Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I can't believe we're paying to see something we get on TV for free. Everyone in this theatre is a sucker!

So I just got back from The Simpsons Movie. Was it the greatest experience of my life? Not quite, but I sure had a fun time.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Following the delightful gag of Ralph singing the 20th Century Fox fanfare, we get an Itchy and Scratchy short which Homer complains about having to pay to see on the big screen (and points his finger at all us suckers in the audience). Then we get a revamped version of the classic opening titles, with more detail and movie-related gags.

The first 20 minutes are so are as funny as anything in the show's golden age. Bart skateboards naked (we get a flash of his little winky) and Homer adopts the lovable Spider-Pig (or Harry Plopper). When the plot finally kicks in it's pretty much the same kind of environmental catastrophe we've witnessed on the show before, just on a bigger scale.

President Schwarzenegger (they never comment on why he looks and acts just like Rainier Wolfcastle) unwittingly orders Springfield to be enclosed in a dome after Homer dumps pig crap in the lake and contaminates the whole town. Of course, the whole town then turns against Homer and the family are forced to flee to Alaska. Homer's selfishness drives away his family (Bart even considers Flanders as a father figure) but Homer becomes a hero by the end and saves Springfield from being destroyed.

The plot does take advantage of the big screen format with some epic landscapes and action scenes, but essentially it's a regular episode stretched to 87 minutes, which will undoubtedly test the patience of some viewers (though I was hooked throughout). The characters are all pretty true to themselves, and there's more heart than we've seen in the show of late. A regular character even dies at the end (though I suspect he or she will still be featured on the show next season).

Unfortunately, the focus on the Simpsons means that pretty much every supporting character gets ignored (Mr. Burns only gets two scenes and Sideshow Bob is nowhere to be seen, unless I blinked and missed him). Hopefully this means we'll get to see some great deleted scenes on the DVD, though. Albert Brooks can add another classic Simpsons character to his roster with the power hungry EPA head Russ Cargill. The other celebrity guest stars, which include Green Day and Tom Hanks, are pretty unremarkable.

Thankfully, there are some great gags that weren't given away in the trailers, such as when Disneyesque animals undress Homer and Marge before they make love and Homer's "Sop" signs, which had me in stitches.

If you go in expecting the funniest movie ever, you're bound to be disappointed. This is basically an above average episode of the show and it doesn't really push the envelope in any ways the show hasn't (the kids in the screening I saw seemed to love it, and there wasn't really anything over their heads). It's just a fun time with our favourite family on the big screen. Perhaps if they make a sequel, we'll actually get to see something new and exciting, but this is fine for a first attempt.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

More than meets the eye (sometimes less would be better)

So I finally got to see Transformers (thank you Paramount for deciding to release it in the UK over two weeks after America!). As someone who's been waiting for a live action Transformers film for 21 years, I was expecting the worst when I heard how little relation it would bear to what's known by fans as Generation 1 (i.e. the original line of toys, comics, cartoons, etc.) However, the end result is a pretty good film (or at least as good as one directed by Michael Bay could be).

SPOILERS FOLLOW

It opens with narration by Optimus Prime (showcasing the great voice of Peter Cullen is a good way to placate the diehard fans early on) explaining the revised mythology of the Transformers. They have left Cybertron in search of a giant cube called the Allspark, which is basically the Creation Matrix under another name.

The film then cuts to the modern day middle east where American soldiers are given water by smiling Arab children (this is a fantasy film, ok). An unknown helicopter arrives at the U.S. base and we get our first look at the transformation process when it changes into a giant robot and blows the shit out of the base.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. Sam Witwicky (known as Spike in the original cartoon) is, like all straight American teen boys, desperate to get a car and a girl. Of course, the car he gets turns out to be the Autobot Transformer, Bumblebee. There's a great deal of humour in this section of the film as Sam slowly learns about his car's origins and woos Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). This part of the film also shows the clearest influence of producer Steven Spielberg, with its everyman hero and sense of wonder. The subplot of Sam's great-great-grandfather's glasses leading to the Allspark seemed a bit too much like something out of National Treasure, though. In fact, the Allspark is a rather ridiculous MacGuffin, even transforming a Mountain Dew vending machine into a robot at one point!

