Disturbia (2007)

The world of Rear Window riffs & remakes is a strange, fascinating realm that defies much of what you might expect from Hitchcock-inspired cinema. Outside of a few straightforward Rear Window riffs that keep the original’s story firmly housed in the thriller genre, films like the 1998 made-for-TV remake starring Christopher Reeve or De Palma’s Body Double, a lot of works that pull influence from the Hitchcock classic stray far from its murder mystery roots. What Lies Beneath hammers the film’s obsessive voyeurism into the shape of a ghost story. Addicted to Love and Head Over Heels focus on its gender politics humor and forge the unthinkable: the Rear Window romcom. Perhaps most oddly, though, the 2007 Shia LaBeouf vehicle Disturbia rehashed Rear Window into a late-in-the-game version of the late 90s slasher typified in titles like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Urban Legend. In fact, the movie was pitched in those films’ heyday, only to be pushed back when word got out that the Christopher Reeve version of Rear Window was in production. Although the idea of rehashing Rear Window as a late 90s slasher is just as absurd as molding it into a romcom, Disturbia is strangely the only one of these Rear Window riffs that was sued for infringing on the rights of the short story “It Had to Be Murder,” the source material for the Hitchcock classic. The case was ultimately dismissed because the similarities were too broad, which is actually indicative of how Disturbia matches the power & the humor of the Hitchcock work: barely, if at all.

I don’t have a lot of experience with Shia LaBeouf as an actor, so I can only recognize him working in one of two modes: American Honey mode and Transformers mode. In American Honey mode, LaBeouf is a Serious Artist who uses his natural charisma as a sleazy snake oil salesmen to find something a little ugly, but very true in his character onscreen. In Transformers mode, he’s a gross clown who asks you to laugh along & identify with that sleaze instead of cringing in recognition. Disturbia firmly boasts a Transformers-flavor LaBeouf, a falsely macho teenage clown who asks you to continually exclaim, “What a goof!” as he lazes around watching Cheaters, plays video games, and lustily spies on the girl next door through his trusty (and likely crusty) binoculars. It’s clear that the macho teen boy audience is when Disturbia is aiming to make its money. Early on, LaBeouf gets a supposed Big Cheer moment when he punches his (presumably underpaid, overworked) high school teacher in the jaw and lands himself on movie-long house arrest. What follows is a PG-13 version of an American Pie-style comedy where he woos the Next Door Hottie by openly drooling/spying and But I’m a Nice Guy!-ing her. It eventually works and just when they’re about to have their Big Kiss, character actor David Morse swoops in as a creepy next door slasher villain who steals their attention, nearly saving the film single-handedly. Morse is effectively, undeniably creepy as the possible serial killer these teens spy on and attempt to expose to skeptical adults. As he’s on house arrest, all LaBeouf can do is watch in horror as the evidence against Morse builds and more potential victims wander into harm’s way. He’s just like a wheelchair-bound James Stewart in Rear Window (just 10x more annoying).

To be fair, my frustration with Disturbia is not entirely LaBeouf’s fault. Were the film actually released in the late 90s when it’s nu-metal slasher mode wasn’t yet stale and I was a teenage shithead myself, I likely would’ve been onboard. Even now, David Morse’s expert work as the cold-hearted killer is almost enough for me to forgive the film’s mid-00s hard rock braggadocio and lame, teen-friendly bro humor. In essence, though, this is frequently a comedy where the jokes just didn’t work for me and only rarely the Rear Window slasher I desperately wanted it to be. The most interesting aspects director DJ Caruso, who’s also responsible for this year’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage of all things, brings to the table here are the ways the film updates & perverts the original Rear Window dynamic. There’s something less pathetic & more understandable about a teen creep spying on his neighbors through his house’s windows than Stewart doing so as an adult man. Technological updates like Internet search engines & video recordings also change the dynamic of LaBeouf sleuthing around for info on his killer next door. If you’re curious about the ways Rear Window has been reshaped & reimagined since Hitchcock’s heyday, Disturbia is a must-watch, especially for David Morse’s terrifying presence and the novelty of that seminal classic being filtered through a generic PG-13 slasher that should’ve been released in the days when KoRn was king. Once that novelty wears off, however, you’re left with a lowbrow teen comedy that seems to think it’s hi-larious to watch a teenage Shia LaBeouf construct towers made of unwrapped Twinkies and stomp out flaming bags of dog shit. Just know what you’re getting into.

