bad, yes.  There are the customary Michael Bay touches here.  The slightly unhinged brilliant guy (Tucci), the slightly unhinged hippie buddy (Miller), there is an everyman (Wahlberg) and his hot, barely pubescent daughter (Peltz).  There is a stud foreigner (Reynor) who is after her body, but only in the “good guy” way.  There is a guvment big wig (Grammer) who is keeping his agenda secret from the kind wonderful president who would never go after the kindly autobots.  Oh, and he has a henchman (Welliver) who is really slumming it based on what he is really capable of (LOST and Deadwood).  We haven’t even gotten to the Transformers, yet.

This is because the Robots in disguise have less personality than normal.  Optimus has added vengeance to his vanilla repertoire.  He is very angry early on, because the Autobots, like their nemeses The Decepticons, are being sought by the guvment.   The man (Grammer) leading the round up has, quite strangely, struck up a deal with another Transformer, intergalactic bounty hunter Lockdown (Mark Ryan) to pick up all extra robots and do varying things with them. Some will become hostages, some will become experiments and some will become whatever else Bay needs at the time in the story.

We do get John Goodman Autobot.  He seems like he might have a personality, being large and violent.  Kind of like Sully meets Walter Sobchak  Then there is the Samurai Warrior (Watanabe).  Then there is Bumblebee.  Oh, and then the Dinobots.  They, don’t talk much, but this is alright.  The original cartoon was low on personality and Bay is even lower with dialogue.  Gotta save money where you can.

So there is action that looks pretty good, even if it is hyperkinetic and not based on any sort of logic.  Filmmaking like this is a series of  “wouldn’t it look cool” moments in which the screenplay is shaped around the scenes.  Any resemblance to a coherent story is as coincidental as the roomful of monkey’s replicating Shakespeare. The other thing driving many blockbuster stories these days is the custom scene taking place in another big demographic.  In this case, as well as Iron Man 3, we have China.  The former film just made an extra scene for the film which it later excised from the U.S. version of the film.  Michael Bay did that one better, but having the Autobots hijack part of the bounty hunter ship and flying it to China with Dinobots in tow.  Having the last battle of the film take place in Beijing works in many ways. For Joe six-pack in middle America, its nice to see some other country’s cities being destroyed for once.  The Asian marketplace is nothing to mock.  This movie will likely be the biggest one of the summer.

Bay does not think his lack of logic or interesting characters is a flaw. When in the midst of another action scene, one character (Myles) all of a sudden needs to tell the strange and stupidly valiant Tucci that she is proud of him, no one in the world even has an inkling of why this should matter.  Sure, he is his assistant.  Sure, she had been disappointed in him.  There was no call for this fact to change at any point in the film. It makes no sense to resolve this right in the middle of an action scene, but that doesn’t matter to Bay.  He loves this scene as much as any explosion, it’s safe to say.

There have been many cities destroyed in the midst of this series.  This one asks us to remember Chicago.  Okay, how about the Pyramids?  Maybe the Hoover dam?  Maybe the many military bases and ships destroyed, or even that unnamed town in the first movie? We don’t remember them, and why should we?  What I remember about the Transformers movies is stuff gets blown up.  Yay.

Wahlberg is not effective here, unless you count that he is NOT LaBeouf.  That seems to help a lot these days.  Tucci is weird as Tuturro was, and Miller only brings smiles upon his exit stage left.  Peltz is not the victim of leering that critics would have you believe.  She caught a break when she caught Bay’s eye and now she has the option to be seen by more eyes than any other film this year.  Grammer could be in every movie and it would not move me.  Overall, I am thankful for the cast turnover.  It makes the rest of the movie seem a bit different.

Red Letter Media recently released a video in which its staff watched the first three Transformers films simultaneously.  The result was astonishing in the way that – almost scene for scene – Bay made the same loud mess of a film three straight times.  It is brilliant in much the same way that a C-student decides that the best way to improve the same stale paper he keeps writing is by adding special effects to accentuate its flaws.  Not to hide the flaws, per se.  But to bring the party to the flaws, and loosen up around them.  The effect is not good film making, but it sure is effective, by God.

(*** out of *****)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (***1/2) more hunger, more games

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – 2013

Director Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Donald Sutherland
Screenplay Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn based on the book by Suzanne Collins

After struggling through the first book of the series, The Hunger Games, I was not looking forward to the movie at all.  Fortunately, Gary Ross, along with co-screenwriter Billy Ray, was able to separate the wheat from the chaff.  The result was a strong first installment, absent Collins’ mawkish running dialogue that created an absolutely unbearable lead character which served to damage the rest of the story.

