Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cobbled Together

Okay, I know I said I was done with the recommendation titles for a while, and my Horrible Bosses review was a step in that direction. But despite there being a bevy of titles awaiting me in the local theaters (A Better Life, Winnie the Pooh, Friends with Benefits, Captain America: The First Avenger), I was thwarted by my worst nemesis: my schedule. I just haven't had the time to get away this past week, and this nice little heat wave is certainly doing me no favors by confronting my departure from air conditioned environs with a solid wave of hot. No civilized creature should have to trek out in the open, and if you don't understand where I'm coming from I'm not sure you ever can (I got some choice scorchings while visiting family in Florida recently, so I think I have a good idea what amount of heat the human body can handle). It has been a terror, though hopefully a mix of lighter temperatures plus a more beneficial schedule will open up my out-of-the-apartment questing in the near future. Until then, it's another dip into the bag with 2003's Secondhand Lions. I briefly remember when this film was released, as it carried top-tier talent such as Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, not the mention a post-peak appearance by one-time Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osmet. But it was far from the center of my attention (as was the case for most people) and I didn't bother with it. Enter my friend Anne who recently has made it her duty to expand my cinematic horizons. And so this film makes its way back into my immediate perimeter, with a plot that includes drama, laughs and wildlife of both the two and four-legged variety.

Yeah, this is kinda what Florida was like...
When young Walter (Osmet) is forced by his absentee mother to spend the summer with her two uncles Hub (Duvall) and Garth (Caine) at their isolated Texas ranch, he is as miserable as they are to have him suddenly thrust on them without warning. Worse, his mother wants him to spy on her reclusive uncles, since it's rumored that the two are filthy rich my unknown means. Walter has been seeded to root out and discover where the two old men keep their money, but the boy doesn't want anything to do with his mother's treacherous ways. He just wants to get the summer over with, but before he does, he will learn the secret history of his family, a story his great uncles have never told anyone in decades.

The best friends a country bumpkin could have
Much of Secondhand Lions is not unlike a fairy tale, where a boy is transported to a magical land and learns much about life and living through the experiences he encounters. Such is as it is for Walter, whose uncles could hardly be called normal. Hub and Garth are an odd duo; they stake out their front porch with shotguns waiting to pepper the vehicles of traveling salesmen who would enter their property, build (and fly) antique biplanes and perform stunts, and purchase their own formerly-owned African animals to host a hunt on their land. That's interesting enough, but everything really gets your attention when Garth begins to tell Walter about their past, which are not all that different from the best parts of my favorite Tim Burton film Big Fish. Using parody of old-school comics like Prince Valiant, Garth tells of a much younger Hub who joins the French Foreign Legion and can battle thirty men at once. These flashbacks are hardly top of the line, but they are different enough from the rest of the film to be appropriately dream-like, which is good since we're never secure in the knowledge of whether they are accurate of fictional until the very end. Even the modern-day scenery has a bit of far-away land in it, as the ranch feels alien to any who've never lived in the middle of nowhere. This is especially true when the more fantastical creatures begin to inhabit the corn stalks.

Sure, my brother's English, but what else is new?
The cast are certainly a lively bunch, keeping in step with the constantly-shifting boundaries of the story. Osmet is a bit past his prime (odd to say about someone born seven years after me) and barely hanging on to the "cute kid" image that made him a household name in The Sixth Sense, made just four years earlier. His voice is starting to change, he's awkward in both right and wrong ways, and like it or not you likely won't see him in these roles anymore. At least he seems to be hanging around in the voice acting biz, hopefully ensuring that his career doesn't entirely emulate the Frankie Muniz route. Robert Duvall continues to prove himself as a compelling actor, as even a relatively lesser role here is beefed up by his not inconsiderable talents. Though he is portrayed as being larger than life, Hub never becomes so inhuman that he's unbelievable, which can be attributed to Duvall's ability to make any character remarkably human. Of all the characters, he is the one that best carries the film. Michael Caine might seem like an odd casting choice for the role of a Texan farmer, but then again, he's Michael Caine. His career choices might not have always been at their peak (I'm thinking On Deadly Ground, but there's plenty to choose from), but he's also fricking Michael Caine. He can act his ass off when he tries, and while he's not at his best here, he does do better than most actual American actors would have done in the same role. Acting as the film's narrator for much of the story, his steady tenor instills even more fairy tale into the story, which is probably why he was cast in the first place.

Arguing over who should get top billing on this production...
If there's fault with Secondhand Lions, it is the film's trend toward schmaltz as an art form, creating some of the stickiest sap known to man. This is I'm sure in part to the feature film inexperience of the man in charge, Tim McCanlies, who also wrote the screenplay. Known more as a television screenwriter, McCanlies has had few opportunities to stand out as a film director (anyone who can even name another McCanlies movie might be immediately congratulated and abandoned), and while his work here isn't at all bad, one must wonder if this is in fact the high water mark of his talent. Like Osmet's chances of another Academy Award nomination, McCanlies might never get any better than this, and while Secondhand Lions is GOOD, it's a title that is carried by the strengths of its cast and storytelling that greatly evokes a sense of wonder, while its intangibles feel a bit creaky and well-worn, like a bridge about to collapse beneath your feet. In the end, Secondhand Lions is not unlike the surprise the brothers receive when they open that animal-containing crate: good and a lot of fun, but not the way you imagined it would be. If you want a fun, cheap film to see, look no further.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Every Worker's Fantasy

That's right! Even though I'm a little behind on the new releases, Mr. Anderson is back in theaters! Anyone else as excited as me? Hello?

I'll take the cricket chirps as a sign of support.

Anyway, my return to the big screen begins with a film I didn't even know I'd be seeing this year. As I transcribed the comprehensive Summer Movie Preview back in May, Horrible Bosses was barely a blip on my radar. Sure, I knew it starred Jason Bateman, Colin Farrell and the amazingly-talented Kevin Spacey, but there wasn't much more information available than that. No trailers (that I could find) had been released. Sure, it was getting a wide release, but so did Dylan Dog, and look what happened to that one. It wasn't until June that things finally began to come together, and Horrible Bosses actually became a film I wanted to see in theaters, and not just put off for DVD like so many Cedar Rapids. After all, how many of us have had desire for bad things to happen to our less-than-perfect bosses? Sure 99% of us would never do anything about it (I'm watching you 1% closely, you hear?), but here is a film that lets you - even if only a little - see what that experience would be like.

