Friday, July 1, 2011

Movie Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

"Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?" - Trey Parker, End of an Act, Team America: World Police
The third installment of the Transformers franchise (stuck with a goofy title of Dark of the Moon) is director Michael Bay's third crack at getting the "giant robots doing battle" formula right. While marginally better than the awful 2nd film of the series, with Dark of the Moon we get more of the same with more polished and impressive overall visual effects paired with even worse acting from a hodgepodge of Hollywood's best.

The story in this movie sucks. We're supposed to pretend a Transformer landing on the moon is the reason for the 1969 voyage to the moon surface. Buzz Aldren even makes a cameo to sell the plot. Basically an Autobot returns from the moon and goes all haywire and hooks up with the Decepticons. Meanwhile Shia Lebouf is running around the feet of these robots the entire movie. His Sam Witwicky character has become so tiresome and this may be the single worst acting performance I've seen in the past decade. From the start of the film he has this annoying cocky attitude and constantly screams and yells his lines like he's on crack. We meet his character in bed with the lovely Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Megan Fox's replacement for this installment). Rosie towers over him and we're supposed to believe that she's in love with this little asshole of a character. (Side note: Michael Bay definitely likes him some Rosie as he gives the audience some choice camera angles of her Victoria's Secret figure throughout the movie) Lebouf has turned into a very mediocre actor. The only reason he's got such high name recognition and Q rating is that he luck-boxed his way into this cash cow of a franchise.

Besides a terrible plot and terrible human characters, we get a waste of talent with the likes of John Malcovich, Francis McDormand, Patrick Dempsey and even The Hangover / Community comedic maestro Ken Jeong throwing up all over the screen. These are Oscar nominated actors (well... not Dempsey or Jeong) and they look like clueless bit-players throughout the movie. Bay just gets no life out of the actors he directs. It's stunning to watch. Once again we're subject to small annoying pint-sized Transformers that dance around, bump into things and talk jive all the time. They all have annoying faces and hair and just completely ruin every scene they're in. There's so much forced comedy in this movie and literally NONE of the jokes work. This is how you take an hour long movie and bloat it out to 2.5 hours. Michael Bay needs to simply direct action scenes and that's it.

There are a few good parts to this piece of crap. We get a LOT more robot on robot action than we did in either of the first two movies. The 3D effects were outstanding and while not even close to the revolutionary engaging views in Avatar, Bay did a solid job in making 3D relevant in the action genre again. The battles are really immense in scope and scale. Buildings in DC and Chicago get pummeled relentlessly. Bay can't let go of the closeup action shot though. Again we see messes of metal and sparks slugging it out in such chaos that we can't tell what's going on. Thankfully he is trying to change things up and there are several well shot scenes that are set up from a further perspective. In 3D, these scenes are breathtaking and actually calmed me down a little bit towards the end of the movie.

I'm giving a meager 1.5 out of 5 JR's for Transformers: Dark of the Moon. 1 JR for the amazing 3D CGI visuals and 0.5 JR's for the visuals of Huntington-Whiteley. The last hour of this movie is truly epic. The problem is that we have to sit through the first 1.5 hours with no build-up and no characters to root for (CGI or human). This movie has no soul or pulse and is merely eye candy. I feel that Michael Bay should sell alternate half-price tickets that allow admittance to this film solely for the last hour-long fight sequence. I would probably have given 4 JRs if I had that limited experience. I wish someone would reboot this franchise and design all new Transformers that don't take 10,000 movements to transform. These robots with faces and the whole alien look and feel just don't remind me of the toys I loved as a child. I feel that sometimes an effects team should show some restraint with their design technique. Bay and company obviously feel that excess is best and restraint is for losers. The only hope I have for this franchise is if the directing reigns were given to a capable visionary action director like Zach Snyder or Jon Favreau and the ever-annoying Shia Lebouf was sent packing.

Also, bonus negative points for having a fricking transforming Jimmie Johnson car in this movie. Really!?!?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Play Review: Sleep No More

In a sparsely populated area on the West side of New York City sits the Mckittrick Hotel, a old five floor building that is still stuck in the 1940's and houses one of the most brilliantly conceived theatrical productions in the world. Sleep No More is the brainchild of Punchdrunk, a UK-based theater company that specializes in free-flowing performances that allow the audience to roam and experience events on their own. I ended up attending the well-reviewed New York show at the McKittrick with Karrin on Saturday night. The best way to review this work of art is to give a blow-by-blow synopsis of what I experienced. Keep in mind that my experience was unlike what any other audience member experienced on his/her own. Warning: If you want to know NOTHING about this play, skip to the last paragraph of this review. Sometimes it's best to know
as little as possible when going into an experience like this one.

