Saturday, October 24, 2009

Reel Low: Vroom, Vroom, A Highbrow Pause, Vroom

Just another week in the bizarre land that is my movie-watching habits.
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So we begin with one of the summer's blockbusters, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen [2009]. Had it not been for Megan Fox's presence in the first movie, I probably wouldn't have finished watching it. A dull plot, unfunny gags and completely indecipherable action scenes were sprinkled with just enough of her in slow motion that I sat there waiting for something else good to come along. It never did.
Because of that, I skipped the second installment in the theater, but knew I'd check it out once the bluray disc hit the streets. Why on Earth I felt compelled to torture myself, I can't say.
There was one improvement over the first movie, and that was the action scenes. This time you could actually see what the hell was happening. Kind of key when the main subjects on screen are giant robots ramming into each other. Megan Fox may have been given even less to do this time around, but she's hot and Michael Bay, while not above including crude, racial stereotypes for the personalities of two entirely unnecessary Transformers, is happy to showcase her flesh at every point possible. He may be a hack, but he's not entirely stupid.
As for the bad? Well, somehow those parents got even more annoying. However, I will admit that the humping dogs are kinda funny. But one more scene with them getting busy probably would've tossed it to the bad side. Oh, and the most ridiculous thing about this movie? The poster for Bad Boys II in a college freshman's dorm room in 2009. Check your ego at the door next time, Mr. Bay.
The main problem, however, is that Revenge of the Fallen is way too long, especially considering I barely have an idea as to what it was about. I think I understand what an All-Spark is. How that differs from the Matrix of Leadership, got me. (Yes, some piece of metal is actually called the Matrix of Leadership. AND someone was not fired for suggesting that be kept in the movie.)
Overall, it was just a boring movie. Which feels ridiculous to write because there are a lot of action scenes in it. Unfortunately not one of them makes your heart skip a beat, or places a character that you care about in series peril because I didn't care about a single person in this thing. After two entire movies, I'd have thought that to be nearly impossible.
In short, a completely unnecessary sequel.
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However, that's not the case for The Fast and the Furious universe. Is it wrong that I think four movies in this series aren't nearly enough? Well, then I don't want to be right.
I hadn't seen any of these movies six months ago, but have become quite the connoisseur in that time. The original [2001] was actually pretty decent despite it's B-movie plot. For the time, the effects were top-notch and, if you didn't know there were a bunch of sequels, you kinda wonder if everyone is going to make it back in one piece in a few spots. A fair amount of violence mixed in with your illegal street racing and exposed midriffs, with one liners delivered entertainingly by Vin Diesel.
Now, as fun as the original is, 2 Fast 2 Furious [2003] might be the most unintentionally homo-erotic movie I have ever seen. Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson repeatedly make man-eyes at each other. This is not Ledger and Gyllenhaal. It's not even Swayze and Reeves. It's two models masquerading as actors, tapping into something that wasn't even in the subtext of the script. In any event, it has nothing to do as to why it's the worst of the series. It's just where my mind wondered between dialogue uttered by people in cars about other racers that only they can hear. This is what happens when you can't get Diesel to come back and decide to let Paul Walker carry a movie. Not good.
But then came the third movie (though chronologically it is the forth after the newest one), the surprisingly enjoyable and thoroughly ridiculous The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift [2006]. None of the cast from the first two make the trip across the Pacific, and that's okay. The driving scenes are definitely distinguishable when compared to the other movies, as adopting the Tokyo street, or shall I say parking lot, racing was a clear goal of director Justin Lin. The main character is just this tough kid, played by Lucas Black, and I constantly rooted for him; maybe it was the accent, but he has a little of that southern Matthew McConaughey charm that is flat out likable is used correctly. The racing seemed more connected to the underworld than the other movies, which something I'm instantly going to gravitate to.
Despite the lame, direct-to-DVD-esque title, Tokyo Drift is worth your time, assuming you like fun.
That brings me to the new, lazily titled Fast and Furious [2009]. The original cast members return to rev up the series for future installments. It's immediately apparent that Diesel needs to be in these movies to combat the suck that is Paul Walker, especially if his character continues to get angrier. Somehow Walker is magically a fed again and he's on the hunt for Diesel. So, not much has changed, plotwise.
What has changed for this cast is the adaptation of the sleeker directorial style from Tokyo Drift, as Lin was brought in for this one as well. There's a rooftop chase scene early on that wouldn't exist without the Bourne movies, among some other striking visual sequences that wouldn't have been thought possible at the series' outset. Comparing it to the others, I'd place this one at the same level as the original. Tokyo Drift really surprised me and is my favorite of the bunch. Not that it's the greatest movie ever, but I certainly enjoyed it a lot.
