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Friday, Jun 29, 2007


Michael Bay may be one of the most misunderstood moviemakers in today’s Hollywood. This doesn’t mean he’s some manner of artist or auteur, nor is anyone suggesting that his track record is anything but scattershot. But he has helmed a couple of guilty popcorn pleasures (The Rock, Armageddon) that more or less balance out his exponential epics in concept extravagance (Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys 2). Yet he remains technically proficient and inherently energetic, filling his movies with the kind of excessive oomph that less successful action helmers like Bryan Singer and Mark Steven Johnson would die for. And still, he is considered on par with such motion picture pariahs as Uwe Boll and Paul W. S. Anderson. Frankly, it’s an unfair tag of talentlessness.


That being said, his latest turn behind the Panaflex, Transformers, is just terrific. Based on the Hasbro toy line from the ‘80s, it’s a bit brain dead in parts, a bit too married to said cartoon/geekoid origins. It also piles on the ancillary characters for what seems like purely demographic reasons. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, this is the blockbuster destined to drive butts directly into the seat. It’s the most scrumptious of eye candy, the kind of overwhelming optical delight that only a big budget studio slamdunk can deliver. It’s loaded with humor, has startling setpieces to spare, and provides the perfect cinematic foundation for a gagillion sequels to come. For Bay, it’s a sort of redemption, a clever comeback from the disastrous dopiness of 2005’s Parts: The Clonus Horror – oops, sorry, The Island. It’s the kind of narrative that plays to all his strengths – steroided stuntwork, epic exaggeration, obvious characterization – while substantially reducing his tendency to trip over his own inflated mannerisms.


There are three main storylines running through the movie’s first 90 minutes, a trio of tales destined to intersect and basically go boom for another hour afterward. Part one finds a group of US soldiers in Qatar battling a scorpion-like beastie and a transmogrifying helicopter. The slaughter leaves behind a ragtag group desperate to report the robotic enemy to the Pentagon. Meanwhile, in the LA suburbs, a teenage boy named Sam Witwicky (a brilliant Shia LaBeouf) is looking to buy his first car. He ends up with a dingy yellow Camero that actually houses the good guy automaton Bubblebee. Sam soon learns of the threat to life on planet Earth, and hooks up with the rest of the Autobots (including the heroic Optimus Prime) to take on and defeat the Decepticons. Finally, Sector 7 a government shadow agency similar to MIB or Area 51 are hoping to discover the purpose behind a massive extraterrestrial cube (known as the All Spark) as well as what the previously captured evil Megatron wants with is.


Naturally, this leads to all kinds of large scale battles between our mutating machines, and it has to be said that the combined efforts of Industrial Light and Magic and K.N.B. EFX are simply mindblowing. This is the kind of movie unimaginable 10 years ago, the level of sophistication making the real and the imaginary merge with almost seamless authenticity. During the last act war between Optimus Prime and Megatron, the streets of LA – along with several skyscrapers – become the backdrop for a robot battle royale, previously unthinkable images bouncing off buildings and scaling the skyline with awe-inspiring ease. Something similar happens when the good gear guys survey Hoover Dam from a distance. The way they blend into the real life setting, their hulky bodies moving with ease up and down the façade, makes us believe in their viability. Likewise, thanks to the power of computers, the many transformations feel organic and planned, not just some shapeshifting shtick.


While this kind of oversized adventure is not necessarily known to be a performer’s paradise, many in the cast make a significant impact. In what amounts to minor cameo roles, Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson are all rim shots and rib ticklers. Indeed, they seem purposefully placed in the film to bring funny whenever the chaos gets too heavy. Equally odd is Jon Voight, reduced to a kind of drawling Donald Rumsfeld clone as the Secretary of Defense. He’s a plot device pure and simple, and yet something about the way he essays the Southern fried bureaucrat is extremely engaging. On the other end of the government gangster paradigm is John Tuturro. Chewing up the scenery with his evil efficiency, it’s a wonderful turn for the indie icon. But the film really belongs to LaBeouf. Like Matthew Broderick in Wargames, or Henry Thomas in E. T., he is the adolescent anchor that lets the audience into this world of way out wonders. Forging a bond with Bumblebee, as well as helping the rest of the Autobots achieve their ends, he’s part hero, part hapless, and destined for young adult superstardom.


