#ThrowbackThursday – The Big Lebowski

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Original US release date: March 6, 1998
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $17,451,873

Okay, I’ll admit it: this is my first time seeing this movie.  Honestly, it just never appealed to me.  I was under the impression that the film was a litany of drug humor, which is something that has never struck a chord for me, as it’s easy and essentially a form of pandering that lacks any true semblance of wit or creativity.  Over the years, however, I’ve attained a strong fondness for Jeff Bridges, so I figured it was about time to give this one a chance and see if it lived up to the long-standing hype.  The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, are hit-and-miss for me (and only Joel receives a directing credit with both he and Ethan being credited ad co-writers), but I’d been stubborn long enough; it was time for me to finally watch The Big Lebowski.

For those like me who haven’t seen the film, The Big Lebowski tells the tale of the Dude (real name Jeff Lebowski, played by Bridges) as he gets mistaken for a millionaire with the same name (David Huddleston).  When the millionaire’s daughter (Tara Reid) is kidnapped and held for ransom, the Dude recruits his bowling buddies (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) to help him find her and resolve his role in the situation.

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I’m happy to say that my impression that the film was a drug comedy, like some highly-regarded progenitor to Superbad, was way off base.  Yes, the Dude does drugs, but in no way does this permeate the entire film, neither through the humor nor the narrative.  Surprisingly, the drug references are rather sparse and the Coen brothers instead use dialogue and situational humor to earn their laughs, never relying on the cheap jokes and visual gags that drug humor so easily provides.  There’s a little bit of that (including a highly entertaining dance/dream sequence), but most of the comedy is rooted in the script and the performances.  And it’s genuinely funny.

Jeff Bridges turns in a casually endearing performance as the Dude.  The Dude is surprisingly likeable and even more surprisingly level-headed.  He’s a do-nothing slacker, for sure.  And, being perpetually unemployed, it’s not entirely clear how he pays for . . . well . . . anything at all, really.  So, he isn’t contributing to society in any meaningful way.  But it’s clear that he could.  He’s reasonably intelligent and genuinely cares for other people.  It’s difficult to dislike him, even if he seemingly mooches off of society.  Bridges’s performance only compounds the issue as he injects so much sincerity into the Dude’s every line of dialogue and action that one can’t help but feel drawn to him.

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In discovering the character of the Dude, I also discovered that, rather than being the druggie comedy I expected, The Big Lebowski is actually a fish-out-of-water crime caper.  The Dude doesn’t really belong anywhere.  Sure, he’s comfortable with his bowling friends, but – outside of that one particular hobby – neither of those guys are very much like the Dude, at all.  Buscemi’s Dave is a well-meaning, weak-kneed putz who’s lucky to have found anyone who will spend time with him in any capacity, at all.  And Goodman’s overbearing Walter puts all of his energy into himself while positing a love for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (reminding me of half of my current Facebook feed, in the process).

And if the Dude doesn’t really fit in with his friends, he’s even more displaced once he gets wrapped up with multimillionaires and career criminals.  The Dude wants his life to be as simple and uneventful as possible.  This film is what happens when he is forced to live a life that is the very antithesis of simple and uneventful.  Yet, even though these adventures have been thrust upon him against his own will and doing, when he sees that other people are in danger, he never hesitates to try to help.  At the same time, he refuses to allow these societal bigwigs and bullies to steamroll him.  This duality is the heart of the character and why he has resonated with so many people for almost two decades.

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So, I get it, now.  I understand why people still associate Jeff Bridges with this character and this film.  I understand why people still talk about the film and still make references to it in casual conversation or in other forms of media.  While, for me personally, it doesn’t stand out as any sort of an all-time favorite, I can absolutely see why it does for so many others and I’m glad I finally took the time to check it out.  It’s simply not always the best idea to trust our own impressions of a film, especially when so many others love it.  Sadly, this is another in a long line of films that failed at the box office despite it’s superior quality.  If only America could learn a lesson and start supporting these types of movies more often.  Still, I suppose a post-theatrical-run cult following is better than nothing.  So, if you are like I was and you haven’t checked out The Big Lebowski, follow my lead and give it at least one viewing.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Big Lebowski

Review – Transformers: The Last Knight

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I have a feeling this is a wasted column.  Let’s be honest; you’ve already made your mind up about this movie.  Most of you probably did so without even seeing it.  So, why should I bother?  Maybe there’s one person out there who actually cares what I think, regardless of their own opinion?  Probably not.  But I should go ahead and write it, just in case!

