Monday, June 29, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): Ever ordered the largest combo meal at a fast food restaurant? Not just the regular combo, but the super-sized one? It sounds like a good idea at the time, but after only moments you begin to feel sick because you realize the stuff you're pouring into yourself has no substance or nutrition. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth and an even worse case of heartburn. Such is Michael Bay's latest addition to his over-the-top action movie resume. The more I reflect on the film, the more I simply hate it.

Sure, there are lots of robots fighting. And I mean lots. It's very easy to lose track which robot is which in the frenetic battle sequences filled with 360 degree spinning cameras and explosions every 4 seconds. It's also easy to lose track of what is actually happening in the plot. Sam (Shia Lebeauf) is going off to college, but not before happening upon a shard of the All-Spark from the first film. The shard somehow imprints a symbolic map onto his brain revealing a hidden energy source located somewhere on Earth. The Decepticons want the energy source, while the Autobots want to protect the Earth. Beyond that, the plot is quite convoluted and filled with holes. (For instance, there is an overly long sequence of the Decepticons falling to earth in giant balls of fire. Later, they join the final battle in the same manner by falling from space. Did they decide that the first entry into the atmosphere wasn't enough? They jumped back into space so that they could return via fireballs?). Many of the scenes seem to exist simply because Michael Bay thought they would be fun. Multiple dog humping jokes, any scene with Sam's college roommate, and a Transformer with genitalia are all patched into the story arc.

I don't have much energy to go into the details of the crass humor, the overt product placement, the racism inherent in two of the Transformers who embody every negative African-American stereotype imaginable, or that every woman in the movie--every single woman, including the extras--are present only to be ogled and objectified. When Walter Brueggemann describes our society's script as "technological therapeutic consumeristic militarism," it's as if director Michael Bay took that script and made a 150-minute long tribute to the worst aspects of the contemporary American zeitgeist. In terms of film quality, the editing is some of the worst I've seen in years. Action scenes jump from daylight to night in a matter of seconds; a car driving through the vast Egyptian wilderness is suddenly in a large village with cops chasing them. The film is a mess.

I imagine that many people's response to my critique will be "lighten up! It's just entertainment. Why care so much about a movie with fighting robots?" I care because movies can be both entertaining and enriching. Watch last year's Iron Man and WALL-E, or this year's Up and Star Trek. I don't want to come across as some sort of film elitist, but I do want to hold our forms of entertainment to a higher standard than the lowest common denominator. There is no such thing as mindless entertainment. You and I are using our minds and our hearts to engage with the medium of film presented before us. We are shaped by it--its messages, themes, and values--whether we are thinking about it or not. I prefer to be engaged and proactive instead of passively allowing the medium to shape me. Entertainment isn't inherently wrong, but we should be cautious and wise about what we find entertaining. When sexism, consumerism, militarism, and racism can be deemed acceptable through the label of "entertainment," it should cause us to ponder what we truly find noble, beautiful, and admirable.

I should note that I promoted the movie to junior high students before watching the film or reading reviews. I liked the first film, so I figured the second couldn't be that bad. I was wrong, and my eagerness trumped my wisdom. We ultimately chose to watch the film as a youth group, dialoging about the content with students both before and afterwards. I was encouraged to hear students speak up about what they found entertaining (robots fighting) and what they found unnecessary (crude humor, inappropriate sexuality, unnecessary language, etc.). Would I recommend this film as a youth group outing? No. Did we manage to redeem an unwise choice on my part through dialogue and discernment? Thankfully, yes.

In the end, I consider the second Transformers film to be one of the worst films of 2009. Is it entertaining? Absolutely. Is it noble, beautiful, admirable, creative, or redemptive in any way? Absolutely not.

Away We Go (2009): Like Garden State for 30-somethings, Away We Go is both a lighthearted and sobering meditation on the value of community and family. When Burt and Verona find themselves pregnant, they begin a journey towards understanding what community truly is and what kind of family they want to become. Traveling all across the U.S. visiting friends and family, they use each location to evaluate their own relationship and decide what really fits best for them.

Burt (John Krasinksi) is sincere, optimistic, and winsome; Verona (Maya Rudolph) is a bit more reserved and cynical, yet carries herself with confidence. I liked them instantly. They're a couple deeply committed to one another and clearly in love. Yet unlike every couple they encounter, they choose to remain unmarried. Burt definitely desires marriage, but Verona is resolved to never give in. This leads to one of the most romantic and authentic conversations held between an on-screen couple as they evaluate their future while lying on a trampoline. In an unconventional way, they already have all the elements of a healthy marriage; they're fully committed to one another, they celebrate and encourage one another, they're having a kid together, and there seems to be no option of quitting. Other couples in the film give terrible reasons for marriage (getting insurance, making it more difficult to leave the other person, etc.) In a culture where over half of our marriages end in divorce and pain, it's no wonder that so many young couples are choosing to go the route of Burt and Verona. It raises the question: what is marriage? Is it when you sign a piece of paper handed to you by the state? Is it when you dress up and say vows and smooch in front of family and friends? Is it your first full sexual experience with a person you love? Where is that point where we go from "unmarried" to "married?" Perhaps it's more like the ongoing process of redemption than it is a one-time event.

Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and penned by writer couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Away We Go has a subtle hipster charm that captures where I find myself in this life stage. Sure, I'm not in my 30s like Burt and Verona. But this is where I'm at in life. Watching a pregnant couple evaluate their future reflects the past 9 months of my life as Katie and I prepare for our first child. Katie laughed at all the awkward pregnant situations because this is her life. I loved seeing Burt encourage Verona in silly ways, professing his love to her in honest and simple ways, because this is my life.

At one point, Verona asks Burt if they're screw-ups (though replace "screw" with a four-letter word). Verona believes that they're naive in the ways of life, that they should have figured more out at this point. I wonder if that feeling ever goes away. I wonder if we ever get to a point where we've got everything figured out and it all makes sense. I'm not sure that I ever want to be there. There is rich beauty in mystery and wondering about the unknown. It's a journey that doesn't have a clear destination, but the community of people we bring into our lives makes that journey worthwhile. So I'm willing to embrace film's message of journeying towards community together, regardless of where it takes us. And away we go.


  1. "Job has all his children killed, and Michael Bay gets to keep making movies. There isn't a God."

    -Kyle Broflovski

  2. Who is this Kyle, and how do you pronounce his last name?