We arrived at the hotel after having an excellent dinner across the street at Ovest (delicious short rib Gnocchi!). The performance actually started in line to get in the hotel as the "bouncer" at the front door was a young woman with an excellent British accent who seemed ultra cheery and decided to ridicule some of the guests. It really set the tone for the rest of the night. Once we got in the door we were led to a check-in area. I simply told them my name and both Karrin and I each received a playing card. I got the Queen of spades and Karrin got a 10 of clubs. We then had to find our way through a sequence of small dark halls until we arrived in a lounge that was totally time-warped back to the turn of the century. A band was performing, waitresses passing out drinks (including Absinthe) and guests milling around. Every 5-10 minutes an emcee would take the stage and announce that everyone holding a certain card can now enter the door at the side of the room. When we got there, they announced 8's, then 9's. I was kind of antsy as Karrin had a 10 and I had a Q. I ended up trading with another guy who wanted a Q to get an identical 10 to Karrin's card.

About 10 minutes later, the 10's were called and we both proceeded to the side room where we were each given a white mask (shown here). We put the masks on and gathered with 20 or so other people in a small room. Another young woman came in and explained to us the rules of the performance. We were able to walk anywhere and touch anything but could not take our mask off or talk to anyone. The whole explanation was very cool and eerie and we were handed off to the elevator operator who kept stopping at random floors, letting a handful of us off the elevator at each stop. Once Karrin and I got out on floor three we separated. We had read some reviews that said the show was best experienced alone so everyone in your party didn't end up seeing the exact same thing. We did end up bumping into each other a couple times during the night but for the most part I was on my own.

Thankfully I wore shorts and sneakers for the performance as I spent most of my time walking briskly from floor to floor and checking at least 60-70 rooms. Some of which were stuffy and uncomfortable while others were cool and airy. Wearing shorts was the right decision as I'm pretty sure I lost a few pounds during the show. The "plot" of Sleep No Moore is loosely based off of Shakespeare's Macbeth but played more like a weird David Lynch film. I immediately started off going from room to room on the third floor, rummaging through old books, opening drawers and finding various random knick knacks. The first encounter I had with a performer was when Lady Macbeth stumbled into a room full of old hospital beds. She kept mumbling something about blood. I followed her into another room filled with 8 bathtubs. She then disrobed (I probably saw about 4 pairs of breasts and enough male nudity for one night) and got in a tub and immediately started to wipe blood off her hands and scream. A nurse then came in, comforted her and whisked her away.

Later on I was in a room with two other audience members. One guy was behind a counter of jars of candy, looking through a ledger. Just then, an actor came in (the actors are easy to spot because they're the only ones not wearing masks) and grabbed a bouquet of flowers off of a table. He then walked to the audience member behind the counter and pointed to various jars of candy. The audience member in the mask kept reaching for jars and opened them for the actor. It was an early-on piece of unique audience/cast interaction that made me realize this play was whatever I wanted to make of it. Keep in mind that all of these events are in some way tied to the overall plot but with so much action happening at once on five different floors, there are things I definitely missed. In talking with Karrin, she ended up seeing more killing scenes than I did while I ended up witnessing a cabaret singer in the hotel lobby and a four-way fight in and around the check-in counter.

The brilliance of Sleep No More is the freedom given to the audience. I was able to go and stand wherever I wanted. I could go right up next to a performer and study him/her up close. At one point, Macbeth scaled a wall next to me and literally walked over top of me. At another point in the action I ended up at a small shack in the corner of a large room filled with a maze of tree branches. A nurse was standing at the opening of the shack looking into the distance. She then pulled an audience member into the shack with her. I moved close to the wooden structure and peered through a tiny crack I could see into the shack and saw the nurse take the audience member's mask off and then start to feed her some tea. She was also talking in whispers to her. It was very cool, and intriguing. Anyone who is into voyeurism will have a field day at this play.

The signature moment of my personal experience in the play came 2/3 of the way through the night. I started following this young woman who was carrying a suitcase. I saw her in the hotel lobby down on the first floor and walked behind her up to the third floor. Not many other audience members were joining me so I kept pursuing her. She stopped at a door to another room I had never been in. She then turned around, looked at me and held out her hand. I of course took it (having already seen the cool scene in the shack) and she lead me into the room. She turned and locked the door, then slowly walked to me and took off my mask. At this point I was slightly freaked out. I didn't know whether to talk, smile or run away. She then hung up the mask in a closet at the back of the room. She led me over to the opening of the closet and started telling me a story in a soft-toned French accent. It was very Shakespeare so I lost interest early and couldn't really follow it (I mean I was trapped in a strange old hotel room with a stranger - all be it a cute one). After her two minute story she took a little locket necklace out of the closet and put it around my neck then whispered that this would keep me safe. I sort of actually believed her and she put my mask back on and then gently pushed me into the closet and closed the door. I then realized the closet was a door to another room and managed to fumble around and find my way out and back into the overall performance space. This was a great example of the unique experience that each audience member can have in Sleep No More.

