Transformers: The Last Knight


Mark Wahlberg reacts to news that Michael Bay plans to blow even more shit up.

(2017) Science Fiction (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Santiago Cabrera, Isabela Moner, Jerrod Carmichael, Stanley Tucci, Liam Garrigan, John Turturro, Glenn Morshower, Gemma Chan, Peter Cullen (voice), Frank Welker (voice), John Goodman (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), Omar Sy (voice), Ken Watanabe (voice), Jim Carter (voice) Sara Stewart. Directed by Michael Bay

 

Michael Bay sure loves to blow shit up. In his latest installment of the Transformers series, he does a whole lot of blowing shit up; so much of it, in fact, that there’s almost no room for a coherent story.

See if you can make any sense of this; the world is in chaos with Optimus Prime (Cullen) having fled the planet to go seek Cybertron, the home world of the Transformers. There is no leadership and the Transformers are being hunted down by the TRF, a government strike force headed by Colonel William Lennox (Duhamel) who implores in vain his field chief Santos (Cabrera) that there are differences between the Autobots and the Decepticons. As far as Santos is concerned, the only good robot is a dead robot.

Izzy (Moner), a 14-year-old girl living in the rubble of old Chicago in a zone off-limits to humans due to Transformer infestation is discovered by the TRF but rescued at the last moment by Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), one of the most-wanted people on Earth due to his association with Bumblebee and the other remaining Autobots. Yeager is given a strange talisman by a dying Transformer who appears to be much older than the rest of them. In the meantime, Yeager takes Izzy to South Dakota and his junkyard where the last remaining Autobots are hiding.

Sadly, the TRF track them there too but Yeager is rescued by Cogman (Carter), a kind of C-3PO type of Butler. Cogman flies Yeager and Bumblebee to Jolly Olde England where Sir Edmond Burton (Hopkins) informs Yeager that the Transformers have been on Earth much longer than anybody knew and that he has been charged with protecting the history of the Transformers by keeping it hidden. He is also protecting the Staff of Merlin (Tucci) which is in reality a high-tech weapon. Quintessa (Chan), the Mad Goddess-Creator of Cybertron, wants that weapon so that her dead world can live again – only it would rob the Earth of its magnetic core which would kill our world. Yikes.

So Cybertron is on its way to Earth, Megatron (Welker) is doing the bidding of Quintessa and Optimus has surprisingly switched sides under the Mad Goddess’ influence. Everyone is after the Staff but only one human can wield it – Vivian Wembley (Haddock), a comely Oxford professor of history who specializes in Arthurian legends and who happens to be, unbeknownst to her, the last living direct descendant of Merlin. Got all that?

I really don’t know where to begin. At more than 2 ½ hours long, this is a bloated mess that outstays its welcome early on. There’s only so much falling masonry the puny humans can dodge before it starts to get old and it gets old fast. The trouble with a franchise like this is that in order to sustain it, you have to get bigger and badder with each succeeding movie and I can see Bay is trying his damndest to do just that. The novelty of having giant robots battle each other is wearing thin; not only are we seeing that kind of thing from the Transformers franchise but also from such movies as Pacific Rim and Colossal. There is a certain segment of the population – mainly adolescent boys or men with the maturity of adolescent boys – for whom that is all that is necessary for an entertaining movie. The rest of us need a bit more.

The turgid dialogue may be the most cringe-inducing of the entire series and that’s quite an accomplishment, albeit one that shouldn’t be an object of pride. The fact that they got Sir Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest living actors, to appear in the movie is something of a minor miracle although I sure hope they paid him a dump truck full of money.

I give Wahlberg props for at least trying to make a go of it in the film but in the end he is reduced to mostly ducking for cover, sliding down embankments and bickering with Vivian. Wahlberg is an extremely likable actor but most of his charm is wasted here in lieu of spectacle and make no mistake – it’s spectacle without spirit.

The destruction is so constant and unrelenting that after awhile it becomes senses-numbing and actually quite boring. I will admit to never having been a fan of the animated show in the first place but I thought it to be at least better than most of the similarly natured kidtoons of the era but this is worse than even those. While the CGI is generally pretty detailed at times there are moments where it looked like they completed the CGI in a hurry and it shows.

The movie jumps the shark early and never stops jumping it. For example late in the movie, the 14-year-old girl stows away on a military aircraft on a do or die mission to save the world. I mean, really? The only reason she is on there is to save the day for the adults so that the tween audience can be pandered to. Quite frankly I felt the movie was aimed at the lowest common denominator throughout. That’s not a good feeling.

