Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

It seems that the big trend among this summer's blockbusters has been to fix floundering franchises. X-Men: First Class revived a series that was growing weaker with each entry. The simplified plot of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was a much needed antidote to the sprawling story in Pirates 2 & 3. Thankfully, Transformers: Dark of the Moon keeps the trend alive by avoiding becoming the train wreck that was Revenge of the Fallen.

A lot of things went wrong with Revenge of the Fallen. So much, in fact, that everybody from Shia LaBeouf to the executives of Hasboro were apologizing for it. The plot went all over the place. The juvenile humor of the first movie was taken to a new level. Then, of course there were the jive-talking Autobots that everybody involved with the production would probably like to forget. The producers listened to fan complaints and although Dark of the Moon and came back with something on par with the original Transformers.

The premise this time around is that the Apollo missons were really a front to research an alien ship that crashed on the moon. The film kicks off with a strong start, mixing actual footage of the Apollo 11 mission in with scripted scenes, calling to mind parts of Michael Bay's Armageddon. From there, it moves into a conspiracy story where we find out that for years the American and Russian governments have been keeping the crashed ship a secret from everybody, including the Transformers themselves. It's a strong enough premise that it would have worked outside of a Transformers movie, and using it for this movie shows that the producers had more in mind than "big robots fighting for 2 1/2 hours" this time around.

They also came up with a good storyline for Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), albeit a rather topical one. This time around he's a college graduate unable to find a job, driving a beat up old Datsun because his car is out saving the world. On the plus side he has a new girlfriend, played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and yes, she can act. Of course, once he does manage to land a nice, stable 9-5 job, he still manages to work his way to the front lines of the inevitable Autobot-Decepticon battle.

When you watch a Michael Bay movie, you can usually expect it to be about 2 1/2 hours long, and for that last hour to be one big action scene, and Dark of the Moon doesn't buck the trend. Unlike the finale of Revenge of the Fallen, which just felt like they were trying to cram as many explosions and robots into every minute, the climax of Dark of the Moon felt like something along the lines of Saving Private Ryan (you know... with robots). No, Michael Bay won't surprise you with an Oscar-worthy finale, but he does lock you into the battle and keeps the tension high.

There's still a fair amount of juvenile humor in Dark of the Moon, but it's toned down compared to the previous two movies. The overt racial stereotyping is gone, but there are still a few inappropriate sexual references. You'd think somebody at Hasboro would remind Michael Bay that PG-13 rating aside, it's still a movie based on a line of children's toys. The special effects also feel much cleaner than the other movies, so when the robots transform, it doesn't look as much like a big jumbled mechanical mess. However, the Transformers' designs could still use a bit of simplifying, at least for the Decepticons. They still look too complicated and alien, so it's a bit hard to tell the bad guys apart from each other.

Now, I didn't have any intention of seeing this in 3D, but I attended a free showing and didn't find out it was going to be in 3D until they were handing out glasses at the door. This almost prompted me to walk away and pay for a 2D showing, but I decided to stick around anyway.

I know it's a tired out complaint about 3D movies, but it's worth reiterating. It was just way too dim. When you watch a Michael Bay movie, you expect the sound and visuals to be cranked up past 11, but with the 3D glasses on, Bay's bright and brash visuals get seriously undercut. This might be alright if there was some big payoff to having everything in 3D, but there isn't. Aside from a spaceship flying about in the opening scene, there wasn't really any part where it felt like anything was added by seeing it in 3D. The effect was actually hardly noticeable for much of the middle of the movie. In fact, I was actually able to take the glasses off and enjoy parts of the movie without them perfectly fine, which i needed to do because my eyes were wearing out from the dimness. On the plus side, at least it wasn't headache inducing.

Overall, Dark of the Moon was a solid popcorn flick that delivers everything you should expect for a movie coming out for the July 4th weekend. It's fun, ostentatious and is the kind of movie you have to see in theaters at least twice, if only because your home theater system can't give you the fully audio-visual assault this movie calls for. I may not rate it as highly as the original Transformers, but it's definitely up there. If the producers can keep this up, hopefully we'll be seeing more Transformers movies in the future.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

X-Men: First Class

The X-Men movies are good again. Thank God. When the overkill that was X-Men: The Last Stand was followed by lackluster X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the X-Men franchise felt doomed. It seemed that we would have to wait years before the franchise was rebooted.

Thankfully, we only had to wait two years. Not only does X-Men: First Class fix the problems of the last two X-Men movies, it even manages to outshine X2. It's not clear if First Class is meant to be a reboot or just a retcon of the other films (there's more than a few notable changes to the backstory), but either way, it's a welcome direction for the film franchise.

First Class is about the origin of the X-Men team, and how Professor X and Magneto first meet. The story is set in the 60's against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so it should come as no surprise that this film takes itself a bit more seriously at times than the others in the series, especially since this film heavily focuses on the fact that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor. That's not to say that this is a meaner grittier take on X-Men. The grimness of Magneto's story is balanced out by the playfulness of the young recruits to the X-Men who both possess extraordinary powers, and no idea how to properly control them.

While it is a prequel, to the X-Men series, it avoids the pitfall the original X-Men movie fell into of feeling like little more than a prologue to a sequel story. First Class stands on it's own feet with a self contained story that doesn't rely on the audience being familiar with the previous movies, or the characters. The producers also took the bold step of framing it less in the context of a hero story, and more like an espionage thriller with a sci-fi twist.

I was impressed by how well the film developed the film's three main characters, Professor X, Magneto and especially the shape-shifting Mystique. In the other movies, Mystique was heavily featured but her character was never really explored past her being a mutant who hated humans. Here, we get to see her struggle with being comfortable with her naturally deformed appearance, and how it leads her to adopt the mindset of a villain. There's a particularly good scene in which she asks Professor X what he thinks of her as she really is, and the Professor does a poor job of trying to hide his prejudices.

Speaking of villains, Kevin Bacon and January Jones are both fantastic as First Class's villains, Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost. The first time you see Bacon onscreen is as a Nazi scientist tormenting a young Magneto, and reveling in it. Bacon doesn't just let his portrayal rest on Nazi = Evil.  Instead, his character evolves into somebody much deeper that puts the X-Men and even world governments into a moral bind.  I had some concerns about January Jones because there have been times that I've seen her in Mad Men and other movies where her acting seemed a bit flat. In theory that shouldn't matter since the character, Emma Frost is supposed to be arrogant and indifferent, but Jones does make her character feel rather animated while staying true to her character's nature.

Overall, First Class feels far more balanced than the other X-Men movies, which often tried to cram fan-favorite characters into cameo roles at the expense of sensible plot development. First Class does boast a large roster of mutants, but the filmmakers decided to round out the supporting cast with lesser known (and more expendable) characters like Havoc and Azazel. Unless you're a comics purist who'd be put off by the filmmakers mucking about with the characters' ages (in the comics, most of the characters in the movie are young when Professor X and Magneto are old) you should love X-Men First Class.