Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)

Directed by: Martin Weisz
Written by: Wes Craven & Jonathan Craven
Starring: Michael McMillian, Jacob Vargas, Jessica Stroup

Color, 90 minutes
Unrated (Originally R)

Grade: C-

Thirty years ago, Wes Craven unleashed The Hills Have Eyes. It has become a modest cult classic, and it even inspired a sequel in 1985. I was never a fan of the films, but unfortunately, I don't get to make the decisions in Hollywood. So, in 2006 we got a remake, directed by the fairly talented, but immature, Alexandre Aja. I wasn't a fan of that film either, in fact I pretty much hated it, but it made money, so now we get the sequel to the remake. Or is that the remake of the sequel? I'm confused. It’s no big deal, they all just kind of blend together anyway. But to be fair, The Hills Have Eyes II (the new one) isn't half bad, not as bad as I thought it would be, and probably not nearly as bad as it should be. Remember what Mel Brooks said about his films? He said that his movies "rise below vulgarity." He was too modest. But that is an accurate description of The Hills Have Eyes II, it's too bad to be any good, but too good to be all that bad. I don't know what's worse, the fact that I didn't hate it, or the fact that I'm actually giving it a minimal amount of credit. You be the judge.

The film opens up two years after the proceedings of its predecessor. The first images we see are of a woman's face, in close-up, moaning and screaming. Get your mind out of the gutter; she's just giving birth, to a mutant baby, that is. Of course, she's chained up, breasts exposed, and covered in dirt, sweat, dried blood and various forms of grime. A mutant, inbred, Quasimodo looking guy, presumably the father, stands over top of her, impatiently waiting. Finally, he's had enough, he walks over and yanks the baby out, stares at it, lovingly touches its face, and then beats the mother to death. I'd hate to think how a caesarean would have went over. Anyway, you kind of know what you're in for here. If you don't shut the film off in disgust, throw the remote in anger, or vomit after this scene, then the rest of the film will be a breeze. From here, we go to a group of National Guard trainees who are on an assignment to deliver some goods to a bunch of scientists stationed in New Mexico's mysterious Sector 16, the nuclear testing ground that the inbreeds call home. Upon arrival, the ethnically diverse (and stereotypically written and portrayed), men and women of the Guard find the base empty, with not a soul in sight. Signs of a single survivor come over the walkie-talkie, and the group makes their way up the rocky cliffs to find him. You can guess what happens next. The mutants lure the soldiers in, and pick them off, one by one, until the final showdown. But, we do get some interesting moments, such as a man being found in a port-a-pottie, a soldier being sucked into a hole by a mutant, his exposed leg bending until it's shattered, and the classy image of a female soldier who is kidnapped while taking a leak. It's a lot of fun.

So why do I give it such a low grade? Simple, the movie is idiotic. Yes, the movie is fun in a dirty, masochistic sort of way, but it's idiotic nonetheless. Unlike the 2006 remake, this film has the unfortunate luck (some would say good luck) to have Wes Craven as a screenwriter. He actually wrote the script with his son Jonathan (obviously not learning from his father's mistakes), and the father and son team indulge in the usual amateurish tendencies that have plagued every film the elder Craven has ever done. The plot is wafer thin, borrowing from nearly every popular horror film that came before it, the characters are practically none existent (with the exception of the usual stereotypes), and the typical shock tactics are the kind that stopped being scary forty years ago. The dialogue is ideal for sixth graders, with such gems as "Who the fuck asked you, peace-ass shit boy?" and "I killed someone... it was easy, that's why it's so dangerous." Very nice. Craven's worst attribute, however, isn't his story or his characters or even his tin ear, it's his complete and total lack of suspense. He is totally inept at shaping a scene, letting it breathe, drawing an audience in, and then truly shocking us. He relies on rapid violence to get his message across, and for that reason, his movies, including this one, are forgettable.

