Sunday, June 28, 2009


Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
1 star (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

If I'm not mistaken, Megan Fox's shimmery lip gloss remains perfectly applied through the entirety of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (ROTF),” even after her damsel-in-daisy-dukes character is attacked by spider-like robots, tossed in and out of moving vehicles and whirled around an Egyptian desert like Polly Pocket in a vacuum cleaner. Such a seemingly minute detail turns out to be an apt metaphor for this totally unnecessary, stupefyingly bombastic sequel. “Transformers: ROTF” is all gloss – retina-searing, eardrum-piercing, braincell-zapping gloss – made to the tune of $200 million and hurled at you in an all-stops-pulled, all-guns-blazing onslaught by blockbuster maestro Michael Bay. Man, did I hate this movie. It is preposterously complicated, oppressively long and congested with more frantic special effects than any other action flick I can remember. This is what it must be like to be fired through a pinball machine: darting madly back and forth while lights flash and whistles howl. I walked into my screening with a mild headache. I walked out with some wicked nausea.

Since this is a franchise that's essentially based on a line of robot action figures, those gearing up for a “Transformers” movie should know what they're getting themselves into: far-fetched story elements, minimal human emotion and exorbitantly expensive, precedence-taking production values. I knew, but I never anticipated just how rabidly Bay and writers Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman would administer these substance-free shortcomings. Even if I had the uncanny ability to tune out the film's relentless noise, the nonsensical plot becomes increasingly difficult to follow and, eventually, defeats logic altogether. Though it pains me to even attempt to synopsize such a mind-melting movie experience, here's what I gathered amidst the nonstop explosions, screaming, shape-shifting, scene-jumping and near-deafening demolition:

“Transformers: ROTF” takes place two years after the events in 2007's “Transformers,” which ended with the destruction of the life-giving All Spark cube and the noble Autobots' defeat of the evil Decepticons (for those of you not down with the robots-in-disguise lingo, both groups are part of a race of alien life forms that can embody and bend to their will any Earthly machine). With Decepticon leader Megatron subdued and buried deep in the ocean, the Autobots – led by Optimus Prime, the head honcho with an 18-wheeler facade and Peter Cullen's preachy voice – have teamed up with the US military to hunt down any and all Decepticon stragglers (though given notably less screen time, Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson reprise their roles as Major Lennox and USAF Master Sergeant Epps, respectively).

Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), the human hero from the first film, is headed to college, leaving behind his doting parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), his mega-hot girlfriend, Mikalea (Fox), and his trusty Camaro/Autobot best friend, Bumblebee. When Sam discovers a shard of the All Spark left over in his battle-ravaged clothing, not only does it give the remaining Decepticons the opportunity they need to revive their conquered comrades, it fills Sam's mind with hieroglyphic-like symbols that will ultimately lead to an ancient Transformers burial ground. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is at odds with the military and wants all the Transformers to leave Earth. Meanwhile, a thousand-year-old Decepticon known as The Fallen is watching from outer space. The Darth Sidious to Megatron's Darth Vader, he needs what's in Sam's head so he can activate a weapon that's hidden inside a pyramid and blow up the Sun, thus finally exacting his revenge on humanity.

There's plenty more that takes place, and plenty more that requires explanation, but that's all I can handle for the purposes of this review. Besides, Bay never sticks with one component long enough to allow it to sink in. He's far too busy ensuring that he uses every dollar of that tremendous budget. If there's one way in which his sequel is triumphant, it's that no other movie has ever more fully realized the concept of “go big or go home.” “Transformers: ROTF” will likely be remembered as the quintessential motion picture of the ADD generation. It has zero regard for coherent storytelling, cohesion, character believability or viewer sanity. It is concerned only with mile-a-minute spectacle (and, perhaps a bit with pleasing ardent “Transformers” fans, presumably the only audience members who could even begin to comprehend or appreciate the frenetic narrative). The only times it stops to breathe are during obligatory beats of stupid humor, often provided by a pair of foul-mouthed Autobots that serve as the hunk-of-junk equivalents of token black stereotypes. The closest Bay comes to conveying feeling is when he's spinning his cameras around Sam and Mikaela as they toy with the notion of professing their unconvincing puppy love. Not that we cared anyway, but these scenes, specifically, are visibly rushed. Neither Bay nor Sam have time for romance – there's yelling to do and stuff to blow up.