I probably would rank this lower if I thought about it long enough but there are some pretty impressive effects and Wahlberg deserves something for his efforts. I think Bay went for sheer spectacle and found that he was so focused on the sizzle that he neglected to put on the steak. That makes for a pretty empty and unsatisfying summer barbecue.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of shit gets blown up. Wahlberg makes a vain but valiant attempt to elevate this.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is wayyyy too long and boring. It’s a bloated, mind-numbing mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi violence and robotic mayhem, a smattering of profanity and a brief scene of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the most expensive Transformers movie to date with a shooting budget of $260 million.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nothing compares to this.
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Beatriz at Dinner

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X-Men: Days of Future Past


Smile and the world smiles with you.

Smile and the world smiles with you.

(2014) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Omar Sy, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit, Mark Camacho, Zabryna Guevara. Directed by Bryan Singer

In the modern era of Superhero films, each franchise faces a particular problem – each succeeding entry in the franchise needs to be bigger and better, the stakes higher in order for the audience to continue to flock to the multiplex to see them. That is why, in my opinion, studios choose to go the reboot route rather than continue on with existing casts.

Bryan Singer may not necessarily subscribe to that theorem. He took the cast members of the X-Men: First Class reboot of the popular mutant superhero series and blended it with the original X-Men cast of his era and created a time-travel epic that carries the torch for both series’ nicely.

In a dystopian future, mutants have been all but eradicated as well as a good chunk of the human race. The Sentinels, giant robots with organic elements and an artificial intelligence that allows them to adapt to the various powers of the different heroes they fight, have become so powerful that not even the X-Men of the future can best them. The only humans left are those who agree with the agenda that mutants must be wiped off the face of the planet, using those who remain as slave labor.

Making a last stand in a Chinese temple are the remaining X-Men: Professor X (Stewart), Magneto (McKellen), Storm (Berry), Wolverine (Jackman), Bishop (Sy), Colossus (Cudmore), Shadowcat a.k.a. Kitty Pryde (Page), Blink (Fan), Sunspot (Canto) and Warpath (Stewart). They know that it is inevitable that the battle will be lost. They have only survived because Pryde has developed a plan in which she sends one of their members consciousness back a day to warn the rest that an attack is imminent so they can be elsewhere when the attack comes.

Professor X proposes that they do something similar but long-range. He has pinpointed the problem back to an event in 1973 – one in which weapons scientist Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), an anti-mutant hater of epic proportions, is assassinated by Mystique (Lawrence), the shape-shifting chameleon who was once the close friend of Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and later became the ally of Eric Lensherr (Fassbender) a.k.a. Magneto. She was later captured and her DNA was used to make what was already hard-to-defeat giant robots into nearly unbeatable sentient machines. The assassination also turned public sentiment against the mutants.

Sending someone back forty years is nearly impossible however. Pryde points out that “the human mind can only stretch so far before it breaks.” However Wolverine with his mutant healing power is the only one who can survive the trip. So it is that Mr. Cheroot first and Ask Questions Later is sent back to the Disco age where he will be given the monumental task of convincing the younger Xavier to try and find Mystique and stop her from her appointment with Trask.

Wolverine knows full well that it will take both Xavier and Lensherr to talk the headstrong Mystique who is angry and wounded over the deaths of several friends in Trask’s experiments on living mutants to discover what makes them tick. However, this is no walk in the park assignment. Xavier is bitter and angry over being shot by his old friend. He was paralyzed in the incident but a serum that Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Hoult) developed allows him to walk and numbs the pain but also blocks out his powers. Xavier is just fine with that and really doesn’t give much of a flying you-know-what for the future but at last his conscience kicks in and he agrees to help Wolverine.

Getting Lensherr aboard is slightly more difficult. He is being kept in a metal-less prison hundreds of feet below the Pentagon – apparently he’s been blamed for the magic bullet that killed JFK – but Wolverine knows a guy. That guy is Peter Maximoff a.k.a. Quicksilver (Peters) who has superspeed and the attitude to match.

Of course, once they free Magneto he turns out to have an agenda all his own and now the clock is literally ticking – in the future, the Sentinels are approaching the temple where the remaining X-Men are holed up and Wolverine’s consciousness hangs in the balance.