I'm picking on Craven, obviously, and maybe I should spread the blame around a little bit. He didn't direct this movie, Martin Weisz did. Who is Martin Weisz? Don't ask me, I've never heard of the guy before this. Apparently he is a famous music video and commercial director (aren't they all?) who has been given his shot at the big time with this film. Don't quit your day job, pal. Weisz's direction is all over the place, going back and forth from bland and routine camera set-ups to attention grabbing, imitation Peckinpah slow-motion photography. At times, it seems as if he really gets a kick out of what he's doing, and then there are moments where he was obviously snoozing on the job. One gets the feeling that Craven and the other producers weren't happy with elements of the picture, and asked for re-shoots. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy, who has done great work with director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers), is wasted here, and it's a real shame. A desert setting should be open season to talented photographers, but McCurdy's work is strictly by the numbers. The acting isn't out to leave an impact either, which seems to be par for most of the horror genre today. We get the pansy guy (Michael McMillian) who turns out to be a hero, the hot blond (Jessica Stroup) whose makeup never seems to get smudged (no matter how much dust, shit, water, and blood is splattered on her face), and the hardass (the usually quite good Jacob Vargas) who sees himself as a cross between Tony Montana and John Rambo. Drama students should look elsewhere for role models.

All in all, the movie is what it is: a cheesy, violent, at times distasteful, horror film. It has all the usual horror hallmarks: the thumb in the eye socket, a head bashed repeatedly with a rock, and the slicing of the Achilles tendon. I could rag on the fact that the one liberal in the film is relegated to guarding a portable shitter, but I'll let it slide. Looking for political subtext here is like saying that Transformers is some sort of existential treatise on how technology ends up biting us in the ass. No go. This is a film full of schlock and gore that revels in it's own bad taste. The first rule of film criticism is to go into a movie with an open mind. I've never been too good at following rules, and obviously being exposed to this sort of material before, I had my expectations, and they were very low. The film exceeded them (they had nowhere to go but up), so I cut it a little slack. But this is the last time, I swear. If I ever have to sit through another mutant rape scene (or any rape scene really), I'm going to pitch a fit. You've been warned, Hollywood. The Hills Have Eyes II is a cheap, exploitive film, but I was mildly entertained, even though I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was set in the jungle and called Predator.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Transformers (2007)

Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, John Rogers
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson

Color, 144 minutes
Rated PG-13

Grade: C+

Michael Bay has been polluting the cinematic world for well over a decade now. His films have gone from bad (Bad Boys) to worse (The Island), and he’s established himself as a sort of modern day Edward D. Wood Jr., albeit one with far more money in his wallet, and far less passion in his heart. But Bay may have found his niche. His latest, and greatest, hack-attack is Transformers, arguably the longest and most stylish car commercial ever committed to celluloid, based on the (somehow) extremely popular toy line. Transformers is a film for the children of the 1980’s. It’s a veritable love letter to all of those who don’t want to grow up, who want to be Toys “R” Us kids forever, and on that level, the film succeeds. For everyone else, though, the film is a chore.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is your average teenager. He’s anything but popular, he’s desperately saving up for his first car, and he has a crush on local hottie, Mikaela (Megan Fox). His parents (played wonderfully by Kevin Dunn and Julie White) are obviously well to do, but they are trying to teach Sam the value of a dollar. He has to raise $2,000 for a car, and, if he does so, his Dad will match him dollar for dollar. Because he apparently doesn’t have a job, Sam has resorted to selling some of the artifacts left over from his great-great-grandfather’s days as a famous explorer. What Sam doesn’t know however, is that his grandpappy’s spectacles have been etched with the coordinates of the “Allspark,” a giant cube that a bunch of alien robots are desperately trying to find. Oblivious to the fact that the fate of the world lies in his hands, Sam is finally able to get himself a car: a rusted out canary yellow Z-28. There’s something wrong, though, and Sam’s car starts acting kind of funky. It runs though, and it gets him where he wants to go, notably a lame party near a lake where Sam tries his damnedest to impress Mikaela. Her jock boyfriend gets in the way and Sam retreats. Mikaela, pissed at her boyfriend for being a jerk, hits the road and begins the long walk home. All of a sudden, Sam’s Camaro starts blasting out The Cars’ “Drive” (nice touch), and the young man seizes his chance. He persuades Mikaela to get in the car, and slowly, the mismatched pair begins the long process of falling in love.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a US military base is under attack by vehicles gone haywire. A helicopter transforms into a giant robot and lays waste to everything in sight. The few remaining survivors, led by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson, manage to flee the area, only to find their lives threatened by a massive mechanical scorpion. The Pentagon gets word of this and the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight, pretty much parodying himself) has resorted to some extreme measures: hiring a bunch of amateur techno-freaks to figure out just what kind of force they’re up against. In the middle of all this deliberation, a boom box on Air Force One turns into an annoying spider looking thing that hacks through the defense network, and locates the whereabouts of Sam and his antique spectacles. Then all hell breaks loose. A rogue police car stalks and attacks Sam in a parking garage. What looks like the end for Sam turns into a day of discovery when his Camaro transforms into Bumblebee, a gentle but strong robot who communicates through his radio. Bumblebee saves Sam’s life, and then sends out a beacon (kind of like the Bat-Signal that Commissioner Gordon uses) to his fellow Autobots (good guys), led by the incredibly boring Peterbilt truck, Optimus Prime. With the Autobots’ help, Sam must retrieve the spectacles and find the Allspark before the Decepticons (bad guys), ran by the evil Megatron (voiced quite unintelligibly by Hugo Weaving), beat them to the punch.