Unlike recent large scale sci-fi spectacles – like say Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s War of the WorldsTransformers isn’t hiding some deeper social or political commentary. It’s not trying to represent our war on terror, or our failing fortunes in Iraq. True, many of the battle sequences have the feeling of actual armed conflict, but that has more to do with avoiding old school cartoon cock ups for the sake of some traditional cinematic combat. And Bay’s teens aren’t some high minded intellectuals. They are into beer and cars, girls and questions of cool. The only angst anyone feels occurs when LaBeouf’s Sam tries to avoid having his massive mechanical pals completely destroy his Dad’s carefully constructed garden. This is pure premised motion picture making, the full blown visual equivalent of the pitch line that reads “oversized robots fight for the fate of the Earth”. Thankfully, it was on Michael Bay’s watch that such a project was proposed.


Indeed, it may be time to give this maligned moviemaker his due. While some have argued over the film’s two plus hour running time and scrambled pace, Transformers needs this kind of extended rollercoaster rationale. It would not be cost (or future sequel) effective to have nothing but nonstop action, and the movie is based on a beloved animated series that was also known for its occasional quirkiness. So having passages where actual characters carry the story, to allow the downtime to emphasize the potency of the powerhouse material is all the work of Bay’s bravura behind the camera. He’s not out to merely make the celluloid equivalent of fireworks. He’s out for the whole package – the drama, the comedy, the suspense and the mental amusement park. Sure, you can sneer at all the product placement, or merchandising-mandated decisions, but this is an exhilarating thrill ride that actually steps up and delivers on its many predisposed promises.


In a summer that’s seen underperforming tre-quels and more than its fair share of warmed over sameness, Transformers is offering something similar, but in a much more exciting and evocative guise. It gives us the formulaic good vs. evil element, the team vs. individual ideal, the us vs. them/friend vs. foe foundation, and tweaks it all with technology only heard of a few years ago. Without the weight of an already formed franchise to pull it down, this filmic funhouse is allowed to spin wildly out of control. And like desperate devotees of Tinsel Town’s tricks, we simply sit back and enjoy the operatic ride.



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Friday, Jun 29, 2007
by Sean G. Murphy

Kurt Vonnegut would say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.  Often, he was asked: Have any artists successfully accomplished this? “The Beatles did”, he replied.

Vonnegut, whom time finally stuck to last week, lived a lot longer than he thought he would. For fans, he lived longer than many of them thought he would, too. Most of his avid readers have been preparing for his death, in earnest, since his suicide attempt in 1984. As it turned out, there were many more Pall Malls left to smoke. Then, in 1997, the author’s caliginous assertion that Timequake was to be his last novel did seem rather like a settling of accounts.


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Friday, Jun 29, 2007
by Peter Rozovsky [The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)]

the aftermath of murder is what absorbs these writers

What do four of Sweden’s most celebrated crime novelists share, other than international success, a fistful of prizes, and a hectic tour schedule?


“We are not interested in telling how to kill people,” Kjell Eriksson says. Oh, characters die, all right—these are crime novels, after all—and often in especially gory ways.


The ex-convict whose killing sets in motion Hakan Nesser’s The Return (Pantheon, $22.95) has been decapitated and dismembered. So has the male victim—or is the body female?—in Helene Tursten’s The Torso (Soho, $13). Little John in Eriksson’s The Princess of Burundi (St. Martin’s, $12.95) gets off easy. His killer/torturer removes just a few fingers.


As painful as these killings may be, though, there is little voyeurism in them. The reader does not see them happen. Investigators may throw up at the scene, but the upchucking is never extravagant or cathartic. The police react, they clean up, and they emerge, shaken perhaps, but ready to go on with their jobs.