Athos, Porthos and Aramis they ain't
Three friends, Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), hate their jobs. More accurately, they hate their bosses, who do everything in their power to make their lives miserable. Nick, who slaves for insurance company President Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), is passed over for a promotion that he rightly deserves, with Harken taking the job himself. Kurt actually used to love his job working at an industrial warehouse under Jack Pellitt (Donald Sutherland), but when Jack dies from a heart attack, Kurt is stuck working for his son Bobby (Colin Farrell), a lazy, cocaine-addicted good-for-nothing. Dale is engaged to be married, but constantly faces sexual harassment from his man-eater boss Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), who has some compromising photos taken from a time when Dale was drugged into unconsciousness. With the option of getting new jobs not available to the three, they hatch on a plan to murder their evil superiors. Hiring local criminal "Motherfucker" Jones (Jamie Foxx) to consult them on the fine art of assassination, the three embark on a mission many have considered, one few would actually follow through.

Everybody say hey! Everybody say ho!
Obviously Horrible Bosses is meant to be fantasy; that much is obvious. What isn't necessarily obvious is how funny attempted murder can actually be. Seeing Nick, Dale, and Kurt somehow bungling their way through this caper is hilarious, almost feeling as if the cast made it up as they went along. Any good comedian will tell you that great comedy is in your timing, and the direction of the film by Seth Gordon and a great screenplay come together to quickly and unexpectedly derive laughter from the audience with that very skill. Sure, there are the expected jokes that the trailers prepared you for, but thankfully the best stuff wasn't saved for preview audiences, as you're just as surprised by the cracks as you are by where the story goes. While the film goes on a few potty humor binges, it's encouraging that minor themes such as unemployment and sexual harassment are explored to some degree along the story's course. Sure, I don't expect much more than a cursory look, but that it bothers at all is a surprise and does the film all the better.

Don't you hate when Jennifer Aniston does that?
The cast is also a big part of why Horrible Bosses works so well as a comedy, as both heroes and villains have essential roles to play in the film's events. The good guys all have sympathetic goals. Bateman's Nick just wants a fair shake for all the hard work he's done, and while this role isn't a stretch from Bateman's recent work (Paul being an exception), he's still supremely qualified for this role, and makes a good frontman for the film to settle on. Day has wowed some good friends of mine on his FX show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but this was the first chance I've had to see him in a leading role, and that his character of Dale just wants to live in a "rape-free" workplace is unusually endearing, especially since most films would have had Dale as a female character with an overly-amorous male boss. This reverse positioning is really thinking outside the box, and Day makes the character all the more fun with his quirky attitude. Sudeikis is surprisingly good as a straight man, with his more quirky characters (like that in last year's Bounty Hunter) making him look like an extension of his Saturday Night Live career. Fortunately, he makes use of his comedic background while not coming off as a complete caricature in the process, his Kurt just hoping for a return to the workplace that he once loved.

Would you trust this man? They did.
As I mentioned before, the bad guys did some great work, too. Spacey of course was as amazing here as he is in just about everything he's ever done. Sure, he plays no Verbal Kint or Lester Burnham, but he still kills as a jealous, power-hungry psycho, and the film does well situating him as the main villain of the story. Farrell is also good as a smarmy lout, and the actor apparently had a lot to do with the character's creation, to his credit. Farrell is often overlooked when naming great modern actors (not entirely his fault, but hey he tries) but this smaller role is yet another good one. Jennifer Aniston is really the only disappointment, but that's not the actress's fault. While it's great seeing her change pace and take on a completely unlikable character, the role doesn't have as much to do with the main story as Spacey's or Farrell's. This results in an unfortunate imbalance among the film's foils, with Spacey taking up most of the time from Farrell and Aniston, whereas the three good guys have more or less equal playing time. Jamie Foxx slums it up as "Motherfucker" Jones (which leads to some hilarious dialogue). I guess now that he's won that Oscar, he doesn't care quite as much about what roles he takes; still, he does a good job here as his character advises the others how best to murder their enemies.

Mr. Anderson never condones a comb-over
Let me be the first to say that Horrible Bosses is one of the few 2011 titles that has had me laughing from beginning to end. I can't even say that about Bridesmaids, though that film made up for it by having much more heart. Still, there was nothing wrong and a lot right with this modern workplace fantasy, which took great actors, gave them a good script and good direction and let them run with it. The result is pretty amazing, and there's every chance that Horrible Bosses could wind up as the most gut-busting film this summer. Do yourself a favor; if you haven't already seen this title, don't wait for the DVD release. You'll just be postponing one of the funniest experiences this year, and who wants THAT?

Monday, July 18, 2011

It's Raining; The Sound of Music

It's among the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films. Sight & Sound magazine has listed it among the best ten films of all time. It's an American classic, and most everyone has at least HEARD of it. Donald O'Connor won a Golden Globe for it. How then has Mr. Anderson managed to miss this classic film? Well, the answer is right there in the word "classic", as subjective a term as ever there were in film. In the past I would often be accused of favoring more "modern" film, and that argument is certainly not without merit; most of what I've seen the past few years has rarely further back than the 1980's, and even before then I've been wary of "classic" films that were supposedly iconic for their time, since many have failed to live up to that standard (I'm looking at you, Sunset Boulevard). I've seen my fair share of them, but most have been coaxed upon me, not purposely sought out by myself for my entertainment. This was also true when my friend Anne reintroduced Singin' in the Rain, and I had to admit it was about time. Long regarded as one of Hollywood's best, I couldn't for the longest time get past the (in my eyes) ridiculous scene were the hero actually sings and dances in a downpour. Of course I realized the film had to be about more than that, but it was still enough to keep my interest at bay. Finally compelled, it has become the latest oldie recommendation for Hello Mr. Anderson, and as I'll finally be getting back to the new releases this week, perhaps the last DVD review for a while.

Most living people only know this one scene
Like the aforementioned Sunset Boulevard, Singin' in the Rain is a Hollywood film ABOUT Hollywood. In fact, the film covers a remarkable event in cinematic history, that of the introduction of talking pictures, or "talkies" as they were referred to at that time. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are famous silent picture stars who live in the hearts of their fans, and are rumored to be connected romantically as much as they are professionally. This couldn't be further from the truth, as Don has never been fond of Lina, whose shrill voice and snotty personality has long been hidden from the public by the nature of her performances and her bosses and fellow stars, who never let her speak to the public. One night, by chance Don meets Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), an aspiring singer and dancer who has yet to really break in. Despite not getting off on the best of terms, Kathy's career gains some traction thanks to support by Don and his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor, who won a Golden Globe for this role). Don wants a real relationship with Kathy, but Lina stands in his way with a mind full of vengeance and public opinion on her side. Is there any way for Don to be with Kathy and for Kathy's career not to end after it's barely begun?

