This Week’s New Releases
dir. Michael Bay
There is a scene in Transformers where a shady government agent—played for laughs, in one of the movie's many perplexities, by John Turturro—exalts the virtues of Nokia phones. Taken in a single serving, such blatant product endorsement would barely cause a ripple; taken after relentless pimping of the Hummer® H2®, the Pontiac® Solstice®, the GMC Topkick® 6500, the Xbox® 360, and the Strokes, however, it blazes past the mark of unseemly.
Thankfully, director Michael Bay has more up his sleeve than product placement. Transformers is loud, extravagant, and void of logic, but for the most part it lives up to what we expect from a Transformers movie—which is to say, it has giant robots crashing, puny humans scattering, and Optimus Prime preaching. The plot is of course secondary to the bombast: Dweeby teenager (Shia LeBeouf) gets his first car, only to find himself caught up in the latest skirmish of an intergalactic war between Autobots and Decepticons. Along the way, he manages to school government bigwigs, land the hottest girl in school, and help save humankind.
When Transformers works best, it's when Bay is allowed to give full attention to what he enjoys the most: blowing shit up. Watching Autobots and Decepticons thrash about, mankind's meager stone and steel structures crumbling around them, is indisputable fun. And there's a substantial amount of artistry to all the bedlam, helped immeasurably by the superb digital work of Industrial Light & Magic. But like every Michael Bay film, from Armageddon to The Island, the simple things, the things that don't go boom, are left to wither. The throwaway spectacle is enjoyable, but you crafted more noteworthy yarns when you were a kid playing with Transformers toys in the backyard. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
You Kill Me
dir. John Dahl
Director John Dahl assured his spot in the pop-culture pantheon (and seemingly perpetual TBS rotation) with 1998's Rounders. Prior to that, however, he first raised eyebrows with a remarkable triptych of crime films (1989's Kill Me Again, 1992's Red Rock West, and 1994's The Last Seduction) that put an ingenious black-comedy spin on classic noir themes. Tarantino may get the lion's share of credit for the '90s gangster revival, but Dahl laid the groundwork.
You Kill Me, Dahl's first film since the troubled WWII saga The Great Raid, plays quite a bit broader than his earlier work, but the director's sly tone and talent with character actors remains intact. It already feels old, in a good way. Ben Kingsley plays a vodka-infused hit man for the Polish mob sent to San Francisco to dry out after botching a crucial hit. As he stumbles and grumbles through AA, he finds romance with a neurotic ad exec (Téa Leoni), as well as a newfound confidence in his life's work.
Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's script has reportedly been making the Hollywood rounds for a few years, and, well, it often shows. No matter how played out the introspective hit man concept feels by now, though, the film often still runs like a dream, courtesy of Dahl's knack for finding room for such dependable heavies as Phillip Baker Hall, Bill Pullman, and (especially) Dennis Farina to shine. They provide sterling backup for Kingsley, who manages to give a fresh spin to every single drunken grimace and scowl. (If a feature adaptation of The Lockhorns ever gets made, he's the man.) Still, the big story may be that of Leoni, an actress whose off-kilter brass often seems to have flummoxed filmmakers. Here, though, she simply wallops every single line tossed her way. Comparisons to St. Stanwyck don't feel all that far off the mark. ANDREW WRIGHT
License to Wed
dir. Ken Kwapis
Sorry, but I don't even understand what this movie is about. Here's what happens: Ben and Sadie are in love. Sadie insists they marry in her local church (St. Augustine's, awfully Catholic-sounding but nonetheless Protestant, therefore probably Episcopalian), but before they can tie the knot, they have to get a "license to wed" from horrible (wacky!) Reverend Frank (Robin Williams). If Reverend Frank deems the couple unfit for marriage—a verdict determined by a regimen of physical torture and intrusive moralizing—then he has the right to call off their wedding.
Except—TIME OUT!—no he fucking doesn't! Hey grown-ups, guess what? You can do whatever you want. Want to get married? Go for it. (Oooh, but heteros only, okay?) Want to have premarital sex? No time like the present. Want to press charges against Reverend Frank for sending a hobbit to plant a microphone in your bedroom? Abso-fucking-mandatory!