Almost through a sense of duty, I struggled to read the rest of the series, even if doing so almost obliterated any goodwill that Jennifer Lawrence had achieved with her effortlessly authentic portrayal.  Absent the hemming and hawing, Lawrence shows vulnerability without making one feel like her next move will be hitting the couch with an open container of ice cream.

Watching the second film feels like more of a chore than the first.  We see more of the annoying Effie (Banks), more of Hamish (Harrelson) acting like he is acting drunk (yes, we know), and more Stanley “two chee!” as Caesar, pretending this is all the greatest thing since Entertainment Tonight came on the air.  Then there is the oppression, and the burgeoning revolution, which has one brilliantly conceived character Cinna (Kravitz), showing ideas in an imaginative way.

There is a bevy of new characters, from useful (Hoffman, Claflin, Wright and Malone) to peripheral (any of the other competitors) to annoying (Plummer).  There is a new location for the games, which feels kind of claustrophobic when you get down to it.  The best part of the film takes place there, even if – at an hour and a half – it takes too long to get there.

Lawrence the actress works as well with Lawrence the director as she did with Ross.  She owns the character, and its development.  Unlike the muddled wuss portrayed in the books, Lawrence’s Katniss is more assured than confused.  Even then, she’s still a little overwhelmed by the events.  Still, the movie looks better than the mental picture Collins presents in the books.  The combination of Collins story and Lionsgate films works thus far.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters: Harmless Bite

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Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters – 2013

Director Thor Freudenthal
Starring Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Douglas Smith, Leven Rambin, Jake Abel, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Fillion
Screenplay Marc Guggenheim based on the book by Rick Riordan

Logan Lerman was around 15 when he made the first Percy Jackson movie.  By the time he made this one, he was a fully developed 20-year-old and had considerably less youthful innocence.  His performance in The Three Musketeers was fun, but his performance in The Perks of Being A Wallflower was a giant leap forward.  To find him back in the saddle as a “half-blood” is nice for consistency’s sake, but it makes little sense as a career move.

Even so, he makes a good game of his second effort.  The story is a nice, if bland approximation of the first part.  Another quest, only this time without the element of surprise in finding out he is the son of Poseidon, and the awakening to a new side of life he had hitherto been unaware.  Instead of treading that ground again, we give our hero a struggle with his concept of destiny, along with a new half-brother (Smith).  That his brother is a cyclops gives us the challenge of not judging a book by the cover.

Daddario reprises her role as Annabeth, daughter of Athena and, it seems, the object of many a crush.  It is a problem that they address with courteous bumbling by every character with x y chromosomes.  Daddario was last seen in Texas Chainsaw, seems even more physically mature than Lerman and it takes the film even further away from the first Harry Potter book range and closer to the last Harry Potter book area.  And this is only the second story.

Early on, we find Luke (Abel), the bad guy from the first movie, is back and ready for more mayhem.  This immediately reminds the viewer that no matter what happens to Like in this movie, he’s likely to survive it.  This means its unlikely anyone will be permanently maimed in the course of events.  Well, no one who hasn’t been rendered on computer will be hurt, at least.

The computer renderings aren’t too bad.  There is a nice looking Hippocampus, a nicely drawn Charybdis that we get to see from the inside out and a Manticore that is hard to keep down.  Kronos is a little silly looking, and one has to doubt 3D would have made it any better.

The kids enjoyed the film.  It stopped them from whatever they were doing and they didn’t wander off.   Nothing in the film stands out for anyone past 12…or perhaps those who are extreme Greek Myth fans.  There’s 3 more of these books, if you don’t count the offshoots.  By the time it’s finished, the main characters could be parents of their own demigods.

(*** out 0f *****)

Jack the Giant Slayer another fairy tale with automatic weapons

jack-the-giant-slayer

Jack The Giant Slayer – 2013

Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Eleanor Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy, John Kassir, Ewan Bremner, Ralph Brown
Written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Studney

Why is Bryan Singer directing a movie about a fairy tale?  Really.  The Usual Suspects. X-Men.  Valkyrie.  Now, a fairy tale.  Of course, it’s easy to forget Superman Returns.  Everyone else seems to have forgotten it.  Supposedly, this movie’s idea was proposed before the recent spate of  effects laden fairy tale films including Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel, Alice in Wonderland, and Mirror Mirror.  All of these films, except for Snow White were bad.  This one has certain things going for it: Hoult, McShane, McGregor.  There’s one thing definitely not in its favor: Stanley Tucci as Stanley Tucci.  Another problem, quite obviously, is the fact that the giants look goofier than Harryhausen special effects.