This is of course the downside of musicals: everybody sings
Packed with big (at the time) stars, Singin' in the Rain is unfortunately one of those type of film that carries the worst pretensions of Hollywood: the film about Hollywood. By the same mindset that makes D-List celebrities like Heidi & Spencer and the Real Housewives so popular among the masses, films surrounding Hollywood suppose that the everyday workings of a Hollywood studio are worth committing to celluloid. At least these older films carried a certain amount of respect for their industry, unlike many similar titles today which are quick to spoof that which is considered low-brow (such as No Strings Attached's dashboard copy of High School Musical). The change from silent pictures to talking films was a huge milestone for the industry, and while that doesn't necessarily mean that it had to be made into a full-length motion picture, at least the RESPECT for the event is there.

A lesson to those who would dare turn their backs on Donald O'Connor
The respect is also apparent in the numerous musical numbers that inhabit this relatively story-short film. In fact, it would be safe to say that there would be no Singin' without the dancing, tunes and yes singing that make up the vast majority of the movie. Most of the songs are in the high quality range, especially O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh", which has been copied faithfully by many an entertainer over the years (perhaps most recently Joseph Gordon-Levitt's rendition when he hosted SNL a few years ago) as well as the eponymous "Singin' in the Rain", which Kelly delivers with pitch perfection and amazing dance choreography. Some of the other musical numbers manage to go on far too long, such as "Beautiful Girl" and the completely unnecessary "Broadway Melody" which seemingly only take up time that otherwise wouldn't be used. Still, most of the music is well-used, and the choreography of Kelly is put to good use as not one dancer looks out of place at any time during the production.

That's quite an ankle you've got there...
Back in the old days of Hollywood, talent was just as important (if not more) as good looks when it came to an actor's star power. An performer was not only expected to look good and pull off a decent acting job, but since these people often came from the bright lights of Broadway, song and dance was often a necessity for success. Gene Kelly was one of the ones who had it all, from a chiseled jaw that would make Brad Pitt and George Clooneycombust or melt away at the end of his career. Every performance in this film is highly animated, almost to the point of being all over the place. In this regard he's countered nicely by O'Connor. O'Connor didn't have the good looks of Kelly. If anything, he looked perpetually like Superman's little buddy Jimmy Olson during his career, and character-wise that comparison holds up nicely between him and Kelly. Still, where Kelly is pure energy, O'Connor is the same but in distilled form; he's no less talented than Kelly when it comes to singing and dancing, but he manages to instill subtlety and grace where Kelly is decidedly lacking. He's simply a wonderful performer, and that he worked at an ice cream shoppe with my father's mother has no bearing on that fact. Debbie Reynolds was not a dancer when she was signed to this film, and it was only thanks to help from the acclaimed Fred Astaire that she was able to do as well as she did. That said, the final product has her holding her own against Kelly and O'Connor, so that's certainly more than what people might have expected. Jean Hagen is both funny and vicious as the film's main antagonist, a dangerous blend that many of the best bad guys can pull off. She perfectly plays an actress who will have no chance once talking pictures become the norm, and she really manages to make herself unlikable to the audience who might have otherwise searched for an excuse to like her.

No close ups, please, Mr. Demille...
While a few minor elements of the film are a bit silly and overly simplistic, the biggest problem is the story, which ran in fear from the sheer number of musical numbers added to the script. Add atop that the pretension of the idea and by today's standards you'd rightfully have empty theaters and bad reviews. Back in the day this was a major phenomena however, and Singin' in the Rain was a flagship title that basically dictated how musicals were presented to the public for decades to come. That isn't to say this film succeeds only as a byproduct of its era, however. Expertly acted, with wonderful music and radiating pure entertainment, this film is a perfect example of the good kind of "classic," deserving its place among the tops of "best films" lists. More entertaining than you might expect, Singin' in the Rain is certainly one I don't regret taking time to see on the small screen.

Friday, July 15, 2011

About Damned Time

Anyone looking at this will probably cock their head to the side and say "You haven't seen Wall-E yet?" I certainly feel most people say that in person when they learn that particular news about Mr. Anderson. It's true; I've mentioned in the past how animated films have not been my usual theater-going fare, usually relegated to DVD rentals years later. This has been especially true in the past decade, when 3D animated films began to replace the old-school hand-drawn works. Several such films, many of which have been critically acclaimed and have won major awards, have gone unseen through my eyes. Amazing movies, from The Incredibles to Up to How to Train Your Dragon, were missed in the theater. Thankfully, with my recent renewed focus, I've begun to enjoy this genre upon its initial release once again. Still, the excellence of recent titles like Dragon and Rango doesn't guarantee that I'll give all animated films a chance (which is why Mars Needs Moms and Gnomeo and Juliet received a wide berth), but if I can be okay sitting down to see Kung Fu Panda 2 in the cinema, then hopefully that means I'm on the right track. Back to Wall-E. Pixar's 2008 release has since become known as not only the year's best animated film, but among the year's best overall films. Richard Corliss of Time Magazine even named Wall-E the best movie of the decade, a heady compliment that was representative of people's love of this film. For a long time people have told me that Wall-E was their favorite animated film, a strong statement that I was more than happy to find out.

The most adorable robot EVER
Hundreds of years after mankind has abandoned the garbage-strewn Earth to live among the stars, robots have been left behind to clean up our mess. Now there is only one left. Wall-E is almost completely alone in his mission to clean the trash that clogs the cities, his only company a nearly indestructible cockroach. After so long in isolation, Wall-E has developed a quirk for collecting some of the more intriguing finds, including Rubiks cubes, jewelry boxes and a VHS copy of Hello Dolly. His life to this point is lonely, but with no others around, he has resigned himself to this life of sorting and collecting garbage. However, the appearance of a landing spacecraft and a new robot named EVE shakes up Wall-E's existence sets him on an unstoppable course for adventures to worlds outside his own.