In contrast, the military scenes are clearly the parts Bay enjoys the most, and every time we cut back to their reaction to the alien threat it almost feels like a recruiting film for the U.S. military ("these guys don't lose" as a character says at one point). The military were always a part of the Transformers story, but here it seems overkill (they even take down a Decepticon in the final battle, which would be akin to a caveman defeating a heavily armoured modern soldier).

It's a long wait for the introduction of Optimus and the other Autobots and an even longer wait for Megatron to appear, but luckily the comedy (most of it intentional) holds the viewer's interest. When the Autobots land and assume their Earth forms it's a thrilling moment. Later, when Bumblebee is captured by the government and tortured, only the hardest of hearts won't feel at least a little sad for the little yellow fella.

The last act of the film is all action and while occasionally it's too busy and slightly headache inducing, it's more exiting than any of the other summer blockbusters this year. The transformations (which keep the sound from the original cartoon) come thick and fast and there is a great deal of destruction, though magically no humans seem to be harmed. The ending leaves the door open for a sequel, of course, with the Autobots deciding to stay on Earth and Starscream escaping into space. Hey, maybe for the sequel they could actually get people who are fans of the Transformers to write and direct. Just a suggestion.

As I suspected, the film does place too much focus on the human characters (who, aside from Sam, really don't deserve the amount of screentime they get) but at least the cast, which also includes John Turturro, Jon Voight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Tom Lenk, is enjoyably eclectic. Shia La Boeuf gives a star-making turn as Sam. The way the characters join forces at the end is clumsily handled, though. Just like in Independence Day, they are all invited into a secret base to see everything the government has been hiding. And for some reason the military guys instantly believe Sam and help him free Bumblebee despite never even sharing a word beforehand. It would make more sense for the humans to take a little longer to trust the Autobots, as they did in the original cartoon and comic.

The Transformers themselves, despite the ugly redesign work which makes them hard to tell apart, are fairly close in personality to their original incarnations, especially the Autobots. Any G1 fan is sure to get a little misty-eyed when Prime utters any of his classic lines ("Autobots, roll out!") and he even uses his laser sword at one point. Jazz keeps his soul brother personality, but then they have to kill him at the end! Boo!

Hugo Weaving's voice, though virtually unrecognisable, is suitably menacing as Megatron, and there's a hint of his old animosity with Starscream. It's amusing that Megatron doesn't change into a handgun anymore because of the unbelievability of a giant robot becoming something so small, yet the giant Allspark handily changes to suitcase size at the end. The other Decepticons are pretty much cannon fodder, apart from the tiny Frenzy who serves as the robotic "comic relief".

The special effects by ILM are stunning, though it's sometimes hard to tell what's going on because of the overuse of closeups and quick cutting. The Transformers do look like they're part of the real world around them, which adds to the believability. There's also some fun sight gags in the film, such as Bumblebee being parked next to a yellow VW bug when Sam first sees him (the VW was the Autobot's alternate mode in the original series, of course) and the "to punish and enslave" slogan on the side of Barricade in his police car form.

Overall, it's a fine start to the franchise. Ignore the Transformer-sized plot holes and typical Bay cheesiness and it's quite a ride. Hopefully the sequels will have more depth and more focus on the Transformers themselves. But I'm just glad the film was finally made after I bugged Hollywood for years about it on my website.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Jack recently tagged me in the spreading-like-wildfire Eight Simple Things meme, the rules for which are as follows.

1. First, those tagged must explain the rules, as I am currently doing.
2. Secondly, share no more or less than eight facts about yourself.
3. Thirdedly, tag eight of your unsuspecting blogger friends, who are thereby contractually bound by law to do the same. If you do not comply, you will be fed to the crocodiles.

