Thursday, August 20, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

I'm of two minds about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. On the one hand, it's one of the worst things ever made and a logical end point to just give up and wipe out the human race. I've literally never seen a film announce its terribleness as swiftly and decisively as when this movie opens up in olden times France for a flashback sequence detailing the villain's superfluous ancestry, and it just spirals further into the abyss from there; a veritable orgy of ninjas, nanobots, bullets, explosions, and hot chicks in skintight leather.

On the other hand, the movie is veritable orgy of ninjas, nanobots, bullets, explosion, and hot chicks in skintight leather, and as a stupid person, I found it suitably entertaining in its hollow, glossy brainlessness. It achieves its (sickeningly) modest goals as a toy movie and as others have damned with faint praise by pointing out, it is, in fact, better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

For starters, name for me an action sequence in Transformers. I'll give about ten out of ten odds that what you just named is a robot fight, because that's all Transformers has — robot fight after robot fight after robot fight until your eyes glaze over and one string of drool gently creeps out your mouth and down onto your bib. None of G.I. Joe's action scenes will go down as revolutionary (in fact one scene at the Eiffel Tower is through sheer force of will somehow a parody of a scene in Team America), but at least there's a bit of variety — gun battles, jet planes, car chase, sword fights, submarine battle, home base protection, enemy base invasion, and so on. If you're gonna eat junk food you might as well mix it up rather than gorging the same kind en masse until you vomit.

Also, while I'm not about to claim G.I. Joe as some kind of bastion of feminism — the fact that Sienna Miller's breasts are either half-exposed or bulging through the aforementioned skintight leather in every frame deep-sixes that theory — recall that all that Megan Fox, the only significant female character, got to do in Transformers is seductively straddle a motorcycle, pout at the camera, and run away from bad robots. Sienna Miller and Rachel Nichols actually get to hold guns and kill guys and blow shit up and kick ass in this movie, so G.I. Joe wins hands down as goes gender equality.

Sienna Miller actually gives a pretty hilarious villainous performance, all black leather and cleavage and twin machine guns, like a second-rate Xenia Onatopp mixed with a comic book. Dennis Quaid wins equal laughs by playing his absurd macho dialogue absolutely straight, but the movie is unquestionably dominated by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Yes, subtle, nuanced indie darling Joseph Gordon-Levitt of Brick, The Lookout, (500) Days of Summer, and Mysterious Skin, one of the finest actors of his generation, who devours the scenery in a ludicrously over-the-top performance as the Darth Vader-knockoff villain, snarling with cartoonish malevolence about how he must destroy the Joes. It's utterly brilliant in its badness, and I couldn't stop guffawing every time he was onscreen.

The only actor who can't even measure up to G.I. Joe's "special needs" acting standards is unfortunately the lead, Channing Tatum. I don't get Channing Tatum. Why he's leading movies, I mean. The furniture he shares scenes with outperforms him. I emote more when my Internet browser crashes than he does when his best friend blows up. He can be in movies, sure, but he should be playing Misc. Football Player #3 who has two lines, or a waiter, not main fucking characters. What the hell, Hollywood?

Worst yet, the movie doesn't even have the decency to flood itself with self-parodying patriotic fervor, boasting a multinational cast and with barely an American flag to be seen, robbing us of the one thing that could have elevated the braindead exercise to glorious kitsch! Instead of taking the obvious, hilarious route and casting an blatant Reagan pastiche as the U.S. President, they actually cast Jonathan Pryce, who is in fact the most effete and British man on the planet. Indeed, G.I. Joe is not one-tenth as all-American as I was hoping for.

The movie has creeped over the green line to earn back its $175 million budget, and looks due to make a little more before leaking quietly out of theaters and into the DVD collections of people without standards. So I suppose director Stephen Sommers did his job and got the right people paid. But on the other hand, Sommers is one of less than twenty men in history to be given $175 million with which he could have produced any kind of film imaginable, and this juvenile, lowest common denominator puerile trash is he chose to do with that awesome gift? And then we, the human race, proceeded to reward him for it at the box office? We're fucking terrible. We're assholes, man.

2 Stars out of 5

Monday, August 17, 2009

Funny People

They say the third movie is always the worst, and yes, if you choose to view The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Judd Apatow's newest directorial effort as a trilogy, Funny People is indisputably the weakest, hands down. But of course, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up (along with other Apatow productions like Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall) are among my favorite movies of their respective years and my favorite comedies of the decade, so kind of that's kind of praising with faint damn. Despite being messy, bloated, and even rambling in spots, Funny People ultimately has enough warmth and humor to recommend... if you have patience with long movies, that is.