"That one's got a temper..."
The first twenty minutes of Wall-E are completely without dialogue. While we observe our intrepid hero, he doesn't vocalize outside of melodic humming and occasional shrieks of surprise. Despite not speaking to the audience (and not being able to even if he wanted) about his loneliness and wistfulness, the Pixar crews have done an amazing job with making the character's personality shine through, which really does the job of making the film more enjoyable while not forcing the audience to become clairvoyant in the process. Wall-E's dialogue-less opening has been copied by other films since (with Pixar successfully duplicating it in Up only two years later) but here it is flawlessly conceived and delivered, becoming one of the best introductions to a film in Hollywood history.

The fact that only ONE cockroach survives the end of the world proves that the film is fiction
The animation is among the best I've seen in a 3D animated film, and most likely among the best all-time animated films. I remember the jungles in The Incredibles being truly awe-inspiring, and the flow of balloons in Up was perfectly executed. That said, there isn't any particular aspect of Wall-E that stands out because it's ALL well above the standards set by its parent company. Character animations and designs, especially that of the robotic Wall-E, EVE, M-O and others, are wonderfully realized and move with such fluid animation that you really don't feel like you're seeing animation in play. If I HAD to say that Wall-E did one thing better than the rest, it would be the detail in the environments portrayed. From the colossal towers of cubed garbage to dust-strewn former cities to the bowels of a starship to debris-ridden outer space, Wall-E never looks less than completely real, painting a sad and shocking look at one of our potential futures.

Wall-E attempts to avoid a littering ticket
Unfortunately, the few human characters don't share that descriptor. 3D Animation of humans has advanced by leagues over the years, but never has it been able to overcome the power of uncanny valley, with its creepy human faces and movements that can't help but feel slightly off. This isn't a criticism of Pixar per se; the company has always veered more towards cartoonish human designs, which in this case are simplified to overweight humans who have allowed computers and robots to perform all the necessary physical exertions for hundreds of years. While a strong commentary on the evils of excess in our society, I can't help but feel that the humans all look alike, with only skin color and facial contours the only major difference, while the robots came in all shapes and sizes. Actually, that was probably intentional. Moving on.

Not just another day in the Wall-E-verse
You would think that if I commented that the best vocals in this film didn't even come from a human voice, I'd be insulting the cast. And yet sound producer Ben Burtt did an outstanding job putting together not only the computer program that synthesized Wall-E's robotic voice (and most of the others as well), but managing to imbue that voice with more personality than most of the live-action voices combined. Running a close second is voice actress Elissa Knight, who voices EVE, Wall-E's love interest and bad-ass robot. Knight only has a few lines that she repeats ad infinatum, but like her opposite she can add so much personality that you can understand exactly what her intended dialogue would be. The human elements are less impressive, though there's certainly nothing Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger and Kathy Najimy do that is necessarily wrong. They are just far less interesting and compelling characters, fine for background but strained when given much to do, which is exactly what happens to Garlin's starship captain.

At least it was better than the Stardust adaptation...
So what is the verdict? Best animated movie of all time? Best movie of the decade? Maybe my expectations were a trifle high, but I'm not sure I would say either of those superlatives are correct. Taken alone, the first twenty minutes of Wall-E would be the best animated short film I've ever seen, hands down. The visuals, animations and voice-over work is all high quality and exceeded all of Pixar's standards at the time. However, the final act feels drawn out and a bit listless, the human characters don't really interest nearly as much as their robotic counterparts, and the finale seemed unlikely and overly optimistic. It is certainly a wonderful film, perhaps the best of 2008, but that was a weak year in which the Academy Awards shunned it in favor of the overrated Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, and Slumdog Millionaire (Yes, it was wonderful to watch, but Slumdog was only barely a "great" movie). Only The Wrestler or Revolutionary Road (neither of which were nominated) would I argue to be better films, and it would certainly be a close race between the three. However, I hesitate to call it the movie of the decade, my disagreement with Time writer Richard Corliss on par with many of his other choices (the man has Talk to Her, Moulon Rouge, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Avatar in his top 10, for heaven's sake!). It's not the movie of the decade. It's not even Pixar's best film in my opinion, as I was still more attracted to The Incredibles and Up. I know there will be those who disagree with my final decision, but we can all agree that Wall-E is a wonderful motion picture that is certainly worth a look if you've missed it so far, and one you can afford to see again if you've already done so.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Good Film

Yes, this is another romantic comedy. With my current travels to see family in Florida this week, I'm dipping into the film reserve I've gathered on DVD of late, the same batch from which last week's You've Got Mail was a part. Once again I can thank my friend Anne for her suggestions, though I'm sure my readers will like me to move onto more varied fare, such as the R-rated comedy Horrible Bosses or the final Harry Potter film. There is no time to see new movies this week, however, so for now I'm afraid you'll have to settle for me lecturing you on a film you perhaps should have seen but didn't. This is hardly a surprise; despite his name recognition, Russell Crowe has never been the box office hero you might have imagined. In reality, he's much more well known for his quick temper and bad-boy attitude than his actual acting talent, which is unfortunate since he has in my eye proven himself to be quite the strong performer. With the notable exceptions of titles Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind (and maybe LA Confidential), Crowe's films can be categorized two ways: either they are so costly that they fail to recoup expenses despite good efforts (Robin Hood, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World), or they are inexpensive flops that limp out of the gate. A Good Year was Crowe's first collaboration with director Ridley Scott after the cinema juggernaut that was 2000's Gladiator, a pairing that has often been spoken among the more legendary actor/director partnerships in Hollywood history (whether deservedly or not). Based on the bestselling novel by Peter Mayle, A Good Year should have garnered some support from audiences, but for whatever reason they were absent, leading insiders to call it a flop mere days after the film's release. It was an unfortunate failure for Scott and Crowe, but one that might have been simply undervalued not only by audiences, but by the very production studios that pushed this film.

I'm not sure you should be trusting your money with this man...
When hard-nosed London investment trader Max Skinner (Crowe) learns that his uncle Henry (Albert Finney) has passed away leaving Max the sole beneficiary of a vineyard estate in Provence, his first instinct is to sell the land. After all, Max has no use for a summer home when he hasn't taken day off from work for years, worrying about being usurped in his absence. After all, that's what he did to his predecessor. However, a suspension from his job for shady business practices forces him to at least visit his new property before selling it. While the estate could use a serious makeover, Max ends up nostalgic for the childhood spent there with his uncle, though not enough to reconsider his decision to sell. This creates conflict on several fronts, however; the land's chief winemaker Francis (Didier Bourdon) is adamant that Henry didn't entrust the estate to his nephew just so he could sell it off. And the sudden arrival of Christie (Abbie Cornish), claiming to be Henry's long-lost American daughter, threatens Max's sale of the vineyard by contesting his ownership. Finally, Max falls for a local cafe owner named Fanny (Marion Cotillard), who has supposedly sworn off men while becoming irresistable to Max. The reigning question becomes whether Max will sell the French vineyard, and if so whether he could possibly be redeemable afterwards.