-Brandon Ledet

Transformers (2007)

onehalfstar

Two cataclysmic events in my life have lead me to this desperate hour, where I’m considering watching the entirety of the live action Transformers franchise for the very first time. First, I found myself intrigued by the convoluted mythology and grave, self-obsessed tone of the trailer for the upcoming fifth entry, The Last Knight, which is being reported as the final directorial contribution to the series from explosion fetishist Michael Bay. Secondly, I recently fell in love with Bay’s 1998 disaster pic Armageddon as the beautifully constructed, spiritually corrupt Conservative fantasy piece that it truly is. These freaky, reality-shattering occurrences have lead me astray, tempted me into a den of sin. I knew it was wrong to watch Transformers, a transgression I’ve avoided for an entire decade until now, but I did so anyway. I was rightly punished for crossing that line.

Transformers
matches Armageddon‘s massive runtime and occasionally approaches its attention to heightened visual craft, but it is in no way in the same league as that morally deficient masterwork. At one point a single-scene character shouts, I kid you not, “This is a hundred times better than Armageddon, I swear to God!” They are the worst of liars. The reason that one-liner is worth mentioning is that Transformers is in many ways not an action fantasy piece, but instead the absolute worst designation any film can achieve: a failed comedy. After kicking things off with a little jingoistic Army worship, the film gleefully launches into its true bread & butter: a torrent of shitty, often offensively unfunny “jokes.” Bernie Mac plays a sleazy car salesman who repeatedly yells “Mammy!” in the broadest delivery possible. Characters are made fun of merely for speaking Spanish or Hindi as their first language. Half of the bloated runtime is dedicated to the hilarious idea that the film’s protagonist is interested in fucking Megan Fox, a pursuit the leering camera very apparently identifies with. Once the titular transforming robots show up, they join right in with both the racial caricature and the Megan Fox Is A Total Babe lines of humor. They even add a little scatilogical flavor to the painfully unfunny comedy by pissing on one of the antagonistic G-men who slow down the plot. I’d like to claim that the jokes in Transformers would only appeal to ten year old boys who don’t know any better, but the film pulled in $700 million at the box office, so I guess the joke is ultimately on me for not laughing along.

As someone who regularly enjoys and promotes the sillier, campier end of genre cinema, it goes against everything I believe to say this, but I think Transformers would have been a much better film if it actually took its own ridiculous premise seriously. As a film built around a series of Hasboro toys (shape-shifting robots from a war-ridden planet that hide among us as common automobiles), the film is already wildly goofy enough in its basic DNA that there’s no need to lighten the material with constant, insensitive bro humor. By turning every single narrative beat in the first two hours of the film into a stale joke (Heh, heh. I like it when the black robot says, “This looks like a cool place to kick it.” Heh, heh.) and opting to center its story on the human characters who encounter the robots instead of the titular alien beings everyone paid a ticket to see in the first place, it’s as if Transformers is constantly apologizing for its own existence. Assuming the audience couldn’t possibly want to actually watch the talking robots film advertised on its poster, Transformers dedicates about two thirds of its runtime to watching Shia LaBeouf feebly try to charm the (short) pants off Megan Fox. LaBeouf is convincing as a high school con man here (just as he’s convincing as an adult con man drifter in American Honey), but for some reason we’re asked to identify with his sleazy, insincere ways and laugh at his slimy, immature humor. Megan Fox is . . . less convincing as a small town high school student, but it’s not really her fault that she was cast merely to look supermodel beautiful so Michael Bay could drool at her consistently exposed midriff. Did I mention that she’s hot and a gear head? It doesn’t matter, because she’s not a talking robot alien, which is what most people paid to see.

Full disclosure: I did attempt to watch this Transformers franchise-starter when it was first released about a decade ago, but I couldn’t make it all the way through. The first 50min of the film bored me to tears and when the robots started talking I just found it too goofy and had to abandon ship. I now see how wrong I was. The first hour of Transformers is indeed still a boring humor vacuum, but the talking robots honestly aren’t all that bad. A straightforward sci-fi action film about two Cybertronic races (the Autobots and the Deceptions) fighting for possession of an intergalactic MacGuffin known simply as The Cube and debating in grave, heavy-handed speeches about whether humanity is worth saving (“Humans don’t deserve to live,” “They deserve to choose for themselves!”) doesn’t exactly sound like anything new or unique. In fact, after the Marvel takeover that’s unfolded in the years since this film’s release, it sounds like par for the course for the modern, bloated blockbuster. However, when Transformers leaves LaBeouf & Fox’s “hilarious” nonstarter romance behind for its concluding half hour of nonstop robot battles, it starts to feel like a passable slice of Hollywood entertainment. Careless destruction of property & faceless casualties pile up while Bay matches his robo explosions with a soaring, almost religious orchestral score. I’ve heard the robots’ ever-shifting, impossible transformations in these films described as a form of Cubist art before, which is a little lofty of a critical claim, but actually starts to make sense once the battle gets out of hand. Then, when it’s all over, LaBeouf & Fox make out on the hood of a robot car (which, it’s with noting, is a sentient being), reminding the audience that the film wasn’t always entertaining. In fact, most of it focused on these two dweebs for no discernible reason.

I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy any of Transformers before that concluding robo-battle. The film’s 80s-obsessed music cues were often pretty funny, especially in comparison to the jokes in the dialogue. The actress who played Shia LaBeouf’s mother, Julie White, was a total charmer in her all-too-brief performance, especially when she joins in in oggling Megan Fox’s hot bod. I even got a laugh out of two (!) Shia LaBeouf one-liners: one where he describes the Autobots as “robots, but like super advanced robots,” and another where he answers his parents’ question, “Why are you so dirty and sweaty?” with “I’m a child.” My biggest laugh in the film, though, was when a cop abruptly tells LaBeouf to shut up, since it’s exactly what I had been thinking for at least the first hour of the runtime. If all the humans of Transformers had just shut up and let the robots do the talking/battling, the film might have actually been entertaining, or at least less painfully embarrassing (it’s especially difficult not to feel bad for Jon Tuturo & Tyrese Gibson here). It’s in the climactic battle when Michael Bay really lets loose. Hundreds of human lives are squashed within minutes without a stray, momentary thought given to their loss. A steering wheel comes to life and eats a Stuck Up Rich Brat’s face. Everything explodes and is ground to dust in a lovingly shot cacophony. It’s too bad that the two hours preceding that cathartic release is embarrassed of its own nature as a Transformers film and buries its talking robots under an insurmountable mountain of ill-considered “comedy.” I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I hope future entries in the franchise take their robo-alien folklore a lot more seriously.

-Brandon Ledet

American Honey (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

American Honey was a very specific kind of disappointment for me, a type of letdown I only ever seem to find in buzzed-about indie releases. For months, the critical narrative surrounding this film has been that it’s intensely divisive. Even the film’s trailer, with all of its Shia LaBeouf-with-a-rat-tail earnestness & musings on the joys of making money/getting turnt, promised a production that could elicit a strong love it or hate it reaction. I went into American Honey expecting intensity, so I was oddly disappointment when I mostly found it to be fairly okay. Normally, enjoying a movie on the whole, but not finding it to be too big of a deal would still be a totally worthwhile, even comfortable cinematic experience. With titles like American Honey, Gaspar Noe’s Love, and The Revenant, however, the expectation is to have an extreme reaction, positive or negative, and it’s kind of a bummer when they don’t deliver on the divisiveness promised by their reputations.