This all sounds very convoluted and it is. I have deliberately left the individual powers of most of the different X-Men unexplained – it would just take too long. The issue I have with movies like this is that we get literally a dozen or more different characters most of whom are given short shrift or split screen time with a younger/older counterpart. When you have a cast that’s chock full of actors who’ve received Oscar consideration (there are eight of them), something’s got to give. Poor Halle Berry (who won Oscar gold) has almost no dialogue and only a couple of minutes of screen time although to be fair, Berry’s pregnancy prevented her from taking part in the movie as much as the producers would have liked. Anna Paquin (who also won an Oscar) gets no dialogue and less screen time than it takes to read this sentence and yet she gets star billing. Ah, the magic of Hollywood credits.

Despite this, the movie flows surprisingly well and those actors who do get more than a few moments of screen time make the most of it. McAvoy in particular does well with his self-medicating and self-loathing Professor a far cry from the suave and confident Professor X of his counterpart Patrick Stewart. We see the road that Xavier is taking towards the compassion and wisdom his character becomes known for and it’s rather fascinating. Jackman as well continues to make Wolverine his own and while it’s hard to make something new out of a character he’s played seven times, Jackman manages to accomplish that.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar and Dinklage is a superb villain. His Bolivar Trask doesn’t see himself as a villain but rather the facilitator who unites mankind against a common enemy. His enmity against the mutants is somewhat surprising considering that as a small person, Trask is himself an outsider within society. It’s a multi-layered role and a villain worthy of a broad canvas such as this.

As you’d expect the battle sequences are plentiful and well-done. The Sentinels are fearsome creatures that have expressionless faces that are all the more terrifying for their mechanical blankness. Lots of things get blown up real good, and there are plenty of fists, fur and energy beams flying through the ether, not to mention flames, ice and the occasional claw.

A warning to those unfamiliar with the X-Men comics; there is a lot that goes unstated in the film that may not make sense. For example, the Wolverine in the ’70s has bone claws and in the future, claws of metal. That’s because the metal infusion that changes the nature of his weapon doesn’t take place until later on in time. In fact, the man responsible, Stryker (Helman) makes an appearance as an ambitious Trask operative here – he’d be played by Brian Cox in X2.

What really saves this movie is the plot which is complex and intelligent. Some often snipe at comic books and the movies that are based on them for being dumb and loud, but this is certainly not the former (and only occasionally the latter). Some thought was given to the mechanics and ramifications of time travel. The movie also made a good effort in re-creating the time period. Just as First Class was something of a superhero Bond movie, this is a lot like a superhero conspiracy movie, complete with Tricky Dick, the military-industrial complex and lava lamps.

This is the kind of entertainment that is synonymous with summer and a perfect fit for a year which has been thus far an improvement over last summer. The X-Men have always been some of the most interesting of comic books with some of the most compelling themes in the art form. The apocalyptic vision of the future here however is nothing compared to what is to come in the next installment of the series which is teased in an extra scene following the credits.

REASONS TO GO: Some sensational action scenes. Riveting storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters; may be hard for non-fans to keep up with all of them. May not make sense to those unfamiliar with the comic.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of comic book action and violence, some suggestive material, brief nudity and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the comic storyline the movie is based on, it is Kitty Pryde who travels back in time, not Wolverine. The change was made for continuity reasons – in the 1970s Pryde wouldn’t have been born yet, whereas Logan is ageless and would appear exactly the same in both future and past.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Pacific Rim


Why does this giant robot have a trash bucket on its head?

Why does this giant robot have a trash bucket on its head?

(2013) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Robert Kazinski, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Clifton Collins Jr., Diego Klattenhoff, Brad William Henke, Larry Joe Campbell, Mana Ashida, Santiago Segura, Joe Pingue, Milton Barnes, Ellen McLain (voice), Robert Maillet, Heather Doerksen. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

When I was a boy, I used to love Japanese monster movies – men in rubber lizard suits smashing Tokyo to smithereens. My Dad and I loved the kind of cheesy earnestness of the movies and while we both moved on to other genres, we did share that one thing.

For my own son, it was giant robots. Transformers, dude. Things that turned into other things that grew huge and took on other huge things. That was what kids a generation removed from myself cut their teeth on. Now what about combining the two together?

That’s just what Guillermo del Toro, visionary director of Pan’s Labyrinth did. In the near future, Earth has been invaded by gigantic beasts that came out of the ocean – or more accurately through a dimensional portal that manifested at the bottom of the Pacific. These creatures wreaked havoc on the coastal cities of Asia and Australia as well as the West Coast of the United States. Conventional warfare doesn’t work on these Kaiju which is Japanese for “strange creature” but over time has come to assume gigantic size as well. In order to fight these creatures, giant robotic creatures – called Jaegers which is German for “hunters” – have been created. These machines are piloted by humans and are so intricate and complex that it requires to human brains, which are psychically linked by a “drift” which allows both pilots to share memories while operating both sides of the robotic brain. At first, these robots are successful.