"And if you look even farther, you'll see when Mr. Anderson DOESN'T review RomComs..."
For a film with such a high-profile star and director, problems have no shortage. Flashbacks to a young Max hanging out with his uncle Henry feel almost out of place against the backdrop that is the rest of the film, but unfortunately they are also important to the main tale and therefore cannot be ignored. This means that the scenes in which you are least interested are among the most needed to understanding what exactly is going on, a sad happenstance that reflects poorly on the quality of the script. Humor is also somewhat lacking. While many of the verbal quips are good enough for a nice chuckle, too often does A Good Year rely on slapstick and physical comedy to reach out to the audience, often to little positive effect. The romance itself, necessary for a film claiming to be a romantic comedy, is all but ignored until the film's final act, as the main focus until then seems to be on Max's nostalgia, the least interesting aspect of the entire story.

Apparently this is what passes for extremely funny in France
The film does have numerous strengths to assist in its cause, however. The script does have that charm that truly great actors can take advantage of, and I've seen no better use of Russell Crowe than his transformation from emotionless trader to charming romantic. Crowe's Max plays well through the first two-thirds of the movie in a performance that takes somewhat from earlier work thugs, malcontents and ne'er-do-wells, but with an easy charm that never lets you dislike him as we all did in LA Confidential. That charm really comes out to play when the romance with Fanny is (FINALLY!) explored later on. Until then we're happy to see him frolick verbally with costars Bourdon, Cornish and Archie Punjabi, who plays his personal assistant, matching him word for word. Looking back, it would be easy to say that Crowe is playing against type in A Good Year, but here is one of the few times that I think Crowe was most comfortable in a role, not playing to his usual thuggish ways.

Those Gladiator royalty checks didn't go as far as he thought...
The rest of the cast is also quite good, a sign that Scott had at least an idea what he was doing in that department. Finney is excellent despite being nearly relegated to the duller portions of the film, with Henry's paternal instincts in regards to Max coming through quite nicely. Sure, Finney amounts to little more than a scene-chewer (and with only young Freddie Highmore ever playing against him, he needs to), but he does it extremely well. This was Australian Cornish's first Hollywood role, and though it comes well before her beloved performance in Bright Star or even her mainstream success in this year's Limitless and Sucker Punch, she proves that she can handle working with the big boys as Henry's purported daughter. Witty as Max with little of the humor, Christie is a welcome respite from the bickering between Max and Francis. Bourbon does an okay job, but he's really among the least interesting of the cast, and almost cliched as a surly and dissheveled gardener. Punjabi raises smiles when paired with Crowe but has little overall impact on the story. Cotillard is by far the best, as its easy to fall in love with the woman who only a year later would take the world by storm in La Vie en Rose as singer Edith Pilaf. Here she plays a much more down-to-Earth role, but her beauty and talent combine to make her one of the best international actresses.

Minutes later, the two were at each other's thrats
A Good Year is not a great film. In fact, with director Ridley Scott clearly out of his element, I'm shocked that it was even a reasonably good one. Scott and Crowe have often worked well together, even if the behind-the-scenes arguments have stood out more than the products themselves. It's easy to forget that both are supremely talented, but fortunately it still can come through when you go back and watch what they've done together. A Good Year has a broken story and is extremely predictable, lacking in sufficient levels of romance or comedy. However, it is still talent and charm-packed, making up for much of what is missing from the big picture. You might want to fast-forward through a few bits, but if you check this film out I guarantee you'll be sucked into the Crowe-Cotillard relationship, as it's one of the more understated film romances of the past decade.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Lately I feel like I've been watching more and more romantic comedies than usual, whether released in 2011 or not. It wasn't until this year, with my increased focus on the blog, that seeking more varied styles of film has been among my goals, especially when it comes to my charts for worst films of the year and Hello Mr. Anderson's inaugural Awards post, which will be held at the end of every year that this blog remains active. I'm still fine-tuning the details, but I should have plenty of time to work those out by the time it rolls around. Stepping back to the topic of romantic comedies, however; much of the time I'm not seeing such a film because I want to, but because it exists. I was completely unaware of When Harry Met Sally's awesomeness until The Opinioness brought it to my attention. You've Got Mail and A Good Year were recently introduced to me (and subsequently enjoyed) by my friend Anne. I even saw this years' No Strings Attached and will see Friends with Benefits and Crazy Stupid Love, films I might have skipped in years past, and I've rarely looked forward to these or ANY RomCom in the past. That's what makes Larry Crowne so different. When trailers first appeared for the latest film starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, a strange thing occurred; I began to look forward to it. Despite my assertions that films of the like are often derivative, fantastical and illogical, in the end that doesn't necessarily make for a bad film, especially when the main goal of the theater is to transport the viewer to somewhere they've never before been. The trailers for Larry Crowne didn't convey any sense of a different direction, but a sincere charm is what roped me in, guaranteeing that it would be part of my viewing schedule this summer.

Hello, my name is Tom, and I'm addicted to being in romantic comedies
Larry Crowne (Hanks) is a veteran retail store employee who we meet the day he is fired from his job at the big-box store U-Mart ("Shop Smart. Shop U-Mart"). U-Mart has released the former Navy cook because of a lack of formal college education, which comes at a terrible time as Larry is still recovering from his failed marriage and was already struggling to repay the mortgage on his house. Assisted by his friends and neighbors, Larry enrolls in college attempting to get himself back on track. Meanwhile, Mercedes Tainot (Roberts) is a college professor with an emotionally-absent husband (Bryan Cranston) and uncertainty that she makes any difference in the lives of the students who attend her classes. More and more she goes into work with a sense of dread, and doesn't look forward to a single one of her classes. As the two struggle to redefine themselves, a chance student-teacher relationship begins to assist both of their tribulations, and lead them to happiness.

Where Hanks would be if he wasn't the least bit charming
Once again, we have a situation in which Hanks stars in a film that is almost indistinct from his prior work. One of the few differences is that Hanks also expands his workload, not only completing his second feature film as a director (the first being 1996's That Thing You Do), but also co-writing the screenplay with Nia Vlardos (whose Big Fat Greek Wedding was perhaps overrated but still a lot of fun). As Hanks has the experience in romantic comedies to know exactly how to create standard fare, it's perhaps surprising that the final product exceeds any of my early expectations. As a storyteller, he shows us that he knows how to properly pace his tale, not rushing a single thing in order to give the audience instant gratification. The eventual connection of Larry and Mercedes is slow and not always moving forward, and never does the budding romance feel stiff or unlikely. Sometimes it even moves BACKWARD, seriously forcing the audience to consider that perhaps things will not turn out the way they had expected.

About as miserable a look as Roberts is likely to pull off
Once again, this RomCom is an actor's film, its actual quality paling in comparison to the level of charm the characters manage to exude. Hanks of course is king of the hill when it comes to this quality, especially important as he enters his elder years. Proving that talent is indeed worth more than good looks, Hanks succeeds in a film genre where younger, more chiseled actors are more valued in this day and age. Crowne is an immediately likable, socially-awkward man, with his only criticism being how Mercedes can so slowly become infatuated with him. This might have been Tom Hanks underestimating Tom Hanks, but since it works for the story this is hardly major folly. Roberts is an actress who has perhaps coasted on the success of her hits. Certainly not without talent, Julia Roberts has had some monumental roles in her career (Erin Brockovich, Closer), but she uses the rest of her time to make forgettable films such as last year's Eat Pray Love. The role of Mercedes Tainot is much closer to the latter than the former, but - like Hanks - she has the experience to pull it off with charm and grace. Secondary characters are once again not as original as they could be, but for the most part they do manage to flesh out the story outside of the main character plot-line. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the best of the bunch as Talia, a young college student who befriends Larry and helps him become more "cool", by helping him connect with others, redecorating his house and essentially giving him a complete makeover. She, more than perhaps Mercedes, is the reason for Larry's transformation over the course of the film, and while her character is never fully realized, that's more fault of the script than the performance.Other good performances include Cedric the Entertainer as Larry's wealthy self-employed neighbor Lamar,  and Wilmer Valderrama as Dell, Talia's protective boyfriend. The cast isn't universally well-used, however, as talented actors Bryan Cranston and Taraji P. Henson do their best but are ultimately undervalued in the film. This is made up to a degree by Larry's fellow classmates, who are personalized and adorable that you can't help but like them, and George Takei, who succeeds in being for film in 2011 what Betty White was in 2010.

Somehow not UFC's next championship match
Larry Crowne touches on several topics relevant to today's world, including unemployment, financial difficulties and the importance of obtaining a higher education. These are very important and help move the story forward, but unfortunately they don't have as much impact as Hanks might have intended. Sure, we see Larry scrounging, selling off his possessions and even investing in a motor scooter to save on gas money, but the negative aspects of becoming suddenly jobless feel less tragic than they should here. This topic was much better realized in the George Clooney vehicle Up in the Air, and every film aiming for that message essentially feels redundant of that under-appreciated title. How long will it be before Hollywood abandons these motivations is unknown, though it will likely be this way until an end to the current economic recession has been confirmed.

How these two could muster a mere $13 million opening weekend?
The best thing about this particular romantic comedy is that the actual romance takes a back seat to the surprisingly strong character development. The plot isn't solely about getting these two characters together, though that is part of it. The point of the story is for these two characters to get to a place where they are as happy with their lives. Even if they don't end up together (though really, is there any doubt?), that isn't the important part. That's what Larry Crowne does so well, making the characters' fates and happiness  more important than their Facebook relationship status. It does fall into some serious romantic comedy cliches, but Larry Crowne is far better than most reviewers would have you believe, and that negative publicity has already made for a poor box office opening for either of its major stars. Maybe people are waiting for this one to come out on DVD, and maybe you should do that too. I however loved the film from beginning to end, and wouldn't suggest for a second that it was not worth watching if you're even remotely into the entire romantic comedy experience.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A 56K Movie for a 56K World

I will be catching up on the newest film releases before too long, with Larry Crowne and Horrible Bosses anxiously awaiting Mr. Anderson's approval. But this past week seeing a new film in the theaters hasn't been an option, and so now is the time for a new Hello, Mr. Anderson segment, which for now we'll call the Recommendation Pile. Today we set the WABAC machine to the glorious film Renaissance of the late '90's with the Internet-influenced You've Got Mail, recommended to my by my friend Anne, who has a penchant for the romantic comedy. Ah, 1998. I was a junior in high school back then, dreaming of the day that the Internet would be a true powerhouse. Before Twitter, before Facebook and before even MySpace, the world wide web was controlled by a vast soulless being referred to as America Online, or AOL. Evil it may have been, but AOL was the first choice for many technology users eager to keep in touch with distant relatives and friends without paying through the nose in long-distance charges (another cringe-worthy plague of the time). For a nominal fee, you could browse the web (such as it was) and chat with friends over a 56K modem, while AOL's popular e-mail system became a pop culture icon all on it's own, with the catchphrase "You've got mail" prevailing as one of the best-recognized sentences of the time, remaining well-known even today. AOL's popularity was so great that it really was no surprise that it spun off into the Hollywood mainstream. Reuniting Sleepless in Seattle stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan was a no-brainer, and while the film received less-than-stellar reviews, it was a monumental success. Another big step for AOL, which would go on to become one of the most successful and well-known companies of the new Millennium.

Definitely NOT 1998's Hollywood "it" couple
A remake of the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner and directed by Nora Ephron, You've Got Mail makes for an unsteady romantic comedy by casting America's Sweethearts as booksellers who fall in love over the Internet but can't stand one another in real life. Joe Fox (Hanks) is a gregarious businessman who helps run his family's business, the mega-bookstore franchise Fox Books. Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) is an old-school book lover who runs the small bookstore she inherited from her mother called The Shop Around the Corner. Now Fox Books happens to be opening around the corner from Kathleen's independent store, threatening her business and instigating the feud between her and Joe. Little do either know that they are already friends, digital pen pals on AOL who constantly check their in-boxes for the latest letters from the other.