But the grown-ups in License to Wed refuse to act like grown-ups. They follow Reverend Frank's demands (the ramblings of a mad zealot!) to the letter, even as he aggressively sabotages their relationship in the name of ye olde sanctity of marriage. Inappropriate, really.
This crushingly unfunny world is populated by regulars from NBC's The Office (Kevin, Kelly, Angela, Sandals Jamaica), with that show's rumpled lead, John Krasinski, rumpling his heart out as Ben. Krasinski, regarded around my apartment as the Ideal Man, is forced to play bug-eyed foil to Williams's weird pseudo-jive talk ("Cussin' the man is outta hand!") and near-constant punning ("Let's get the FLOCK outta here!"). Even worse is a pair of vomiting robo-babies that I'd rather not remember (stick around for the credits and see their palsied death masks wiggle in "dance").
Annie Wagner, this paper's liturgically savvy film editor, hypothesizes that License to Wed is a winky rib-tickler for Protestants who think Catholics are dangerous kooks, and vice versa. As someone significantly less thoughtful, I suspect it of being a piece of crap. Regardless, it's important to note that Ben and Sadie refer to sex as "[walking] the midget," "tickle-me-pickle-me," and playing "cigar vendor." God help us. LINDY WEST
dir. Andrew Currie
Few monsters lend themselves better to allegory than the good ol' zombie. In the years since George Romero first set the shambling mold with Night of the Living Dead, filmmakers have been using the undead as handy substitutes for concepts as varied as mall-walking consumers, the unwashed proletariat, punk rock, military meatheads, overpopulation, British soccer hooliganism, and Republicans. All this, and skin eating, to boot.
Lately, though, there have been signs that the concept might be losing a bit of its (ugh, sorry) bite. The recent SIFF entry Fido boasts a premise that might make for an amusing Far Side panel—'50s suburbia with zombie servants—and... doesn't do much else with it, actually. Still, its few flashes of wit and some above-the-call performances might make it worthwhile for the less demanding horror fan.
Director/cowriter Andrew Currie handily lays things out within the first few minutes, via a nicely square educational filmstrip: After nearly being wiped out in the initial zombie plague, America survives within a scattering of fenced communities, with all menial tasks carried out by domesticated deadheads kept in check by inhibitor collars that only occasionally go on the fritz. All is (relatively) well, until a lonely kid befriends his personal ghoul, much to the consternation of uptight Dad (Dylan Baker) and oddly repressed Mom (Carrie-Anne Moss). Cue the ironic splatter. That Fido sticks in the memory at all is largely due to the combined presence of Billy Connolly, who gives a hilarious, oddly touching silent performance in the title role, and Henry Czerny as the neighborhood's pipe-clenching authority figure. Even with their mighty efforts, though, and the existence of a few pointed sight gags (the zombie milkman is worth at least a chuckle or two) the majority of this one-note movie just feels strangely, well, lifeless. Urgh, brains? ANDREW WRIGHT
Seattle's first edition of Noir City—the film noir festival started in San Francisco in 2003—launches Seattle International Film Festival Group's new, year-round SIFF Cinema at McCaw Hall. There are 14 films in the series. Because most of them aren't on DVD and because SIFF didn't do press screenings, I could only see two of them. Perversely, I will not be writing about those two, because they are dull.
What looks less dull is Friday's double feature ($10 for both films) for the anticapitalists. Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway, about a hard-working trucker with a no-legged father, is paired with Deadline at Dawn (by Clifford Odets), with Susan Hayward as a dance partner for hire.
Sunday's Technicolor melodramas are for the homosexuals and other fans of wickedness: Desert Fury, with its gay gangsters and mother-daughter lust, goes great with Leave Her to Heaven, about the obsessive passion of a hottie by the name of Gene Tierney.
Monday and Tuesday: more rarities. Wednesday: a new print of the uppity B noir The Spiritualist, with cinematography by John Alton, with the bottom-feeder A picture Nightmare Alley, featuring carnies.
You'll hate yourself if you miss these films. ANNIE WAGNER