As anyone who's seen the asinine, give-the-whole-fucking-movie-away trailer knows, the film is about a terminally ill comedy superstar played by Adam Sandler who recruits young, amateur comedian Seth Rogen to be his assistant, warm-up act, joke writer, and general hired help. This is an unusual combination of the best and worst of modern comedy stars (I know there's typical Internet backlash against Rogen, but I still love him, especially after Observe and Report), but Apatow is able to reign Sandler back to give an understated — arguably a little too understated — performance, delivering funny banter but also reflecting a quiet sadness when called for. His character is a little bit of a jerk, which Sandler plays disconcertingly well, almost to point his nastiness occasionally makes him unpleasant to watch.

Jonah Hill, as usual, guest stars as Rogen's roommate and is profane and rude and funny, but the movie is actually stolen by Jason Schwartzman as Rogen's other, far more successful roommate, who gives a hysterically mellow, laid-back performance and fits seamlessly into the Apatowverse. And thank Vishnu, because despite starring Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider blissfully makes no guest appearance. Actually, that might have worked, because Rob Schneider is perhaps the only thing that a terminal disease is hilarious in comparison to.

But the movie's real problem is pure bloat. This is a hefty, incredibly ambitious film, strained to breaking point with what feels like dozens of subplots and wildly extended sequences both comedic and dramatic that give dimension to characters but don't enhance the plot one bit. Most egregious is a painfully (and on movie discussion websites, already infamously) protracted third act venture where Sandler tries to win back his old girlfriend that introduces a ton of new characters, leaves most the ones we've gotten to know behind, and threatens to drag the movie down kamikaze-style. What should have gone on for fifteen brisk and funny minutes goes on for a squirm-and-check-your-watch-inducing forty.

Apatow really, really wants this to be a genuinely great film, his best ever, maybe even a Best Picture contender, but he misaims, substituting too many shallowly-sketched characters and subplots where he needs a few great ones. After all, I don't remember a million characters and subplots in No Country for Old Men. I think Apatow may have unfortunately become powerful to the point where no one is willing to say "no" to him and he pretty much has free, unfiltered artistic reign, something that in the past has led to the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the grotesque bloat of the later Harry Potter books, Aaron Sorkin's awful TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and of course M. Night Shyamalan's descent into fucking nonsense. Surrounding yourself with yes men yields tragedy nearly 100% of the time.

But don't think I'm fully down on this film. One thing Judd Apatow is quite possibly the contemporary master of is making guys just hanging out and having a conversation hysterical (I think it's safe to say that Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen's "You know how I know you're gay?" duel is the most famous part of The 40-Year-Old Virgin), and Funny People is consistently hilarious when the three roommates — Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jason Schwartzman — are just shooting the shit, especially a scene where Hill lambasts Rogen for his recent weight loss, brilliantly summarizing that "There's nothing funny about a physically fit man. No one wants to watch Lance Armstrong do comedy." Three roommates is also a much more narratively manageable number than the five roommates from Knocked Up, perhaps the singular example of Funny People keeping things under control. The movie also has a few great stand-up comedy sequences and some sharp and amusing parody of shitty network sitcoms and terrible high-concept Adam Sandler comedies, but hanging out is where it excels.

Hereby, I propose my theory that Judd Apatow's fourth movie should just do away with plot entirely. It will be called Hanging Out, and it is just about Seth Rogen and four or five other Apatow regulars hanging out in a house and talking and insulting each other for two hours. They can get into arguments and stuff, but that's all the plot it needs. Surefire hit, in my humble opinion.

3 Stars out of 5

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9

The thing that I love about District 9 is that it's a true original. While it's not the only movie I've really enjoyed this year, it's the only one that can claim uniqueness — Star Trek and Up both drew on strong, old adventure archetypes, Moon, while clever, took root in plenty of classic sci-fi short stories, Adventureland was yet another coming of age tale, I Love You, Man was narratively conventional Apatovian bromance, The Hurt Locker was a war movie, and Observe and Report was a comedy version of Taxi Driver... but District 9 is something I have never seen before, ever. The closest thing I could draw parallel to is Cloverfield, which also attempted a fusion of sci-fi and vérité, but unlike Cloverfield, District 9 actually has the story and ideas and characters and cool action to back up the hype.