By this time I think they've forgotten that Joe Versus the Volcano even existed
If you ever want to see a typical romantic comedy, this will tide you over as much as anything else. Despite its at-the-time innovation of moving anonymous correspondence from the medium of paper to that of electricity, You've Got Mail feels dated after a decade on the shelf, and the fault doesn't entirely lay with the technology used. The entire film is exercise in contradictions; big vs, small, independent vs. corporate, proud vs. humble and real-life vs. online are all examples the film gives to express a simple premise: opposites attract, or that's at least what you are led to believe. To be fair, that might be a slight oversimplification of the matter at hand. The characters are fairly simple and instantly recognizable, yet easy to root for. The connections bringing them together are tenuous at best, and yet the ensuing romance somehow works. The story told is as cliched as it is somehow charming, finishing the Holy Trifecta of romantic comedy lore. There's really no reason that You've Got Mail should be as good as it is. The film just does what few titles can, believing in its story and seeing it through to the likely conclusion.

Some women never outgrow the whole "princess" thing...
As for the actors involved, you couldn't get much more obvious than superstars Hanks and Ryan. After achieving super-stardom together with Sleepless, the pair reconnecting in You've Got Mail was a major selling point to see the film. The reasoning for casting this pair was evident: romantic comedies are these stars' specialty, and the two's prior success paved the way for a seriously contrived box office win. Hanks carries his usual mix of charm and good nature, which has long made up for the fact that he's not the most handsome leading man. That he plays a romantic who's something of a douche with a heart of gold is a decent twist from his usual pure good guy persona, but not so big a stretch as to be un-Hanks-ian. Ryan will probably never attain the commercial success she received in her heyday, but You've Got Mail allows the former star to deliver in her usual cherubic girl next door, complete with off-center grin and enough cuteness to make a Care Bear retch. It's not her best role (hey, it's not ANYBODY'S best role) but it is the type she plays exceedingly well. Sadly, behind the lead pair are a bunch of forgettable secondary characters, rote caricatures who don't steal the spotlight but garner more attention than they probably deserve. It's handful of talented performers who share this distinction, as Greg Kinnear, Jean Stapleton, Parker Posey, Dave Chappelle, Heather Burns, Steve Zahn and Dabney Coleman combining to form less than the sum of their parts. The best is Kinnear, whose leftist, underdog-rooting journalist at least has a few good scenes. Still, nobody can steal the spotlight from Hanks and Ryan, which in this case is a very good thing.

Ooh, a murder mystery! That would be new!
While I have to admit that I liked You've Got Mail, my reaction to seeing the film was more despite its flaws than because of anything it does particularly well. Nora Ephron manages to create a completely uninspired story with big name stars, only to end the movie on a note that can only be described as PERFECT. For the first time in recent memory, I can honestly say that the best part of a film was that it ended and for that to be a compliment of the highest order. I'll likely never see it again, but I can think of worse romantic comedies released this year (I'm looking at you, Ashton Kutcher), and Hanks and Ryan really do make all the difference in making You've Got Mail likable. Does that mean you should see it? It's no When Harry Met Sally, but what is? For a traditional couples rental, you may find yourself enjoying this much more than you expect to. At the very least, you can hearken back to our earlier years and wonder how we ever got by before cable modems and DSL.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Can't Stop the Funny

If you were to ask me what genre of film I was least likely to attend in the theaters, my first response would likely be animated film. I typically skip these theatrical releases for a number of varying reasons,  but ultimately coming down to their being geared towards children (annoying parents bringing their kids who won't shut up during the film along for the ride doesn't help either). For that reason I eventually saw Toy Story, The Incredibles, Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon and Up only on DVD and have completely missed supposed gems Toy Story 2 & 3, Wall-E, Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, It's almost tragic how little credit I give animated features, considering that one of my favorite times at the movies came when my parents took my sister and I to see Beauty and the Beast, possibly the best Disney film of all time. This is however distracting from the point I'm trying to make. It is in fact not animated films that I most avoid during their big money moments, but another genre that very few of the average movie-going audience have actually shown any interest in: the documentary. While most such films seek to expose hidden or under-reported truths to their audiences (such as the last two Academy Award winners, Inside Job and The Cove), others appear to be pure entertainment, a behind-the-scenes look at a subject that diehard fans can't get enough of. That's where Conan O'Brien Can't Stop comes in. Fans of the former Tonight Show and Late Night talk show host have their chance to get a private look at Team Coco with the release of this newest documentary by filmmaker Rodman Flender.

He's actually signing these posters "La Bamba"
Following Conan O'Brien in the months since his final night hosting The Tonight Show, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop focuses on his famous Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television tour, the name based on NBC's stipulation to O'Brien leaving The Tonight Show that he not be allowed on television for several months. Thus the comedy/musical tour was born, running for two months and selling out nearly every venue less than an hour after tickets had become available. Beginning in Eugene, Oregon and touring thirty cities around the United States and Canada, Conan embarks on a journey he's never before undertaken and creates a lot of laughs along the way.

"Conan, can you hear me?"
The laughs are definitely a big part of why I liked this movie. While I wouldn't consider myself for the most part a big fan of Conan's work, I'm familiar enough and amused enough by it to get into his special brand of irreverent and self-deprecating humor, not to mention his ability to get his audience in on the act. It's difficult to believe a personality like his spent so many years behind the scenes as a writer on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, so strongly does his personality lend itself to his comedy. At numerous moments through the course of the film, a quick joke by Conan or perhaps one of his crew will cause you to miss many seconds of the film because you're bowled over with laughter. If you're a fan of his work, it won't be difficult to get sucked in.

Don't worry; there are no Black Swan-esque mirror scenes here
Unfortunately, there is also a disconnect as to what the actual story behind Can't Stop is. The narrative follows Conan between cities, but with few exceptions, each stop basically shows scenes from the show, followed by the star meeting fans and fellow celebrities afterwards, followed by him complaining about the post-show meetings draining his energy. This is true just about everywhere, but he then seems to renege on these complaints when he uses the days off on his schedule to make special appearances elsewhere, before going right back to the complaining. It gets old a little quickly, even when he's cracking jokes about the topic to the camera.

What the camera doesn't capture is that he really IS rocking out with his cock out
And that's the major problem with this film. Most documentaries have interview segments but otherwise sit in the background allowing the subject of their study to be themselves. Conan O'Brien, however, doesn't follow that script. While there are a few scenes early on where he talks about his anger at NBC and recounts the way his Tonight Show job ended and a few appearances with his children, Conan never appears to be "off", with his trademark comedic persona firmly intact. On one hand, this is never a disappointment as he manages to set them up and knock them down at once with unexpected humor at every turn. On the flip side, it also doesn't provide any addition to his public identity, and the result is Conan as you pretty much expected him. There are no personal revelations, no surprises; it's the same Conan you've been familiar with that makes his big screen debut, not an unknown element. Finally, no effort is shown to look at the tour and bad blood between Conan and his former bosses from the perspective of NBC, damaging another documentary staple of being fair and unbiased. It secures this film's objective of being a film for and by Team Coco fans, but one can't help but question why it needed to be that way.

