With the bottle rocket’s red glare, and the cherry bombs bursting in air (at least, in those places where said celebration ammunition remains quasi-legal), the first half of the Summer Movie Season circa 2007 is officially over. Nine weeks, dozens of films, and lots of critical complaining, has made this annual parade of popcorn movies a little less exciting (theme for the season so far– the Year of the Underwhelming Disappointments). No one movie has broken out from the pack, becoming the “must see” event the warmer months typically demand, and while a few films have struck a chord of universal acclaim, audiences aren’t responding with the usual fiscal fall out. Instead, it looks like a kind of entertainment ennui has set in, viewers responding to the lack of legitimized excitement by satisfying themselves with a single viewing –- or even worse -– not showing up to the Cineplex at all.
It’s unclear whether the next nine weeks will change any of this. Michael Bay’s megawatt Transformers will give it a fiery Fourth try, but the deeply divided sentiments among reviewers won’t help the bottom line. Harry Potter is back for a fifth cinematic fling, but age –- and the soon to be released, spoiler filled final installment in the literary series –- may derail its popularity and profitability. The Simpsons could jumpstart (albeit belatedly) a nice turnstile tidal wave, but those who are banking on Hairspray to save the cinematic day could be overplaying the musical genre’s heft. After that, it’s one of the less impressive Augusts on record. To put things in perspective, SE&L has gone back over the 13 films it experienced since a certain webslinger arrived in theaters, and has ranked them from best to worst. Review links have also been provided in case you’d like to read more. Enjoy!
Easily the winner when it comes to major releases. Brad Bird’s unbelievably dense narrative, combined with Pixar’s pristine animation, makes for one amazing visual journey. As we follow a wannabe rodent on his quest for culinary recognition, the artists and designers responsible for the film’s fascinating look constantly surprise us. But it’s the emotional elements in the narrative that truly astound.
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The know-it-alls like to beat up on Michael Moore for not getting every single solitary nuance of the facts 100% aligned with their particular view of things. This doesn’t mean that his latest documentary is a failure. In fact, it may just be the most potent piece of filmmaking the director has ever done.
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Finally! A comedy that’s actually funny! Judd Apatow deserves some sort of special place in the current industry hierarchy for delivering audiences from the scourge of humorless half-baked fare. In its place, the 40 Year Old Virgin auteur fashions a callous chick flick where geeks, gals and the occasional gross out gag can live in harmonious hilarity.
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Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Somewhere between the decision to turn the Disney attraction into a feature film, and the concept of increasing the franchise to fill up a supposed trilogy, critics bailed on this set of stellar action/adventure romps. Destined to be viewed with new appreciation decades from now, this last installment truly represents the pinnacle of old fashioned blockbuster moviemaking.
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Believe it or not, zombies actually make a wonderful metaphor for the corrosion of conformity that was the 1950s, but not because they represent the mindless mob mentality. No, they are the perfect mirror for Canadian filmmaker Andrew Currie’s clever take on intolerance and fear. The undead are only acting on instinct. It’s the corporate controlled suburbanites that pose the real threat.
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Live Free or Die Hard
We know, we know; we picked this fading franchise to deliver one of Summer 2007’s biggest bombs. We may have been misguided. While not up to the level of the previous installments in this once influential action series, star Bruce Willis and director Len Wiseman still deliver spectacular stunt set pieces and enough bad ass machismo to satisfy filmgoers.
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Hostel Part II
Don’t believe the agenda-based hype. Eli Roth’s return to the former Eastern Bloc is not the original film reconfigured with babes, or the most violent atrocity against the female species ever put on film. Instead, it’s a completely unique sequel, a revisit that totally rewrites everything about the initial ‘gorno’ classic… and finds equally effective fear factors.
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It’s the antidote for the blood and guts gratuity of post-millennial horror, as well as a stunning tour de force by actor John Cusack. More an old fashioned thriller than a modern movie macabre, this delightful journey into dread proves that Stephen King is not cinematic poison. Instead, in the hands of the right creative team, he remains a formidable fright force.
