Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Transformers" - More or less what meets the eye.

Whoops, sorry, wrong one!
(Image: DEG and In the Grip of Hysteria)

"That was the worst movie I've ever seen," said my friend as we walked out of Transformers: Dark of the Moon last night. "Why did you want to see that again?"

Uh, it's a little hard to explain. Basically, I wanted to see it for academic reasons. No, seriously, bear with m... shut up.

I've been kinda out of touch with Hollywood blockbuster culture for years, since moving to a city where I can go to the movies all day every day without ever seeing one of the behemoths (though there are always a few each year that attract me). More specifically, I felt it was well past time I saw a Michael Bay movie, and this one looked pretty in the ads. And also it was 104 degrees yesterday and I was tired and gross and I wanted to sit in some air conditioning in the dark and not have to think, or even read subtitles, which I normally have to do when watching my preferred action movies.

Bay has spent the last decade as, on the one hand, the designated whipping boy for critics down on the modern American action film, and on the other hand, as possibly the most commercially successful director working - basically, he is the 21st century avatar of the blockbuster form, the way Spielberg was for the latter 20th century (sorry, James Cameron, you'll have to make more than a movie a decade before you're eligible for the title). In film geek circles, everyone has an opinion on the guy, except me. Yes, basically, it was peer pressure.

Don't you love it when directors turn out to look exactly
how you thought they would?
(Image: The MacGuffinMen)

Verdict? Not as bad as I thought it might be - certainly not the worst movie I've ever seen by a long shot. I enjoyed some of it. With all that I've read about Bay and his big toy commercials, there were few real surprises. I'd expected the migraine-level noisiness and busy-ness of it; the split-second ricocheting of tone among grim portentousness, continent-broad comedy, gauzy sentimentality and rah-rah fist-pumping; the script sodden with "wha? who?" expository dialogue on the series' mythology; the third-rate-comedy-club ethnic stereotyping. So just some random observations on aspects that caught my attention:

-When stuff was blowing up and robots were jumping around and smashing into each other, it was, I'm almost reluctant to say, kind of brilliant, sometimes. The possibilities of state-of-the-art digital effects are pushed to their limits of batty visual extravagance, with often strange and beautiful results (the intricate detail of the robots and all their tiny moving parts is astonishing). I've heard lots of complaints about Bay's typical epileptic-seizure-style shooting and editing, but, as others have observed, the 3D format seems to have tamed that tendency somewhat, as it requires shots to be smoother and held longer in order for the depth of field to register. So here Bay has a nice line in sweeping tracking shots that use the 3D well, and he displays surprising taste in largely avoiding the hurling of objects into viewers' faces (I wouldn't have minded a little more of that, actually). So sometimes Dark of the Moon is actually thrilling, though not nearly as often as the bombastic music tells us it is. It's at its best in an extended sequence wherein a team of human protagonists scrambles around the inside and outside of a slowly collapsing skyscraper pursued by the Bad Robots, especially a gargantuan, burrowing worm-like one that plunges into and out of the building with phallic glee. This is when this type of movie justifies its existence by making my jaw hang and my brain mutter, "I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like that before."

-I was also well-forewarned about the Maxim-photo-shoot treatment of the women in the movie, particularly the puffy-lipped model-turned-actress playing the Shrieking Love Interest. But I was still slightly shocked by the extent of the movie's crude objectification. Practically every woman onscreen looks, dresses and is photographed like she's in a hip-hop music video. The most notable exception is Frances McDormand as a semi-harridan Uniformed Authority Figure. Her face is made-up and lit to look as unflattering as possible - most of her shots seem like calculated insults, to the extent that I wondered if she ever asked Bay what the hell he was doing. Or maybe she knew without asking. I'm guessing Bay is too much of a real man to have a shrink, but if he does, I'd love to get a look at the notes about his relationships with women.

-Which leads indirectly to the question: What the hell are FRANCES MCDORMAND and JOHN MALKOVICH and JOHN TURTURRO doing in this thing? Besides cashing a fat paych... never mind.

-But what the hell is BUZZ ALDRIN doing in this thing?