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Friday, Jun 29, 2007

Formerly New Zealand’s fourth most popular parody duo, Flight of the Conchords has been rising to stardom in the United States. Previously, the band members individually broke into the American mainstream media: in The Lord of the Rings movies, Bret McKenzie achieved fame as “figwit,” and in 2006, Jemaine Clement appeared in several Outback Steakhouse commercials. Currently, the duo has achieved American recognition, working on a 12-part series for HBO titled Flight of the Conchords.


In 2004, Flight of the Conchords was featured on the Australian television program, Stand Up!
The Humans Are Dead:


In 2005, Flight of the Conchords began their relationship with HBO, performing their half-hour special on One Night Stand.
Jenny:


 


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Thursday, Jun 28, 2007


It’s cinematic cornucopia time for the premium pay cable channels this week, especially since June transmogrifies into July midway through the seven days – and then there’s the whole flag waving, celebrate your country call of the fabled Fourth to take into consideration. With all those potential pitfalls in the way, it’s a wonder that the powers who program these channels have any nails left to nibble. Indeed, how do you keep them glued to the set when there are tons of illegal fireworks to purchase and play with? Harder still is the competition from the local Cineplex. Die Hard is back. Pixar is back. And Michael Bay and his robots in disguise are waiting in the wings. It’s clear that for many in the great unwashed demographic, television will be the last things on their BBQ and blockbuster minds. So cut the premium networks some slack. What they’ve got scheduled – including the SE&L selection for 30 June – is enough to make a dedicated couch potato smile:


Premiere Pick
A Prairie Home Companion


It’s a shame that Robert Altman had to leave this agreeable little gem behind as his last feature film. While many critics complimented its typical intertwined storylines, a few couldn’t get past the foundational material – i.e. Garrison Keillor’s twee Podunk radio show. In fact, it’s funny how many of the movie’s best bits seem to simultaneously embrace and deconstruct this perplexed personality’s Lake Wobegon stories, settings, and characters. Granted, it will be hard to see the sequences where the talent-free Lindsay Lohan battles mightily to keep in step with onscreen Mom Meryl Streep, but in the long run, this bright and brassy swansong for the fictional show will always be remembered as Altman’s last stand. And when measured against time honored masterworks like MASH, Nashville, 3 Women and Short Cuts, it has some hard company to keep in step with. Still, there is an impish kind of creativity here that shows the legendary director was still as sharp as ever. His remains a voice that will be sorely missed. (30 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Idlewild


It’s a sure sign of too much success. The duo known as Outkast (Andre 3000 and Big Boi), responsible for some of the most inventive and invigorating music in the last 10 years, parlay their popularity into a chance to create a full fledged movie musical. Oddly enough, the results are much better than one would have imagined. While the storyline is formulaic and the acting average, the songs really sell this amiable period piece. (30 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

The Guardian


Kevin Costner as a rough and tumble Coast Guard rescue swimmer instructor. Ashton “Demi” Kutcher is the high school athlete who thinks he’s hot spit. Together, they clash over conduct and duty while big fat CGI waves threaten innocent boaters on the high seas. If by that vague synopsis you can already see where this story is going, don’t be surprised. So did everyone else who actually paid to see this supposed action slop. (30 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction


Who, besides Ms. Stone herself, still thinks she’s capable of rip-roaring erotic sexuality? Show of hands? The fading 49 year old must have been absolutely desperate to take up the Catherine Tramell mantel again, especially with all the stink she caused over certain sequences in the 1992 original. Of course, back then, she could pull off the seductress. Now she looks like a member of the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? touring company. (30 June, ShowTOO, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Aristocrats