However as time goes on, more and more creatures pour out of the portal growing larger and more deadly as they do. Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) is a pilot along with his brother Yancy (Klattenhoff) but in a battle with a Kaiju Yancy is killed while connected to Raleigh who experiences his brother’s death. Raleigh leaves the program and becomes a construction worker on a gigantic wall protecting the coastline which the government feels will adequately protect the people and cities of the coast.

Of course, that doesn’t work and the general of the Jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost (Elba) finds himself in need of pilots as the Kaiju have begun a counter-offensive that has pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. Stacker knows the only way for humanity to survive is to find a way to close that portal; he has scientists Newton Geiszler (Day) and Helmut Gottleib (Gorman) trying to find ways to do just that. But they’ll need pilots too, even burned out ones and Raleigh is recruited. Japanese scientist Mako Mori (Kikuchi) is his handler; her family died in a Kaiju attack and she yearns to pilot a Jaeger and get some payback. Raleigh might be her best bet for it – but both will have to get over their issues from the past and face gigantic odds because the creatures coming at them from the portal are like nothing they’ve ever seen before.

This might well be the most visually amazing movie of the summer – the battle sequences are worth their weight in gold all by themselves. This is high-tech stuff, even more so than the anime you might remember that featured the giant robots. Del Toro does himself the favor of creating characters with some meat to them, giving the audience a rooting interest which is more than a lot of summer films have been able to accomplish this year.

Hunnam, known to most audiences from his work on Sons of Anarchy is turning out to be quite a promising leading man. Here he has some pretty good cast members to work with, particularly Elba who is one of the best in the business. So too is Perlman (playing a black market Kaiju organ seller) but he has no scenes with Hunnam. Kikuchi is riveting when she’s onscreen; at a very young age she’s become one of the best actresses in the world.

Following a trend that has puzzled me all summer long, the film is a good 20-40 minutes too long; quite frankly the entire subplot with Perlman could have been eliminated or at least saved for a Premium Home Video release. At least however even if the movie drags near the end the eye candy you’re given makes it worthwhile and for geeks of all ages this is manna from heaven, ready to be gorged.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing visuals. Elba and Perlman always interesting; Hunnam is getting to be quite a leading man.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Too much chest-busting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action, plenty of violence and  a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Cruise was originally considered for the role in which Idris Elba was eventually cast in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; the critics are pretty solidly behind this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space Battleship Yamato

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: I Melt With You

Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Think twice before hanging out with Shia LaBeouf; there are a lot of angry film critics out there.

(2011) Science Fiction (Paramount) Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Alan Tudyk, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, Leonard Nimoy (voice), Tyrese Gibson, Buzz Aldrin, Elya Baskin, Peter Cullen (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Robert Foxworth (voice), James Remar (voice). Directed by Michael Bay

Nothing exceeds like excess, and by that criterion Transformers: Dark of the Moon exceeds all expectations.

Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) has saved the world – twice – and all he’s got to show for it is a lousy Ivy League education. He longs to make a difference once again but he can’t get any sort of job and has to settle for living on the largesse of his new girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley), a former British consulate employee now working as an assistant to billionaire Dylan (Dempsey).

To make matters worse, the unemployed Sam is being visited by his judgmental parents Ron (Dunn) and Judy (White). However, Sam manages to get a job in the mail room of a defense contractor run by the somewhat eccentric Bruce Brazos (Malkovich).

Sam would much rather be working with the Autobots in NEST, but the government wants him far away from Optimus Prime (Cullen) as he can be. Lennox (Duhamel) is nominally in charge of the Autobots who are helping the American government putting out small fires around the world; taking out an illegal Iranian nuclear plant and investigating a strange occurrence at Chernobyl, where Lennox discovers Autobot technology may have been responsible for the disaster there.

Optimus demands an explanation and finally supercilious CIA chief Mearing (McDormand) gives him one. Apparently, near the end of the civil war that drove the Autobots from Cybertron, an Autobot ship escaped from the planet carrying a secret weapon as well as its designer, Sentinel Prime (Nimoy), the leader of the Autobots before Optimus. That ship crash landed on our moon, prompting the space race of the 1960s.

The Autobots rocket up to the moon and retrieve both Sentinel and the remains of the weapon. As they return, Megatron (Weaving), brooding in the desert after two defeats at the hands of Optimus and Sam Witwicky, puts into motion an evil plan that involves murder, betrayal and plenty of nasty robots coming after Sam and his new girlfriend. The stakes are high as the entire human race could end up as slave labor in the New World Order as envisioned by Megatron – and the Earth itself a desiccated, dried-out husk as her resources are used in the insane rebuilding of Cybertron. Once again, Sam and Optimus must lead the allied human-Autobot forces if both races are to survive.

My son has said that the reason you go to a Transformers movie is to watch robots beating each other up, and he has a point. If that’s why you’re plunking down ten bucks plus to see the movie, you won’t be disappointed. Once the battle starts in earnest, which is about halfway through the nearly two and a half hour movie, it doesn’t let up. The robots just about level Chicago and it is done realistically and spectacularly.

In fact, it’s done so well there seems to be no reason for human participation at all. The first half of the movie is somewhat slow and talky, and the humans are no match in the slightest to the giant robots of Cybertron. It is very much like watching a movie about, say, the Battle of the Bulge from the point of view of an ant colony. All the humans really have to do is dodge falling debris and be blown up by robot plasma shots; when one of the lead characters looks like they’re about to buy it, an Autobot comes out of nowhere to save the day (usually Optimus).

In fact, once the battle starts, LaBeouf has very little to do other than look concerned for his girlfriend, and occasionally shout “OPTI-MUUUUUUUUUUS!!!!” and he does both pretty well. His twitchy persona fits right in with the Witwicky character and although he’s the focus for the first half of the movie, it does break down during the first hour or so as we watch Sam mostly feeling inadequate and sorry for himself. It gets old.

Other than that, Bay did upgrade the supporting cast some, adding McDormand and Malkovich, Oscar nominees both, to the cast and both of the veteran actors deliver, as does Turturro in the returning role of Simmons, the paranoid agent (who is now a bestselling author) as comedy relief. Alan Tudyk, who impressed so much on the “Firefly” series, gets a meaty role as a fey German assistant to Simmons with his own set of skills. He makes the best use of his limited screen time.

As far as adolescent chubby-inducement, Megan Fox is out and former Victoria’s Secret model Huntington-Whiteley is in, making her feature acting debut. Fox was never known for her acting skills but she at least has some; Huntington-Whiteley is there mainly to wear tight dresses, have the camera almost see up her skirt and be put in jeopardy so Sam can rescue her. At least Megan Fox’s character wasn’t nearly as useless.

Transformer fans can rejoice; this is easily the most spectacular movie of the series and for non-fans, this is the best of the lot. Check your brain at the door, get the extra-large tub of popcorn and soda, and bliss out in a dark theater for awhile. This is pure popcorn spectacle on a massive scale and the plot is merely window dressing to the special effects. That’s not always a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of robots battling for those who like that kind of thing. Easily the most spectacular film of the series.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning of the movie lags a bit. The human characters are stiffer than the robots. Humans no match for aliens whatsoever.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of mayhem and a few bad words, but it’s the scenes of destruction and robot death that might be a bit much for tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leonard Nimoy, voicing Sentinel Prime, utters the line “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” in homage to a line spoken by Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

HOME OR THEATER: The spectacle demands the big movie theater screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Astro Boy


Astro Boy

Love the hair, Toby!

(2009) Animated Science Fiction (Summit) Starring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Nathan Lane, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Eugene Levy, Matt Lucas. Directed by David Bowers

In the soul of a machine there beats the heart of a young boy. Where does the machine end and the human being begin?

The year is 3000 and the world is terribly polluted. The citizens of Metro City have created for themselves something of a utopia by floating their city high in the atmosphere and creating an army of robots to wait on the citizenry hand and foot…or cog and wheel, as it were. Those who disagree with the policies of the repressive government headed by President Stone (Sutherland), a megalomaniacal tyrant, are sent to the surface to live amongst the garbage.

Dr. Tenma (Cage) is a brilliant robotics specialist and as it turns out, Minister of Science for the current regime. The President wants Tenma to create the ultimate war machine so he can wage war on the surface dwellers; not so much because they’re a threat but so that he can regain a higher approval rating and win the upcoming elections. The Peacekeeper is Dr. Tenma’s solution; what it needs, however, is a power source that won’t konk out on it mid-Peace.

That solution comes courtesy of Dr. Elefun (Nighy) who has extracted the core of a comet and discovered two opposing energy sources; the stable and pure Blue Energy and the unstable and unpredictable Red Energy, which predictably is much more powerful than the Blue Energy. Just as predictably, the President wants to use the Red Energy as the Peacekeeper’s power source despite the objections of his scientific staff. The result is a catastrophe; the Peacekeeper goes out-of-control ballistic and is only just barely restrained. There is a casualty however; Dr. Tenma’s young son Toby (Highmore)  is caught in the crossfire and is vaporized in front of his very eyes.

Understandably, Dr. Tenma is grief-stricken and withdraws from his position. Half-mad and wracked by guilt, he determines to replace his son with a robot, one that will pass for him physically and is cloned from the DNA of a single strand of Toby’s hair, which remains on his ballcap. Dr. Tenma also adds some enhancements for robo-Toby (Highmore) to adequately defend himself, knowing that once word of the advanced robot reaches the President he’ll want it for himself.

However, something odd happens. At first, the new robot is the perfect copy of his son, complete with all his memories and personality quirks, but he isn’t quite the same. For one thing, he very quickly becomes aware that he isn’t human – perhaps it’s the jet pack built into his feet, or the machine gun that comes out of his tush. Yes, that’s what I said.

In any case, Dr. Tenma rejects his artificial son and the robot winds up falling to Earth following an encounter with the military. There he is befriended by a group of scavengers reporting to Hamegg (Lane) who runs a battle arena where robots battle one another, most of them built from scraps and spare parts his scavengers pick up for him. The robot is christened Astro Boy and eventually is befriended by Cora (Bell), one of the scavengers but the military eventually comes looking for him and you and I and everyone in Japan knows that eventually Astro will be going robot a robot with the Peacekeeper.

Astro Boy originally appeared as first a manga and then a black and white anime in Japan back in 1951, showing up in the United States in the 60s as a color series. It has appeared occasionally in one form or another on these shores on television since. The creator of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka, is considered the father of modern anime and is credited with the distinctive large-eyed look of the genere.

Fans of the original manga and anime series will not be pleased at some of the subtle differences that have been wrought by Bowers who was co-director of Flushed Away for Aardman. For example, Dr. Elefun who in the series adopted Astro Boy is relegated to little more than a cameo here. In some ways, the rejection of Astro by his dear old dad is much crueler here than it was in the series as well, which may upset some young boys who might be feeling much the same as the robot.

Still, fans and non-fans alike will thrill to the visuals of this movie. Imagi Animation Studios, a Hong Kong-based studio, were responsible for those and they show themselves to be nearly the equal of Pixar in that regard. Both the utopian Metro City and the dystopian surface are wondrous to look at. Even Astro himself is a joy to behold.

What is not so much a joy is a good deal of the voice acting. Granted, the script is not super well-written but it felt like many of the actors phoned in their performances. Cage, who can be very emotional when he wants to be, is curiously flat here as the grieving father. The movie needed raw emotion to draw its audience into the story but that is never provided; consequently, the audience feels disconnected from the movie and that makes it really hard to love it.

There are some good elements here and certainly it is an attractive movie to look at, but like a vacuous blonde, once you get past the good looks you realize there is nothing of substance here. While I look forward to Imagi’s future endeavors, they have yet to learn the simple secret of Pixar’s success – that no animated movie, no matter how beautifully drawn it is, can survive a poor story but a movie with a great story that is beautifully drawn will be a classic that will last for years to come.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely drawn visuals and a chance to re-visit an anime icon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wooden voice acting in many instances and a plot that could have used some shoring up.

FAMILY VALUES: This is action a-plenty, and scenes of a young boy placed in mortal peril. There are also a few mildly bad words which are probably nothing your average 8-year-old hasn’t already heard and most likely coming out of your mouth.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Japanese version of the movie uses Astro Boy’s original bodyform, facial characteristics and hairstyle, while the U.S. version is updated on all three counts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of short films utilizing characters from the movie, but for my money the most interesting extra feature is a featurette showing the evolution of Astro Boy from Tezuka’s original drawings until now.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.9M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

G-Force


G-Force

All things considered, maybe lab testing comestics wouldn't have been so bad.

(Disney) Zach Galifianakis, Nicolas Cage (voice), Bill Nighy, Sam Rockwell (voice), Penelope Cruz (voice), Will Arnett, Jon Favreau (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), Tracy Morgan (voice), Kelli Garner. Directed by Hoyt Yeatman

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer can be counted upon for loud, action-laden movies with plenty of special effects. So how would he fare with a kid’s movie?

The G-Force is comprised of leader Darwin (Rockwell), commandos Blaster (Morgan) and Juarez (Cruz), computer expert Speckles (Cage) and surveillance expert Mooch. The difference is, not a one of them is a human being; the first three are guinea pigs (and please don’t refer to them as hamsters, it offends them), Speckles is a mole and Mooch is a housefly.

They are the result of a government experiment by FBI nerd Ben (Galifianakis) who has given them the means to communicate with humans. Outfitting them with all sorts of high tech gear, they break into the house of billionaire appliance maker Leonard Saber (Nighy) to find some evidence of nefarious criminal activity.

When all they find is the blueprint for a new coffeemaker, straight-arrow Agent Killian (Arnett) shuts down the team and the animals are dispersed to a pet store. However, Darwin is certain that Saber is up to no good and he knows there is a 48 hour deadline before something really, really bad happens. His mission is to break out of the pet store with new flatulent friend Hurley (Favreau) with the help of psychotic part-ferret Bucky (Buscemi), find out what Saber is up to and save the day. He’ll have to avoid the FBI and their humorless agents who are chasing them, but they have turbocharged hamster balls (of the sort that Rhino used in Bolt) to elude their pursuers.

This is all in silly fun, and those who come to the theater looking for logic and plot or going to be tearing out their hair. Director Yeatman has a couple of visual effects Oscars to his name (one for technical achievement) and does a pretty decent job here, pacing the thing like you’d expect for a Bruckheimer movie – non-stop action with little pause for gathering ones wits.

The voice acting is credible, although Cage goes for the silly voice award of 2009. His nasal, Midwestern-accented take for Speckles is hysterical. Cruz goes for a bit of sex appeal and elevates her character above the typical Latina marine we’ve seen in cliché after cliché since Aliens. Tracy Morgan goes the ghetto route and comes off as kind of a cut-rate Chris Rock.

The live characters are pretty good, too – Nighy is always interesting, even when doing characters that are essentially boring and Arnett plays up the ramrod-stiff Killian to the point of ridiculousness which was certainly his intention.

The filmmakers are shooting for a pre-teen demographic, so there is a surfeit of fart jokes and robots – the global “threat” turns out to be giant robots made up of household appliances that apparently plan to stomp the human race out of existence. Me, I’d just wait ‘em out until their warranties expire.

Still, this is essentially safe and harmless fun that will keep most of your kids more than happy. The younger ones will coo over the lovable furry critters while the older ones will ooh and ahh over the cool robots that are a bit of a sly jab at the Transformers. There is certainly a dumb factor here – those who appreciate kids movies that don’t talk down to kids and treat them like they actually have brains are going to be sorely disappointed in G-Force but those who are looking just for something to keep their kids occupied and out of their hair for an hour or two will be quite satisfied.

Hmm, a kid’s movie that doesn’t pander to kids and treats them with intelligence. Locating a movie like that might be a job that even the G-Force can’t handle.

WHY RENT THIS: Harmless, mindless family film fun.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not what you’d call snappy dialogue or smart plotting. The preposterous meter is off the scale.

FAMILY VALUES: G-Force is suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ferris wheel shown in the film is located on the island of Okinawa in Japan in a shopping and entertainment district called American Village.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a notable featurettes on super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and also an interesting feature on how the germination for the idea behind G-Force came from director Yeatman’s pre-teen son.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Pontypool

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen


In this movie machines command far more attention than the stars.

In this movie machines command far more attention than the stars.

(DreamWorks) Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Kevin Dunn, Ramon Rodriguez, Julie White, Isabel Lucas, John Benjamin Hickey, Rainn Wilson, Michael Papajohn, Deep Roy. Directed by Michael Bay.

The most anticipated movie of summer 2009 was easily Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. After Michael Bay’s Transformers was a megahit in 2007, a sequel was inevitable. The questions are; would it be entertaining and would it be as good as the first.

Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) is trying to put his past behind him. Having helped defeat a race of evil robots, he is ready to resume a more-or-less normal life. He’s leaving home for college at an Ivy League school, much to the pride of his mother (White) and to the financial discomfiture of his father (Dunn). He is still with Mikaela (Fox), a much hotter girlfriend than he has a right to be with, and a robot guardian who transforms from a sick sportscar into Bumblebee a mute robot with the loyalty of a terrier.

However, destiny isn’t quite done with Sam Witwicky. A sliver from the Allspark that was destroyed in the first movie remained in his hoodie. When Sam picks it up, he begins to have visions of strange symbols, the meaning of which he can’t understand. He also begins to display an understanding of math and physics that is way beyond what humans currently understand.