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The list of complaints is long, and the sense of disappointment palpable, but it seems silly to think that Sam Raimi and the rest of the Spidey set could repeat the bravura brilliance of Spider-man 2. While the villains are more than viable, and the new black suit mojo cleverly illustrated, the movie still feels scattered and strained.
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28 Weeks Later
Danny Boyle’s original was more about deconstructing society than rewriting the rules of zombie lore (all right, they’re NOT the living dead). But in Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s take on the material, it’s the US military that takes it on the chin – over and over again. The result is a fractured sense of fear, with the humans packing more precariousness than the Rage-infected horde.
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Why this genial family comedy is not a bigger hit says more about the movie going habits of the general public than what the film itself has to offer. Sure, it’s cloying and incredibly mannered, the filmmakers avoid anything remotely serious or sacrilegious, but there is still enough here to easily entertain those so inclined. A truly perplexing commercial conundrum.
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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Aimed at the kiddies yet barely capable of sustaining such creative overreaching, director Tim Story once again argues for his place as the worst interpreter of comic book material out there. This time around, the title heroes are hampered by a cosmic planet killer, his slick metallic messenger…and tabloid fame. Oddly enough, the press comes across as the most threatening.
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Shrek the Third
Like an old sitcom that just won’t die, this ongoing CG stupidity argues for its lack of viable funny business as well as the eventual death of 3D animation. Horribly dull and equally uninspired, what once seemed novel and ironic now feels like an extended advertisement for yet another installment (and it worked –- number four is in the works. Groan).
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Like the gourmet food it so exquisitely renders, one fears that the sensational Ratatouille will end up being a decidedly acquired commercial taste. Far too languid for sugar fried kid brains, but marketed in such a manner as to keep the more mature demographic it’s actually perfect for from lining up, it represents a brilliant step forward in Pixar’s continued domination of the 3D animation realm. It also proves that Brad Bird is the reigning king of outsider cartooning. From his pen and ink triumph The Iron Giant to the pumped up perfection of The Incredibles, he’s managed to become a genre genius by refusing to believe the artform’s inherent limits. Constantly pushing beyond its narrative and visual capacities, Ratatouille ends up one frighteningly effortless entertainment.
This is indeed the kind of film one gets lost in, a symbiotic showcase of story, design and execution. The tale begins with our hero, a rat named Remy, recounting the first time he realized his special gift – the ability to create fantastic cuisine via a highly acute sense of smell. To him, food is a sensory experience, not just an available pile of garbage out near the sewers. Of course, this does not go over well with his extended vermin family. His brother thinks Remy is acting spoiled, while his Dad doesn’t understand how any rodent can abandon his family. When a freak accident separates the clan, Remy ends up in Paris, and soon finds the famous five star restaurant Gusteau’s. Unfortunately, the eatery has fallen on hard times, losing much of its status and reputation, thanks in large part to new chef Skinner and cruel critic Anton Ego.
As luck would have it, Remy befriends garbage boy Linguini. He’s a meek manchild, working in the kitchen of the famed eatery out of desperation – and a debt to his dead mother. One night, he messes up the soup, and Remy runs in to try and save it. Turns out the potage is a hit, and Skinner is desperate to discover the secret. Before long, Remy and Linguini have teamed up, turning Gusteau’s fortunes around with the help of the refectory’s staff, including the commanding Colette. But forces are conspiring to foil this partnership. The rat’s family has returned, and they love the fact that their sibling in squalor lives in a neverending food bank. Our human hero is also hounded by his newfound reputation. It has even peaked the interest of Ego, who thought he had buried the business ages ago.
While this all sounds incredibly complex, the truth is that Ratatouille is breezy and basic. It exudes a kind of smoothness that causes all confusion to pass away simply and sincerely. It shows more imagination in its first five minutes than most crass commercial CGI excuses for family films. It resonates with a kind of emotion that causes you to root for the heroes, hiss the numerous villains, and wonder on whose side the various ancillary character’s loyalties rest. Bird takes his time telling his tale, letting sequences of silly slapstick monopolize as much time as quieter, more intimate moments. It has to be repeated here that the pacing is all wrong for the weaned on home video set. Ratatouille wants to create a legend, and such mythologizing takes time.