Yeah, there’s quite a bit of plot for a movie based on a bunch of action figures, but it’s all in vain. After an enjoyable first half, the film disintegrates into nothing more than scenes of robots blowing shit up. The special effects are great and all, but there is nothing under the surface, and there sure as hell isn’t more than meets the eye to these robots. Can you really care about a bunch of machines that are practically indistinguishable from each other? Children probably will, and most of them will love this film, but adults will have their fill and start to yawn. The bulk of the cast does nothing to help matters, and most of them are nothing short of horrible. Megan Fox is your typical window dressing and eye candy; she’s nice on the eyes, but hell on the ears. Duhamel and Gibson are pretty boys that are in good shape, and they’ll most likely please some of the female crowd. Voight is one note, as he has been since the late ’70’s, and John Turturro shows up to prove that he can act badly too. The dialogue, courtesy of writers Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, famous for their work with J.J. Abrams (another hack of all trades) is as infantile as you would expect, and Bay’s direction is as flashy (and useless) as usual. But to his credit, this is the right material for him. As much as I could (and should) dog on this film, I’m going to let quite a bit slide, it is about giant alien robots after all. No, Bay still has no sense of pacing or suspense (one would think that Co-Producer Steven Spielberg could have helped out in that department), but he knows exactly how to utilize slow motion, and there was, at least, one time when I muttered to myself, under my breath of course, the word “Sweet.” Heretical, I know, but I couldn’t help it.

When you really get down to it, though, there is one reason, and one reason only, to sit through this film: Shia LaBeouf. The kid is fantastic, and his scenes in the beginning of the film have an almost domestic comedy feel to them that is extremely enjoyable. Remember Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti and Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? That’s LaBouf here. He is the perfect audience surrogate, bringing to mind, not only Dreyfuss, but also Jack Lemmon, Tom Hanks, and even Jimmy Stewart. He has a wide-eyed sense of wonder and curiosity that’s perfect for his role, but he’s also quick-witted, charming, intelligent, and natural. Now, I’m certainly not going to complain about the fact that Megan Fox knows exactly the right moments to arch her back and stick out her ass, but girls like her are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. Talent like LaBeouf is extremely rare. If you’re going to see this film, see it for him.

There are other problems: The focus on Chevy emblems is hard to swallow (although a transforming Mountain Dew vending machine is possibly the most clever product placement since Spielberg used Reese’s Pieces in E.T.), and a distasteful image of Megatron, in jet form, cutting a building in half brings back painful memories of 9/11. But most should be forgiven here, I mean, let’s face it; the Transformers toys and cartoons were dumb when I was a kid, you can’t really expect the movie to be much better. This is a movie made for juveniles, by juveniles, nothing more. Try to keep that in the back of your mind while keeping your eyes on LaBeouf, and you might have a decent enough time, just don’t try and justify it to yourself.

Monday, July 2, 2007


Written & Directed by: Michael Moore

Color, 113 minutes
Rated PG-13

Grade: A

The cell phones are put on vibrate, the audience finally shuts up, and the lights go down on Sicko, Michael Moore's scathing attack on the American health care system. In the past, I have laughed along with Moore's films. Sure, he's made me think, and made me angry. He has a special way of compiling so many obvious truths together that we can't help but be overcome, and his use of satire often outweighs the scarier moments, but Sicko is different monster. Yes, many people will laugh, they will find the irony and the hypocrisy, and they will enjoy their two hours. Some will laugh just because Moore himself is such a character, and some will laugh because that's the only way they know how to deal with the things that are put on display. But me, I didn't laugh. Ten minutes into the film, a devastating and unshakable feeling of sadness came over me. Not just for the nearly 50 million American citizens that don't have health insurance, but for all of us. To be honest, Moore doesn't present anything new or revolutionary with this film, he simply lays it out for all to see, and by the end of the film, I was emotionally spent. This is one of the most frightening, heartbreaking, utterly hopeless experiences that I've ever had watching a film. And I'm all the more thankful for it.

