Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Summer movies

So many targets, so little time.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Gore Verbinski) is not exactly my idea of of "constant shuffling, of tangential narrative ruptures: the world of the film, like the world we audience members live in, is chaotic"--or, leastwise, it is that, but not in a good way. Despite Ryland Walker Knight's spirited and beautifully written defense of the movie, I remained unconvinced; yes it complicates the world of the first picture beyond its ostensible ambitions (making millions off of a chintzy amusement park ride), yes it sketches a complicated relationship between the sea and its denizens, but if I can't have my proper fix of Depp subverting yet another crass effort at Hollywood moneymaking I'm not having the fun I put my mony down to buy.

At World's End is ambitious world building without the storytelling smarts (why is Kiera Knightly mistaken for Calypso? What's the point of getting Chow Yun Fat, then relegating him to background filler and an early exit? Why spend so much time on 'fey' Bloom and 'intense' Knightly, when Depp has more feyness and intensity in his little pinkie than either of them? Why waste so much money on CGI effects for an elaborate naval battle scene without even an attempt at halfway intelligible (much less intelligent) military tactics (Peter Weir's Master and Commander (2003), anyone?)?), and without enough of a central performance to keep one's attention focused or at least amused. If Verbinski is trying to build his version of, oh I don't know, Blade Runner--an elaborate fantasy world with its own set of rules--no, I don't think he's succeeded at all.

Michael Bay's Transformers, the Movie is about as inevitable an apotheosis of a career as anything I can think of. Cars that turn into robots--perfect for Bay's wham! bam! thank you ma'am! style of filmmaking, I suppose.

Only even with this low, low level of expectations, Bay still--still--misses the mark. Transformers traipsing around in the garden without the parents noticing? Great, but why does it play as crude and lumbering as a Scooby Doo cartoon (think of the all-male gang hiding in a young woman's bedroom while the father looks suspicously around in Tsui Hark's Do Ma Den (Peking Opera Blues, 1986) to see this kind of hijinks done right)? Why, if the fate of the world rests on this doohickey being kept out of the Decepitcons' hands, do the Autobots entrust it to the care of some puny biped mammal running down a street? And why, if you take so much care to create robots with dents and scratched paint, doesn't the camera stay still long enough to give us some sense of that lived-in texture? They should have forgotten Bay and handed the project over to someone with real talent, like Hark or Ronny Yu; then we'd have some real fun.

Judd Apatow's Knocked Up (2006, but it only reached my multiplex this year)--I don't get it. Admittedly I'm not the target audience (middle-aged Asian man) but I like to think I've got as much empathy as anyone around (I love Jane Austen; I love George Romero; I love Dr. Who; I love Spongebob Squarepants), and I still don't get it. Guy goes to bed with hot babe, gets her pregnant. Maybe a few funny moments here and there, but the touchy-feely bits just leave me scratching my head; if I wanted male angst, Alexander Payne speaks to me more. Doesn't help that Apatow's view and realization of Seth Rogen's man-titted pothead and his gaggle of geeks is more nuanced and sympathetic than Katherine Heigl's hot babe (she's sometimes vulnerable but never funny, and she's made up more of reaction shots than a definite point of view (at least with Payne you understood Virginia Madsen's Maya more)). Plus Apatow's got the flattest visual sense this side of Hanna-Barbera.

And lest people think of me in as being in a particularly unforgiveable mood today, Sarah Polley's Away From Her (2006) is lovely, simply lovely. Adapted from a story by Alice Munro, Polley's film plays like a reel of memory imperfectly spooled through a projector; scenes jump back and forth, and at certain points she manages to associate the overexposed light one finds filming in snow landscapes with the bright fog surrounding vague memories (or at least, one's cinematic idea of a vague memory). She can make one bark out in laughter from a woman's sly forgetfulness (is Christie's Fiona really suffering from Alzheimer's, or taking revenge on her husband?), or cry from a man's sudden desperation (Gordon Pinsent's Grant quietly begging Fiona not to leave him).

Possibly the best I've seen this year so far (again, released last year, but only able to reach a nearby arthouse screen recently--I swear, the distribution of some films...). Talk about hot babes, Julie Christie at sixty-plus makes me forget there were any women in Knocked Up (not that Apatow made it easy to remember), or that Francis Coppola's daughter's sophomore effort was so well received a few years back (it starred Bill Murray, I remember that much).



I thought i saw you last night at the cinemanila opening. are you in manila?

Noel Vera said...

That, sir, is probably my evil twin brother. You can say hi to him; he won't bite.

Anonymous said...

Your observations about Transformers are dead on, Noel.

As someone who grew up with the original Transformers, I and a lot of other fanboys collectively groaned when we learned Michael Bay would direct the film. I assumed the worse, and Bay happily/stupidly obliged. But you know what? I and a lot of others didn't care that the movie sucked and concentrated on the "puny humans"; our collected nostalgia made the film seem good, our euphoria at seeing our favourite 2-D cartoon rendered in 3-D; a thousand hands making meticulously sure that the film be technically beautiful. Now that time has passed, I know that none of those hands were attached to brains...The movie has a way of making you feel good as you're watching it, but after a few weeks you feel like you've been had.

The original cartoon was far from great, but it had a formula that worked: cool bad robots steal something and then cool good robots stop them. Bay needlessly complicated a simple formula by injecting humans into the plot. He didn't even have the guts or intelligence to make a two hour movie about fighting robots when it should have been his inclination! That's Michael Bay's world of inverse intelligence for you, a world which he shares with Brett Ratner.

What is most disagreeable about the movie is its portrayal of black people, who are about as nuanced as any black character in any recent Eddie Murphy movie. Most hateful is the character of Jazz, the break dancing Jamaican from Cybertron, who gets ripped apart by Megatron as if he were just a rotten slice of watermelon. That nobody else in North America mentions these stereotypes is beyond me. There was a big deal made about Jar Jar Binks, after all...Michael Bay has inherited from George Bush the tactic of exploding things to disguise the inherit racism of their policies.

Noel Vera said...

Interesting stuff on the racism. Didn't pick up on that.

Come to think of it, you got a better sense of the robots in the animated series. At least they had personalities and internal conflicts, specially the Decepticons. The mechas here have all the personality of a steel girder.

Anonymous said...

Yup, great movies, but unfortunately I failed to watch Pirates 3, huhu

Noel Vera said...

You should be thankful. That's almosts three hours of your life you didn't waste on a bloated turd...