The benevolent Autobots have not strayed far from Earth. Led by the noble Optimus Prime, they assist NEST, a military team led by Major Lennox (Duhamel) dedicated to rooting out stray Decepticons that have remained after the battle in which their leader, Megatron was apparently destroyed. Optimus and Lennox are disturbed because they have been a lot busier of late than they’ve ever been. Lennox believes that a signal sent out into space by Megatron before Optimus shut him down may have attracted new Decepticons to Earth, but for what purpose? With the Allspark gone, there isn’t anything left on Earth that the Decepticons would want – or is there?

The reason for the season turns out to be found in an ancient fact; the Transformers had been on Earth thousands of years before. It turns out they had been hopping from planet to planet, utilizing a machine that was able to extract energy from stars. The Primes, the ruling class of the Transformers, had forbidden the use of this machine on a planet that had life on it, but one of their brethren, to be known thereafter as The Fallen, attempted to use the machine on Earth, leading to a battle that would ignite the civil war that continued for millennia. The machine remained hidden on Earth, and the means to use it protected by the very bodies of the Primes. The Fallen, locked in exile off-planet, has plans to reactivate the machine and claim final victory over his nemesis Optimus Prime, but he would need his apprentice Megatron to do it. The wheels are turning and events set in motion. The stakes are sky-high; if Sam Witwicky can’t decipher what these symbols mean, the human race is lost.

Michael Bay has developed a reputation as a director as one who specializes in loud, aggressive action movies with lots of explosions, and this one is no different. In some ways, it’s the perfect summer movie – it doesn’t require too much thought and moves from one action sequence to the next with a minimum of exposition and a maximum of explosion. There are also gratuitous shots of Megan Fox looking worried (and sexy), annoyed (and sexy), disappointed (and sexy), scared (and sexy) and sexy (and….oh never mind). It’s a wet dream of a movie for adolescent boys. The pacing is meant for those with the attention span of adolescent boys.

The problem here is that most of the acting is as wooden as a log cabin. LaBeouf in particular seemed uninvested in the movie; I got the impression that we would have seen more passion from him at the bank while he was depositing the very large check he undoubtedly received for making the movie. Also, I have no idea why Megan Fox is in this movie other than to provide the target audience of young boys some sort of fantasy figure to run in slow-mo away from explosions. On that end she is at least successful; she looks very good running in slow-mo away from explosions. Only Turturro, Dunn and pop star Tyrese seem to be having any fun at all and Turturro is so over-the-top he’s almost annoying, like he’s a villain in a Robert Rodriguez children’s movie.

The special effects and action sequences are top-notch; I can guarantee you get more than your money’s worth in those departments. They’re good enough in fact to allow for a mild recommendation, which is more or less irrelevant because this movie will make big box office bucks regardless of what any critic has to say. And say it they will, and not without justification. My issue with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is not that it’s a bad movie; just that it’s a lazy one. It could have been written better, it could have been a much more satisfying film in so many ways if the filmmakers had taken the time to give it just a little bit of depth. One of my favorite movies from last summer was Iron Man – there was no shortage of action in that movie, but it was well-written and well-acted. Iron Man is a movie I own on DVD; I doubt I will be that interested in owning Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen unless it shows up in the Blockbuster pre-owned bin at a ridiculously low price.

So about those questions I asked earlier: is it entertaining? Definitely yes. Is it better than the first movie? I’d have to say no. If the reason you’re coming to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is, as my 20-year-old slacker son says, an excuse to see robots battling each other, you’re in for a treat. I have to admit, though, that’s an awfully low bar of expectations to have in this day and age.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects and robot battle scenes are extraordinary. Those who grew up with the Transformers are going to not only want to rent this but buy this for their home collection.

REASONS TO STAY: Poorly written and woodenly acted. It’s sometimes difficult to tell which robot is battling which, and who the good guys are (hint: they are the ones with color). It’s definitely aimed at adolescent males which may be a problem if you aren’t one.

FAMILY VALUES: Smaller children may be terrified at the battle scenes and the very LOUD sound effects.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Turturro was allowed to climb the pyramids in Giza for a climactic scene, a rarely-granted privilege. While filming the scene, he became so overwhelmed by the location that he broke down in tears.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: On the 2-Disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions, there is a feature on the history of the Transformers, and one in which a film crew accompanied director Michael Bay for 24 hours revolving around the film’s premiere in Tokyo. On Blu-Ray there is an Allspark feature that allows you to Transform customizable vehicles to see what happens. There is also a database of new characters for the movie that allow viewers to take a unique 3-D 360 degree look at the machines.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Away From Her