Why do I sort of give a pass to this series and not Transformers? Well, for one, no annoying parents. Two, the stories, though often predictable, are at least decently thought out and only direct the plot to the next car race instead of forcing it. Plus, these movies LOVE cars. To the point that it seems as though these mere machines can conjure magic if you're a talented enough driver. In Transformers, the cars morphing to humanoid bots (actual alien car magic) is handled so nonchalantly, that you aren't even particularly impressed by it. No, cars are temples in the Fast and the Furious series. Considering how these guys destroy their avatars at times, it demands your respect at their willingness sacrifice the very objects they adore. Transformers just goes boom. And one such as I can only handle so much senseless boom.
That's why I needed to mix it up a bit this week with a film that contained a little more substance. Or, in this next movie's case, a lot more.
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It had been on the DVR for a while, so I finally forced myself to start watching Synecdoche, New York [2008]. This is the masterful screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman in one of his better performances (trust me, I realize that's saying something) as a theater director who's life systematically collapses. Later in the film, he starts a ginormous production that examines every aspect of our mundane existences.As I was trying to formulate my thoughts on this film, I kept returning to variations of "it was interesting," and at one point was going to leave it at that. But then I realized I using "interesting" in that way when you're trying to be polite to someone (in this case, Kaufman's genius) instead of just coming out and saying what you really feel. It's certainly not a bad film and it's not that I didn't like it. I think I did. But I'm still struggling over whether or not I enjoyed it.
Part of it might be that it was simply over my head in terms of concept. I'm doubting that. I think what has been bothering me is Kaufman's concept, much like Hoffman's character's own, is so large, it isn't easily contained to 120 minutes. Perhaps his lack of directorial experience played into a the film falling just short of a complete success; unfortunately in a film that aims this high, falling short is a noticeable ways from the intended destination.
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A quick side note -- Michelle Williams was in this as well, and I hadn't seen her in anything for some time. She's much better here than I can remember her ever being, and it got me thinking about how far most of those Dawson's Creek kids have come. Katie Holmes did some pretty decent work in spots pre-Tom Cruise (The Ice Storm, Wonder Boys, Thank You For Smoking), and could always get back to it. Joshua Jackson has been pretty steady on Fringe, and to my surprise hasn't been annoying or distracting. But other than Rules of Attraction, James Van Der Beek hasn't done jack, so I guess it's about time he stepped it up.
Three outta four ain't bad. Kinda makes you wonder if those Gossip Girl kids will end up like these ones or the original 90210 cast.
Or you could just watch something else where things get blowed up.
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Enter Death Race [2008], the remake of the 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000. I saw the original probably six years ago, and it's some ridiculous, campy stuff. I imagine it was shocking in it's day, but remember it playing rather pedestrian in most respects today. While the original depicted a cross-country race with the contestants battling each other along the way, this one is merely a game show contest between violent prisoners racing for their freedom on an isolated track, somewhat reminiscent of The Running Man in cars. Can't say I remember much more about the first one, but I'm pretty sure that's where the comparisons end.
The new Death Race actually has a pretty engaging first act, something I wasn't expecting in the slightest. It fails to maintain that interest through to the end, but it only devolves into what you'd expect it to: fast cars, scantily clad ladies and blood. Three things I generally like.
How they convince someone like Joan Allen to do a movie like this amazes me. An actress of her caliber is wasted here. Nearly anyone could have delivered her lines. But I would venture more people saw her in this than in The Contender.
Amazingly, Ian McShane also agreed to get paid for this movie. We all know he was phenomenal as Al Swearengen on HBO's Deadwood a few years back, but after watching his performance here, I think people completely underrate him as an actor. It had to be easy for someone like him to recite lines handed down from David Milch; all the actors on that show have yet to outperform themselves thus far. But here he made shitty Paul W.S. Anderson dialogue riveting! While Joan Allen was wooden and useless, McShane steals the movie every time he's on screen. Clearly, he is the man.
Jason Statham is badass, as always. Tyrese is horrible, as usual (Wow, three Tyrese movies in one week? I didn't mention him, but he was in Fallen too. I must have mental issues). The rest is inconsequential, because all that really matters is three things: fast cars, scantily clad ladies and blood. You get all three, so turn off your brain for 90 minutes plus and be happy.

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