This is a fascinating, brawny, brainy movie; one I'm pretty sure will stand out in film history and millions of words will be written about, so I won't bother expounding in too much length just yet. But I do want to identify three specific elements I really admired about the film and I feel raise it to a level approaching genius: its setting, its sublimely integrated social message, and its protagonist.

The most basic but simultaneously the best twist this movie applies to the fundamental aliens on Earth formula is, as the film actually calls out near its beginning, to have the aliens land not over Manhattan, not over D.C., but over Johannesburg, South Africa. For the viewer (the viewer who doesn't already live in Africa, anyway) this immediately makes the cinematically conventional sight of aliens touching down into something uncharacteristically visceral, immediate, gritty, and dangerous. Violent aliens unite with quietly fascist government officials and brutal military enforcers and power-hungry gang leaders to make sure the viewer is on edge for virtually the entire runtime, which wouldn't work at all if it was simply set in another glossy American city. See last year's tepid The Day the Earth Stood Still remake for a quick and dirty example.

However, like good sci-fi, it isn't the settings and the aliens that bring District 9 to life, but the ideas beating in its heart. As we all know, the film's humans are warmongering fascists who contain the aliens on Earth for their weaponry (giving them the racial epithet-esque nickname of "prawns") but keep them segregated in run-down slums with plans to move them to a concentration camp. The message here is in no way subtle — any viewer over nine over should be able to figure out that this movie is an anti-discrimination, anti-racism, anti-segregation diatribe.

But the reason it works as such without ever feeling heavy-handed or inspiring eye rolls is because it never delivers clunky exposition or moralizing speeches on the topic. It merely lets it sit as fuel in the background, delivering us a cool thriller with cool action so that the subject matter can actually percolate in your mind as you think over the movie's general awesomeness, rather than rolling in one ear, through your brain, and out the other ear like a heavy-handed Crash. Some critics complained that the movie's third act swings towards action rather than climaxing with some fifteen-minute speech on the evils of racism, and while I hate to say someone's completely missed the point on something as subjective as film analysis, these critics have completely missed the point.

But however, like really good sci-fi — uncommonly good sci-fi — even the ideas sit the bench behind rich characters. In the age of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, it's easy to forget that an action flick can have memorable characters that significantly develop and grow (seriously, do Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox even have character names, or are they just Shia and Megan?), but District 9's masterstroke is to give us as our lead not some jaded military badass but a pencil-pushing nerd named Wikus van der Merwe. In the film's first act he's basically a South African interpretation of Michael Scott from The Office, goofy and getting pushed around by the aliens and humans and oblivious to everything, including the horror of living as a "prawn."

By starting from this point, we get to watch him truly progress in a dark and fascinating direction and become a better, more assertive, and more empathetic person. You know, bona fide character development! And so when the movie launches into an explosive cacophony of action near its end with Wikus at the center, it actually works, because we — get this — care! Even when a robot mech arrives to get down with the killing, Shia surrounded by fighting robots in Transformers will never cross your mind, because in this movie you actually give a shit whether Wikus lives or dies.

It's also worth noting the the bloody, brutal violence in this film. Plenty of seamless CGI is used to fill out the edges, sure, but the action scenes in District 9 have a genuine muscular oomph completely and utterly absent from the cartoon zipping about in Wolverine or Transformers or G.I. Joe this summer. People get shot and you fucking feel it, and you really see it in red, splattering detail (especially when they get blasted with body-exploding alien weaponry). Disturbing when your heroes are the victims, but when it's the villains, I hadn't heard hooting and cheering and applause like that from an audience in some time.

I'm not sure how much of that gory pizzaz came from producer (and, pre-Lord of the Rings, legendary gore hound) Peter Jackson exerting his influence and how much came from director Neill Blomkamp, but Blomkamp is an extremely exciting new talent and I look forward to whatever he comes up with next. He's got clever ideas and the magic touch with effects, action, and characters. Bam! Total victory!

4 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Retrospective Review

The late John Hughes meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some folks older than me might primarily associate him with the National Lampoon's Vacation franchise, while some younger than me might primarily associate him with Home Alone. But for me mention of John Hughes is virtually synonymous with the string of six iconic 1980s teen films that he either wrote and directed (Sixteen Candles & Weird Science), wrote and produced (Pretty In Pink & Some Kind of Wonderful), or, in the case of his two masterpieces, wrote, produced, and directed:

First, The Breakfast Club, which roughly ties with The Karate Kid and Superbad as my all-time second favorite film of the teen subgenre; pure teen angst somehow magically grafted onto celluloid unlike any movie before, since, and in all likelihood, ever. If you're anywhere between the ages of thirteen and eighteen this movie is guaranteed to speak to all your fears and anxieties and neuroses like it was made for you and you alone. Sure, it ages laughably and appears hopelessly silly and melodramatic pretty much the second your high school diploma is in hand, but at that point it's no longer made for you you senior citizen motherfucker, and the skill with which Hughes tapped into the psyche of a generation so far removed from his own is without peer.

And second, Hughes' masterpiece, not only my favorite teen film but easily now and forever one of my very favorite movies of all time: Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The brilliance of Ferris Bueller is difficult to quantify. Much like Groundhog Day, another film now universally hailed an all-time classic, it was met upon release with pleasant but mild critical response, and on its face seems a fun, whimsical, yet ultimately fairly disposable teen comedy. It certainly doesn't have the technical and aesthetic innovation or brilliantly elaborate story and characters of other masterpieces like Citizen Kane or Chinatown or Star Wars — but it is brilliant, and it is a masterpiece, make no mistake, and there are more interesting concepts percolating under the surface than may be initially evident, starting with the unusual divide between protagonist and who the story is really about.

Our protagonist is of course Ferris Bueller; impossibly suave, ultra-charming, devil-may-care Ferris Bueller. As someone who strongly prefers my teen protagonists to be geeks and oddballs and underdogs, such as in the previously mentioned Karate Kid or Superbad and of course Freaks & Geeks, Ferris outwardly seems like the last person I would ever root for. He's the most popular and most cool and least unhappy high schooler on earth; the world is his oyster. But while Ferris is our protagonist, the story isn't truly about him. He's less a man than a superhuman avatar for coolness, a god who walks among us, and the gods rarely underwent character development in Greek mythology either.

No, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is in fact the story of one Cameron Frye, and he is (initially) everything Ferris is not: unhappy, uptight, nervous, perpetually ill, mistrusted by his parents, full of bottled rage at his lot in life. And while Ferris is the engine that propels the plot along, it is Cameron who takes the Hero's Journey during their day-long jaunt through Chicago; far from being Ferris's straight man as a lesser filmmaker might have doomed him to, Cameron (along with one other character we'll discuss later) is the one who undergoes a rich and thorough character development and slays his own personal antagonist in the end.

We meet Cameron in his grey, clinical tomb of a home, convincing himself that he's deathly ill so that he can feel something. He's a wretch, the most pathetic character of John Hughes' career. But then, initially against Cameron's will, his superhuman best friend whisks him away to see the view from atop the Sears Tower, a game at Wrigley Field, the priceless works of the Art Institute of Chicago, a downtown parade, and Sloane Peterson naked, and in doing so Cameron emerges from his shell, confronts his inner demons, and acknowledges the beauty that life holds, quietly but honestly admitting at the end that he's just had the best day of his life. "Save Ferris" is a visual logo repeated many times throughout the film, ironically reflecting the entire reason Ferris organized his day off: to Save Cameron.

"All I wanted to do was give him a good day," Ferris confides to the camera, and it's true. The first-time viewer could be forgiven for interpreting the titular character to be the story's center, but upon further analysis it becomes clear that the grand ulterior motive of Ferris Bueller's miniature vacation is not leisure, but the exorcism of Cameron Frye's demons, an epic task that only a living god like Ferris would dare undertake. Fame, fortune, love, and lauding all come easy to a deity, so perhaps saving a person's very soul is the only true challenge that remains.

Coming back to aesthetics, one fascinating aspect of the film which I briefly mentioned above is its lack of a fourth wall — for Ferris, anyway. Like many other films where the protagonist addresses the camera, only the protagonist addresses the camera; no other character speaks to or acknowledges it, but at the same time, they never seem to find it unusual when Ferris turns to and addresses what they see as an empty spot in the air. It's best not to dwell too long on the logistics of it, you'll get a headache.

But while Ferris Bueller's Day Off isn't the first and sure as hell isn't the only movie to have the protagonist address the camera — Woody Allen occasionally did so in Annie Hall about a decade beforehand — no other film has ever put this device to such consistently brilliant use. Ferris's monologues are witty and glib but never superfluous; he speaks to the camera to enhance our knowledge of the characters (usually Cameron), or spin our perspective on events ("I asked for a car, I got a computer. How's that for being born under a bad sign?"), or, in the classic opening minutes, explain his foolproof plan for faking out your parents, complete with onscreen graphics.

The film is also unique in the way it plays with the conventions of pacing. Teen comedies aren't usually known for their languid pace, and like the rest of the pack, Ferris Bueller keeps things snappy and never stays in one place too long (hell, the dialogue starts over the opening company logos and the film continues with new scenes straight through the entire end credits and beyond!). But in a film loaded with classic scene after classic scene (who could ever forget Ferris's impersonation of Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago, in order to gain access to a glitzy restaurant, or the economics teacher's oblivious role call of "Bueller? ... Bueller? ... Bueller?"), two of the most iconic and immortal moments seem outwardly superfluous and fly defiantly in the face of generic "three jokes per page!" comedy screenwriting conventions.

In the first, Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane stop by the Art Institute of Chicago, and the movie pauses for a few minutes, dispensing with dialogue and sound effects and leaving only the dreamy, symphonic score to accompany Ferris as he and his friends absorb the most beautiful paintings and sculpture in the world. Eventually, Cameron splits off from the group and stands transfixed before Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte for nearly a full minute, looking deep into the pointillism until, like the fragments of his life, it no longer makes sense. It's a scene of overwhelming power and beauty that I don't think would have made it off the pages of the screenplay in a teen comedy of this day and age.

In the film's next major set piece, Ferris, flabbergasted by Cameron's claims that he remains unmoved by all he's seen, hijacks a downtown parade float to dedicate a cheesy lip synch of Danke Schoen to "a young man who doesn't think he's seen anything good today — Cameron Frye, this one's for you." In the real world, a high school student faking a deathly illness to skip school might want to avoid getting up on a stage surrounded by millions of Chicagoans, TV cameras, photographers, and the mayor, but of course Ferris Bueller has ascended beyond such earthly logic. It's not that he has a work-around, it just simply can't touch him.

Ferris then drives Chicago into an orgasmic frenzy by leading them in a rousing rendition of Twist and Shout. It serves no narrative purpose and contains no comedy per se, yet at the same time it's one of the most staggeringly perfect scenes in the long annals of the medium; if you were to ask me what scene in all of film best encapsulates "pure joy," you would have to look no further, and it's a flawless counterpoint for the more subdued, ethereal beauty of the museum sequence.

As far as antagonists, the movie has three, two highly visible and one more subtle and insidious. The most colorful, widely recognized, and conventional bad guy is Ferris Bueller's nemesis, Edward R. Rooney, Dean of Students. He's every inch the flamboyant movie villain, complete with a henchman (Grace the secretary), nefarious plots (spying on the Bueller house), and evil monologues ("Fifteen years from now when [Ferris] looks back on the ruin his life's become, he is going to remember Edward Rooney."), but in contrast to John Hughes' other gratuitously evil high school principal, Richard Vernon of The Breakfast Club, he's an absolute buffoon. He's humiliated, outsmarted, and browbeaten, sprayed with soda, chewed on by a Rottweiler, loses his shoe, loses his keys, loses his car, loses his wallet, and is made to look the doofus at every turn.

And this contrast makes sense — after all, what is the key operating principle of The Breakfast Club? Angst, of course, extending to the angsty horizon as far the eye can angst. Ergo, Principal Vernon is meant to embody all the worst aspects of every teacher we hated in middle and high school into one nightmarish human being, a condescending, smugly superior, threatening, quasi-violent authoritarian asshole, someone we (and by "we," I mean sixteen-year-olds) can look at and feel the waves of angst wash over us. Principal Vernon is "UGH! I HATE MY TEACHER!" ensconced in flesh. Ed Rooney, on the other hand, is part of a more joyous film and his sole purpose is to be laughed at. His hellish day is our revenge on every teacher we resented in childhood. And curiously, it's not Ferris Bueller who finally defeats Rooney in the end (Ferris only thinks about Rooney in the terms of how best to avoid him), but our second antagonist, Jeannie Bueller.

Like Cameron, Jeannie is full of barely-concealed rage at her parents and her station in life, rage which begins bubbling to the surface as early as the first scene of the movie. Even though she got a car while Ferris got a computer, she perceives Mr. & Mrs. Bueller as loving her brother more, and she alone has noticed that her brother is a living god who doesn't have to operate on the same playing field as everyone else. Fuming at the end of a school hallway, she mentally rants: "Why should he get to do whatever he wants? Why should everything work out for him? What makes him so goddamn special?!", before capping it off by growling aloud, "Screw him." So she ditches school to prove that her shithead brother is ditching school (with the sheer irony of the scenario never crossing her mind).

What makes Jeannie Bueller interesting is that her story is basically a fifteen-minute short film divided up throughout Ferris Bueller's runtime, only intermittently and occasionally crossing paths with the other main characters. She has her own antagonist, her own conflict, her own journey, her own love interest, her own character growth, and her own conclusion, all delivered in short, satisfying bursts. This being a John Hughes teen film, the kids are savvy while the adults languish in utter uselessness, so of course Jeannie proves that Ferris is ditching school by the movie's midpoint (something that Rooney is never able to do), but before she can inform the world, she perceives Rooney spying on the Bueller household to be a burglar, gets trapped in her own home, and winds up in a police station.

It's here that Jeannie meets the accurately-named Boy in Police Station, played by Charlie Sheen. Over the course of about two scenes, he attempts to psychoanalyze her. She rejects his dimestore analysis at first, but her defenses soon break down, and the gentle person inside is revealed as she realizes what's really important in life. Like Darth Vader, Jeannie is redeemed, and reverts to the side of good (even giving herself the alternate name of "Shauna" to Charlie Sheen, reminiscent of how Vader again became Anakin upon his redemption). In the end Jeannie comes to Ferris's rescue and vanquishes their mutual enemy of Edward R. Rooney for good.

But, much like how many viewers don't recognize that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is truly about Cameron Frye, not Ferris, many don't recognize that the true villain of the picture is not the bumbling, inept Ed Rooney, but in fact a different character, one with no actor, no face, no screentime, and no dialogue, but whose fell touch is always unmistakably present. I speak of Morris Frye, Cameron's unseen father.

Mr. Frye's cold, angry, detached means of fatherhood are what have driven Cameron to become the sickly, self-loathing creature we meet at the beginning of the film. Morris hates his wife, he neglects his son, and in their place his one true love has become his red Ferrari GT California, which Ferris and Cameron steal in the film's first act to rescue Sloane from the high school.

We only have little bits and pieces of Morris Frye related to us — his house is like a museum; very cold and very beautiful, and you aren't allowed to touch anything, he went ballistic when Cameron broke his retainer, he can't stand his wife, he loves his car more than life itself — but it is Morris who has broken Cameron. Every time Cameron expresses his cynicism, his fear, and his desire to get home and end the day off as quickly as possible, Morris can be felt. His influence looms like a dark shadow across the entire film; the Bueller Crew's own private Sauron.

And so, while Ferris's mad dash to beat his parents home and final victory over Edward R. Rooney is humorous, it's all extended dénouement to the film's true climax, which occurs when Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron sit by the garage with the Ferrari, waiting for the miles to roll off the odometer as they spin the wheels backwards. When it doesn't work, Cameron finally snaps, and, mentally substituting the GT California for his father and seventeen years of neglect, attacks with impunity, kicking the shit out of the car, bending in the hood, smashing the headlights, caving in the bumper, while screaming "Who do you love?! Who do you love?! You love a car!!"

Of course, Cameron famously knocks the car (in high-speed reverse) off its jack, and it plummets through the garage window into the ravine below, reduced to scrap metal. Now, I doubt the absolute destruction of the car was ever in Ferris Bueller's game plan for the day, but it has the desired effect. The beast is slain. And, contrary to everything we've learned about him, Cameron smiles, having seen the beauty in life and realized what's truly important. Freed from his sorrow and fear, he simply states that he's looking forward to having a little chat when Morris gets home, tacking on a sentence Cameron has probably never said before in his life: "It's going to be good."

Sure, Cameron was probably grounded all summer, but he's a new and improved person for the next six to eight decades after that. The redemption is complete, and both Ferris and Cameron win.

Now, I've barely even scraped the surface of why Ferris Bueller's Day Off is one of the greatest movies ever made. I hardly mentioned the film's perfectly integrated soundtrack (especially Yellow's Oh Yeah, which will forever be known as "the Ferris Bueller song" in my mind). Or how, despite a career filled almost entirely with nebbishy losers regardless of the genre and quality of the movie or show in question (WarGames, Election, Godzilla, The Producers, 30 Rock, and many, many more), Matthew Broderick brilliantly embodies cool in a way few other actors in history have ever even approached. Or the fact that every other line would be the singular highlight of virtually any other screenplay.

But everything can be summed up by saying that it's one of cinema's finest achievements; funny, charming, endlessly quotable, and much deeper than it appears at first glance. John Hughes had an illustrious career, but high on the shoulders of National Lampoon's Vacation, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Pretty In Pink, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Home Alone, and even The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off stands alone.

5 Stars out of 5

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Food, Inc.

Here's an interesting, under-the-radar documentary I'd recommend checking out: Food, Inc. Despite good reviews, I was a bit hesitant going in for two reasons. One, I hated, just hated the last documentary I saw about food, Morgan Spurlock's juvenile, simplistic, grotesquely overrated Super Size Me, a feature-length movie that seriously followed a man eating three enormous meals from McDonald's everyday for a month and then behaved as if him gaining weight and feeling sickly was some kind of fucking revelation.

And two, I was worried it was going to be a vegan pep rally rehashing the same footage of chickens getting manhandled and abused and roosting in shit. I take no joy in the animals we eat being abused, but I've already seen all those videos online just like everyone else. And yes, Food, Inc. does dedicate one of its many chapters to this issue (and rather than just finger-pointing, also highlights solutions and profiles a successful farmer who uses alternative humane methods), but it's otherwise an interesting and comprehensive analysis of a corrupt industry. This is the good kind of documentary, the kind you'll almost certainly learn shit from.

It has the structure of a nonfiction book; rather than trying to tie each topic together into one long loosely-flowing narrative, it's divided into several marked and distinct chapters, each detailing a different aspect of food industry corruption. Through research and interviews the film sheds light on the degree of contamination food companies will let slip by for increased profits, the legal power of these companies and how they ruthlessly clean out those who speak ill of their foods or farmers who violate their ludicrously broad copyrights, and how they take advantage of illegal labor and cronyism and corporate loopholes to maximize profits and insulate themselves from recourse.

But for me the film's most interesting chapter was about fast food, that very same topic that Morgan Spurlock dipped so shallowly into five years ago. Using a giant $1.00 burger and $1.29 head of lettuce as examples, it details how government subsidies make fast food extremely cheap while healthy food remains expensive and how they use this system to prey on the lower class. For anyone curious about the outward paradox of how poor people seem more likely to be overweight than the wealthy, this movie answers that query in elaborate detail.

The film's presentation is polished and professional, the scope comprehensive, and the material well-researched and relevant. Also, rather than just pure anger-stroking, it offers solutions to nearly every problem it presents. It's out of theaters everywhere except the biggest cities, but it's definitely worth checking out via Netflix once available, even if you already know all about animal abuse.

3 Stars out of 5

Monday, August 3, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a movie that hasn't gotten an objective critique from either side of the aisle — the critics all seemed predisposed to hate it, while the Michael Bay fanboys were all too busy drinking Red Bull while high fiving and jerking each other off in the theater. Contrary to what either side would have you believe, it is neither a cinematic hate crime nor one of the best action movies of the year, or the summer (although it was probably the best action movie the weekend it came out).

It is, in fact, the most mediocre movie ever made; a new high watermark for halfheartedly putting forth the bare minimum of story to be palatable while painting it with as many computer graphics as humanly possible. Since it's more special effects reel than legitimate movie, I figure I don't need to write a legitimate review, so instead I'll just list the top five things I liked and top five things I hated about it. By the way, I'm just going to spoil everything because I don't give a shit, so if the plot of this Shakespearian opus actually matters to you, don't read any further.

Top five things I liked about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen:

5. In one scene, Shia LaBeouf gets into an argument with two generic popped-collar 'roided-out frat boys, and sarcastically recommends that one of them get a tighter shirt. The oblivious bro proudly shouts, "There isn't a tighter shirt, we checked!" This made me guffaw like a drunken moron.

4. Megan Fox's hotness has kind of become a cliché, but her bare, sweat-dappled flesh is pretty much the only thing Michael Bay contains his OCD for long enough to focus on for more than three seconds at a time without cutting, and she's by far the best special effect he has to work with. If she ever gets naked in a movie, I will go see that movie. Oh yes, I will see that movie.

3. The first Transformers had about eight bullshit subplots with all the boring-ass human characters it cut between (several of which never even had any resolution; the last time we saw that annoying blonde hacker and Anthony Anderson was when they were fighting in the final battle!), but Revenge of the Fallen pretty much pares things down to Shia LaBeouf and his unit, the soldiers, and the Decepticons. Much less shitty and annoying.

2. In both the single stupidest and single most entertaining plot element of the movie, a Decepticon disguises itself as a hot human college chick so it can get close enough to Shia to kill him. This is mind-numbingly stupid because if the Decepticons had this technology they would just flood the world's militaries and governments with thousands of these dopplegangers, but entertaining because it reminded me of Terminator.

1. Near the midpoint of the movie they kill off Optimus Prime! I love when movies and shows kill off main characters like that, and it temporarily tricked me into thinking I was watching a good movie.

Top five things I hated about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen:

5. In the world of the movie, the Transformers are now a rumored myth whispered of by few who are written off by the rest of civilization as crackpot conspiracy theorists. Correct me if I'm wrong, but at the end of the first movie I could have sworn there was a giant thirty-minute melee in a large American city between all the Autobots and all the Decepticons, flinging humans around, climbing buildings, throwing cars, brawling up and down the streets. So, uh, no one busted out their cell phone camera and recorded this? And none of the million or so witnesses told any of their friends or colleagues about the giant robot melee? Right then.

4. Although there are thankfully less of them this time around, the human characters all continue to be token exposition machines to lead us from robot battle to robot battle. There's this really shitty and embarrassing subplot between Shia and Megan Fox where Megan Fox is upset that after two years Shia still hasn't been able to tell her he loves her. Eventually he does, which is cringe-inducing, but on the other hand it's the only bit of development any character has in the entire movie besides a little Decepticon dog who falls in love with Megan Fox and turns to the side of good (and humps her leg, hyuck hyuck).

3. Everyone and their grandma has already written about the two twin Autobots who speak with generic black accents and ghetto slang and have gold teeth and can't read and act like goofy shitheads through the entire movie. Yeah, it's probably racist. But my real problem with them was that they were so fucking annoying; Jar Jar Binks-annoying, although fortunately they didn't have as high a percentage of screentime. Jar Jar sucks, Dobby sucks, and the Twins suck. Filmmakers should stop attempting CGI comic relief sidekicks forever.

2. One thing you may or may not know about me is that my single greatest fiction pet peeve is bringing dead characters back to life. I want to shoot the TV / movie theater screen and / or throw a book in the fire every time this happens. So imagine my horror in the third act when the characters realize that they can undo the one thing that almost made me like the movie — Optimus Prime dying — with some kind of fucking fairy dust, and fuck me in the ass with a tree branch if they don't do just that. Motherfuckers.

In fact, Michael Bay shows a pathological aversion to killing off a single good guy through the entire film. John Turturro really should have died. He a) was villainous in the first film before redeeming himself in this one, making him a prime candidate for heroic sacrifice, b) has just enough screentime to make his potential death dramatic while not enough to make it a damper on the happy ending, and c) states his willingness to die to stop the Decepticons. But nope, not a single one of the huge cast of good guys dies and stays dead the entire movie. Michael Bay, you are vagine.

1. Aside from Knowing, this movie has the worst, most nonsensical, most exhausting climactic sequence of the year, some forty minutes of Shia LaBeouf running through the desert, a giant Decepticon vacuum cleaner trying to suck up the Twins and John Turturro, soldiers shooting at ambiguous targets, and repetitive robot fighting. It's absolutely awful, such a blaring mess that by the end you're willing to get down on your knees and beg to the screen to let the suffering stop. The entire third act and the climax essentially blur together into one unholy endless clusterfuck. I'm not sure a climax technically even counts as a "climax" if just keeps going and going and going and going and going and going and going.

To add insult to fucking injury, once Shia gets the pixie dust to Optimus Prime and he comes back to life, rather than having a respectable final battle with Megatron, Optimus is now gifted with the holy power and just casually tears Megatron apart in about fifteen tension-free seconds. Oh, screw you, Michael Bay.

All in all, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is like the Cheetos of summer movies. It's sort of entertaining going down, but it makes a mess and you'll feel guilty and bad and a little sick as soon as you're done with it. If they make a third one I'll probably go see it because I'm kind of a dumbass, but if they don't, I'm pretty sure my heart will go on.

2 Stars out of 5