Humor, like music, is a highly personal and subjective passion. Either something makes you laugh, or it doesn’t. So if you find incredibly vulgar and racy jokes to be the decline of Western civilization, perhaps you should skip this otherwise fascinating documentary by comedian Paul Provenza (with some help from outsider magician Penn Jilette). Taking a traditional dirty gag – a famed piece that’s been around since the earliest days of stand-up – and allowing dozens of current and former quipsters a chance to explain and riff on it, the obvious tact taken here is to discuss the concept of taboos and onstage envelope pushing. But Provenza also manages to sneak in some commentary on how society views such subjects, as well as how free speech and speaking freely may actually be two different things. If you can handle the bewildering ‘blueness’ of the material, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this devious discussion. (05 July, IFC, 8:25PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Cooler


One day, Alec Baldwin will get his Oscar. He deserves it, and he’s given plenty of performances worthy of such peer recognition. On the other hand, it’s hard to say if this movie contains his best work. Granted, back in 2004, the buzz was building on the actor’s turn as an old school casino boss. But come trophy time, he was barely acknowledged. That doesn’t take away from the film’s effectiveness, however. It’s very well done. (30 June, IFC, 9PM EST)

Control Room


Al Jazeera is the controversial Arab news channel that has both the Bush Administration and their right wing wiseguys up in arms. They claim the station merely functions as a mouthpiece of the region’s radicalized beliefs. The agenda-guided journalists there might not disagree. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim finds himself smack dab in the middle of the melee as he exposes the truths, and the tricks, used by either side of the story on the War in Iraq to win support, both at home and abroad. (02 July, Sundance Channel, 7:30PM EST)

La Haine


The title is translated literally as ‘hate’, and there is plenty of said emotion in this amazing film from French director Mathieu Kassovitz. Addressing the despair and dissolution rampant in the ghettos surrounding Paris, we are introduced to three wayward youths who epitomize the current struggles (one’s black, one’s Arab, one’s a Jew). Aside from the obvious influence of American hip-hop and rap, the lack of power fuels a destructive, fatalistic rage inside them. Then one of them finds a gun. (03 July, Sundance Channel, 7:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
Grace of My Heart


Why has no one made a definitive film about the Brill Building? What? That name doesn’t ring a bell? Well, how about the songwriters who earned their music mythos while working in the historic hit factory – Lou Reed, Neil Diamond, Carol King, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart? Perhaps it’s a question of publishing rights, but it seems that this subject has been ripe for a motion picture epic for far too long. The closest we’ve gotten is this Allison Anders effort that, while incredibly evocative of the time and place, must substitute newly minted melodies – and a girl power narrative center – to get its occasionally arch points across. To make matters even more meandering, the narrative includes fictionalized sketches of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson that just don’t seem to fit into the overall theme being explored. It’s a noble failure, however, one that argues for another go round with what is some highly substantive subject matter. (01 July, Indieplex, 5:05PM EST)

Additional Choices
West of Zanzibar/ The Unholy Three


Lon Chaney was not only the Man of a Thousand Faces, he was also one of the first major genre superstars. This inspired combination of Tod Browing classics, shows off the man’s amazing talent for mimicry more than his well known penchant for remarkable make-up. It’s too bad that he died so young, and that most of his creative canon is lost. Even here, toward the tale end of his career, Chaney remains a stark, stunning performance powerhouse. (29 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Squirm


Radioactive killer earthworms - you just can’t get more schlock than that. But writer/director Jeff Liebermann desperately tried to up the exploitation ante by setting the story in the steamy, slow-witted South, and piling on the hillbilly hokum. It more or less worked, as this passion pit staple proves. Liebermann leaves no hoary old cliché unturned, and even reinvents a few just for fun. The result is a dime store definition of the ‘so bad it’s good’ ideal. (30 June, Drive-In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Left In Darkness


Every once in a while, an inventive independent horror movie will come along, using intelligence and ideas to substitute for a lack of special effects and eerie eye candy. While less than stellar, it usually soothes the horror fan’s savaged breast. Well, this isn’t that kind of fright flick. Instead, it’s a moderately entertaining work of misapplied macabre that’s just barely coherent enough to be engaging. (06 July, Sci Fi Channel, 3AM EST)

 


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