If you can get into the movie’s relaxed groove, you’ll be richly rewarded in ways that consistently surprise you. Remy’s struggles to find solace after seemingly losing his family are heartfelt and sad. Similarly, Linguini is not just the comic relief. He’s a sweet soul with a decent spirit – he just can’t help the fact that he’s unexceptional. Even the villains shock us with their subtle character layers. Peter O’Toole is absolutely splendid as Ego, giving each one of his lines the kind of acerbic ambience that makes them consistently sinister. But when he gets his comeuppance of sorts, the way the movie illustrates his feelings is enough to bring a tear of joy to your eye. While the theme of being true to yourself sort of gets lost in the shifting storyline – though the “anyone can cook” maxim is repeated incessantly – Bird makes sure that we understand how it applies to everyone. In fact, one of Linguini’s best lines is a simply affirmation: “”Tonight, I’m just your waiter.”
As with most Pixar product, the voice acting is uniformly outstanding. Patton Oswalt is an odd choice to voice Remy, especially given his less than family friendly stand up comedy career (parents – don’t go running out to buy his CD and DVD catalog for the wee ones just yet). But here, the comedian does what he’s mastered on stage. He draws us in, using an amiable ‘aw shucks’ quality to counter his frequently blue bombshells. On the other end of the spectrum, Ian Holm is all Napoleonic complex as the tiny, terrified head chef of Gusteau’s. Making a fortune whoring out the restaurant’s reputation, Skinner is indeed panicked that Linguini’s fame will foul his plans, and Holm’s captures that paranoia perfectly. As Colette, a barely recognizable Janeane Garofalo is all Parisian girl power. Through her delicate accent, she exudes both determination and romance. Other standouts include Brad Garrett as the voice of friendly ghost Gusteau and Lou Romano as Linguini.
But the true stars here are the many artists and designers who toiled endlessly to realize the magnificent gleam of Paris. There are several shots that appear lifted directly from a photorealistic rendering of the skyline, and when Remy races through many of the city’s streets and byways, the attention to detail is maddening. It’s the same inside Gusteau’s kitchen. As with most interior spaces, Pixar amplifies the nooks and crannies, coming up with more and more ingenious ways of working our characters through the maze-like mayhem. This is definitely the kind of movie you have to see twice – once just to get the basics down, and the second time to drink in all the particulars. Unlike The Incredibles, which was simply the best comic book super hero movie ever made, Ratatouille wants to compete, optically, with the other wonders created by its corporate namesake. It does so magnificently.
Oddly enough, there are those wary of the film because it contains, at least for them, a decided ‘ick’ factor. Granted, for people who hate spiders, a film like Eight Legged Freaks of Arachnophobia might be a bit much to handle. Similar, the Empire State showdown between Peter Jackson’s Kong and that armada of bi-planes was so expertly visualized that anyone with a hatred of heights got instant vertigo. But to be put off by cartoon mice in a make believe restaurant seems a tad…specious. After all, this is animation, not real life, and while Remy and his clan are given the full blown bubonic plague treatment (some of these creatures are, well, ratty), they also speak and exhibit sophisticated motor skills. When was the last time you saw a lice ridden rodent whip up a delicious looking omelet. Besides, if you could make Mouse Hunt a sizable hit with a lifelike CG pest, you can handle these animated animals.
And yet, one can’t help but feel that this fantastic film will eventually underperform. Parents of antsy offspring will tell their SUV subordinates of their progeny’s predicable inability to sit still, and glumly conclude “It’s no Finding Nemo”. Others will be desperate to look for the instant hook of likeability and argue that Bird bypasses such shallowness for something more meaty. Whatever the case may be, don’t let the ennui-laced word of mouth dissuade you from seeing one of the best movies of the Summer. Proving once again that only Pixar can consistently make animated movie magic, Ratatouille is destined to go down as one of their best. And when you consider the canon it must compare to, that’s some statement.
The headlines were so bizarre as to be hilarious. The German government, or more specifically, the department in charge of the nation’s motion picture production approvals and locations, was refusing to let Tom Cruise make his new movie, Valkyrie, in their country. It had nothing to do with the storyline—a failed WWII plot among Nazi officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Though still a slightly tenuous subject, the German people have become less sensitive on the subject. No, the stated rationale was that Cruise, as a member of the controversial Church of Scientology, was a prominent member of a ‘dangerous cult’. The country would have no part in his presence. The firestorm surrounding the decision caused the standard back peddling, and within days, Valkyrie was welcomed with open arms. Oddly enough, if the nation wanted a more legitimate reason for banning the movie, they need look no further than the director in charge.
That’s because Bryan Singer is a hack. In a flummoxing fanboy realm where every movie he’s helmed has been deemed an instant classic, he’s barely better than a dozen far more despised directors. What, for example, makes Singer better than Mark Steven Johnson? Both have overseen half-baked comic book movies, and yet everything Mr. Ghost Rider and Daredevil does is condemned. The same lame characterization and average action sequences also appear regularly in Singer’s sloppy oeuvre. For that matter, why does our X-Man get labeled a true devotee of the funny book artform when Sam Raimi holds a similar Spidey stature? Could it be that Singer fails to own an Evil Dead like cult constantly circling its unwelcome wagons around its maker’s many moves? Indeed, you’d think Raimi would rate higher than this wannabe auteur, and yet so many give big Bry a pass that you’d swear they were on his personal payroll.
Looking back over the six full length features he’s helmed—and discounting the independent effort Public Access for now—it is clear that Singer lucked into a situation that, once it occurred, he found almost impossible to repeat. Said circumstance was the happenstance of buddying up with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. A high school friend, the two budding filmmakers collaborated on a pair of projects, one of which would go on to skyrocket the duo to instant Tinsel Town fame. Its name was The Usual Suspects, and thanks to a critical community desperate for something different in the standard crime/caper genre, the talky, showboating cinematic stunt became a sleeper hit. It also gained the pair unexpected Hollywood clout, thanks to many appearances on year-end lists and a pair of Oscars (neither for Singer).
Yet the next step for both seemed highly unusual. McQuarrie, who actually owned one of those two Academy Awards, worked on a failed television pilot (something called The Underworld) while Singer took over the adaptation of one of Stephen King’s beloved Different Seasons stories, Apt Pupil. In fact, he had long wanted to tackle the project, and sent the famed horror author a copy of Suspects as kind of an audition reel. Bringing in another childhood buddy—Brandon Boyce—to write the script, Singer made sure to walk as carefully to the edge of the story’s controversial narrative (a young boy discovers a nasty Nazi war criminal in his neighborhood, and picks up his violent mantel) without ruining his mainstream mandate. Unfortunately, a specific artistic choice got the entire production in hot water (Singer filmed a non-sexual shower sequence featuring several unclothed male minors), and in the end, the movie was only mildly successful.
All the while, another friend named Tom DeSanto was planting the seeds for the filmmaker’s first mega-success. A lifelong comic book geek, the production executive desperately wanted Singer to take on the big screen adaptation of the fabled Marvel characters, the X-Men. With its obvious undercurrents of racism and intolerance, it was a project that intrigued the director. Numerous scripts were floating around, many of which were quite faithful to the characters origins and attitudes. Singer, however, wanted to somehow bridge the gap between the fictional and real worlds, and he imposed changes on the property to ‘modernize’ its approach. Devotees of the characters were instantly up in arms (Issue #1—the new black ‘Batman’ like suits) and many feared Singer couldn’t appreciate the importance of this long delayed adaptation.
It was clear that, in the end, he really didn’t. X-Men stands as the sloppiest of big screen comic book movies, a leap in artistic logic that believes in manipulating material to fit both the demographic and business model the film is forged within. Thanks to advances in special effects, the various mutant powers owned by the characters are convincingly realized, but Singer fails to find actual personalities within each supposed hero and/or villain. In fact, he seems to think that backstory (Magneto as Holocaust survivor) and the stench of abject racism (the narrative revolves around a politician who wants to expose the mutant population as a possible threat to society) will fill in the obvious blanks. Suffering from average action scenes, an excess of explanatory exposition, and way too many players to properly manage, the movie remains an ineffectual mess. While there are those who find it almost flawless (especially compared to the plethora of similarly styled movies that it spawned), it’s really nothing more than a magnified misfire.
Still, money talks in the BS world of moviemaking, and with nearly $300 million at the box office, X-Men was viewed as an unqualified success. Singer was heralded as the new voice of comic book cinema (soon to be overtaken by others more deserving, including Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro) and he tried to parlay that professional delineation into his next few creative choices. But Hollywood loves to lock artists into previous payoffs, making sure that their triumphs are owned outright and reliably repeatable. Contractually obligated to make X-Men 2, Singer had to drop out of a couple of high profile projects in order to accommodate the studio’s sequel needs. Wanting to take a more ‘human approach’—i.e., focusing on the reactions of society against the unusual and the different—the director drew up a new motion picture battle plan. Of course, he ran directly into the suits desire for more of the same, and it wasn’t long before X2 (as the newest installment was called) arrived, easily following the dollar-based directive.
While a step up artistically, especially in the epic scope and size of the storyline (an almost unlimited budget will do that for you), X2 shows that Singer still has no idea how to combine heroics with emotion. The main characters remain icons, unable to break out of the special skills that more or less define who they are, and without Ian McKellan as prime villain Magneto and Patrick Stewart as good guy Dr. Charles Xavier, the central conflict of the film would have no performance power or potency. Actresses Halle Berry and Famke Janssen lobbied hard for more significant screen time, and the balance between male and female mutants frequently feels shifted based on star quality, not storyline needs. With the action only slightly improved from the first film, and an inconclusive finale that simply sets up the next installment in the series, X2 was a preachy, arrogant attention whore. Naturally, the viewing public ate it up, twisting the turnstiles to the tune of nearly $400 million.
It’s at this point where Singer starts throwing his movie franchise muscle around. In 2004, his TV medical drama House, M.D. , found a home at Fox. Later that year, negotiations began for X-Men 3. But Warner Brothers, desperate to get back into the superhero game, were looking for someone to helm their Superman revamp. A long dormant disaster, everyone from Kevin Smith to Tim Burton had taken a swipe at reviving the Man of Steel, and with moneymen behind the mutants balking at Singer’s latest demands, Kal-El’s keepers saw a chance to get one of the two main names in the genre (Raimi, the auteur behind the ridiculously popular Spider-man series being the other). Singer jumped at the chance to reimagine Kyrpton’s last son, and Fox responded by handing over the reigns of X-Men: The Last Stand, to the Rush Hour reject, Brett Ratner.
Though slightly hurt, Singer couldn’t have cared less. He had Clark Kent’s alter ego to deal with, and the problems were paramount. The project had little believability or bearing and the graphic novel basis for much of the jumpstart was forged out of publicity ploys (the Death of Superman) and Dark Knight style stunts. Looking over the character’s cinematic arc, Singer proposed something radical. He would forget everything and anything that came after Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s ‘70s interpretation of the material, and make a movie that picked up where Superman 2 left off. While fans were flummoxed, Warners was sold. The new direction was approved and casting commenced. Chalk one up for Singer’s sense of what would sell. Unfortunately, it would be the last cognizant decision he would make as director.
His first significant stumble came with his choice of actors. No, Brandon Routh would turn out to be a wonderful choice (he’s a great Man of Steel), and old pal Kevin Spacey (who won one of his two Oscars under Singer’s guidance in The Usual Suspects) was an obvious - and rather easy - Lex Luthor. But Kate Bosworth is a hideous Lois Lane, incapable of bringing anything remotely realistic to her portrayal of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She’s a lousy damsel in distress and an even worse example of self-sufficiency. In this post-modern, post-feminist world, she crumbles the minute danger rears its routine head. She is supposed to illustrate the broken dream of Superman’s disappearance, but she’s really nothing more than an un-pretty pie face playing with the big boys.
Then there is the overall art design. Somewhere along the line, Singer fell in love with the notion of tweaking the image as far over into the blue spectrum of color as possible. Noticeable even to the untrained eye, the azure tint to everything from cars to clothes is oddly unsettling. Perhaps he thought it would give the entire production a more comic panel feel. Instead, it frequently feels like someone has purposefully fiddled with your retina’s rods and cones. As for the action, the opening space shuttle crash is wonderfully executed, and when the Daily Planet’s trademark globe is dislodged from the top of the skyscraper, Superman’s rescue of said object is powerful in its impact. But the rest of the movie is undermined by a real lack of focus—specifically, in what Lex Luthor plans on doing with his newfound appreciation for crystals and kryptonite.
From a sloppy haired super offspring (who looks about as threatening as a Little Rascal’s waif) to a finale that’s all spectacle and no substance, Superman Returns was not the pinnacle of Singer’s production powers. Indeed, it once again highlighted all of his inherent flaws. Unlike Raimi, who perfectly balanced emotion with excess in Spider-man 2, or Nolan, who found a flawless combination of psychological and physical conflict in Batman Begins, Singer’s characters are all flash. They appear to be reaching for depth, but unless they are capable of seeing beneath the surface (like Routh did for his turn as Superman), they end up coming across as flat and totally dimensionless. Even the heroes he chose to highlight in the X-Men series—Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm—are more outer shells than insular individuals, defined almost exclusively by their special skills. The intriguing thing about Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne is that, at least in their current cinematic incarnation, they are people first, pillars of super heroism second.
This is why Singer sucks. He’s all about the surface, his constant concerns about subtext all smoke and unskilled mirrors. Outside the genre, he’s had limited direct success (Suspects was McQuarrie and Spacey’s baby, the vast majority of House is helmed by others) and so few people have seen his Sundance winner Public Access that it really doesn’t count. Any other filmmaker would be called a wounded one trick pony, especially since the X-Men have now been largely overshadowed by other, better comic book movies. This doesn’t mean that we should write off Bryan Singer for the near future. It merely indicates that, as some kind of savior, as a go to guy for every epic idea that comes down the pipeline, he should have to wait in line like dozens of derivative others. He’s not the greatest director of kinetic eye candy, and his films can’t compare to the efforts of those who’ve followed.
Valkyrie could change all that, and if it does, he will once again have a lot of significant help. McQuarrie is back penning the script, and Cruise still holds some clout, even if his pre-War of the Worlds/Mission Impossible III antics cost him some demographic percentage points. But having the German government diss you before a single frame a film is shot (granted, it now seems like a massive miscommunication) is not the most promising of possible omens. And yet, when Bryan Singer is involved in a project, it seems that something has to be slightly askew. It helps explain his ineffectualness come opening day, providing a built in excuse where something more personal is definitely the issue. How this translates into his status as an A-list director is still astounding. He’s no different than a dozen mediocre moviemakers (Tim Story, are you listening?) who get lucky tapping into an uninformed audience zeitgeist. He not special—he’s substandard. This makes his continued ascension into the ranks of motion picture powerhouses as puzzling as ever.
Aileen “Lee” Wuronos, on paper, is an almost offensively shameless Oscar-begging character: a serial killer/prostitute/lesbian. Add in a few extra points for this actually being a real person. Compounding matters considerably is the fact that, impossibly, the glacially beautiful South African-born Charlize Theron would be playing this downtrodden woman, who, let’s just say knew her way around the block (and had for many years). Fortunately, what could have descended into a camp nightmare of gigantic proportions instead provided a showcase for one of the most original star turns of the new cinematic millennium; one that actually ended up working.
Wuronos was executed on 9 October, 2002, about one year before the film was made. Her ashes were taken back to her native Michigan by her long-time confidante (and my former next door neighbor!) Dawn Botkins, who provided Jenkins and Theron with much of the original source material that, would become the foundation for this tremendous feat of acting.
Theron’s high-wire act could be compared to the theatrical, operatically over-the-top, and gimmicky antics of women like Faye Dunaway (as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest), Nicole Kidman (as Virginia Woolf in The Hours), and Annette Bening (as Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty)—all Oscar nominees (the former two winners); it is a level of commitment that is ferocious when combined with the actresses’ blend of tightly-controlled animal magnetism and star presence. The performances are very aware, very controlled, and aided in each case by a very specific “look” that the actress relies on to help get her point across. These are performances that veer dangerously toward the brink of caricature and could easily be seen as skirting camp disaster. Each of these actresses portraying a variety of damaged women, though, is able to rely on her own particular skill to pull it all together. Theron is the best example of this, in this writer’s humble opinion.
This is the kind of performance that rarely gets rewarded, something that comes along every so often and reminds you of what exactly actors are capable of accomplishing and capturing through good-old fashioned physical transformation (including 30 pounds gained by the leading lady and an array of prostheses). Justly, Theron’s phenomenal work as “Lee” took the Academy Award for Best Actress of 2003 (on 29 February—Wuronos’ real-life birthday), in first time director Patty Jenkins’ compellingly bleak character study, Monster.
The sequence that opens Monster provides the viewer with a brief and startling view of Lee’s life history. After these informative, shocking images, accompanied by words that bombard us with decades of details in mere minutes, we are transported into the bitter, somber reality of a grown-up Lee’s world. She is sitting beneath a dirty underpass on the side of a Florida highway, in the rain. Through the grit and despair, we see a figure holding a gun and contemplating the end. This is Lee; an unrecognizable Theron. Even her eyes look profoundly soulless and tragic (thanks to almost black, reptilian contact lenses). Lee is vaguely inhuman: lumpy, sketched out, wild-haired. She is a liar, a con-woman. Theron’s immersion into this character is done not as a blatant copycat act; she also employs a different, gravelly voice and a Midwestern cadence, haggard make-up on her skin, and tough body language. The actresses’ control over these restraints is a testament to her strength and range as a performer.
Lee (who has some obvious mental health issues) decides that she’d rather not kill herself with five bucks in her pocket - she rationalizes that she probably performed a sexual favor for it, and that would be akin to working for free. She figures that she should at least try and spend it before pulling the trigger. She wanders into a nearby lesbian bar where she has her first encounter with Selby (Christina Ricci). After a rough beginning the two begin to hit it off. That Lee gives the confused young woman a chance at all adds a dramatic dimension that is moving—there is a palpable connection between the two that makes the homeless, bruised hooker a more relatable, human character. This action is revelatory for someone who has been desperate to make a connection (to no avail) for so long. Their affair is doomed and implausible from the start, and it reeks of pathos. It makes the violence looming in the story’s distance more significant.
Humanity is oft-discussed when talking about filmed acting. The intricate psychology of Theron’s Lee is one of the best examples of this I can think of. The actress and the filmmaker sincerely take into account the confused sexuality of their lead character, providing an experimental portrait of sexual awakening that never degrades its subject. When talking with Tom (Bruce Dern), she realizes that she is talking romantically about a woman and quickly switches her pronouns. Up until this point, she didn’t identify with being a lesbian. Lee, high on new prospects readies for a date with Selby.
Ricci, in a solid supporting turn, is equally daring as a cipher lacking any clear personality of her own; somewhat excited to assume someone else’s. Selby is an amalgamation of real-life (Lee’s actual lover, Tyria Moore could not be depicted for legal reasons) and dramatic license (“Selby’s age, appearance, and history were all changed for the film). Selby is living in Florida on her strict, religious father’s orders, with equally staunch family acquaintances. She is equally as desperate as Lee, in other ways; and also struggling with her sexuality. This set-up allows for two highly original performances to be showcased in the film. Ricci’s performance has been maligned by critics as much as it has been praised, many times overlooked in the wrecking ball wake of Theron’s praise. The filmmakers’ bold choice to mix fact with fiction (while still remaining lovingly attached to the emotional truths of the story), and the pairing of these two women about to hit the bottom of their own downward spirals is assured.
The sadness comes back, and any optimism that may have been built up for the new and in love couple quickly flies out the window when the scenes of Lee hustling johns shows the hopelessness of her situation. There aren’t any realistic dreams of a sweet future, only fantasies. This all happens in the film’s first fifteen minutes or so. Monster hits like a truck.
That Lee is involved in a murder, while trying to raise money for a rendezvous with her would-be new love adds another heartbreaking layer to the proceedings. It becomes very clear that the life of a hooker is much different than what the film-going public has been treated to in the past: Lee isn’t Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. While some of her intentions seem to be pure, she definitely does not have a heart of gold and no billionaire playboy is going to take her out of this despair. Lee must constantly be on her guard, looking over her shoulder. Perhaps it is out of self-defense she kills her first trick after a “date” turns into a horror-show of rape and sexual torture that is genuinely appalling to watch, but it also highlights the dangers of Lee’s everyday life. This is the moment in the film in which Lee seems to break with reality—her primal scream after the killing will raise the hairs on your neck.
Strutting around, looking at her own blood-spattered and naked body in the mirror with a mix of disdain and curiosity before making love to Selby for the first time, may seem like an insignificant detail, but for me, it shows a level of commitment to every gesture that is missing from a great deal of modern screen acting. This is not a “natural” performance at all; it is otherworldly and manufactured, like the real woman. Lee begins to go on a murder spree to support Selby and work towards their dream of living in a small house in the keys. How does she become a murderer? Was she, as Lee claimed, victimized by all of the johns to a degree?
The scene in which Lee convinces Selby to stay with her for one week rather than return to Ohio (“You’ll never meet someone like me again”, she cagily barks) takes place immediately after the first killing. It is obvious that in this case, Lee realizes after the heat of the moment that what she did was wrong. She won’t recover from this crime, it’s almost as though Lee knows she will be going to jail forever. Perhaps in this is the moment of realization she constructs the elaborate fantasy future filled with domestic bliss with Selby where she assumes a macho, traditionally-male persona that dictates she protect and care for her “little woman”. After killing a man, Theron is shot lit from behind, enjoying a cigarette, exhaling a steady stream of smoke. As the camera retracts sluggishly, and she disappears into the blackness, you get the feeling that this signifies the woman’s confusion and her lack of control; that this is her final descent.
Lee actually still thinks that quitting hooking is a plausible thing. She thinks she wants to be a vet (“I fucking love animals”), or a “business person”. A series of humiliating job interviews (including one to be a legal secretary where she is degraded in a horrible way), in which a desperate Lee is inspired by her human connection to Selby to live life on the straight and narrow. This brief, unrealistic period lets Lee slip into the only place she has ever felt comfortable: in her romantic, delusional ideals of the perfect life. Monster really showcases the cycle of poverty, and abuse and shows how commonplace it is to become utterly stuck in it.
Unfortunately for Lee, this cycle began when she was raped as a child and never ended. That Lee never really had a chance and her inability to cope with the injustices committed against her is mournful. The scene in which she recounts pathetically to a john the tales of her childhood sexual abuse with disturbing candor or the shot of her begging for change are among the examples of Theron’s dedication to fully-fleshing out her character’s truth. The actress doesn’t stand in judgment, and balances all of these elements flawlessly. She keeps on killing and telling herself that she is the prey, that she is an avenging angel. It becomes hard for her to kill her final victim; she is snapped back into the reality of her life, except it is much too late to stop at this point. She has to kill the man to save herself from being caught.
Lee sends Selby back to Ohio to spare her from prison. The scene at the bus station is one of the most affecting in the film that features Lee, once so tough and confident, as a grief-stricken and raw tangle of nerves. She is filled with regret and sobs for help and forgiveness. Selby repays Lee’s loyalty and love by turning her in; accepting no blame for anything that happened while they were together, though she was well-aware of the killings. She tricks her former lover into taking all of the heat. This is Lee’s act of heroism: she takes the blame so Selby can have a life. The final scenes of Lee getting handed the death penalty, where Lee is used and tired are made even more haunting by Theron’s final haunting gaze directly into the camera being juxtaposed with hokey sayings about hope and love. The terror in her eyes shows that her fate has broken her.
Though Theron’s performance is very seductive, and her character is lethally charming, Jenkins keeps the film from ever fully surrendering to the whims of the killer. There is always a gently-placed hand of judgment placed between the audience and Aileen. It keeps us acutely aware of the horrors of her crimes—even though at times it might be easy to acquit her because of her circumstances. The film never excuses her behavior.
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 Worlds – Transformers 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.
// Moving Pixels
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