I'll admit, I enjoyed the first “Transformers” movie. At the very least, it had novelty on its side, what with its revolutionary special effects and highly inventive sound design. It was something we'd never seen (or heard) before and it was, for all the outward inanities of its source material, lots of fun. “Transformers: ROTF,” which basically churns out oodles more of the same, is not fun; it is a mania-inducing arcade game of grinding metal, gratuitous stylization and hopelessly redundant battle sequences (which are often strung together, back-to-back, for unendurably lengthy spans). The fights don't even possess the basic root-for-the-good-guy vitality that kept Bay's other films afloat despite their infamous flaws. The director who also gave us “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” has come full-circle in his career, finally delivering a high-concept, high-priced disaster movie that is itself a disaster.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Review: The Proposal
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Sandra Bullock almost said no to “The Proposal.” “Not another romantic comedy,” was reportedly the rom-com queen's initial reaction, an understandable attempt to break away from familiar fare like “While You Were Sleeping,” “Two Weeks Notice” and the already-wrapped but yet-to-be-released “All About Steve.” Whatever it was about first-time screenwriter Pete Chiarelli's script that made Bullock reconsider, everyone – including director Anne Fletcher (“27 Dresses”), the folks at Touchstone, and especially we – should be mighty thankful she did. Always best in the laughs department (rather than in dead-on-arrival thrillers like her last film, 2007's “Premonition”), the comely comedienne takes a movie ready to crumble on its formulaic foundation (there's nary a plot development you don't see coming) and gives it a rejuvenating jolt of winsome pizzazz. She finds a hilarious helping hand in the great Betty White and a willing compatriot in the far-better-than-usual Ryan Reynolds, but it's she, an actress with Lucille Ball's comedic instincts and Julia Roberts' leggy, girl-next-door looks, who glistens at center screen while often carrying the film on her shoulders. “The Proposal” is not a great movie but, thanks mainly to Bullock, it's great fun.

Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a career-obsessed editrix at a Random House-like book publishing company in New York. She's hated and feared by all those beneath her, who secretly refer to her as “it” and “The Witch.” She's not afraid to walk into the office of a colleague and fire him on the spot. She comes armed with all the usual gear: high heels, conservative couture, lattes and Louis Vuitton bags. The character is stereotypical; the performance is not. Bullock is game for the role all the way, and playfully owns it from her tightly-pulled ponytail right down to her stilettos. Margaret's dutiful right-hand man is Andrew (Reynolds), an aspiring writer/editor who's played slave to his demanding boss for three years in hopes of eventually getting ahead. When Margaret, a native of Canada, finds herself threatened with deportation due to an expired Visa, she blackmails Andrew into marrying her so she can obtain a green card and maintain her high-powered position. Andrew, who feels things deeply whereas Margaret makes life a series of business deals, bribes her right back: he'll play ball if she gives him a promotion. Margaret agrees and the game is on. Immigration (embodied by slithery character actor Dennis O'Hare) smells a rat, and the pair must travel to Sitka, Alaska to visit Andrew's all-American family and prove their union is legit. They're met with skepticism from Andrew's disapproving dad (Craig T. Nelson), joy from his wholesome mom (Mary Steenburgen) and giddy excitement from his pistol of a grandmother (White).

As Margaret and Andrew begin sinking deeper into their not-so-little lie, anyone who's seen even a small smattering of romantic comedies should know where things are headed: with all the people on whom these two are trying to pull one over, are they really just fooling themselves? Along with the fish-out-of-water, the gender role flip-flop and the attraction of opposites, such is an element of Chiarelli's story that was old before Reynolds could even walk. But despite the script's creaky bones (and random holes: Margaret is a major player in the world of media and she doesn't even know what YouTube is?), a case can also be made for its flashes of thoughtfulness. For instance, when Andrew and Margaret arrive in Sitka (which is in fact Massachusetts, crisply captured), it's revealed that Andrew's family is rich and basically owns the entire town, thus putting Andrew, not Margaret, in a position of seniority for the first time. It's a tidbit that's necessary but never overemphasized. Or, in a scene shown out of context in the movie's trailers and TV spots, the filmmakers transcend a basic slapstick gag by assigning it layers of significance. During one of the more heated moments, Margaret falls out of Andrew's speedboat and into the bay. First, we laugh at her misfortune. Then we remember her character can't swim. Then we remember it's Alaska, the water is freezing, and he'll be forced to comfort her. Then we acknowledge the character's human vulnerability. All this before even considering the scene's baptismal implications. I may sound like I'm reaching, but a lesser movie would've just dunked Margaret for a laugh. This one achieved the laugh while still thinking about the bigger picture.