Part of the reason films like this are such a letdown when they’re only moderately enjoyable is that they require so much work from the audience’s end. American Honey is deliberately light on plot, yet stretches nearly three hours in length. Its squared-off aspect ratio and daydreamy tendency to get lost in traditional beauty detail like hair blowing in the wind & flowers waving off the side of the highway play more like a lengthy scroll through an Instagram account than a feature film. The movie asks you to hang out in a closed space with Shia LaBeouf for hours on end; while LaBeouf is actually serviceable at worst here, that’s still a lot to ask from some people in light of his James Franco x1000 Misunderstood Artist public persona. The film clears these potential hurdles with ease, avoiding a lot of eyeroll-worthy indie movie cheese with a decidedly laidback, candid tone. However, its overall effect of capturing the directionless drift of a never-ending road trip might not be worth the headache required to get on its wavelength. If you meet American Honey halfway to buy what it’s selling (magazines or otherwise), the best you can hope for is a warm, comfortable meandering through America’s dead spaces and a visit with the young ghosts who haunt them. It’s an enjoyable experience, but one with a hefty toll.

A van full of teenage castaways tour America selling magazine subscriptions door to door, parking lot to parking lot. Although they could not care less about the product they’re peddling, the operation is handled like a “legitimate” business. They have orientation rituals, meetings, big seller rewards, and a boss figure who stands to benefit the most from their sweat & persistence as they remain fixed in their economic standing. These are America’s throwaway kids, drifters. They hitchhike, sport dreadlocks, dumpster dive for raw chicken, self-medicate with a steady diet of bong rips & grain alcohol. In the film’s more unique moments it strives only to see the country through their eyes. Economic desperation drives them down dusty roads, through cheap motels, and hundreds of miles past the families who abandoned or abused them. In their words, they “explore America, party, a bunch of stuff. It’s cool.” In our eyes it’s not cool at all; it’s depressing. The movie attempts to construct a will-they-won’t-they romance between two of the kids (LaBeouf’s mostly-nude body being part of that bargain) and to find moments of intense physical & emotional vulnerability in its narrative tangents, but it can never fully escape its status as a delicate, laidback hangout film, with all of the underwhelming impact that distinction entails.

British director Andrea Arnold captured this downstream drift with just as loose of a battle plan as you’d expect. In her own first tour of America, she’s acting as a sort of explorer/partier herself, packing the van with real-life drifter kid non-actors, which makes for some truly effective moments of quiet devastation. Sometimes she can reach a little too far in her attempts to capture America’s spirit. Her camera’s strange fascination with the mechanical ritual of line-dancing makes for a bizarre moment of authentic detail, but we also get shots of wildflowers juxtaposed with the blood river runoffs of slaughterhouses that really test the resolve not to roll eyes & walk away. There’s a sort of sweet, childish sensuality in the physical flirtation that builds the central romance, but the entire courtship is sparked with the lovelorn pair making eyes to Rihanna singing “We fell in love in a hopeless place,” which is just about the least subtle music cue possible; and I’m saying that as someone who typically places no significant value on subtlety. When the kids are daydreaming & sing-shouting along to the same endless repetitions of songs by Kevin Gates, Juicy J, and the like, Arnold captures something convincingly true & brutally sad about these nomadic ragamuffins pursuing an eternal road trip to escape the inevitability of “real life.” When she starts peppering the scenario with loaded guns, stolen cars, and soul-shattering romance, the movie loses its footing a little and resembles something much more generic & familiar.

The overall result, then, is a mixed bag. American Honey winds up being enjoyable, but maybe not worth all of the trouble it takes to reap its smaller, more delicate benefits. Like I said, calling a film out for being merely enjoyable is a strange complaint to get hung up on, but I’m honestly jealous of the folks who had a strong reaction to it, either way that response swung. I wish I could call this film high art or low trash, but I instead find myself drifting between the two extremes, mumbling half-remembered rap lyrics to myself & hazily waiting for my next drink.

-Brandon Ledet