-On paper, the weirdest aspect of the movie is the flesh-and-blood hero, uberdork Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBoeuf (much better cast than he was as a rough-and-tumble greaser in the fourth Indiana Jones). In the eye of Bay's perfect storm of macho attitudes and obsessions is this slight, high-voiced, yammering little dude whose tremulous inadequacy as an action hero is a running joke. It's almost subversive, although I'm not sure Bay is self-aware enough to intend it that way. As long as I'm psychoanalyzing the director from a distance, I'll speculate that Sam is the scared little boy inside him who wants to be surrounded by explosions, cool-ass machines and centerfold models so that he can forget that's what he is. But I'm probably making that up.

-Michael Bay is America's Wong Jing - the Hong Kong director, producer and Emperor of Crass who fills much the same role over there for critics and cineastes.

-I'll see a fourth Transformers movie if Tsui Hark directs it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tsui much is never enough.

"Actually, yes... yes, I have produced some of the most
entertaining films ever made. Why do you ask?"
(Image: Hong Kong Movie Database)

Tsui Hark Week continues... although I think this will be my last entry in this series. Or maybe not.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A picture by Tsui Hark is worth 2,000-3,247 words.

You can talk about movies all you want, but sometimes you just have to see them. Some images and clips from work directed and/or produced by the man.

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)
(Image: Golden Harvest and Daniel Yun)

The East Is Red (1993)
(Image: Newport Entertainment and David Bordwell)

The Blade (1995)  (Image: Golden Harvest and Cinekulte)

The Blade
(Image: Golden Harvest & Senses of Cinema)

A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation (1997)
(Image: Golden Harvest and Teleport City)
A Better Tomorrow (1986)
(Image: Cinema City and LoveHKFilm)

A Better Tomorrow III: Love & Death in Saigon (1989)
(Image: Golden Princess and LoveHKFilm)

Peking Opera Blues (1986), my favorite Tsui:

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Tsui's best collaboration with director Ching Siu-tung:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tsui Hark likes to talk

Some more clips of the once and future king of Hong Kong cinema at the NY Asian Film Festival.

Post-screening Q&A for The Blade:

Tsui receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from his mentor, director Patrick Lung Kong:

The Dreamweaver: Tsui Hark, live from New York

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain
(Image: Golden Harvest and Senses of Cinema)
I can't think of another living filmmaker I'd want to see in person more than Tsui Hark. And that little dream just came true, as you can read about in the third and final chapter of my coverage of the New York Asian Film Festival at the intrepid LoveHKFilm. Honestly, I'm so excited this happened that I still wet my pants a little just thinking about it. Damn, there it happened again.

OK, I'm back. Anyway, I decided to put up some supplementary materials here at my homebase - particularly videos of the post-screening Q&As with Tsui, even though Grady's blinding suit plays havoc with the picture. You might notice that I actually got some details wrong in my hasty note-taking.


Dragon Inn (three parts):

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Christmas in July for Asian movie cultists

My entourage and I arrive on the red carpet for opening night.
[Editor's note: That's actually Takayuki Yamada in Milocrorze: A Love Story.]
(Image: Milocrorze Seisaku Iinkai and Village Voice)
For the past couple of weeks, I have given over my body, my mind, my soul and my sleeping patterns, as I always do around this time, to the New York Asian Film Festival, the hinge of my moviegoing year and officially (officially, I tell you!) the Most Fun Thing That Happens in New York City. If you don't believe me, check out the official (actually official) NYAFF trailer:

This time around, I managed to threaten the intrepid webmaster Kozo (aka Ross Chen) of the bravely loyal, always entertaining and very necessary LoveHKFilm into letting me cover the festival at his blog. You can see the first two installments here and here. I hope a third and final will be up tomorrow. 

So big thanks are due to Kozo, from me if not from his regular readers, for letting me briefly borrow his sizeable audience. As for people coming here from his site: Hi. Stick around, it's not a bad place. Not always.

Suneohair in Abraxas.
(Image: Bitters End and Film Society of Lincoln Center)