So, yes, here we are with Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth film in the franchise helmed by Michael Bay based on the Hasbro toy line from the eighties.  The films aren’t particularly well-regarded among film geeks but they have tended to play well with the masses and have made lots of money for Paramount.

(On an interesting side note, I just got back from Orlando, where I finally got the chance to check out the new Transformers ride at Universal Studios.  I love Universal Studios, but I was disappointed by this particular ride.  It used the exact same format and technology as the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at their neighboring Islands of Adventure park, with no apparent technological advances, even though the Spider-Man ride is well over a decade older than the Transformers ride.  The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is amazing, though, and the two accompanying rides are better – especially The Forbidden Journey.)

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The film is already massively underperforming in North America (I had a private showing, today), though it’s doing respectable business in the rest of the world.  That’s not altogether different from the last installment, Age of Extinction (the best film of the franchise), and speaks more to American sensibilities than anything else.  Americans will sit and binge-watch 120 episodes of a television show with a single bathroom break but balk at the idea of a fourth or fifth film in a franchise.  This film could be the legitimate greatest movie of all time and three-quarters of Americans would declare that it sucked and subject anyone who liked it to online bullying that would make Randy Marsh proud.  But, as I pointed out in this column, it’s not all about America, anymore.

Having said that, Transformers: The Last Knight is not the greatest movie of all-time.  The story, here, is that the Decepticons are hoping to use an ancient artifact located on (you guessed it) Earth in order to suck the life out of the planet and restore their home world of Cybertron.  Along the way, there is a much-publicized heel turn by Optimus Prime, hoping to inject a fresh little twist into the proceedings.

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It doesn’t help much.  Yes, narratively speaking, there is some new stuff going on in The Last Knight, but it unfolds at such a plodding pace and with such lifeless delivery that I actually once found myself thinking back to the Simpsons ride at Universal Studios.  The movie is, simply put, obnoxiously boring.  Exposition is necessary in all films, but it needs to be done in a way that is every bit as entertaining as the big action set pieces are.  Sometimes, the dialogue is even more interesting, such as in all three Iron Man films.  In The Last Knight, from a very large cast, only Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, and Isabela Moner exhibit any semblance of charisma.  Unfortunately, most of the information pertinent to the overarching narrative is delivered by all of the other characters, with those three simply reacting to those revelations.  And, regarding those other characters, their dialogue is uninspired and so are their performances.  It’s a deadly combination.  Even Anthony Hopkins lazily limps along throughout the movie, bringing ultimately nothing to the proceedings.  The lame, unfunny humor that permeated earlier series installments (other than Age of Extinction) makes a partial return, though it’s not as sophomoric nor as frequent as it once was, so I suppose that’s something.  I found myself just waiting for the big battle at the end, not even caring about why it was happening.

Even worse, once the big battle arrives, it’s almost as boring as the rest of the film.  With maybe one brief exception, there is nothing fresh or even remotely memorable to see.  On top of that, due to the lackluster writing and sleepy performances, there is virtually no personal connection to the battle, so there’s nothing in which to emotionally invest.  Admittedly, Optimus Prime is still great (so is Quintessa and their brief scenes on Cybertron are the highlight of the film), but he’s taken out of nearly the entire movie, scoring maybe twenty minutes of screen time out of the unnecessarily bloated 149 minutes.

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I stand by my claim that Age of Extinction is actually pretty good and jettisoned nearly everything that people had complained about regarding the series up to that point.  I had hoped that trend would continue, but – alas – it was not to be.  The Optimus Prime arc had some potential but it was largely ignored in favor of everything else that audiences don’t care about.  The series jumped from my favorite installment to now my least-favorite.  Take this information and do as you will with it.  But don’t forget that Wonder Woman is still showing, right down the hall.

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Review – Transformers: The Last Knight

#ThrowbackThursday – Transformers

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Original US release date: July 3, 2007
Production budget: $150,000,000
Worldwide gross: $709,709,780

Perhaps the easiest, laziest armchair movie critique comes in the form of, “Michael Bay sucks!”  Never mind that most people who state this do so because that’s what they hear from others.  They can’t back it up with any real insight or intelligent criticism.  It’s just reactionary regurgitation.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not necessarily standing up for Bay.  I’m just saying that people should be able to back their statements up with something other than personal preference before they make them.  I will say, however, that exaggeration is the way of the world, these days.  Like most filmmakers, there are things that Bay does well and things that he doesn’t.  And both are on full display in 2007’s Transformers.

