MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Big Year; Winged Migration; Life of Birds, Transformers and more

THE BIG YEAR (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S. David Frankel, 2011 (20th Century Fox)

“Nice” and “good-hearted” are two adjectives that you can sincerely and honestly apply to the movie The Big Year, an all-star comedy (Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Steve Martin) about a big annual North American contest for birdwatchers — excuse me, birders. (That’s the preferred term.)

“Funny,” however it’s not — despite Mr. Martin, despite Mr. Wilson, despite Mr. Black.

Perhaps that’s because movie or TV comedy, which can be gentle and warm and humane and also be great (The Muppets, Bill Cosby, Leo McCarey or Yasujiro Ozu, for example), also needs a certain amount of acid to keep its motor running, at least sometimes. And The Big Year — which pits it three big comedy stars against each other as the prime competitors in a race to see who can spot and record the most birds in a single year (a “big“ one), just doesn’t have enough mustard for its honey.

A pity — because the movie also has a gleaming, well-upholstered production to go with its top cast — and i is a top cast. Black, plays joyously unkempt computer ace Brad Harris. Wilson is slick, drive contractor and birder legend Kenny Bostick. And Martin, using that seraphic smile of his, plays joy-filled retired CEO Stu Preissler — three men who have enough time on their hands and/or money in the bank, to devote an entire year to the great bird chase. (The reigning champ is Kenny with 732 sights.)

And backing them up, in parts that don’t overly tax their talents, or their capacities for niceness, is the estimable assembly of Dianne Wiest, Anjelica Huston, Brian Dennehy, Rashida Jones, Tim Blake Nelson, JoBeth Williams and Kevin Pollak, with John Cleese (no nicey-nice he, usually) handling the narration. For starwatchers that’s a total of 11, and we’ve just started. Incidentally, the contest birders are on the honor system, as to whether they’ve actually watched the birds they put on their lists, which — though one more cheat would have livened the show up a bit — makes this an unusually gentlemanly (and nice) competition.

The director, David Frankel, has a stellar record on TV (“Band of Brothers,” “Sex and the City,” “Entourage”), and a good one in movies (from the acid high fashion The Devil Wears Prada, to the honeyed dog story Marley and Me). He‘s the son of Max Frankel, the one time executive editor of The New York Times, and much of the movie struck me as maybe having the tone and temperament of a New York Times-ish party (maybe I’m just jealous), packed with classy appetizers and national celebrities, a little dull perhaps, but well-appointed, goodhearted, gleaming, nicely done in most respects.

You may think I‘m strictly suggesting more, and more biting, comedy as an antidote to this film‘s occasional dull lapses. That would help, but what it’s also missing are the actual wonder and joys of bird watching (excuse me, birding), the beauty of all those winged marvels and their soaring lives in the skies and trees above us. (Alfred Hitchcock, shame on you!) The Big Year has a formula it follows, a little shallow and repetitive. It tends to show us Black, Wilson, and Martin staring raptly at birds; then we get a smidgen of birdlife — and not always real birds at that.

David Attenborough and the golden eagle Maisy in The Life of Birds

A suggestion. If you watch this movie on DVD (20th Century Fox), try to schedule a double feature, pairing The Big Year with one of two truly wondrous ornithological documentaries available: Winged Migration, produced and co-directed by Jacques Perrin, or The Life of Birds, written and narrated by David Attenborough. Then you‘ll see what magic The Big Years could have had and is missing — besides also missing a few mean laughs.

Winged Migration is available from Sony, and Life of Birds from BBC Warners.


Dream House (Blu-ray) (Two Stars)

U.S.: Jim Sheridan, 2011

In Dream House, an almost mystifying misfire –a would-be classy, smart horror movie that self-destructs, Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton, a New York City publishing house editor who quits his job and moves out of the city — with his angelic wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and their two adorable daughters Trish and Dee Dee (Taylor and Claire Geare, of Inception) — to write a novel in the rustic comfort of homey, small town New England. Soon enough, however, Will learns that the dream house he purchased, which initially almost suggested something Thomas Kinkade might paint — a homey old-fashioned dwelling with glowing-gold windows — is more of a nightmare. Somebody murdered three people there, a mother and two children, and whoever it was, may be lurking around again.

Since the movie is set in New England, you might expect the novelist to look or act a bit like New Englander Stephen King — though Daniel Craig (007) has a wounded but literate mug that’s right for this character, just as Weisz and the Geare girls are goo choices for his family. But instead, it’s the movie that gives you the déjà vubies. The plot resembles, in many ways, King’s best book, The Shining, with a touch of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island: two novels that were turned into excellent movies.

Dream House, by contrast, is an original by David Loucka (The Dream Team) and it simply, deceptively, has the look of a classy novel-derived picture, as well as a very good cast: the four above plus Naomi Watts as Ann Patterson, the woman next door, Martin Csokas as her angry ex-husband, Elias Koteas as a sinister kibitzer, and Jane Alexander as a compassionate psychiatrist.

That lusty Irish Director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, The Field) and that sometimes great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff) are the pair that make this move look good — scary and plush. The script though — a critical cliché these days — makes the movie a shallow, unconvincing, faintly obnoxious time-waster, unless the culprits are the people who took the movie out of Sheridan‘s hands and re-edited it. That script lacks everything it might need to compete with its models — or even to compete with The Amityville Horror.

I don’t want to bother with any spoiler alerts (though one of them should be tacked onto this movie‘s trailer). But the basic situation of Dream House makes no sense (even on its own genre terms,), the ending is annoyingly off he wall, and the ending after the ending is even worse. Probably the only way to get scared watching it is to bring a Stephen King novel into the theater and read it by flashlight.