As I most recently mentioned in my review for “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” I've little patience for Reynolds, a relatively young actor who seems to play the same handsome wise guy every time out. Not this time. This little trifle of a movie features Reynolds' most assured and mature work to date, a performance made of subtlety, nonchalance, even inner turmoil. Andrew still exhibits Reynolds' wry sense of humor and sneak-attack delivery, but for once it is underplayed, which I greatly appreciated. Most importantly, Reynolds has wonderful, comfortable chemistry with Bullock: you'd think the two of them have been working together for years. Even though I never really rooted for their romance, I liked both characters, who share quiet and comedic moments more natural than anything in “Away We Go.” In fact, “The Proposal,” which will likely be all but forgotten by year's end, steps right where a lot of films I've seen lately stepped wrong. There's a Native American chanting scene that calls to mind portions of “Imagine That.” With Eddie Murphy, such moments were unbearable. With Bullock and Betty White, they're odd, but gleeful and infectious. There's the whole concept of the big-city career woman being affected by the rural folk, a la “New in Town.” With Renee Zellweger, the scenario was insulting and inauthentic. With Bullock, it's still trite, but it's plausible, enjoyable and, at least at one point, even powerful.

“The Proposal” comes down to the strength of Bullock's performance, her most disarming since “Miss Congeniality.” The 44-year-old actress may want to branch out, and her work in films like “Crash” proves that she can, but the lighthearted material will likely remain her strongest suit. Here she reminds us not only of her killer timing (watch out for scenes with the family's dog), but also of her considerable skills with physical comedy. It's a great example of a performer who, when playing to her strengths, scores big. (PS: Stick around for the end credits – you'll be forcing back giggles.)

Monday, June 15, 2009


Review: Imagine That
1.5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

It's tough to hate a fluffy family flick about a father who bonds with his button-cute kid, but “Imagine That,” Eddie Murphy's latest exercise in half-baked entertainment, certainly gives you enough reasons to want to torch the film in effigy. It's not offensive like, say, 2007's “Norbit” (the movie that arguably cost Murphy the Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in “Dreamgirls”), but its story is so meatless, its execution so misguided and its plot details so startlingly ridiculous that it becomes truly insufferable. Aside from the (very) occasional charms of Murphy's natural talents, there's practically no appeal to speak of. Is it funny? No. Is it endearing? Not really. Is it asinine? You betcha. Even if your mind is wide open, with ample space reserved for cutesy, kiddie fantasy, nothing can prepare you for the wack-a-doo absurdities that await in this film. Especially for parents, but for children, too, it is a strenuous waste of time, and the whole family would be better off sitting around telling imaginative tales of their own.

The core concept of “Imagine That” is noble, albeit nothing new: after some wild, life-changing events, a neglectful, workaholic dad finally learns what it means to be a good parent. Now, could screenwriters Ed Solomon (“Charlie's Angels”) and Chris Matheson (the “Bill & Ted” series) have come up with a more insipid-yet-insane way to tell this familiar story? “Imagine That” is like “Liar, Liar,” minus the fun and plus a lot of crazy. Get this: Evan Danielson (Murphy) is a successful financial advisor at a top Denver firm who's too busy crunching numbers and closing deals to spend time with his seven-year-old daughter, Olivia (newcomer Yara Shahidi). The first and only time he shows any interest in her at all is when he discovers that her imaginary friends have infallible stock advice. Using Olivia's blanket (a.k.a. “goo-gah”) as a tool with which to contact the imaginary fairy princesses (a.k.a. “Coupeda, Mapeda, Zapeda and Kwali” – not sure about the spelling there), Evan starts getting primo tips like, Company A “wets the bed” and Company B is “a crybaby.” Sell! Since Evan's insider info repeatedly proves to be rock solid, his colleagues dismiss all the nonsense (oh yes, “wet the bed” comes up in meetings) and he becomes a rising star. That's good news for him because he's one of two candidates up for the big boss's seat when an impending merger with a larger firm goes into effect (the other is Johnny Whitefeather, a zany, born-again-or-something Native American played by Thomas Haden Church in a bad wig). However, it's bad news for Olivia, who soon realizes her father cares less about her than he does about her “goo-gah.”

I've read a couple of critics' reviews that praise director Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Edge”) for keeping the imaginary friends imagined and not visualizing them in what could have become some hokey, glittery interpretation. In any other instance, I'd have to agree, as subtlety is something I greatly appreciate, even long for, at the movies. But here, perhaps if there were some fantastical visual flair, there would have at least been something for me to behold and admire. Instead, there are embarrassing, excruciating scenes in which Murphy wears a blanket on his head, talks to walls and dances and sings for magical dragons (one outdoor dance sequence is shamelessly, unforgivably condescending). Add to that Johnny Whitefeather's New Age-y speeches about “one sky” and “dream pigeons” (or something), and you've got what may well be the first family film since “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” that was presumably conceived under the influence of hallucinogenics.

Murphy graciously turns his requisite, rubber-faced-diva schtick down a few decibels this time out, reminding the world that under all the antics, he's an accomplished, inherently skilled performer. It's slight, but it comes through. Meanwhile, Shahidi (who's bound to receive raves because she's cute and under 12), gives a performance that's adequate but nowhere near winning. Call me heartless, but there are too many just-okay child actors out there to deem every one the second coming of Shirley Temple (as many critics love to do). The work from both Murphy and Shahidi tends to contribute to, not diverge from, the unbearableness of the movie (even a well-intended father-daughter singing lesson becomes shrill and unwelcome). The only time the two really shine together – and the only time the film really comes to life – is during a pancake-making sequence that's featured in the film's trailers. It's well-scored and well-shot, but it works because it's simple, universal and entirely separate from all the other gobbledygook going on elsewhere in the movie. Sadly, it lasts about six minutes.

What ultimately kills “Imagine That” is this: it's not really for anyone. The kids may have patience for all the “goo-gah,” “Zapeda,” “dream pigeon” gibberish, but the finance talk, which pops up in equal measure, will either lose them or put them to sleep. As for adults, I can't imagine a single grown person enjoying this big 'ol mess. It's the kind of film in which you spend more time looking at your watch than at the screen. After 107 sanity-testing minutes, it ends as it must: with Evan taking the high road when faced with that age-old family-or-job decision. Before it gets there, though, a secondary character played by Martin Sheen serves Johnny Whitefeather with the film's best line of dialogue. It comes just after the nature nut delivers his final preposterous speech. Sheen's guy says: “What kind of excuse can you give us for that unctuous stream of drivel that you call a presentation?” I wrote it down verbatim. It's a question I'd like to ask the filmmakers.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Review: Away We Go
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Against their better judgment, a lot of people are going to enjoy “Away We Go,” the closest thing to a feel-good picture to ever come from feel-bad director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Jarhead,” last year's excellent “Revolutionary Road”). Do yourself a favor and don't follow the pack. While it may seem harmless on the outset, this pregnancy dramedy is largely soulless and wholly pretentious, a studio film that wants so badly to be a word-of-mouth phenomenon like its thematic cousin “Juno” that it attempts to duplicate the '07 Oscar winner's hip-yet-heartfelt design right down to the off-kilter, illustrated poster art. Problem is, it's too busy wearing its cool and kooky heart on its intentionally wrinkled sleeve to remember to keep its blood flowing. The script, by husband-and-wife team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, certainly has its tender moments but, more often than not, it's hampered by far-reaching, oddball rhetoric that the writers mistakenly think accounts for true originality. The result is irrelevant and borderline manipulative, and the only reason I'd watch this movie again is to revisit its colorful supporting characters, all played by terrific actors who stand apart from their not-so-terrific surroundings.

From the beginning, it's nearly impossible to identify with Burt and Verona, a 30-something couple who in scene one discover they're about to become parents. Though they're portrayed by lovable TV stars John Krasinski (“The Office”) and Maya Rudolph (“Saturday Night Live”), these two are barely likable, mainly because they're saddled with dehumanizing, only-in-the-movies quirks and dialogue. He's an insurance salesman (I think) who adopts an awkward sports-announcer voice whenever he takes a call; she's an edgy artist who creates medical illustrations. Together, they're prone to frequently discussing anatomy, inconsequential philosophies and random topics, all of which translate as: “listen to how odd-yet-ordinary we are! We're just like you!” But they're not, nor are they like anyone you've ever met. The only people they resemble are characters from better indie-type films who were much more naturally and convincingly developed. This is a problem that worsens once Burt and Verona hit the road.

You see, the couple is happy, but they live in squalor in middle-of-nowhere Colorado, and with the baby on the way, they need to find a better place to lay down their roots. Well, they might have actually stayed put had it not been for a startling announcement from Burt's parents who, in the first of many episodes within the story, reveal that they're moving far away from their son, daughter-in-law and impending grandchild (Why? Because they're weird characters in a movie that likes weird characters). Bereft of their last parental connection (Verona's mom and dad died when she was 22), the expecting duo heads off to half a dozen map points (Tucson, Montreal, Miami, etc.), each the home of an old friend or family member and each introduced by an all-for-style, black title card (“Away to...”). Will one of the destinations prove the ideal location to raise a family? The weight of the notion doesn't even resonate until well into act two, and even then it's hammered into submission by the film's endless self-serving idiosyncrasies.

Burt's flighty parents (forgive the pun) are embodied by the always marvelous Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels, the first set of those expert supporting players I mentioned. We also meet Verona's younger sister, Grace, who lives in Phoenix and is played by the lovely Carmen Ejogo (“The Brave One”). Then there's LN (for Ellen), Burt's childhood friend from Wisconsin who's now a disturbingly idealistic hippie played with fiery verve by Maggie Gyllenhaal. In Montreal, we find Tom and Munch (don't ask), our couple's old college friends who adopt because of infertility and are portrayed with surprisingly heartbreaking grace by Chris Messina (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Melanie Lynskey (“Shattered Glass”). Best of all is Verona's former co-worker, Lily, a highly inappropriate loudmouth from Phoenix played by the great Allison Janney in a wild, white-hot, show-stealing performance. (Is there anyone out there who's better perfected the role of the socially inappropriate friend/family member? I don't think so.) All of these actors excel in this film because, in one way or another, they operate on a frequency that transcends the material. Some, like Gyllenhaal and Janney, fly free to hilarious effect, while others, like Messina and Paul Schneider (who plays Burt's Miami-based brother, Courtney), give dramatic depth to their lines that catch us off guard. We don't feel any strong connections to their characters but, hell, at least they're interesting. In fact, compared to Krasinski and Rudolph, who tend to wallow in Burt and Verona's odd-yet-ordinary drabness, they're downright compelling.

For Mendes, “Away We Go” is a low point, the first film from the director in which the style doesn't elevate the story, but finally snuffs it out. Sure, the multi-regional cinematography by Ellen Kuras (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) is handsome, and the original music by Scottish singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch is memorable, but it all reeks of pretense, just like the script. There's a less-than-subtle metaphorical shot of the couple on an airport's moving sidewalk that's blatantly ostentatious, and it's a visual example of why character details like Maya's deceased parents and refusal to wed don't affect but fall flat. (There is one late scene set on a trampoline that achieves some poignancy, but it, too, gets polluted by overtly eccentric jargon.) At the end of this disjointed road trip, Burt and Verona do find their nesting site (apologies for the spoiler), and it's one of multiple instances wherein the director blares Murdoch's alt-rock score to amp up the drama. As our uninteresting, unlovable parents-to-be scan the grounds of what will become their home, the music swoops in for one last ear-piercing, side-swiping wave of emotion. And here we discerning moviegoers sit, feeling...unmoved.