This film was the first-ever live-action adaptation of the popular 1980s property.  Back then, the Transformers could be found in a very successful animated series as well as a hugely profitable toy line.  In the decades since, they have remained in the public consciousness well enough to live on consistently in both forms, though they have never reached that same level of adoration that existed around the time of their creation.  (I was never that into Transformers.  I was a Marvel and Masters of the Universe kid.)

Nonetheless, Paramount saw an untapped goldmine in the property and they weren’t wrong.  This initial film in the now long-standing series made a significant profit and only led to films that were even more successful than this one.  It’s hard to argue with success, folks.  But let’s take a look back at the film, anyway, shall we?

Starring Shia LeBeouf as Sam Witwicky and Megan Fox as Mikaela Banes, Transformers is essentially a boy-meets-girl-meet-giant-shapeshifting-robot story.  That old yarn.  To be straight with you, the story only gets in the way of the movie.  When the film was announced and the human cast started to be revealed, I remember wondering if a human cast was even desirable.  It seemed like an unwanted attempt to ground the picture and give the audience an anchor to latch onto.  But that effort fails because most of the characters in the film are written more like cartoons than the Transformers, themselves.

The only cast members who give down-to-earth, believable performances are Fox, Rachael Taylor, Josh Duhamel, and Jon Voight.  But Fox is given nothing interesting to say or do and Taylor, Duhamel, and Voight are used sparingly.  Really, only Taylor gives a performance that makes me actually want to listen to what she’s saying.  Outside of those four, everyone else is silly and over-the-top.  Virtually every attempt at humor falls completely flat and nothing feels genuine.  If the characters don’t feel real, neither will their peril.  And just when it seems like it’s as bad as it can get, John Turturro shows up as Agent Simmons.  His performance is the worst in the film as is his goofy, off-putting character.

That leads me to another weak point: the dialogue.  It’s muted, boring, and uninteresting.  In that sense, it’s a perfect fit for the boring and uninteresting story.  I really do think it would have been better to just set the film on the Transformers’ home world and not have a single human in the whole thing.  It takes a full hour of set-up before the Transformers arrive in full force and, even then, the ball doesn’t really get rolling for another hour.  In the meantime, it’s more drab dialogue and unfunny “humor”.

The only thing Transformers has going for it is eye candy.  And that can mean different things.  Whether that refers to the action, the effects, Fox, Duhamel, or the cinematography, the film absolutely looks great.  And every dollar it made was due to those visuals and the fondness for the property.  The film gets big and loud and exciting (I guess) towards the end, which is what people wanted from it.  I didn’t find the action to be particularly well-staged, myself.  It’s too fast and often the actual points of contact are obscured from view, making it even harder to determine what just happened.

Many of the Transformers, themselves, are hard to tell apart and in most cases, it’s downright impossible to remember which are Autobots and which are Decepticons without being a longtime fan who already knows all of that.  Robots are just shoved at the audience and their names are tossed out haphazardly with very few follow-up moments for them as individuals to help make them memorable before the big final battle.  So, the climax is just a giant mashup of robots and the casual viewer will simply sit and wait to see who’s left standing and then they’ll know that those are the good guys.

Transformers would have truly been better without the ham-handed attempt at a “story”.  There are no figures harder for audiences to identify with than the government and the military so, of course, they make up the majority of the cast.  And most of the rest of the cast are nonsensical buffoons, leaving almost no one for the audience to cling to.  I know I recently lambasted Suicide Squad for having no story but the difference is that Suicide Squad has genuinely interesting characters who need something equally interesting to do.  That’s not the case with Transformers.  So, why not drop all pretenses, cut out all human, cut the run time by an hour and just give us a 90-minute robot battle, if this is the best story that can be come up with?  Action is all audiences wanted to see, anyway.

So, while I’m not a fan of making broad generalizations about the talents of directors like Michael Bay, he lives down to that reputation with Transformers.  Outside of all of the pretty people and lights, there’s nothing to enjoy, here.  Those things were enough to get audiences to turn out in droves (though if the movie was truly good, it would have made even more money) and get many sequels made, with more to come.  Some of those were better than this one, thankfully, but the franchise got off to a rough start, for sure, and only survived due to the popularity of the franchise and people’s curiosity to see it in live-action for the first time.  With the inaugural film in the series, there isn’t anything more to it than what meets the eye.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Transformers