Sheridan, who might consider making a film or two back in Ireland, is a good storyteller who’s excellent with actors and who really should be working with better material than this. That’s a critical cliché too, I guess. But how do you think it got to be a cliché?

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Michael Bay, 2010
Mindless, soulless, heartless, mechanical, and shamelessly mercenary as it might be, director Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon — the latest in the often obnoxious movie series, starring Shia LaBeouf and a lot of Hasbro toys — is still one of the more crazily entertaining of recent summer movies. And, mindlessly mercenary as Bay may seem to a lot of critics — all of whose complaints about this movie are valid but, in a way, irrelevant — he and his crew (and a lot of the actors and voice actors) are still able to pump enough wild invention, heavy film technique, weirdo energy and Wowie-Kazowie-Blam-Blam-Blam-Kaboom-Vavoom-Wacka-Wacka-Wacka-Kerboom!!!!!!! into the show to impress the hell out of you at times.

I mean, I worked at the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue for fourteen years and I never expected to see it become a sniper’s nest in a fire-battle waged by killer robots, raging from atop the Wrigley Building acros the street, while human vs. nonhuman battles exploded across the Michigan Avenue Bridge and Wacker Drive to a Trump Tower teetering on its axis — as the good robots (autobots in case you’ve forgotten) battle the bad robots (decepticons), all of them inflated to apparently gigantic dimensions and hurled at us in the deepest 3D money can buy.

Or to see the Tower and the neighborhood turned into a variation of the 1933 King Kong Empire State bulding climax — as LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky and his boys try to inject a little human machismo against the incredibly large robots — a bit like the gunners and pilots who circled around Kong — during the near-hour-long battle that climaxes (in every way) Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

The latest Michael Bay crash-a-thon isn’t my kind of movie. A lot of it is really annoying: overly jam-packed with pop-cultural fancy trash and gadgetry. And I  wouldn’t be watching many films if they were all like this: over-loud, over-fast, over-violent, frenetically shot and cut, slick, semi-apocalyptic fantasies light on wit and psychology and heavier on carnage. But this movie is a special case. Its story may be ludicrous, but this time, it all seems more knowingly absurd, more  outrageously entertaining. And the visual and special effects are amazing.

As in Armageddon and Pearl Harbor and the other Transformers, Bay once again shoots the works and tries to blow the house down, and he often does. But there‘s a change. The first two Transformers were, for me, too heavily weighted toward the action scenes, with the all-out kablam laced all the way through and consuming them from the start. Those movies, especially Revenge of the Fallen, didn’t spend much time on character or dialogue, even on bad character and dialogue, and they relied on LaBeouf’s boyish looks of distracted concern to try to pump in some humanity.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon was written by Ehren Kruger, who was also one of the culprits responsible for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. And, as written by Kruger, the new show has a fairly obvious story. But at least it’s a story. It has mostly caricatures instead of characters. But we spend more time with them, and they’re sometimes engaging or lively, and there are a lot of them, often played by very good actors, like the Coen Brothers-ish mini-ensemble of Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and John Turturro. Most of those actors seem to be enjoying themselves, maybe only in contemplation of the huge compensation waiting for them.

Bay’s Dark is hipped on destruction and sometimes madly irreverent: At one point, Bay and Kruger have bad robot Megatron blow up the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial and then clamber up on Lincoln‘s chair, in a scene that I actively disliked. Throughout Dark of the Moon, mostly in its third act, people fall out of skyscraper windows, trigger mass explosions, and otherwise behave as if the world were some kind of mad playground for pathological toys and children.

The surprise is that Bay and Kruger have actually, this time out, taken so much more time and effort with the non-action sequences. I‘m not saying these are great (or even, most of the time, good) comic and dramatic scenes. But they help the movie strike more of a balance, with Bay downloading most of the slambang stuff to that last near-hour of nonstop Chicago havoc.

Dark of the Moon is loaded with backstory too, even if you haven’t seen the other movies. (Bay and Kruger add a cameo for JFK), the new movie reintroduces us to a lot of old characters a a few new ones: La Beouf as our hero Sam Witwicky (who has helped save the world twice and still can’t get a job better than the mail room), Sam’s new girlfriend Carly (played by British supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, apparently after the series’ original hottie, Megan Fox, got too candid), Lt Col. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson), and the electric FBI guy Seymour Simmons (Turturro, doing a Nic Cage-ish turn).

Other new characters: Malkovich sneering it up as Sam‘s snobby employer Bruce Brazos; Ken Jeong doing another politically incorrect gig as Brazos’ toilet-obsessed director of research and development Jerry Wang, Patrick Dempsey as Sam’s smug romantic rival Dylan Gould, and McDormand as national intelligence chief Charlotte Mearing — an utterly thankless role. There are also walk-ons by astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Fox News tantrum-tosser Bill O‘Relly as themselves.
You’ll notice that there are a lot of characters; the cast list has a lot more. And I haven‘t even started naming the robots.

All this is just to suggest that the new Transformers, while definitely flawed, doesn’t necessarily signal the End of Cinema as We Know It, or a Horrible New Trend Which, If Left Unchecked, will Turn All Our Minds into Mush.

Maybe you can defend this movie, and Bay movies in general, sort of, by saying that they reflect our obnoxious, overloud, incoherent times — and the obnoxious, overloud, incoherent people who often run them and comment on them. Admittedly, that way lies madness. And, as Sentinel Prime/Spock/Nimoy observes: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” (True, I guess, sometimes….at least when you’re compiling box office reports.)

Extras: Featurettes; Previsualizations, with optional commentary by Bay; Visual effects; Marketing gallery; Trailers.

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One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs: The Big Year; Winged Migration; Life of Birds, Transformers and more”

  1. movieman says:

    …wasn’t the latest “Transformers” movie released in 2011?


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon