Jul 27, 2007

The Simpsons Movie (2007): B+

For eighteen years, that most popular yellow-skinned family of Springfield has dominated our pop culture identity, exploring through cunning satire virtually every aspect of who we are as a people and a culture - turning us around, examining us like a complex ancient artifact, sometimes roughly and cunningly but never without love. Virtually no television program has so truthfully acknowledged the role played by such facets as religion in the daily American life, and it is this satirical vision of what is an unmistakable recreation of our world - albeit one regularly exaggerated for comic licence - that has made the show a stunning time capsule for the ages. That it so often suggests low, low humor is indicative of both its reflective qualities and its verisimilitude, its critics having long mistaken its intended targets for its own purported attitudes. Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart and Maggie embody our strengths and our foibles, lovable in spite of their downfalls but always aiming for the path of righteousness.

It's a small amazement that the inevitable big-screen version of the series took so long to find its footing, but given what's been put on screen, eighteen years seems to have been an effective time period in allowing the series to reach the necessary degree of self-awareness so as to not gorge itself on its own successes. The series' popularity heyday has come and gone (although some, like myself, suspect its diminishing reception to be less indicative of lessened quality than of fans unwilling to accept the necessary creative evolution of a work going on two decades old), and the film itself is keenly aware of its been-there done-that suspicions. With over 400 episodes now under its belt, The Simpsons benefits greatly from the movie treatment, at once appropriately epic but satisfyingly modest; there isn't much in the film that hasn't already been touched on in some fashion beforehand, but The Simpsons Movie is perhaps most brilliant in finding that fine line between new and old, current and timeless, specific and universal, making its exploits at once reassuringly familiar and invigoratingly fresh.

That the film fails to achieve greatness is perhaps inherent to its having to follow up its own self-devised pop culture phenomenon, yet this fact alone makes its successes all the more astonishing. Such other theatrical outings as South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters came about relatively early in their series' respective runs and thus had less to lose in their ribald, go-for-broke insanity, but The Simpsons has also been a fairly family-friendly creation from the very beginning (amazing, considering the subject matter they've tackled under such constraints). Here and once again, family values make up the foundation for all that transpires, though the film often suggests Dadaism in its pop culture jambalaya, wringing laughs from everything from pig super heroes, Green Day (who performs the theme song) going down on a would-be Titanic, and the most brilliant deconstruction of FOX reality programming, well, ever. If nothing else, The Simpsons Movie suggests that, indeed, they are as important now as they have ever been.

Jul 20, 2007

WarGames (1983): B

If Dr. Strangelove represents cinema's subversively hard-edged attempt to right the wrongs of the Cold War, then WarGames is that film's fuzzy antithesis - a gooey 80's coming-of-age tale that approaches its life-or-death subject matter with a surprising level of maturity, given its unabashedly Cracker Jack tone. It's a disarming and appropriately deceptive move on the part of the filmmakers, for just as the film's protagonists ultimately wield their uncorrupted youth so as to show their military-bound elders the error of their ways, so too does WarGames channel the fresh wisdom of its seemingly light genre into something far more sinister in nature. Granted, even in its darkest moments, the film hasn't nearly the despair of Kubrick's satirical masterpiece, but it retains the same underlining moral questions in its portrayal of these unimaginable dilemmas. A young Matthew Broderick is David Lightman - a relatively unpopular boy at school but a virtual god at home with his computer, which he uses to hack into any number of digital facilities for his own benefits, the least of which is changing the failing grade of the girl he likes as a means of impressing her. His eagerness to play a newly advertised video game system, however, leads to his inadvertently hacking a top-secret government computer programmed to run every imaginable scenario should World War III become a reality. Unfortunately, while the system was first installed as a means of bypassing flawed human decisions during a time of crisis, the computer's drawbacks begin to make themselves apparent after David's accidental breach - namely, in that the computer doesn't much consider the difference between a simulated war and a real one. Such questions on the use of artificial intelligence have long been asked by the science fiction genre, but WarGames adds new potency to the equation by relating such scenarios to those firmly grounded in reality, particularly during a period of time during which many believed the world would surely come to an end. During its tightly strung climax, the film looks headlong into such a scenario, in effect feeling - in the words of George C. Scott's General 'Buck' Turgidson - the wings of the angel of death, fluttering over its head (as well as ours). In doing so, it appreciates fully not only how much we have to lose should we ever allow our penchant for self-destruction to get the better of us, but also the ease with which such horrors can be avoided.

Jul 18, 2007

The Doors (1991): C-

It doesn’t take much experience in the way of mind-altering substances to know a bad trip when you see one, and Oliver Stone’s The Doors plays out like an epic hangover one expects to never recover from. The film is overwhelming in all the wrong ways, and while, theoretically, such an assaulting effect would seem the correct one for a film detailing the perpetually overindulgent life of rock god Jim Morrison (the title refers less to the name of his band than the meaning behind said name, that being “the doors of perception”), the effect remains one of unrestrained, unpleasant bombast, attacking the mind as opposed to tingling the subconscious. It’s the unfortunate result of a respectably risky gamble on the part of director/writer Stone, as The Doors remains one of the least narratively driven big-budget biographies ever undertaken, often deviating from any sense of story to make way for folksy collages of sight and sound, simulating Morrison’s own artistically-inspiring head trips. Stone remains, unfortunately, perhaps too literal-minded a director to make these sequences effective; time-lapse shots of desert landscapes and the glaring sun add up to less than the sum of their parts, while the appearance of Native American chiefs in a dance ritual on stage with a drunken Morrison is hilariously juvenile in it’s envisioning of the communal artistic spirit. Even the more traditional sequences suffer from the excessive condensation required to stuff as much history into the film’s running time as possible; an opening band jam comes to mind, in which two of The Door’s biggest hits – “Light My Fire” and “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” – are practically written on the spot. That such unfettered genius could have taken place is of no doubt, but The Doors tries to sell its schematic portrayal of these events with a disingenuously casual flair, exposing its own unimaginative approach while also disserving the creative process at hand. Technically, the film’s recreation of the 60’s era is spot-on, but the film never sells the spirit of the time period it dutifully frolics in – it’s all flower-power behavior and hippie philosophies reduced to a few sentences of sound bytes, with none of the political motivation or existential longing coming through as anything more than lip service. Stone can be commended for his efforts to immortalize Jim Morrison’s self-destructive genius on film, but this take renders the much-worshipped front man as little more than a caricature ready for consumption by the Music History 101 crowd.

Jul 13, 2007

Sunshine (2007): B

Someone might say that 2001 is a bad film because of its lack of dialogue much in the same way a still-illiterate child will often prefer a picture book to the text of a written story. Traditional storytelling – wonderful as it can be in the right hands – has become, for many, not a single form but an absolute template, with off-kilter approaches often judged not by their own standards but by those most familiar to popular taste. It is in this way that a film like Kubrick’s masterpiece finds transcendence through its own pure manifestation – amidst its visual explorations, words would only get in the way, and unsurprisingly, it is often children who understand the film most fully, having not yet been desensitized to the narrative power of the image. Vice-versa, Sunshine is a technical marvel lacking the necessary conviction in its blistering vision of mortality – the film borderlines on masterpiece in its feverish sensory explosion, but is less than revelatory in its deliberate verbal exposition. This is misguided philosophy light, a life lesson unfairly bound to the confines of a vitamin capsule. That Boyle’s direction – like that of Alfonso Cuarón in Children of Men – is so good as to largely compensate for the unsatisfactory script is indeed a relief, but it also makes one long more for what could have been.

Sunshine’s end-of-days tale is an obvious but effective one, harking back to the days of early cinematic and literary science fiction, aided with a modern technological edge. Against the predictions of common physics, the sun has speedily reached the end of its lifespan, its internal chemical reactions sputtering out, threatening to leave the earth in deathly darkness and cold. Sent to the center of a solar system with a bomb in stow meant to re-ignite the star’s life-giving energy, the crew of Icarus II is the final vestige for humanity, their predecessors assumed long dead after having disappeared during their mission years earlier. Their plight suggests the heavy metal counterpart to Kubrick’s classical evocation of man’s relative insignificance in the universe; nearly blinded, a crew member stares at awe into the fiery rays of the sun, the spacecraft’s special shields and windows subjecting them to only 3% of its overall intensity. Long years away from their earthly habitats have worn on them in all the expected psychological ways, while the incomprehensible responsibility on their shoulders has rendered them a bunch of basket cases waiting to happen.

Like many a great genre film, Sunshine’s best moments of insight come from the implicit values seen in its unfolding story; questions of murder, sacrifice, and survival unpretentiously incorporated into an action-driven series of unfortunate events. These are aggravatingly diminished by the film’s moderately overt philosophical awareness, though it is – fortunately – but a small crutch unnecessarily indulged in, the unneeded icing on a cake good enough to make working around the extra decorations a worthwhile effort. Boyle’s work lacks finer elegance but its feral bombast can hardly be dismissed, the diffused imagery often suggesting the fabric time and space disintegrating around our protagonists. This manifestation of godly power ultimately takes a backseat to a newfound villain during the film’s much-maligned third act, a development that – in this critic’s eyes – stands as a perfectly natural, albeit visceral, progression on the film’s themes of power and madness, further expounding on man’s weaknesses through the plight of his own self-destruction. Sunshine is no Zen master, but it makes you feel the extremes of existence – the isolation of space versus the unity of all things – in ways knowingly hinged on the tenuous impulses of life. Call it sci-fi yoga and enjoy it as an appetizer to Solaris.

Jul 11, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007): C+

Harry Potter needs a vacation. Of course, his status as the Chosen One will forever prevent him from getting one – that is, at least until the events of book seven, the much anticipated Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – conclude his decade-long mythology (or so we’re told). This fifth film sees his darkest onscreen hour yet, a point that has been used as a springboard for both positive and negative criticism and almost entirely to superficial ends at that, either lamenting the “loss of magic” like a mother would her departing offspring, or simplistically equating growing menace and tragedy with heightened artistic and entertainment value. Like many who fight the good fight, it sucks to be Harry, but his is a saga that deserves far better when it comes to such cinematic retellings. Thus far all five films have been crafted with great attention to detail and respect for their source material (albeit in varying ways and with somewhat different priorities), and to say that any of them have been less than serviceable would be to foolishly denounce a great deal of craft and workmanship. Unfortunately, this encapsulates most – if not all – of the problems with these films; sans Alfonso Cuarón’s sterling Prisoner of Azkaban, every one of them has been a slave to the page from which it was derived, more focused on cramming in nuances and details than in developing a singular tone or creative, aesthetic thrust, too timid to stray from the success these stories have found on the page in putting them on the entirely different medium of the screen (it is telling that a great many purists hate the third, most loosely-adapted film with a fiery passion). Like many, the Potter fan inside of me – yes, I have my copy of book seven reserved, and will be in line when the clock strikes twelve in just over a week’s time – enjoys these films enough in the moment, but their Xeroxed joys are fleeting ones, despite their undeniable visceral thrills. Even Columbus’ blandest moments stand as more than box office draws (his style lacks distinction, but it would be unfair to say he didn’t care about these characters), but these are less films than they are carefully constructed additions to an unprecedented cultural phenomenon – strip away the hype and all that remains is an expertly made but emotionally bereft machine in need of lubrication. That The Order of the Phoenix features some of the series’ strongest components yet makes this all even more aggravating to the internal aesthete; Daniel Radcliffe has never been better is the title role, and the film is a welcome visual improvement over Goblet of Fire's stagy synthetics. Narratively, though, it remains streamlined to a fault and thuddingly literal-minded, deserving of the savory, meandering approach Rowling allows in her arguably overlong but undeniable feeling texts. Cuarón understood that cinema often requires the sacrifice of facts for feelings, a reality that leaves this barely satisfactory affair clinging to its literary predecessor for life support.

Jul 3, 2007

1408 (2007): B

Stephen King isn’t a great writer in the sense of great literature, but give the man due credit for knowing how to effectively rework our cultural hang-ups through his pulpy, genre based page-turners. This latest adaptation of god knows how many novels and short stories from the modern master of pop horror is a savvy slab of undecorated cheese, made compelling by its unflinching willingness to dive into the material headfirst, undaunted by the difficulty inherent in selling such an admittedly silly ghost story. The tenuous lines between sanity and madness, life and death, and the self and the other make up the rope bridge 1408 daringly crosses, inviting us to come with it. John Cusack – in a role undeserving of his talent but all the more worthwhile because of it – is Mike Enslin, a skeptical writer who has made a profession of exploiting popular ghost stories and legends in the name of profitable book sales, visiting so-called haunted locations for inclusion in his latest spooky compilation. Enter the New York’s Dolphin Hotel, where the local manager (Samuel L. Jackson) pursues every possible means of dissuading Enslin from staying in room 1408 before unhappily granting him his legal right to occupy the otherwise vacant room. Dozens have died in the room over the years – some seemingly impossibly so – though Mike remains unconvinced that he will succumb to whatever evil forces supposedly reside in the quarters. But a few minutes in the enclosed space, however, and his mind definitely begins to change; like an updated episode of The Twilight Zone, walls begin to shift, beings appear, paintings become animate and other ghastly occurrences transpire – whether or not Mike has simply gone insane is itself a possibility, the likeliness of which regularly ebbs and flows. The film lacks substantial artistry, but its no-frills depiction of these increasingly bizarre events doesn’t lack for to-the-point effectiveness, itself an appropriate route in presenting King’s to-the-point story of death and the beyond. Major props are due for Cusack in an unlikely but great performance, his slow decent into reason-deprived madness emboldened by a brave detachment from much that is considered to be “proper” acting. There may be hope left for mainstream horror after all.

Transformers (2007): B

There’s a moment about two hours into Transformers (one of several, actually) in which one of the film’s many titular shape-shifting beings jumps and twirls through the air – in slow motion – in order to dodge two enemy missiles. It was at this moment, completely dumbfounded, that I caught myself with a stupid, silly grin on my face. Credibility is worthless if it isn’t coupled with integrity, and with that in mind I will freely state – not admit – that yes, I enjoyed a Michael Bay film, in the same way that I sometimes enjoy a Happy Meal with a meaningless yet fun toy inside. Bay is so obsessed with his overblown toys and explosions that any semblance of entertainment that manages to come out of his spastic efforts may very well be purely incidental, with the line between this film’s Saturday morning cartoon mayhem and destruction and Bad Boys II’s shitstorm of anti-humanism being a matter of tonalities, whether or not the context of their unrestricted bombast is a legitimate one. This is the first film he’s made in eleven years that I’ve managed to tolerate (let alone like), and like The Rock, Transformers is a film that very quickly divorces itself from the grounds of all reality, unpretentiously reveling in kitsch as a momentary escape from our cerebrums. Sometimes I like leaving my brain at the door, if and when appropriate, and Transformers is smart enough to know how incredibly stupid it is.

It seems quite worthless to go into plot details here, or anywhere for that matter – the film exists in order to get robots together and blow shit up, period, although it is remarkably keen in evoking superficial emotion as cheeky filler, an excuse to pile on the rock ‘em sock ‘em action. My gut tells me we should look in large part to executive producer Steven Spielberg for the film's success; unlike the majority of Bay’s resume, Transformers’ action sequences actually maintain something in the way of semblance, and though their sense of spacial relationships is indeed a bit wobbly at times in the heat of battle, they exhibit incredible improvement over Bad Boys II and The Island’s nauseating epilepsy (a statement not meant to be taken as faint praise). That the film contains nary an ounce of genuine human emotion is perhaps its most silently beneficial quality; anytime Bay has ever tread in the realm of human relationships (Pearl Harbor) or conflicts (Bad Boys II, again), it’s been to shit all over them with his reckless disregard for decency. However, given these popular 80’s toys and their inherent, inextricable silliness…well, the glove fits. The film is certainly limited by its material – there’s only so much one can do with robots who cheerfully recite such ridiculous dialogue as “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings!” as if it were of Shakespearean depth – but for what it is, it is perhaps as fully realized as it possibly could have been.