Yes, there aree giants.  Plural.  There are a bunch of them.  Named, among other things, Fe, Fi, Fo and Fum.  This is not the only departure from the original tale, but as usual, most of them are in the spirit of expanding the tale.  Not for the sake of story.  Just the chance for extensive special effects.  The good news, however is that some of the giants interact like genuine characters.  I give credit to Bill Nighy, who, along with John Kassir plays the two-headed King Fallon.  One wishes that we had, perhaps, a Helen Mirren giant to go along with him.

What we get this time is a fairy tale within the fairy tale about the ancient King Eric, who saved the kingdom from giants before.  His bloodline survives, along with the tale, which eventually becomes so old it is no longer considered real.  This is an important lesson for the viewer, allowing the story tellers to preset the possibility of a reality to the tale known as Jack and the Beanstalk.  Whatever.  We really just know we can expect explosions, arrows, fire and death.

There always has to be some sort of automatic crossbow in these faux tales, and here is no exception.  At least this time we have the pleasure of seeing it stopped by a sling shot that shoots more than peas.  There are many inventive and somewhat unexpected deaths in the films.  Some folks you thought would stick around until the annoying end are offed in the first hour.  This makes the film more daring than most of its kind, and the benefit almost overcomes the lack of a real conclusive battle.

Hoult is excellent as the unexpected hero.  He has a real humble and honest charm that makes him a common day hero.  McGregor has an electric smile, and he puts it to good use here, along with the requisite blue screen skills he acquired in the 3 bad Star Wars films.  Ian McShane can be my king anytime.  Or my saloon owner.  It’s a joy to see him think things through.  It’s good to see Ralph Brown, of “85” fame from Alien3.  He is also in Stoker.   He’s a presence that adds a quiet, wonderful dimension to most films he is in.

Of the rest of cast, there is not much to say.  Just a bunch of (human) faces and (giant) voices.  It would have been nice to know the motives of the giants, or to find out some of their history.  Alas, it was not to be.  Oh, well.  They haven’t done 3 Little Pigs yet.  One wonders how they will fit the machine gun crossbow in there.

(*** out of *****)

The Hunger Games does the novel justice

The Hunger Games – 2012

Director Gary Ross
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz, Toby Jones, Paula Malcomson, Willow Shields
Screenplay Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray based on the novel by Collins

There are several moments throughout the movie, The Hunger Games, where Jennifer Lawrence wordlessly expresses emotions and thought processes that took pages upon boring pages to express in Collins’ book.  Her decision to wait out the other “contestants” in the game was not a hard one, but it could have been difficult to translate.  Director Ross  makes a wise choice when he goes with Lawrence’s countenance for a description.

The Hunger Games as a book, was somewhat laborious and overwrought.  The premise was described as a future society after a big war and another failed rebellion.  The country of the United States is now 12 districts, part of a hegemony, under a dictator and mostly in squalor.  It is no more far-fetched, I suppose, than anything out there.  The advantage that the book has is that in district 12, which is where Katniss lives, is mostly the equivalent of a small town.  If this is representative of the rest of the country, then the country must be down to about 5000 people.

As the premise goes, Ross makes due and makes the story move with clarity where necessary (the game controllers) and inference where most people can connect the dots. There are no slow moments in The Hunger Games.  While there are moments where the story lets down and comes across as hokey (the Effie (Banks) character, almost entirely), Ross was able to pull the character of Haymitch (Harrelson) completely out of the ditch into a relevant and wily character.  My wife thinks Woody Harrelson deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal.  I think that Ross deserves half of that Oscar.

One place where the performance meets the story is in the person of Cinna as portrayed by Kravitz.  A smartly written character in the novel, his look and his demeanor is not what I expected, but it works just as well, adding depth to the story and hinting at the future of the story.

The action scenes in the last half of the film flow much more steadily than they do in the book.  Katniss is clever, but not super heroic.  As her journey continues, you see her evolve and see her begin to formulate a new idea out of her frustration and desperation.

Overall, this is a good flight of fancy, made serious enough by the screenplay and direction as to be watchable time and again.  For every goofy hairdo and sleepwalked Donald Sutherland appearance (does he have any other by this point) you have many other good things going on.  This gets me closer to reading the second book than the first book ever did.

(**** out ******)