On top of the interactivity and originality of the performance style, the set design itself was out of this world. So many intricate details throughout the rooms of the hotel really make you feel as if you are in another time and space. A particularly strange sequence occurred in a room filled with pounding club music and a strobe light. I stumbled into a weird scene with naked people dancing with each other and passing a bloody newborn baby around. Really, if you don't like weird bizarre things this show might not be for you. Towards the end of the night we were escorted by the actors down to the first floor an experience a final scene where all of the audience is joined together. After the scene we found ourselves back in the lounge we started in and walked back through the dark corridors and out into the streets of New York wondering WHAT. JUST. HAPPENED!

Sleep No More comes extremely close to receiving the first 5 out of 5 JR rating for 2011. I had to bump it down to a 4.5 as I really wish the story was different. The Macbeth angle didn't really appeal to me and the lack of overall dialogue by the actors was slightly annoying. If you take the same setting and add in some more scares and actual conversation (non-Shakespeare especially), you would have the most engaging play experience imaginable. I would also recommend going on a weeknight if possible. There were a lot of people at our performance and I really think it would have been more enjoyable (and less cramped) if a third of the audience was not there. As-is though, this is a must-see for anyone visiting the Big Apple. Prepare yourself for a totally unique and original immersive experience that you alone can control. I'm hoping Punchdrunk decides to take their talents to DC sometime.

Interesting side note: Walking back to the hotel after the play, some guy came up to me and asked where I got my mask. I told him and he offered to pay me for it. I ended up selling it for $10 as I'm pretty sure I won't have another chance to wear it again. Keep that in mind if you go and want to make a little cash on the side.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Play Review: Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark

There hasn't been a more publicized play production in several decades than Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark, the struggling creation of Julie Taymor with music from Bono and The Edge. Taymor was recently let go from the production and large chunks of the musical were re-written and tinkered with. The play has received mixed reactions from critics and some criticize the massive 60 million dollar budget. Despite all the hype and negative feedback, I felt like this was a one-time chance to see this thing as I went to New York City over the weekend with my girlfriend.

After paying $15 for a special Spider Man mixed drink (by the way, you CAN bring food and drink into plays these days - I so did not know that), I took my seat and right off the bat I could tell this was a Bono/Edge production. The Edge's signature guitar tones are omnipresent throughout the muscial and really help set the atmosphere. The story is one we all know from the first Spider-Man film. Peter Parker is a photography nerd that digs Mary Jane. He gets bitten by a radioactive spider, gets confronted by his nemesis The Green Goblin and eventually saves the day and gets the girl. If these pieces of information are spoilers for you then you probably wouldn't be interested in this musical in the first place.

At a brisk 2.5 hours, Spider-Man flows well. Sure some of the musical numbers are forgettable and some of the supporting acting is so-so. Reeve Carney is great (as Peter/Spidey) as is the Goblin (Patrick Page) but Mary Jane is just OK as Mary Jane. Most everyone can sing well though so the quality of Bono's music comes through without a filter. The main power ballad Rise Above is the highlight of the soundtrack here. It has that signature ripcord chorus highlighted by a killer Edge riff that U2 is famous for. (Bonus U2 "audio easter eggs" are featured throughout the show as "Sunday Bloody Sunday" plays in a car radio and "Vertigo" blares at a club. A nice touch for fans of the Irish band.)

The real draw and spectacle of this show is the production value. Sets are very intricate and the transitions from scene to scene are seemless. The aerial action is incredible and there are even times when Spidey/other characters touch down in the middle of the audience in the orchestra section. A particularly genius set confines Peter Parker to a small comic book styled room in which he realizes he has super powers. Parker is seen crawling and bouncing off all four walls as stage hands position the walls to propel him around the set. The rigs and harnesses really do give the effect of flight and the wire work is the best I've ever seen in a stage performance. The art direction gives a sense that the play was pulled directly from a comic book especially in the final scene that shows a NYC building in perspective as if the audience is looking at the tip of the building down to the street. As evidenced by the escalating budget, the production team really did spare no expense in building the Spider-Man world of New York.

We ended up getting discounted tickets but unfortunately were placed in the back of the first level orchestra section. Seeing the stage was easy (see the pic above), but we ended up missing small parts of the high-flying action in the second act. If you go I would recommend sitting outside of the 2nd level overhang so you can see everything that goes on in the air. And yes, I DO recommend giving Spider-Man a try if you go to NYC. This is one of the more entertaining plays I've seen in a while. If you're looking for memorable lyrics or outstanding acting performances then you're heading into this with the wrong expectations. It's not a perfect play and won't win any Tony Awards. At its core, the musical is simply a unique and energetic stage performance that features just enough clever hooks by two members of one of the greatest rock bands of my generation. Well worth the price we paid and not at all the bust that critics are making out to be. So for my first ever play review on this blog, I give Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark 4 out of 5 JRs.