O'Brien struggles to make any more a mockery of "La Bamba" than he already has
If you're a fan of the TV host and his shows, however, these are mere minor quibbles. You're going to see this film regardless, and even if I said I hated Conan O'Brien Can't Stop it would have no impact on your decision to spend your money in this method. Fortunately, that's not the case, and you won't be wasting your hard-earned cash. While not remotely close to my favorite film this year, this pseudo-doc entertained me with its wry snarkiness and witty personality. I found myself laughing and smiling on a near-continual basis, and while some effort could have been made to turn this into more than just a fan film, its topic of discussion ensures that the film remains flavorful despite its empty calories, making it a true popcorn flick.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Transform and Roll Out

Okay, the border animations from excellent Michael Bay films was a little harder to pull off than anticipated.

The biggest culprit is not my lack of technical know-how, but more the simple fact that there is in fact no such thing as an "excellent" Michael Bay film. Ever since his feature debut in the 1995 action comedy Bad Boys, one word can sum up the totality of Bay's directorial career: Loud. His films have never been critically acclaimed; his actors have never been greatly praised; the strength of the dialogue and the depth of plot has never been his forte. He doesn't care one bit, however. When Michael Bay makes a movie, he's out to do one thing and one thing only: get people into the theaters. To that end, he packs his films with explosions, babes, more explosions, and just about anything he can to entice the under-25 male crowd, which have fueled dozens of blockbuster films over the past decade, many of which were Bay's work. Criticize his filmography all you like, but he can work less hard than your perennial award nominee and has earned more paydays than Tom Hooper will likely make in his whole career. It's not a talent thing, but a hindbrain thing. Bay knows how to tap into his natural audience and, though he may tread a few missteps (I'm looking at you, The Island), just runs with it. That brings us to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Bay's latest and final foray into the world of the toy line that has been entrancing young boys since the 1980's.

Just another day at the offices of Platinum Dunes
Despite saving the world twice and getting a fancy medal from President Obama, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) feels unappreciated, exacerbated by his current joblessness after graduating college, being dumped by his old girlfriend and his financial dependence on his current love interest Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). While he's trying to find his place in the world, the Autobots under the command of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) are hard at work with their human allies, running black ops missions against the menaces of the world and biding time until the evil Decepticons inevitably reveal themselves to once again attempt world domination. This time their dastardly plan includes powerful Cybertron technology, a former NASA moon landing, and the return of former Autobot leader Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy).

Okay, Tea Party: time to take back America!
I wish I could say that there was anything here that didn't feel like a typical Michael Bay production, but there's really very little separating Dark of the Moon from anything else with his name slapped on it. Story, character development and societal implications are kicked to the curb (if they were there to begin with) in deference to action, sexy imagery and silly throwaway humor, all staples of Bay's work. The plot is thin and practically hanging from threads, with more emphasis brought to the fanboy attractions, such as Cullen voicing the role that made him a household name, even if most people don't really know what he looks like. Sure, there's the dangling participle that is Sam's journey to discover his relevance, but that's hardly an innovative or even interesting plot device. Sure, there's looking for your favorite Autobot or Decepticon, but most of those characters play infinitely tiny roles or are barely recognizable anyway. The Autobots come in varying colors, from Bumblebee's bright yellow to Dino's fiery red, while the Decepticons all look alike with limited shades of grey. Shockwave, Soundwave, Megatron and Starcream would all be nigh indecipherable but for minute differences, and if the minor villains are actually based on real Transformers characters, I'd be very surprised. There are a few standouts, most notably the voice acting of Cullen, Nimoy and Hugo Weaving, but many of the voice actors are wasted on minimally-featured robots that are only known to die-hard fans of the series.

"Yeah, we're not really that important."
At least the animated characters are far more interesting than most of their human counterparts. Shia Leboeuf shows his usual talent for both dramatic acting and humor, but he doesn't do anything special to prove that he's a legitimate star in the making. This has been the argument against LaBoeuf all along, of course, as he's had more success appearing in other people's work than in anything that he helped build. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson return to the parts they inhabited in the previous films but don't have nearly as much to do outside of the usual generic action schtick. As for the supporting characters, it's something of a tossup. For every Patrick Dempsey or Frances McDormand who play typical one-note characters, there's returning John Turturro as Seymour Simmons, a former government agent turned conspiracy author, John Malkovich as an obsessive-compulsive terror that is Sam's first boss, and the always-wonderful Alan Tudyk as Simmons' assistant with a shady past. These parts, along with a couple of pint-sized Autobots, provide much of the entertainment value inherent to the film. The real surprise is Huntington-Whiteley, a career model with no acting experience before being cast in this film. The Victoria's Secret model does a great job, surpassing all rightful expectations, and while she doesn't necessarily have the makings of a stellar acting career, she should have a decent stint in the industry playing pretty people in small roles.

This is what might happen if you cut off that mack truck
I did have some issues with the last act of the film, which sees the Decepticons turn the great city of Chicago into an American war-torn Sarajevo. During some scenes, several instances occur where the villains gun down innocent fleeing civilians, who explode into shreds of bone and cloth. This darker turn comes after a first half that featured a few deaths, but nothing so heinous that it was out of place. This was a problem I had with the final act of Green Lantern, as well; sure, you might assume it exists, but in a PG-13 film I don't expect civvies to get offed so flagrantly. I'd give Bay credit if I thought he at all realized that he was creating social commentary on the horrors inflicted on civilians in wartime; then again, he's Michael Bay, and I can't quite bring myself to believe that he did any of it on purpose. Also, while Bay has stated that this will be his last Transformers movie, I was surprised that the story so definitively ended, with very little opportunity now to continue under different directors. Still, I enjoyed Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It has its problems; sure, it can be described as a "spectacle" with little going for it besides visuals; sure, its no Hanna or Thor or even Fast Five. I had a good time in the theater regardless, and it was at least better than many of the crappy action sequels that have been released so far in 2011. You might need an advanced degree in Transformers History to fully appreciate what you're seeing, but overall Dark of the Moon is a fun night at the movies that was released for fanboys but can at least be enjoyed on some level by just about anyone.