The first 30 minutes or so focus on stories of individuals, some covered by insurance, some not. We see one terrifying incident after another: accidentally losing two fingers to a table saw, a man has to choose which finger to have reattached; middle finger for $60,000 or ring finger for $12,000. Which do you think he chose? Parents, with a little girl going deaf, are manhandled and told that a cochlear implant for two ears is "experimental," they'll have to settle for one. A woman, who works for a hospital, fights for cancer treatment that could potentially save her husband's life. Each form of treatment is refused, because they too are considered "experimental," even though they are all FDA approved. Her husband dies. Another woman rushes her infant daughter to the hospital after a fever induced seizure. The E.R. refuses treatment, because her insurance only covers certain hospitals. Her baby goes into cardiac arrest, and dies. A Southern California hospital begins treatment on their homeless patients, reconsiders, and then puts them in a cab and leaves them, still in hospital gowns, abandoned on a sidewalk in front of the nearest homeless shelter. Are you starting to see a pattern emerge here? And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Moore, ever willing to pound his point further and further into our heads, visits Canada, France, England, and even Cuba just to show how inept and greedy America has become. We see how these countries benefit from Universal health care (a.k.a. "Socialized medicine"), and we see just how hard America has fought to keep us from becoming like them. Everything comes into play: drug companies, HMO's, Nixon, Reagan, Bush (Sr. and Jr.), Hillary Clinton, and even the American Medical Association. The oppressors spring up like a hydra, with heads involved in all aspects of government, virtually impossible to defeat. Every person in a powerful position has his or her price, and there is always enough money to throw around. The verdict is clear: health care in this country is nothing but an ever-growing stream of broken promises, paper trails, and lives lost unnecessarily. We've become a crumbling nation, one that is afraid, ignorant, and completely unsympathetic towards its citizens.

Sure, Moore knows how to spin, skip, and manipulate things to fit his artistic vision. We don't really need the close-ups of children, balling their eyes out, saying goodbye to their father who is leaving for a construction job in Iraq. We could do without the use of a certain bit of music from Platoon in a scene where a doctor testifies before Congress, saying that she essentially killed a man by denying him service in order to save the HMO a little bit of money. Taking 9/11 rescue workers, who were refused care because they were "volunteers," to Guantanamo Bay to ask for treatment is there simply to cram the irony down our throats, and we shouldn't forget that the foreign hospitals that Moore visits are very aware that there are cameras in front of their faces. They will obviously want to look good. Regardless of these complaints, I believe the film succeeds simply because there is so much truth and heartache from real people treated horribly, horribly wrong by the system.

To Moore's own credit, though, this is his most mature work to date. He plays it cool most of the time, letting images and stories unfold naturally. Yes, his voice over narration is always right around the corner with another smart-ass comment, but it's actually needed here. Without it, the proceedings would be nearly unbearable to sit through as frightening as they are. His voice, and presence, becomes a welcome addition, because it's essential to have a few light moments here and there. As an interviewer, he's less fierce than usual, he doesn't set out to make anyone look like an idiot, he knows this material is above that. Even though he ends the film on an egotistical note, his soapbox is not nearly as high off the ground this time. He wants this film to be accessible to everyone, and it is. Moore doesn't have the subtlety and patience of someone like Errol Morris, and because of this, he has to resort to more entertaining methods. They may be a bit much at times, but, more often than not, they work. Personally, I have enjoyed all of his documentaries, but this is his greatest achievement by far.

Some will not want to see this film, because of Moore's former excursions, but I ask you to look past that and reconsider. This isn't a political issue, it isn't a monetary issue, it's basic human rights. We should all see this film, not just for ourselves, but for our children and loved ones. Some of us are lucky, we haven't yet been treated unfairly by the health care system, but many of us out there are not as fortunate. Those individuals need a voice, and Moore is it. Take two hours, spend ten dollars, and put yourself in someone else's shoes for a while. You may not like what you see, but your life will be better because of it. Amen to that.