So to keep things kind of on-topic, I'll share 8 facts about myself that are somewhat related to Imaginary Cinema:

1) My first crush was Princess Leia

2) I sneaked into my first 18-rated movie when I was 14 (it was Total Recall)

3) I have a phobia of Julia Roberts

4) I've written more screenplays than I can count

5) I'm addicted to DVDs

6) I've saved tickets for every movie I've seen since 1989

7) I once served popcorn to Faye Dunaway

8) I will be eaten by crocodile

So if anyone reads this and wants to play along, feel free. I'm too lazy to tag anyone.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Harry Potter and the Exceedingly Short Running Time

So I saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix yesterday. Short review: it was an entertaining film, but a pretty poor adaptation of the book. I don't think director David Yates is to blame, since the visuals and performances are fine. But Michael Goldenberg taking over from Steve Kloves as writer really doesn't seem to have helped things - the film rushes through and skips over scenes from the book far more than the previous films did. It's almost like someone telling you what happened in a book when they can't quite remember it. The fact that the longest book in the series has the shortest running time of all the films so far speaks volumes.

WARNING: SPOILERS!

The opening scene is very naturalistic as Dudders (who looks almost unrecognisable now) taunts Harry in a playground. Then the sky clouds over and the world of magic and menace enters the real world as Dementors attack them. After Harry is expelled from Hogwarts for using a patronus, the Dursleys lock him up yet again (they really don't want to get rid of him for some reason) but he is rescued by wizards led by the real Mad Eye Moody.

They fly to Grimmauld Place where the houses slide open to reveal the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. Harry is reunited with his friends (Yates' big addition to the franchise seems to be giving all the boys short hair) and it's fun to see most of the characters from the previous films all in one place, though it's a shame actors such as David Thewlis are given so little to do.

Following his trial at the Ministry of Magic (an impressive location) Harry is allowed to go back to Hogwarts, but all is not well there. Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, who gets the right mix of fuzziness and pure evil) is the new defence against the dark arts teacher, and she has big plans for the school. In a creepy scene, she tortures Harry while pictures of cute cats meow on her walls.

There's an entertaining montage sequence where Harry teaches his group, Dumbledore's Army, practical magic while Umbridge has signs banning everything placed in the school. When Harry's group is discovered, Dumbledore takes the blame and disappears with style. An even more crowdpleasing scene occurs when Fred and George decide they've had enough of Umbridge and Hogwarts and leave with a spectacular fireworks show.

When Harry's dreams lead him to the ministry in search of a prophecy that Voldemort needs, the film finally kicks into high gear. The showdown between the wizards and Death Eaters is exciting, though Sirius Black's death is as sudden and low key as it was in the book. The duel between Voldy and Dumbledore is amazing.

Many of the problems with the film were also present in the book, which is the least eventful of the series and seems to be just setting the stage for the final confrontation for the most part. However, these problems have been compounded by the relentless streamlining of the plot which has changed many important details from the book and virtually eliminated any scenes that don't directly involve Harry. Many of the characters are unfortunately sidelined, even Ron. Matthew Lewis has a bigger role this time, though, which should please all the Neville fan girls. Nearly all the child actors continue to improve in their roles.

The new characters get better treatment than the existing ensemble, though Helena Bonham Carter has little to do as Bellatrix except chew scenery. Evanna Lynch (who has never acted before) is perfect as Luna Lovegood - it's as if she stepped right off the page.

The special effects are stunning, though still a little cartoony in parts. The diminutive Kreacher is better animated than the giant Grawp.

Overall, it's a fine film if you ignore the book. Though whether the plot is even comprehensible to people who've never read the books I can't say. Hopefully Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will be able to find a middle ground between being too faithful to the book (as some accused the first two films of being) and offering a vague synopsis of the book rather than a proper adaptation (as OOTP seems to be doing at times).

I am glad that Harry wasn't quite as whiny in the film as he was in the book, though. It would have been a little too "Anakin" for my liking.


In other news, I went to Star Wars Celebration Europe today. What a waste of money.